They were still in the Oval Office when the first sirens sounded.
They started distantly, quietly; too quietly to be heard past the thick walls and the rolling din of the storm. It took almost half a minute before the sound of them registered with Coraline.
"Hold it, just a second," she said suddenly, motioning for silence and cutting Wybie off mid-story. "What's that sound? Am I just hearing things?"
"I … no, I can hear something as well," said Maria, frowning. "Is it an alarm, do you think?"
"If it is, it's not from in here," said Coraline, rising to her feet and steadying herself on the Resolute Desk as she turned to the window, with nothing apparent beyond the by-now customary rushing darkness and the distant lights of vehicles and ascending buildings. "Must be from another building."
"I don't think so," said Wybie cautiously. "It's just that … one time, I was playing with some of the spare hardware used around here, don't ask why, and there's a few sounds you pick up quickly when you keep on triggering them at point-blank range."
"Then what do you think it is."
Wybie hesitated. "It sounds like one of the perimeter alarms."
And as soon as he had said it, the nearest office building to the White House went up in fire.
The force of it rattled the window, sheets of erupting flame ripping open brick walls and sending shrapnel lashing out in all directions like a million molten-metal comets. The clap came sharper and piercing than any lightning-strike, and hard on its heels came redoubled sirens, and distant shouting and the low wail of motorguns.
"What the hell?" Coraline recoiled from the window, her eye wide at the red light spilling across the south lawn and the Ellipse. One hand flew reflexively to her side, grabbing at nothing for a few futile moments. Wybie and Maria stepped back as well, their own expressions wide and alarmed.
The shouting grew in volume, and there came the soft-yet-shrill chatter of small-arms fire. Screams began to edge into the growing cacophony, from the direction of the fire and from what seemed like other distant points to the sides. Thick, truculent smoke crowned the eruption, staining the pitch sky darker..
At the edges of the observable, grown in the sudden influx of the fire-cast light, man-sized dark figures moved with purpose.
"God have mercy," said Maria, her face anxious and drawn as she turned to face Coraline. "What ..who is it?"
Coraline opened her mouth to reply, but stopped abruptly as some strange sensation took hold of her. It was faint, and unearthly, and yet familiar, and all too, too familiar for that matter…
…But the possibility that occurred instinctively to Coraline was impossible, it had to be, nobody could possibly induce that over so great an area so suddenly, and she (not entirely) dismissed it…
…And no sooner had she done so than another building, further off into the city, half-covered by other rising buildings, erupted into a silent gout of fire, flecks of flying stone visible even from Coraline's perspective.
The door to the Oval Office slammed open, and Hawkwood strode in, flanked by six other suited agents, three to a side. He seemed sharpened, his movements controlled and tense, his mouth taut and flat and his right hand held near the inside pocket of his coat.
"Madam President, we're under attack," he said simply, the words clipped and forceful. "We're evacuating the building and getting you to safety. Now."
"Who's attacking us, Mr Hawkwood?" asked Coraline, keeping herself composed, feeling old, slightly rusty nerves asserting steel in the face of danger (and as a voice in the back of her head said, with a touch of what Coraline considered inappropriately detached sarcasm, "Well, gee. Who do you know of that's acquired a taste for attacking heads of state in the last while?")
"We don't know, and right now, we've got to focus on surviving," said Hawkwood irritably. He beckoned with one hand to the agents at his left and with the other to Wybie and Maria. "Mr Lovat, Secretary Ortega, you come with us as well. There are saferooms in the building. Come on. And keep your heads down."
They complied, the gunfire and shouts from inside growing louder. Maria stepped forward, Coraline following her, Wybie bringing up the rear as the agents closed around them.
