Emma lead Mike up to the ground floor, and then headed toward the front of the building.
As they walked down the open hallway, past the various storefronts, Mike saw dozens of people in both large and small groups. Some huddled together in fear, others patrolled the building like some sort of militia organization.
There were even a few groups that were clearly busy working. Doing seemingly small jobs like cooking, or fletching arrows. Not everyone was sitting on their ass waiting to be saved.
It was an interesting sight for Mike. Reminding him of a communist invasion movie he’d seen, where the good american characters banded together in the face of oppression. Only instead of being a terribly written piece of fiction, it was real and in his face.
Mike had not wandered around Wilson’s compound.
He’d discovered there were hundreds of survivors and their families in the underground base, not by seeing them, but through conversations he’d had with Wilson’s men as he prepared to leave. He hadn’t taken any time to seek them out, to see their situation, or listen to their stories.
Truthfully speaking, he’d been in a hurry from the moment Wilson made him the field team lead. He’d started moving like he had some grand purpose in life. Like everything was on a timeline.
That wasn’t entirely wrong.
If he didn’t level up consistently and advance his strength then the monsters would overtake him.
If he didn’t find survivors now, the number of them to find would steadily shrink.
These were normal people, people he might have seen in a restaurant or at the movies a week before. Seeing them as basically refugees, stirred something in Mike.
His quest to rid the city of the system, to take down the monolith, suddenly felt urgent again. He felt like if he could defeat it even one hour sooner, he’d be sparing these people that hour of heartache.
Things hadn’t actually changed. It was still to early to be thinking like that. Objectively Mike knew he didn’t stand a chance of acting on his feelings yet.
But it was like watching a training montage and getting the urge to work out. Mike felt the need to fight back against the system. He wanted to do if now. And he wanted the system to hurt from it.
Mike’s train of thought distracted him enough that despite walking for several minutes, he was still surprised when Emma shook his hand and whispered, “That’s him right there. He’s the leader.”
Following her finger Mike was forced to swallow.
He knew the system could change people. He’d seen it with his bloodline, and more dramatically with Troy’s change into a living skeleton.
He still wasn’t prepared for this “leader,” and his “command” group.
There were five of them, not including the short brunette he took a moment to recognize was Jessica.
The leader was six and a half foot of golden-furred muscle.
In place of a normal human head, he had the maned head of a lion. At his waist was a golden sword that emanated power even across the open room.
A tuft tail hung behind him, twitching slightly from one moment to the next. It was clearly a living part of him not a prop.
The man on the lion’s right was short. His appearance was monkey-like with big ears and thick brown hair over his chest, arms and framing both sides of his flat nosed face.
He wore an open vest that drew attention to his fur coat, and a simple circlet of gold graced his head like a crown. Resting casually against his shoulder he carried a long thin red staff capped with gold at either end. Around his waist he wore a furry belt that Mike suspected was actually a monkey tail and like the lion’s tail, it was almost certainly a part of him.
On the Lionman’s left was a woman with green scaly skin and golden slit pupils.
She moved with the grace of a snake and carried two curved daggers strapped to the outside of her slender thighs. She lacked a tail but as Mike glanced at her, her skin seemed to shimmer. For a moment she disappeared from his sight before reappearing as she adjusted her stance.
Not a snake then, Mike thought, a chameleon maybe?
Behind those three was a pebbly grey-skinned giant of a man.
Wider than two, possibly even three average men, the giant towered over everyone, even the lion maned man. He had four thick arms ending in hammer-like, three-fingered fists. His face was drawn out into a snout, ending in two horn like growths one in front of the other like some sort of rhinoceros.
Sitting on the rhino’s shoulder was a petite woman with raven black hair and a ready laugh, like the world was one big joke.
Growing from the woman’s back were two great black wings.
She carried a beautiful ebony bow, and at her waist was a quiver of silver arrows. Even with bird talons in place of feet, she was the most human looking of the five.
Taken together, they were reality expanding.
Mike, quite embarrassingly, had to shake his head and rub his eyes to assure himself they were real. In some ways he’d have been able to accept them faster had they rushed to attack him like monsters from the system.
