Angel’s head was once again in agony. It was like the concussion had revisited the worst pain upon him. His head was cloudy, vision blurry and he couldn’t move. Breaths were difficult and painful to take, ribs had been broken. He started to move a little, but couldn’t pull his arms out in front of him. Something had then bound behind his back. Through his blurry vision he could make out shapes, maybe people, in front of him, but it was dark. What light there was flickered and moved around. It was torches. The floor was cold and damp, his face pressed down against it. Legs were stretched out before him, bound to one another. Dry air scratched down his throat with every breath, and pressed out against his ribs. He kept is breaths shallow. His nose was clogged, full of blood and snot and possibly broken. Angel couldn’t be sure, his mind was not all there.
Visions of what had happened started to form inside his head. He remembered taking off from the Tevatron. He retraced his path from the Hanger in reverse, dangling the hunk of metal and rare-earth elements below. The expectation was that The Dragon would be spotted somewhere along the way. They had damaged the helicopter, after all, which left it spewing a smoke trail. It should have been easy to track.
There was no sign of them: no footprints, no burned out buildings, nothing. Even as they hovered over the hanger they could see nothing that suggested that The Dragon were even there. The dead were gone. The smattering of tracks around the hangar, nonexistent. Only a helicopter-sized hole in the top of the hangar showed them evidence that what they had experience over the last three days was real.
Three passengers in the helicopter left the scene baffled, and terrified. Their plan was to head back to Jim’s building, drop off the magnet, get it connected to the cooling system, and fire up the laser. It was predicated on the idea that their would-be assassins would be in the middle of the desert between the city and the Tevatron. They should have followed.
“They should have followed,” Jim said into his headset.
“They didn’t follow,” Angel replied. “Why didn’t they follow, Jim?”
“Maybe they gave up.”
“They walked all the way from the outskirts of Toronto to get here, Jim. They had us surrounded. They should be ravenous, not deterred.”
Jim grumbled something into the mic that stuck out like a twig from the hard-shelled audio ear-muffs and shook his head.
Angel passed over the rail yard to see the earlier battlefield. The demolished train car was there, as was Jim’s working train, parked right where they left it. None of it made any sense. The Dragon had a train. They had a really good vector on where the helicopter was going. They had options, and it looked as if they took none of them. It was as if they had vanished from the Earth.
“What now?” Angel said.
“We carry on. We don’t have enough information to do anything else.”
Up they soared ever so gently, Angel was still suffering quite a bit. The blades chirped away from the outside, overwhelmed by the engine noise on the inside. They were heading straight to Jim’s building.
* * *
“Angel, Hope?” Jim was regaining conciousness as well. His body faired better than Angel’s. A head-bleed that had already clotted, a broken arm, and a slight puncture wound in his abdomin that left a stain of dried blood on his plaid shirt.
“Hey Jim,” Angel said, still laying on the floor. “I think we have company.”
“Yeah. They were waiting for us.”
“I still think this is a terrible plan.”
“Lookin’ that way, bud.”
The Dragon were waiting for them at the building. As the helicopter hovered over the top floor, it gently set the magnet down. Hope slipped out to cut the cargo loose with her blade. It wasn’t the best way to drop the load, but without someone on the ground it was the only way they could do it. She clung to the landing rail and swung her nimble body so that she could reach the loosened cargo strap and cut through it. Just as the tether feathered its way toward the top of the building a beam of light slid across the bottom of the bird, carving a surface scar into the metal. It reached a spot within the radius of the propeller and stabilized on the blades as they spun about. They were sheared by a third, flinging the outer edges toward another nearby tower. The projectile metal swords stabbed into the building in a cluster, as if thrown by a dart champion.
Without the tips of its wings, the machine lost most of its loft. At first it fell slowly. Angel and Jim gasped for air while hope clung for dear life to the bottom of the machine. With the little control Angel had he tried to get to the edge of the building as not to land the whole machine on top of Hope. She managed to let go and drop onto the roof of the building as the machine slid through the air, down below the top floor. It was practically flying sideways, Angel was trying to save what little he had left of the blades and get some distance between the machine and the building before attempting to correct the flight profile.
