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Chapter 13: Mall-evolent

HORIZON’S CROWN, CASTLE 5


Varrett sat his haunted ass down on one of Olof’s hard plastic chairs, folded one leg out over the other, and fell into fidget-hell, his foot bouncing and his fingers tapping out a rhythm against the knee he’d stuck out to the side.

Two Runners shared the station with him. One up at the desk, arguing with Olof about how it wasn’t his fault verge coils looked like fuel injectors (they didn’t), and one sitting a chair off on the left, a WreadSheet in his lap. Varrett’s eyes slid from one to the other. The first dude was Buzz (not his actual name, but, like, his Runner's nick). The second one was plain old Dave, who'd been a nine-to-five accountant with a love for extreme sports at the side. Buzz had started out as a street racer. 

Varrett's fingers kept drumming.

Oh, he was fine.

Absolutely fine.

Peachy, really.

Wasn’t like he hated waiting and wasn’t like he had only one singular thought running itself ragged in his head. 

A message alert popped into his field of vision. From Mom. Varrett's drumming fingers squeezed. Painfully tight, too. Like they were trying to figure out if a knee could still knee once it'd been squished into a different shape, because there could only be one reason for Mom messaging him not even half an hour after he'd left the unit. Something terrible had happened. Something unthinkable. While his teeth dug into his lower lip, Varrett opened the message, terribly unprepared for what he was about to read. 

[Mom] Found someone for the water heater.

. . .

He unclenched his jaw. Okay. That— that was okay. Yeah. Pretty sweet, actually. So he flung back a thumbs-up and leaned his head back, a soundless groan stuck in his throat.

I shouldn’t have left them alone, he chided himself. With a stranger. A Pagan. A fucking AI. What on Earth had he been thinking? He leaned his head to the side. Glanced left, where Dave was busy picking his nose. While his mind stayed off to the races, Varrett stared blankly, trapped in a weird state of fascination about how diligently a man could mine his own nose and a complete and utter detachment from reality. At some point, Dave's eyes came up and he stared back. Varrett blinked. Dave kept staring. And mining. So, Varrett turned his head right, focusing on the coffee machine bubbling sadly on its counter. 

And what did he not see at any point?

SIN. 

Not a peep.

Not a challenging whisper.

Not a glimpse ever since he’d left. No messing about in my noggin, as she’d said. Or was that thought? Conjured audio feedback? 

If it hadn’t been for the tightness in his chest that reminded Varrett of being plugged into Collin’s diagnostics chair, he could nearly make himself believe he’d dreamt all that shit up. But, no. Something wasn’t right. He could tell. Something beyond his run-of-the-mill mid-apocalypse anxiety.

Speaking of— or thinking of, rather —Collin. Varrett returned his attention to the messages, skipped a handful, and finally worked up the courage to open Collin’s. He’d been apprehensive about that one. Considerably so, because what would he have done if it read Sorry, dude, I went to the CG and ratted you out?

Well, turned out he’d been a jerk for as much as entertaining the idea Col would ever do such a thing. Because Col— bless him —had only sent one thing: an adorable Einling sprite peeking over an invisible wall, its long ears folded back all shy-like.

Despite the worry eating at him, Varrett smiled. 

[V³] I’m okay.

Though after a moment’s hesitation, he figured that probably wasn't enough.

[V³] She’s harmless.

Which the girl probably was, based on everything he'd seen and on how quickly Mom had offered their couch, but the Patron? Ugh. 

Collin’s reply dinged back immediately. It was very simple. Very Collin.

[Col] <3

“Look who’s come down at a normal hour,” Olof said, prompting Varrett to close up all his messages and raise his eyes. Buzz had given up arguing and stomped by, exiting the station. Unpaid. “Is it true? You and Marshal Hayn picked up a blueberry yesterday?”

Varrett’s smile drooped. “Have we?”

Dave nodded without looking up. “So everyone says,” he commented. “Something about her having been in the Monarch shuttle that got shot down?”

“And how she’s a Vickers plus one now,” Olof added.

Varrett pressed his lips together. “I knew Sixty has a vicious rumour mill, but this is ridiculous. It’s been like, what, half a day?”

