The cellar beneath El Dorado, Mia’s charming speakeasy, felt oppressive mainly because I knew we weren’t safe here. Caitlyn and Skye remained Lindsay Griffyn’s prisoners. The entirety of Cloud Nine was hunting me and everyone I cared about. And despite my body’s passive regeneration, my leg still hurt from where Mia dug a tracker out of it, and my ego hurt from getting played so hard.
Still, I had friends to save, and also, a woman to kill. It wasn’t like I could just roll over and die.
I looked around at the little army I still had. Mia Ashford, the woman I loved and couldn’t be with since I’d die in seven years. Jeffrey Lincoln, the too good friend who’d leave a wife and kids behind if I got him killed. Kiara Prescott, the brave woman who’d been kind enough not to shoot me when she thought I’d gone to work for Jack Griffyn. They were my old squad from the Hallowed War.
Then there were the new folks. Saul Bishop, the former Special Tactics Commando gone resistance leader. Reese Alexander, Caitlyn’s little sister and a martial artist almost as good as Mia. Tony Frost, the Armsman, the ex-boyfriend of our current Mute Queen and a real pain in my ass.
And, of course, Amber Mason. The insufferable woman who’d given me endless grief for over the past year. The woman who’d saved my life and burned down hers to do it.
At least I wasn’t doing this alone.
“We’re rescuing Skye and Caitlyn from Cloud Nine,” I said, just in case it wasn’t obvious. “And then, we’re taking out Lindsay, just like Captain Sato took out her dad. So who knows how we can get into Cloud Nine Engineering without getting our asses shot off?
Reese frowned, looking at the others. “Don’t you come up with the plans?”
“I make crappy plans,” I said. “Seriously, someone, help me.”
Lincoln rubbed the back of his neck. “I actually kind of like your plans.”
“The parking garage is a poor idea,” Saul said. “We tried that last time. Too many chokepoints.”
“What if we come in from above?” Prescott asked. “Like Hahna did?”
Amber dismissed that thought with a wave. “We’d be shot down by anti-aircraft batteries.”
“What if…” Prescott hesitated. “Cloud Nine get regular deliveries throughout the day, right?”
Amber frowned, then nodded. “Airships do come on the regular, and there’s only a few guards on each. If we hijack an airship, we might be able to get to the roof without getting shot down.”
“Great!” Mia said.
“That doesn’t get us out, though,” Amber added. “Once Cloud Nine knows they have intruders, they’ll lock down all outgoing traffic.”
An idea clicked in my mind. “So we use your Avian to get us out.”
“They’d shoot it down, and me with it.”
“Not if I fry the top of the building with a Voltage round. I’ll knock out power to their turrets, radar, everything. Then you could fly your Avian in clean.”
Amber watched me, lips tight, and for a moment, I was worried she was going to share what Dismay was doing to me with our entire squad. That she would tell them that each time I fired my Barghest cannon, it accelerated the pace at which my panacea poisoning was killing me. It shaved months or even years off the time I had left.
Yet Amber looked away. She didn’t tell them. She understood I had no choice but to use my hand cannon, if things got bad, and I appreciated her being practical about it.
“What about the AP gas?” Prescott asked. “Cloud Nine will be pumping that everywhere, right?”
“Which is why you’ll all have gas masks,” Saul said. He pointed to a crate I only now noticed, sitting in the corner of the room. “Sturdy and durable. You will have no trouble with gas of any kind.”
That was Saul Bishop, always thinking ahead. “Thanks, Saul.”
Tony stepped forward. “You’ve all forgotten something. The moment you knock out the AA batteries, they’ll stack all their security between the roof and lab. They’ll never let you reach Skye.”
He was probably right. “Do you have a better idea?”
Tony pointed to his chest with his thumb. “I hit the front door before you hit the roof.”
He couldn’t be serious. “That’s suicide.”
Tony walked over to the wall and picked up Massacre. “Only if I actually try to get inside.”
“A distraction,” I said, as I latched on to it. “You storm the gates and make Lindsay think we’re attacking from the street. Once the majority of their forces mobilize to intercept you, on the ground floor, we slip in from the top.” I nodded. “It’ll take them awhile to reverse up ninety stories.”
