Reads: 22

The main keep was a blazing inferno, ignited by upset candles and fallen lanterns. The creature that had once been Hana Matsuo towered over the conflagrant room, illuminated by silver moonlight and raging flames.

 

Leon and Jake stood against the horrendous, squid-like B.O.W., hacking off its waggling, reaching vines as quickly as they could. For each one they lopped off, however, another sprouted in its place.

 

"We're getting nowhere fast!" Jake shouted. "If the damn monster doesn't off us first, we'll be roasted alive!"

 

Leon blinked rapidly as sweat streamed into his eyes. They were caught in an uphill battle that was bordering on impossible.

 

While he frantically racked his brain for an escape plan, the B.O.W. wrapped a vine around his ankle and pulled him to the floor. A second vine wound around his waist.

 

"Shit!"

 

The sword fell out of his hand as the sticky tentacles on the vine latched onto him, trying to breach his clothes to suckle his flesh. Leon reached vainly for the weapon, his fingers just brushing the sword hilt.

 

Two shots rang out suddenly, followed by a high-pitched squeal. The vines collapsed, spurting blood. Leon looked up to see Jake, still poised to shoot. Nodding gratefully, Leon jumped to his feet, grabbing the katana once more.

 

Jake spun around in time to cut off another approaching vine, swearing angrily as he did so.

 

We can't keep this up much longer, thought Leon. We have to find a way to finish this!

 

At that moment, Leon remembered the antivirus stored in his pack. Perhaps, if he could deliver the injectable dose, it would weaken the monster by neutralizing the virus' most powerful characteristics.

 

Leon fought his way over to Jake.

 

"I have an idea, but I need you to buy me some time," he told him, severing another reaching vine.

 

"What're you gonna do?" Jake demanded.

 

"I'm improvising. Just keep it busy, okay?"

 

Jake hacked a vine coming at his head. "Busy. Sure; no problem!" he replied.

 

Trying to focus past the cacophony of gunfire, monstrous shrieks and Jake's swearing, Leon proceeded to put his half-baked plan into action. He needed to hide?better still, play dead?if he was going to lose the B.O.W. 's attention.

 

Leaping and dodging the ever-reaching vines, Leon dashed toward a hedge of flames.

 

"Probably not one of my best ideas," he muttered, increasing his speed.

 

Bracing himself, Leon sprung forward and dove through the fire. Two vines followed after him, but were quickly incinerated, filling the air with the peculiar stench of burnt flesh and herbage. The B.O.W. bellowed deafeningly.

 

Leon rolled sideways, hunkering down behind the wall of fire for cover against the creature. He hoped desperately that it would remain distracted by Jake if it thought he was dead.

 

He drew the kokeshi doll from his pack. Hastily mopping away the sweat from his brow, he disemboweled the little figure then cast it aside before storing the ampoule and memory card once more.

 

Leon clutched the auto-injector like a dagger as he rose and assessed the scene cursorily, struggling to breathe in the intense heat.

 

Jake had successfully monopolized the monster's attention. He was putting up an impressive fight, but the strain was becoming obvious. It was now or never.

 

Inhaling deeply, Leon sprinted toward the B.O.W.'s enormous head. He dodged several flailing vines, jumping over tongues of fire and debris as he raced toward the creature.

 

He took a flying leap at the monster and thrust the auto-injector into its side, pushing down the button as hard as he could to ensure the entire dose was delivered.

 

As small as the device was, the creature hardly seemed to notice it any more than a mosquito bite. It only growled and shuddered, swiping blindly at Leon with an appendage.

 

Leon scrambled backward, leaving the auto-injector protruding from the B.O.W.'s flesh. "Please be enough," he murmured.

 

"Yo, Leon, what's going on?! I can't keep this shit up forever!" Jake shouted.

 

Before Leon could reply, the creature made a strange gurgling noise. Its lashing vines froze in midair as though it were in suspended animation. It hissed then whined deeply before going completely silent.

 

Leon jumped up and retreated back to Jake who stood staring at the seemingly petrified B.O.W., sword upraised to attack. His pale blue eyes darted to Leon in a hasty glance.

 

"What's this? What'd you do?" he asked.