Olof shrugged. “Yvonne came by after her shift last night,” he said and waved for Varrett to come up to the counter. “Said you made her day with that bit of intrigue and that she just had to share.”

Yvonne. The cute checkpoint nurse. The cute and chatty checkpoint nurse, he thought and hauled himself to his feet.

“But what she didn’t know is if she’s Monarch or not.” Olof let that question sit there for a second. When Varrett didn’t bite, he added: “Is she?”

Varrett kept his expression set to mildly annoyed.

“No, she’s not. She was with a bunch of reporters who were gonna run some kind of anniversary feature. And, yes, we’re letting her crash at our unit until she can get one for herself and you know what that means, Olof. Higher upkeep.” Varrett, trying to make a point, arched a brow.

“I bet.” Olof withdrew two shards from under his desk and slid them across his desk. He tapped the first one. “Delivery to Paladin Six." Then, with his eyes coming up to meet Varrett's, he set a finger down on the second shard. No tapping. No subtle pushing it forward. "And this one's a recycle run at the Palace.”

Even halfway hidden behind the bulky veil visor, the look Olof threw him meant a lot. Ignore this one, it said. Varrett summoned a professionally curated smile and pointed a finger at exactly the one Olof was trying to keep him away from. 

“Don’t you think you’re pushing your luck a little there, V?”

“Nah. I’m on a roll.”


Recycle runs— or ghouls runs when you wanted to be particularly disrespectful —were grim. Used to be they’d been called Search and Rescue Missions, because, you know, rescuing Runners who’d not made it home in time had, at some point, felt like the right thing to do. Until it’d become obvious that sending Runner after Runner and ending up with four or five dead, rather than just the one, was about the worst kind of math.

So, these days, you tended to be on your own if you got lost on a milk run. But if you’d been sent for something important? Then maybe, maybe, Olof threw two lives at the problem before he wrote it off.

Varrett stood by the front of his car, a finger idly tapping at the colourful hood, and brought up the lost Runner’s name, along with whatever cargo he’d been originally sent to fetch.

The name caught him off-guard. Toram vil Cross.

Varrett’s eyes flicked up and cut to an empty parking slot, which should have been occupied by vil Cross’s refitted patrol cruiser.

“You did not strike me as the Palace raiding kinda dude,” Varrett mumbled quietly to himself as he folded himself into the driver’s seat. Grief pinched at him. Sure, he’d only talked to the guy maybe a handful of times, when they’d been stuck waiting for runs and that one time when they’d traded wrenches while working on their vehicles. But… still.

Vil Cross had been a decent kinda guy, who’d taken falling from the top of his vil ladder to the bottom with the rest of the Runners in stride. And he’d been cautious with his jobs.

Until, well, now.

“Should have left the dumb shit to me.”


HORIZON’S CROWN EXCLUSION ZONE


Varrett took the car out past the arguable safety of the zone’s manned walls, his fingers endlessly drumming on the steering wheel. An ancient Earther tune kept his company, brought along from his old music player which he’d plugged into its small dash-mounted cradle. Don’t Bring Me Down, it sang, all snappy drums and whatnot, but entirely unsuccessful at holding Varrett’s thoughts in place.

They kept snapping back home. To mom and Gabe alone with the Pagan and her Patron.

Sophya. SIN. Whatever.

What kind of name was SIN anyway?

Was it an acronym?

Or, like, sin sin? Sinful? A sin?

He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, gave it a yank, and swung the car around a Mauler that’d stumbled into the street. Most of its friends kept off the hot pavement, preferring the shaded sidewalks. The doorways. The alleys.

He didn’t blame them. It was a peak-summer kind of midday, with the sun relentlessly punching down and glaring at him from every shiny surface it could catch on. Of which there were surprisingly many of still, considering Maulers weren’t hot on window washing.

Varrett sighed.

The car’s air-con wheezed.

The engine purred along.

Jesus Mary and that Broseph, he couldn’t fucking focus. His jaw kept clenching. His throat clicking. And that tightness— that full-body discomfort which reminded him of Collin’s chair —had turned into a giant steel fist choking his chest.