“That’s an excellent plan,” Saul agreed. “I’ll assist Tony by sniping any who emerge from Cloud Nine, and enlist who I can from Torrent to make a show of launching a full-scale, frontal assault on the facility. I’ll even show myself to further produce the illusion of a full Torrent assault on Cloud Nine headquarters. We need not actually penetrate it to draw their forces to the ground floor.”
Mia grimaced at Tony, then Saul. “That still leaves you two alone on the ground, facing Cloud Nine’s entirely security force. How do you get out of that?”
Tony cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’ve never heard of the Armsman?”
“I’ll get you all out,” I said, after a brief moment of thought. “On our way out, I’ll drop a Zero round on their front door, freeze them, and cut off their assault. That should allow all of you to withdraw once we’ve got Caitlyn and Skye safe.”
Tony glanced at me. “I’m good with that, so long as you promise me you’ll prioritize getting Skye out over backing me up. I can handle myself without you.”
I knew what he was really asking. I also understood why. “You have my word. I’ll get her out. Skye’s not going to be their research subject.”
“Good. Because if you fail, we’ll be having words.”
I smirked. “Only if you’re still alive.”
Lincoln waved. “Hey, uh, guys?”
I glanced at him. “What is it, Jeff?”
“I think I might know where they store the Hallowed weapons now.”
I took a moment to run through the possibilities that presented. “Holy shit?”
Prescott grinned and gripped Lincoln’s shoulder. “If we can get our hands on those again, we’ll have no trouble taking out the conniving bitch who’s been targeting all our families.” She looked at Lincoln. “So where are they keeping them?”
“They were all locked down in Floor 83, the old weapons research lab,” Lincoln said. “Before I left, the engineers there were using all the surviving Hallowed weapons retirees surrendered as templates to build new ones. I’d bet most of them are still just … sitting there.”
“And Floor 83 is right above the lab.” I accepted that we might finally have caught a lucky break. “So we’ll all take a detour.”
“So… this is it?” Mia asked. “We distract them at the front, fly in through the roof, shoot our way down seven stories, and then down three more to assassinate Lindsay Griffyn?”
I nodded. “Seems like that gets everyone done.”
Mia smiled at me. “So who’s crazy enough to do that?”
We needed every Hallowed we had, other than Tony. “Amber is our extraction team. Roof squad is me, Mia, Reese, Key, and Jeff. Doorbusters are Tony, Saul, and however many Torrent people you can talk into it.” I glanced at Lincoln and Prescott. “So long as you guys are—”
“Shut it,” Lincoln said, and raised a hand. “Cam and the kids are safe on Prescott’s private island. It’s a really nice island, but I want them back home. That doesn’t happen until Lindsay Griffyn is dead, so I’m with you, Grant. I’m with all of you. You’re not leaving me behind again.”
Prescott smirked me. “And if you ask me that again, I might murder you.”
I wasn’t asking anyone to do anything they hadn’t heartily signed up for. And I certainly couldn’t rescue Skye and Caitlyn alone. This was the best chance all of us had to save our families, together.
I worked it through in my head. “So that’s our plan. Hijack a Cloud Nine transport and steal their uniforms. Once we’re close to landing, we’ll signal the door busters to kick the hornet’s nest. Once they engage on the ground, back off. Stay safe. We fight our way to Floor 83, grab our weapons, and use those to bust our way into Floor 82. Once we have Skye and Caitlyn, we go after Lindsay … or bug out.”
“Lindsay has to die,” Prescott said evenly.
“She does,” I agreed. “Eventually. I’d love to do it all in one day, but I need to be realistic.” I thought back to my leadership and operation training at Cloud Nine. “Even with Tony and Saul’s distraction, Cloud Nine has a lot of soldiers, including some members of the Hallowed Corps loyal to Lindsay. I want to get it all done, but Caitlyn and Skye’s rescue comes first.”
After a moment, Prescott nodded. She’d had the same training as me.
