The motorcycle came to a stop amidst the ruins of a large, long-abandoned construction project, on the edge of the bay.
Amongst a half-finished skeleton of steel beams, people had tied up a series of tarps, forming makeshift shelters. A fortunately-positioned cliff face blocked this particular structure from most of the unceasing winds that whipped about.
"This was once a place of power," said Russ, looking around the ruins.
"It was a football stadium," said Percy.
"As I said," said Russ, and approached the tarps.
There were actually some very cozy setups within the maze of shelters, some very creative uses of reclaimed plywood and other construction materials, and they soon found themselves at the door of a kind of room solidly walled in mostly wood. In the room was a workbench, and a woman working at it. She looked up with a smile.
"Mr. Ianniello," she said, nodding warmly. "You may come in."
Russ, who had hesitated at the threshold, now bounded jauntily across. She turned her eye to Percy. "So you got the boatman?"
"No problem at all," said Russ. "Just like I said."
"I suppose you want me to look after him," said the woman.
"Percy, this is Gloria," said Russ. "You should be safe with -"
"Just a second," said Gloria, holding up a hand. "I was about to say, I suppose you want me to look after him, but that's not going to be possible."
"But..." began Russ.
"Percy, did he say?" said Gloria, looking directly at the boatman.
"Ma'am," said Percy, flustered into taking off an imaginary hat.
"Percy, you have got yourself mixed up in some real shit."
"Don't I know it, ma'am," said Percy.
"I need to go to the tower," said Russ. "I can't take him with me."
"They're coming to clear out the encampment at sunset," said Gloria.
Russ cursed and smashed his fist into one of the walls, punching a hole in it. "Sorry."
"It doesn't matter now," said Gloria.
"What is everyone going to do?"
"I've found temporary shelters for most of them. You probably noticed it was quieter than usual. I've just been finishing up a couple of necessities for the road and then Thomas and I will be heading out to see if we can find a place for ourselves."
Percy now noticed the project on the workbench seemed to be some kind of crossbow.
"Can you find a shelter for Percy?" asked Russ.
Gloria shook her head regretfully. "I've used up all my contacts. I don't even have place for us right now."
"But I can't just ditch him," said Russ. "And I have to get to the tower. They know I'm here. I need to strike now."
Gloria sighed and looked at the both of them for a long time, and then through the hole in in the wall, as if she could see straight through to the city.
"We weren't going anywhere, Russ," said Gloria at last. "There's nowhere left for us to hide. We were going to wait for them and take out as many as we could. We'll go with you."
"Like you had a chance on your own, anyway," boomed another voice, and Russ shrieked and leapt onto the ceiling like a cat, as a man walked in, with a bo staff strapped to his back.
"Thomas," said Gloria, rolling her eyes.
Russ descended gingerly to the ground and said, "Hi, Thomas."
Thomas wasn't a very big man, he was just very loud. He clapped Russ on the back. "We doing this?"
"What are we doing?" Percy burst out. He felt like everyone had just agreed to something he was very unclear about.
"I'm going to kill a sort of demigod," explained Russ, "and they're going to help me, and you're going to come with us."
"I don't think this is a good idea," said Percy.
"You're a wanted man," said Gloria, "and if they find you, they will kill you."
"If you're with us," added Russ, "they'll have to get through us first."
"Won't it be very distracting to have to try to do two things at once?" said Percy. "I mean, protecting me and trying to kill your demigod?"
"Yes, yes, in theory," said Russ, brushing the objection aside, "but in practice a lot of the tasks coincide. A lot of killing two birds with one stone, or I guess, killing a bird and keeping another bird alive with one stone."
"Would it make you feel better," asked Gloria, "if I gave you a weapon?"
"I'm not really a fighter," said Percy.
"Don't sell yourself short, buddy," said Thomas. "I'm sure you're good at something."
"It's okay if you're not," added Russ.
"But you probably are," said Thomas.
"I mean... I'm good at sports. Or I used to be. I got offered scholarships in both football and baseball but I had to turn them down because..." He trailed off.
Thomas ignored the poignant trail-off. "Great, so you've got a good arm I'm guessing."