Another Mauler had come out for an extra tan. Varrett clipped it.

“Sorry,” he said, his voice flat. He accelerated. The Mauler turned round-and-round on its own axis, spinning in the rearview mirror before it finally tilted out of sight.

And. Varrett. Still. Couldn’t. Focus.

Frustrated, he swiped a hand down his face. “Come on, V. Save your nervous breakdown for later. This is not the time.”

He turned the music up and snapped back: “Oh yeah? When is the time? When do we hit the socially acceptable moment for losing my shit over a fucking Patron hanging with my mom? Huh?”

. . .

His lips squeezed together, Varrett went back to drumming on the wheel.

Aggressively.


The Palace had once been one of Horizon’s Crown’s most popular shopping spots; a commerce centre come together from four large buildings arranged in a way that made them look like expanded wings from above. One of HC’s arteries— a wide overpass —curved between the two wings, situated just right so that it’d look like a spine.

The whole thing had been spectacular at night. The Palace’s roofs were layered in neon feather patterns, charged during the day by Elpis’s sun, and come to life when night fell. And pumping down the wing’s centre like a wild, uncoordinated pulse, had been the steady flow of nighttime traffic.

After, the Palace had turned into a prime slice of scavenging real estate.

For a while, anyway.

Varrett found vil Cross’s apocalypse cruiser parked exactly where he’d anticipated it: at the overpass’s crescent, where a steady climb turned into a downwards dip. The sad remains of traffic signs loomed overhead, their metal skeletons still erect, but empty. All the signs that’d once told drivers what fork to take when their exit came up were gone.

A bit over two years ago, Varrett had spent a lot of time here, back when they’d cleared the overpass by tipping cars over its edges. And, gosh. There’d been a lot of tipping. To the point where, if he’d still had any baby-Vickers fat left, he’d have burnt it all off right then and there. If. Big if. Because this here Vickers had never had any, thank you. He’d inherited Mom’s lean figure.

Dad had been the one with the beef.

Wincing, Varrett scolded his thoughts for knocking on doors they had no business knocking on, and killed his car’s engine. Then he draped himself over his steering wheel and stared at the back of vil Cross’s cruiser. A rock ballad filled the cabin. Varrett gave it until it’d gotten through the chorus twice before he turned that off too and finally left the car.

And, no. Not because he’d been moping or because he’d been reluctant to step out into the heat, but because that was what you did. You waited in the sanctuary of your vehicle in case any dead-ish creepers came to check you out. And then, only then, when you’d made sure there weren’t any, you got out to get yourself fried by the sun.


Vil Cross’s cruiser was empty. And locked. With no signs of a struggle nearby— and, more to the point, the cruiser still where it’d been parked —Varrett bet himself a scoop of ice cream that vil Cross hadn’t been waylaid by a bunch of Crows. Or Limbos, for that matter.

“Which means you didn’t make it out of the Palace,” he told absolutely no one and sat on the cruiser’s trunk.

Briefly. Very briefly. Something about the combination of lots of sun and black metal not agreeing with his ass.

He hopped off with a hiss.

“So.” Varrett swiped a hand over the toasted seat of his pants, while his eyes flicked left and then right. “Where you at?”

Crafty Runners had built makeshift bridges leading off the overpass and into the Palace’s south and north wings, where they fed into whatever shop’s window had been closest. A pulley system ran parallel to each, with a cargo hook on one end for when the loot got heavy. Presently, only the bridge over to the south wing missed its hook. Varrett moseyed over that way, spotted the cargo hook dangling on the far side, and decided that, yep. This was it. Vil Cross had come this way.

The bridge had been cobbled together from rope, wood, and— yep, you might have guessed already —all those missing road signs.

It was all very, ah, improvised.

With one hand on a frayed rope impersonating a railing, Varrett began a slow and deliberate shuffle across the southbound bridge. A fuck-ton of empty air gloated under his feet, which, on any other occasion might have been fine. But with nothing but old wood and rusted metal between him and a long drop, Varrett found himself reasonably apprehensive.

