“Okay.” Lilith’s voice came over the com, “Make sure your masks are secure, vests, rifles. This is final check so if anything seems wrong spit it out now.”
“Hey Lilith,” Kevin asked over the radio. “What makes you think this could be Cartwright? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t exactly his biggest fan, but I always thought he was a company man. Even if he did manage to escape, why turn on us?”
“...I don’t know,” Lilith lied, tension squeezing between her temples. It never occurred to her that the others might think Cartwright could still be alive, rotting away deep in some federal prison. She’d let her own knowledge bias her expectations, a dangerous oversight, but in this case she was lucky. It would be easier to justify that Cartwright was alive and acting rogue than to explain the weird fantasy she’d been building in the back of her mind, that somehow he’d risen from the dead.
If Cartwright had come back, it was a problem that needed solving. She knew exactly the cause for his revenge, but she would never say, and if tonight went as planned, neither would he...
“Remember,” Lilith continued. “Whoever’s responsible for these deaths knows who we are and shows no sign of stopping. If it’s Cartwright, he’s out for blood. He’s not your friend. He’ll kill you without blinking and you need to be ready to return the favor. The only real defense we have against his power are the masks, and that’s tentative at best. If you think you’ve been compromised, get out. I know it can be hard to pull away from the team while they step into a dangerous situation, but he’ll turn you against us if he can. The last thing we need is a friendly fire situation.”
Lilith had watched the videos from the Night of Madness, when Cartwright had decided to cut loose. The scope of his power had been unbelievable and he’d used it like the conductor of a grotesque orchestra. Every movement had brought chaos, pain, and death. Now that fury and ability were aimed at Lilith and her crew, and she could only hope they fared better than the citizens of Delphi had that fateful night.
“Alright, let’s move.”
Lilith crept her way toward the front door with Angie following just behind as the other members of the team came in from the rear and left side. The goal was to get eyes on the subject as quickly as possible, to ascertain his position and condition. The old burnt out factory sat about five miles outside of Delphi, a nasty place to be. It had been a favorite haunt for the notorious killer, away from the prying eyes of drones and passers by. Cartwright could get in an out of the city more easily than most, and as much room as he had to stretch his wings in Old Town he could operate with almost total impunity in the outskirts.
The facade of the building was badly damaged, although it was difficult to fully appreciate in the falling darkness. The concrete walls had been saturated with graffiti, every window broken, doors dented or split open; basically, the same as every other building in the dank, grimy neighborhood. Lilith had been here once before. Gotten the nickel tour as Cartwright had put it, but she suspected a secret lair lay somewhere on the grounds, tucked away, functional and well maintained. There was no power on this block. The copper wires had long ago been stripped and sold as scrap, a situation Lilith hoped would work to their advantage, using the night vision system built into the gas masks, versus Cartwright who, in theory, should be almost totally blind.
Slowly, Lilith turned the handle to the main access, doing her best to stay below the small rectangular window that sat dingily in the center of the heavy metal door. It squeaked and screamed defiantly as she leaned her weight against it, forcing it open. Pushing her rifle through the crack, she examined the video feed from the rifle’s scope, and on determining the path was clear quickly jumped across the threshold to the empty door frame of a small office positioned just to the right of the main entrance. Once situated she trained her gun down a short central corridor, a small entryway that may have been a receptionist office at one time that now opened onto the broad open space of the factory floor. Certain the hall was clear, Lilith motioned forward, providing cover as Angie moved to join her.
“We’re in^” Alex whispered over the com.
“Any sign of him?” Lilith spoke back, tucked out of sight, her back pressed against a concrete wall.
“Nothing yet.” Alex replied, having come into the building from the left side by punching through a second story window. “It looks like there’s a couple rooms up here, we’re going to clear them one by one.”
“Acknowledged.” Lilith replied “Jed?”
“All clear.” Jed reported. “There’s a lot of shit piled up around the loading docks. Lots of places to hide.”
“Be careful.” Lilith returned “We’re heading deep…”
The sentence was interrupted by the massive boom of a large caliber pistol, one of Cartwright’s signature sounds. From Lilith’s current position in the front office she couldn't see the source of the blast. The sound could’ve come from anywhere, bouncing erratically off the concrete and steel of the factory’s interior. After assuring herself that she was alright, Lilith turned to check on Angie.
