He ran as fast as his feet would carry him, which in present circumstance was somewhere south of nowhere near fast enough. The ground had become no less treacherous, forcing him to spend precious seconds choosing his footing, lest he fall and waste even more time. What little haste he dared risk was only possible thanks to some truly graceless floundering that must look ridiculous but right now he didn’t care.
Not with a swarm of chittering death nipping at his heels.
They were everywhere, or at least everywhere Nic bothered to look. A rippling tide of shadows the size of large cats, each form flowing into the next as they all crawled together as one. Yet somehow each stood out from the whole, every hiss, every chitter, every scrape of bone and gnash of teeth as distinct in sound as they were unambiguous in intent.
And thus, Nic ran. To where he had not the slightest idea. He didn’t even know where he was right now, long having become lost in this maze of metal and panic. Routes were chosen not with any kind of plan but instead by a simple two-part question: is this tunnel open and does it contain the sounds of death? If the answer was anything other than yes and no respectively, he did not go that way. Not a robust system but it worked. Or had done thus far, anyway.
The only constant through it all had been the suit. It ran alongside him, showing far more grace in its movements thanks to a steady, unyielding gait. It wasn’t clear who was leading whom, but Nic was grateful for the company, suspecting he wouldn’t have made it this far on his own.
Literally in fact. At some point in their mad flight the suit had taken up another bit of refuse, an amalgam of metal in the rough shape of a sword. Every now and again it would be swung, producing pained squeals from the darkness and leaving fresh blood upon the blade. Nic had no idea how it saw the threats coming, he never did, or even where it had gotten the weapon to begin but he wasn’t about to question either point.
Rounding another corner, Nic’s stomach dropped as he saw nothing but a wall of broken metal before them. His eyes raked over it, searching for some opening large enough to let them through and not finding one. They rapidly ran out of space, the last few feet vanishing in a blink to leave them pinned against the dead end with nowhere to go.
A screech sounded from behind and Nic turned to find the suit standing its ground against the swarm. Its sword was a blur in the air, slicing and stabbing at anything that drew too close. A definite front had emerged, the swarm forming a distinct curve just outside the suit’s reach. The narrow tunnel worked to its favor, robbing the swarm of its numerical advantage, though all that meant is the odds were poor rather than overwhelming. It would only take a few of them rushing together and the suit would be overwhelmed.
“We’re trapped!” Nic shouted.
The suit swung again, slicing the head clean off another rat that strayed too close. As it returned to ready position, the suit raised its free hand, pointing a single broken finger at something off to the side. Nic followed the gesture, at first seeing nothing more than another impassable wall, but then he caught sight of just the slightest gap where the passage met the floor. How the suit had managed to see such a pithy opening while fighting Nic neither knew nor in this moment cared.
The suit nodded in reply, turning back to face the swarm. Their numbers seemed to have doubled in the brief time Nic had looked away, the very walls replaced by their ceaseless movement. It seemed a hopeless fight, but Nic could only trust the suit to hold its own and turned to focus on his own task.
Reaching the wall, his burst of optimism was quashed upon realizing the opening would barely fit a mouse let alone him, and certainly not the hulking figure of the suit. Though this close he noticed that the glittering wasn’t from the cantrip but from a light beyond. Dropping to the ground, he could see through the gap that a large space opened on the far side, vanishing into distant shadows beyond. There was somewhere to go over there but that meant nothing so long as this tiny crack was the only route to it.
The sounds of battle briefly grabbed Nic’s attention, the clang of metal and the hiss of monster, one beginning to overwhelm the other. Desperate, Nic began to run his fingers along the edge of the crevice, testing to see if anything would move. No such luck on that front but his search did uncover a peculiarity that gave him pause. Where one side of the crevice was jagged and irregular, the expected texture, the opposite surface was smooth. Too smooth, and indeed too straight, to be a “natural” formation down here.
Pulling the cantrip closer, Nic began to scrutinize the unusual side more closely. He discovered that rather than random scrap, there was instead a continuous length of metal sitting cocooned within the pile. It seemed to extend much further in both directions, stabbing through the surrounding scrap like a spear. A structural beam Nic guessed, somehow pressed down into the depths of Gibson, lost and forgotten but for sheer chance exposing this tiny glimpse of it.
That, however, might be enough. A plan began to form in Nic’s mind, a mad one built on assumption and desperation, but which just might work if he finally got repaid on some of today’s bad luck.
Bringing up his tablet, Nic quickly swiped through his spells. It was a pitifully small list, the tiny drive and tinier battery unsuited for anything beyond the most basic of casting. The light alone had already drained a good quarter of the available charge, the device simply not meant for heavy duty casting like this. He’d just have to hope it would withstand what he had planned.
Near the end of the list, Nic found what he was looking for: a simple charm for inducing magnetic fields. A very recent addition, downloaded in the car on some vague idea that it might be helpful before being promptly forgotten about. That such a thing might be about to save their asses would be an amusing irony. Assuming it worked. Gods did Nic hope this worked.