Stunned he almost missed Jessica’s short wave and the happy little half smile she gave him. At some point she’d trimmed her hair down to a close cut. It was cute on her. Mike missed her longer hair, but he recognized the practicallity of the shorter cut.
Swallowing and taking a deep breath the returned her smile with one of his own, and a wink.
He stepped forward, intent on introducing himself and his mission. But the lion man chose that exact moment to speak in a rumbling bass.
“You gonna stare or you gonna talk kid?”
The monkey man laughed like he’d just heard the funniest joke ever. He even went so far as to repeat it under his breath like he wanted to make sure to remember it later.
Off to the side Jessica said, “Dad!?” And punched the lion man in the arm. He made a weird choking sound that was probably meant as a laugh and Jessica sighed.
“Sorry Mike. You can go ahead. He won’t interrupt you again,” she said.
Mike didn’t know what to think.
Hearing Jessica call the lion her dad had blown his mind.
He went from mildly annoyed, to meeting his girlfriends parents mode, in his mind. Not that they were dating. He just suddenly found himself worried about the impression he was making and wondering how badly the old man would beat him if he took things too far with his daughter.
Mike couldn’t find his words, and the monkey found it hilarious.
“I think you broke him, Jessie,” the monkey said with another barking laugh.
The lion smirked. Even the rhino’s gravelly chuckle sounded out.
Mike forced himself to focus.
He started by saying his name. Something Jessica had just given them. A fact the monkey instantly pointed out with another laugh. Tripping him up, and making him feel like an idiot.
“We heard your name was Mike genius. Why are you here?”
This time only the snake-lizard woman was un-amused. Expressing her annoyance with a glare the monkey went silent giving Mike room to talk.
“I came to offer you and the other people here a safe haven,” he said, finally getting it out.
“So that’s why you crawled through the sewers. I take it you noticed the green bastards outside?”
Mike nodded at Jessica’s dad’s question adding, “I saw them, I brought some help to get you by them.”
The lion nodded, seeming to be deep in thought for a minute before he asked for details.
Mike gave them.
He took another long pause.
“I don’t know if that’s enough. Don’t get me wrong. Your compound situation sounds better for my people than staying here. But we got a lot of kids and some old people. We won’t move fast and we don’t have the bullets to keep the goblins back for long.”
Things were going better than he’d expected. He’d expected arguments, suspicions, even potentially hostility.
Maybe it was because Jessica had vouched for him.
Maybe they were just getting desperate.
Either way they seemed willing to listen if he could solve their concerns.
Mike was pretty sure he could.
“Are there any vending machines around here?” He asked.
They told him where to go to get to them. Smiling Mike asked, “What caliber bullets did you need. Do you need anything else?”
They quickly made Mike a list.
Fifteen minutes later he’d used the system to find every single item.
He spent most of his credits doing it. But if his credits were enough to get everyone out safe, he thought the trade off was more than worth it.
Wilson would probably pay him back anyway. Assuming he did get everyone back to the old vampire.
“What now?” Mike pointedly asked Jessica’s Dad, the lionman, who snorted. Organizing what amounted to over a hundred people wasn’t something that could be done in an instant.
Not if they wanted to actually be organized.
All total they had one hundred thirty seven survivors in the shopping center.
From that number just over one hundred were actually competent enough, or scared enough of the goblins, to be capable of pulling a trigger. That left a soft spot of roughly thirty five people they had to protect.
The thirty five people were mostly little kids. A majority were separated from their parents.and terrified. But they could hardly abandon them to make things easier. In fact they represented exactly who needed to be protected the most, if humanity was going to survive in the long run.
They’d grow up in the horrors of the system and adapt, becoming stronger. They’d have years more time to gather experience, and find rare skills, to evolve bloodlines and learn efficient ways to hunt dangerous monsters.
Leaving the kids behind wasn’t an option. No one even suggested it was, not even the snake lady with her cold calculations and colder blood.
Mike had thought it was funny that she had a Russian sounding accent until Jessica whispered in his ear that she’d been an “escort” before the world ended, and it hadn’t been by choice. Now that she had power, she’d seemingly closed off her feelings. In the process she’d become a killing machine.