Chirping blade sounds were replaced with an engine that was overrevving and a high-pitched whine caused by the uneven edges cutting through the air. With a little luck the machine moved away from the building and Angel leveled it out, but could do nothing to prevent the eventual meeting with the ground. He held the stick far over to one side to slow the increasing rotation speed of the machine. Without the full torque of the blades, the counter-rotation gearing to the rear rotor could only compensate so much.
There was no time to talk to Jim about how to crash in a helicopter, no time to regret not having parachutes, not that there was time to put them on. They only had time to fall, and for Angel to do his best to control the machine and coax whatever loft he could out of their shortened blades. Angel hoped that the sand was still soft, that it would absorb some of the force that was about to drop down on it. The storm wasn’t but a few days prior. The sand doesn’t completely settle. It’ll be alright, he thought.
* * *
The moving, flickering light was emitting some murmurs and whispers now. One of the whispers was a word Angel could just barely make out, “Hope.” He tried to look over at Jim, he tried to pull himself up. He could do neither. Every part of his body hurt, and what parts didn’t hurt very much were just numb from him laying on them.
“How long, Jim?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Could have been awhile. I’ve got dried blood on me already.”
“Wasn’t your fault. Or maybe it was. I blame you for my survival,” Jim joked, because what else could he do. He was bound on the floor just like Angel. They tied his hands in front of him to account for his broken arm, but they tethered them to his legs to prevent him from trying to hop away like an idiot. Joking was the only pleasure he had, and he needed some with all the pain he was in. His old body was bruised and sore.
Angel’s head was clearing and his eyesight grew sharper. He could make out figures of men with torches, and singed bar, half-burned curtains in front of a dented metal door. It was Jim’s bar. This was poetic for Angel, in a way. Hope and Cindy were sitting at the bar just as things started to go sideways. Maybe it wasn’t their fault, he thought. Of course it wasn’t their fault. They’re not maurading maniacs bent on destroying what’s left of humanity. Those two are just a couple of girls who fell in with the wrong crowd. He had heard the real history of how they got tangled up with The Dragon, but liked his shorthand version to be more playful.
He was beginning to understand how Hope initially worked her way into the good graces of The Dragon. She can be gentle when she wants to be, and probably when she has to be. Cindy’s involvement was obvious, why would you ever cast off a doctor. Medical care had gone way downhill since the fall of society.
Not that any of this understanding would likely matter. Angel was ready to accept his fate. This one-eyed Dragon was going to clobber him in the head again and put an end to his life. He’ll leave the face intact so that he can bring my severed head back to Tynon and show him how he killed the betrayer. Fair enough. I wonder if I’d be enough. Maybe if I tell him that I killed those men in Buffalo, and I shot the laser through the two at the hangar, would that be enough, would he leave Hope and Cindy and Jim alone? Or at the very least just kill me and Jim and call it a day?
Angel had nothing to lose. He was bound, bloodied and broken, fated to die under almost any circumstance. Perhaps going out in some noble fashion would help the world a little bit, help Hope and help Cindy and the women at the Tevatron. Put that out of your head, Angel. Don’t give up anything about the Tevatron and what’s going on there.
“Derrrrng!” the elevator shattered the quiet and mumbling in the bar. The doors did not open.
After a minute the slow, uneven grind of the doors on the tracks revealed that it was more than just a glitch. “Blerrasshhhhhhhhhhhhhhck!” said the garbled, deteriorated voice that matched the condition of its owner.
“Remind me to disconnect that,” Jim said. “She used to have such a lovely voice, but now she’s just some kind of mutant hiding in the speakerbox.”
Shuffling feet emerged from the elevator box. It was not the sharp clicking that one would expect to accompany evil, it was quiet, measured, and slow. Once the feet came to a halt the clicking actually did start up. It was not footstep, though. It was the sound of a skilled killer tapping on the ground. Not the man, but his club. It had seen blood, and bone, and muscle, and brain. It was a devious device put to devious purposes, weilded by a one-eyed maniac who was getting better and better at weilding it.
The torches and the mumbling in the background were silenced by the entry of this new person. They gathered close to Angel and Jim on the ground putting more light into the area allowing Angel to see clearly their adversary, the one-eyed man who bashed him on the head at the hangar.
“That’s the one, Jim. That’s the guy that got me,” Angel said.
