The Princess’s monsters never reached horde size, and they never swarmed. After ten minutes or so, they stopped showing up, and we killed the rest without difficulty. I guess she got bored.
I made a mental note to explain everything about them to Adam later. At least he had stopped asking questions, and focused on the screamers. Akane and Ling would of course know everything already, and the retinue likely knew more than I did, with a changeling among their number.
Derek gave the order to move out, and we traveled the last couple blocks in the same formation as before. It quickly became apparent that the screamers were migrating away from us slowly, and they had already been through this away. Most of the cars were on fire, and all the lower-level stores had their windows shattered. There were surprisingly few bodies, which made sense; if the disease could really spread through a song, there would be a lot more zombies than before.
What really worried me, more than an infection we couldn’t protect against, was that the screamers seemed to have a purpose this time. Did that mean that whoever was behind this could actually control them directly?
I shied away from that thought. Something to worry about later.
For the time being, the song was the problem. I didn’t know anything concrete, obviously, but we might be able to rig up some sort of headphones to filter it out with MC’s help. But we definitely didn’t have anything like that on hand. Hopefully, those of us with powers would still be immune to infection, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Eventually we caught up with the horde, staying about a hundred yards behind them—close enough to observe, but hopefully far enough so they didn’t detect our presence.
“They’re chasing a crowd,” Derek cursed quietly. Don’t ask me how I could hear him over the sound of the screaming still echoing in my brain. It was like it was a sixth sense, separate from hearing. It didn’t interfere with my hearing any more than my sight did.
“We need more information before we do anything,” I advised. I turned to the fel, Katherine. “Can you scout ahead?” I didn’t mean it as an order, I honestly wasn’t sure if she had the ability. But she just nodded, slung her rifle over one shoulder, and started climbing up the side of the closest building.
A few minutes after she disappeared from view, Kelly got a text.
“Most of the crowd is safe with some Necessarians,” she reported. “They’ve set up a barricade, but it won’t last. There are other nests of survivors, but they’re getting picked off quickly.”
“Powers?” Derek asked with a grunt.
Kelly didn’t text anything; I assume she had it on speaker. After a moment, her cell vibrated again, and she frowned.
“Fire,” she said. She flipped the phone shut. “Don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
“Range,” Akane whispered, before falling silent again. She was getting better, but this was obviously still far too many new people for her to feel comfortable with.
Ling nodded in assent. “They probably have longer range than the biters. Which means…” she paused. “…ah. I’m not sure.”
“It means this won’t be the turkey shoot it was last time,” I finished for her. “Depending on how smart they are, this may be more than we can handle. But the real problem is those singers the Princess mentioned. Do you see any?”
It took almost a minute for Kelly’s phone to vibrate again. “’I see some that could be singing,’” she recited. “’But I can’t tell for sure. They’re just standing around, and the screamers are ignoring them. Should I advance?’”
“No,” I said quickly. Maybe too quickly. “We don’t know enough. Hold position, but be prepared to take them out on my order.”
Derek frowned at me. “You’re worried about the singers.”
I nodded, not afraid to admit it. “We don’t have enough information. For all we know, the Princess was just babbling nonsense.”
“That’s unlikely,” Jarasax put in. “The fey are crazy, sure, but they’re not actively delusional.” He shrugged. “It’s probably some metaphor we don’t understand.”
Well, he’d know. The Blood-Doused Hunters were changelings, escaped fey-slaves experimented on by their deranged captors. They knew more about the fey than anyone else alive.
“We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” Derek decided quickly. “Kelly, take the retinue—and Adam—to another ‘scraper. Somewhere you have a good vantage point, but can’t hear the singers. Set your cells to record, too, just in case.” He flipped out his phone, doing as he suggested. The rest of us followed suit. “I’m guessing the rest of us are immune, but we’ll go in one by one, just in case. I’m on point. Everyone else, pattern Red.”
He headed off, and Akane waited a minute before following, ten yards behind. Ling shrugged and followed her.
I considered disobeying his implied order; I didn’t owe him anything, and I might be more useful with the retinue. But they were experienced soldiers who could take care of themselves. I had a feeling that these singers were going to be confusing enough if I saw them with my own eyes. If I tried to get a second-hand description, I’d never learn anything.
So I followed Ling, and heard the retinue splitting off to the right—away from the skyscraper Katherine had chosen. I resolutely focused on what was in front of me.
