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The Battle of Saratoga

Anonymous

Guest
The Saratoga Springs clinic was a little slice of hell, a scene pulled directly from the bloody pages of a horror novel. Men and women alike–more than could fit the meager available beds–were writhing in pain, sobbing, begging for help. Overworked nurses moved robotically from patient to patient with haunted expressions, seeing the faces of friends and family slip away over and over again. The battle outside had ended hours ago, but the war here raged on; a struggle to save lives.

The sight reminded Wanda of childhood memories. Those first few weeks after the Fall were like this, with humanity dying in droves to the ravenous hordes. As were the power struggles that came after people learned to survive the threat of the Red Eyes and could once again turn their attention towards killing each other over the scraps of resources that remained. One bloodbath after another.

She couldn’t really understand what she’d been seeing at the time. Wanda had always been a morbid child, shunned by the other kids for her interest in bugs and spiders and the various creepy-crawlies that were supposed to send girls like her screaming and standing on stools. But she was too young to truly appreciate death. Poking a dead rat in an alley with a stick didn’t really compare to watching grown men and women choking to death from a sucking chest wound or seeing their eyes glaze over as they went into shock from blood loss. She hadn’t even been a teen at the time, she’d had no chance to truly process the nature of death and of her own mortality.

Well, better late than never.

If ever there was a time to contemplate mortality, it would be now. Wanda considered herself relatively good at surviving. She and Denzel both had survived the apocalypse unscathed up until now. For the most part, at least. Each sported a few scars from a few close calls, but they had always looked out for each other. Never taking risks, never standing firm when fleeing was an option, never getting caught up in the pointless struggles of whatever factions were in charge at the time. It was only when they had learned the truth about the future that their cautious tactics had changed. The truth was that there would be no escaping the mutations spreading out across the world. There would be no neutrality, no hunkering down to wait for the chaos to blow over. Humanity’s days were numbered. Judging from the outcome of this one battle between monsters and people, it was a small number.

So Wanda chose a side and Denzel had followed. They allied with an inhuman creature of pestilence and decay, choosing the least terrible of a host of bad options. They stopped running. For the first time, they stayed to fight. And death had come for them both. The raid on Brighton’s facility had left Wanda riddled with bullets–grievous wounds, but survivable given the proper medical care and time for recovery. The defense of Saratoga was not nearly so kind. Wanda had been covered in caustic acid, hurtled through the air from a concussive explosion, and doused in flaming napalm. The acid had melted large swaths of her skin, but the napalm had burned down to the bone before being smothered. She couldn’t feel most of her right side because there was nothing left to feel. She resembled a wooden mannequin, carved in the likeness of a person before being thrown into a bonfire and burned beyond recognition. Fatal wounds beyond a shadow of a doubt. Wanda, for whatever definition of the word could be found, was dead.

“Fantastic!” Doctor Klar whispered with the enthusiasm of a child at Disneyland coming face-to-face with his cartoon heroes.

“Mm?” Wanda responded absently, her voice a harsh croak through a tortured throat. Her attention had been drawn to the other patients outside of the Doctor’s own office. She and her beau had been sequestered away, pulled from the general population when Klar had realized the enormity of their situation. The good Doctor was examining her now, a stethoscope against her chest that she couldn’t even feel. She turned away from the view of the dead and dying on the other side of the glass, eyeing Klar through one good eye and another milky-pupil that didn’t quite seem to work.

“Your lungs stopped again,” the Doctor answered. Wanda blinked. Or tried to, as one eyelid twitched rather than respond.

“Oh,” she rasped and focused her attention inside herself. A moment later, her charred lungs began to move. “Sorry. Good now?”

“Yes,” Klar responded, nodding his head rapidly. “Well .. that is .. No, actually. Your alveoli, that is to say the bronchial tubes aren’t producing any rales or stridor like one would expect with this particular type of injury. Now, one would think that would be a good sign, but your lungs aren’t producing any kind of sound at all. They .. well, they aren’t passing oxygen. Think of it like a balloon, yes? It inflates and deflates based on the pressure of air being pumped into it. In your case though, it’s as if the balloon is merely being grabbed and stretched. A facsimile of life! It’s simply incredible!”

“ .. oh.” Wanda wasn’t quite sure how to react to that. At least Klar wasn’t trying to burn her at the stake for being whatever she was now. She turned to look at Denzel, who had not suffered the fire and acid that had scoured so much of Wanda’s flesh. He’d found entirely different ways to die. During the Brighton mission, he’d taken what would have certainly been fatal gunshots to the chest. Saratoga had treated him even less kindly, as he’d been shot at near point-blank range with buckshot from his own comrades only to then be mauled like a teething puppy’s chewtoy by a skin hound. There was no scrap of his shredded clothing that was not sodden in blood. “What about him?”

