Something strange had happened recently.
In my uncounted ages trapped in the toy box, I had no way of interacting with the outside world except for my limited sixth sense, allowing me to sense all the things around me that I could affect with my power—if only they had been within reach.
Turgay had come to tell me I had been in the box for eleven days, and that he was leaving the city with Soaring Eagle, but I had no idea when that was. A week ago? A day? An hour? There was simply nothing to mark the time.
But after Turgay left, something happened. It felt like five minutes later, but it had probably been longer.
The entire city started screaming.
I could hear them, a chorus of fallen angels, bouncing around inside my head like the echo in a bell. I could always hear the screamers we had captured, in the back of my mind, but I had learned to block it out.
But this… it was such a massive increase in the constant background noise, such a huge jump in the number of screamers, that I could only assume that the absolute worst had happened.
The entire city had been turned.
How? Why now? I had no idea. But I could even hear psychic screams echoing up from the lowers floors of the building I was trapped in. If any of them came up here…
Heh. What was I wishing for? Life, or death? Because I literally could not think of a worse situation than being trapped in the toy box, as it constantly tried and failed to repair the damage the calciophage was still doing to my bones.
But either way, it didn’t matter. Because within moments—or weeks, whichever—the screaming stopped.
All of it.
For the first time since this whole affair started at the beginning of the school year, there was peace and quiet inside my head.
It took me a minute to even notice. I had been living with it for so long, pushing it to the back of my mind for so long, that I was hardly even conscious of it anymore. It was only when it was gone that I realized how much I had grown accustomed to it.
It was like having every electronic device in your building unplugged and turned off, all at once. Suddenly, all sorts of things you barely even noticed—the distant thrumming of machinery, the subtle vibration of the walls, the whir of cooling fans—was just gone, leaving something empty in your head.
That wasn’t to say I wasn’t grateful the constant, undulating screams of the zombies were gone. It just took me a few minutes to get used to, that was all. Like taking off a really heavy backpack. Just need to… stretch a bit, get used to new found freedom.
I still had questions, though. How had Elizabeth finally infected the entire city? And how had we finally beat her? Because that was what had happened. I knew that well enough. I might be trapped in a state that might not legally be considered ‘alive,’ but I was still sharp enough to know how stories went. Derek and the others must have found a way to stop her.
The city wasn’t dead, either. That was one possible solution, that they had just killed everyone with some weird bomb or whatever, but I could still occasionally feel people at the edge of my perception, a few floors above or below.
No one came to my floor, however.
Until one day, they did.
I had no idea who it was. No idea if it were an ally or an enemy. I just felt a large bundle of matter wandering the room I was in, pausing briefly here and there. If they were aware of my presence, they showed no sign of it. They just kept whistling a jaunty tune—
Wait. I could hear the whistling. Had Turgay forgotten to turn off the radio on the toy box?
The whistling stopped.
“Hello?” a voice called out. Female. Twenty to thirty or so. “Someone there?”
The woman slowly edged over into my direction. I had a vague impression of something long and slender in her hands. A sword? Why would she have a sword? “If someone is making fun of me, it’s… it’s not funny!”
“Not…” I coughed uncontrollably as some shard of bone got stuck in my throat. Even as I was hacking up blood and feeling my muscles snap under my spasms, the sound of my helplessness at least convinced the woman that I was genuine.
“I’m going to go get help!” she promised. “Wait—”
“No!” I spat, as loud as I could manage. I doubt it was too loud, but I at least managed to put urgency into the word. “Not… birds…”
“Why don’t you want…” There was a slight pause. “The aves did this to you, didn’t they?”
“Y-yes… open… open…”
“Okay, one second, let me get this sheet off.” Oh, there must have been some sort of sheet hiding the toy box from view. I had felt something, but I hadn’t been sure what it was. “This… is this the toy box?”
But she was skeptical. “Look, I’m not a doctor, but these readings look bad, and you sound worse. I really, really think I should leave you in there. I can call Necessarius, or the Servants or something.”
That might actually not be a bad idea. Either one would take good care of me; the ‘sarians because I technically still worked for them, and the Servants because taking care of people was what they did.