We dodged around more burning cars and eventually reached an impromptu road block made from a bunch of large trucks parked as close as possible. These were also abandoned, and also on fire. Clambering over the parts that weren’t burning, we finally came face to face with the horde.
A hundred yards away, barely able to see them, that was one thing. Actually being in the thick of them…that was another entirely.
Their screams were deafening at this range; I clapped my hands over my ears, and even Derek had to resort to hand signals, though they didn’t react as violently as me. After a moment, I began to get used to the massive background noise, and lowered my hands.
There were more than last time; maybe a thousand, crowding around the intersection and crawling over wrecked cars like so many ants. They didn’t pay any mind to the flames, making it obvious they had some form of heat resistance in addition to everything else, and threw themselves at the few redoubts of humanity left.
Best as I could tell, there were four, besides the main ‘sarian bulwark directly in front of us and across the street. Some of the larger shops, mostly the ones without large windows to break through, periodically spat hails of gunfire at the approaching zombies. They responded with actual fire, grabbing it up from nearby cars and tossed it like snowballs.
“We’ll have to split up,” Derek admitted resolutely. Saw that coming. “I’ll take far left. Akane, you take far right. Ling, other left. Laura, other right.” He gave me a level stare. “Don’t be afraid to fall back to the Necessarians.” He paused. “In fact, you should just do that. We’ll take point C after the others.”
I want to make this clear: I am an intelligent woman. I knew he had the right idea. Splitting up our forces in the first place was a bad idea, but a necessary one. Sending me off to fight was virtually a death sentence, however. My combat skills were sharply limited. Even with the new athletic enhancements my powers gave me, I wasn’t much, and I was pretty sure the screamers had that as part of their power sets as well, so that was hardly an advantage.
But I don’t like being doubted, especially not by Derek Huntsman.
I didn’t even bother saying anything, I just ran off, weaving through the horde and ignoring the cries of my companions.
Apparently the screamers were more surprised than my comrades; it took them a moment to react. But I noticed instantly when they did: Flame swept towards me from all directions, most in the form of those fireballs I had seen earlier, but some came at me in great sheets, as if it was a living thing. I could taste the acrid smell of smoke, but I didn’t choke or cough. I’m not sure if that was because I was running so fast, or if it was another aspect of the package we hadn’t noticed. Either way, I made a mental note for later.
I just ran blindly ahead, dodging around the worst of it, heading for the old hardware store Derek had designated point C. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get around the barricade, at least not with a few hundred screamers trying to roast me, but a refrigerator that was blocking the way suddenly moved aside, revealing an entrance. I dove inside, and heard the fridge shoved back into place. I leaned against it and slid to the floor, breathing heavily. The smoke smell wasn’t as strong here, but it still leaked in.
“Honored Paladin, are you all right?”
I opened my eyes slowly to survey the survivors, about twenty in all, all armed. Most had pistols and other small arms, but a few of the bigger guys were lugging around nailguns, and the air compressors required to make them work. Probably weighed a hundred pounds each.
Most of them were baselines, but there were a few vampires, a demon or two, and a single ursa—the one who was talking to me.
He was a big melano, a panda kemo, and one of the first full anthros I’d seen up close, other than Katherine. They had only become feasible in the last few months or so, but this guy moved in his giant body with the grace of long practice. He was one of the ones with the nailguns, the compressor slung across his shirtless (but very furry) back. He was holding out his paw to me, and I took it, careful to avoid the claws, and pulled myself to my feet.
“Thank you, Honored Hunter,” I said carefully, returning his politeness. Melanos had a reputation as diplomats, and I didn’t want to offend him. I glanced around, frowning. “I thought this was ursa territory. Where are your packmates?”
He grunted. “Gone,” he said bluntly in a voice like crushed gravel. “Dead or screaming, I’m sure.” He gestured to the barricade. “They ran outside to fight the horde, claiming they wouldn’t let zombies stomp over their neighborhood. Most of them were melee fighters though, and if what the news said is true, that means they’ll just end up infecting themselves.”
“More than likely,” I agreed sadly. The ursas weren’t a true gang, of course; Butler made sure those were all dead and buried, although the Rahabs were putting up a fight. But subcultures often formed…militias, for lack of a better word, and as long as they didn’t break Necessarian law, they were allowed to do as they pleased.