“Ah, yes, let me see here,” Klar said, setting his stethoscope to Denzel’s chest. The metal disk sunk in, the meat and bone having been turned into the consistency of hamburger. Klar’s eyes widened slightly. “Ah. That .. would be a poor sign indeed.”

“S’fn.” Denzel said, choking out the sounds through a mouthful of blood. His punctured and fluid-filled lungs made speaking a challenge. There was more buckshot than tissue remaining in his chest cavity. ”It’s .. f-fine.”

“W-well, aha, that is .. not something I am equipped to treat, my friends,” Klar states cheerfully as he retrieves his stethoscope from Denzel’s chest cavity with a wet squelching sound. “Either of you, really. Your continued existence is a marvel, truly! A testament to your mutation’s power, and just imagine the scientific and medical implications! I simply must get more samples.”

A hammering at the door draws the attention of all three in the office. “Doctor! We have another one crashing!”

Klar’s manic smile cracks. “Ah, duty calls. I’m afraid the samples will have to wait.” He takes a step towards the door, only to pause. “Do .. do stay out of sight for now until we can .. cover the most egregious of your injuries. I fear there may be an uproar if your current states are made too public. The good people here are still reeling from the circumstances, you understand. Too much, too soon.”

Wanda and Denzel don’t need to share a look to know what each other is thinking. Neither is willing to risk the town turning against them. They nod in tandem and Klar brightens up even more. “Delightful! I will return post-haste.”

The door slams behind him, leaving the couple alone once more. After a moment, Wanda speaks up. She has to remember to force her lungs to move so that she can form the words. “Dee … do you regret it?”

“ .. nnh.” It’s as close to a no as he can offer. He can’t manage to say more without coughing blood all over the Doctor’s office, though knowing Klar he might appreciate the decoration. But the two of them no longer needed words. Wanda knew Denzel fully expected one or the other of them to catch a bullet one of these days. Or to have been chomped up by a monster, or some other equally horrid fate that would have left them dead and their stories ended. This was not the end. Denzel reaches for her hand, the one that still has nerve endings. “Wh .. whur … sht .. till .. us.”

“We’re still us,” she echoes, her voice croaking. “Whatever’s left of us.” She can’t keep her palm from trembling trembling against his. She’d never considered herself vain before, but she hadn’t been able to look at her reflection since she woke like this. She couldn’t feel much, but she could feel what she’d lost. So much was burnt away.

Before Denzel can try and fail to find some words that might comfort her, the air ripples in front of the couple. It shimmers with a thousand tiny shards of light, like the sun reflecting off a pond, before shattering with an accompanying wave of dizziness as if they had both had too much to drink. Standing before them is Kaari, the tribal witchdoctor that was one of the few to embrace this insanity more than they.

“Hello, Wanda and Denzel,” Kaari says, completely without pomp or ceremony, as if she hadn’t just broken reality itself. Her gaze trails over their broken bodies, no doubt formulating a list of their many injuries and the treatments and prognosis to correlate with her findings. “You look different.”

“So do you,” Wanda replies, her voice like sandpaper. All of the training and trials of this trip must have been paying off, as Wanda was beginning to get an inkling of just what Kaari had become, having come so much further in her mutation than either of the two young rot-followers. In Wanda’s eyes now–or eye, rather, as one no longer seemed to work–Kaari practically radiated power. She glowed with an ethereal light.

“Mm,” was the only response as the witchdoctor pulled two vials from her many pouches. She dropped one in each of their hands. The vials were a cloudy green, filled with some kind of unnatural substance. “You do not have time to be hurt. The Millers will come now that their evolved have been killed. You are both needed for the fight.”

“What .. is this?” Wanda asked, though she knew the answer. She could feel it, even through her absent nerve endings.

“Medication,” Kaari responds vaguely before going into detail. “I infected a host of plant matter with E’rami’s inputrequus strain, then collected the viral spores and condensed them to a solid substrate. I then isolated the active particulates into an ingestible solution.” After a beat, she adds, “It is energy. It will induce rapid viral replication that should compensate for lost tissue.”

“This will heal us?” Wanda’s question is met with a shrug.

“E’rami’s strain specializes more in co-opting decaying cells into resuming normal function regardless of the stability of its physical state. I cannot say for sure if serious injuries will be repaired. It is possible it will only give you the energy to ignore the damage, or maybe allow for donor flesh as a transplant or possibly additional mutation. If this is the case, then ask me later and I will fix it.”

Without another word, she’s gone. Vanished as abruptly as she arrived, like an attention-deficit genie. Denzel shakes off the dizziness that follows the witchdoctor’s departure, looking down at the mystery vial. He uncorks it, staring into its glowing green contents before meeting Wanda’s gaze.

“ .. we’re still us?” Wanda asks.