Especially when the bridge began swaying.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” he spat, kept his eyes trained forward, and carefully navigated his way to the other side, slat by slat and road sign by road sign.


By the time he’d made it across, Varrett was drenched in sweat. He stepped through the blown-out window, with all its glass either gone entirely or dulled by wind and rain, and ducked into the leafy embrace of an indoor jungle.

Moss covered the ground. Vines splattered the walls and ceiling. There were even two stubby palm trees and a few ferns tucked into the shaded corners, and the air was thick with the scent of blooming flowers. Of which there were a lot of. A whole flower shop’s worth of them, you could say.

Because that was exactly what this place had once been.

Varrett lingered by the entrance and let his filter take stock.

The cargo hitch was empty.

The mossy ground had been disturbed. Bootprints had torn up patches of it, baring whatever mulch most of the flower shop's old stock had turned into.

There was a still intact table halfway through the room, its wooden frame covered in fuzzy moss and small, blue flowers with glaring orange dots on their petals.

A rifle leaned against that table.

Long-range. Clean.

Vil Cross’s weapon, Varrett figured. Not worth taking into the Palace interior, where the long barrel would only get in the way. Varrett left it where it was as he moved slowly through the room and closer to the flower shop’s entrance. Or, exit. Both. Whatever.

“This might have been a bad idea,” he said as he ran a quick gear check on himself. The vine-covered walls agreed, sharing a moment of grave silence. Varrett flicked at one that’d stretched out near the door. It recoiled, curling in on itself, and waved him goodbye.


Runners didn’t have trackers. Not exactly. Though they did have their Castle issued ID, which worked just as well. Varrett set a tracking gremlin on the task and was rewarded by a weak signal bouncing back from somewhere below and near the south wing’s centre.

That made sense.

Vil Cross had been sent to find aether; the gunk Aesten-made implants needed to get properly settled and maintained, and not something Horizon’s Crown had the means to synthesise anymore. But there wouldn’t be any aether juice anywhere up here. For that, vil Cross had to move further down and in, past a set of tightly locked gates that’d once kept Runners from delving deeper into the Palace.

Had.

One day, the only NetCaster on Olof’s Runner roster had gotten a rotten kind of lucky. He’d busted through the building’s spell seals, looking to crack a single, easily managed door. Something to help get the Runners deeper in. Help them explore. Get access to more loot. Etc. Except the Palace’s system had read his command as throw open the gates of hell and, in one grand sweep, had popped open everything.

Not a single gate or door had stayed shut.

And that’d been how they’d lost their lone NetCaster and how they’d found out that the bottom floors of the Palace had been used as a packed refugee centre sometime at the beginning of the outbreak.

A refugee centre someone had sealed up, leaving hundreds of people to turn. Needless to say, the Palace had gone from salvaging hotspot to deathtrap and that’d been that. And Varrett walked right into, because why the fuck not.


Ever since the district's Needle had given out, access to electricity in the Palace was spotty at best. The hallways wherever the sun didn’t reach were dark. Shops stood silent. Overhead screens were dead as they got. But the floor plan still worked. Apparently. Varrett found a plan mounted next to the elevator that stood only three long steps to the left of the flower shop's entrance, with both its doors wide open and the shaft beyond them deep and dark. But anyway. Floor plan. Varrett swiped at it, insistently, until the plan finally flickered to life,  presenting him with a 3D blueprint of both wings.

“Tech floors… tech floors,” he whispered until he found what may, theoretically, match vil Cross’s whereabouts. His stomach curled up. Tech was five floors down and concentrated near the south wing’s centre.

Where sunlight didn’t dare tread.

But he would. He'd dare. Totally. Varrett sighed and took the elevator down.

No. Really. He did. Maulers liked getting trapped in staircases, so Runners had sent the elevator's cabins down to the bottom, cut clean through their cables, and the mounted two winches in their gaping doorframes. One for the Runner and one for their cargo.

Both ropes were fully extended, their tethers and hook way down the shaft. Vil Cross had taken them both down with him and he'd not come up once. Or there'd have been cargo waiting to be hauled to his cruiser. 

