Knell was already moving when the noise stopped, holding Cerro’s hand, almost dragging him behind her. She pushed him down at the side of the door, crouched with him, and fumbled in her pocket with a free hand.
“Be calm, alright? Might not have been aimed at us.” She said.
“What was it?” He said, stoic but cracking.
“Sonic cannon, blast from a fire bomb, could be a lot of things.”
Eldryss crossed the room to join them, on the opposite side of the doorframe.
“They hit the place across the street,” he said, a little distressed to Knell’s ear, but she was already gone with a snarl and a leap, vaulting through the broken window, rolling to the cover of an overturned cart, and drawing her guns. Quick eyed, she’d spotted two figures with rifles advancing through the bistro’s rubble.
They spoke, in low tones, in a language she didn’t know, and not for the first time Knell cursed her indolence in not learning anything but Trades. But that gave her a good guess as to their positions, and she popped up from behind cover, pulled the triggers, grimaced at the report in her ears and the sprays of blood. Satisfied there was nothing else close by, she waved back at the brothel. Cerro caught up, low to the ground and shaking. Eldryss casually strolled to the corpses and began examining them.
Knell gave Cerro’s hand a squeeze and followed. The restaurant wasn’t that torn up, after all. Some shrapnel, some blood, a scorched pillar on the trellis that served in place of a roof. She sighed with relief and patted the cold oven.
“That wasn’t so bad.” She said.
Eldryss looked up, with the air of someone raising their eyebrow, and pointed beyond the far wall; a medical plaza in ashen ruins. A low whistle escaped Knell. “Big gun.”
The Savaan nodded, and went back to examining the corpses. No – one corpse, the other victim bleeding out with a look of stark terror on her face. Knell couldn’t place her features, but before she could ask saw her wounds close under Eldryss’ hands.
She coughed something in her foreign tongue, and Eldryss replied in kind.
“What’d she say?” Knell asked.
“She can’t move. I have seen to it.”
The captain frowned, shrugged, kicked the other body over. Cerro winced.
“Rifles look Kaeri.” She said.
Eldryss passed a hand over the fallen rebel’s mouth, and it sealed like melted wax. Cerro recoiled and Knell caught him, watching with morbid fascination.
The Savaan stood and glanced around.
“Where is your ship?”
“Finally…” Cerro muttered.
“Langer’s Dock, east side of the Sprawl.”
Eldryss scowled. “A long enough trip at a ti-”
Another explosion rocked the platform; somewhere westward a plume of fire shaped like a skull rose into the sky.
“Theatrical,” Cerro said, and Knell grinned.
“We go, then,” Eldryss said, and gestured for Knell to lead.
As they crept alongside a sturdy stone wall – a public bath, Knell thought – they had to pause at the corner to watch a small knot of rebels pass by. Like the others, they carried rifles, and they were dressed in white cloth clothes with scarves around their head and necks to hide their faces.
“So, rebels…” She whispered
“The Ker Viteur, our charges.” Eldryss grumbled.
“They’re people like you and I, Knell,” Cerro cut in. “Under the care and protection of the Savaan.”
Eldryss extended his claws and sneered at Knell. “Not slaves, outlander. Children. Innocents. We are sworn to their care.”
“Bang up job, then.”
“Knell…” Cerro said, hand on her shoulder.
“Even a barbarian like you must understand piety, Captain Blackhand.”
Knell shrugged. “Gods don’t pay, and gods don’t shoot, so I don’t give a flyin-”
A bark of gunfire drowned her out, and bullets sparked off the stone. Rebels in a ramshackle tower of uncertain purpose, all scrap wood and sheet metal.
Knell and Cerro crossed the street at a run, tumbling into cover together behind a decorative wall – just a wall, painted with a mural of people dancing. No sign of Eldryss.
“Well, I’m not waiting,” Knell said, getting to her feet and offering Cerro a hand. Helping him up as the tower toppled with a cacophony of cracks and screams. Eldryss walked out of the dust-clouds, nonchalant, to rejoin them.
“Good news is, they can’t shoot for shit.” Knell said.
“How can you tell?” Cerro asked.
“Overcompensating for the drop. Someone taught them the basics, but not why those are the basics.”
She picked up a spent bullet and held it in front of Cerro. Too large to fit her palm. “Heavy bloody shot, this.”
Eldryss nodded. “Smaller calibers are less effective against us or our artifice.”
“There’s a tooth stuck to that,” Cerro said, a little pale. Knell turned the heavy, misshapen bullet around and saw the cracked tooth stuck by blood and torn flesh to the other side. Small. Maybe a rat’s, but small even for that. Knell dropped it with wrinkling nose and moved on without a word.
The street was largely empty, moving away from the centre of the city, and Knell was grateful for it. People cowered in shuttered businesses and locked homes. Bodies sometimes lay in the street, flies swarming the pools of cooling blood. Exit wounds the size of a head.
Someone without a place to hide staggered from an alley, smeared with dirt and spittle, begged them for help in a panic. Eldryss touched their forehead and they dropped into a sleeping heap.
“He’ll be alright, won’t he?” Cerro said.
“No,” Eldryss replied.
Knell remained silent, and they carried on.
Not far from the dock, they encountered a roadblock; rubble and wood and carts filling the road, crude barricades on rooftops – all low, in this part of the Sprawl. Rebel gunners were arrayed behind them, watching the streets and alleys. Knell and the others slipped into an abandoned bar, the electric lights flickering and buzzing from damage to the generator, the floor coated with a thin layer of ash. A single body was sat up against the bar, like he’d staggered in after being shot and bled out, alone, with a bottle in hand.
“Fuck,” said Knell.
Cerro nodded sagely.
