"Well, elevator's destroyed. Figures. Danila, the stairs?" Dad asks.

"Blocked by rubble, at least here," Danila says from further down the hall.

Of course. Because the easy way straight down to the archives was certain to be blocked. At least we hadn't seen any Librarians yet. My Gift helped, letting us know when the creatures were close and helping us take detours to avoid them.

In fact, beyond the occasional body of some Stalker with more daring than sense, we haven't found anything. What they thought to get out of the HQ, I'm not sure. Most of the tinkertech and resources ended up in the hands of the Republican Guard that had grown out of the PRT, and what's left- copper wiring, shell casings, the remnants of circuitry and the rare few intact pieces of machinery- aren't worth going anywhere near the Librarians.

Maybe they were looking for the bunker's location, just like us. There's plenty of rumors about it, and Stalkers never were the most skeptical sort. They can't afford to be, since with ghosts and other strange things infesting the Metro and the surface- and I don't even want to know what the hell is going on with the Rig- any sort of myth or legend could turn out to be true. Hell, I've heard that Venice is ruled by a dragon who sleeps atop the pile of bullets and useless gold his men take as 'protection money' from passers-by. Probably a particularly powerful Gifted, but who the hell knows?

"Alright, alright," Dad mutters to himself, consulting the floor plans he'd brought. "Here. There's another staircase, doesn't go straight to the archives but it does go into the first basement level. We can try that."

"Could be worse. The Librarians could decide that we're tasty," Danila jokes.

I feel a spark of interest from the closest of the apelike creatures at the same time a rumbling roar echoes through the air.

"Really, Danila? Really?" I mutter.

"Okay, Artyom, when you see one of them, look them in the eyes. You turn your back, or shoot them, we're as good as dead, but stare them down and they might leave you be," Dad explains quickly as we start moving. Not running. Slow, careful, eyes peeled. My hand leaves my gun's grip, pointing like a compass needle as I feel the Librarians move out, surrounding us.

"Although, it's not much help if they've decided you're dinner already, like this," Danila adds with a chuckle.

Corridor after corridor. Room after room checked, and yet the damn things don't close in. Why? What's their-

"There! The stairwell!" Dad shouts, cutting off my train of thought. How the hell...okay, this wasn't that big a building, but still.

Focus, Taylor. The Librarians are still hanging around, both sides of the hall. Waiting. So many, their echoes crowding each other out when they're this close together, close enough to human to make my ears ring at the noiseless cacophony-

Focus dammit.

I snarl, and point my Barrett down the hall, waiting for the first Librarian to appear.

"Danila, the door," Dad says, as we halt at the end of the hallway. "Artyom, Taylor, cover us."

Wait. The end of the hallway. The Librarians on all sides.

Oh no.

"It's jammed!" Danila cries, before a massive arm, thick with muscle and bone, bursts through the barely-opened stairwell door, grabbing him by the head. The walls on both sides crumble as the Librarians force their way through, arms punching through plaster and cheap concrete with ease. Dad's Hellbreath goes off and Danila cries in pain, but his echoes are still strong while the one of the Librarian- the Librarian I'd failed to notice, so occupied was I with the ones on all sides- falls downward. A grenade sounds like a thunderclap behind us, a farewell gift for anyone seeking to follow.

My hands are moving of my own accord, firing into the mass of flesh, and my ears are ringing as Artyom does the same, burning money as he empties military ammunition into the Librarians rushing to meet us.

Danila and Dad add their own fire, bullets and ball bearings and grenades and molotovs, burning flame and hot lead. And it's not enough. They keep coming, over their own dead, armored hides and thick bone turning aside lead shot and keeping them from bleeding out fast enough to kill them, no matter the holes that tear through them. The leap over the flames, using support beams as monkey bars. The grenades stop sections but there's always more.

We're going to die here.

I'm sorry, Hunter.

A whistle cuts through the air, and everything seems to stop. The Librarians, Dad, Danila, Artyom, everything. I lower my rifle and stand- when had I crouched?- as a figure in heavy furs pushes past the Librarians.

The Librarians move to let her through.

"Один з обдарованих," Artyom mutters. Russian? Where did he…?

"Why are you here?" the figure asks, and I focus. Heavily built, could have been mistaken for a man behind that mask- a mask made from a Librarian's skull, and I'd bet those furs are of similar origin- if not for her voice. It's raspy, but it's too high to be a man's. "You're coming close to home."

"We're here for some maps. Nothing more," Dad says.

"You want to go below?"

She's not wearing a gas mask. What is she, that she can survive up here without one? I reach out…

The Librarians snarl, and the woman's head whips towards me. "Stop."

I stop, standing, backing away, but keeping my eyes on hers. After a moment, she nods. "Hmph. Spine."

She looks back at Dad. "What you want maps for?"

"The New Men. They're coming for the stations, and we need to hit them first."

"Hmph. New Men. Weak, hiding behind their minds." She points at Artyom, then at me. "You two. Stay. Silver man, you and the boy go down. Harm our nests, we will kill you, but otherwise do what you need to, understand?"

"Yes, Ms…"

"Alpha."

She's Gifted. Has to be, to be up here. That's the only explanation that makes sense. Something to give her the powers to survive, to command the Librarians. Or perhaps she won it by strength.

Dad and I exchange looks. Then he nods to Alpha. "The stairwell…?"

"Safe. Go."

He and Danila depart.

Leaving me and Artyom alone with the Gifted and a dozen Librarians.

Wonderful.