“Have you seen—ah…” I paused. How do describe them? Something was tickling the back of my mind, distracting me from finding the words. That was it; the smell of smoke was getting stronger. I pushed it aside. “I haven’t seen them myself, so I’m not sure how to ask.”
The melano raised an eyebrow. “The singers, you mean?”
I blinked, surprised, and nodded.
“Yes, we’ve seen them. And to answer your next question, yes, their song makes screamers.” He patted his belt, and for the first time I noticed a bulky pair of headphones—identical to the pairs every other survivor had. “It’s hardly ideal, of course, but not being able to hear anything is better than turning into a zombie.”
“I agree completely,” I said with relish. “I was trying to think of a way to get around that problem, but I didn’t have time. Ah,” I paused as a thought occurred to me. “You did test it, right?”
He nodded. “Only way we could; singer came in, and we survived.” He turned to one of the vampires. “Drake, go fetch another pair for the paladin. They should be in the storeroom.” The man in question sped off.
That’s about when the barricade exploded.
It wasn’t the refrigerator, thankfully, but the stack of pipes to my left, thrown aside by a gout of roaring flame. I rolled to my right, but I couldn’t see anything through the smoke and flame. I heard the melano cursing, and I heard gunfire and a curious ‘thwip’ sound which I assumed was the nailguns.
I got a good look as the smoke blew aside for a moment; the survivors were hunkered down behind a secondary barricade, headphones on. They popped up every couple seconds to fire a few shots, then dropped down before a fireball flew towards their heads.
The area they were shooting at was so choked with smoke and blowing ash I had no idea what was going on. But every once in a while flame would rip out of the concealment, either in wild sheets or controlled bolts. And of course there was still the screaming, but it was so loud it didn’t help pin down the zombies’ location in the slightest.
I was off the the side, out of the line of fire (no pun intended), but the screamers would notice me sooner or later. I needed a place to hide.
But there was an entire horde outside, pouring in through the breach. There was no way they would stop as long as the hole in our defenses was open.
There was nothing I could do. There wasn’t anything I could use to plug the gap other than the fridge—which, even if I could move (doubtful), was already sealing one hole. The only thing that might work was bringing the ceiling down, but I didn’t have anything powerful enough to have a hope in that direction.
It all depended on whether this building had a wood frame or not. Most structures in Domina didn’t, for about a thousand reasons, but some of the older ones did. The only question was whether this place just looked old or if it actually was.
I started kicking at one of the walls with the heel of my foot, trying to break through. After a moment, my suspicious were confirmed: My foot broke through the sheetrock, and rooting around inside I saw the wooden frame the store was built from.
Technically, at this point I just needed to wait for the screamers to finish the job for me. But every second I wasted increased the chances of more survivors dying, both here and at the other redoubts. So I dodged past the second barricade, diving deeper into the store.
I almost barreled into the young vampire the melano had sent for my headphones.
“Honored Paladin!” he exclaimed, clearly surprised. He fumbled for the headphones. “I’m sorry I took so long—”
“No time for that! We’re under attack!”
His jaw dropped, but he recovered quickly, moving to put his headphones on at the same time he reached for his pistol. Good lad, but I stopped him.
“I have a plan,” I explained to his questioning look. “How well do you know the store?”
“Pretty good,” he said slowly. “I started working here about a month ago.”
I nodded. “Good. Where are the hoses? If you sell squirt guns, that would be better.”
“Garden supplies, aisle—”
He ran off, farther from the front, and I followed closely behind. When it came right down to it, this was a stupid plan, but weren’t they all?
Luck was with us; the store sold squirt guns after all. There weren’t many left—we were heading into winter—but I grabbed a couple of the bigger ones, and Drake did the same.
“Now, where’s your gasoline?”
He blinked. “What?”
“Gasoline! Lighter fluid! Something liquid and flammable!”
He sped off towards the camping department, and we grabbed a couple cans of lighter fluid. We busted them open—they had locks to keep people from siphoning them in the store, and we didn’t have time to find any keys—and filled the squirt guns.
“Okay, back to the front.” I ran off, lugging the suddenly much heavier guns, and he followed half a pace behind. He stopped for a moment, but I didn’t have time to turn, and he caught up anyway.
As expected, the fight was still raging, although now the acrid tinge of burned flesh was in the air. The defenders looked relatively unharmed, so the only other explanation was that the screamers lost their fireproofing upon death. Interesting.
