Polaroids

The speedometer on the GPS blinks red.

She remembers back to when she felt the terrible, bitter hollow in her stomach when November wind bit at her face and clothes. She remembers the tracts of nauseous suspension that gnawed into her as her toes felt nothing but open air.

She is taking fast, shallow breaths, each one leaving her a little more lightheaded.

She remembers a blurry sky full of lights and planes, and the coldness of the concrete as it seeped into her feet. She can still feel the soft rasp of her dress against her painfully taught skin as it billowed in the uncaring wind. What she cannot remember was what had brought her off the ledge.

She blinks, and finally notices the halted taillights she is barreling towards.

***

Bullets whistled like furious hornets, punching holes through the dirt walls. One sheared past Corbin Gates’s head and snapped a long splinter of ceramic off his helmet, staggering him. He swore and sagged against a wall, his armor gouging the yellow dirt. His ears rang, and his vision blurred.

“Gates, get your head on right!” his sergeant screamed.

Corbin pushed his helmet up and saw his squad disappearing through the exit of the shack. He rushed after them, still dazed. As he emerged, a blinding light shined all around him, accompanied by the painful cacophony of battle. Then his eyes adjusted and he saw his squad piling into the back of a personnel carrier, gesturing wildly for Corbin to run.

“Gates, get in the truck!” he heard someone shout.

Corbin dashed for the vehicle as its wheels began to move. More rounds pummeled the buildings behind him, and billowing clouds of dirt and cement dust filled the air. A jagged trail of bullet holes raced after him along the walls as he sprinted for the open hatch. The vehicle began to pick up speed until it matched Corbin’s pace. For a pair of heartbeats, neither the soldier nor the vehicle could gain any ground. Then, with a final lunge, Corbin grasped the edge of the hatch and heaved himself inside as the carrier accelerated, rumbling out of the ruined town which seethed like a hive.

***

Mary was horrified. “They shot you in the head?” she whispered into the webcam as she saw the long, hollow scar across the surface of Corbin’s helmet.

Corbin made a face as he realized he had forgotten to take his helmet off. He unstrapped it from his chin and let it fall to the ground, out of camera view. Mary could hear it rocking back and forth on the floor. Corbin inhaled, then replied playfully, “Yeah they did. Just gave me a headache though.”

Mary wasn’t amused. A flicker of static rolled across the screen of her laptop, momentarily distorting Corbin’s face.

“They shot you in the head,” she repeated as the image resolved.

Corbin looked away from the screen. “Not really,” he murmured.

Mary stared expectantly. Corbin sighed. “Helmet, not head,” he finally said.

“Baby, you know what I meant,” Mary said. “They shot you in the head!”

Her anger came on stronger than she expected. “What would’ve happened if you were an inch to the right?”

Corbin fake-guffawed. “Then I’d be very dead right now. But I’m not, because I wasn’t, because I dodged it.”

Mary pursed her lips to hide her smile at his incongruity, but her eyes remained angry. “And how many times can you dodge it before something kills you? she demanded. “I am not going to be a single mother- I can’t- this baby needs someone more than a stranger who comes home once a tour. Or a VA-funded education because you forgot to dodge it when it mattered!”

Corbin gazed knowingly at her flushed face, then, gently, “Dodged it.”

It wasn’t funny, but Mary couldn’t help but laugh in a release of pent-up emotion that was also a baring of teeth.

***

Corbin shuffled to the barracks, battered and exhausted from day after day of fighting. One of the men in his squad lay sprawled over a cot, reading a magazine. The soldier scoffed when Corbin entered. “The second we get back, you’re running to find a laptop. I think you must’ve forgotten what it is we’re doing here.”

Corbin’s mouth twisted, and he said, “Lay off, Sully; I just got shot in the head.”

