The ruby-hued moat of blood spread as a crimson tide into the earth. A single leaf, diseased and oily, landed in the center of the puddle with a calm ripple. Several maroon electrical fires crackled in shallow craters throughout the clearing where incendiary grenades had exploded. The winter air shimmered with the heat. The stained and broken bodies of a dozen paramilitary troopers littered the ground. A single figure still stood in the clearing, hunched and panting. A ring of charred lichen surrounded him. He was cloaked, haggard, with an empty revolving-bolt crossbow hanging at his side. It was obvious he wasn’t paramilitary.

…He was something else.

After catching his breath, he left the clearing and disappeared into the endless and perilous woods that used to be Indianapolis. He discarded his ruined EM cuirass; it had served its purpose, and was starting to get uncomfortably hot. The leaves sizzled as he dropped the smoking armor on them. His boots crunched softly over the loam as he absent-mindedly padded beneath the eaves of the old forest. He didn’t worry about leaving a trail; only those without the preternatural attributes of a hunter left trails.

The assault on the cloaked figure’s senses ceased far later then the actual battle. His body still tingled, and the smell of burning lichen lingered in his nose as he remembered how his magnetic shields had spun a blazing cocoon of heat around him as they deflected the troopers’ bullets. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth where he had bitten his tongue while fighting. His ears still rang from the blasts of the grenades; he knew from experience that that would stop eventually- at least, it always had before.

The trees thinned to reveal a dilapidated apartment block. The adjoined buildings were covered in moss and ivy, and several floors had collapsed on each other. The cloaked man moved through the silent structures, scavenging for anything useful before moving on. The apartments were empty of supplies, but there was a message inside; a slash of green paint marked the wall of one of the intact rooms. It was common knowledge what a green mark meant. It was left by those who still had the ability to resist the paramilitary, as a taunt to the troopers and a reassurance to those who hated them; that they were not alone in their fight. The cloaked man left the apartment and continued to lope through the forest, unconsciously listening for both his pursuers and his quarry.

It was nearly dawn when he finally heard something. A howl boomed through the trees, splitting the night’s calm like tearing metal. The man tensed, his body as taught as the bow he had leveled at the noise. It was joined by another, closer than the first, then a third, far to the right. He backed against a tree, his eyes searching nervously. Soon, he saw a pair green eyes gleam from out of the velvet shadows. An instant later, it was joined by four more- two on each side. The air trembled as the glowing orbs began to snarl. Then the man remembered his crossbow was dry. As smoothly as he could, he lowered the bow and drew a hunting knife with one hand and his hatchet with the other. The creatures charged.

Three enormous wolves burst from the shadows, their knotted muscles writhing like coiled snakes beneath their red coats. Their jowls rippled and foamed, and their ravenous eyes blazed like torches. The man cocked both arms and sent the weapons spinning end over end toward the wolves. Two of the animals crashed into the ground, but the third leaped at the man, hand-sized paws outstretched.

He hadn’t time to strike or dodge…

An arrow sped from the trees and skewered the lead wolf through the ribs. It jerked to one side and slid over the ground, leaving a streak of blood in its wake. The man shouted stupidly in a release of pent-up breath and tension. At that moment, a woman emerged from the darkness, a powerful compound bow in her hand. A quiver of military- grade polymer arrows was slung over her back. She had an artificial eye, which glowed unsettlingly from under her hood. She was encased in black body armor and had a suppressed handgun in a holster at her side.

She gave the man a pointed look and said, “Took you long enough.”

“Yeah,” the cloaked man chuckled. “Ran into some setbacks.”

Advertisements

La Isla de Desolacion

Chapter XII: Restorative Magic

Peridas could not remain conscious a moment longer. He toppled to the ground at the same moment as the arrow struck the Viking in the forehead. The knife was jerked ineffectively across the face of Livaen’s neck, passing with a harmless scratch. The Viking’s blood splattered the side of Livaen’s face, and she stumbled forward as he collapsed. She ran to Peridas.

He was spasming on the ground, scattering droplets of blood onto the dirt. A dark pool was expanding outward from underneath him. The boy’s eyes darted sorrowfully to her own, then snapped shut as he was overcome.