“Shll .. ush,” Denzel gurgles, then tips his head back and downs the vial as Wanda does the same. Both shudder as the liquid oozes down their throats like molasses. Kaari’s admittedly lacking explanation did not instill a lot of confidence, but they had come too far to back down now. She was right about one thing; a fight was coming, and they were needed.

Their hands find each other again. It didn’t matter what would come next. Disfiguring injuries or transformations into something no longer human or even death itself. So long as they were together, they were content.

*****

Only hours had passed. Both Wanda and Denzel felt stronger, no longer barely able to stand, but Kaari’s potion was not the magical cure-all elixir they were hoping for. Despite being on their feet again, their visible injuries remained. Doctor Klar had returned, wrapped them both in gauze to hide their hideous wounds, and discharged them; the clinic’s space was needed for patients who could still be saved from death.

With little else to do, the couple reported in at the Hill House. There, those with true authority and power planned the defense of the city. It was humbling to be in the same room; for as much as Wanda had felt she had grown in controlling the virus within her, she was a candle next to Terry’s bonfire. Wanda was only just learning to control a single mindless corpse. She could hardly believe it when she’d heard that Terry took control of the Trullan at the gates and turned it against their enemies. Wanda could feel others in that same room with powers that dwarfed her own and it caused her to wonder just how far she’d really come.

When Terry told Wanda and Denzel both to stay behind, to stay out of the fight, for just a brief moment she wanted to shout in her own defense. She wanted to argue that they could still fight. That they could handle themselves. That they could still help. But the words died in her throat. Denzel’s hand found her shoulder. We died helping, he seemed to say. We’ve done our part. We’ve done enough.

He should know better than to lie to her.

The others left to fight a battle far beyond her meager reach. They were leaders, warriors, heroes. She was just a child with delusions of grandeur. She should have known that her attempts to step into their world would have left her the broken mess she was. She’d thought that the rotten monster living outside Monroe was cool. She’d thought if she accepted its power, then she would no longer be powerless. But it hadn’t changed who she was. Wanda had always loved insects, but now she knew what it felt like to be one. Crushed beneath the heels of titans. This was a war between gods and ants like her were nothing more than collateral damage.

Already, she could hear the sharp cracks of gunfire and the screeching of some monstrously huge inhuman beast. She sunk into Denzel’s arms as she sunk deeper into her own despair. It all sounded so very far away. So far out of her reach.

And then a blast shook the foundations of the Hill House, an explosion of fire that sounded so very close and promised untold ‘collateral damage’. And Wanda knew what she had to do.

*****

Kaari walked the Dream.

Despite spending more and more time immersed in this place, she still had no solid answers as to what it was or how it worked. Oh, she had her theories, but scientific proof was still exceedingly difficult to come by and what little she’d been able to directly observe in the laboratory was vague and inconclusive.

In this moment, the Dream appeared to her as a Louisiana forest she’d traversed many years ago. It had been a dark time in her life, where she had been hunted by the locals for weeks on end. Always watching over her shoulder, always on the move.

The implication was clear to her; The Dream right now was dangerous. The Evolved could manifest in this place. Their physical proximity in the real world would make eddies in the Dream like a boulder in a river–The Man in Red even more-so. He could bend the Dream to his will just as she could, and there was every possibility that she might run into Colin himself at any moment. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d faced him in the Dream. She could feel his presence around her clinging to everything like a thin film of smoke.

Kaari had no fear, though. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Colin wouldn’t face her here, at this moment. His monsters might, but she welcomed their approach. Best to slay them here where she had power.

Speaking of slaying his monsters, the witchdoctor felt herself near her target. She could sense a general idea of where and how the Miller forces were aligned and adjusted her path accordingly, winding through the dense Louisiana shrubbery that didn’t actually exist. Here, standing in her path, was a man from her past; some country yokel with a shotgun and more shells than brain cells. This redneck had sicced his hounds on Kaari so very long ago and almost caught her no less than three times. She’d had to waste the last of her chili powder to throw the dogs off her scent and escape.

Kaari missed that chili powder.

In her eyes, she could see every blood vessel, every artery and vein. She could see every beat of the man’s heart. She thrust forward with her spear, piercing that heart and the veil surrounding her. The Dream shattered and she was once more standing in the streets of Saratoga Springs. The man before her was not her long-forgotten Louisiana nemesis, but some random Miller cultist unfortunate enough to be on the outskirts of their raiding party. Her jade-tipped spear had plunged through the man’s back and burst out his chest. Before he could even scream, Kaari’s snake children snapped forward and tore out the man’s throat.

A good kill.

Kaari prepared herself to meet the other Millers in case they heard the gruesome end of one of their own, but she needn’t have bothered. A ball of fire rose from the far side of town, followed seconds later by the sound of the explosion that shattered several windows down the street and drew every eye to it.