Varrett, not wanting to waste time recalling the winch, grabbed one of the ropes and tethered his harness to it. Then he swung his ass out into the shaft, his weight suspended over the drop but his feet still on the door’s lip, flicked on the flashlight sitting on his vest’s shoulder - and began his descent.

The rope's happy whirring as it passed through the tether, along with the methodical motion of rappelling ever downwards, had an almost calming effect on Varrett's spinning mind. And maybe the temperature dropping helped a little, too. For a while, he didn't worry about what was happening at home. Or what he was going to find at the bottom of the shaft. Instead, his thoughts caught on an odd Wonder what kinda job Sophya’ll pull from the Dispatch hat?

Hall cleaning?

Toilet scrubbing?

. . .

Bug milling?

He grimaced.

Aaaand just like that he was back to wondering what she was doing back at his place. With Mom. With Gabe. 

Two more floors.


By the time he reached his stop, the uncomfortable pressure in his chest which had followed him the moment he’d left his unit, had built to an almost physical sensation. Before, it had been an idea. A suggestion. Something he could disregard because it wasn’t exactly real. Now? Now it was bad enough he had to catch his breath, leaning against the wall with his shoulder propped against it.

That was all kind of wrong.

So wrong, he even checked in on his CareChip. Though all that told him was that he was doing A-OK. Well. Next to his elevated heart rate, of course. And his increased blood pressure. And Phobos infection. But nothing was actively strangling his lungs or squishing his pump.

Better yet though, nothing occupied the hallway stretching off to the left and the right, and so Varrett picked a direction and headed into it, eager to get this shit done with.

Things started out uneventful. He got past the gates the unlucky NetCaster had thrown open without much trouble. Three Maulers loitered near it, yeah, but he ducked into the nearest shop, swiped up a vial of— uh, eucalyptus essential oil? —and tossed the vial down the hall. It bounced a few times and then rolled off, with the trio of Revs fucking off to investigate. Like the dumb shits they were. Varrett snuck around them, hoped they’d stay fucked off for when he came back this way, and kept on going.

Though then he got closer to vil Cross— or so the soft blip his veil supplied him with said —and crossed into Tech Land, where things got, ah. Complicated.

A crowd clogged the hallway.

Varrett’s flashlight caught on a mass of bodies standing in his path. His light glanced off their hunched shoulders, their bowed heads, and their tattered clothes, casting sharp shadows against the walls at grotesque angles. And as soon as they’d noticed the light, the entire group moaned to some resemblance of life.

Varrett’s filter screeched Store!

Varrett, happy to listen, clicked off his flashlight and darted right. Into a Gadgetz, no less, where he hopped a hip-high entrance gate, almost got a foot stuck in a toppled over shopping basket, and then got himself momentarily misplaced in a maze of shelves.

Gadgetz were massive, okay? They carried everything. Flicks. Games. Home theatre setups. Mass market low-impact implants. Washing machines. What they didn’t have was aether. But— as was the case with most everything —size mattered. The store would give him enough room to slip right past the Maulers out in the hall, provided he hadn't misjudged how many of them there were, of course. Or he got lost in here because his veil wasn’t exactly geared for night vision and only just about helped him navigate from shelf to shelf.

Varrett froze mid-step.

Back up, his filter said and Varrett leaned on his heels before scuttling two steps backwards. His eyes snapped left.

Puzzle boxes.

A whole shelf full of them, beginning with tiny, flimsy cubes all the way up to the smooth, high-end metal vaults shaped like pool balls. CrAcK US taunted the lettering suspended over them, though the taunt was a little muted, considering the usual bright neon was pretty damn dead.

Varrett shoved his pack forward and grabbed two of the bigger puzzle boxes, his eyes on a constant wander for anything interrupting him. And then he made it to the exit.

Well.

After he stopped one more time to snatch up a tiny toy helicopter, anyway.

No one ever say Varrett Vild Vickers didn’t have his priorities straight.

Back out into the hallway, Varrett realised the Maulers hadn’t only congregated here because they’d felt like it. They’d gotten stuck there, washed up against what looked like a tennis net stretched across the hall and too dumb (and inert) to do anything about it. Even if all they had to do was push.