Livaen’s torrent of emotions was uncontrollable. She felt as if she would burst from their force. They awoke in her an unfamiliar feeling, in a place deeper that instinct. And they prompted her to attempt something the sirens had long since forgotten in their millennia of festering isolation. She used restorative magic.

“Asodij,” she whispered, and the word boomed with power. And she began mending the gash in Peridas’ stomach, muttering softly all the while. Ever so slowly, like waves in a stasis, the wound crawled together, as if eager to reunite Peridas’ body.

Peridas was somewhere else, in a nowhere place between memory and death. He could hear Livaen’s directionless voice rustling through his mind, like the susurration of dry leaves. It sounded desperate and far away, and the boy was reluctant to follow it.

***

Then a shaft of moonlight split the night, and Peridas found himself sitting on a stone windowsill, Lenise warm and secure in his arms.

Her perfume was heady and intoxicating to Peridas as they looked out upon slumbering Athens.

There, shining down from the firmament and onto the peaks of the ancient structures below, the plump moon and ever-changing winter flares of green and gold in the sky colored the city in a marvelous number of degrees and hues of color.

A blanket of fog coiled around the darkened city, illuminated by the unblinking heavens so that it appeared like a shroud of scintillating quicksilver.

The city appeared drowned and dank beneath the oppressive weight of the lurid palls of mist.

Above, the sky was clear as glass, and the stars glowed with cold and distant radiance.

Despite the warmth of their contact, Lenise shivered, and Peridas felt her heartbeat quicken.

He knew why; tomorrow he would leave her, bound for a bloody fate abroad.

It was much the same throughout the city as the youths of Athens prepared for some form of doom, and already the lifeblood of the city pulsed a little weaker.

Soon, homes and studies would be sitting silent and forlorn; epitaphs in and of themselves.

Peridas sighed, wearied by humankind’s propensity for evil, and loathe to exacerbate the same.

Then he thought of the girl in his arms, and a measure of peace entered his heart.

He drew Lenise closer and kissed her sweetly, and, gripped by a sudden surge of emotion, whispered, “Marry me,”

Lenise turned to him, her tears falling now, and in a small gasp replied, “I will.”

A jolt shook the world…

***

“Come on…” Livaen growled as she crouched over Peridas’ unconscious body. She slapped his cheek, but his eyes remained stubbornly shut. However, his face grew more taught, and his nostrils flared. And this gave her hope. “Come on, Peridas!” Livaen glanced over her shoulder nervously. The baying of the Vikings’ hounds was clearly audible now, and she groaned; she thought she had lost her pursuers hours ago. They had regained her trail, and would be on her within minutes. “Oh, no…” she said.

***

Peridas fought off the suppressing tendrils of unconsciousness. It felt like needles of darkness were coursing through his veins, subduing him… subjugating him…. The boy thrashed blindly in the dark, and the shadows surrounding him dispersed slightly, and a pinpoint of light exploded from the depths of his mind. Peridas dove for the light; there was a feeling of something snapping or shattering, and on the other side of consciousness, he opened his eyes.

La Isla de Desolacion

Chapter XI: Deadfall

The night was pierced by a vein of pulsing lightning. A roaring thunderclap followed; the endless and ancient forest trembled from the very tops of the canopies, down the time-blackened trunks of the huge oak trees, and into the thick mats of roots that choked the forest floor. Almost blindingly dense curtains of rain swept over the treetops.

Sheltered from the punishing storm, deep in the sylvan stretch of the island and nestled in a silent hollow, a little red fire blazed with bloody glee. Tall, dark figures with tattered cloaks stalked around it with an unsettling felinity. They were alone with the shadows which fluttered and flowed over the ground in response to the lightning above.

…save two, which remained fixed low among the ferns and brambles, and had a bit more substance than their brethren; two phantoms whose essence the lightning never managed to reveal; phantoms which surveyed the sirens’ camp with piercing stares.

“What are they doing?” Peridas whispered, never taking his eyes off the sirens.

“Preparing to hunt.” Livaen whispered back. “We must be clear of them before they set out, else they may find us for food.”

“Wait…” the boy said. “What about the survivors? They must be here.”

“Do you see them? No, these are not your friend’s captors. They are a mere hunting party.”