But I didn’t have time to ponder; the smoke cloud was bigger than before, and the fire was coming more and more often. I took aim above the opening and unleashed a stream of lighter fluid at it.
As expected, the bigger guns did have more pressure; it reached its target easily, and quickly caught on fire. It petered out at the end, but I just tossed that near-empty gun into the knot of screamers (which I still couldn’t actually see) and used up my second gun.
I tossed that one away when it was empty as well, and turned to grab another gun from Drake. He had put on his headphones (smart lad) and he handed me the gun without question. I nodded, and we both fired against the same spot.
The roof—at least the part above the entrance the screamers had created—was unquestionably on fire now, and I waved for the vampire to fall back to the barricade. I searched around for a fire extinguisher and found it by the cash register before retreating back to the other defenders. It wouldn’t do to survive a zombie horde and then die because I lit the roof on fire.
It took about ten minutes, during which the fire on both sides of the bulwark never ceased, but I eventually began to hear the tortured groaning of weakening wood coming from the doorframe.
Another five minutes and the groans became more pained and more obvious. There was no mistaking it now; the roof was coming down.
I moved to where the defenders could see me (they were all still wearing their headphones) and indicated a retreat. I headed into the back first, to make sure it stayed a retreat rather than a panicked rout, and they followed close behind. After we had reached sufficiently deep in the store, and I had found a good chokepoint, I indicated they stop and set up, which they did without hesitation.
I heard the roof come down clearly, even at this distance. It sounded like the entire building was collapsing, and our little hallway shook noticeably. Dust—not ash, dust—billowed in from the corridor leading to the front, and the defenders paused in their preparations, concerned. The melano walked up to me, taking off his headphones, but I shook my head and indicated they stay put.
I advanced back to the front of the store slowly, my pistol out. I couldn’t hear any screamers nearby, but I had learned during the mission with the biters that our sixth sense wasn’t very reliable on pinpointing them with that degree of accuracy. Admittedly, I couldn’t hear any with my good old fashioned ears, either, which was a good sign, but it didn’t necessarily mean the way was clear.
As I crept closer, I began to hear something. It took me a few minutes to figure it out, as it became more clear with each passing moment. Eventually, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know what it was anymore. The words were meaningless, but it was still obvious.
There was a singer in the store.
I considered falling back, if only to grab those headphones, but decided against it. Someone had to figure out if we were immune, and if I didn’t risk it, Derek would. When it came right down to it, I was the least useful member of the team. Strategists were cheap; we still had no idea how to empower people.
But still, some precautions were needed. I spoke into my still-on cell phone, which I had left as a recording device. It would dump all its sensor data (mostly just sound) to one of MC’s caches.
“MC, I’m confronting a singer. If I turned into a screamer, stop the recording now.”
Properly prepared, I turned the corner into the entryway and found…
Well, first off, the room was half the size it had been just minutes before. Half the roof had come down, centered on where the doorframe had been, with likely more falling on the horde outside. A sloped pile of shifting rubble took up most of the space, with the rest filled with dust, spinning in the air.
And there, standing ankle-deep in broken chunks of sheetrock and not two feet from a piece of a wooden beam bigger than she was, was the singer.
She was beautiful, I’ll admit. She had that quiet, natural beauty so many people lack, to the point that even covered in a fine layer of dust and ash, rendering her skin and hair colors impossible to discern, she was still gorgeous.
She barely seemed to take note of my presence, preferring instead to sing. I’m not all that musical, but even I could tell it was a difficult song, straining her vocal range to the fullest. She chose mostly higher notes, but dipper deeper as well. There were lyrics too, but it wasn’t any language I recognized. I only spoke three languages, but I have familiarity with a dozen more. Her words didn’t ring any bells.
I was just wondering what to do when I heard a voice behind me. “How are you still sane?”
I turned to see the big melano and the other defenders, still wearing their headphones, staring at me. That was when I realized that he was right; assuming the song worked anywhere near as fast as touching blood or saliva, I should definitely have turned by now.
I just shrugged. I didn’t know what to say, and they wouldn’t have been able to hear me anyway.
“Oh, so it doesn’t make you crazy anymore?” a little black boy, no more than fifteen, said a little too loudly. He was in the middle of the crowd. “That’s good.” He took off his headphones.