 

"Hopefully, I've initiated a shutdown sequence," Leon replied, his eyes glued to the creature. "I injected it with the antivirus."

 

The B.O.W. snapped out of its paralysis abruptly with a hoarse bellow. White veins popped out across its great head. As if it understood that Leon had caused its sudden malady, it lashed its vines at him.

 

Leon and Jake slashed at them simultaneously. This time, the appendages did not regenerate. The monster screeched in anguish.

 

Leon narrowed his eyes. "It's working; it's getting weaker," he said with grim triumph.

 

The B.O.W.'s skin began to crinkle, paling to a sickly greenish gray and becoming translucent like vellum. A deep, phosphorescent glow lit its enormous, squid-like body, revealing a pulsing green organ.

 

"Its heart!" Jake realized.

 

He looked at Leon who nodded solemnly, recognizing his intention.

 

"Let's finish this," Leon said.

 

The men hacked and slashed their way through the reaching vines which still grasped at them despite the creature's declining strength.

 

Ducking another sweeping appendage, Leon lunged at the great monster and thrust his katana into the throbbing green heart.

 

As it uttered a distorted bellow, Jake plunged his own blade beside Leon's. Dark blood gushed forth, spraying over the men as they jumped backward.

 

The creature's horrid vertical mouth gaped as it vomited its own blood. It then slumped sideways, its remaining vines dropping to the floor lifelessly.

 

As Leon and Jake stood staring at the dead monster breathlessly, a flaming beam dropped between them and the grisly corpse.

 

"That's our cue," Leon shouted over the roaring flames. "Let's get the hell outta here!"

 

They bolted, Jake in the lead, vaulting over deadly obstacles as the keep continued to implode. Leon followed closely as they headed for the fallen roof ramp. Naturally agile, Jake quickly reached the summit of rubble first.

 

As Leon scrambled up the crumbling ramp, it began to give way. Gasping, he struggled to hang on, but the mound of wreckage collapsed. For a heart-stopping moment he was airborne, his hands clutching at the empty air. Before he could plummet into the fiery hell below, however, Jake caught his forearm in an iron grip.

 

Jake pulled Leon up to safety as the roofing tumbled into the blazing keep.

 

"Thanks," Leon panted.

 

"Yeah," Jake answered, gazing at the rising flames.

 

Leon turned from the destruction and surveyed the castle rooftops in search of Sara and Ada, grateful for the cool spring breeze rushing over him.

 

"C'mon," he told Jake. "We've gotta find Sara. Hopefully, she caught up with Ada."

 

The men began their hurried trek across the rooftops, searching for their companion with the aid of the bright moonlight. Leon's eyes darted over the silver-washed roofs anxiously.

 

Presently, he noticed some displaced tiling?evidence that hard, rapid steps had passed through.

 

"I've got something!" he called back to Jake.

 

Quickening his pace, Leon led the way over Deddoraito, listening as well as watching for any sign of Sara and Ada.

 

It wasn’t long before the sounds of strife caught his attention. He could make out grunts and shouts as well as blows landing. He followed the noises, stopping dead as he found himself overlooking a battle scene playing out on a lower rooftop.

 

Sara and Ada were fighting hard, trading swift, powerful shots. Leon had never seen Sara so fierce—she was almost feral in this match, doling out strikes as rapidly as she was receiving them. A glance at Ada was even more surprising still. Her contemptuous, flippant demeanor had vanished as she fought to keep pace with Sara. Lying several feet away from the combating women was the attaché case.

 

Despite his grave displeasure at the situation, Leon couldn’t help feeling a hint of satisfaction. Ada Wong had finally met her match. He'd never see her so serious or so focused.

 

“Well, that's a hell of a show,” Jake said, stopping beside him. “All that's missing is popcorn and a drink.”

 

Leon glanced at him askance then fixed his eyes on the women. “That reminds me: you owe me for that toilet water back in Kuraishi."

 

“Pfft. The hell I do.”

 

"C'mon!" Leon said abruptly. His expression steely, he dropped down onto the roof below, Jake keeping up easily.

 

They landed a couple of yards away from the ongoing clash, unnoticed by either of the women.

 

Leon drew a gun and fired off a single round skyward. The thunderous crack of the shot rent the air, reverberating across the vast landscape.

