Raven

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CHAPTER 33 – Tides of Battle

When his steel laid open both sides of the boy’s neck, spewing blood in brief twin geysers from the severed carotid arteries, Mickey experienced a feeling of great power accompanied by a more visceral reaction in his heated loins. The thunder of Morgan’s command still echoed as the boy’s head flopped back away from him, and the lifeless body slumped to the terrace floor; such was the swiftness of Mickey’s knives.

“NOOooo!” The first sound was a wailing cry from the black witch he had noticed only moments earlier. He knew it was she even before he spun around, grinning, to bask in her anguish. But, then, the serenity of the moment vanished in a torrent of angry shouts, challenges, and cries.

“Murderers!”

“Stop them!”

“Get ’em!”

The crowd surged forward, a tsunami of legs vaulting two and three steps at a time and arms swinging a variety of weapons. Spinning back to the condemned, he focused on the second prisoner, but he stayed his hands and watched in horror. The massively muscled man stood a full head above his own and looked twice as massive as a normal man. He ripped the meager bindings from his wrists with muscles bulging in his arms and shoulders, and then the pipe from his guard’s hand. He ripped it loose from the noose about his neck and smashed it into the guard’s head. Mickey wanted to scream at the stupid guard to shoot him or hit him with the damned gun if he didn’t have any bullets, but the idiot just stood there with his mouth open until he died. Without pause, the huge man tore into the other guards with the pipe whistling with each blurring swing.

The third prisoner, a middle-aged man, fell backwards when his own attendant yanked the pole tied to his neck. Then, before he could do anything else, the guard shot him. However, when the guard spun towards the onrushing mob, he raised his pistol and pulled the trigger over and over, but it clicked on empty chambers. He went down beneath pummeling fists, feet, knives and staffs.

Mickey remembered Morgan saying just the image and the threat of sure and sudden death would be enough to intimidate anyone that showed up. All the guards had guns, but only a couple of them had any bullets, and even they had no more than one or two apiece. After wasting their precious ammo with warning shots over the heads of the crowd, the fools went down fast.

More of the men that Morgan had placed under Mickey’s command came pouring out from the building to meet the enraged crowd still roaring up the steps. Mickey had armed his militia with clubs and knives and lengths of pipe ground to points at one end that could serve as swords or spears if the wielders had the imagination to use them so – a quality he found sorely lacking in most of them – but he still had hopes for their skills and courage. When he watched them halt their own charge before they even met their foes, allowing the outnumbered enemy to gain the top instead of keeping the advantage of the higher ground, his confidence in either evaporated.

He crouched and ducked past the first of the crowd pouring over the top then turned and jabbed his knives at their backs. He spun to meet others charging around him, swinging and slashing at them as they swept past, sometimes connecting, but more often than not merely slicing empty air.

Realizing his peril, he cupped his knives in each hand and flopped to the floor feigning injury. Lying there, he watched the horde charge past on the heels of his men retreating back inside. Among them he saw the devil-dog with its muzzle again tinged in red.

Mickey silently cursed the club and knife-wielding fools that he had tried to lead for Morgan. It was clear now that they were not the invincible warriors they had thought, not against opponents ready to fight. The fighters from the crowd all carried sticks that looked like nothing more lethal than broom handles. He had noted that detail earlier as he had watched their approach from inside the building. At the time, he just assumed they were walking supports, carried by bedraggled, weary, weak individuals who needed them merely to move about. Now, he realized they were serious weapons in the hands of skilled fighters. Even the women appeared to be a match for his own ridiculous soldiers.

When a space opened around him, he rose to his feet and turned to get away. All about him shouts and cries accompanied sounds of heavy blows of swords and staffs against clubs and pipes, against knives, and against bodies. As he glanced back at the last of the crowd rushing up the steps, a face he recognized loomed before him and a fist holding a sword slammed into the side of his head. With his ears ringing and his vision blurring, his suddenly wobbly legs dropped him back to the concrete. Even in his dazed state he was aware how vulnerable he was, and he braced for the agony of sword steel hacking into him. But it didn’t come.

Wiping blood from the gash at the corner of his eye and cheekbone, he watched the boy that had hit him engaging one of his men who wielded a four-foot long piece of pipe. The boy parried two blows of the pipe with his own heavy blade then rammed half its length through his opponent’s ribcage. Ripping his weapon free, he ran on with the flow of others, waving the crimson blade above his head.

