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Part Five

  Caught between the hole leading outside and the door directly back to the school, Olivia found herself in an indecisive spiral for just long enough to make her already-clenched stomach turn back on itself. There main advantage to the outside was the fast access to a potential weapon—the police officer’s firearm. Even though the thought of holding a gun had long been relegated to the realm of impossibility, here it came to dominate her decision making.

  The anxious paralysis wore off and she pushed herself toward the partially collapsed wall that Rebecca had just leapt through. The girl leaned over the edge, finding the height to be enough to dissuade her initial notion of an easy jump. Instead, she cautiously sat down and swung her legs over the side before trying to ease herself down.

  The sudden rush of air blowing by her ears was unsettling, but it was the hard landing on a chunk of masonry that proved to be the most disastrous. Her right foot hit the solid mass as the rest of her continued merrily onward. With a shock of electric pain tearing out of her ankle, Olivia thudded downward, shoulder and palm meeting pointed resistance and tearing open. She yelped in protest before reigning it in; the murderous firefighter was still at large; who knew if he would lose interest in Rebecca and return for the cop?

  She rose, struggling to keep much weight on her right leg, and partially limped her way toward the prone lady officer. The nearby cruiser pumped noxious, black smoke into the night sky as fire chewed away at the interior and curled around the dead body haphazardly draped across the vehicle’s roof. Olivia made a point not to inhale through her nose, though an unspeakable taste hinted itself against her tongue as she breathed.

  Even between the moonlight and the glow of the fire, Olivia couldn’t make out if the officer was still breathing. Carefully, though as quickly as her adrenaline would allow her shaking limbs to work, she knelt down and rolled the woman over. Eyes fluttered under their lids, as though struggling to pry them open from below. Her face was smeared with blood from its impact with the car frame, and fresh liquid was still pumping from the wound.

  As Olivia was evaluating the woman’s injury, the cop’s eyes snapped open. Shocked, Olivia fell backward, though not fast enough to stop a surprisingly powerful grip from ensnaring her arm. The woman tried to say something, but all she could muster was a whispered and repeated “Wh”.

  The girl nodded and squirmed out of the woman’s grasp the second she sensed that the fingers lost their force. She returned to the officer’s side and looked in her eyes. “The man who did this is in there,” she said, pointing to the school. After trying to determine just how to talk about Rebecca, she settled for the easiest, though perhaps not most accurate, word. “My friend saved your life.” The cop did not change her expression, making it difficult to judge whether or not she understood. Nevertheless, Olivia pressed on: “I need your gun.” The woman’s face was frozen. “Please.”

  Weakly, the officer pointed toward the cruiser. Olivia clambered over to the site and, after a minimum of pawing, discovered the boxy pistol in the grass underneath the vehicle. She stood, examining the weapon. It was heavier than she expected, though lighter than she felt it should be. It made her feel ill in a way that the fire ax hadn’t.

  The thought didn’t make her feel particularly good.

  “Hey,” the woman spat. Olivia whirled to find the officer in roughly the same position, though she had managed to somewhat lift her head to watch the girl’s search. “F… f…” she tried. Her head lolled, and she was once again totally on her back. Slowly, she raised her hand and extended four fingers before a coughing fit made her spasm.

  “Four shots?” Olivia asked.

  A meek thumbs-up. “Th… they’llbecoming,” she forced out. After a cough, she spoke slightly clearer: “They’ll be coming.”

  The girl looked at the woman, then the gun, then the school. “She’ll be dead before then,” she said quietly. Not sure how to handle the weapon in her hand, she held it with a stiff arm angled at the ground as she moved toward the ruins that had once been the main entryway to the school.

  The smoke that had once been an impenetrable miasma had thinned out considerably, leaving only an ashen haze that revealed that every glass surface around the entry vestibule had been annihilated in the explosion. Olivia remembered how, despite the impressive sound, the man who triggered the trap had managed to survive it; some small part of her had realized that it that the explosive was not meant to kill outright, but to maim so as to allow a more personal brutality to be visited upon the victim.

  Her feet crunched upon glass shards that had been flung into the school from the bomb’s detonation. It didn’t take long to figure out where Rebecca had gone; a trail of overturned garbage cans left a distinct trail leading into the heart of the school. With a deep breath and throbbing leg, Olivia moved quickly and quietly toward the capsized bins. The path seemed to diverge at points, but peering into the darkness would often reveal another trash can with a punctured lid, or a locker with an ax-like indentation, and instinct pulled the girl along.

  And then, the pop of a gunshot.