Corbin moved to his own cot and unfastened his armor as Sully glowered at him. Sully cocked his head as he noticed the corner of a photograph pull away from behind Corbin’s shoulder pad. Sully knew even before he saw it that it was a polaroid of Mary, and presently the photo rested precariously over the heap of Kevlar and nylon on the floor next to Corbin as he fell face-first into bed, exposing the mat of bruises and welts along his back and legs. Corbin was asleep almost instantly, but not before he had reached over and crossed another hash mark on the back of the picture, counting off the days until he went home.

***

Mary shut her computer with a wordless exclamation. She ran her hands through her hair and inhaled poignantly. Corbin had always been exasperating. She thought of just how many different kinds of difficult he was. She had always found his stubbornness endearing- even when she was furious, and right then she hated that he knew that.

Stressed, Mary walked down the hallway of their apartment, one hand on her belly, the other on the small of her back. She glanced sidelong into the kitchen as she passed, wishing she could still drink; she couldn’t shake the image behind her eyes of Corbin being an inch to the right. Over and over, she saw a bullet splitting into the fiber of his helmet and ending the love of her life. Mary felt sick; maybe it was a good thing she couldn’t drink. Blowing a strand of copper hair out of her eyes in what was more of a sigh than anything, she snatched her keys and slipped out of the apartment.

As Corbin’s day was ending on the other side of the world, Mary braced herself for another draining shift at the hospital. She wanted to call in sick, but she needed what money she could earn before her maternity leave kicked in; Corbin’s checks only cleared so fast from Afghanistan. The steps down to the street jostled her overburdened hips, and she grimaced. She slumped into her car, glaring at the polaroid of her and Corbin that leaned against his old ball cap on the dash. With a deep breath, she picked it up and added another hash mark to the back of it. But seeing Corbin’s face renewed her worry. She pressed her forehead to the steering wheel and groaned; she couldn’t lose anyone else.

As she pulled out, she eyed the small, faded scar that wrapped down her thumb and along the side of her wrist. She still remembered the auto accident that had killed her parents and left her broken and alone in the world. She remembered the pain that had driven her to the roof, looking down at the sleepy streets below, willing her stubborn body to take another step. But she hadn’t. And she had found Corbin.

The speedometer on her GPS blinked red.

She braked hard, biting off a curse. Horns blared, and she had to swerve up onto the curb to avoid hitting the car in front of her. A violent bump sent a painful jolt through the car. The vehicle came to rest halfway over the sidewalk. Mary’s wide eyes stared unfocusedly in shocked silence as her already quickened breathing doubled. Warm blood rushed to her face, along with tears of anxiety, and she struggled not to heave. What’s wrong with me? she thought, almost gasping.

Long, agonizing minutes passed. Gradually, the attack receded. Only once she had regained enough breath to clear her head did she notice the pronounced discomfort in her abdomen; her entire body was tense and refused to relax. She realized with stupid shock that it wasn’t just a panic attack. Then, the contractions started.

*Don’t hate me. I didn’t mean for this to be this long. I’m not sure what happened. I’m sorry in advance. Skim if you want.*

Part II (Kirby)

Alexei lay on a surgical platform, fully unconscious. Langley hadn’t been exactly what he had expected. An automated arm detached from the platform and whirled up a quarter-sized saw. Then it began cutting into the back of Alexei’s skull, which, though cauterized and drained, still dripped a yellowish fluid from the incision.

Harkov stood in the viewing room while the procedure took place- well, he didn’t have to think of himself as Harkov anymore, did he? I’m Sullivan again. He told himself.

The surgical saw withdrew, and mechanical pincers plucked a blood-covered silicone chip from Alexei’s medulla. The chip contained a revolutionary recording system, reflexive clamps, and a tiny capsule of cyanide connected to a jet-injector which could feed into the spinal cord.

“Just in case.” Sullivan scoffed to himself.

Surgeons entered the room and began dressing the incision, and the chip was handed off to a Langley technician. Just then, the door to the viewing room opened, and two men entered. Sullivan knew the first man; it was Nathan Gould, the overseer of the sleeper program. Sullivan had corresponded with him often when he was still in Russia. The second, as Gould soon announced, was a Detective Surewood of the Erie PD, as unlikely a visitor to Langley as any.