“Ah, yeah. He’s only got the one eye, unless he’s just trying to be a pirate.”
Angel laughed, and whinced in pain from his ribs.
Neither Jim nor Angel had been tortured before. They didn’t know what kind of pain the one-eyed Dragon was thinking about inflicting upon them. The laughter they were experiencing would likely be the last bit of pleasure they would extract from the situation. As the room brightened with the torchlight, their chances of survival dimmed. This man was like no adversary they had ever even heard of. Their experience with The Dragon had been relatively benign compared to what was about to happen. They rightfully did not expect a sadist to be standing before them, so they joked.
* * *
Hope watched it go down. She managed to swing from the bottom of the propellered machine and land on the roof of the building. It was one of those things that she had imagined she might be able to do in a dream, if she repeated the dream over and over again until she got it right. She hadn’t dreamed about this. She didn’t even think about this. Pure instict drove her to escape the falling machine even if it meant a mid-air swing hundreds of feet in the air. With subconcious confidence in her own body’s ability her instincts pushed her, like a father pushing a daughter in a swing. There was no choice, her body just did it.
Landing on the roof hurt. She was fortunate to be left with only scrapes and bruises given the awkward way she hit. It knocked the wind out of her lungs, leaving her gasping as she moved to the edge. She had to see the machine go down, to know if they made it.
It was all in slow motion. Tragedies often unfold at what seems like half-speed. She knew the machine would hit the ground; she was expecting it. As she watched Angel’s fantastic maneuvers that righted the bird during its descent, she didn’t realize that she couldn’t hear it, or anything. She was watching in silent as her mind shut out everything else except the vision of the helicopter falling out of the sky. A gasp of air, a dropped jaw, eyes welling up with tears, she lay there on the roof, head peeking over the side.
With a puff of sand and scattered metal, it hit the ground. What was left of the propeller continued to spin, but at an odd angle, as if it had become dislodged from the rest of the machine somehow. The tail was touching the ground and the booms were sticking up at odd angles.
For awhile there was no movement, nothing from the bird, nothing from the area around it. The sound of the quiet wind slowly emerged from the background and filled Hope’s ears once again. Then the voices came, not from the roof, but from the ground. The Dragon came, some from across the bridge and others from the building below. She waited and watched. Short of jumping from the building and having enough luck to land on one of them, she could do nothing for Angel and Jim at the moment, so she watched.
They dragged two limp bodies out of the machine and laid them on the sand. One of them purched over each body, examining them. She couldn’t make out any words, just the noises of men’s voices. As they dragged the bodies toward the building she had no idea if they were dead or alive, but in that moment she decided that she was going to find out.
A familiar rage awoke in Hope. It was the same feeling she felt when she killed the two Dragon in the helicopter so many weeks ago, rooted in her anguish from when they raided the medical camp, killing so many, but it was more complicated than that. She was angry at them, and angry at herself. She became the lover of the man who ordered the raid, the man who ordered her own capture. Her heart was burning with fire on both sides. The flames her chest and burned across her body, extending all the way to her fingertips. On her right she held the despise of the wicked men who have caused so much pain, on the left the grief and self loathing that accompanied the powerlessness of her situation, and how she found enough power in selfishness and self preservation that ultimately resulted in the betrayal of all those around her.
She was disgusted, angry, resentful, despised, rotten inside, and the rot was now burning out the puss and stink of her soul. Arms shaking, palms sweaty, she was ready. The fire in her heart energized her body. She had the strength of two men running through her, and the cunning of the finest killer The Dragon could bring forth. A rampage was coming like these killers had never seen.
Her mind filled with visions of killing them one by one. She imagined sneaking up on one from behind and stabbing him in the throat, holding his limbs until his brain drained of blood. An impaled skull awaited the next one, and the one after that would take a few kicks to the groin before she dispatched him by twisting his head around. Hope had all sorts of colorful ways to kill these men, and she was going to try each one.
Kills 1 & 2
Two Dragon stared out the blown out window of the garden, keeping watch over the activity by the helicopter. If they spotted anything unusual it was one man’s job to call the elevator and deliver the message to Jacko. The other man stayed behind to keep watch and relay the information to the messenger upon his return, and repeat the process. Jacko’s plan appeared to be working to that point, so there was for the men to do except watch.