  It was the flash, scything briefly into the darkened hallway, that pinged Rebecca’s position definitively as around the next turn. As Olivia broke into an outright run, she realized that the woman’s plan had been, at least in part, to lead Morgan back to the security guard’s corpse and take advantage of the gun. Around the corner, she heard something clatter to the ground.

  Another pop made Olivia stop.

  “Get b—” Rebecca shouted, only to be cut off.

  The reason why was addressed in the next instant, when the woman’s body darted through the air and crashed into a set of lockers hard enough to leave a crater. She collapsed to the floor without a word of protest before slumping.

  “Rebecca!” Olivia shouted.

  Her voice stirred the woman, who forced her wobbling head upright to glare in disbelief. “Why are—”

  Morgan’s gloved hand was around Olivia’s throat, the firefighter gliding noiselessly from around the corner. As though she weighed nothing, she was hefted aloft by her neck. Out of all the times she had seen this done in movies, with heroes gasping for air and choking as the physically imposing villain monologued, she was unprepared for how much it hurt, how suffocation was secondary to the blinding and overwhelming pain of it all, how the thumb and forefinger shoved her jaw up into her skull. It was only with concentration that she released that the killer’s ax was raising, preparing to strike.

  The world snapped into clarity. Olivia shoved the pistol underneath Morgan’s chin and squeezed the trigger. In an instant, she was released, and the gun jerked from her hand as she found herself unmoored. She fell hard enough that her legs buckled immediately and she wound up flat on her ass. The whole time, her ears protested the sonic boom mere feet from her face.

  It was no surprise that Morgan had received the worst of it, his gagging gasps and staggered footsteps somehow penetrating the persistent whine. Finally, he stopped his spasms, straightened, and turned. Olivia looked up and found herself instinctively backing away in as much horror as disgust.

  The gunshot had blown off his helmet, taking the visor with it. Morgan’s face, laced and glistening with third degree burn scars, seemed to have permanently twisted itself into a murderous scowl. Dark red webbed his face, and embers from some unknown source sparked into existence and wormed along his skin before dying. Ichor leaked from deep wounds in his forehead and one cheek, running toward a permanent, ropy rivulet of cloudy saliva that stalactited from his chin. His eyes—crystalline blue and bright—burned with a meticulous, unforgiving fury.

  Above the internal screaming dominating her mental landscape, a tiny voice pierced the fog: Do something! Breaking her attention away from the wraith in front of her, Olivia scanned the ground for the gun and found it much too close to her would-be killer. With an unearthly coolness that was at odds with the fierceness of his eyes, Morgan plodded toward the girl and raised his ax into the air. Getting up to run seemed pointless, as he could snap forward at any moment, planting the weapon…

  “FUCKER!” Rebecca roared, sinking the pole’s barbed hook into the firefighter’s armpit. With a jerk, she swung the stunned man around as she free her weapon. The force of the blow sent the seemingly unstoppable force stumbling backward, fighting to keep his balance and the distance from his prey. Clumsily, he swung the ax, but the woman took a mere half step away from the slow arc before darting forward and spearing Morgan’s gut. “YOU WON’T TOUCH HER!” she commanded, planting her foot on his thigh and pulling the hook free. With a half-spin flourish, steaming dark viscera was loosed. Morgan registered something others could perceive as encumbering pain and slumped onto his knees.

  The girl could barely move, transfixed by Rebecca’s fury. “YOU!” she screamed as she slammed the pole across Morgan’s face. “FUCKING!” Again. “WILL!” Again. “NOT! TAKE! HER! TOO!” Again, again, again, and again. “MONSTER!” With this, she swung the hook upward, snagging it into the firefighter’s jaw. Morgan clawed weakly at it with his free hand, but with a surge of strength, fueled by grief and rage, Rebecca pulled him up onto his feet. Momentum carrying her, she turned her back briefly and yanked the hook free, taking his mandible with it.

  The ichor splattered against the woman’s back and filled the hall with a terrible gagging gurgle. Morgan tried to defend himself with the ax, but Rebecca launched herself at him, pole leveled at the spurting hole in his face. She roared, pushing him back, shoving the weapon through his throat and out the back of his neck. The two stumbled backward before a locker interrupted, but the force proved too great. When Rebecca released the pole, the twitching Morgan had been staked in place.

  After seeing what she had done, Rebecca covered her mouth. She tilted her head, and Olivia could see a tear fall to the floor from her cheek. Another moment passed, and her hands balled into fists. “Motherfu—” she screamed brokenly, the right cross she meant to punctuate the expletive sliding off the remnants of his uniform. “You stupid prick,” she said half-heartedly, punching his chest. “You stupid, stupid prick,” she sputtered, as though the scream she meant had gotten lost halfway out her mouth. She took a half step back and looked at his face. “What happened to you?” she whispered, quietly enough to make Olivia question whether she had actually said it at all.