The strange familiar sensation returned to Coraline, alien, she finally realised, only for its presence in this place of all places, filling her nostrils with the softly strengthening scent of…
"Falchion, Firework, and Burdock retrieved and en route to Location Sigma," Hawkwood snapped into his headset, his voice raised to compensate for the growing clamour inside the building and the noise from outside, as the Secret Service agents bustled the three out of the room and out through Moloney's empty office at a brisk pace. They turned sharply through a door on their left and emerged into a length of wide corridor. "Patterns acknowledged and revised. ETA, two…"
And what Hawkwood was about to say remained unsaid, because at that moment the world exploded.
The force hit Coraline before the noise or heat or rubble, a sheer solid wall that slammed into her and sent her flying backwards, leaving her only aware in the vaguest terms of Wybie and Maria and several agents sprawling next to her on the floor before light and thunder momentarily drowned out her senses, leaving her stunned and prostrate.
Slowly, by fragments, the world reasserted itself amidst noise and vertigo-inducing light, as she pushed herself painfully up into a sitting position. She saw that at the end of the stretch of corridor was an empty shattered space where the wall had previously stood, the floor strewn with rubble and scorch-marks. Rain and fire-light spilled in from where the building had been ripped open. Emergency lighting, acting in place of whatever wires had been ripped apart in the blast of whatever weapon had caused it, painted the corridor carmine, reds blazing against pools of shadow.
Hawkwood, who had been a few feet in front of Coraline, but still some distance from the point of the detonation, lay on his side, breathing heavily but without too much labour. He tremblingly pushed one hand against the ground to shove himself upwards, the other snaking up and adjusting his askew sunglasses.
"Sh…shit," he managed, managing with some superhuman effort to rise to his feet, stopping his speech every so often to cough with shock. "That…that way's gone. They'll have an open angle of fire on us."
He looked behind him, just as Coraline reached out to the recovering Wybie and Maria, helping them pull themselves up to a sitting position as well, and accepting their help as they stood up and pulled her upright. Around them, the other agents were standing, trying to regain their composure and purpose.
The scent of honeysuckle suddenly redoubled, and what could only be described as the feel of the Sur-real rose sickeningly in Coraline, almost making her retch with the strength of it. It was wrong, it wasn't normally this strong, even in a full-blown Eroder field with a beldam next to her.
"Right," said Hawkwood. "We cut through cross-building. Takeda, Schroder, take point for the office route. Madam President, behind me…"
Coraline could only half-listen, something drawing her eyes to the hole left in the far wall, beyond which a small angle of viewing was possible. On the lawn, where red clashed with the harsh blue-white light of a lightning strike for illumination, she saw the same dark outlines of people moving towards them, towards the White House, sleek weapons spitting sharp cross-lines through the air at unseen targets. A swath of motorgun fire backed up by pistol rounds caught several of them, pitching them onto the grass, and other stooped to return fire, white-hot rounds zigzagging through the air.
A shadow flicked past.
Only briefly. Almost too quickly to be seen, too quickly to be discerned, nothing but a brief black patch in the world that streaked towards whatever defences the Secret Service and White House guards elsewhere had mustered…
The honeysuckle stench, the sheer sickly-sweet corrupt rank, suddenly became too strong for Coraline to bear. Her knees bent abruptly as she gasped, and Wybie was quick to support her before she fell, his face and Maria's betraying something the same sudden revulsion.
"Mr Hawkwood," Coraline managed, regaining what strength she could to pull away slightly from Wybie and stand unassisted. "A psychephage's involved. Do you or any of the agents have ferroshot?"
Hawkwood blinked, looking only briefly at Coraline with some uncertainty, and glanced back along the corridor to where another route of escape lay. He had felt something, Coraline could tell. Anyone could have felt something of that.
"Cross-building," he repeated, as if to keep himself on track. "We can get ferroshot from the caches. Come on, this way…"
Sudden, violent, deafeningly loud shots punched through the wall at the moment, stabbing irregular holes along the top of the walls, bullets rebounding and falling to the floor. Thunder pealed down the corridor, and from somewhere further away in the building, the sound of screaming pierced past all other sounds.