“How do we get around them?” She said, looking to Eldryss.
He set his jaw. “We go through. Wait here.”
He strode to the corpse, glanced back over his shoulder.
“You may not wish to watch.”
Cerro studiously turned his gaze over the lip of a windowsill, watching the blockade. Knell couldn’t help her curiosity.
Eldryss laid his hands on the corpse’s shoulders, and after a moment the flesh ran like wax, the body reduced to organs, most of the skeleton, and a few scraps of muscle, the rest borne in some vile, slithering tide onto Eldryss’ arms, flowing up to his shoulders and taking the shape of wings. Fortifying his chest and shoulders with more muscle. Experimentally, he flapped, and Knell promptly threw up as the stink of the stripped corpse was blown her way. Cerro was like a rock, staring east.
Eldryss crouched, leapt, and exploded through the wooden ceiling. Cerro ducked.
Knell released the cylinder on her gun, began sliding bullets into the empty chambers.
“And he’s not a Vampire,” she said.
“No.” Cerro said. “Some of them are gifted with powers like that. I’ve seen them throw lightning like Stormlords and manipulate metal like Guardians.”
She nodded, closing the cylinder, pulling out her quickloaders and prepping them.
“Expecting more trouble?” He said.
“Be stupid not to. I expect to get back to the ship and find some fool has decided to mutiny.”
“Why have a crew you can’t trust?” He said.
“I trust my crew,” she said. “I don’t trust Wainwright and one or two other bastards.”
Outside, someone screamed. Gunfire boomed, an automatic weapon chattered.
“Why were you so angry?”
“When we left the brothel?”
“Oh,” Knell shook her head. “I thought they’d gotten Halveys.”
“I like that bistro.”
Cerro shook his head. “Pirates are crazy, they said. Keep it professional, they said.”
“I don’t know if I like that tone.”
“That was glib, but I’m worried, Knell. It’s not normal for a person to weep over one killing, then be driven to murder because a fucking restaurant got wrecked.”
“Have you ever killed someone, Cerro?” She said quietly.
He paused, frowned. Another scream punctuated the silence.
“No. I’m a lover, not a fighter.” He smiled weakly.
Knell only ground her teeth. “I don’t need a lover to lecture me on killing.”
He frowned again. “I don’t like that tone.”
Eldryss dropped back through the ceiling. He was splashed with blood from head to toe, but it was already fading, being sucked greedily into his armour. The skin, which Knell hoped was synthetic, visibly rippled and quivered as the fluid was consumed.
“It is done.”
“Certainly looks like it,” Knell said. “Time to run.”
The blockade was charnel house. Bodies with gashes from groin to throat littered the ground in spreading pools of blood mixed into thick mud from the dust. Someone had been impaled on a flagpole and was, by degrees, sliding down the length with a maddening scrape of ribs on steel. Cerro muttered a quick prayer to Jura and tried to keep last night’s dinner down as they picked their way around the bodies. Knell was numb by now. Eldryss simply walked over the carnage.
Knell paused by the blood-spattered gun emplacement; a heavy, mounted automatic. I want to come back for that, she thought.
“How did you avoid that?” Cerro asked.
Eldryss offered a thin-lipped smile. “It doesn’t pitch. They only set it up to sweep the road.”
Knell clucked her tongue, and as she took a step under into the shadow of the barricaded buildings nearby, a chill swept over her, familiar and unpleasant. Like the fear that came with a hangover, or the memory of a lost love. Bitter on the tongue.
But nothing came of it, so she kept walking. They climbed the far barricade, where a corpse with slit throat was draped over part of a broken carriage. Face serene as she stared at her blood pooled beneath her, reflected in glassy, dead eyes. Knell suspected she hadn’t known what hit her. Cerro clearly didn’t like having to climb over so close to the body, but it was easiest point. Eldryss had abandoned the wings and simply leap over. Knell was checking the street ahead.
That chill hit her again, and she shivered – and then Cerro screamed. She drew her pistols in the same moment she turned to see the pale rebel corpse grasping his shirt, his wrist, the neckwound like a grisly smile, as his struggles made it rock back and forth. She fired, sprayed the undead’s brains out the far side of its head, and bought Cerro an opening to run and get behind her. The corpse, shaking, forced itself to stand with gray matter dripping down its cheek,.
“I fucking hate Necromancers,” Knell growled.
“But they throw such a great parties,” Cerro said, and giggled. Shock, Knell thought. More of the dead were staggering to their feet, falling from rooftops, moving towards them. Implacable, but slow – for now.
“Rooftops,” she said. “We run.”
Eldryss nodded. “Get him on my back,” he said, nodded at Cerro. Shaking, Cerro did it himself, arms around the Savaan’s shoulders. Annoyed, Knell thought, but not composed enough to voice it. She blew out a few kneecaps to slow the dead down while Eldryss climbed a wall, depositing Cerro on the flat rooftop. It didn’t rain a lot up here and the roofs often hosted raincatchers and dewtraps to save on import costs. Knell winced as one of the dead started to run, unsteady on a broken knee but without cause to care. The Magic that thrummed through the cold muscle could sustain it. But she was thinking of Cerro’s soft hands on the sun-warmed metal of the raincatchers.
Knell glanced up, saw Eldryss’ hand offering her a way up. She took it, his armour strangely warm against her skin, and he pulled her up to the rooftop. Knell’s Death was visible from here, the crew out of sight and presumably locked up tight inside.
But the Necromancer was also visible – a dark figure standing on another rooftop a street away, blazing with a corona of power in shades of green, blue, and black.
Cerro was aghast, leaning on the lip of the rooftop, staring. Knell followed his gaze to the terrible stranger, and when she had looked away from him, he spoke.
“I know her.”