Almost before Percy completed a nod, Gloria had placed a couple of items in his hand. "That's a bag of knives, for throwing, and a gun, just in case." It was not actually a bag, but a lovingly crafted leather wrap case with a pocket for each knife.
"Let's go," said Gloria, picking up her crossbow.
"Now," said Russ, "we're not all going to fit on the motorcycle."
"We won't need it," said Gloria, checking her watch and marching out the door, and they followed her up a makeshift staircase up among the steel beams, until they emerged at the very top of the skeleton that had once wanted to be a tower of luxury apartments.
As they emerged, Gloria pointed behind them and they turned to see an approaching dirigible, terrifyingly close. Before they had time to ask, she raised her crossbow and shot a grappling hook at its cabin, which landed with a clunk. She quickly attached her end of the rope to a steel girder and Russ scampered up the rope like a squirrel, launching himself into the cabin.
Thomas climbed up the rope at normal human speed and Gloria nodded at Percy, who swallowed his terror and did the same. Gloria followed behind and cut the rope. The three of them found Russ among a smashed radio, a few unconscious crew members, and terrified passengers.
"Everything's cool," said Thomas, flashing a big smile. Nobody seemed to believe him.
"We're not killing anyone," said Gloria calmly. "We just need to get over to that building and then you can be on your way."
"I don't know how to drive this," said Russ, at the controls.
Gloria went over, pushed a few buttons, and the dirigible was on its way.
"This seems very extreme," said Percy quietly.
"First," said Russ, defensively, "there wasn't enough room on the motorcycle. Secondly, I want to start above the office level if possible." He pointed at the approaching building. It was a strange hybrid structure, whose base was four block-sized skyscrapers in the mid-Market area, strategically and cunningly acquired over time, in the shape of a square. The tops of each of these buildings served as a foot for an Eiffel-Tower-like superstructure that stretched high above any other natural or man-made feature for hundreds of miles around.
"I want to avoid having to kill anyone in those buildings," said Russ, indicating the base skyscrapers. "They're filled with... you know, people like you."
"People like me?" said Percy. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"People who don't know anything," said Russ, at the same time as Gloria said, "Innocent people." They looked at each other.
"Right, dumbasses," said Russ.
"I don't think -"
"Meanwhile the tower," said Russ, "is staffed with all those undead rise-and-grinders, who I don't feel as bad cutting through."
Gloria studied the building. "The highest point we can safely land is probably the base of the High Tower. The outside is covered with all kinds of countermeasures, visible and invisible."
"And here it comes," said Thomas, handing a newly-roped grappling hook to Gloria, who loaded it into her crossbow.
"This time everyone hang on to the rope," said Gloria. "We're going to swing over."
Everyone grabbed on, and Russ said to the terrified passengers, "See, we told you we weren't going to kill you, I hope one of you can drive this thing," as Gloria fired the hook and the four hijackers swung out of the passengers' lives and onto the roof.
When they'd all gotten their footing, they stood looking up at the evil Eiffel Tower, sparkling with dark energies.
"All right, where's the door?" said Russ.
They poked around the foot of the tower until they found a door and burst in to find a skeletal receptionist, who pushed a button and summoned a squad of skeletal guards.
"Round one," said Russ, charging at the guards with swords (daggers?) drawn. Gloria raised her crossbow and fired bolt after bolt while Thomas fended off attackers by spinning his body and the bo staff together in an elegant union of arcs that seemed almost like a dance.
Percy, wanting to contribute, pulled out a knife and threw it. It sort of tipped over and fell ten feet in front of him.
"Use your arm, champ!" said Thomas.
Percy pulled out another knife and this time put his all-American throwing arm behind it, driving it violently through the receptionist, who was trying to call for backup.
"Nice work, son!" said Thomas, while rising up and sweeping the staff around in one fluid motion to knock two guards into the wall.
The doors behind the desk burst open and a hulking ghoul wearing a shirt that said SECURITY and a badge that said "Head of Lobby Security" came running out, followed by four smaller ghouls in SECURITY shirts.
"What's going on out here?" he bellowed.
"Boss!" called Gloria.
"That's the boss," Russ pointed out to Percy.
"You're going to have to get past me if you want to get to those stairs," growled the boss.