Angie, eyes wide, her face partially obscured by her mask, was in a state of quiet panic. Almost absently Angie prodded at the front of her respirator, her fingers dancing around a small hole where a bullet had grazed the filter cartridge. Angie had poked her head through the open door where she’d entered the office behind Lilith to verify if the short corridor was still empty, and in that moment, the shooter had taken his chance.
Without hesitation Lilith grabbed Angie by the arm, dragging her catatonic teammate toward the front exit. Lilith tried to open the door, but found the heavy steel slab had locked behind them. “Oh, no. Guys, Angie’s in trouble. Someone get down here.”
The sound of gunfire filled the air and Lilith could see Kevin on the second story balcony, running backward and firing erratically, traveling about 10 yards before he smashed into a railing and fell hard to the ground floor. Following close behind was Alex, who made the motion of throwing an imaginary grenade, and then hopped over the railing as if the thin metal fence would protect him from the blast.
Lilith did her best to act as a human shield, hovering over Angie, who was now flat on the ground moving about listlessly, seeming to drift in and out of consciousness. The back door of the small office burst open and Jed, who must have forced his way through the row of adjoining offices, spilled out, breathing heavy and obviously shaken.
“What’s happening?” Jed panted, standing over Angie.
“Her mask is damaged and the door is blocked. Stay here and watch her while I try to find another way out.”
Jed nodded, moving immediately to Lilith's back. Jed had no sooner reached his destination then Angie sprung to life smashing the back of his head with the butt of her rifle. Lilith was already two doors down when she heard the sound of Jed hitting the floor.
“Fuck!” Lilith exclaimed, slamming a door and throwing her back against it to make sure it sealed completely.
Lilith heard a scraping sound from her left side and looked through an office window out onto the factory floor to see Rebecca crawling toward the exit with a huge piece of jagged steal pierced through the center of her body. Lilith ran to her side, doing her best to pull her behind a pile of debris to get her out of the open.
“Good news boss.” Rebecca said, working hard to force the words out. “The mask is working great.”
“Did you see him? Is it Cartwright?”
“Sorry, boss. I didn’t see a thing. What happened to the others?”
“...they’re gone, it’s just us.” Lilith looked over her shoulder at the large metal entryway where she had entered the building, knowing it was locked, knowing it was the closest exit.
“We’re getting out of here.” Lilith spoke. “Can you stand?”
“Maybe.” Rebecca replied, pulling on Lilith’s arm with all her weight, struggling to get to her knees.
“There you are.” Lilith heard the familiar voice echo from behind her, followed by a gunshot that grazed and cracked the side of her mask. “Took you long enough.”
“Cartwright.” Lilith spit, gently lowering Rebecca to the ground and turning to face her assailant.
Cartwright looked almost ethereal in the exaggerated, stretched color of her night vision goggles. His posture was cocky, his face dressed with that infuriating self righteous smile that somehow always managed to fill Lilith with rage. He could have easily killed her. She was probably only alive because he was deranged, sick in a gross way that she hoped to never understand.
“I wondered how long it would take you to wander through my door. Somehow I thought it would be obvious when the bodies started piling up. Guess I was more subtle than I thought.”
“What do you want?” Lilith asked, reaching for her rifle.
Cartwright gave a shrug. “Don’t want anything,” he responded without breaking his stride, moving toward Lilith with that same fucking smile, “it’s just part of the test.”
Lilith twisted to swing her rifle at Cartwright only to discover that Rebecca, with her dying breath, had tangled her arm around the sling.
“Guess you didn’t pass.” Cartwright spoke, raising his arm and aiming his large pistol.
Lilith couldn’t asses the damage to her mask. There was no way of knowing how much time she had. Dropping her rifle she charged forward, grappling his arm around the wrist and pushing his gun up and away. Gritting her teeth, Lilith closed her eyes, focusing all of her strength into her right hand. She could feel the heat in her skin, blistering, her blood tormenting viens as if it might boil. In this heat Cartwright's arm began to shrivel, his flesh drying and peeling down to where the outlines of his bones started to show through. The surface of the gun dulled, tarnished, and then finally, rusted and fell into dust.