"Into the goddamn building!" shouted Hawkwood, drawing his gun and motioning back along the corridor. "They're hitting us from both sides of the building! Sani and Menzies, with me on the rearguard! The rest of you, get the President to Location Sigma!" A hand appeared past the shattered wall, its ceramic armour plating black in the red light, and Hawkwood's first shot knocked its grasp free with a cry of pain from the recipient.
"This way," said agent Schroder with an understated firmness, motioning for the others to follow him through left-leading doors. "Through the office space." He wrenched open the door leading to an expanse of office space, filled with glass-and-pine cubicle walls, solid wooden doors and screened walls separating the wide room from the offices around the edge. The wires here were undecided, the light shifting every few seconds from soft white to simmering red, the shadows warping with each shift.
Coraline did as directed, slowly coming used to the Sur-real rank after the initial hammer-blow, getting her mind thinking furiously as she scrambled along. Another resounding boom came from far off, seeming to rattle the building, and she was aware of Schroder swearing with shock and the rattle of gunfire in the corridor they had left behind.
"Sur-real field covering the grounds," she panted. "Attack with mixed human and psychephage forces- what sort of psychephage?"
"It has to be powerful," replied Wybie, joining the one-sided conversation. "Powerful enough that a safe room might not be enough to keep it out – not if it could rip the door right off or burn a way through or turn itself gaseous and seep in."
"Then we need weapons and ferroshot," said Maria. "Steel-jacketed rounds won't be enough against something as powerful as that."
The sound of screaming rose suddenly again, redoubled in strength and desperation since the first time it had happened, from what seemed like a number of throats. Schroder, Takeda, and the other agents pressed on, shepherding the three around the outskirts.
"Mr Schroder, we're sharing this building with another psychephage." Coraline injected every note of authority and assurance she could into her voice. "It can't be stopped with normal rounds. You need to get ferroshot. There's a cache in the East Wing by the Ambassador's Chamber, but there'll be some in the Secret Service cache by the stairs..."
"I need to get you to a safe location, and if retrieving appropriate ammunition distracts from that, then we make do with normal shot," said Scroder, overriding Takeda's softly-spoken support.
"The stair cache's right on the Sigma route…" hissed Coraline, but she never got to finish the sentence before a door before them flew in, smashed off its hinges, followed by a dark figure spraying blazing rounds from a weapon in their grasp.
Several of the rounds chopped through one of the agents, and were replied to with concerted and nigh-instantaneous fire from the others, the rounds hammering off the black ceramic-weave armour and sending the figure reeling back before a lucky round punched into a weak area at their throat, putting them down with a heavy thud. But behind them, more attackers loomed, raising their own weapons.
The room became a chopping, churning storm of noise and fury in that instant, the agents dropping and crouching to return fire, with Schroder all but tackling the three to get them out of the way, shoving them to the floor behind a cubicle wall to their right. Rounds smashed through the floor beside Coraline, punching ragged holes through the carpet and floorboards scant inches from her right hand. She leaned oblivious to the danger on her blind side, mind trying to process all the chaotic and disparate input at once.
Wybie shouted, and she didn't hear him. Maria spoke, and she didn't hear her past the din all around them. Adrenaline erupted in her, filling her up with some replenishing fire from the inside.
Making everything sharper.
She twisted where she sat, snatching for a gun from where it had fallen from its user's spasming grip, ignoring Wybie's frantic shouts. She pulled back with it, checking that it was loaded, that it was comfortable for her grip, and that she could support it with one hand. She leaned sharply around the cubicle corner, snapping off a shot that struck across one of the attackers' ankles, recoil sending the next several into the wall. She just as quickly pulled back again as return shots ripped open the floor beside her. Shouts and orders in words she didn't recognise passed her by as she prepared to fire again.
Another explosion seemed to rip through the building, this time from a closer distance, and the cubicle walls pitched and swayed, many of them toppling altogether. The Sur-real stink rose again with renewed potency as fresh screams filtered through, and Coraline fell back against the other two as one of the dark-armoured attackers lunged past a stricken agent, weapon raised and ready to fire as Coraline cursed and tried to realign her own weapon, too slowly, surely too late.