But maybe it was just the pain, or the lack of sleep, or some unanticipated side effect of spending who knew how long inside the most advanced toy maker device in the world, but I wasn’t willing to accept any of those options.
I needed out of this coffin.
“Out,” I insisted.
“But you’ll die!”
“I… I…” There was a long, long pause. I couldn’t breathe while waiting for her to make her choice. If not for the toy box keeping my body working as smoothly as possible, I’m certain my heart would have stopped.
“All right,” she whispered finally. “Please just… don’t die.”
She opened the toy box.
The pain was unimaginable. Everything hurt. Like a trillion shards of glass were flowing through my veins, while my skin was set on fire and my eyes were clawed by wild animals and worse.
But I had lived with this pain. For at least eleven days, perhaps far longer.
The only difference now was that the toy box wasn’t fixing me.
I kept my sixth sense extended, feeling my broken body beginning to fall apart even as the box opened, allowing my tortured eyes to see light for the first time in weeks. Through the haze of pain, I saw a pretty young woman in a janitor’s uniform, staring down at me in concern.
The toy box was too far off the floor, and I doubted I would have been able to pull myself out by my own strength anyway. I needed this person’s assistance, at least for a few moments longer.
“Pool… ” I managed. My voice felt slightly stronger. Maybe the toy box’s constant regeneration had actually been part of what made it so hard to talk. Most of my muscles felt stronger, now that they weren’t being perpetually modified and stabilized by the most high-tech device in the city.
Of course, with my sixth sense I could feel the shards and splinters of my bones slicing into my muscles even as I spoke. Now that the toy box wasn’t there to repair the damage, I was likely going to bleed out from horrific internal damage rather quickly.
But I had a plan. It was a horrible, stupid plan that started bad and ended worse, and I likely wouldn’t have a chance to complete even half of it, but I had been thinking about it for quite some time. It might work.
“Pool? What? What are you talking about?”
Assuming I could explain it to my helpful little janitor before I bled out.
“Pool,” I said again. “Take… me…”
“Right! Okay, the pool! Yeah, I cleaned that earlier today, so I—I’m babbling. Just… stalling, I guess.” She took a deep breath. “Okay… right. Men and monsters, I’m pretty sure that this is going to hurt like you cannot imagine. Steel yourself, okay?”
She was right. Putting her arms under my body, picking me up, and moving me to her janitor cart (which she had thankfully had the foresight to empty first) hurt more than anything in the universe.
But I had been dealing with that kind of pain for a long time now. I just bit down on my tongue with my toothless gums and fought to keep from screaming.
It was over in a moment—or a year. I was still having trouble telling the difference. But the point was that soon enough, my erstwhile ally had carefully hidden me under janitorial supplies, and was wheeling me towards the pool on this same floor. I could still feel it, with my sixth sense, even if it was the only thing besides my own body I could feel.
And my body was failing. I had known that was going to happen, of course, but the really depressing part was that it wasn’t happening as fast as I had expected. That might seem like an odd thing to complain about, but the point is that while I was bleeding internally, my muscles were strong. I had expected to die about five minutes after being pulled out of the box. If I had just had the janitor cart the box, with me in it, to the pool, I’d have a much higher chance of success. It was frustrating, realizing that I might die because of a minor mistake I made.
But, by the time I realized all that, we were in the same room as the pool, so it was far too late to turn back. I extended my senses, but I couldn’t tell if the concrete basin was filled with water or not. My power was limited when it came to sensing solids, but I flat-out couldn’t sense liquids.
“What are you doing here?” a sharp voice asked.
Crap. A guard. We were only fifteen feet from the pool, but he was in our way. Well, something was standing in our way. It was probably him, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure.
“Cleaning, sir,” the janitor replied cheerfully, with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “It’s my first day on the job. After everything that happened—”
“After everything that happened, we don’t want anyone in here until they’re properly vetted,” the guard snapped. “We don’t know who you are or what you can do. You can go, you might get a call in a few days if we haven’t fired the idiot who hired you.”
“But… sir, I’ve already been here five hours today, if you’ll just let me finish my shift—”
“No, you go now. Leave the cart where you found it.”
There was a pause. I had no idea how long it was.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said leave—”
I heard the dull thump of a body hitting the ground.