“Once we have Caitlyn and Skye, I’ll make the call as to whether we go after Lindsay or retreat to plan a new assault.” I looked over my squad, my friends. “If you’re not okay with that, speak up now.”
No one spoke. I was glad. I didn’t want to leave any of them behind, as much as I wanted to deal with Lindsay once and for all today, saving Caitlyn and Skye had to come first.
Reese tapped her lips in thought, then looked at me. “I get why Skye’s in the lab, but why do you think Caitlyn will be there?”
I glanced at Mia for agreement. “Last time we were there, Ethan worshipped the ground Caitlyn walked on, scientifically, and Caitlyn is more than smart enough to talk her way into her lab.” I looked to Reese. “She’ll offer to help study Skye because she knows we’ll come back to rescue her.”
“That’s so many unknowns,” Reese said softly. “Is it always like this with you, Grant?”
“Yes,” Mia, Lincoln, and Prescott all said at once.
I rolled my eyes. “Look, none of this is impossible. We can take eight floors if Tony draws the main force off. Then we take out Lindsay, on Floor 80, or bug out to the roof, where Amber picks us up.”
“Just get Skye out,” Tony said. “We’ll get ourselves out.” He glanced at Saul. “Right, Bishop?”
Saul smiled. “I’ll hold you to that, Armsman.”
“Wait,” Amber said. “There’s one more thing.” She looked at me.
I avoided her gaze. Was she serious? She couldn’t be serious.
“Tell them,” Amber insisted. “No more excuses. It’s time they know about the cannon.”
Dammit. Amber had picked the worst possible time to start caring about me again. Still … I supposed I’d be a risk to the operation if I let myself pass out from firing Dismay.
“Firing Dismay is the reason I have panacea poisoning,” I said.
Mia’s eyes widened. Prescott’s narrowed. Lincoln’s jaw dropped, but Tony and Saul, obviously, barely reacted at all.
Reese just shook her head sadly. “That sucks.”
“It gets worse,” I said, and grimaced, and looked at Mia. “You remember what Jack said? That I had ten years? Well … it’s actually less than that.”
“What?” Mia whispered.
“Each time I fire Dismay, the poisoning accelerates. According to Doctor Gambleswitch, it’s growing exponentially. Since I got my first diagnosis, I’ve fired Dismay enough times to cut my life expectancy to seven years. Each time I fire him, that number goes down further.”
Mia stomped forward and went for my hand cannon. I blocked her first grab instinctively, and she went to flip me. I managed to evade that too, and reflexively swept her boots. She dropped and flipped up again, and this time, she punched me hard enough to send me flying into the wall.
Shouting and thrashing broke out as the stars in my eyes cleared. Prescott and Lincoln and Tony all held Mia back, barely, as she thrashed and kicked. As I shook my head and rose, blinking away the spots, I realized she hadn’t managed to snag Dismay.
She’d trained me well, after all.
Mia stopped thrashing in the arms of the others. “Give it to me,” she whispered.
“No one else can fire it,” I said. “Because if you do, you’ll get panacea-poisoning too.”
“So leave it here!” Mia shouted.
“I can’t. We might need him, and we definitely need a Voltage round to take out the AA batteries. But I promise I won’t shoot him unless it’s absolutely necessary. Okay?”
“You won’t fire him at all,” Prescott said. “We’ll find another way to short out the batteries.”
“Right,” I said. “And that is?”
Prescott scowled at me, but she didn’t immediately offer an alternative. Neither did anyone else. Tony and Lincoln released Mia, and she didn’t try to take Dismay again. I fixed my eyes on Mia.
“One shot,” I said. “Then we’ll get something else in the lab. I don’t want to shorten my life any more than it already is, but we can’t leave our strongest weapon sitting at home.”
Now physically trembling, Mia clenched both hands. “After the roof, you won’t fire him at all. Because I’m going to personally murder every last bloody arsemonger who tries to stop you.”
I smiled at her. “Hey. You called Dismay him.”
“You also said arsemonger,” I added. “Which actually sounds sexy when you say it.”
Blushing, she dabbed at her cheeks and brushed back her hair. “Do shut up.”
The Hallowed Cure releases May 31, 2022!
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