Mickey saw his chance and lurched back to his feet, stumbling off to the side. Still staggering like one wounded, he slipped behind the line of pillars.

Slipping from one massive column to the next, he made it to the far end where he paused behind the last one. With the area below and to the front occupied by multiple, separate battles, Mickey eased down the steps at the end and down between the two buildings, limping and stumbling to maintain his image of a crushed and retreating combatant.

As he made his way toward the rear of the building, leaving the battle behind, a hoarse voice from nearby was the last thing he expected. “Mickey!”

Just before he surrendered screaming to the panic clawing at his mind that he was discovered, recognition pushed in. When he turned toward Angie crouching in the recessed doorway he had just passed, he was glad he had controlled his reaction. It wouldn’t do to let Angie, or anyone else, for that matter, get the idea that he knew fear.

When he ducked into the shadowy space, he did it with a measured pace, always conscious of the impression he gave. If he had joined Angie too quickly, it might have given the frightened man the impression that Mickey was scared, too. Even the glance over his shoulder to see if anyone might notice what hole he hid in was calculated to appear as only mild curiosity.

Cradling his broken arm in a makeshift cast one of Morgan’s church members had fashioned for him, Angie craned his neck to peer out for a moment before he said, “Jeez, Mickey, what a mess! How the hell did they learn to fight like that? Christ, I feel like I been run over by a whole convoy.”

“They just took us by surprise, that’s all.”

“Yeah, but – what happened? You okay?” Angie asked as he stared at the trickle of blood running down Mickey’s cheek.

“Nothing. It’s nothing.” Mickey wasn’t about to admit to Angie how he had been knocked on his ass by that damned kid they had chased down for Morgan when the old man wanted the little sister killed. He was just glad the kid had kept going instead of finishing him off.

Mickey decided it was time to hole up somewhere until he could figure out another way to fight that bunch of …. He simply didn’t know what to make of them. They looked like just ordinary people, not fighters. How the hell were they able to overwhelm his guys like they did? He would have to do something to show Morgan he could command what was left of the army they had accumulated … but what?

The light pounding of running feet approached from the battles out front. Mickey hunkered down beside Angie, terrified he had been spotted entering the doorway recess. Within seconds, five people ran past in shuffling gaits without slowing or glancing into their hole. At first, he was simply glad they didn’t stop. Then he recognized two of them as they receded, and he edged out to watch them turn and enter the building by another recessed door near the rear of the building.

As though the gods wanted to prove to him that they had not withdrawn their favors, right there, almost within grabbing distance as they ran past, was the very thing he needed to pacify Morgan. The little girl Morgan had sent him after, the little sister of the son-of-a-bitch that had hit him, had been delivered to him, plus the witch-girl he had seen in the museum. The man with them was just a little, wimpy guy that wouldn’t be able to do any more than the two, old women they ushered along.

All Mickey had to do was follow them until he could close in. Then he merely had to decide what to do with the girls. Should he grab them and take them to Morgan alive and kicking? Morgan would probably enjoy slicing their throats. That is, if he didn’t decide to burn the two little witches, instead. Or, Mickey could kill them himself and simply present the good Reverend with two heads on a platter. He liked that idea, too. But, first, he had to keep from losing them.

He poked Angie with his elbow and motioned for him to follow.

* * *

Matti gasped for breath.

Everyone was moving. Those gathered before the steps and more behind them flowed around and past. The terrible pain now in her chest had to be her heart ripping apart; what else could account for such agony? The light seemed different – brighter, fuzzier, as though filtered through a screen. No – it was dimmer, getting darker from the sides inward, like a dense fog moving in from all sides. And there seemed to be bells ringing from all about her, tiny bells with high-pitched tones, and they got louder and louder until she could barely hear the shouts of outrage and challenge, the clash of staffs, the cries of fear and pain, the gunshots.

Until the bits of debris on the sidewalk ground into her knees, she hadn’t realized she was no longer on her feet. Then, when strong hands lifted her and steadied her back onto her feet, the bells began to recede, and the shrouds of swirling fog dissipated. People were running all about her, some grappling with others in locked combat, others swinging staffs against clubs and knives.