Her mind was assaulted by foreign thoughts, foreign words and concepts. Terry’s confusion was evident and familiar, even welcome. But then came the accusations of Francis King. Kaari was willing to meet the fellow Evolved within the Dream, even willing to hunt with him in reality, but his thoughts invading her mind rankled her. Terry was part of her tribe; her warchief, her sister. Her thoughts belonged. Francis did not. Both spoke of the explosion, of where it was and of who had fallen victim to it. Who was to blame. Kaari was willing to let them deal with it so she could get back to what was truly important–killing Millers–but then Terry ordered her to pull back to the clinic and rescue who she could.

She wanted to fight that command. She was here to fight, after all. It made no sense to leave the enemy before her alive. But this was combat. The warchief rules in combat. Their orders are absolute. Gritting her teeth, Kaari slipped away into the shadows and felt the uneasy otherworldliness of the Dream envelop her once more.

Well, at least Kaari had a back-up plan. Within the Dream, she reached out with her mind, pulled without pulling. The Evolved could manifest in this place. Runty was clearly more evolved than most. The shadows coalesced into an amorphous form that slowly stretched and twisted into her skinhound minion. Where once he was maybe a third of her size, he now towered over Kaari twice over. Scrawny legs and stubby mandibles had given way to a bulk that would make Texas envious and a maw with more fangs than should be physically possible. He was an abomination, his strength crafted by her own hand through countless experiments. He was incredibly dangerous, more than a little malicious, and answered to one voice alone. And it was not Terry’s.

“FEED?!” The mutant dogman hissed, spittle flying from his mouth. He didn’t have eyes in the traditional sense, but the holes in his skull where eyes should be still had the presence to glare malevolently. Hungrily.

“Yes,” Kaari answered as she thrust him into the world in her place. “Your time has come. Hunt, Aa’tiami. Have fun.”

His answer was a howling cackle that cut off abruptly as he faded from the Dream. Kaari watched for a moment as she felt rather than saw him tear into the Millers. With a wistful regret, wishing she could join him in the slaughter, she turned away and started to walk. It didn’t really matter in this place which direction she went. Her destination was always exactly where she was meant to be.

*****

For a moment, Becca didn’t know pain. She could only mutely wonder why she could feel so hot and yet so cold at the same time. It took several long moments that felt like an eternity for her sense of pain to return, and with it came muffled hearing.

“-ecca? Bec- … -ear me?” She came to the realization that there had been a roaring in her ears that was only just now fading. No, not fading. It was being replaced by a subtly different kind of roaring, of pitched flames somewhere in the background replacing the omnipresent buzz of tinnitus. She blinked several times to clear her head of the cobwebs. If it helped, she couldn’t tell.

“-ease, talk t- … -on’t have long.” Just as she had suddenly discovered the noise deafening her moments earlier, so too did she stumble upon the knowledge of a voice that had been talking to her for the past several minutes. She focused on it, tried to isolate it from everything else. There was too much going on. Too much for her to process. One thing at a time. The voice was familiar. It had a face. A name. Each realization brought forth the next.

“J-Johnny?” She asked, her voice oddly tinny. She couldn’t focus on that now, though. The voice was taking all of her attention.

“Oh thank God,” he said, his sigh of relief ending in a wet cough. “Are you okay?”

“I’m .. “ Becca winced, reaching up to her head. Her fingers came away red with blood. She dimly realized that was cause for concern but she couldn’t understand why yet. “I’m .. I d-don’t know. What .. what happened?”

“Bomb or s-something,” Johnny’s voice came again. Either her hearing was going out again or he seemed quieter than before. He coughed again, gagged on something out of sight. “There’s .. fire everywhere. You g-gotta get out. Can .. can you move?”

Becca’s gaze unfocused away from her bloody hand and past it for the first time. She was behind her desk. Or, what used to be her desk. Part of the ceiling had come down overtop of her, pinning her behind what little of the desk that was managing to hold against the crushing weight. She tried to pull herself free, but was met by only a sharp pain in her leg. Panic started to climb in her throat. “No .. I can’t m- .. something’s on my leg, I can’t .. “ she tried to twist around, only to whimper as the pain dug deeper. “Johnny, where are you? I c-can’t, I can’t see you.” After a long moment of silence, she tried again, her voice almost a shout. “Johnny?!”

“Mm .. I’m .. “ Johnny started to speak, his voice barely a mumble like she’d just woken him up. “I’m .. m’here. I can’t .. move either. Not .. goin’ .. anywhere.” He trailed off, coughed again. There was a sad, desperate sort of laugh. “I never even .. g-got to .. ask you .. “

Again he trailed off. It took Becca a moment to realize that the thick black smoke billowing closer and closer from the ceiling wasn’t just her eyes getting hazy. That the roaring in her ears wasn’t just a ringing from the explosion but a fire getting closer. Her skin was burning up, though her leg beneath the steel beam felt ice cold. They had to get out of here. They weren’t going to last another few minutes. “Johnny?” Silence answered her and fear gripped her heart. “Johnny! A-are you there? Johnny, answer me .. please .. ” There was nothing but the crackling flames and the omnipresent heat. The smoke burned her eyes and tears blurred her vision. “Please .. please .. “

“ .. sorry .. “ Becca gasped as she heard his voice, then coughed as she got a lungful of acrid smoke.