"See, it's all very simple," explained Russ.
Two of the security ghouls leapt into the air like fleas and descended on Russ, while another one jumped for Thomas and was batted down like a mosquito. It crawled forward on all fours and they squared off in combat. The fourth minion headed for Gloria, who steadily unloaded bolt after bolt into it.
The boss charged straight at Percy, who panicked, tried to swallow his fear, and grabbed a knife, throwing it as he had once thrown a smoking fastball. It plunged into the boss's rotting eye socket, pausing his charge and causing him to roar in fury. Percy threw another knife so hard that it cleaved the ghoul's hand off at the wrist. After another roar, he came charging at Percy, who fumbled and dropped the whole knife case.
Russ came bursting out of a shower of sliced ghoul parts and jumped onto the back of the boss, plunging both blades through his torso and knocking him to the ground. He then pulled out the blades and delivered a criss-cross coup de grace, beheading the man and sending him to his second death.
Gloria and Thomas came running over, dead ghouls behind them.
"Well, that's one level," said Russ.
The three of them began picking over the bodies.
"Don't just stand there," said Gloria. "Get your knives back."
"And whatever else you find," said Russ, rising from one of the bodies with a pack of gum and an Allen wrench, which he pocketed.
"Well that explains a lot," said Percy. He recovered his knives and also came up with a pocket flashlight and a triple A battery.
"So," he said to Russ, "that wasn't your demigod, was it?"
"Nope," said Russ. "Let's walk and talk."
Looting done, they proceeded to the stairs.
"No stairwell here," said Russ. "Each set of stairs only goes up one level, for security reasons. You'll have to cross the whole floor to get to the next set." As they came up the top of the stairs he impaled two rotting zombies that charged him and sent them flying to opposite walls. "Pretty standard office design. Each level has a different mix of enemies, depending on what kind of work is done on that floor." He pulled Percy out of the way of an arrow as Gloria fired her own bolt back, shattering the undead archer.
"This floor seems to be mostly HR, onboarding," said Russ. "They're armed and trained for combat, but it's not what they do day-to-day." He jumped off a wall and the ceiling and dived down into a cubicle, taking out a sniper under cover, before hopping back over to Percy. "They're not really built for close combat, you're going to get a lot of ranged attacks. That's why Gloria's doing most of the heavy lifting, but feel free to toss a knife or two if you see a good shot."
Percy did see a good shot at the moment, and he hurled a screaming knife at a crossbow-wielding zombie in a floral pantsuit, who dropped immediately.
"Our final goal is the top of this tower," said Russ, kicking over another cubicle wall and stabbing a skeleton holding a grenade. He threw the grenade out the window. "You know who's at the top of this tower, don't you?"
Percy gulped. "Carton Hustle."
"If that's what he calls himself," said Russ, carelessly. He pointed toward a dark corner, and Percy, spotting the movement, threw a knife into an undead archer as the arrow left the bow.
Russ grabbed the arrow and looked at it briefly. "Pretty normal. There will be worse as we go up." He threw it away. "The creature I am after was once a man. He was once Governor of Florida."
Percy gasped. "You mean-"
Russ nodded. "Heads up!" he called to Thomas, who spun around and threw forward a hand toward a charging ghoul, and it seemed to Percy almost as if the ghoul hit a wall before even reaching that hand.
"Yes, the one I seek is one of the Nine, who were given the Nine Coins, and whose hearts were consumed by them. They still walk the earth, though they no longer live. I have followed him here."
"But Carton couldn't be -"
"He is without a doubt at the top of this tower," said Russ. "I can smell him. If he and Carton Hustle are not one and the same, then they are roommates. And that is damning enough."
"Boss!" called Gloria.
A bejeweled skeleton emerged from a back room, firing an elaborate crossbow that shot seven bolts at once in a spread. "Begone," she said. "You distract my staff."
"Multishot," whistled Russ.
Gloria fired but it was deflected by a little orb that floated around the glittering skeleton. There seemed to be four total.
Thomas leapt into the air, flipping in an arc over one of the orbs and smashing it with his staff. "Blunt damage," he called, on his way down.