They didn’t hear Hope slip through the stairwell door. The howling wind across the open windows kept them from hearing her tie off the cargo strap to the drain pipe behind them. Enamored by the vision of the shattered flying machine below, they didn’t notice her sneaking up behind them.
It wasn’t until the first man was noosed and kicked out the window that they noticed her at all. He fell 30 feet before the tether was taught and the noose tightened around his neck. It wasn’t as satisfying a kill as she had hoped. She didn’t hear the neck snap or any screams from him, just a grunt when she kicked him in the back and some scuffling of his feet on the ground when he tried to regain his balance. She enjoyed imagining his last thoughts, his terror and panic at the thought of the ground rising up to meet him, and the sadness at the sound of his own snapping neck. Would he know he was dead, or would it all just go dark? This idea gave her some pleasure, some relief from the burning in her heart. His death, however, was but a drop of water, a splash onto the fire. It reignited quickly.
The second man gave her a close kill. He saw his friend fly out the window followed by a slack, yellow cargo strap that chased him from behind. His eyes traced the strap’s route backward and met the vision of a woman with her leg slowly retracted from its forceful kick. He felt fear, and Hope could see it on his face, and he could see the rage on hers. She was not tall, but in that momen she was taller than he. His body grew small and week in the face of her impending slaughter. There was no fight in this man, he was paralyzed.
Hope imagined another version of herself taking pity on this man. He would see her softening and soften himself, dropping his club, dropping his guard. She would bind him to the drain pipe with the cargo strap and come back for him later. He would become her prisoner and, after awhile, she would free him after she felt he had served his sentence. They would go on living, never becoming friends, but not staying enemies either. He would live.
Someday she wondered if that version of her would ever replace the killer. Years from now, when the world begins to right itself, maybe, but not today. This Hope gave him no mercy. His throat was slashed before the noose tightened around the other man’s neck. The gasping of air, the choking on blood, these sounds gave her more satisfaction. Her fire cooled for a moment. She closed her eyes to feel it and inhaled deeply, growing strong in the process.
As the heat returned she clenched her fists and tightened her jaw. She had more work to do before this fire would go out. It might not even be completely extinguished when she finished. She would be satisfied to leave it smoldering, even if only for awhile.
“Dinnnnnnnnnnnck,” went the bell on the 35th floor. The door opened on the opposite side of the elevator shaft. Whoever was on it couldn’t see how Hope had desecrated the two scouts. He would not suspect.
She slinked up to the rear of the elevator’s column and listened. The man called out to his friends, but recieved no answer. He walked around one side, she moved to the corner and waited. He called out again, still no answer. The fool, he arrived at the corner of the shaft where she was waiting, and he looked away. This fool of a man was looking the other way, unlike any other normal human. It was as if he didn’t want to see her. A fleeting sensation of dismay brushed across Hope’s mind as he finally turned his idiot head the other way and saw her, arms outstretched grabbing for his head.
The idiot would be looking the other way for the rest of his short life as she twisted his skull around to make it so. Cracking neck bones and the snapping spine gave her the sick sensation of pleasure for much longer this time. Her body cooled with the beading sweat that was developing across her skin, and the dousing of the flame from this kill. This poor, dumb man who had managed to survive in a killing community, how could he be so bad at staying alive?
Kills 4 & 5
She knew better than to take the elevator, there was no telling what she might encounter when the doors opened, if they opened. For all she knew the machine would finally give up and leave her stranded in the metal box to burn from the inside out.
The dangling man inched his way up the side of the building, Hope thought she might need the cargo strap again and she didn’t see any point in announcing her presence to the rest of The Dragon just yet. She also grabbed one of their clubs. The malet felt heavy in her hands, not just in weight but in what it had done and what it represented. It was their chosen killing machine, and this one had the weight of one that had taken a lot of lives. Stained brown with dried blood and heavily dented, she wondered how many souls this filthy beast had freed from the earth. How many skulls shattered, bones broken, muscles destroyed along with their owners had been left in its wake?