“Surewood worked with Agent Federov on a joint task force between their PD’s.” Gould explained. “In 2012, there was a drug smuggling ring that stretched from the Midwest to Beirut, and Federov and Surewood were critical in dismantling it.”

“You worked together?” Sullivan asked.

“We did. You could have called us friends. He was fluent in English, not even an accent, really.”

“He’s here to help our department shrinks work up a psych profile for Agent Federov.” Gould said.

“I would like to see him if I can. Once he wakes up.” said Surewood.

“We’ll see.”

***

Alexei gritted his teeth as the nurse removed the first round of syringes from his major muscles. The bound incision in the back of his head throbbed. One, two, three, four…. He stopped counting at nine and focused on sitting still. I don’t even know what that is. Alexei thought as he stared at the mix of steroids and antibiotics in one of the syringes. “You’re done for now.” the nurse said.

He rolled his sleeve over the injection marks, then checked his recently-issued pager. Surewood had sent a request for Alexei to meet him before he left for Erie. It was the last thing Alexei felt like doing, but Surewood was a friend. Alexei took an agency car to the suggested street corner on the D.C. limits, in a shopping district beneath a bustling overpass. It was late into the night by the time Alexei got there. Surewood was waiting in an SUV. Alexei strolled to the car, and he and Surewood clapped hands and shared a few inside jokes. “Why the cloak-and-dagger?” Alexei asked.

Surewood dropped the small talk, and his tone grew somber. Alexei’s face matched the sound of his friend’s voice as he listened to the narrative. Alexei glanced around the darkened block- an unconscious tick of his. He returned his attention to Surewood as the detective’s tone took on an even more charismatic note. The instant after he did, however, he registered something odd; there had been the slightest variance of black in the reflection of a storefront window a few dozen yards ahead. Alexei’s breath caught in his throat as his fast-twitch mind screamed ‘danger’. At the speed of thought, he instinctually rewound his mind back a fraction of a second, and he found himself staring at a frozen Surewood, his open mouth stilled, mid-speech. Before his eyes, Surewood chattered on, but behind them, Alexei saw unmoving moths stuck around unflickering streetlamps, halted planes trapped in the stilled night sky…

…And a gradiating shadow in a window reflecting the outline of a man. A gleam danced off something in the man’s hand.

Alexei snapped out of his mental reconstruction, and he flinched, tensing, his hand twitching toward his gun. It was well he did; a searing line of heat lashed Alexei’s ear as a vapor trail sped away from the side of his head. His honed reflexes, coupled with a surge of adrenaline, caused everything in the world to slow tremendously. Alexei’s eyes followed the warp just in time to see a window pane get pierced by the bullet and fracture into shards, the pieces catching the light of a muzzle flash. The flash bloomed brighter, lighting the block, refracted in all the shops’ displays. The glare was disorienting, but the windows’ multiple angles allowed Alexei to pinpoint the position of the shooter, using the silhouette of his own body as a reference.

Before Alexei could respond, the pain kicked in, causing him to stagger; out of the corner of his eye, he saw a piece of his ear cartilage whistle through the air, trailing blood. He pressed one hand to the wound and drew his weapon with the other, whipping it towards the ground while holding the slide to cock it. He took a step; he heard his shooter running down the street sidelong to him. The man twisted and fired at Alexei as he ran. A trail of rounds pummeled the side of Surewood’s SUV, and another wave of pain caused Alexei to lose his balance. He fell, firing sideways, but it was like falling through water. Jagged lines of bullet-holes punctured the walls behind both shooters. After what seemed like an eternity of falling, Alexei hit the ground, firing a last shot that tagged the man in the hip.

The shooter lurched, a paroxysm running up his leg and into his arm, causing him to drop the weapon. Alexei’s gun clicked empty, and a loud revving filled the streets as a van sped around a corner toward the shootout. Alexei rose partially, the bleeding tracts in his arm and ribs burning like pitch. He staggered forward as the wounded shooter made an abrupt hook toward the van. The tires of the vehicle squealed as it cut across the street, braking hard. The door slid open, and two men jumped out with submachine guns. The original shooter limped closer, and his comrades raised their guns and fired at Alexei.