Russ sheathed his blades and ran in, taking an arrow to the shoulder but punching an orb into the wall. Gloria fired again, but one of the two remaining orbs deflected her bolt and she had to take cover from another hail of arrows.
Thomas smashed another orb but got too close, and a skeletal hand gripped him tight, jerking him up into the air with violent strength.
"Percy!" snapped Gloria. "One, two, three!" She and Percy launched their missiles simultaneously. The orb blocked Percy's knife while her bolt snapped off the skeleton's bejeweled hand, dropping Thomas to the floor.
Thomas swept his staff along the ground into the skeleton's shins, knocking it forward, and Russ reached into its falling ribcage and ripped out a glowing green jewel, after which the skeleton collapsed into a pile of inanimate bones.
Percy gazed at the jewel, which seemed to glow with a hypnotic malevolence.
"That's a lich's soul in there," said Russ, handing him the gem. "Would you throw it against the wall as hard as you can?"
Percy did so, and it smashed to glittering shards, which in the next moment faded into dull ash, which swept away on the air conditioning current.
Russ ripped the arrow out of his shoulder and the wound quickly sealed up.
"So you're like Wolverine," said Percy in awe.
"Or like a vampire," said Russ.
"Sure, I -"
"Loot, loot," said Russ impatiently. "We don't have all day."
When they crested the next flight of stairs, they found themselves facing a formation of armored guards, much like the ones that had accosted Russ on his landing at the Ferry Building.
Thomas's staff swung down on the first one and bounced off before hitting him, as if hitting an invisible wall. "They've got force shields," he said, diving behind a cubicle wall as the guards began firing.
"You're gonna want piercing damage," said Russ, nodding as Gloria's arrow slammed unimpeded into a guard's face. He tossed one of his blades to Thomas, who strapped his bo back on his back. "Go go go," he nudged Percy, who was just watching the weapon swaps. "You're good."
Percy threw a well-aimed knife, pinning the foremost attacker to the wall.
"That's the spirit," said Russ. He took the lead, grimacing a bit as bullets thudded into him. Gloria fired strategically, advancing from cover to cover, and Percy tried to mimic her actions.
Thomas moved in lightning darts, seeming almost to teleport from guard to guard, striking from behind and disappearing before those around the fallen man had time to spin around and target him.
"We're in the zone," said Russ, chopping a guard in half as he back-kicked another one into a copier, shattering it. "You gotta love it."
"So I have some questions," said Percy.
"Go for it," said Russ, tearing a guard's arm off with his teeth.
"Why didn't the silver bullets work?"
"Silver bullets are for werewolves," said Russ, pausing to loot an intact shield generator and clip it on Percy's belt. "I myself blame the state of education in this country."
"What can kill you, then?" asked Percy, jumping a bit as as the shield shimmered into place. "A wooden stake?"
Russ shook his head as he kicked a guard out a window. "That came from a legend that got mangled over many years of being passed down. What happened was that Cuthbert the Faithless once died of complications after he ate a wooden steak painted to look real, fed to him by a servant with a grudge. Mind you, he had pre-existing conditions."
"He ate the whole thing without noticing?" asked Percy incredulously.
"He was very hungry," said Russ, tossing two other looted shields to Thomas and Gloria. The guards cursed as they saw the tables turning and began to regroup in the walls of a semi-open break area in the center of the floor.
"Are you sure that story isn't just made up too?"
"I'm telling you buddy, I was there," said Russ.
"You what?" said Percy.
The guards came charging out of their break area in tight formation, with long pikes lowered.
Russ looked at Thomas on the other side of the charge and pointed up. They both jumped up, kicked off the ceiling, and plunged into the top of the guards, who tried too late to raise their pikes.
"Fire away," Gloria called to Percy, and they unloaded everything they had into the chaotic tangle of guards trying desperately to break away from the death in the middle of their formation.
No sooner had the last one dropped, than Thomas said, "I'll scout ahead." The rest of them looted corpses briskly. A few moments later Thomas came dashing down the stairs with a fireball screaming behind him, narrowly missing him and setting a bank of file cabinets on fire.
Gloria rose and followed Thomas rapidly back up the stairs, and Percy was about to follow when Russ grabbed him and said, "All right, it's time to have a talk about how to deal with magic users."