MERcURY IS HoT
That’s how long it took me to slip into the suit. Not too shabby. And not too hard, really, considering it was a glorified jumpsuit that adhered to my body.
No idea how Airfoil got himself into armor and a helmet that fast. But I digress.
I burst out the front door into a cacophony of screams, sirens, and screeching brakes. Cars backed up along Twenty-Second caused one heck of a traffic jam. People abandoned vehicles left, right, and center, meaning anyone who had the sense to try to turn around found himself blocked in and had to abandon ship also.
The astral fury didn’t seem to mind, because it lashed out at the commingled cars instead of people. Man. Everyone parked there was gonna have a terrible time dealing with insurance adjustors—and whatever guy they sent out to assess damage would be scratching his head the whole time. It didn’t mean the area was devoid of people. Pockets of scared drivers-turned-pedestrians huddled in store entryways and behind a city bus left unattended.
Had to get them out of the way first.
I drew as much power as I could from the pulsar stave, even as the suit’s crazy circuitry siphoned some of it off. The more it took, the better the suit camouflaged me against the urban setting. Plus, it stored more for me to draw back, like a capacitor I could access if I happened to drop the stave. Which, it should be noted, was a bad idea.
It didn’t seem like I needed the stealth, though, because Bowen and Niall were providing a doozy of a distraction. Niall sprinted toward the cars, stepped up the bumper and then the hood of a limousine, and dragged himself onto the roof. He leveled the rifle. Guy knew how to hold a modern gun, that was for sure.
“You!” he howled. “Foul beast! I’ll strip your stinking hide and use it for sails!”
The SCAR opened up, a harsh rattling, as Niall let the astral fury have what must have been an entire magazine. However hot the monster was, the temperature didn’t melt bullets, because it reeled as gunfire ripped chunks of hide from its limbs.
Shrieks pounded the air. I’m pretty sure a pair of windows blew out in response, on either side of the street. I was still a couple hundred yards off, but I was near enough the heat put off by the ugly thing washed over me like I was standing in a jet engine’s exhaust.
My earbud emitted a burst of static. “I’ve seen it on the news.” Loredana’s voice could have been announcing a slight drizzle forecast for the afternoon. “You have to get it out of downtown.”
“Thanks, I guessed that part.” I dodged sideways as a tentacle slapped down from the sky. My jump took me a full story toward a window full of hairdressers and their customers. Apparently whatever style they were working on was too vital for them to escape impending death. I hit the window hard enough to leave cracks beneath my feet and pushed off, hurtling toward the monster.
Who, it should be said, was gigantic.
Right. Forty feet. Even though he seemed to lack the better regenerative properties he’d had when he was smaller, his attitude was just as foul—as if he knew he was the biggest, baddest thing on the block.
I realized like the big idiot I was that I was arrowing right for his hide—which was completely ablaze.
A torrent of freezing wind battered me aside, as a storm of sleet in broad daylight extinguished a patch of the astral fury’s backside that was large enough for a guy like me to land on. Bowen was on the trunk of the limo, pouring wave after wave of icy streams at the fiend. He seemed to be concentrating on its limbs, dousing fires at the lashing tentacles. I didn’t see any offices or stores burning, but there was plenty of smoke turning the block into a hazy nightmare.
I landed, using the pulsar stave as an anchor—which, you know, the astral fiend didn’t appreciate because doing so meant stabbing deep through its skin. Tentacles flung around, trying to separate me from its hindquarters, like I was the world’s worst mosquito bite. Bonus: The creature couldn’t see me, thanks to the suit’s adaptive camouflage rendering me the same blackened mush as the astral fury’s hide.
I separated the stave’s halves and used the part not keeping me from falling way too far to the pavement as a defensive weapon. Come to think of it, the pavement was a ways down there. I could see the writhing shadow.
It was shrinking.
“Loredana?” I hollered. “If this thing can fly, now’s a really good time to tell me.”
“It does appear to be ascending.”
“Well, someone better tell it I didn’t sign up for a hot-air balloon ride! Any bright ideas? This is gonna take longer than the average astral fiend takedown!”
“A moment.” The overlapping voices in the background reminded me of a crowded concert hall waiting for the conductor’s baton to rise. “I have word from Lieutenant Ramos that SCPD’s special task force should be able to help interdict. Stand by.”