Shots hammered into the figure from the side, hurling the attacker to the ground in a black-and-red tangled mess, and Coraline turned her head to see Hawkwood and Sani charging in from the corridor, their faces drawn and clothes smeared and battered, two handguns blazing in Hawkwood's grasp. The attackers out in the open found themselves outnumbered and attacked from all directions, and Coraline pushed herself forward, her own shots slashing out, lost amidst the others. They fell back, covering themselves as best they could, aided by the strikes against their armour.
The world spun, slowly becoming fragmented as the fire in her veins faded, and Coraline absently noticed a spot of white on the floor next to one of the fallen attackers. A card, with TT marked out on it, which couldn't at this stage come as a surprise.
"That was too close," breathed Hawkwood, striding over to Coraline. "Who's hurt? Who's down?" His gaze scanned the floor, flicking over the wreckage and focusing on the bodies of the two downed agents. He bit briefly at his lip and then turned to Coraline. "Madam President?"
"I'm not hurt," managed Coraline, the post-adrenaline high fading and the flashing lights adding to her nausea. "Neither's Wybie or Maria. Is anyone…?"
"Schroder and Warsi here and Menzies back in the corridor, and four of theirs," said Hawkwood, the words controlled and forcedly-calm. "But they're attacking us from all directions, with several dozen bodies with high-quality small arms. We've got to keep moving. And you may as well keep that gun. The safe house entrance's just down the stairs."
Coraline paused to help up Wybie and Maria, both of whom were familiar with the rush of fighting but who had been unable to act on it, and who were unsettled and tense as a result.
And, Coraline admitted, she hadn't been entirely ready for this either. She had always brought arms to bear psychephages, against creatures that … well, weren't human. That had hurt people. The bodies on the floor were something new, and tied a knot inside her, and she kept her gaze away from them as best she could.
"Just … just down the stairs," she muttered. "Ha, I can do this. Just down this corridor, right? From where they'd come." She put one foot in front of the other, and hesitated.
The Sur-real stink had pulsed again, always in lock-step with the chattering of gunfire and bursts of screams elsewhere in the building, each time growing closer to their position.
"And while we're at it, please get ferroshot from the stair cache," she said. "The psychephage in this building's almost certainly not going to run from normal rounds. It's causing those screams. Listen."
"I hear them," Hawkwood said distractedly. "Sani, take point. Takeda, retrieve the ferroshot from the cache when we reach the stair top. Let's go."
They moved off, stepping over the fallen Tantibalics, the agents moving with their weapons ready, Coraline motioning for Wybie and Maria to pick up weapons for themselves. The short corridor's lights weren't plagued, instead projecting a steady glow utterly at odds with the pandaemonium of the previous room.
The door at the end opened onto the room holding the top of the staircase, whole and unmarked save for a bullet-shattered window. Takeda moved quickly to a painting on the wall facing down towards the stairway. He prised it off and set it down, fiddling with the lock on a revealed compartment while the other agents moved to the side of the rail, angling their weapons down along the stairway and towards the middle landing. The lights in the room likewise worked, but the landing below was cast in shadow.
Coraline took a moment to breath, trying to ignore the growing sickly clamminess. Wybie unselfconsciously checked and re-checked his gun, while Maria paced in the absence of any movement onwards.
"What's the holdup, Mr Takeda?" Hawkwood called after a few minutes. Lightning cracked again outside, making Maria jump, while the distant noise within the White House had settled to a constant rolling background din of shots and shouting and the odd rumble.
"Almost …there, got it," said Takeda triumphantly, opening the compartment to reveal stacked layers of ammunition and weapons, pistols and shotguns and compact motor rifles carefully arranged, with first-aid kits and assorted other equipment in other levels.
"Distribute the ferroshot," said Hawkwood, now on edge as the honeysuckle stink became even more pronounced. Coraline moved forward to procure some, distracted.
Too distracted, just enough to miss the brief flicker of a shadow at the very edge of vision.