Finally, she came out of the faint and pushed her way through the swirling crowd to where Jamal lay at the top of the steps. The rope still looped his neck, and the attached pipe lay out at an angle beside him. His head was cocked to the side much too far to be natural. His eyes were open, but she knew they saw nothing. His sweet face was frozen in a hard rictus of shock, never again to know the soft feel of a smile or a caressing kiss. The gaping wound in the upper side of his neck had gone almost halfway through it. She resisted looking at the opposite side, knowing it must be similar. She was sure Mickey kept his knives sharp, and he had applied them with vigor. Grasping for anything that might ease the pain, all she could latch onto was that Jamal had died quickly.

Her breaths started coming in hard pants and it felt as though the muscles in her shoulders and arms stretched and expanded as hard pumping blood filled them with energy giving oxygen. She felt like the Incredible Hulk looked at his moment of transformation. Her hands clenched into fists around her staff. Every object within her view became red tinged. A terrible fury overcame her until she released the explosive energy building within her in a throat-burning scream of such primeval power, Leroy Abernathy and one of Mickey’s men fighting a few steps below her broke apart for a moment to stare at her.

A blow from the side sent her sprawling, tangling her arms and legs with those of the man who had slammed into her. When she scrambled back to her feet, she saw Uncle Joe a few feet away swinging the pipe that he had ripped loose from his neck. The next man it smashed into flew backward several feet before landing in a tumbling heap halfway down the steps, his face a gory mass of torn flesh and smashed bone.

Then she noticed the man who had crashed against her. He lay, also, but not still. His legs thrashed, and he made gurgling noises deep in his chest. His hands clutched at his throat, down to his chest and back up to his throat again as he fought desperately to breathe. It was Tattinger. He had wanted so badly to hang Woody and her. Now, he lay before her, trying to breathe through a crushed throat with lungs being ripped with each struggling breath by his own shattered ribs. His terror-filled eyes told her he knew he was dying, and that he was afraid.

Supporting herself with the staff she had managed to hang onto, she backed away from him and looked around. Mickey was the one she wanted.

The battle raged around her. The Victorian group had discarded their robes and cowls, freeing their hands and weapons. Some had chosen to carry Nate’s swords, but most had opted for just the staffs. Except for the few firearms that Morgan’s followers were able to shoot – most, apparently, were just for show – the only weapons used against them were pipes, wooden clubs, and knives.

Several yards away, Nate moved with grace between two club wielders, and Matti was tempted to stay and watch the justice he was about to dispense from the ends of his staff. But she had to find Mickey.

While Charlie whaled with his staff upon the head and shoulders of a man running from him down the street, Billy Ray’s broadsword smashed through the board another thought would serve as a shield. Then, diverting a stabbing knife to the side with a deft flick of his wrist, he brought his huge blade back around and through the man’s neck. Matti turned from the sight of the dead man’s head landing near his own feet as he fell.

Jason’s skill with his staff had improved much over the past couple of weeks, and he easily handled a man charging out the double doors and swinging a four-foot length of pipe. He parried three roundhouse swings of the lethal club before smashing the tip of the staff into the man’s Adam’s apple.

Armed with only her staff, Rachel was making a stand at the top of the stairs, beating back any of Morgan’s men trying to prevent the horde below from gaining the terrace. She lashed into the shocked defenders with a vengeance, attacking each one as though delivering delayed justice for unspeakable crimes.

A few feet to the side, Erin sidestepped and swept her staff between the legs of a man charging past her, sending him into a tumbling sprawl. Before he could regain his feet, she drove the butt of her staff into his temple.

Matti’s gaze swept the scene for some sign of Mickey, but he was nowhere about the battlefield. Then she thought about what she knew or suspected of the cocky, little man. He was mean and vicious. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill a man for sport. He liked to direct others in their battles, but she couldn’t imagine him remaining exposed to the wildly fluctuating survival chances of a running battle. He would seek a safe place as soon as his side lost control and the odds turned against him.

Matti caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, spun, and raised her staff in time to catch a descending two-by-four. The force of the blow almost knocked the staff from her hands, but her flexing arms absorbed the stinging impact and she swept her weapon around into the man’s crotch. As he paused in surprise and pain, Matti brought the other end of her staff around to smash into the bridge of his nose.

As soon as he sprawled on the steps, she turned and ran for the building entrance.

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