“J-Johnny? Are you okay?”

“ .. I’m sorry .. “ came his voice again.

“It’s okay,” she wept. “I’m here. I’m .. here, just .. just keep talking.”

“ .. I’m sorry,” Johnny croaked. There was a sickening crunch from just outside her view and something hit the ground with a splatter. She felt something wet touch her foot beyond the wreckage.

“It’s okay .. we’ll be okay .. someone will come. Just hold on, Johnny. Just stay with me.” Becca didn’t really believe it herself, but then the door shuddered in its frame. “Here!” she shouted as loudly as she could. “We’re here! We’re in here!”

The door buckled and bent in two. With a third and final hit, it collapsed inwards. She could only just see a glimpse of the man in the doorway, illuminated by the roaring flames. He hefted his sledgehammer and strode forward into the smoke without so much as a word, disappearing behind her and out of her sight. There was the screech of tortured metal and the girder lifted off her leg. She bit back a cry as she was pulled out from it. The stranger–one of the Monrovians, she thought? She didn’t remember seeing him when they first checked in–was holding the beam up as Johnny grabbed her and lifted her into his arms. She had to close her eyes tight against the thick smoke, holding her breath to keep from choking.

“I’m sorry,” Johnny said as he plodded towards the doorway. There was another crash from behind her, the stranger must have been moving deeper into the clinic. Becca didn’t have the presence of mind to care, her leg screamed with every jostle. She was never so happy to be in so much pain. It meant she was still alive, freed from that flaming hell.

“It’s okay, Johnny,” she whispered, coughing again to clear her burning lungs. “We’re okay.”

Johnny continued to walk forward robotically before setting her down on the asphalt next to another figure. This one, she recognized as definitely one of the Monrovians. The dark girl that Klar had taken such a shine to. She’d been badly burned at some point and was wrapped in as many bandages as Becca felt she needed right now. She was on her knees, curled up almost in the fetal position, her eyes tightly shut.

“I’m sorry,” the Monroe girl whispered, her words echoed exactly by Johnny.

“W-what .. ? Why are y- .. ” Becca swallowed. She craned her head upwards to Johnny. He stood stock still, staring dead ahead with blood red eyes. His abdomen was .. well, gone. A gaping hole had been torn through it, with some of the rebar still jutting out with entrails hanging from it. Becca couldn’t speak. She couldn’t breathe. This couldn’t be real. She reached out a hand, only to jerk it away as if she’d been burned.

Beyond Johnny .. or, what used to be Johnny .. the clinic was going up like a torch. The second story window shattered as a man on fire leapt through the glass and down to the ground. She couldn’t even tell who it was, so much of his flesh was burned away. One of his legs snapped on impact, but he stumbled forward uncaringly towards the parking lot, to set down a moaning person wrapped in a curtain to protect her from the flames.

“I’m sorry,” the Monroe girl sobbed, her mantra taken up by Johnny and the burned man. As one, the Red Eyes turned back to the clinic and marched their way back inside to find other survivors. More of the injured joined their fellows in the parking lot, and more of the dead joined the rescue effort. As one body failed from heat or injuries, another rose to take its place, the dead carrying the living to safety. There was no shortage of dead, after all.

“You .. you’re doing this?” Becca asked, too dumbfounded to know how to feel. She grabbed the Monroe girl by the shoulders. “You can undo it .. right? Right? Y-you can .. you can give Johnny back, right?” The girl wasn’t looking at her. Wouldn’t open her eyes. Becca shook her, her breaths coming raggedly. “Give him back! Klar can- the doctor can fix him, just .. just give him back!”

“I can’t,” the Monroe girl answered, her voice raspy as if she was the one in pain. As if she was the one suffering. As if she was the one burning right now. “I can only control the dead. It only works if they’re dead.”

“Your Johnny was already dead,” she continued, though Becca was no longer listening. She was wailing, a keening pitch that even the gunshots downtown couldn’t diminish. No one was going to be thankful to be saved by the tortured corpses of their loved ones. No one would happily accept the bodies of their sons or daughters, husbands or wives, being thrown repeatedly into a burning building until they were little more than charred bones. It was horrible. It was inhumane. It was the only thing Wanda could do to help.

“I’m sorry.”



*****
 

Anonymous

Guest
Kaari stomps down the hallways of the hospital in which she was raised as a young girl. Normally, these spotless tile floors would bring cheer to her, reminding her of all the good times she had in the early days of the Oculorubrus. The faces of her friends, the nurses and doctors who taught her everything she knew, would be here to greet her. Today, however, even this familiar place was not enough to brighten her mood.