“Very well.” Peridas said as he prepared to leave.

Livaen’s eyes narrowed, then she suddenly grabbed Peridas by the wrist and hissed, “Stop! Don’t move…”

He froze.

“There…” The siren gestured with her sharp chin. At the other end of the clearing, opposite the duo, they were able to make out the subtlest glint of metal.

“There is something else out there.” Livaen growled.

“What is it?”

“Do you wish to find out?” came the mocking response.

Before Peridas could reply, a horn sounded somewhere in the dark. Then a multitude of savage battle cries accompanied the heavy drumming of iron boots. The figures around the fire started and drew their twisted daggers. The weapons had barely left their sheaths when, from out of the tree line, poured a band of-

“Vikings,” Peridas cursed. “They’ve found the island!”

The wave of warriors struck the line of sirens, eliciting a chorus of otherworldly snarling and screaming. The Vikings were numerous and persistent, but the sirens’ ferocity was terrifying. The two sides battered and hacked; bashed and ripped; clawed and stabbed. Eventually, all rank and file dissolved as the skirmishers spread like a plague into the surrounding wood. The trees groaned and creaked.

Before the brawl had overtaken them, Livaen said, “We need to leave. Follow me….”

Silent as specters, the two shades seemingly dissipated into the night. And the battle continued, neither side aware of the two hunters worming their way through the roots and thick underbrush beneath them. More than once, something would slam into Peridas’ ribs or back, eliciting sharp gasps of pain. For an agonizing while, they sneaked through the fray, suffering the razor-keen edges of the low foliage before them.

The storm was directly overhead now, and lightning flashed downward. There was enough time to comprehend, but not enough to react. The Vikings’ steel armor was a perfectly deadly conductor. The bolt struck a spearman with a brilliant flash; the following thunderclap was so loud, the ground quaked, and every soul there went thoroughly deaf for a few moments. More blasts of energy rained down, and sparks sprayed like liquid from the points of contact. Ruined bodies fell steaming to the ground. Little flames jumped and danced from stem to stalk. The ferns and grass ignited, then the vines and, eventually, the trees. The far side of the clearing became a vague haze as smoke rose rapidly higher and higher. Anxiety burrowed into Peridas’ gut.

“The fools!” Livaen exclaimed.

She twisted and looked at Peridas, apprehension showing in her smoldering eyes. Above, the fight became even more desperate, and the flames grew thicker and higher. With the addition of the bloody light and ringing booms of thunder, Peridas felt as if he were in a nightmare. Livaen opened her mouth to speak, but a flame-enshrouded tree crashed through the blazing ferns between them, cutting her off. She shouted from the other side, “Run, Peridas! Get out of here!”

Knowing the night ahead would most likely hurt, he rose out of the roots and ferns, and into chaos.

He was immediately attacked. An axe was swung at him, and Peridas caught it with both hands. He jerked his knee into his attacker’s gut, then flung the axe aside, along with its owner. Before he was hindered again, he dashed through a clump of jostling bodies and into the trees beyond. An impenetrable blaze followed close behind.

***

With a bellow and a heave, A bleeding, panting Viking rent aside one of the black devils before him. Its ally- its shield brother, perhaps- loosed a piercing, demonic wail and flung itself at him. The warrior dodged; a misshapen blade tugged with full intention at his mail sleeve. Then the weapon sailed past, and into the spine of some unintended victim behind. The siren stumbled after its dagger, hissing with rage. As it did, the warrior caught it by the throat and squeezed until the abomination went limp.

Only then did he feel the intense heat biting at his neck and back. He looked around, and saw that what was left of the skirmishers were now disappearing into the forest. Covering his face with a knotted forearm, he turned. A wall of fire confronted him, advancing like a wave. Then he turned and joined his comrades as they fled; the sirens were already gone.

It was a sudden and confusing flight. Roots projected from the soil and hindered them in the darkness. Low branches and high briers sliced their heads and necks; in fact, everything their armor didn’t protect was ravished by the sickle-like thorns. They ran as fast as their constricting armor would allow, but try though they might, they were never able to outdistance themselves from the fire. In fact, little by little, minute by minute, they flames ever so slowly advanced on them. The warrior gave his utmost, and he roared with the pain from his effort.