“No!” I cried, diving forward. The survivors reacted similarly, crying out in alarm and training their weapons on him. The second he got his ear protection all the way off, a huge smile plastered itself on his face.
“It’s so…beautiful…” he whispered.
Huh. That was odd. I mean, the singer’s song was pretty, in a weird sort of way, but not the mind-numbingly beautiful he seemed to be experiencing.
Any scientific curiosity quickly was quickly drowned out when the boy started screaming, the same wordless, emotionless sound the other zombies made. The melano immediately tackled him to the ground, before anyone could shoot him, protecting him with his own body whether intentionally or not.
We had to get him off first. And we had to do it quickly. The burners didn’t bite very often, but he would eventually, and then we’d have two screamers in our midst. And if someone just shot the boy, his blood would still infect the melano.
The singer was still singing, completely oblivious. I swore loudly and shot her in the head.
I should be more specific: I raised my gun with one hand and tried to shoot her in the head. Even if she hadn’t dodged, I don’t think I would have hit her. Using a gun one-handed is hard enough for people who actually have training and experience.
But regardless, she did dodge, some self-preservation mechanism finally kicking in. She swept her hands forward, still singing, and some embers in the bits of wood in the pile of rubble glowed brighter. With a start, I realized she was trying to use the same powers as the current batch of screamers.
But I had the advantage: I had an 8-shot clip only missing one round. So I just gripped the gun with both hands, squared my shoulders, and emptied the magazine at her center of mass.
She dodged the first, but then one clipped her in the leg, and the next five got her good. She collapsed in a heap like a rag doll, the dust still spinning in the air from our brief fight. Finally, the singing stopped, and it was quiet, except for the screamers outside. I fell to my knees, breathing heavily.
Looking down, I watched a drop of sweat roll off my nose and hit the ground. It made a small explosion in the dust.
I breathed deeply, but my heart refused to slow down.
It was quiet.
Except for the screamers.
I jumped up instantly and ran back to the survivors. They were staring down at the boy with utter astonishment.
He was alive, that much was clear. He was looking around, bewildered, and he wasn’t screaming.
“What happened?” I asked quickly, as I peeled the boy’s eyelid back. I didn’t have a light to do a full test, but his pupils seemed normal.
The melano answered. “It was when you killed the singer. He just…stopped screaming.”
The boy was still looking around; I grabbed his head and made him face me. “What’s your name? Do you know where you are?”
He swallowed. “I’m…Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords,” he said slowly. “And this is the hardware store I came to, looking for a power screwdriver.”
Wonderful, another changeling. The Princess had clearly been active in this area. “Alright Loga, that’s good. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I saw you facing the singer without headphones, Honored Paladin, so I took mine off. Then…” he frowned. “I…can’t remember what happened next.”
I nodded. “That’s fine. That’s very good.” I let him go and stood up, turning to the melano. “Take care of him, I need to make a call.”
I could barely keep it together, I was shaking so badly. A cure! Not for everyone, certainly, the singers would have to die, but that was far better than just killing everything. I pulled out my phone, turned off the recording function, and called MC.
“Priority one message for the real MC,” I said before the program had a chance to speak. “From Laura Medina, regarding the screamers.”
“Laura,” MC said within seconds, her voice as smooth as milk chocolate. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll explain later. I don’t have the retinue’s phone numbers. I need you to send them all a message: Kill the singers, all at once if possible, as soon as possible.”
There was a brief pause. “Done. I also put their numbers in your cell. Er…that okay?”
I chuckled briefly. “Yeah. Thanks.” I hung up, tired beyond belief.
That might be it. That might be the end. Oh, not quite, of course. We’d still need to hunt down the other singers whenever they reappeared, but we had a cure for the screamers. A better one than a bullet to the head. And it was possible…
My phone rang again. I picked it up; it was MC.
“They did it,” she reported. She didn’t say anything else.
“…and?” I asked slowly.
“And nothing. The singers are all dead, but the screamers didn’t go crazy or lose their specs. Was that your aim?”
I broke down crying.
Behind the Scenes (scene 17)
Note that the screamers here are not the same strain as the one the group first encountered. She was a pyrogenesist; she had the power to create fire, and a secondary power to give her a general idea of how it would act. The ones here are pyrokineticists, who can control fire. If they were powerful enough, they could rip heat out of thin air, but they’re not, so they’re limited to controlling open flames. The Composer was happy to provide.