She turns a corner at a whim, continuing on through the ICU. This was only symbolism, after all. The hospital wasn’t really here. It was how her mind chose to perceive the Dream. It was clearly trying to win her over, to calm her down. This was her subconscious attempt to sooth Kaari from the aggravation of being pulled away from battle. Well, it wasn’t going to work. Kaari was determined to be unhappy about this.

She reaches a hallway full of offices. In her day, they’d been converted into living quarters. Initially, the heads of each department had started with an office and that became their personal living space. But as time went on and the population of the hospital exploded, personal living space became a thing of the past and the offices became more like communal bunks for the staff.

Kaari had never slept more soundly before or since.

She glares at the name on the wall, listing this as the offices of a Doctor Queirós. She tears the nameplate off the wall. Underneath was the name Klar. Kaari barges into the office without even knocking.

Inside, the bespectacled and bedraggled man crouches under his desk with an expression of utmost despair. “My life is over. It’s all over,” he moans. “It’s all gone. All of my work. My research. My-”

“-GOD!” He shrieks like a little girl as Kaari materializes next to him. She glances around. The office was on fire. Smoke roiled across the ceiling like a living blanket. Flames leapt from one table to the next. The cabinets in particular were deliciously enticing with all of their paper just waiting to be destroyed. The heat and lack of air was oppressive, so Kaari chooses to be only partway there. Half of her stayed neatly in the cool and comfortable Dream, safely ensconced away from the burning clinic.

“Hello, Doctor Klar,” Kaari says, reluctantly being polite. Her form in his eyes shimmers like the reflection in a pool. “I am here to take you to be safe.”

“I don’t .. h-how did you even? Good lord, are those attached to you?!” He points at her children, the writhing snakes sprouting from her back, which were even less happy to be here than she was. They despised fire, the poor dears. Kaari grimaced and twisted the world. The clinic fell away like dying leaves on a tree, replaced by her childhood hospital. Doctor Klar clearly had questions, but he must have had so many that they all tried to come out at once and he could only babble incessantly.

“Come,” Kaari says as she lifts the befuddled doctor to his feet. “We can talk and walk.”

“Whuh .. where? How? Why? How? WHERE?!” The doctor had progressed to single word sentences, though he was still not nearly as good at English as Kaari was. She pushes him bodily out of the office that sported his name and back down the hallway.

“This is the Dream,” Kaari says, trying to answer his questions or at least questions she assumed he might be asking. Every time the man stopped to gawk, she’d prod him forward again. “It is a visual representation from the brain’s neurons of the data transmitted by Oculorubrus energy through the electromagnetic spectrum. This information exists as a collective shared consciousness that can be accessed and manipulated through proper application of infected cells’ output.”

“But wha .. but what?” Klar sputters.

“Movement through the Dream partially but not entirely corresponds to movement in the living world.” Kaari explains, possibly just answering her own questions. The good doctor didn’t even seem to be listening. “This is potentially through the modification of spectator cell inputs and potentially through a transformation in the state of matter. I have read that matter and energy are related through special relativity. I do not understand it entirely but I think the principle consists of energy being a property of matter and the same matter can have different levels of energy and exist in different states. Like how ice is water and water is steam and the only difference is the level of energy between these states. So theoretically our states of matter are changing based on the level of energy we are absorbing.”

“H-how does the .. but the wh-”

“Oh, well, that is another potential case that I have only recently begun to examine,” Kaari says with an aggravated huff as she leads Klar down another corridor. “You see, Francis King told to me that he has been experiencing different realities, images of worlds like our own but different. Now, I have seen the future once, shown to me by the Man in Red. It is possible then he was showing me simply another reality, a universe alongside our own. I have not been able to find many books on the multiverse theory. I think maybe this was not a well-examined principle in the pre-Oculorubrus times. But my understanding of it is that it is another dimension just like length or width or depth or time. A two-dimensional object is like a shadow on the ground, an outline of an object of a particular length and width. A three-dimensional object is something that casts that shadow, having length, width, and depth. A four-dimensional object then would have a three-dimensional shadow, so a four-dimensional object would exist at all of its possible points in time at once. This suggests a fifth dimension in which an object exists in all of its possible possibilities at once. Given that the energy properties of the Oculorubrus tend to break the laws of thermodynamics, it is possible that the virus is drawing its energies from other dimensions, which would suggest that the Dream is a side-effect of this transfer, an echo of other realities. Mmmph. But try to test for that in the lab.”

“I don’t .. what?!” Klar’s worldview shatters, as does the hospital Dream around him. They’d reached their destination, the bottom floor of the Hill House. Screams erupt from the room as Kaari and Klar appear out of thin air. One of the Saratogans draws a gun and is only narrowly stopped by one of the Peacekeepers and the Dollface that Kaari had saved during the bat attack.