Amid the panting and crashing branches, the warriors could hear grunts and howls in the nearby darkness. The ordinary food chain was ignored as every animal for miles around stampeded away from the unsullied smell of burnt death. Behind, any who tripped or stumbled were trampled out of recognition; not only by men, but also by the droves of sweating, steaming beasts. The fear was very real now.

***

With a cry, Livaen leapt and grabbed hold of an oak bough, swinging herself into another tree. Behind her, the one she was just in crashed to the ground. She turned to look, and saw several shapes barreling toward her. Without hesitation, she dove back to the floor, rolling in a tight ball as she landed. Again there was the scream of tearing wood, and splinters flew everywhere as the oak fell. Livaen sprinted ahead, but was stymied by a dense thicket, broken only by a tiny creek that ran under it, carving a little tunnel through the brambles.

Without hesitation, she slid under the culvert, and the world folded in around her and plunged her into darkness. Her back grated over the slick pebbles below, and her face brushed against something sharp. But then she was out of the bramble. At once, the rumbling grew muted behind her. Livaen didn’t stop.

Behind her, the band of stray Vikings that pursued her cursed loudly as they hacked their way through the thicket. But the siren was long gone, darting through the trees ahead, her mouth twisted with grim satisfaction. Her pleasure vanished, however, as she stumbled from the maze of trees and into a skirmish of Vikings and sirens. Dodging a stray javelin, she ran up a lichen-encrusted tree trunk that drooped over the battle. Without slowing, she tore her blade from its sheath and leaped off the end of the trunk, falling swiftly and silently.

Livaen struck a siren with force of a diving raptor; the blade slid behind the siren’s collarbone, and in his last instant, he choked and wheezed as a wet crunch sounded within his chest. Then Livaen’s weight violently bore them both to the ground. Livaen pressed on, fighting her way through the press of bodies as the tide of fire rose behind her.

***

The rumbling grew stronger, and a shower of flaming leaves rained down to the floor. Compromised trunks split and fell, crumbling. Peridas’ fingers scrabbled at his boots as he relaced them. Through the soil, he felt the drumming of a stampede. They are nearly here, he thought. Screams and howls were carried to him on the wind, so he rose and fled before he was trampled.

Despite the hellish cacophony just behind him, he forced himself to stay calm. He pretended he was chasing Lenise through the granite streets of Athens. It didn’t work well, but it was enough to clear his mind of some anxiety. He sprinted through the burning forest as the inferno devoured everything behind him. In his haste, he failed to notice the thin slash of true dawn that appeared for moment between the trees ahead of him.

***

Without slowing his mad flight, the Viking warrior tore off his smoking cowl; the skin on the back of his neck was blistered and bubbled from the heat. Someone next to him attempted to do the same, but the collar caught on his jerkin’s clasp, and he lost his footing and stumbled to the ground. He was dead almost immediately, crushed by his own comrades. A moment later, the fire had swallowed up the body.

Animals barreled out of the flames’ borders, their coats ablaze. They charged into the line of men, further spreading the confusion. A lightning bolt flashed into the Vikings’ midst and consumed another. Thin coils of steam swirled around the warrior’s mail as his sweat evaporated. His legs tingled like they were stuck full of pins, and every beat of his weakening pulse racked his abdomen with pain. But the warrior noticed something different about the light ahead. It wasn’t the burning red of the fire, it was green and pale; it was daylight. Dawn had arrived, and they were nearly out of the forest.

Weeping as uncontrollable spasms ravaged his limbs, the Viking dashed for the tree line. Twenty steps… ten steps….

***

Peridas emerged onto a rocky outcrop that projected from the roots of the forest and into the air before dropping hundreds of feet down into the woods below. At the same time, Livaen burst out of the forest a stone’s throw away, and a haggard Viking slipped out of the trees between them. They were followed close behind by dozens of Vikings and sirens. Peridas’ stomach lurched as his eyes locked with Livaen’s. There was no time to stop or slow; their momentum would rush them off the edge of the cliff. Peridas thought of Lenise, and his last feeling was of regret.

And the world fell away.