Which they might still do, Varrett reminded himself. Especially if they saw a potential meal. So he kept his flashlight off and his steps light, until, finally, the weak blip of vil Cross's ID came up behind the next bend. Which was also when the universe did that thing where it knocked on his door, only to then bolt, leaving a package behind that came addressed with weird AF.

It began with a bunch of dead Maulers. One. Then two. Then three. And, eventually, an entire dozen, their bodies laid out flat on the ground but otherwise unharmed. Dead Maulers by themselves weren’t a big deal. Dead unchewed Maulers though? That got Varrett’s fight or flight instinct all up in arms. Maulers didn’t let their injured and dead go to waste. They ate them.

These guys though? They were perfectly intact. For Revs, anyway. They were still ugly as a pack of scarecrows made of withering, rotten meat. But, like, intact scarecrows. Without any bits missing.

Now that's a bit strange, he mused, only for that thought to trail off into a What the fuck when the shop vil Cross’s ID had pinged from came into view.

There was light.

Not the sharp fluorescent overhead type or the throb of an emergency bulb, but a wispy, faint blue glow. It splashed up against the ceiling and out onto the floor, and as Varrett crept closer and the insides of an Aesten themed implant storeroom came into view, his jaw threatened to drop.

He decided he'd rather keep it where it was and secured it by slapping on his mask. An essential piece of equipment no self-respecting Runner ever left without. Great for not choking on fumes, catching god-knows-what from freaky glowy shit, and holding jaws in place. 

The storeroom had cultivated a… mass? A growth? Silvery-blue veins spread across the floor and walls and even the ceiling. Some were thicker than his wrist, others hair-thin, but all of them carried a kind of shimmer in their core. Like glitter being pumped through a tube filled with blue goop. Here and there the veins would form bulbs that knotted on their lengths like fruit. Or nodes. And in corners, they piled together to form large lumps, some big enough to vote. All in all, that stuff was everywhere, swallowing up display cases and shelves, and lighting up the place enough for Varrett to no longer need his veil.

And, yeah. He’d never seen anything like it. But with the universe being notoriously vast and quirky, Varrett knew he’d barely scratched the surface of what there was to see and do. Or touch. Not like he was going to touch the glowy goop, no. He just thought that, maybe, there should have been some kind of cooldown on how frequently the universe was allowed to involuntarily blow your mind.

Twice in a row within twenty-six hours? That seemed unfair.

He chewed on his bottom lip. What now? Go in?

His eyes flicked down. Where the veins didn’t touch, the ground had turned slick. Like they secreted some kind of slime which had then leaked all over the floor; a slime that someone had left tracks in.

Vil Cross. Probably. A single set of footprints led into the showroom.

None came back out.

Okay, so he was going to touch the goop. With the soles of his boots.

“Hoo-boy. I should turn around,” Varrett whispered. Not turning around, of course. “Like. Right now.”

Heart in his throat, he followed the tracks into the showroom, where he was swallowed up by the eery, blue glow and a… buzzing? He rubbed a knuckle against his ear, but the buzzing was coming from inside his skull. As if he’d shoved electric bees up in there. Bees which got more and more agitated the further in he went.

“Ahaha. I’m boned. Aren’t I.” He slunk around a display case that’d been fully overgrown by the silvery-blue goop, his hand hovering by his sidearm. The tendons in his neck were ready to snap.

And then, finally, he found vil Cross. His body lay sprawled on the ground in an isle, surrounded by bottles of aether. They’d rolled out of a cabinet, its glass door in absolute ruin. Vil Cross still held on to one. And he looked— fine? Like he’d flopped over to take a nap; if one ignored the glassy, wide-open eyes and the papery look of his skin. Or how his jaw hung slack.

Death really made everyone look alike in the end. Vil Cross had come from Aestling royalty. Now he was just a royal corpse. 

Varrett scanned the storeroom one more time before he got down on his haunches by vil Cross's side. He grabbed the dead man's pack, shook it open, and began to fill it with aether bottles until he could barely get the zipper to close anymore. And all the while he looked for blood. For anything at all that'd tell him how vil Cross had died. But, much like the Maulers outside, the man was in one piece. He had no holes. No gashes. Nada. All Varrett could see were—

His brow furrowed.

