Hank and Thaddeus found themselves standing outside of an old junkyard, with rusted cars standing piled on top of each other in tall columns. Large heaps of scrap metal and trash formed small hills that gave the area something like a skyline. It seemed to have been a relatively big place before the System arrived, a hub of industrial trash and the rotting remnants of technology.
“Jesus, you take me to the weirdest places,” Thaddeus said, fiddling with his plasma pistol. “Fighting in urban environments in the worst. At least in the forest, all you need to worry about is poison ivy. Here, getting knocked into something is a good shot of impaling yourself on twisted rebar. I don’t fancy getting a tetanus shot with my Endurance this high.”
“If yur Endurance is really that high, the rebar won’t pierce ya either.” Hank drawled, pulling his repeater out of its holster. His legs gave him no further information. This was the place where his brother Alan was. It did not seem to bode well for his current health.
There was an even and low pounding in Hank’s head. Something was coming, he was sure of it. But he also agreed with Thaddeus. If they had to fight, this would be a poor location for it. There were too many places for an ambush among the bones and vomit of the old world.
But still, they were here for a reason. As one, they walked forward, looking around carefully at the scrapped paint and rustling plastic bags. In the early days of the Zone, this would have been exactly the sort of spot that Raid Bosses would love to hide to develop their armies for a time before they attacked nearby human settlements. But now, it was as silent as a grave.
They moved through the towering piles of garbage to row after row of broken down cars. There weren’t even any small animals living here to brighten up the place. The low beat in Hank’s head slowly increased in tempo. They were moving closer, but it was slow. Still, Hank wasn’t willing to toss aside everything he knew to follow the speed of the tempo. He didn’t trust it that much.
Finally, Thaddeus looked up and frowned. They were passing a trash compactor. “Do you hear that beat?”
Hank blinked. Of course, he did, but the fact that Thaddeus heard it-
They shared a glance and hurried forward through the junkyard. Very quickly, the very audible beat grew louder. They found a bend where they believed that the noise was around the corner and Hank signaled the other man. They climbed up the trash, doing their best to remain silent. It was difficult, but the beat was full enough of clatters and thumps that the noise they created blended right into the cacophony that had seized the whole area.
When they looked over a dirty washing machine at the top of the pile of trash, both froze.
Below, there was a wide bowl in the hills of trash, probably enough room for a good number of people to gather. At that moment, there was about double the amount of beings there should be in that area, pressed together and… dancing. They stomped their feet and roared their emotions to the sky while a strange glowing body moved above them on a small stage.
And they were all monsters. They all seemed different, with scales, extra limbs, or fur, but they were clearly monsters. Hank’s grip on his repeater tightened.
“Holy fuck,” Thaddeus breathed. “If all of the monsters gathered into an army this big-”
“Let it go,” Hank growled, his eyes scanning around the edges of the trash bowl. Towards one side, there were several lean-tos made of aluminum sheeting and stacked household appliances. Hank pointed. “We have a goal; to find Alan. Let the fucks party; report this and the army will take care of it later.
“Will they?” Thaddeus seemed skeptical. “Do you see how many are down there? Just the weight of bodies would push through plasma fire. If we set up with all of them sitting down in this bowl, we could handle them. But if a group of them broke out-”
“If we can isolate one and kill it, we can check its Level. That will give us a better idea of the magnitude of the threat. But Alan comes first,” Hank hissed. The other man nodded.
They began to move around the outside of the bowl, doing their best to stay quiet. It seemed as though they need not have bothered, as the noise from beneath them was deafening. Whatever the monsters were doing, it was weird. Hank’s initial impression was that it was massing before charging out as a horde and killing people, but the longer he listened, the more incorrect that seemed. But there were some strange… almost ritualistic elements to what was occurring.
Was there such a thing as a summoning ritual? Hank wondered, then he chided himself. Based on how the System worked, if a person believed in it, of course there was. But was that what was happening here? Or…
It took almost forty minutes to get around to the buildings they had spotted across the bowl. The noise was definitely louder now and driving upward toward something specific. But Hank did his best to ignore that. They found that the buildings they spotted were even rougher and broken down than they had appeared from across the bowl. It was surprising enough that the monsters had been able to build small dwellings, but shouldn’t they have made them more… hospitable?