Alexei’s pounding heart had completed a course of blood through his body, bringing a fresh surge of adrenaline; Alexei reached into his coat, kicked into a sudden roll, and pressed the mag eject on his gun. He came to a stop, a new magazine in his weapon. A spray bullets pinged off the asphalt where he had just been. Alexei shot back, twice, and the two men dropped; the van behind them was splattered black in the poor light. The first shooter reached the van and fell into it as the vehicle peeled away, crashing through the glass first floor of an office building and onto the street on the other side, heading towards the overpass. Alexei sprinted ahead for a clear view of the street, calculating how far a van that size could travel on a flat tire. He reached the corner, sped around it, slid to a stop, took a deep breath, and fired.

His body was humming with such mind-altering clarity that he could see the subtle variations in the tracer’s otherwise straight flight path as it sped toward the vehicle. The bullet hit the van in the rear left tire, and the driver jerked, slamming into an oncoming city bus. Sparks skittered between the vehicles, and bits of glass rose into the air. The van jerked in the opposite direction then, and slammed into a pylon of the overpass with a deafening boom. Tongues of fire leaped from the engine block, and a hail of parts and concrete rained into the street. Alexei lowered the gun and returned to Surewood, shuffling in pain. Behind him, the van’s engine burst into flame.

The doors of Surewood’s SUV looked like a Pollock piece. Vapor rose from the SUV’s compromised gas tank, and tiny pieces of glass from the damaged windows fell clinking onto the street. A thread of blood raced down the driver’s-side door. Surewood didn’t move. Alexei holstered his weapon and pressed to fingers beneath Surewood’s jaw; he had no pulse.

***

Alexei thrust open the door to the conference room, his dressed wounds smarting- all grazes, luckily, according to the unit doctor; two in the ribs, one in the bicep… wouldn’t even scar. “Your ear, however…”

Alexei resisted the urge to touch his bandaged ear. He’d just have to live with it. The bullet had sheared a groove out of the edge, leaving basically a bullet hole in the outside of his ear. “Women’ll love it.” the doc had said.

Alexei could care less- about the ear or the women. Surewood was dead. He wanted to know why.

The staff in the room gave Alexei almost fearful glances as he entered. Did he look that bad, or was he just scary? Smithy was there, along with Gould and Sullivan. The rest of crowd was made up mostly of analysts. “Agent.” Gould said.

“Sir. Where do we stand?”

“They were Russian. A joint operations force between the special task division of Moscow’s PD and a KGB defector-hunting unit. Going off the tattoos on the two bodies, we know they were ex-Spetsnaz. Our guess is you were supposed to be an example. Sort of a warning to other defectors still in Russia. And they didn’t have to worry about the politics of an international incident because we can’t admit you work for us in the first place. Only thing is-”

“They didn’t know I was a sleeper.” Alexei muttered.

“Exactly. We never reported the embassy incident. They couldn’t have known.”

The thought of people he might have spoken to before trying to kill him, and the fact that he killed them first, unsettled Alexei. Had they just told their families they were taking a train to St. Petersburg for a weekend meeting? Had their children stared confusedly at the hearses of their fathers? Alexei swallowed, surprised with himself, with his humanness.

“Anyways,” said Gould. “We’ll know more when you get back.”

Alexei looked up. “Get back?”

“Smithy?” Gould asked, busying himself on his tablet.

“We’ve caught an assignment.” Smithy explained. “You’ve been tasked to join us. Sullivan too.”

Alexei glanced at Sullivan, who looked serious. “When do we leave?” he asked.

“Tonight.”