“That’s a neat trick.” Cartwright said calmly, still smiling as the rot of his arm began to spread down to his elbow… “Wilting Lily... I finally get it.”
Lilith fought to maintain her concentration, another moment and it could be over. Without explanation, Cartwright started to recover.
It took a minute to register what was happening. Lilith hated her power, hated the consequence, the pain, but in the few instances she’d been forced to use it in combat, it had never failed. Some things took more energy than others, more torture, ultimately though everything had its price.
Lilith let go and moved to take a step back, too late to avoid Cartwright’s free hand which came down smashing into her face. The force of the blow caught Lilith off guard and she reeled backward. Cartwright had always been a little stronger than you would’ve guessed, but this strength was new. His flesh was rubbery and cold, his fist was like a hammer. She scrambled to her feet. The night vision in her helmet began to flicker in one eye leaving her partially blind. She couldn’t tell how much air was getting in. The mask had been grazed earlier...was it broken now?
Heading for a nearby pile of rubble, Lilith grabbed a long squarish piece of steel, probably a bracket or railing in a previous life. Holding it like a bat, she waited for Cartwright to come into range. Swinging the impromptu club with all her might she aimed for his head. Cartwright tucked in and blocked the shot with his arm. The blow seemed to have virtually no effect, she could see his arm move with the force, could feel the reverberation in her hands, yet no expression of pain showed on his face, or waiver in his steps.
Stepping slowly, Lilith began moving in the direction of the rear entrance. When she had a clear trajectory, she would run. She swung again, this time at his body. Cartwright let the pole come in close and then brought his arm down fast, pinning the bar to his side, rendering her imobile for a second. He took advantage of the opportunity bringing his fist up and into her ribs, breaking a few of them. Her vision was getting more scrambled. Was she starting to hallucinate, or was it the damaged mask?
Swinging in from her blind side, Cartwright’s fist came square into her gut, and then a follow up against her jaw. This time the force sent her back into a pile of broken concrete. When she found her feet she ran straight for where she imagined the door might be. As Lilith ran she could hear gunshots ringing over her shoulder. A second gun? Did he have one in his belt? Did he take one from Angie? Not a good time to dwell on it.
She continued on toward the back of the warehouse, hoping the way was open. It was further than the other exit, but at this point she was taking a chance either way and she couldn’t guess how long it would take to force open the front entrance. She could hear Cartwright stomping after her. Based on the sound she seemed to have a head start. Maybe the darkness of the backroom was slowing him down? In any case, nothing was going to hold him for long.
Finally she reached the back, finding this path was locked as well. Again she focused her mind, burned her skin and the locking mechanism turned brown and fell to the ground like sand. She was exhausted, but had to keep moving. With a loud snap the door finally pressed open, and Lilith stumbled out into the night, the fresh memory of Cartwright’s twisted smile looming over her as she went.
They had parked the cars some distance away, wanting to approach on foot and Lilith charged through the darkness in desperation, fearing in her panic she was running aimlessly into the wastelands, but fearing that to stop and get her bearings would mean her death.
Relief blossomed as she saw the glint of a car window in the moonlight and she hurled herself into the driver’s seat. Lilith fumbled with the ignition button, her hands burned and painful from using her power. She finally jammed a knuckle forward and the car came to life with a gentle roar.
“Delphi southwest entrance, now!” Lilith yelled before the on-board guidance could even respond.
The car made a lazy turn through the rough terrain and Lilith’s eyes kept twitching to every window, expecting Cartwright to appear out of the darkness… but he never did, and the car continued unimpeded toward the thousands of winking lights of Delphi’s skyline, miles off in the distance.
Lilith was spent, mentally and physically drained and here, in the privacy of the meandering car, she let herself cry. She felt so incredibly stupid. She’d led her team to a killing ground and seeing the methodical nature with which Cartwright had pulled them apart made it obvious that he’d been expecting them. It was more than that though. This mistake went deeper, so much deeper. Lilith could still remember the satisfaction of dragging the blade across Cartwright’s throat, remember the feeling of killing not for the necessity of it or the ritual, but for the pleasure of it. She’d rationalized it at the time, that it had been in the best interest of the cult, that Cartwright was a liability, insubordinate and deserving of swift punishment. Lilith had told herself a million little lies as to why she’d killed him, but the truth was far more brutal and selfish. She’d killed him because she wanted him dead and even in death she’d underestimated Cartwright. Lilith had let her own self-absorbed decisions cloud her judgement and now the bodies were piling up.
