Derek and Akane were waiting for me when I got out of class. They both looked somber, which was surprising. All things considered, I had always found it interesting how well they handled their responsibilities.
“Who died?” I asked jokingly, and immediately regretted it. In this city, that was a very real possibility.
But Derek smiled a little. “Nobody. It’s just…” he hesitated. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
Wonderful. Now they were keeping secrets.
Well, I wasn’t really concerned. They’d tell me or they wouldn’t, and nothing I said would change their minds.
“You ready to go?” I asked. I already had my guns with me, so I didn’t need anything else.
He nodded. “Yeah, we are. And the gargant is just a block south of school, so we can walk.”
We started in the direction he indicated. “Is anyone else coming?”
He shook his head. “The retinue is a little busy, and I don’t really want to deal with Ling right now. Besides, it’s a brick-plated gargant. They’re tough, but slow and not very dangerous.”
I adjusted my backpack over my shoulder. “I thought you said all gargants were dangerous.”
“Not very dangerous for a gargant,” he amended. “Keep your guard up and we’ll be fine.”
I shrugged. Seemed simple enough.
We caught the creature’s trail pretty quickly. Derek was right; it wasn’t really doing very much damage. A lot of smashed shop windows, a few pummeled cars, but no bodies. People knew to stay out of the way, and that was enough to keep them safe. Of course, property damage isn’t cheap, which is why somebody had hired Derek for this job in the first place.
This was giant territory, if I remembered right, but it was only barely within their domain. We could probably get help if we called, but Derek didn’t think we needed it. Besides, we’d lose most of the bounty that way. There wasn’t anyone around, anyway, and it would be too much of a hassle to find someone who hadn’t run for their lives. No, we had to do this ourselves, and that was that.
We followed the trail through a couple a alleys that reminded me uncomfortably of the crawler gargants (without the slime, thankfully), eventually coming out in a small square with a fountain and four small trees at the corners. Although the place looked nice, it had probably been abandoned even before monsters moved in. The surrounding buildings were too tall and blocked most of the sunlight, while at the same time letting enough in that vampires would find it uncomfortable.
The gargants, however, seemed to love the place. They were happily slurping up water from the fountain, and a couple of the trees were missing branches, presumably where the monsters had taken a nibble.
And it was monsters, plural. Only three, sure, but that’s still two more than we were expecting, and with gargants that’s something to be worried about. I was beginning to wonder if the stupid mission briefing was ever right.
Brick-plated gargants, as the name implied, were covered in chunks of brick and stone, which made them look like mobile, poorly constructed buildings. They secreted some weird chemical from their skin that acted as glue, but only for porous, brick-like materials.
Unlike the steel-plated gargant of last week, these were a more sane size, more like very large dogs or wolves than the monstrosities I had been expecting. They were broader than dogs, but other than that the comparison was an apt one. They even panted, their mouths open and their tongues rolling slobber over the bricks of their heads. Speaking of which, I didn’t see any eye holes. Did they operate solely by sound, or something else?
Still, even with their stout forms and blindness, these things were almost taller than me and about half that wide, so they could be dangerous if by nothing other than pure luck. We’d need to be careful. I started loading up the armor-piercing slugs Turgay had sold me for my Saint George as quietly as I could.
Derek glanced at me sideways. “Those that god slayer I’ve been hearing so much about?”
“No, just teflon,” I assured him. “Wasn’t there only supposed to be one gargant?”
Akane answered with a shrug. “Poster only saw one. It happens.”
“We’ll get paid appropriately,” Derek promised.
I raised an eyebrow. “With or without threatening our employer?”
He smiled a little. “Without, hopefully.”
I shrugged. “More’s the pity.” I finished loading my shotgun with a mechanical click. “You two ready? We can go grab some giants if we need help.”
“This is Thor territory,” Derek muttered, a frustrated look on his face. “They don’t really feel like playing nice right now.”