Mike spent a significant amount of time on his walkie-talkie, communicating with Nikki and Radio who in turn talked with Wilson and the expedition commander a guy, who was randomly enough nicknamed “Cowboy.”
Eventually they got it all ironed out. The timing sync’d. The route of retreat mapped out.
Everyone was gathered up. They explained the plan in broad strokes to the masses and everyone was armed. It was finally time for action.
* * *
The explosions came first, followed shortly by the popping of guns at a distance. Finally the roar of the engines accompanied louder versions of the previous as the convoy made its first pass.
The goblins went crazy, entire bands of them picked up and ran screaming.
The convoy turned at the end of the block, coming back for their second pass.
This time they met organized resistance.
Crossbows, sounded and javelins flew.
The goblins were still cut down by the dozens, but they were no longer harmless moving targets.
At least one bolt of a crossbow found its way into the shoulder of a heavy machine gun operator. He wasn’t killed, but his gun went silent, which was a small victory for the goblin horde.
They didn’t get to celebrate it for long as the besieged defenders streamed out of their former prison.
Mike helped lead the charge, his ax reborn with the last of his credits, and the machete in his off hand. He fought behind and to the left of the lion-man and the monkey. The rhino brought up the rear with the harpy and the invisible snake woman.
The five and Jessica with her trusty laser arm and pulse pistol, were the only players of note in the entire group.
There were a few with small abilities like Trisha, who might become truly terrifying in time, and a quite a few that were better than human average.
The five were just so overshadowing, it was hard to notice the rest.
Even Mike, fighting alongside them, didn’t feel like he stood out.
His breeze step, and ghost phase in conjunction with a magic ax had seemed so cheat-like until he watched the lion simultaneously kill six goblins with a pouncing back hand and casual slash of his sword so graceful and quick the golden blade momentarily looked like a sheet of solid gold.
Rather than feeling small, Mike rose to the challenge.
He invented new ways to kill goblins on the fly and his kill count soared.
In the midst of the slaughter, it came to him, that he was having fun.
It was a strange realization.
He instantly felt conflicted.
It was the truth though.
He enjoyed slaughtering his enemies.
It was quite a barbaric entertainment.
Considering the world’s changes, it was also a surprisingly practical one..
With a “team” on the same level as him, he didn’t have to constantly babysit them.
The freedom and thrill, of working with other people at that level, it was almost magical.
He really was good at the game.
He was a survivor and a killer.
Above average at both.
He would have never known either thing about himself before the system came along and ended the old world. Mike liked knowing he wasn’t just “one of the crowd.” He just wished millions of people around the world hadn’t had to die so he could find that out.
As they broke through the encirclement, they left literally hundreds of goblin corpses in their wake. More goblins continuously appeared in small groups, from seemingly no where, but they were too late, things had gone too well.
Moving frantically, they loaded everyone up into the beds of a handful of huge cargo trucks in order to retreat. The entire process was a rush of confusion and adrenaline. Mike kept fighting through all of it, until, at the last minute, he too hopped up into a truck and they rolled off.
Having a moment to breathe, he looked back.
He watched as the tiny harpy woman dodged a blast of energy from a goblin shaman’s spell.
A thick purple streak of lightning, that would have sent her tumbling to the ground, passed within a foot of her wings.
From an impossible position her bow twanged.
A silver arrow arched out, right into the goblin’s forehead.
It was an instant kill by head-shot.
Mike found himself smiling like an idiot.
Realizing where he was, he forced himself to calm down.
He didn’t want to accidentally scare the other passengers.
Dropping into mediation, Mike promised himself he would catch up with everyone one back at the base. He couldn’t wait to hear about Jessica and Emma’s adventure.
He was even looking forward to seeing Trisha, even though he still wasn’t sure how to handle her.
I felt rushed writing this. I’m not sure why. I took two full days of writing time, more than eight hours if you count all the little tweaks and rereading. I still feel unsatisfied. It was fun to write though and it’s done, so here you guys go. Have it a little bit early. It’s only a few hours, but even if consistency matters, I feel weird letting it sit there knowing it’s done.
Author : The Steve