Giving himself no time to second-guess, Nic pressed a button and cast the spell. Static filled the air in an instant, stinking of ozone and tingling against exposed skin, a few stray pieces of metal shivering under the impromptu magnet. Using his control glove, he altered the field’s shape, focusing it into a single point directly in front of his hand. A hollow groan sounded as the wall shifted, a good sign for how powerful the field was, though it could not drown out the nearby sounds of battle. Risking a glance, he saw to his dismay that the suit had been driven back, a nasty rent running down the side of its breastplate. It was keeping the creatures at bay, but they were growing bolder.
Swallowing a curse, Nic returned his task, forcing himself to move slowly as he pressed a hand towards the opening. It creaked sharply on contact, the lighter metals buckling beneath the field and peeling away like old wallpaper. In seconds the opening had widened several inches, the surface pushed back to reveal the metal beam underneath. Shifting position, Nic pressed the field into the beam directly, meeting resistance as its weight pushed back. It was a tense few seconds, the entire wall shaking as two elemental forces fought one another for supremacy.
Then, slowly, the magnet began to gain ground as the beam began to move within the wall. Bit by bit it shifted, random detritus falling away like old plaster. It was a fraught procedure, every ominous creak or crack making Nic flinch, knowing any of them could herald a cave-in. Not helping was the knowledge he was on a time crunch, both from his battery running down and the oncoming swarm. Not the best conditions under which to be making delicate decisions.
Yet by some twist of fate or fortune, everything held. Held and grew, the crack opening inch by terrifying inch, held up by nothing more than the beam and prayer. Soon it was wide enough for Nic to get through at a crouch and he slowly began to shuffle forward, taking great care never to move his magnetized hand too far at once. The beam rattled all the same, Nic’s heart leaping into his throat even as he slipped through to the other side. As fast as he could, Nic turned and pressed his hand back into the beam, relieved as it fell silent once again.
Looking back through the hole, he saw the suit struggling with a small cluster of rats. They were so thick now that several could be felled in a single swipe of its blade, corpses piling up on the ground even as more rushed in to fill the gap. Nic watched in horror as two detached themselves from the swarm, leaping over the arc of another swing, hissing triumphantly as they went for the kill.
“Watch out!” Nic cried, unable to move let alone help. The suit was already aware of the threat, somehow redirecting its blade to stab at the nearer of the two, impaling it through the belly. Against the other it raised its newer arm in a defensive posture, allowing the creature to clamp down on the skeletal forearm.
The gambit paid off, sparing the suit a critical blow but at a cost. Nic watched in horror as the rat bit clean through the limb, hand and forearm falling to the ground with an audible clang. If the suit felt any pain, it didn’t show it, instead bringing its sword around to finish the creature before it could do any more damage. It died just as the swarm surged anew, smelling weakness in their prey.
“Come on, move!” Nic called, shouting to be heard over the noise. “This won’t hold!”
The suit did not hesitate. It threw itself back into the opening, abandoning the sword and using its remaining hand to pull itself through. The gap was only just big enough to admit it, horrible screeches sounding as its body scraped along the inside. Nic did his best to help, widening the opening as much as he dared, but the spell was already at its limit. Any sudden movement and the whole thing would come crashing down.
Their pursuers were quick to take advantage. Though he could not see them past the suit’s armored bulk, Nic both heard and felt them crash against the wall as one. Horrible sounds came from the unseen space, metal straining and snapping with staccato insistence, what could only be jaws ripping into the suit’s exposed feet. It showed no reaction other than to kick occasionally as it continued to squeeze itself through the opening.
Then, quite suddenly, the suit popped free of the cramped space, rolling to the side and clear of the makeshift tunnel. Rats took its place in Nic’s vision, the swarm clustered just inside the opening, scrambling forwards with jaws wide and hisses sharp.
Nic couldn’t say if it was thought or panic that drove his next action, whether the sharp downward thrust of his hand was to try and smack the creatures away or to pull the wall down on them. Thankfully the result was the same either way, the beam falling away as the magnet worked its invisible magic and pulled several metric tonnes of metal down from above. Nic dropped, covering his neck as a cave-in happened scant feet away. Even when the noise and rumbling had ended, he refused to move, holding to the tried-and-true logic of “if I can’t see it, it’s not real”. Eventually the holes in that reasoning became too much to ignore and he raised his head.
The wall was as it had been initially, a solid mass of broken metal with no obvious way through. Stray debris continued to tumble down here and there, each bit a heart stopping jolt of worry that the whole thing was about to topple over. When the last of it had settled, everything went eerily quiet as calm returned to the tunnels.
Looking over, he found the suit had risen to a sitting position, looking back at him with his inscrutable gaze.
“Well,” Nic said. “That was close.”
The suit, as always, said nothing.
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