“Standing by is about what I’m not going to do.” I ripped the embedded half of the stave free and jumped the length of two cars along the hide, toward the cluster of blazing eyes. Shrieks and screams assailed me; no earbud could block out the sound.
Below, the streams of ice shifted direction. Bowen was prowling the edges of the shadow, shooting shards and coating hide wherever I wasn’t. Best guess? He was trying to make the astral fury take damage from more than one angle, in hopes of confusing it.
Niall lent a hand with his constant taunts and gunfire.
The astral fury lost patience with him first. It dropped back to the pavement at a startling speed, throwing up chunks of asphalt. I would have been bucked off if I hadn’t wrapped my arms around a tentacle, well clear of the spikes that would like nothing more than to drain the life from every cell of my body.
Niall clicked through the last round of his gun—what had that been, three, four magazines?—and drew his sword. “Come on, then! Give me something into which to sink my fangs!”
His T-shirt shredded as his form bulged, red and white fur erupting, fangs protruding. The astral fury’s tentacle smashed toward him and he swept his katana up, intercepting the blow. The blade sliced deep, cutting down the middle like you’d split a carrot in two, then got itself wedged.
The astral fury turned toward Niall, fangs protruding and screams filling the air.
Niall howled in response. The claws on his feet—so much for those boots, too—dug into the asphalt as the monster pushed down on him.
That’s when I reached its eyes.
I drove the halves of the stave deep into one eye apiece and drew on as much of the power stashed in the suit as I could. That made me visible, but hey, all I looked like was a mishmash of gray and black slashes, stripes, and polygons.
Bowen sent a barricade of ice crunching through the street, eight feet tall and with a leading edge that must have been sharp as Niall’s sword because it cut a pickup truck neatly in two from its grill to gate before severing the tentacle Niall was engaged with.
And speaking of cutting, a new sound sliced across the monster’s caterwauling. A heavy, droning beat. Propeller blades. A helicopter?
It was one of those military types, a Blackhawk, that pounced over the tops of the buildings like a hunchbacked dragonfly. It was painted black and white instead of standard dull gray.
I spotted a gleaming SCPD emblem on one door before said door flew open and a barrage of bullets rained down on the astral fury.
At the same time, S.W.A.T. teams of officers clad in all black fatigues and armor swarmed from multiple alleys around the blocks. Four guys each, armed with automatic rifles. The lead officer of each contingent had a thick tube under the gun’s barrel. Those triggered with a muffled whump and puff of smoke.
Explosions battered the astral fury from all sides.
Grenade launchers? Chopper-mounted machine guns? Ramos wasn’t kidding about upgrades to his goon squad. That is, the SCPDECTF. Yeah, goon squad’s easier on the brain.
I was hanging on for dear life, trying not to get bucked off.
Niall was clawing at a rampaging tentacle as Bowen iced it down, turning the flaming hide into a hissing, shriveled parody of itself.
All in all, way better than the last fight.
That is, until the sky opened.
The portal formed without warning—nothing from Loredana or Liz or anyone else at Procyon. One minute, sunny blue sky wreathed in smoke. The next, a black hole rimmed with purple, like someone had unzipped the atmosphere clear to space.
Another astral fury emerged from it.
Not another. I mean, it looked like a massive spider, bristling with hair and fire, but the similarities strengthened the nearer it got to its counterpart—until they merged in a thunderclap.
A massive surge of energy rippled across its skin, a warped, perverted version of the golden-white that the pulsar stave emitted.
I shoved off and somersaulted down to the street.
Should’ve managed a graceful landing on the nearest car, but the leg buckled as I hit, so I rolled down the windshield onto the hood. I was too flabbergasted by what I was seeing to be mad about its umpteenth glitch.
The astral fury was good as new.
Gone was the gaping maw, and the damaged, severed tentacles. It looked like a giant, hulking brain, trailing more tendrils than I could count, its pulsating, bulging body draped with gleaming eyespots. It would have been pitch black but for the eerie, violet and orange flames streaming in the crevasses and folds. The adjoining buildings crunched from the strain as it expanded, gaining another twenty feet all around.
“It can’t be.” One of the S.W.A.T. leaders who’d led the grenade assault removed his face mask. Ramos. Sweat beaded his eyebrows. He made the sign of the cross. “It’s unstoppable.”