  Olivia slowly pushed herself upright and made her way toward Rebecca. She stooped to pick up the pistol, too exhausted to do much more than keep it resting by her side. The woman brought one hand up to her forehead while the other rested on her hip. Wanting to keep a respectful space, Olivia stopped about three arm-lengths from the woman and cleared her throat. “You okay?”

  Rebecca shook her head and sniffed. “No.” She turned to look at Olivia with reddened eyes, a slightly softness creeping into her them despite it all. “But I m—”

  It happened so quickly that, initially, the two only responded to the spatter of blood on Olivia’s face, one with a flinch at the moist impact, the other with a curious squint. Then, Rebecca looked down at her side, the sliced jacket smoking as though subjected to a lighter. With a shaking hand, she lifted the shred, revealing a slice that had been mostly cauterized, with hints of blood trickling down the edges. She turned to look at Morgan, the killer recovering from the swing and slowly pulling his head along the pole.

  Olivia couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream, couldn’t move. How else do you respond to what you believed to be impossible?

  Rebecca stumbled back, but couldn’t command her legs to cooperate fully. The ax shakily came up and fell upon her in an awkward arc. Morgan couldn’t fully commit to the swing, but his terrible strength compensated for that. The blade buried itself in Rebecca’s chest, near her left arm, with a wet crunch of bone and the hissing pop of blood against the heated blade. Without a further sound, the woman fell, landing on the flat of her back and immediately convulsing.

  “Rebecca!” Olivia screamed, impulsively darting toward her. Morgan, hands free, had grabbed hold of the pole and yanked it out of the wall, returning his full range of movement. Before Olivia could close the distance any further, he punched her, the powerful blow sending her into the air and crashing down the hall. She heaved desperately, forcing air into her lungs as she pushed herself in a position to see what the killer was doing.

  He appeared to be entranced by the sight of his dying sister. It would be impossible to suggest that he felt guilt over it. But there was something about it, something perversely poignant, of the scene. It had the air of a funerary photograph, an attempt to commemorate something forever lost.

  Momento mori.

  It made Olivia’s gut twist in on itself.

  He knelt by Rebecca’s side, cocking his head as the woman twitched.

  The gun’s weight seemed to suddenly re-register in her hand, and she struggled to get upright.

  He ran his hand along the ax handle, down toward its base.

  Olivia wouldn’t make it in time.

  She stopped scrambling upright. Something pricked at the back of her mind. When he came for me… it was so he could save me from the nightmare he created.

  The girl took a knee, hiding the gun by holding it behind her. “Morgan!” she called out. The plea went unnoticed. “Help me!” This seemed to distract him, and he turned his speared face toward her. It would have been grimly comical had it not been so grotesque. “Please… I know you’re here to help,” she said, her voice quaking. She shut her eyes tightly, regretting never taking an acting class. “What happened to Rebecca… it’s not your fault.” He rose at this. “You can’t save her, but you can save me.”

  Slowly, he moved toward her. “You’re a hero. And we’ve treated you so badly,” she continued. Each word brought him closer, seemingly pulling him with greater gravity. “I’ll… I’ll tell everyone you rescued me.” He neared her, towering over her, and her heart felt like it would burst. She reached out to him—not up, but out. “You deserve this.”

  She worried this came out tinged by her true intent.

  He regarded the hand, then took it surprisingly gently. Morgan helped her upright.

  Olivia swung the pistol out and into the remnants of his face the moment she was on her feet. She emptied the three shots into him. He released his hold on her so as to grasp at his head, falling away as gobs of thick blood spattered to the floor and rolled off his gear. The girl turned and ran, the reality of her utter lack of a plan beyond shooting the firefighter in the face setting in. A notion teased her, telling her to get to the second floor, with its science labs…

  Something twisted up her legs and she fell as a barb sunk into her calf. She screamed in pain as she looked at offending item.

  The pole, pulled from Morgan’s skull, was now partially embedded in her leg. She reached for it, and found that she couldn’t quite reach the weapon. She rolled over, and saw that the killer was closing in, though moving with a deliberate slowness that called to mind a cat toying with a mouse. With a grimace, Olivia maneuvered and pulled the offending spike out of her leg. In a moment, she was up and running with a hobbling gait, carrying the hooked metal rod that had once called her leg home.

  Behind her was a trail a blood.

  Further still was Morgan, stalking.

  Whatever plan she could come up with now had to start with getting the first aid kit.

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