Strangulation marks?

Dark imprints wrapped around vil Cross’s throat, like something had squeezed the life out of him. Which really wasn’t your typical Revenant MO, so what the hell? Had a Limbo followed him in here? Or a Crow? But then why strangle him and leave the loot here? Everyone needed aether juice. More so though the Limbos, whose entire shtick was ripping implants out of involuntary donors so they could trick themselves out. They’d never pass up on that much of it.

This makes no sense.

A noise— a sliding click on a hard surface —sent a jolt down Varrett’s spine and pinched at his bladder too while it was at it. 

Shit, he was tense. But he hadn’t imagined that noise. Had he?

Varrett whipped around, his eyes cutting to the exit — and found nothing. Just that goopy, veiny blue shit and more of the headache-inducing glow. And the buzzing. Jesus Christ, the buzzing.

Exhaling slowly, Varrett squeezed at the bridge of his nose.

There was only one set of footprints coming in.

. . .

One set.

Whatever had gotten vil Cross—

The buzzing in his head swelled to a cacophony.

Varrett’s eyes cut up.

The thing on the ceiling pounced.

Varrett barely had enough time to catch a good look at it before he’d thrown himself to the side, dragging vil Cross’s pack with him. The creature landed where he’d crouched.

It was vaguely man-shaped, but impossibly thin, with a pair of spindly legs and equally spindly arms, and an arched spine so knobby, Varrett momentarily thought it had spikes. Pale— almost white —skin stuck to it like shrink wrap and its long fingers clicked against the floor. Hunched on all fours, it fixed two too-large eyes on him. Eyes which bulged in their cracked sockets, like they were trying to boil out of them. They were almost perfectly round. And near-black, with a swirl of bright colours folding in. Like a galaxy turning in a night sky.

Oh, and then there were the teeth. Long, bared teeth.

Varrett thought a simple, resounding: Nope.

Clinging to vil Cross’s backpack, he bolted from the storeroom as if his ass was on fire.

The thing came after him.

Of course it fucking did, with its claws striking a quick rhythm of SNAP-CLACK-SNAP-CLACK against the floor. But Varrett didn’t turn around. When he reached the net with its wall of Maulers and cut back into Gadgetz, the thing leapt. It missed him. By a hair’s width. At the most. The leap carried it forward and into the net, where it bowled into the mass of Maulers and tangled itself up.

Varrett did not stick around.

He abandoned caution, his flashlight on and dancing wildly ahead of him, unwilling to trust his veil to filter in enough light while he hightailed it back to Gadgetz’s entrance.

Only. One. Set. Of. Tracks.

Varrett reached the exit. Drew his sidearm. Aimed up —  and there it was, attached to the ceiling. Waiting for him. His flashlight's beam caught the creature's spindly frame and Varrett's filter scrambled to make sense of what it saw. Again. Its head was all wrong. Too long. Canine, almost, minus the ears of which it had none. But the teeth, dear god, the teeth. Of that it had plenty and they were pointed right at him.  

Varrett tapped the trigger. Three quick pulls. Two bullets punched home, smacking right into the creature's triangular-shaped chest with a row of meaty thuds. The third one missed on account of it leaping sideways and off the ceiling.

Leaping.

Not falling. It landed on all fours, its posture low, and that was when Varrett saw the tail. And feathers. A stubby tail, maybe half of Varrett's forearm long, extended its spine and a collar of feathers sprang up around its neck. It hissed. A hiss that chased Varrett down the hall as he kept his legs pumping. 

SNAP-CLACK-SNAP-CLACK

Yeah, what’d he expected? Rev’s didn’t give a flying fuck about getting shot. And that thing was a Rev. Just not one he'd seen before. 

Varrett remembered the Maulers he’d distracted earlier and kept to the left — and then there was light. Daylight. He’d made it out of the Palace’s centre and back to the outer layer, which meant—

Varrett chanced a look over his shoulder.

Nope. Still chasing him. On all fours. Gaining. Quick. 

