Caitlyn counts the days by bullets.
One for a Skarner-class. One for a Vel'Koz-class. One for a Kog'Maw-class and another for its corpse. Legions of machines hunt her people in the ashes of dead cities and she hunts them in turn. It doesn't matter if they're clanking prototypes, like the Skarner-class—iron scorpions that bleed oil and fire and grind meat to giblets beneath their razor-blade treads—or the sky-shaking artillery of the doglike Kog'Maw-classes that can level bunkers from thirty horizons away. Viktor's armies might have conquered the world, but Caitlyn still has her gun.
It has to be enough.
Somebody's talking to her, but there's a Xerath-class sitting on the brick wreckage of an apartment two miles distant, so she ignores them. You wouldn't expect a humanoid skeleton of star-bright plasma in a mobile Faraday cage to be particularly vulnerable to snipers—the closest thing it has to a body would melt any bullet that goes through it. Caitlyn, though… Caitlyn was fighting this war before most people knew it was a skirmish. Just because she lost doesn't mean she hasn't learned.
The air is thick with mould and dirt—the distant boom of scramjet shells collapsing skyscrapers shakes the room. People stumble behind her, but her aim barely shifts. It's homey. Caitlyn's long used to the cacophony. She finds it hard to sleep when it's quiet; there's something almost soothing about the high-pitched whine of disintegration rays and the piercing screams of rocket barrages. It means somebody's still fighting.
It means there's somebody still left to be fighting.
If Caitlyn fears anything these days, it's silence. Empty houses. Three chairs covered in dust. A half-melted doll left forgotten.
The Xerath-class slowly rotates, each mockery of an eye the bright blue of hot flame. Scanning the area, then. Unfortunate—if it had been in firing mode, channeling vast surges of plasma from a never-ending soul furnace, she could have stood six inches behind it and it'd never have noticed until she jammed a grenade down its howling throat. For all their power, they have the situational awareness of a drunken monkey. Worse, actually. Wukong's no slouch even when hammered.
Fortunate, too, because it's not in firing mode, and therefore not slagging Resistance tanks into molten coffins. A blast of heat that strips the fine hair from her forearms. The acrid tang of liquid steel. The radio, cut off mid-sentence, never to speak again. Caitlyn chokes down the memory, flailing like a fish deep in her gut.
Her finger settles on the trigger. It doesn't tremble. She's too disciplined for that.
Her rifle is an ugly thing, all dark wood and dull brass, and almost as long as she is tall. The scope is thirty years out of date—three magnifying mirrors, one a little bent—and the bullets probably expired in the Rune Wars. Compared to the rumours coming out of New Piltover (not home, never home, a neon-and-sin joke even Viktor probably finds funny), and what Jayce, the tall, chiseled-and-stubbled Resistance inventor, has offered to build for her… it's an antique barely worth mounting on the wall. But it's hers, and she knows it well enough to shoot it with her feet.
Even had to, once. Her hands were too busy stitching Ezreal's stomach back together, so slick with blood she fumbled the needle three times. Or maybe those were tears. It's been so long since she cried.
The Xerath-class turns just right, rain-soaked sunlight refracting off the back of its collar.
The sound is a small, wet cough, like a sick child.
The recoil is a spasm of lightning through her arms.
The shot is perfect.
Her bullet whistles over copy-and-paste ruins of rooftops, bounces off the lip of the Xerath-class' neck, and deflects straight into its pulsing hextech heart. Then it explodes.
It being both the bullet—enchanted by a slip of a girl who offered no name but forgot to hide her Crownguard jaw—and the Xerath-class.
Its dying shriek rends the air like a knife on glass. The resulting pillar of fire is twenty metres high, the shockwave rustling her hair from half a city away. Klaxons wail like the machines are crying; the patrolling Prime Cho'Gath-class below, a giant metal dinosaur with two legs, a body as if somebody's tried to cage a supernova in a barrel, and four sonic suppression cannons, twists and immediately starts stomping away. Its feet slap the gravel like earthquakes—with every step, steam and smoke coil around it as thick, oily shadows. Each pneumatic hiss as it sheds heat from its fusion generator is a parody of breath.
Caitlyn ducks beneath the damp windowsill, hoping the downpour that blew through the window while she was shooting hasn't soaked too far through her fatigues. Walking wet—yes, she's heard all the recruit's jokes before, no, they weren't funny the first time—is a hell of a thing. Stinks, too. Vi would be proud.
"Commander!" A voice. Young, bold, and hopeful. Was she ever like that?
"Yes?" she answers, risking a quick glance back out into the gunmetal city. Good. No Urgot-classes to be seen. Viktor only sends those walking army-killers out when he knows his enemies are worth blasting part of a country apart to murder. There's a jagged scar from her shoulder to her hip to prove it. She got off cheaply. Bandle City is gone. Yordle liberty died with the thunderous applause of ten thousand six-inch shells. It was probably her fault.
Some days it feels this whole damn war is her fault.
"Major Illaoi reports the 'casts are on the move down Wexington way, straight toward Omega Base. Looks like they've been found out." She's forgotten the name of the sergeant speaking. He's tiny, barely up to her shoulder, and due for a couple of promotions for the sheer insanity of his last few scout missions. "We're going to save them, right?"
Caitlyn shakes her head firmly, almost knocking her beret off with the force. Her words are clipped, for all that her accent seems like every syllable should be served with scones. "No. We're sabotage and recon, not shock and awe. We haven't finished mapping this sector. That Prime wasn't supposed to be here. Neither was that Xerath. Viktor's up to something and General Swain wants to know what."
"You can't be serious." A pause. "Commander."
Her title is tacked on like Zaun was to Piltover.
"Yes," she says, "exactly. Commander. Get the rest of the squad, head to the abandoned church, and set up Tristana's demolition charges. I want it ready to fall like the gods who left it on the next patrol that marches through there, and I want it ready yesterday. I'll meet you once I've killed the 'Koz I drew out."
Cephalopod-shaped scouts and commanders, the Vel'koz-classes are the metal brains of Viktor's metal army. One will come to poke its tentacles in the Xerath-class' death. They always do. The machines are predictable like that—punchclock monsters cast with iron and starfire.
The sergeant doesn't salute. She doesn't blame him. Those orders didn't deserve it.
Caitlyn sighs. It disturbs the dirt crust on the grungy plaster of the wall she huddles behind, and a few flecks sprinkle to the floor. It's the same colour as her hair. She should take a shower one of these weeks.
A long time ago, she was a police officer. She knows better than most how valuable information is. It's why she trusts Swain to lead even if she doesn't trust him to fix her a cupcake. He might have replaced his own arm with one of Viktor's abominations, but he can take what the madman had for breakfast and the precise speed of the wind in Demacia and use it to predict that there'll be Skarner-classes burrowing under the walls three days from now—and be right. The Resistance needs to learn what Viktor's planning in this city. Omega Base isn't worth saving today if it ends up costing six others a month later.
Thing is, Caitlyn counts the days by bullets.
One for Lucian. One for Sarah. One for Quinn and another for Valor's corpse. Viktor's machines have killed more good soldiers, more friends, than she now has left. Every death is one more exit wound she'll leave in his broken body. She's stopped promising them never again.
Doesn't mean she's stopped wanting to.
Her squad can handle the rest of the mission—they're honestly better off without her setting the whole sector ablaze because she shot the wrong thing from the wrong place.
Caitlyn collapses her rifle into three pieces, locks it into position, and jogs down the stairs to the back door.
Omega Base is twelve hour's march away through machine-held concrete jungle, but she has three day's worth of rations and twenty bullets.
It has to be enough.