A whip of pitch-darkness blurred up from the stairs and slashed into Takeda in less than a heartbeat, clenching into him before anyone could react, and snapping back with one smooth movement, swiping him away from the compartment even as he clawed at the air and screamed, blood misting out of his mouth as he was dragged with unstoppable force down the stairs, hands ripping futilely at the carpeted steps.
"Takeda!" screamed Hawkwood, and he and the other agents opened a volley of fire at the black tendril, shots punching at the floor around it and Takeda, too inaccurate, too late. Takeda was whipped around the edge of the lower landing with a final coherent scream, and blood slashed out in an arc from the unseen point.
Despite's Hawkwood's shouted order to hold their position, one of the agents recoiled, trembling, and the other, Sani, outright vaulted over the railing, shouting Takeda's name. He shouted it once, and then again, only getting halfway through it the second time before it turned into a wet, toneless gurgle. Something ripped in the darkness, and the gurgle in turn stopped.
"To the cache!" shouted Coraline, the fire reignited in a sudden rush of exhilaration and fury, springing on instinct for the compartment now that she had an enemy she could fight, now that some thing had killed two of her people before her. She grabbed at a shotgun and threw it and a handful of the ferroshot rounds in the top right layer of ammunition behind her, trusting Wybie or Maria to get it. She snatched into turn at the pistols, tossing two behind her and keeping on in her grasp, reaching again for more of the weapons.
"Cover the President!" came Hawkwood's call, and he hurled himself in front of Coraline, both handguns held out and aimed down the stairway at whatever waited, seeing nothing but a shadowed landing adorned with lines of blood. Wybie grabbed the shotgun up from the ground and swiftly chambered ferroshot into it, Maria and the other agent grabbed for the pistols.
This time, the psychephage didn't take the direct route.
The shadows on the landing's facing wall twitched, and a shape suddenly slid up it, multi-limbed, distorted and amorphous, with all the matter of pitch-black smoke. Hawkwood opened fire at this latest incursion, shots smashing into the points where the shape had been a split second before, the sound making Coraline spin around to face it. With deathly silence and exact movements, the shape seemed to coil, to gain definite form as it rose - and then twisted again, springing away from the wall and through the air, things like ragged claws and mandibles weaving into the ends of its limbs and into its torso-sized form.
-White flashed briefly as it moved through the air, a mere glimpse against the void of its form, but somehow more chilling and cold and more terrible than anything the darkness could ever hold-
-And then it was on the other agent, twisting past his first frantic shot and ripping into him as it pounced onto his chest, claws ripping at the skin of his throat and mandibles tearing up at his face, red slashing out where it struck.
"Get it off!" screeched the agent, falling back and flailing and screaming his lungs fit to burst with pain and terror as it tore and hunted. "Help me! GetitoffgetitoffgetitoffGETITOFF…"
One sound like shnk cut off his screams of terror, and he flopped to the ground, face unrecognisable and his body limp and still as the creature sprang off him and turned to the others, a low rattling, malevolent with satisfaction and sheer pleasure, coming from its depths.
And in the instant that it held its position, Coraline saw the white again, two points of it at the centre of the creature's form…
And then the lights went out, the soft white flaring and flickering, discordant crimson clashing against it before clashing in turn with black as the creature lunged again.
Images flared and spun in the screaming darkness, lit by the flash of shots and the odd flare from spasmodic emergency lights, Coraline forcing herself to focus on the moving creature, not at all helped by its shapeshifting. Black lines darker than shadow extended and warped, mandibles moulding into something and filled with serrated teeth, pin-points of white shifting in position, the whole thing becoming something lupine that loped with a vicious ease, barrelling past the shots sent its way. Maria opened wild fire, several rounds of ferroshot gliding off the creature and opening white scores against its skin. It paid them little heed and hurled itself at her, teeth bared and white gleaming.