Her eyes shifted focus from the club to the man she had pulled it from and whatever pity she had for any of them evaporated, leaving her like a possesing spirit giving up on its host. Like Jim, she saw only one way for this to end, and she wanted to bring it about. They all have to die, all of The Dragon. They will kill and maime and destroy until there’s nothing left of humanity, and if that means that Hope had to give up her own, she would make that sacrifice. She would become a killer, just as they are. No more flourishes of pity, or remorse would ever make their way into her heart for any other Dragon’s death. Her hardened heart could burn forever so long as she was putting an end to them.
Floor by floor she made her way down from the 35th using the stairwell near the elevator shaft at the center of the building. Most levels had some desks, a lot of wheeled chairs, and the higher ones still had many windows intact. For all the damage the structure had endured, it was in surprisingly good shape looking at it form the inside. Hope wasn’t there for a tour, though. She painstakingly stalked through each and every floor looking for an opportunity to sneak up behind another Dragon bastard and gut him.
34 – nothing. 33 – nothing. 32 – nothing. She spent 10 minutes on each floor, and that was too much time. She had seen them dragging Angel and Jim into the building. She didn’t know which floor they were on, but she knew where they weren’t. Alive or dead, she was committed to finding them and and creating a trail of bloody bodies along the way, but which would it be: alive, or dead?
If they’re dead, they were already dead, she thought. And if they wanted them dead they would have killed them right in the helicopter. They wouldn’t have bothered dragging them around. If they were already dead, then they’re already dead. She wasn’t sure if her logic was sound, but it gave her comfort to think that Angel and Jim were still alive. It gave her rage a noble purpose, and this made her feel better. Her bloodlust was in-line with what she thought was the higher objective of saving them. With so many floors to clear, she had quit a lot of time to reconcile her feelings on the matter.
More than three hours had passed since she started down the stairs. When she go to the tenth floor she noted that, while the desks and scattered cubical walls still provided a maze of hiding places for potential assassins, most of the chairs were missing. Nine, eight, seven, none of them had chairs at all. Another hour had ticked by when she arrived at the fifth floor where the mystery was solved.
Jim had thrown all the chairs down the stairwell. Nine office building floors worth of wheeled chairs were clogging up the stairs below the fifth floor, like hair in a shower drain. There was no climbing over, or around, or through he mesh of five-pointed star legs, hydrolic pressure plungers, cushioned and mesh seats and backs, and adjustable arms. If it went all the way down to the ground level, Hope imagined that it would take her several days to clear them all. Burning them would be simpler, if they would burn. In all likelihood the materials would melt into a solid brick of stair-well molded plastic blocking the first and second floors.
Like the floors between 35 and six, floor five offered no satisfying kills. The Sun was getting low in the sky now, and Hope was feeling the fatigue of her long day. Her muscles ached. She walked to one side of the office and propped herself up on a desk. Closing her eyes for a moment, she enjoyed the sound of the wind across the hollow of the window panes. Breathing became slow and heavy. While her body rested, her mind was still imagining more killing. Three was not enough, she wanted more. More, she whispered to herself, and she thought she heard something whisper in return. Her head cocked sideways instinctively to give her ear a better angle on the sound. More whispers, she heard, but they weren’t whispers, just a faint conversation.
Down below her were two Dragon standing on the train platform. They didn’t see her, they weren’t looking for someone from up above. These two men were standing guard at the train platform in case Jim’s train showed up looking for trouble.
Hope’s body re-energized with a new rush of adrenaline and her mind assigned each of the men a specific way to die. She was eager to kill, and her brain was on automatic as it sorted out how to get down to them. Over on a side of the building, just out of view of her prey, she tied off the cargo strap to a heavy desk and lowered it down. These men were on the third floor and after she used a little bit of the strap to fashion a sling for the club, she had just enough to get down to them.
She had never repelled before, so her descent was awkward. Wisely she chose to do this out of view of the two men, as they would have surely noticed her lack of stealth on the way down if she tried to drop in directly behind them. She found her way in to the building and set up the kill.
Her luck continued as they were assigned to look out for a train, not look behind them for someone sneaking up. Excitement filled her as she was about to inflict some new damage with the club. A smile spread across her face as she approached the two men standing at the edge of the platform.
The first man would have to wait his turn. A little push was all he needed to fall down onto the tracks. It was an odd landing for him, hitting his head on one of the rails. By the time he pulled himself up it would be too late for his partner.