None of the cultures were feeling particularly sociable after the debacle at Bombed Alley, but the hellions and Aesir were definitely the worst. If the rumors on the internet were anything to go by—and Laura assured me they were—all the gangs were falling back to their homes and fortifying their defenses. Hopefully that would be useful against screamers, but that’s not the reason they were doing it.
They smelled a war coming.
Back to the gargants. They hadn’t noticed us yet, or didn’t care. Derek indicated I should head left, while Akane took the right flank and he came right up the middle.
The beasts grunted, sniffing the air, and we all froze. They edged in our direction a little, perhaps noticing the change in the wind, but soon returned to the fountain and continued drinking.
I glanced at Derek. What should we do? But he was frowning, indecisive. From what I had seen of his fighting style, I knew he normally waited for the opponent to strike, and then took advantage of any openings in their defense. He didn’t like attacking first.
If the gargants knew we were there, they definitely didn’t care. Because they stopped drinking and started mating.
I’m being unnecessarily crude. It was actually pathetic to watch. These things were never designed to mate with each other. Their sex organs (if they even still had them) weren’t anywhere they could use them; they were buried underneath the bricks.
Not that it would have mattered if they had been able to manage it. Laura had explained that each gargant was unique, handcrafted by the fey. There were set patterns, of course, but each beast was different. Some of those changes were genetic, but not many. Even if one gargant managed to get another pregnant, at best the resulting baby would just be a mildly altered animal.
Still, it didn’t really seem like a good idea to intrude. Animals get angry when interrupted, and we’d have enough trouble even if they were relatively docile.
Derek seemed to feel otherwise. “Silver and gold, we don’t have time for this. Akane.”
She nodded and blurred forward. The gargant she was aiming at turned curiously, ignoring its mate, but wasn’t able to stop her as she bounded atop its head and plunged her sword into the brick at the top of its skull.
The beast howled in pain (confirming my suspicions that they were originally some kind of dog) and thrashed, trying to shake the swordswoman loose. But Akane’s blade appeared to be stuck, and she wasn’t in any mood to let go.
The other two monsters would make that decision for her soon enough. Alerted by their companion’s violent motions, they broke off their futile attempts to mate and barreled forward.
Derek had been waiting for this. Before they could get close enough to Akane to be dangerous, he ran straight up to the leading gargant, grabbed its lolling tongue, and ripped it to the side.
I half expected the thing to get completely torn out, but Derek isn’t that strong. Besides, that wasn’t his goal. The tongue is a vulnerable muscle, and if something grabs it, you pretty much have to go where they want.
So Derek was able to crash both brick-plated gargants into each other very easily.
They collided with a sound like…well, like a bag of bricks tumbling to the ground. They howled in pain, wrestling with each other, and we were able to turn our attentions back to Akane’s beast.
It tried to slam her into the ground, but couldn’t turn its head enough to manage it. She did finally get her sword free, though, and backflipped off as if it was the easiest thing in the world.
That stupid power package. Made them look ridiculously perfect.
Whatever. We needed to be quick, before it recovered. I already had my shotgun ready, so I took careful aim at it’s brick-plated skull and fired.
The tungsten slugs didn’t have the same ridiculous power as the god slayer, but they were hardly something to sneeze at. In fact, the real issue with them was overpenetration. On most targets, they’d just go straight through without dealing major damage.
A gargant is not like most targets. It is a massive lump of flesh and bone, with little chance of the bullet overpenetrating. As long as it’s a direct hit and breaches the armor, any weapon will mess up the insides quite a bit. The first problem is breaching the armor, but I had that covered.
The second problem was that it was a massive lump of flesh and bone. No matter what I hit it with, it was going to take more than one shot to take it down.
The beast screamed in pain as my slug buried itself right between its eyes. It was badly injured, no question, and I might have even hit the brain, but it was still very dangerous. It shook itself, bellowed its rage, and charged forward, its maw open to take as big a bite out of me as it could.
I dodged to the left at the last second and the gargant slammed into the skyscraper behind me, sending up a massive cloud of vaporized sheetrock. The creature moaned in pain, and I nearly felt sorry for it.
