Title: Mutable, Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part One
Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part One
They couldn’t go out the door. The door led to the vulnerable side of the hovercraft, where they were taking fire. But they couldn’t go out the nose, either—the viewscreen was smashed, but that’s where the fire was hottest. Cas could take a gun and blast a hole in the craft with enough time, but—
Oh. Now that the hovercraft was down on its side and no one was looking at him expecting him to be all regal, Cas finally got a good look at what was technically the ceiling of the vehicle. There was an emergency exit there, partially covered by excessive red bunting. Cas crawled toward it, pulling the kids along with him. Lilah clung like she’d never let go, and Shar didn’t even lift his head. They needed him. They were relying on him.
Fear and love coursed through him in a painful jolt, threatening to take his breath away. How could he feel so much for them, so fast? They weren’t even his children…except in all the ways that they were. And now it was time to step up.
Cas ducked down as low as he could get and still move—the smoke was starting to become a problem. Once they reached the emergency exit, he pulled his arm away from Lilah so that he could reach out and twist the handle that would open the hatch.
It was stuck.
“Bull-fucking-shit,” Cas muttered. “You do not get to do this to me right now, I will not let this happen.” He cranked it hard—nothing. Freed his other hand and used them both—he felt a tiny, almost imperceptible shift, but not nearly enough to make a difference. Had it been sabotaged, just like Freyne?
The fire was getting closer. It was too late to double back for the door or a gun. Lilah whimpered, and Cas decided he’d had enough. This was going to work, and it was going to work now.
He leaned into the handle, setting his wrists and forcing the phage down his arms before he twisted it again. A tiny turn, too tiny—he pushed himself harder, forgetting about the toxic smoke swirling around his head as he urged the phage deeper into muscle, into bone. Something in his hand broke. He ignored the pain and kept the pressure on…on…another bone broke…harder…
The lever gave, and the hatch opened up. Cas pushed the removable door out onto the grass beyond the craft, then helped the kids through. He followed them, only letting his lungs cough to try and expel the particulates he’d inhaled once he was reassured that no one was shooting at them yet and they were safe from the fire for the time being.
“Beren,” Lilah whispered, confusion edging out the fear in her eyes. “Your face is different.”
“It’s—” He touched his chin and froze. Oh. Shit. He’d forced so much of the phage down into his arms and shoulders that it had given up his facial morph. “It’s still me,” he said after a moment. “I promise.”
“Is this…part of your mission?”
“Yeah, honey, it is.”
“Does Daddy know?”
All of a sudden Cas remembered Rone, and he had to stop himself from lurching around the edge of the flaming hovercraft as his phage made its preferences know. “He knows,” he said tightly, holding onto his parasite with all his willpower. “I need to make sure he’s all right. You stay here with Shar, and—”
“No!” It was more of a shriek than a simple denial. “We’re coming with you, please, don’t leave us, please, please!”
And he couldn’t leave them. It was as simple as that. “Okay. We’ll look around the corner together, all right?” Rone, you better fucking be all right because I can’t help you now. Not while he had to put the children first.
None of the weapon fire was even close to their position. In fact, it sounded like there was…less of it. Cas crept to the edge of the hovercraft, Lilah and Shar still clinging to him like little shadows, and glanced around the corner. What he saw was…carnage.
Beautiful, glorious carnage.
There were three bodies laid out on the grass. Two of them bore smoking chest wounds, and the third one had crumpled in a way that made Cas wonder if his back had been broken. Rone was fighting a fourth one now, hand to hand, and Cas spared a moment to wonder why he bothered drawing the fight out—he was bigger and clearly stronger than the other man—when another one started to shoot at them. Rone whirled around and put his attacker’s body between himself and the shooter. The man went limp, and when the shooter paused, Rone kicked the body in his direction as he lifted his own gun and fired.
Up arced the body…out surged the energy beam…the shooter was dead before his companion hit the ground. There were two more people out there, though, and while one of them shot toward Rone from the front, a shot he somehow dodged, the other one fired toward his side. The blast creased his upper shoulder, leaving a bloody line behind. Rone stumbled, and his attacker prepared to fire again—
And then Rone moved, faster than should be possible, as fast as a gust of wind, until he was right in front of the person shooting and wrenching their weapon to the side just as they fired. The bolt went straight through the final attacker’s gut, and as he dropped to the ground with a whimper, Rone disarmed the man in front of him, took his head in his hands, twisted and dropped his weight down all at once. The man’s neck broke. Rone dropped him, then straightened up and looked back toward the burning hovercar. As soon as he saw Cas and the kids, his leonine posture relaxed, and some of the purple faded from his blazing eyes.
He waved for them, and Cas got to his feet and shepherded the children over the ruined lawn to their father. “Any sign of a sniper?” he asked as they got close. There should be one, honestly, it would have been way easier than sending foot soldiers after Rone.
“No. The palace has safeguards against the discharge of an energy weapon within it. They won’t work within ten feet of the building.” He was breathing hard but steady, and his hand was firm around the gun he held. His eyes gleamed like crystals catching the light. Cas felt almost overwhelmed by how much he wanted to throw himself at the man.
Not the time. “Your gun won’t be much use once we’re in, then.”
“No, but we’ve got a few hundred yards to walk first.” Rone looked over both of the kids. “Are you two all right?”
“Yes Daddy,” Lilah whispered. Shar managed a nod.
They weren’t all right, of course—there was nothing all right about their situation, but Rone seemed to know what he was doing, and Cas understood. If he hugged his children right now, he would lose the edge that battle had given him. He needed to stay sharp.
“Come on, then.” Rone led the way, walking with long, determined strides toward the palace. There was no movement at the front door, or at any of the windows. Christala was waiting for them.
As they passed the man who’d been shot in the gut, Cas heard him moan, “What did we do? What did we do? Why…why…”
Oh. He’d lose enough blood that the phage didn’t hold sway over him anymore. Cas stopped beside him and knelt down. The man—he was young, clean-cut and tanned, with sweet brown eyes—looked up at him desperately. “I d-don’t know—why, I n-never wanted to…”
“I know,” Cas said. “It’s not your fault.” He wanted to get help, but it was too late—the man was losing blood too fast. Cas shrugged off his heavy jacket and the sash, wadded the red cloth up and pressed it hard against the man’s wound, then tied it down. If they could finish up inside in time, then he would come back. “Just breathe,” he said, gently stroking the man’s forehead for a moment. “Just breathe.”
When he stood up, Rone was staring at him. Waves of violet washed over his pupils like they were caught in a storm. Cas straightened his back and put his blood-stained arms around the kids. “Let’s go.”