Coraline's own shot caught it, against all probability, right through what was currently its throat. It fell back with a startled hiss, white fire spitting from the wound, and Wybie opened fire with the shotgun, the spray of rounds slashing through the air and ripping into the creature, tearing open blossoming fire-bleeding wounds. The creature scuttled back, given momentum by the impact of the shot, once again producing the eerie rattle, but this time giving it a low undercurrent of fury and hate.
Several rounds of ferroshot had clipped it. Another had punched into its throat. And a full shotgun's worth had smashed right into it.
No way in hell did it have any right to still be alive, thought Coraline. No way in hell could it just be angry.
Hawkwood opened fire with his own guns, the shots lashing into the psychephage to no effect beyond the physical impact, easily shrugged off by whatever horrific strength the creature had on its side.
The rattle resounded, and the lights above went out for good.
And then it attacked again.
It sprang up, indistinct amidst the darkness, as the guns swung up to track it, stabbing blazing light up at empty darkness to no avail before the creature descended upon Hawkwood, teeth tearing into the side of his throat, leaving him too shocked and stunned to react before some thick tendril tore out of its body and crushed around him, constricting him in less than a second, slamming his arms against his side and sending his guns clattering to the ground. He fought to regain enough breath to struggle and fight, but not enough in the brief second before the creature pulled back, hurling him to the floor and dragging him towards it, towards the corridor that led to the offices.
The three charged after it, wary of firing near the pinioned Hawkwood and trying to outrun it, to get a clearer shot. The psychephage rattled again, the noise reinfused with pleasure, and it vanished around the corner, dragging Hawkwood over the slumped bodies and out of sight, as his screams began to rise.
"After that psychephage!" shouted Coraline breaking into a sprint, hands moving automatically to reload her gun, worries forgotten, care unheeded, everything focused to one blazing point of serene clarity. She knew how this worked. "Come on, Department! After Hawkwood! After the damn psychephage! Come on!"
Through the office space, over a wet floor and draped bodies and shattered glass and splintered wood, through darkness that had replaced the red lights, through the door at the other end.
Through to Moloney's office, over more shattered glass and fallen chairs and torn carpeting, past a shattered window from which wild rain entered and beyond which distant fires blazed, through the other door, all but ripped off its hinges.
To the Oval Office.
Or what was left of the Oval Office.
A rocket-strike had caught it at some point when the three and the agents were attempting their escape, ripping open the south wall from floor to ceiling in a settled storm of rubble and glass and blazing wall fragments. The Resolute Desk had been sheared in half, the two pieces fallen forwards. Paintings and drawers and plants lay shattered. The much-vaunted chair had been ripped apart in the blast.
The storm hurled itself in, lightning crashing in the sky past the open wall, cold white-blue light cutting down and colliding off the darkness, save for one part.
The part that was a silhouette, human-shaped and sized, framed against the lightning strike, perched on the rise of the broken wall, which cradled Hawkwood and watched the three as they entered.
It spoke, and when it did, the timbre of its neutral, deep voice almost seemed to echo in the space. "Stormcrow," it said pleasantly. "You will stop where you are."
It was in a position to enforce that order. In two arms it had Hawkwood held securely, one wrapped around him and keeping his limp body upright, the other, with a hand as small as that of a baby's, coloured like pitch and oil, it gently caressed the line of his jaw, ignoring the low moans that came from the man.
The rest of its body was formless below the waist and human-like above it, the whole thing still the colour of shadow, saved for stretched lines of ferroshot-scarring, already fading from brilliant white to a muted grey, some parts already returned entirely to black. A head rose from a slender torso, featureless save for a mouth and eyes, the mouth a gently-curving gash filled with gleaming teeth, the eyes two angled pits of pure, soulless white.
They focused on the three, radiating dread power, the tightening of its arms across Hawkwood emphasising the point.
Coraline stopped where she was, but dropped to one knee, holding the gun out before her and levelling it at the psychephage's exposed head, aware of Wybie and Maria adopting similar poses with their own weapons.