“I’m bringing the injured of the clinic here,” Kaari commands the motley crew, focusing intently on Klar in particular. “You will have a field hospital here ready for triage and intensive care. Do you all understand?”

“What about, um, supplies? And stuff?” One of the Saratogans speaks up, braver than most. One of the injured from the battle at the gate. “Everything we had was at the clinic.”

With a scowl, Kaari reaches back into the dream and rips out a medical cabinet. Was it taken from the Saratoga clinic or perhaps her own stores in distant Monroe? Was it taken from her childhood hospital across time and space? Was it taken from an alternate reality? Was it willed into being through literal magic? She doesn’t know. She doesn’t care. “Get ready to receive wounded.”

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*****

Over a dozen people huddled in the clinic parking lot now. More were being delivered by the Red Eye rescue team every few minutes. Some of the more able-bodied were rallying together. They couldn’t stop the flames–no bucket brigade could calm this inferno–but they could put some semblance of order to the chaos, to try and provide some limited measure of life-saving first aid.

Most had stopped questioning the dead or the girl commanding them. With the previous unexplained explosions and monsters at the gate that had only barely been fought off, and with the pitched battle still echoing through the streets, no one had the presence of mind to do anything other than numbly accept the madness and try to survive. Even the more recent raving about ghosts and medusa-snake monsters were received with a shrug. Of the sixty souls that sheltered in the clinic, a mere third of them were evacuated to the parking lot.

Gomez and Tyrell were the first to begin ferrying survivors to the Hill House. None were willing to risk the remaining vehicles for fear that they too had been rigged to blow, so the two mismatched comrades put together a makeshift stretcher to carry those the dead dragged from the burning rubble. The Peacekeeper was able to shake off the horror of the situation easier than most. Honestly, controlling a few Red Eyes was relatively minor compared to the shit he’d seen–he was a fan of Runty, after all–and he hadn’t known any of the corpses personally that had dragged him from the rubble, that had held up the roof as he and the ranger limped to safety. That same roof had collapsed only moments later upon those particular Red Eyes, burying them right where his body would have been. Well, better them than him.

The work also kept his mind off the fate of his comrades. The rest of his squad had been in another section of the clinic, one completely surrounded in impenetrable flames. Even the Red Eyes that tried to breach that side of the clinic were consumed. He tried to tell himself that there was nothing he could do. He tried to convince himself that going back into that clinic would just get him killed. Either the heat would get him or the smoke would.

It was around their tenth trip moving the injured over that Gomez realized that the numbers didn’t add up. There were more wounded at the Hill House than they’d transported. He paused as he tried to pick out the faces he didn’t recognize. Those now lying on makeshift cots and blankets on the floors that he hadn’t personally carried up that hill. It was then that Amanda Cahill fell on top of him.

One moment there was nothing. The next moment, Amanda was there, stumbling as she attempted to regain her sense of balance and presumably regain her sense of existence as well. Gomez could almost make out an echoing mutter and the sound of ocean waves, but he was too preoccupied with the Peacekeeper in his arms.

“The fuck .. Cahill, you’re alive?!” He said with almost relieved laughter.

“Are any of us even alive?” Amanda whispered back, haunted. “Is anything even real? Are you real? Am I?”

“Shit, uh .. are you all right?” Gomez asked, more than a little concerned.

“I have seen .. the face of god,” Amanda mumbled in return. She gripped his uniform like a life preserver, as if it might keep her from drowning. “God wears short shorts.”

“Christ, she high?” Tyrell pitches in. He hadn’t heard gibberish like this since … well, the last time his commanding officer had gotten into the white lightning. Gomez could merely shrug.

“She’ll be quite all right.” Doctor Klar had been bouncing between patients, and only just now reached the two volunteer stretcher bearers. He gently guided Amanda over to a corner where others with similar looks of existential dread were huddled, including the rest of their respective squads. The Peacekeepers were in various stages of shock. Faith was better off … maybe. She had about the same emotionless expression as the Reds that had saved them. Klar offered an unhinged smile that was meant to be comforting as he passed Amanda off to Faith. “Your friend just needs a few minutes to collect herself after her traumatic experience.”

“Yeah, uh, I guess being exploded’ll do that to you,” Gomez answered, his brow furrowing in concern.

“Explosion?” Klar blinked and then chuckled as he moved back to his more physically injured patients. “Oh. Right, there was an explosion. That was traumatic, too.”

“Nothing makes sense anymore,” Amanda sobbed. “Was Missy right? Is this why she is the way she is? Did she know? Did .. she .. know?”