Lilith’s sobs faded and she pulled herself together by small degrees until she had herself mostly under control. Thoughts of her crew, of Rebecca’s face as she died desperate and frightened kept flashing in Lilith’s mind, but she pushed the images away, focusing on what it was Cartwright had said. ‘It’s just part of the test.’ Those words rang through her head like a siren and she slowly let her mind come around to what to do next.
She could leave. It was an option. Gather her things and be over international waters before sunrise. She’d been lying about Cartwright for so long that the thought of just leaving the mess in someone else's hands was tempting. But that was life on the run, of always and forever looking over her shoulder and wondering if today was the day the cult or Cartwright caught up with her. Lilith couldn’t shake the idea that Cartwright’s resurrection was indicative of something deeper. That his words mimicked those of the recently arrived Apostle felt deeply significant, though Lilith thought it possibly more coincidental than causal. Mixed in with all of this was Xavier, who she’d lied to directly, a lie that had resulted in a third of his soldiers gutted in Delphi’s morgue while his leadership met unwarranted scrutiny for fallout that was not his fault. Ultimately it came down to an unavoidable truth… Lilith had failed. She’d failed in her original desire to kill Cartwright. She’d failed as a leader, as a lieutenant who could handle the day-to-day operations of the organization with seamless grace. Worse, Lilith had failed as a priestess. Fundamentally it boiled down to hypocrisy. Regardless of the goals and external forces working against her, Lilith had time and again pushed her own accountability aside for little more than temporary peace of mind. She’d thought herself above the repercussions of her decisions, despite the fact that she was supposed to be a paragon of the cult, a cleric whose actions should be an example for those around her. Whatever Cartwright’s twisted reasons, whatever machinations surrounded her circumstances, Lilith had been given a gift this night, the gift of clarity.
The car came to a halt outside the southwest security checkpoint for admittance back into Delphi proper. The car was quickly misted with a disinfectant and moved forward where a familiar young man stepped up and Lilith was forced to roll down the window.
The man’s face paled seeing the state Lilith was in.
“Oh my God, priestess, are you alright!” Lilith grimaced, feeling the guilt swell in her once more. She couldn’t remember the man’s name as it had been Kevin who’d handled the exodus and made sure that one of their congregation was manning a security station this evening.
“I’m fine,” Lilith replied, feeling everything but. “Just let me through. I have urgent business.”
The man nodded and backed away to wave Lilith through. As the car cleared the checkpoint Lilith watched the young man in the rear-view mirror starring not at Lilith’s car, but off into the night from whence she came and she wondered and hoped that he had not lost a friend this night.
Lilith knew what she had to do. She directed the car to Xavier’s warehouse. She arrived and quickly made her way through the upper floor, ignoring the greetings and concerned calls after her as she swept down the stairs to the doors of the cathedral.
The Archdeacon was standing with his back to the doors and held up a hand at her approach before seeing the state she was in and rushing to her with concern painted across his face.
“Lilith, my God, what’s happened to you?”
“I’m fine, Archdeacon.” Lilith said, resigned to a course of action. “Is Xavier in?”
“...yes,” the Archdeacon said, stepping between Lilith and the door. “But he’s in private counsel with the Apostle…”
“Even better.” Lilith breathed, pushing passed the Archdeacon and throwing the doors wide.
She saw them both immediately. Xavier had turned at the interruption while the burning eyes of the Apostle shifted to stare at her intrusion. They both looked regal, in their own way. Xavier, all crisp sharp, tailored lines, every part of him speaking boldly for the dawning of a new age for their faith. And the Apostle, his ancient robes never settling, himself a relic of the distant past, a living artifact of power beyond understanding.
The Archdeacon was making apologies for her entrance, but Lilith ignored him, moving forward until she was but a few feet from Xavier and the Apostle. She dropped to her knees before them. It was time to make amends.
“Xavier… Bishop. I think I made a mistake.”