“Nothing’s unstoppable,” I growled. “You guys ready?”
Bowen held on to Niall’s shoulder. Poor guy looked like he’d been standing in the middle of the Antarctic for a couple days—skin as pale as the marble coating the bank down the street, purple under his eyes like he’d fought in a boxing match. “Give me—a spell in which to gather my strength.”
Niall’s fur was matted in a couple places on his sides and there was a pink stain on his chest. Blood dripped down one leg. “What did the man Garvey call them?” he snapped. “Magazines? I require a dozen and a half more.”
Their fighting spirit aside, I had no idea how to tackle this guy. It was as if someone playing a massive video game had hit “Reset” and we didn’t have any extra lives for this boss battle. Even the cops up in the helicopter must have had second thoughts, because they wheeled away, putting distance between themselves and the astral fury.
At least the thing’s pause gave time for people to stream out of the damaged buildings.
“Get them out of the block!” Ramos hollered at his officers. “Take every civilian out of the perimeter!”
“Mercury,” Loredana said. “Liz informs me that the temporary portal merged our dimension with another whose temporal signature matches that of the readings she obtained the night our two travelers emerged.”
“So that was the mutated arachnafury.” I gasped, digging deep for a breath. The pulsar stave’s power was draining from my body. As a result, I was less super-me and more tired-beat-up-me. “The one from Bowen’s realm... Came in here? Joined with itself?”
“They were already paired. This is a solidification, so there is no longer a separation between itself.”
That made my head spin. Or maybe it was a concussion. “We need major backup.”
“Wilhelmina is on her way with a contingent of Procyon Security, led by Garvey.”
“The portal gun?”
“Disassembled and with Elizabeth’s hands deep in its inmost parts.”
“Of course.” I blew out a breath. I rejoined the pulsar stave and spun it once. “Send a message to Dom...er, Gemini. We’re gonna need his help on this one. See if he can teleport Airfoil to us.”
“Understood.” Loredana paused. “Mercury, we’re reading a spike in tachyon—”
The signal cut out in a screech of static and feedback. The astral fury quivered, letting off a horrific moan that dug deep inside my head. The temperature on the entire block must have spiked twenty degrees. Fleeing civilians dropped a handful at a time, overcome by the moans or the heat or both.
Bowen fell to his hands and knees. I thought he was gonna throw up.
“Steady on.” Niall crouched with him. “Do not succumb. I’ll not have to drag your carcass off these accursed avenues.”
“It’s—there’s so much pain.” Bowen clutched the sides of his head. “Most High, make this cease!”
Tentacles snapped out like whips. One, three, five—it took eleven people in its grasp, drawing them upward.
Of all the luck... I punched Ramos in the shoulder. “If you got snipers, cut them loose!”
I jumped as far and fast as I could, toward the nearest huddle of captured people, ignoring Ramos’ warning shouts. A quick swipe cut three of them free, and I tackled them—an old Pakistani man, a teen Latina, and a middle-aged white guy. We were low enough I let them fall, screaming, onto the awnings along storefronts that hadn’t burned down.
But I wasn’t fast enough. Ramos’ snipers were equally ineffective. Their shots punched through tentacles but didn’t sever them. Even though I got two more free, the other six had their life drained so quickly their bodies shriveled and went blotchy gray. They were instantly mummified. The astral fury drew the desiccated corpses into its underside, where each one dissolved in a shimmering, black-speckled purple mist.
I slammed into the top of an SUV so hard I dented the roof. Pain lanced up my wounded leg clear into my hip. Really hoped I hadn’t shattered it.
The astral fury spun around and blasted free of downtown. The helicopter spun wildly in its wake—until it fell, the rotors bent beyond use.
No more deaths on my watch.
Nice idea, but I couldn’t move. The pain kept me anchored to the SUV, even with the pulsar stave feeding me enough energy to set every cell vibrating. I watched, horror bringing me close to tears, as the chopper spiraled. It was toast.
Bowen managed an ice blast that caught the underside, slowing but not stopping the fall. Went it was within thirty feet of the ground, Niall braced himself. He grabbed the underside, roaring as he was shoved through abandoned cars.
The chopper slammed to a halt against a bus, Niall buried beneath the wreck.
I saw Bowen slump against a flattened cab and watched Ramos drag Niall from under a car door right before I threw up.