 

Sara and Ada halted immediately, turning to face Leon and Jake.

 

Sara's face lit up. "Jake, Leon! You made it!" she exclaimed raggedly, relief and exhaustion evident in her voice.

 

"Lady Luck was in a good mood back there," Leon replied, training his gun on Ada.

 

Beside him, Jake followed suit.

 

Looking tired but unruffled, Ada raised her hands languidly. "Leon… Still biting the hand that helps you."

 

Having surmounted her initial surprise, Sara quickly ran for the attaché case, snatching it up and retreating toward the men.

 

"We play on opposite sides of the board, but I respect you, Ada," Leon began sternly. "And I appreciate your help, even if it's mostly been the throw-you-a-line-then-run kind. So, thanks, but you're not getting your way this time."

 

Ada smiled wryly. "This reminds me of our little encounter in Spain, although we played out this scene from very different angles."

 

Leon nodded. "Yeah… good times. I've got the scar to remind me how you stabbed and kicked me."

 

Ada scoffed dryly. "You were crazed by the Plaga parasite; you tried to kill me. What did you expect me to do?"

 

"You could've tried the kick first before almost crippling me during a rescue mission. The grand finale: me on the wrong end of your gun while you retrieved the Plaga sample for Wesker."

 

Jake shot Leon a surprised glance, still aiming at Ada. "Wait,Wesker? This bitch worked with my father?!"

 

Ada chuckled lightly. "Small world, isn't it?"

 

At that moment, the sound of helicopter rotors roared through the air. A brilliant searchlight washed over the rooftop, dazzling everyone briefly.

 

"Here's my ride," Ada said, almost cheerily.

 

Shielding his eyes from the blinding beam, Leon sought her out. He squinted through his fingers to see a rope ladder being dropped down. Ada ran to it and leaped onto a rung.

 

"She's getting away!" cried Sara.

 

"Ada, stop!" Leon shouted.

 

Still squinting, he made a dash for her, but she was quickly out of reach as the helicopter ascended.

 

"I guess it's true what they say," Ada called down to him. "You can't win 'em all."

 

Jake and Sara came up beside Leon, glaring up at Ada's departing figure.

 

"Good luck, Leon! No hard feelings. Maybe I'll see you around sometime."

 

Ada waved and was soon little more than a tiny speck against the deep blue sky as the helicopter soared out of sight.

 

"You'd think after all these years I'd learn to save my breath," Leon muttered, shaking his head.

 

"Shoulda shot her when I had the chance," Jake grumbled.

 

"¡Carajo! ¡Maldito sea el diablo!" Sara exclaimed.

 

Leon turned to Sara, surprised to hear her swear in Spanish, though it was rare for her to swear at all. He frowned in dismay at the sight of her bruised face.

 

"Damn…" he whispered, touching her cheek gingerly.

 

"I'm fine," she snapped, jerking away. Glancing up at Leon's perturbed countenance, her expression softened.

 

"I'm sorry, Leon," she said. "It's just… I tried so hard, but Ada still got away."

 

"Without the virus, thanks to you. You did good, Sara," Leon replied, inclining his head in sincere admiration.

 

Jake snickered. "Yep. You worked her over pretty good, too."

 

A small smile banished the clouds of disappointment on Sara's face. "Guess I did okay for a rookie," she said, holding up the case.

 

"I'm impressed, but definitely not surprised," Leon answered, returning her smile.

 

"I can't believe Ada actually worked with my father. She was that psycho's errand girl," Jake remarked.

 

"Hmph. Not exactly. She may have taken his money, but Ada works for Ada," said Leon.

 

"So you knew who was lining her pockets, she even stabbed you, and you were still sweet on her. Damn, that's messed up. Yeah; 'complicated' doesn't begin to describe that relationship," Jake said, arching a brow at him. "Compared to Ada, Sara went easy on you when you went bats in the lab."

 

Leon grimaced dismally, recalling Sara's tear-stained face when he had roused from the effects of the virus. "Yeah… I know," he answered quietly. "Well, that wasn't the best chapter of my life, but it's over and done now."

 

"Ah, hell, I can't judge," Jake said, shrugging. "I'm guilty of way worse. In my dark merc days, I took any job from anyone if the price was right. Good or bad, I didn't give a damn."