“Derek!” I heard Akane call.
I turned back just in time to see one of the other two beasts slam into Derek full force, grinding him down into the concrete of the small square. I was surprised he hadn’t used his powers, until I saw the reason: The other gargant was harassing Akane, and he was projecting a glowing blue barrier around her, rather than himself. Heroic to the end.
As the beast bellowed again and ground its bricks against my friend, I assumed the shield would flicker and die. It didn’t. It stayed strong, as though this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Not having a power myself, I wasn’t really sure how hard that actually was, but it certainly looked impressive.
No time for lollygagging. I had to save Derek.
I raised my shotgun again, but I heard a sound behind me as my gargant shook itself out of the building it had crashed into. I wheeled around and fired, but I only hit its flank. It didn’t charge, just eyed me warily, but it would if I let my guard down.
I backed up until I was close enough that I could see Derek while keeping one eye on my foe. He was actually doing surprisingly well, considering most of his blood was on the concrete instead of inside him. The gargant was trying to bite him, but he had its jaws clamped tightly shut, as if in a vise. Jaws are harder to open than to close, but it was still impressive. Not to mention he still had his barrier going. Why wasn’t Akane doing anything?
When I glanced over at her, I noticed her blur out from behind the shield for a moment, strike at the gargant’s leg, and then blur back before it could retaliate.
Well, at least she wasn’t just sitting there, but we still had a serious problem on our hands. I was beginning to wish I had brought a couple god slayers after all.
Right when I decided to risk taking a couple shots at the beast pinning Derek to the ground, the gargant watching me began to…crumple.
It was a horrifying sight really, as the beast folded inward like a wet paper bag. I couldn’t hear the sounds of popping bones and tearing muscles over the bricks clattering together, but I could imagine them well enough.
Akane noticed what was going on and got as far away from the gargants as she could, blurring back to the alley we had come from, about ten feet from me. Derek, seeing this, dropped the shield that had been protecting her and remade it around himself.
Just in time, too, as the creature that had been harassing him began crumpling just like mine. Only it was closer this time, and I could hear the sound of bones turning to mush, like the sound of boots squishing through a swamp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the same thing happening to the third beast.
It only took a few minutes, but they moaned dejectedly the entire time. Eventually, the weight of their bodies—not to mention the bricks—crushed the brick-plated gargants to death.
It was a terrible way to die.
I waited until I was absolutely sure they were dead before swallowing and speaking. “What…was that?”
Derek stepped forward and gingerly nudged the corpse with his toe, peeling back a few bricks with his shoe. “I think that was a calciophage.”
I frowned. “Calcium eater?”
He nodded. “A new poison Clarke’s been cooking up. See there?” He pointed to a patch of goo that had once been the creature’s flank. A small feathered dart was poking out of it. “Someone shot them with a calciophage, and it ate their skeletons.”
I shivered a little, imagining what that would feel like. “Who would do that?”
“Save us or use something like that?” Derek asked with a smile.
I grinned back at his small joke. “Mostly, who would know we were here.”
He frowned. “I’m not sure. And I’m not sure we can get the bounty now, either. I need to find whoever—”
“Derek,” Akane said in a firm tone.
We turned to see that she wasn’t looking at us, but at one of the nearby rooftops. We followed her gaze and saw…a silhouette, standing on the edge.
It was impossible to tell exactly who it was, but it was clearly a woman, with long hair that flowed in the wind and caught the light majestically. The woman nodded once, then stepped off the ledge and…
She didn’t sprout wings, or reveal ones she already had. She didn’t use a jetpack or a wingpack or another of a dozen devices I could think of that might be able to pull that off.
She just flew, apparently completely under her own power, into the sun and out of sight.
A power user. One clearly still in control of her faculties. There was only one girl like that I knew of. I turned to Derek. Judging from the shocked look on his face, he had come to the same conclusion, but the next word out of his mouth confirmed it.
Behind the Scenes (scene 75)
I tried to write out more detail for the gargants’ mating ritual, but I just couldn’t do it. That’s probably for the best.