Swinging low and wildly with her new weapon, she struck the second Dragon on the front of the knee, buckling his leg in the opposite direction of its normal operation. He screamed at the sight of his retreating shin and thigh and fell to the ground grabbing at the demolished joint. Hope was swift and more precise with her next swing. The man stopped screaming when the club came down on his head. She was beginning to understand the appeal of these bloody mallots. Cracking sounds of bone and tendon were very satisfying.
As she wound up for her third swing, which she wasn’t entirely sure was necessary, but was going to take anyway, a pair of hands wrapped around her ankles and yanked them out from under her. The man down on the tracks had recovered a little more quickly than she expected. Her body came down with a heavy thud and the man started to drag her down onto the tracks.
Hope was nimble, and her mind was sharp. She had lost her club, but not her wits. Using her arms, she popped her body up off the platform, putting all her mass into the air, and shoving herself right into the chest of the man below. He crashed down on the tracks once more, dropping his club, as Hope had dropped hers just seconds before. Her landing was soft, and had the added benefit of pressing all the air out of her adversary’s lungs. When a man can’t breath, his first priority is to breath. This gave Hope the advantage becasue her priority was still to kill the man. As he struggled to push her off, now quite disoriented from two falls on the train tracks, she grabbed his club and started to bash him in the face with the narrow end. This was an interesting experience for her. To this point she had snuck up on all of her victims and dispatched them before they really understood what was happening. This man that she was sitting on was fully aware of her, and that he was about to die. His armed flailed about as he tried to block the club’s hilt between each blow. Blood flowed into his eyes giving him no chance at any meaningful counter move.
With panicked lungs, no vision and a face that had been turned into a ball of beaten meat, he started to choke on the blood that was running from his nose down his throat. He gasped and flailed more slowly as she continued to bash his face. As his efforts became more futile and weak, Hope smiled again. More than any of the others, she enjoyed killing this man. His suffering doused the flame in her heart for a good while.
Kills 6 & 7
Hope worried that the scream of the first man might have alerted others to her presence, but after several minutes no one came to the third floor looking for trouble. She lurked around the third floor, wiping her bloody hands on the walls, desks and any other thing she felt like. Outside of the bloody trail, she scouted the floor just like the others, but it was just a habit at this point. She was just going though the motions. If she really wanted to complete the job she would have gone up to the fourth floor and checked it out. She was no longer interested in clearing the building so much as she was interested in finding another Dragon to kill.
Jim had done a great job of blocking off the main stairwell with chairs, and that would do well to keep people below the fifth floor, but there were a set of escalators that went between the third and ground floors. They were well beyond functional as time had broken almost everything, but a broken escalator is not really broken, it just becomes stairs. With her favorite club and two holstered blades, she crept slowly down the escalator stairs. Stealth had been her best ally so far, and she wasn’t about to give it up by clumsily swooping down to the ground floor.
The ground floor was not at all like the ones above. It was an open, spacious lobby with decorative marble and massive desks. In the dim light of the setting sun it reminded her of the old bank she used to hide out in before those bastards took it from her, before the beat her to within an inch of her life. That brutal memory lodged in her head as she skulked around each corner of the lobby, looking for Dragon. She was binding it with her time as Gannon’s concubine, with the attack at the medical camp, the death of her friends, her betrayal of the rest, the killing of the men in the helicopter, at the hangar, and all those she killed at Jim’s building. All of the pain she inflicted, and that was visited upon her hardened into a lump in her chest at the center of her burning heart. It invigorated her.
When she spotted the two Dragon standing guard at the top of the stairs to the bar, she didn’t bother with stealth. It was casual, the way she walked up to them with her club. One of them had set his on fire to cast light in the area, the fool. He was so close to the flame that he could barely see how she bashed his friend to the ground. He thought he was good at killing, and maybe he was, but he wasn’t ready to kill in that moment. This little woman walking up and crushing his friends skull like an egg was not what he expected. Nor did he foresee her smashing his hand with her club, breaking his fingers and knocking his torch away.
The fire flickered in the darkened city, half buried in the sand. Protected from the wind, and with no rain to douse it, the fire would keep burning into the night, until the weapon was consumed by it.