Being the stubborn ass he was, Varrett took two potshots over his shoulder.

The Rev scrambled to a halt. Its steps faltered and it ducked to the floor, those weird-ass feathers he’d caught a glimpse of earlier splaying out again.

Which was weird, yeah, absolutely, but not near enough reason to stop running. Varrett awkwardly shoved his sidearm back into his holster the moment the elevator came into view. Then he swung in there, grabbed the cargo rope, stuck his foot into its hook, and threw the release lever keeping it tethered to the level vil Cross had taken it down to.

Right. On. Time.

The rope shot up and the Rev hurtled into the elevator. It missed him, cracked into the opposite wall and fell to its death.

. . .

No, of course not.

It hooked its fucking claws into the wall and climbed after him.

“Are you shitting me?” Air rushed by his ears. Light flicked by, floor by floor, and the thing continued to climb. Every leap was longer. Steadier. Quicker. And all the while it remained perfectly quiet. 

Varrett beat it to his stop. Barely. He stumbled out of the elevator. Flew down the hall, for the brush of green swaying in the light— the vines, the leaves, the— Rife. Rifle! Varrett swung into the flower shop. He chucked the extra pack aside. Ran for the rifle. Swiped it up—

—and felt a bony weight connect with his back. It slammed him into the table where the rifle had been leaning. He tipped the table, went over it, and landed in a thick layer of warm moss. Face-first.

I’m dead.

The thought came to him with an odd clarity. Like a statement following an argument that no one could possibly disagree with. And just like the last time the very same thought had come to him— and the time before that and before that and before that —it came with a morose, I’m so fucking sorry.

He fought on anyway.

Varrett turned around. But the rifle was too unwieldy. The barrel too long. Before he could bring it to bear on the Rev dancing gracefully around him like a murderous, overexcited puppy on too thin legs, the creature pounced. It swiped the barrel away, landed its feet to his left and his right, and shot for his throat with a long-fingered hand.

So that had been how vil Cross had died. Strangled by a Rev with a choking kink.

Next, came pain.

Though not the I’m having my life squeezed out of me kind of pain. No, this pain sprang from his insides; a searing hot whip crack that lashed outwards.

The Rev screamed.

The scream was ear-rending. Inhuman. Enough to force Varrett’s hands to his ears and squeeze, until the scream finally tapered off and turned to a warbling hiss. With its back arched, the creature leapt back. Away from him.

It landed with a stumble. Swayed. Hissed at him with its jaw parted and lips peeled back and the feathers on its neck flaring wildly. They were a wild mix of colours, Varrett noted. And that was about the only thing he could do right then, with his limbs uncooperative and his thoughts tripping over each other trying to convince him to Get the ever-loving shit up.

The creature ducked low and scuttled into the building.

It didn’t come back out.

Varrett stared at the vines swaying in a breeze he couldn’t feel. At the patch of darkness the Rev had vanished into. And he felt done. Drained. His bones ached. His veil eye was a sore embedded in his skull, and his head felt like it wanted to split down the middle.

But he was alive.

Ah shit, I can’t breathe.

Varrett, his hand shaking furiously, tore the maks from his face and gulped down air with greedy, quick pulls.

“Gotta get up,” he wheezed. “Get. Up.” You lazy fuck.

He rolled to the side. Got his legs up under him. Stumbled for the pack he’d almost died for (because leaving that would have been absolutely hilarious, in a tragic kinda way), and then ran across the bridge, not giving a damn about how much it swayed or how he almost tripped on the way.

The car was a box fuff of stifling heat and yet Varrett felt cold. He'd lived, yeah. But — fear snap froze his nerves as he twisted in the driver’s seat, desperately angling himself so he could get a look at his back in the rearview mirror.

Had it scratched him? At all? Anywhere? 

It hadn’t. He was fine. A Shaking all over, with an overwhelming need to piss off the side of the overpass fine. And a How am I still alive fine, sure. But fine.

He was absolutely fine.

Groaning, Varrett turned his music up, grabbed the leftover chocolate from his glove compartment so he could jam it down his throat, and drove home.