The world was chaos.
Screams of panic mingled with shouts of encouragement by leaders to stay their men.
“We won’t be the first to bring down a demophant lads!” A wiry officer with an accent yelled at the few men by his side. Most had already bolted, but not all. “Spit on whatever gods you believe in then, and let’s kill this ugly bastard!” He blasted a couple of shots into the air and got his men roaring.
“That’s it lads! Let’s GO!”
The black, slimy worm crashing out of the forest dwarfed every building in town. Every sloppy lunge forward caused an explosion of dust and debris like shrapnel.
Rat watched in horror as the lengthening shadows of the setting sun were overwhelmed by a blackness that spread from the huge monster.
Those were thousands of small, black buggers flooding toward them. Again.
The fading light made it hard to count just how many there might’ve been. But then, it didn’t really matter how many there were.
He needed to get the hells out of there.
“Kids!” He turned on the small troop around him. “There’s no way to take that thing down with what we’ve got, we need to get out of here. Go!”
He pointed them back down the stone road to the city entrance, but they didn’t move.
“We have to kill it mister Rat! My pa says demophants destroy everything.” The eldest cried out, to a chorus of agreement from the rest. His brown eyes welled, though he fought the tears.
“No shame in running to fight another day boys.” Rat clasped the young man’s shoulder. “You’ve all performed admirably today, you’ve done your families proud.”
He shoved the kid toward the town entrance.
The boy stomped back to the small group. “I won’t leave, I can’t. My mum’s had The Lock for a whole year. The doctor’s just said she could start walking again last week!” Tears flowed unheeded down flushed cheeks. “If I run now…”
Rat sighed. “Won’t be anyone to help her walk again if you turn to paste under that thing.” He jerked a thumb backward, his words punctuated by another thunderous crash. “Bravery is admirable, bravado is foolish little man. Carry your mum to safety if you need to.”
He sounded like his father. He was about 10 seconds from leaving these kids to their fate if-
A new set of explosions rocked the battlefield, an enormous shadow drifted silently across him.
He looked up.
Three airships flew overhead, volleying cannon fire onto the battlefield. Chunks of worm splattered everywhere, jerking and boiling as they hit the dirt. More tiny black dots burst out of each like a popped boil, adding their numbers to the swarm.
The shots that missed the demophant flickered like fireflies dotting the landscape, disintegrating small groups of the black creatures.
“Looks like the brothers decided to get off their asses.” someone grunted nearby, popping a clip of rounds off into the coming horde.
“Isn’t it just like ‘em to swoop in at the end.” One of his companions shouted back. The two worked in tandem, one reloading while the other shot any little bastard in range.
The demophant’s progress slowed considerably, but its overtaking the city was just a matter of time.
Rat peeked backward. Most of the buildings were made of wood. This thing wouldn’t have any trouble turning all that to kindling. Damn it, he thought. Even if they kill it, we’ll be overrun. There could be thousands more inside.
The sun slunk behind the mountains, casting the world into utter darkness.
No moon? Figures.
Time crawled as the ragged line of defenders put their all into stemming the tide against them. Dozens of bright flares popped into existence overhead. They floated gently while shedding their light below. A boom followed by a bright streak of light from one of the ships exploded high in the sky into near-sunlight levels of brightness. The ships hammered relentlessly at the giant worm.
A shriek pierced him from behind.
The women tending the dying behind the cannon-line had their hands over their mouths, pointing beyond Rat. Over him. He turned just in time to watch two sailors smash into the ground.
They all watched in horror as the two corpses were engulfed. Moments later, the horde parted and the blackened men dragged themselves forward on shattered limbs.
Rat swore under his breath. Companies of men were breaking and retreating and these damn kids held fast. He could make out tiny specks darting back and forth between the floating ships. Two of the vessels flipped around, speeding to town on huge jets. Two dark blue rings of fire flashed into the sky preceding them. Two more bone jarring retorts and two more overbearingly bright flares exploded into existence as the first faded.
The remaining vessel drifted straight into the tree-line opposite the town. The crash was loud, but was no match for the deafening peals of thunder as the demophant moved closer.
Rat spit leaves and dirt from his mouth. “Alright kids.” He collapsed the empty canvas bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Good luck.” Damn they were stubborn, there was no p-
The eldest fell as a spindly-legged bastard made a lunge for him. The boy gasped as a small set of jagged teeth punctured his hand, struggling to keep it at arms length.
Then the creature separated, cut in half.
Rat cursed every god he could name as black ooze dripped from his blade. “Go!”
The assembly of boys listened this time, sprinting to safety.
His knife glinted dully as it flashed from body to body. He couldn’t kill them fast enough already, and the main body of the swarm wasn’t even here yet. Debris clogged his throat as his chest heaved, exhausted. One beast went down and before he could raise his knife again, a huge black spider wrapped itself around his face.
Panic ran away with him and a very unmanly scream tore from his mouth as he hurled the spider. It tumbled, then came back for another jump.
The sound shook his bones as a single shotgun blasted the spider to pieces. Rat was hauled to his feet and came face to face with probably the only familiar face in town.
“I got you boy.” The old woman dragged him to safety as the police to either side closed the gap behind them.
One officer tossed a revolver back at her. “Aunt Em, catch!”
“Get a move on, lad.” Aunt Em pushed him behind her, popping shots off wildly.
Rat made it as far as the stone road into town before running smack into captain Gainz, whose eyes were to the sky.
“Civilians retreat! Squad leaders, form a line of defense to pull back.” His voice carried across all but the explosion of the demophant, booming over the battlefield. “I want everyone as far back as we can get!”
Another ship glided out of town, just one. It was dotted with torches and crisscrossed with brass pipes.