*****

The clinic was empty of the living. Only corpses remained inside, though some of them still moved. Kaari would have to complement Wanda later, the young girl was really improving with E’rami’s strain. All in all, the survivors totalled maybe half of their original number, and surely that would drop in the next few minutes and hours as injuries took their toll. Kaari had made sure to personally rescue the Peacekeepers she could find and the ranger who had given her spear a complement, among others. She could sense the battle was not going well, but her job here was not done. As much as she wanted to return to the battlefield, Terry’s orders were explicit. She was to save as many lives from the clinic as she could. Left alone without medical treatment, many would die.

Which is why Kaari popped back into reality in the Hill House. Compared to her first entrance, this one went relatively unnoticed. Even the supernatural can become mundane when other matters need attending. Doctor Klar and the people here had done an excellent job setting up what supplies they could into a rough field hospital, and the good doctor was already triaging patients and marking which to treat first and which were beyond salvation.

Kaari had to modify his determinations by a bit. She had a higher opinion of herself than that. She moved to one that Klar had deemed too far to save. With that level of third degree burns, it was true this poor victim was doomed. He’d need a sterile environment and invasive surgery to save his life, and neither of those things could be found in the Hill House.

It was fortunate for him then that Kaari was not bound to the Hill House. With an errant thought, her patient and herself were back in that Porto Alegre hospital. Waiting for her was her surgical staff. Her old family.

“What’s wrong, little shadow?”

Kaari glanced upwards at the kindly eyes of her matron, the doctor that had taken her under her wing. She might have been a figment of Kaari’s imagination. She might have been information collected and stored by the virus. She might have been a ghost. Kaari was glad to see her all the same.

“Hello, Maria. Third degree burns over thirty-six percent of the body. Thermal injuries to the upper and lower respiratory tracts. We’ll need to push fluids to prevent renal failure and get him tubed. Do you want to start debriding or should I?”

“Oh, I know how much you love the scalpel,” Maria said with a knowing smile. “But that’s not what I meant. What’s wrong with you?”

Kaari began cutting. “What do you mean, what is wrong with me? Nothing is wrong with me. Everything is right with me.”

A scream echoed down the hallway. Francis King’s voice. Francis King’s pain. Kaari grit her teeth. “It is them that is wrong.”

“You don’t like that your friend left you out,” Maria correctly deduces as she intubates the patient. One never really thinks of a medical procedure as graceful, but somehow the old woman manages to make sticking a tube down a throat graceful.

“I don’t like that I’m here when I should be out there,” Kaari hisses. Ghostly figures, apparitions without form, pass Kaari medical tools and provide suction as fresh blood wells up. ”None here know of the virus more than me. None know of the Evolved as I do. None have met Colin West as I have.”

The lights flicker as she speaks the dreaded name. Maria glances upwards and makes the sign of the cross. “Careful with the devil’s name, lest he appear.”

“He will not,” Kaari mutters. “This is neutral terrain. He knows I can hurt him. Maybe I can only win in a fight with him one in ninety-nine times, but he can see many realities so I think that one of where I win is all he can see. He will not face me unless he is certain he will win one hundred of all the times.” She gestures at the patient. “You are thinking skin graft taken from the inner thigh? If there is scar tissue around his lungs, then expansion for breathing will be problematic.”

“That sounds lovely,” Maria agrees. “Such a bright child. You are doing good work here. That Terry girl made the right decision, and you know it.”

“Mmmph. It was a battle, she is the chief. I am the shaman, the dreamer. It is my decision to follow for many things. But not for battle. That is hers.” Kaari’s nose wrinkles. “She made the decision. I follow, as I should, but I do not agree.”

“You are saving lives here.” Maria reminds her gently. “I know you, my child. The one thing you hate more than anything else is waste. These are lives that won’t be wasted. You have such a precious gift, you have such talent that shouldn’t be wasted.”

“I have skill too in killing Millers!” Kaari retorts with a scowl. “It is that skill that is wasted. I should be killing the Meat King right now. I should be there now!”

Maria’s kindly expression vanishes, replaced by a cold and hard glare that was the terror of the surgical ward. Kaari wilts under her venomous gaze. “I taught you better than that, little shadow. Any simpleton can kill. A child with a scalpel is deadly. How many people can save? How many can give a life compared to those who can take it?”

Kaari is silent for a long moment, though she doesn’t stop her work with the suture kit. “ .. Terry needs me,” she finally admits.

“Maybe she does,” Maria’s gaze goes distant. “And I do hope that poor girl will be alright. But she needs you first to save these people. And that is what we’re going to do. Now, bring in the next one.”

Maria and the hospital fades from view, replaced again by the dingy kitchen of the Hill House. Kaari’s patient was lying on the table, now missing the deadened skin and sporting new bandages wrapping much of his torso. Kaari moves to the next patient, and then the next, and the next. The list seems never-ending. She flinches as she feels the others in pain, fighting and perhaps dying just out of her reach. She prays that Maria is right. That she is doing the right thing.

She prays that a simpleton can defeat the Meat King.
 
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