Updated: Jan 30
The 4Runner had been rode hard and put away wet before, but tonight would likely be the hardest it was ever run.
Roundtable gave up on discretion. With the high beams on and emergency flashers blinking incessantly, each turn was taken at a speed that threatened to flip the SUV. Joker lay in the cargo area with his legs braced against the rear hatch and one of the wheel wells, his arms holding on to Knight in a tight bear hug. As if luck wasn't already flipping Bronze team the bird, it had also begun to rain. Hard.
Flintstone had flipped the center-mounted screen towards the passenger front seat and was studying it fervently. He tried his best to make out all the small lines on the poorly mapped mining tunnels that ran throughout this area. He attempted to steady himself by pushing hard on the floorboard and pulled down hard on the swinging handle above the door but, with his pilot driving this fast, he could only manage so much.
"Keep heading towards the coast. The only other entrances within 2 miles are blocked off," he commanded, "we'll get him at the entrance by the dealership." The nearest place to come out of the cave was along the coast of Lake Michigan in a small quarry near the beach. Waiting for a straightaway on a flat road, Flint keyed a pair of buttons to bring in a topographical overlay. Confusion hit him as he saw the blue lines marking water overlaid with half the quarry.
Gemini asked a question that made the dots connect, "Boss, ain't that where the diving cliff is?"
They hadn't been in town much to make small talk, but they had heard about the local legendary disaster. Blasting and mining too close to the water, that old and small quarry never got big because they had weakened enough beach nearby to flood the place. Over time, Lake Michigan's tides washed away enough sand to make the only cliff face along the great lake in the whole state a permanent feature.
Flint entered a state of deeper confusion still right after asking, "That means he'll have to come out of a flooded tunnel? How the hell is going to do that?"
"If he was prepared to drop into that cave, maybe he has diving gear staged down there?" Gemini offered the first possible explanation he could think of.
The team sat in silence for several moments trying to think of alternative answers. They couldn't produce any. Doubt ate away at Flint. He considered the idea that they had created their own side-tunnels that surfaced in a safehouse somewhere that they could never find. That would be a decade-long undertaking at a minimum, though. How long had this little outfit been operating in this region?
Reaching the beach, they slowed their pace and approached the quarry's entrance slowly. Parking near the gate and killing the external lights, the men emerged from the vehicle and were immediately soaked in the downpour. Joker pulled a pair of bolt cutters from the 4Runner and snapped the chain that held shut the wire gate to the quarry's entrance. They did a quick check of all their gear before stepping off.
The rain made using their night vision a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" venture. It was just as hard to see either way. The team split into pairs, Flint and Joker taking posts near the the top of the quarry and by the old shacks, while Gemini and Roundtable swung down the slope and closer to the water.
The low-side pair stepped carefully along the steep gravel path. Knowing their high side was covered, they did their best to peer over the edges of the decline without sky-lining themselves. Even through this rain, poking your head overtop a berm had a way of making your silhouette obvious. They modulated their speed based upon how loud the crunch of the rocks underneath would allow them to travel without causing undo ruckus. It wasn't long before they had walked as far as they could before hitting water.
It looked like it should have been a boat landing. A gravel path wound down along the outsides of the pit until flattening and widening out to where the tides of the great lake lapped against the rocks. A hundred feet above them Flint and Joker were exiting the the second of the two small structures, obviously not having found what or who they were hoping to.
Flint, stumped, solicited suggestions from the team. He wasn't a leader of vanity, he valued his people's input as much as his own. "Alright. This means he'll have to come out of a flooded tunnel? How the hell is going to do that?" Roundtable suggested that he didn't think he could. Gemini doubled down on the scuba explanation. Flint couldn't shake the inkling that they had guessed wrong and were wasting their time around here. They threw all sorts of ideas at the wall to see what would stick. Joker, however, kept his attention on his surroundings. Knight sniffed around heavily. The fact that he was doing so in circles told his handler that the dog had nothing. He was just searching for signal among the noise.
All conversations and thoughts stopped when the team all heard a low, steady tone. Like a wind-chime, but massive and steady. It became gradually louder and higher in pitch. Joker was the first to spot the steam cloud rolling out of a well on the top of the hill across the dealership lot and down the road. Flint radioed the lower pair back and they sprinted furiously up the hill, testing the endurance of their legs. Flint sped back to meet them at the 4 Runner. Joker, however, didn't think there was time. He tossed Knight over the fence before scaling it himself and took off running.