"Let go of Director Hawkwood," she said, her voice cold and carefully level, a contrast with the creature's own unhurried tone. "Let him, and stand down. You will stand down."
"Shall I?" The creature appeared unconcerned. Hawkwood stirred and moaned, and it drew him in tighter, the hand by his neck gently patting him as it crooned softly to him, in the manner of something comforting a terrified child, settling him into quiet sobbing.
"If you don't, there won't be enough left of you to fucking bury," hissed Coraline, keeping the gun straight. "All your friends are dead or run off, by the sounds of it." And it was true; for no other gunfire had come from in or near the White House for a few moments past, though noise still rolled in from the outside world. "We outnumber you. You're in our sights. Let – Hawkwood - go."
The creature's cold eyes regarded her silently, with what almost seemed like mild amusement, as the hand at Hawkwood's neck suddenly jabbed into it, at a point that was red with blood. He screamed and started forward, easily restrained by the creature which pulled him back and resumed the reassuring stroking and crooning, drinking in Hawkwood's helpless panic.
"Yet you have nothing with which to threaten me," the creature said reflectively. "Your weaponry hurt, but it didn't wound, and its hurt did not even last. So why should I let him go, when I can so easily rip the soul from him - and tear each of you apart - and leave here having done exactly what I wished?"
"If you could so easily do that, you would have done it by now," Coraline replied fiercely.
The creature paused, considering the words, its hand still tapping against Hawkwood's neck. "A fair argument."
Its smile curved more sharply, its body became tensed - and then it acted.
The fingers of the hand at Hawkwood's neck lengthened suddenly, the thumb and the fingers arcing around to meet each other tip to tip at his collar bone. They pulled, trailing strands of grey thread that thickened and coiled around each other into rope, rope that turned into a noose that rose and tightened around Hawkwood's throat as the psychephage pulled its arm free. Hawkwood kicked and screamed, but before he or the three could do anything, the creature stretched out with its other arm, sending Hawkwood flying right at the three.
Coraline didn't react quickly enough, and Hawkwood collided with her, knocking the breath from her and smashing her into the floor, making the world spin. She tried to fight her way, sucking in desperate breathes – which caught in her throat when she saw Hawkwood's face.
The noose was left around his throat, and was tightening and writhing of its own volition, sucking out his life and soul, his face desiccating and wrinkling sharply as his screams thinned and died down to a splutter, before dying away altogether.
The most triumphant, insidious rattle yet came from the creature, and it casually stepped forward, legs forming out of the formless shadow of its lower body, all traces of wounds on its form vanishing at the sudden influx of Hawkwood's soul. One hand reached out towards the fallen Coraline.
Wybie fired first, white-hot lines of ferroshot ripping through the air and raking into the creature, which barely turned as one of its arms swatted out and struck away Wybie with bone-breaking force, smashing him into the wall. It moved on, white fire stitching up its side and the angry rattle sounding again.
Coraline heaved Hawkwood's body off her, grabbing for her fallen gun, striving to get to it before the creature reached her. Past her desperation and concern for Wybie and her growing fear of the thing approaching her, she heard the click of an empty gun coming from Maria's direction.
A split second later, there came Maria herself.
She lunged in, smashing her gun's barrel right across the psychephage's face, knocking it back slightly and drawing a hiss of startled pain from it. She kept up the attack, bringing the gun back up and overhead, intending to bring it down on the creature, before the blow was suddenly arrested by one of the creature's outheld arms. For a second, she held that position, unyielding and straining against the immovable arm.
The creature's other arm, lengthened fingers writhing at the end of it, struck out in a blur, cracking into her upper body and sharply folding her as she was hurled back into the wall.
The creature hissed in mixed-parts pain and satisfaction, and turned back to Coraline.
Who had retrieved her gun.
The trigger blurred and snapped, and shot after shot within the space of a second ripped point-blank into the creature's head in a rush of flaring white fire, blasting out one eye, and wreaking hell across the darkness. The creature screeched, a sound of pure anguished fury, and tore forward, blind and raging, and Coraline sprang back from the threshing arms. Her next shot punched right through its centre of mass, and the creature wobbled, briefly, Coraline hardly daring to hope it would finally fall.