A huge man with a mane of white hair broke through the cluster of attendants around Gainz, moving up with a dozen men. They were all outfitted in the same heavy leather uniform, puffed up backpack and torch. They spread behind the defense line 20 meters apart.
Once the last man was in place, the leader pulled a horn to his lips. “Alright men, fireline! Everyone else, cover fire!”
They marched simultaneously to the front and sprayed a layer of thick, white powder in a single continuous line. Volleys of gunfire felled an increasing number of beasts as the men painstakingly completed their task.
Gainz pressed a revolver into Rat’s hand as he slunk by.
“Good to see you hunter.” He gestured back the way he’d come. “Got a pavilion of wounded being evac’d back there. Take this, protect them. I owe ya.”
He left, leaving Rat alone in a crowd of strangers.
Captain Gainz watched the firemen finish the white line. Seconds later, a deafening fwoosh and a wall of fire stood between the town and the invaders. It wasn’t enough to stop them, but it slowed them down.
What a load of rat piss.
“How far do we need to move from the blast to be safe?” He addressed a small weasel of a man.
“My apologies captain.” Wheezed the reply. “We’ve never actually tested this bomb, and as such, I cannot tell you. It could raze the city. It could give the demophant a stomach-ache.” He shrugged.
“What do you mean you don’t-”
“A moment.” The short man silenced the captain. “I know the materials, allow me to guess.” He scratched an equation into the dirt at his feet, continually looking down his thumb at the enormous monster and back at the ground.
“I don’t have time for guesses, Five! We’re risking real lives on thi-”
“My guess, not your guess, captain.” The shadowy voice cut him off again. “There is a difference. Now hush, I cannot think.”
Gainz bit his tongue.
“The lethality zone should be 200, 250 meters.” Five declared, a full square meter of equations scratched into the soil beneath him.
Gainz sighed. Every man here was in the blast zone. “Dammit Five. This whole thing could’ve been cleaned up by now if the brotherhood had acted sooner!” Gainz slammed his fist into his hand, a moment of frustration. Then he dished orders to half a dozen orderlies and bellowed orders to the rest.
“MOVE BACK! EVERYONE, MOVE TO THE FARMYARDS IN AN ORDERLY-” He gave up. People screamed and ran each other over, pulling wagons and chickens and children haphazardly. They weren’t listening.
“Of course, captain.” Five collected his belongings to leave. “Perhaps. Perhaps we would’ve expended ourselves much earlier then. The brothers willing to die for you might already be dead, and we all die anyway.” He started the trek back to the Brotherhood HQ to get packed. “Besides,” Five called. “I was on the ‘leave and save our own asses’ side of the vote. Brother Sam dies for you today.”
Samuel felt the fire from the torch burning his back as the fire in his throat burned its way down. He whistled the tune he’d whistled for the last ten years every bedtime. Each passing second brought him closer to death.
The screams and shouts of the people that had caused him so much anxiety two hours ago were so detached and distant now. Nothing he could do but hope this damn thing did its job. There was no coming back this time.
A few small, black flyers thumped onto the deck and made for the torches. One bit the nearest flame, its head disintegrating.
“Heh heh. Stupid buggers.” Sam downed another gulp of the cheap liquor he’d swiped on the way out.
Two of the little bastards heard him laugh and scurried over twisted brass tubing and tangles of copper wire littering the deck.
“Come on over you thrice cursed little-”
They leapt simultaneously. One burst into flame, encountering a swung torch. The other exploded on the end of the liquor bottle.
The other ships should be back to the tower by now. He was alone up here.
“I’m a comin, I’m a comin.” Sam stood as it roared and tossed the bottle overboard.
“Dinner time, big daddy.”
Rat spotted the captain hanging out on a second story balcony, watching and waiting.
But for what?
The hunter hauled himself up a set of pipes onto the roof and dropped next to the captain. A solid set of hands wrapped around Rat’s throat, a knife teasing itself into his flesh.
“WHO GOES THERE!”
“Release him, Waymon.” Gainz sighed. “He’s just a visitor with unfortunate timing.”
The soldier released him.
“I never actually expected you to stay, Mr Hunter.” Gainz looked at Rat approvingly. “I applaud your bravery, if not your wisdom.”
“Yeah, well.” Rat said. “I didn’t really have anything pressing at the moment, and you said the magic word.”
Captain Gainz shrugged. “Fair enough. Give me a few minutes and I’ll let you know if I’m alive enough to pay you.”
“Alive enough? What’s that supposed to mean.”
Gainz gestured toward the field. “Seems the brotherhood has a secret weapon they thought we could borrow. It’s either going to do piss all, or we’ll be cooked like rabbits.”
Rat was not amused.
They watched the single airship sail toward the monster. Then it dipped, diving straight toward the giant worm. The huge beast shrieked and coiled, then bounded into the air. The ship was swallowed whole.
The flares in the sky dimmed, plunging the world back into darkness.
The captain sighed. “I’ve doomed us all.”
Rat looked to the captain. “What can we-”
As he opened his mouth, the night turned back into day.
A fireball washed the city in daylight. Anyone unfortunate enough to look at the explosion was blinded instantly.
“AH!” Rat clamped his palms onto his eyes.
The shock wave splintered the balcony railing and tossed Rat like a ragdoll. People screamed and smashed into each other below, the frenzied crowd running over friends and neighbors alike.
From his back, Rat watched the captain step to the edge of the balcony. His cloak of office snapped wildly in the wind. The world was a cacophony of confusion. The ringing in his ears threatened to deafen him and his eyes burned.
Then Gainz was there, helping Rat to his feet. He threw a last glance at the growing mushroom-shaped cloud hovering over the landscape.
“Skyfather save us all.”