Flint hit the ride first. Roundtable had left the engine running. He opened the near-side doors and jumped in the driver seat, ready for a hot and fast take-off once his team was in. However, he only then noticed that Joker wasn't with him. He keyed his radio and demanded to know where his team member was. He received the response of a man in a dead sprint gasping out, "in pursuit!"
It didn't make Flint very happy to split up, but he trusted the gut of his folks; most of all, Joker's. Still, not having the proximity to cover him put the haste in his heart. Gemini and Roundtable weren't even entirely in the vehicle when the accelerator was buried hard into the floorboard. All four tires clawed desperately for traction and the SUV was launched out of the parking lot and up towards the hill. Coming to the bottom of the incline, Joker was trying to manage his breathing and keep pace. Knight was running alongside effortlessly in the clueless excitement dogs often do. When it happened, Joker was the only one to see it. The steam had grown in size and rate that instead of a rolling fog, it was now a jet blowing straight and hot out of the open well atop the hill. Like a teapot, it whistled a hollow and shrill tone into the air. Then, as if a light switch was flipped, all noise and white condensation stopped. Only a moment later, the operator knew why. A red hot figured shot out of the well with a mountain of vapor behind it, immediately encasing the entire hilltop in a hot cloud that Joker could barely stand. He covered his mouth to not breath in the superheated air, which rapidly rose and then sank in the cold rain. He could scarcely believe it. The figure must have launched two dozen feet into the air before crashing down several yards from the well. The resulting mist hung heavy, and obscured nearly everything. Joker collected himself and kept his barrel at the high-ready. He began to step up the hill towards the soft glow through the mist and started to shout his commands to stay still on the ground. With each step, the glow from the being seemed to burn a little brighter. 20 yards away, Joker began to feel the heat through his soaked clothes emanating over him. Disobeying, the figure stood. The heat rose, and the moisture that hung in the air around him steamed away, creating a slight bubble of clarity. Like influence of light and heat the sun had on the solar system, the figure had created his own sphere of influence. Joker had just stepped into it when the man turned.
It only barely looked like a man through all the fire encompassing him. It was as if someone set a scarecrow on fire, but that scarecrow was made of screaming hot iron. Joker raised his rifle to a shooting position and looked at the figure through his scope, but it had fogged and cracked. Rolling it over to his 45-degree red dot, he began to feel as if his gun was becoming too hot to hold on to.
He wanted to yell at the burning man, but the words got lodged in his throat as he made eye contact. Just a pair of burning yellow orbs peered back at him. In that moment, all time froze.
The burning man surveyed the gunfighter who approached him. Joker was unsure of why he stopped, or what had caused him to stop. Like brown bear surveying the lone bobcat that came to challenge him, they peered at each other in curiosity.
Their concentration was broken by a car horn. Flint beeped to signal to Joker that they had arrived. Gemini and Roundtable were on the passenger side with instructions to hold their doors open in preparation to roll out. Flint had other plans for the vehicle once his team was clear.
He wouldn't get the chance. The burning figure spun and held together both hands. Joker could see the ball forming in them. Raising his gun to shoot, he got off one wild round into the ground before he was forced to dropped it and retreat. The heat was simply too much, and it had climbed too quickly to withstand. Smoke began to rise off his clothes. The smoke intertwined with steam as the freezing rain hit his heated uniform and gear after stepping outside the bubble of pure energy.
When the large fireball was launched from the hilltop towards the 4Runner, all reactions happened without any permission or thought. Flint spun the wheel hard right and pulled e-brake. Miraculously, mercifully, this tumbled his two teammates out of the car at 35mph. Both tried to catch themselves in midair and roll, but they rag-dolled and spun wildly. Their equipment and weapons spilled everywhere.
It was never a conscious, intentional thought to take the fireball against the driver door, putting as much distance - and as much of himself - between the members of his team and their certain death as possible. It was just what was in Flint's being. When confronted with the last challenge to his very being, he reacted with exactly that.
The truck exploded and rolled in a spectacular blaze. It skipped hard twice, the second bounce flying directly over Roundtable and nearly crushing him. It would take 200 yards for the flaming SUV to come to a stop. It had rolled more times than anyone could have counted.
Before the vehicle even took the hit, Joker had drawn his sidearm and was dumping blindly into the glowing mass, he could barely make it out through the rain and fog. Emptying the third and final Glock magazine he had on his gun belt, the only reply was the appearance of the glowing pair of yellow eyes through the haze.
Joker didn't know what hit him. He felt everything go instantly warm, then instantly silent, then instantly dark.