***

The C-130 carrying the team to their destination had been an Air Force requisition, but the airmen had been happy to lend it. It seemed it wasn’t every day they got to work with SEALs, even in such an indirect way. The respect and fear the SEALs commanded still shocked Alexei; even though his memory had been restored, he was still unfamiliar with such American hierarchy. Hierarchy seemed like the best word to Alexei, as he had come to realize that that truly was the essence of every military.

“Alright, we should all get some shut-eye before we’re there, so I’ll keep this brief.” Smithy had said. “We’re going to Azerbaijan. An English-American national is being held by Azerbaijani extremists; they’re an offshoot of the main ultranationalist presence in the region. We’re cleared to use any means to bring her home, but we aren’t cleared to fire on non-splinter ultranationalists per NATO regulations. Basically, if they’re patriots, leave them; if they’re terrorists, kill ’em. The girl’s being held in a refinery in a border town to Iran. These guys have strong affiliations with ISIS, so we’ve gotta be long gone by the time the ultranationalists call for help. The US will deny any involvement in the area so once we’re on the ground, we’re on our own. Any questions? Then go to sleep.”

Week IV, Group III

Sleeper Cell

The ringing of phones filled the office, and detectives shouted over them in rhythmic disharmony. The smell of coffee and cigarettes clung to the felt dividers and trafficked floors. Desk cops bustled like ants, carrying manila folders and red case binders. Identical aluminum desks, piled high with computers and files, butted against one another in the centre of the room. The edges of the offices were dark, lightened only intermittently by fluorescent tube lights. There, detectives would be seen slinking with their CI’s through the disorienting maze of smartglass conference rooms and carpeted pillars, which supported the second floor atrium.

The second floor was an entirely different world. It opened over the first, and from it the bosses eyed their underlings like vultures. It was neat, modern, and smelled of hand sanitizer. It was quite literally a glass house, and its inhabitants didn’t get there by throwing stones; just the opposite. The bosses on the second floor were there because they minded their own business, and carried great insurance- the kind that only blood could buy. The detectives drew straws when bringing the bosses bad news. When a cop was actually called up by the bosses, the walk was as somber as a funeral procession. That was what happened to homicide detective Alexei Federov as he sifted through the week’s case files. It was a habit of his, one idiosyncracy in a long list of attributes that made some detectives resent his efficiency and others value his brilliance. The detective’s list of friends was not long, as his temper when roused was feared throughout the department. However, the friends he did have were extremely loyal, a testament to his true character.

Just as he tucked away a file for a heinous triple murder, one of the lieutenants buzzed Alexei up to his office.

“Der’mo.” Alexei muttered.

But before he had even moved, the lieutenant buzzed again, saying, “Prinesite dela Harkov.” Bring the Harkov file.

So, this wasn’t about Alexei; it was about a case. An upper had actually taken an interest in a case. Alexei picked through the stack of unsolved homicide cases on his desk, his intelligent grey eyes gleaming over the pages. He found the right file, then climbed the winding steel staircase that lead to the second floor. All of the noise from the floor below seemed to grow muted, drowned out by Alexei’s forceful heartbeats. One of the bosses was chattering on the phone in his office and noticed Alexei staring at him. The boss tapped a key on his computer, and the glass fogged up. Blinking stupidly, Alexei strode down a hall to the correct office. He tapped the glass, then opened the door, which let a gleam of light into the room. A green desk lamp and a monitor were the only lights inside. The lieutenant sat smoking a cigar, rapidly tapping his keyboard, pretending not to notice Alexei. This was the custom; Alexei was patient. “Sit, please.” the lieutenant murmured.

Alexei raised an eyebrow but sat. After the appropriate amount of time had passed to suggest the lieutenant was a busy person and Alexei was just barely fitting into his schedule, the boss spoke. “The Harkov case. Bartender killed in bar fight. Not a great tragedy. But it has been almost two months. It was your case, no? Why has it gone unsolved?”