***

Peridas’ senses rushed back into his mind in an unwelcome din. He groaned and tried to move, and his body screamed in protest. With a sharp gasp, he fell back and looked down at himself. A broken tree branch was sticking through his right side. “Oh….” The boy said stupidly.

Steeling himself, he plucked the stick out, which felt like dragging a clump of cockleburs from one side of his body to the other. He grimaced and stared through a veil of tears at the glowing cliff top so far above as he waited for the pain to recede. Only then did he notice that he was high in the canopy of a tree. Cursing, he slipped off the branch and rolled as he struck the ground with a hard clack.

He lay there, stunned a moment, then stood slowly and surveyed the heaps of lifeless bodies strewn across the floor and in the trees. Some, like him, where inexplicably alive, and struggling to find their feet. Behind him, something scuffed against something else, and he instinctively turned. A fist materialized out of the grey shadows and struck Peridas in the cheek. The boy reeled as the ground and sky spun around him, and he toppled over. When his surroundings stopped spinning, Peridas saw a battered warrior towering over him. I’m having a bad day, the boy complained.

A flicker of motion caught his eye. He looked past the Viking and saw Livaen dart out from behind a tree. A glint of fire sparked in Peridas’ eyes, and he got to his feet as the Viking strode toward him. “You really shouldn’t be concerned with me, right now.” the boy coughed. The Viking hesitated and cocked his head, and as he did, Livaen snapped his neck. Peridas nodded appreciatively to her, and she inclined her head in return. Their reunion was short-lived, however, as more warriors regained their wits and noticed the duo.

Someone shouted something in Old Norse, and they charged at Peridas and Livaen. Livaen started towards the men, and Peridas reached into his cloak and hurled a swarm of small knives at the Vikings. They stumbled and covered their faces, and Livaen dispatched them with deceptive ease. Peridas drew his bow and downed several more, then rolled under a sword thrust and buried a dagger in its wielder’s back. Livaen hurled a corpse at two other attackers, tangling their legs; then she twisted through the air like a sea lion through water, her blade outstretched, and scythed down the warriors. Peridas bashed a Viking in the chest, staving in his sternum, then dodged an axe and loosed an arrow at a stray Viking. Livaen shoved her dagger into one man’s gut, and he doubled over. She rolled over his back and kicked a second attacker away, then retrieved her blade from the first man’s viscera and flung it into the forehead of the second warrior.

A terrible smile disfigured Peridas’ face; he would never admit it, but he loved fighting. The adrenaline, the sport, the thrill of victory. It was a part of him he hated to address, to admit that he could ever enjoy killing. It was magnified by Livaen’s slightly sociopathic tendencies. She was his mentor, after all. But… no. He didn’t enjoy killing, just winning. The swordplay, the challenge- that was all he cared about. Not the death. And perhaps he would have cared more, had he not been fighting savages and monsters. In any case sympathy was beyond him now.

The surviving warriors were weakening, and victory was at hand….

A cleaver smashed into Peridas’ belly, flipping him and dashing open his stomach muscles. He gaped as searing pain lacerated his gut, like white-hot sand sifting through his insides. “Peridas!” Livaen exclaimed. She rushed for the boy, but the warrior that struck him- the same warrior they had seen atop the cliff- grabbed Livaen by her hair with one hand, and held his knife to her throat with the other.

In that instant, Peridas felt a deepest sense of protectiveness for Livaen, as he did whenever in battle with Ionus. As he did when he thought of the war tormenting Lenise. He rose to an agonized crouch; his raging pulse doubled, then subsided to a sporadic flutter. The pain was so intense that it passed from recognition as pain. For a moment, it stole his senses. His vision browned and dampened, and stars swam around the periphery. A shriek more intense than steel on stone tore through his skull. He mentally suppressed the creeping throes of unconsciousness, though his body punished him for it. Nearly obliterated, he notched an arrow. The Viking blanched, and Livaen gasped as his blade pressed against her neck.

The boy drew the bow, and in response, fire coursed through his veins. He could no longer hear or feel his heart beating. A lump formed in the boy’s throat as he recognized how frightened not only Livaen, but also the Viking appeared. The knife was a wire’s breadth from Livaen’s artery. Peridas let the arrow fly.