Walking quietly, they began to explore the different dwellings. They were labyrinthine and claustrophobic, but Thaddeus and Hank made good time as they moved through them. The houses seemed to merge seamlessly to each other, and as Hank continued his considered movement through them, he realized that it wasn’t a matter of making the hospitable… it was a matter of making them. There simply wasn’t enough room for all of the monsters here.
Pausing briefly, Hank climbed up onto the roof of one of the houses and looked around. It was clear that several of the nearby hills had been converted into tiny dwellings as well. THere were thousands of monsters here. He felt a chill in his heart. If there were truly that many… it wasn’t a matter of sending a division of the army to handle it. They would need to send the entire army in order to deal with a threat of this caliber.
It was only due to a coincidence that they finally found what they were looking for; Thaddeus’ ears were able to catch a hint of a conversation even over the dull thump of the noise from the trash bowl. With even more care, they crept forward. Finally, they arrived at a door where through the cracks of the rusted door light was shining out. And there were voices within.
Hank narrowed his eyes. If this was another place where the government or the church or whatever had its fucking facilities…
Thaddeus nodded at him. Hank reached out and pushed the door slowly open. Only, right before he did so, the noise from the trash bowl abruptly ceased. That rusty door swinging open was the loudest thing in the world at that moment.
But both of the men knew their business. As soon as it became clear that they wouldn’t be able to maintain secrecy, both burst through the door with their weapons drawn. There were four monsters in the room, one that seemed to look like a werewolf, another that had four small black wings on his back and the twisted face of a vampire, and two that seemed to be a pig-goblin looking breed. They all spun around at the noise.
Hank’s eyes moved from them to the table, where Alan lay, his face pale. His breath was short and quiet, but in that abruptly silent place, the weakness of it was deafening. He leveled his repeater at the monsters.
Before he had even finished rapidly firing his bullets, there was a pop and another monster appeared in the room with them. But this time… the monster seemed to tug at something in Hank, reminding him of something else. It was a treant, probably two meters tall, so tall in the small house that several twisted branches rising from its head brushed the ceiling. But what was strange about this treant was that its bark was ashy and its eyes burned red. There were also several spots on its body where the bark was flaking away, and molten redwood was glowing within.
It was like the thing was slowly burning from the inside out. And that was when a name clicked in his head.
Bulletstorm rushed forward, the bullets smashing into each other and shattering into a wave of shrapnel. The strange treant thing simply waved its hand. The hands were large and blunt, with only four fingers, as though its thumb had been cut off. But when that hand hit the skill, the bullets melted and dispersed into a puff of ash.
Then it reached up and held a gnarled and blunt finger to where its mouth should be. Without another care towards Hank and Thaddeus, it turned away. Thaddeus looked at Hank in askance. But Hank couldn’t move; his eyes were locked on Alan, whose labored breathing had stopped.
With another wave of the hand, the treant produced a small flame that was pure white. Very carefully, it approached Alan’s body. The other monsters shuffled to the side. None of them would look at Hank and Thaddeus, but stared at the ground, likely in fear. It was gentle in its movements as it lowered the flame and pressed it into Alan’s chest.
There was nothing for several seconds, and then Alan gasped, sitting up. He coughed up a wade of dark phlegm, then reached up to touch his chest. “Ah, fuck me this hurts.”
Then he seemed to notice Hank. Alan blinked. “...Hank? What are you-”
“We don’t have time, Alan,” Hank said, his eyes on the four monsters and the treant. The treant placidly turned and waved at him. “There is… well, there is a fuckload of monsters around here. More than a wild boar has fleas. So move over to me slowly, and we can-”
“There are twelve thousand of us.”
Hank blinked. The vampire looking monster rubbed its hands together nervously. It glanced up at him, then back at the ground. Its voice was much weaker the second time. “...twelve thousand of us. And… we aren’t monsters. We are just…”
“fRIenDS.” The treant said, its voice squeaking at some parts of the word. Then, the damn thing began to dance.