 

Leon felt Sara touch his arm gently. She looked at him and Jake alternately. "That's all water under the bridge, guys. What matters is what we're accomplishing now. Osakabe's dead, and we've got the virus sample. It's almost over."

 

Leon nodded, appreciative of her gracious and encouraging words.

 

Suddenly, the sound of clamoring voices broke the stillness of the courtyard below. Jake sprang ahead to look.

 

"Nothin's over 'til it's over, babe," he said over his shoulder. "We've got some action goin' here."

 

Leon and Sara rushed over and peered down.

 

Several floodlights were just coming on around the courtyard, revealing a flock of panicking facility staff members stampeding toward a group of parked vans. They tried desperately to cram themselves into the vehicles, jostling and shoving each other in their haste.

 

"Now that Osakabe's dead," said Sara, "they're trying to cut and run."

 

Automatic gunfire suddenly erupted, joining the distant din of the human uproar. Blood sprayed everywhere as several of the escapees were mercilessly executed.

 

Sara gasped softly.

 

Leon dropped to his knees, frowning deeply as he sought the shooter.

 

It came as no surprise when Kuroki emerged into view, clutching an assault rifle. Now unmasked and clad in ordinary clothing, he strode purposefully across the courtyard despite a bad limp inflicted by Leon's frantic knife attack.

 

"Hey!" he shouted. "Where do you think you're going, you chickenshit sons of bitches?! You live for the cause, you die for the cause!"

 

Following this edict, Kuroki fired into the group, killing six more staff members. He pulled the trigger again, but the rifle was empty. As he reached into a munitions pouch secured around his waist to reload, the remaining employees scrambled into a van.

 

By the time Kuroki had inserted a new magazine, the van had departed, screeching over the stone pavement as it raced away. Undeterred, he calmly drew a grenade from his utility belt. He pulled the pin out with his teeth then pitched the grenade at the fleeing vehicle.

 

The grenade detonated, causing the van to overturn then explode a moment later. The upset van slid over the cobblestones, awash in flames.

 

"Holy shit…" Jake muttered.

 

"Oh, God!" Sara exclaimed.

 

Leon bowed his head momentarily, sickened by the carnage. He looked up again, his eyes following Kuroki as he stalked toward two familiar trucks stationed a few yards away from the flaming wreck. He recognized them as the same trucks he had seen earlier at the dome laboratory.

 

Leon jumped to his feet in realization. "Kuroki's gonna try to unleash the virus," he declared. "He's moving out one of the shipments!"

 

Sara's eyes widened. "But with Osakabe gone, there's no money. What does it matter to him now?"

 

"It's not about the money anymore; it's the principle of completing his objective. I know the type," Jake explained.

 

They heard the rumble and hydraulic hiss of the truck engine as it ignited.

 

"We've gotta stop him now!" said Leon.

 

Cautiously moving to the roof's edge, he swung down and dropped to the ground. Jake followed, descending easily.

 

"Catch!" Sara called out to Leon, releasing the attaché case.

 

Leon caught it as Sara lowered herself before him haltingly.

 

Behind them the truck roared loudly as it pulled away from Deddoraito's courtyard.

 

Leon exhaled exasperatedly.

 

"What do you suggest we do now?" asked Jake, jerking his thumb at the departing truck. "Hire a rickshaw?"

 

"We use that, smartass," Sara said crisply.

 

Leon and Jake followed Sara's outstretched arm as she pointed at a military-grade jeep.

 

"Now we're getting somewhere!" Jake said approvingly.

 

As they approached the vehicle, Leon recognized it as the same jeep Kuroki had attacked them from earlier. He scoffed. "It's Kuroki's jeep. Talk about irony."

 

Sara immediately jumped into the driver's seat. "Huh. Lucky break; key's still in the ignition."

 

"Dibs on the wheel again?" Jake groused, boarding beside her.

 

"Seriously?" Sara scoffed disbelievingly

 

Leon hopped into the jeep's rear. "Ready!"

 

Revving the engine once, Sara stomped on the gas pedal.

 

"Hang on, boys," she said, gripping the steering wheel tightly. "I've got a feeling this is gonna be a rough ride."


Submitted: July 12, 2022

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