It stopped there, and slowly raised its head to regard Coraline with its remaining eye, dark stitching flowing around the white fire to arrest and heal the wounds. It was bristling with anger, with almost uncontrollable fury, but when it next spoke, some note of calculation was holding it back, some occurred notion demanding attention and holding it back.
"The question of what shall ultimately prove the more satisfying has occurred," it purred, in a tone as cold and deadly as a naked blade. "For your flock to be leaderless, without that which could give hope, set adrift in fear-"
Coraline fired again, the round slashing through the air as the creature stepped aside, one of its hands grabbing and seizing hold of the pistol, wrenching it upwards to point uselessly at the ceiling.
"-Or…" And here, it became truly thoughtful, the rage all but gone. "To see their greatest defence and hope fail, slowly. For even her knowledge and power to be futile in the face of every attack, and for terror to take them with no recourse, with no hope of another arising…"
The gun was wrenched free of Coraline's grip and crushed into powder and shredded metal in the thing's hand. Coraline kicked out, her foot striking against what might as well have been a steel lamppost, and the creature swiped out, striking her dismissively to the ground, fireworks exploding in her skull at the impact. Above her, made a blur by the pain, the creature rose, white eyes cold and amused.
"Once your world is nothing, once everything you ever fought for is in ashes, once you are alone," it said, "Then I may bother to return for you."
It turned and stepped away, through the shattered office, over rubble and remains, its passage silent, the sound of its departure only that of the whisper of raindrops as a shadow passed through them.
Coraline slowly rose, her head thick and reeling, seeing that beyond, fires blazed at points in the city. Lightning still arced and crackled in the sky.
Turning to her left, she saw Wybie pulling himself up against the wall, wincing and gasping, clutching himself in the manner of someone with multiple things broken inside him. He twisted his head painfully, meeting her gaze and trying to heave himself upright, using the wall as an insufficient support.
And to her right…
"Maria?" called Coraline, her voice a croak. "Maria?"
Maria was slumped against the wall. Blood blossomed out of three ragged holes in her upper body, points where the creature's claws had bored right through her. Her mouth opened and closed, blood starting to trickle out in thin rivulets, her eyes wide and frantic with pain.
Pain ceased to matter. "Maria!" Coraline pulled herself up, staggering over to Maria's side, her hands fumbling off her coat and tugging for any give, anything that could be ripped away and turned into a bandage, anything to stop that blood. She dropped to her knees beside Maria, one finger rushing to her neck to check for a pulse while her other continued to worry at the coat.
"That … I can't … doesn't, ah, make sense…" Every other word that came out of Maria's mouth was indistinct, wet and toneless save for slight confusion. "Can't…doesn't…"
"Maria, stay with us. Stay with us! You're going to be okay if you hang on, once we get a medic, and you'll get to return so many favours to whatever the hell that was. Stay, please! Wybie, call for a goddam medic! Where are the medics?"
"…Fear," came the whisper. "…That would make sense. Can't think why … not before …" Her eyes turned up towards Coraline, confused and swimming. "It doesn't…"
Behind her, Wybie's voice boomed for a medic, indistinct in his own pain but still strong. Coraline paid it little attention.
"Doesn't…" came Maria's voice, soft and getting softer. "Doesn't … damn it, ah, doesn't … does…"
She took a ragged breath, while lightning crashed and Wybie called frantically and Coraline implored her to keep going.
She took another ragged breath.
The flashes of light from the dark sky cut down in cold slivers across the ruined office, shining over fragments of glinting glass, over the droplets of blood on the floor, over the people and the bodies inside. On Wybie, standing with a gasp of pain and several laboured steps, over Coraline, wide-eyed and unbelieving. Over Hawkwood, his form shrunken, wrinkled, cold. And over Maria, her body slumped, her front red, her open eyes staring at nothing at all.