Then, there was light shining down from above. I squinted at the janitor’s terrified face as she pulled the supplies off my head.
“I knocked him out,” she hissed. “Whatever you’re going to do—”
“All warhawks, to the pool!” that same sharp voice snapped, from about floor level. “Intruder alert! Repeat, all warhawks to the pool!”
My ally was knocked aside. I heard a scuffle, then a loud splash. My sixth sense helped confirm what I had heard: She had been knocked into the pool. Which, apparently, did have water in it after all.
I could sense more warhawks coming. I needed to figure out a way out, before—
“Skies above, what the—” Too late. The guard had decided to see what the janitor had been doing with the cart, and had found me. I saw him speak into his radio again. “We’ve got some kind of bio-hazard at the pool. Looks like a person, maybe.”
“Copy that,” the radio chirped. “Stand by. We’ll dispose of it when we get there.”
Velvet hells, I did not come this far to die to a bio-hazard team.
I threw all my weight—what little of it remained—against the wall of the janitorial cart, which actually managed to topple it on its side, to my surprise. It hurt like a mother, and rolling out amid all the spilled tools was worse, but I grimaced and bore it.
“Uh, command, bio-hazard has… escaped from containment. Alive, but barely.”
“Is it doing anything?”
I turned my attention to the pool. I kept my eyelids firmly shut, honestly worried that my eyeballs might fall out of my head if I wasn’t careful, and just extended my awareness through my stonesense.
Fifteen feet to the edge of the pool. I started crawling, doing my best to ignore the sharp shards of calcium in clumps where my bones used to be. Constant, agonizing pain, but I could deal with it.
“Bio-hazard appears to be crawling away, command.”
“Well, stop it.”
I felt something step on my right arm, and howled in pain. In a sheer instinctive, animal reaction, I spasmed away, trying to free myself as quickly as possible.
And suddenly, my arm didn’t hurt anymore. Sure, there was a throbbing pain in my shoulder, but, I couldn’t feel—
“That’s just not right…” the guard muttered.
I confirmed it with my stonesense; yes, I had just ripped off my own right arm. And the really sad part was that even knowing that, it still hurt less than had before. One bloody, torn stump was nothing compared to an entire arm filled with nothing but shards of pain.
All I could do was continue. Continue crawling forward, scrabbling forward with my one remaining limb, getting closer and closer to salvation. I didn’t quite have to reach the pool itself; while the floor I was on now was just painfully textured plastic, the lip of the pool was tile. I could affect that—
There was a wet sound, as if someone had stepped in something soggy.
Then my leg started screaming in even more pain than before.
I resisted the urge to follow suit, knowing it would just make my throat bleed even more. The guard had stepped on my lower leg, pinning me in place. I tugged lightly, but no use. I was definitely stuck.
I was five feet away. Less, even. But it might as well have been five miles.
With my expanded stonesense, I could feel that more guards were coming. The janitor appeared to be knocked out cold—or dead—judging by her conspicuous stillness. It was over. Weeks or months of waiting and planning, ended here and now.
But I was so close.
Steeling my heart and my resolve, I put every last ounce of strength into my body, and made one last push.
My left leg was torn off at the kneecap.
The guard cried out in surprise and disgust.
A dozen more warhawks rushed the room.
And my fingers brushed the tile edge of the pool.
“Don’t move!” someone called, presumably while pointing a gun at me.
I smiled. For what felt like the first time in my entire life.
And then the pool exploded, the concrete bursting out in a thousand directions, a million great stone hands and tendrils and blades, attacking every ave within range, and searching for more when those were all killed in a heartbeat.
All my time in the toy box, with nothing to do but try to affect stone far out of range, had massively increased my power level. Like constant, unending training, underlined with a pain that would make God himself weep.
The aves died.
Every single one in the building, from top to bottom, crushed and sliced and stabbed.
The janitor died. The boy on the first floor, looking for his brother, died. The kids wandering the third floor, hoping to become new fledglings, died. The scientists and experimental subjects on the second floor, playing with new found powers I was unaware of, died. The building itself died.
Behind the Scenes (scene 231)
Saturday November 3rd, for context.