Annoyed, Alexei’s pride overrode his nervousness, and he responded in much more fluid English. “I have a dozen more pressing cases that were great tragedies. I have a head of state killed by a tripping college student with a bow and arrow. I have a vigilante leaving a trail of heroin dealers from here to Irkutsk-”

“Not why I called you in here.” the lieutenant cut in. “The ‘victim’, Nikolai Harkov, has been confirmed alive by one of my CI’s. You are to find and arrest him immediately; I will not have a stain like him disgracing our system.”

“I’m not in the fraud division. Why me?”

“It was your case, it is your mess. …And your English is very good; actually, yours is the only English good enough.”

“Good enough for what?”

“For handling an international incident.”

***

Amerikanskoye posol’stvo, chirped Alexei’s GPS as he entered an address into the device. Moscow during rush hour was beyond infuriating, but Alexei used the time to re-read the Harkov file in his lap.

Full name: Harkov, Nikolai

Height: 5′ 2”

Weight: 183

Eyes: Black

Hair: n/a

Nationality: Current: Russian. Birth: Ukrainian

Family: Wife- deceased; cancer. Parents- deceased; auto accident. Siblings: 3- one deceased; auto accident

Marital status: Single (girlfriend)

Occupation: Barkeeper (owner)

By the time he was through downtown, Alexei was intimately familiar with the Harkov file- perhaps because of the striking similarities to his own tragic childhood. By the expressway, Harkov’s entire life had been committed to a ruthlessly eidetic memory. But beneath the cold reason with which he studied the file, Alexei felt an additional stir of familiarity at the sight of Harkov’s photograph. It was like a splinter of his past, which had been sleeping for ages, had suddenly awakened. He knew this man. A scene flitted behind Alexei’s eyes as he drove. A man in a black, rain-soaked suit was standing over him; he could have been a giant, or Alexei could have just been a child. “Your parents’ deaths, your brothers’…” the man said in Russian, “…they didn’t have to be for nothing.”

Alexei nearly crashed into the car ahead of him as he returned his attention to the road. He had to swerve and slam his department sedan’s brakes to avoid the vehicle. A chorus of blaring horns rose from the stopped traffic. Muttering curses in truly original contexts, Alexei blinked away the odd memory and steered back into his lane.

It wasn’t long after when Alexei arrived at the U.S. Embassy. At the gate, he flashed his credentials and stated he was on a case, and was escorted to an empty office in the heart of the building. His escort asked him to wait there and then left. Alexei sank into a leather chair that creaked at every movement. With nothing to do, Alexei scanned the room, trying to understand what kind of man the office belonged to. The plaque on the desk read “Daniel Brandt, Executor of Local Department Relations”.

The full set of Thatcher’s commentaries on foreign policy dominated the shelves. Fan of Thatcher. Other, smaller sets on department policy and inter-agency cooperation lined the other spaces. This was someone who took their job seriously, but also their family, as hand-drawn crayon portraits rested near pictures of grinning children on the desk. A bustling cork board hung on the wall to the left of the desk, and a lukewarm cup of coffee rested with the handle facing the same direction. Left-handed. Additionally, he was a 9 to 5 worker. Alexei could see the seat of Brandt’s computer chair from over the desk, suggesting it was set at maximum height. So Brandt was about 5′ 6″- 5′ 10”. Likely blonde, as his eyes were almost certainly blue- the office’s paint scheme and furnishings were predominantly blue- not to mention that his children were blonde as well.

Wife? No. There was a hand resting on the shoulder of a child in one of the photographs. Couldn’t have been Brandt’s- he was the type of man to always take the family picture, and the owner of the hand had been cut out of the photograph. Had the mother have died, her place in the family would have been preserved- enhanced even. It wasn’t. So, he was divorced. But the children were in Russia- they were wearing ushankas. And they weren’t just visiting- their coats were a discontinued Russian brand found only in grunge boutiques and modern-brand-only thrift stores. “Recently divorced, then.” Alexei said to himself.

“Excuse me?” asked a voice. It was Brandt, standing in the doorway, looking both confused and annoyed. Alexei had been so absorbed in thought that he hadn’t heard the man approaching. However, to Alexei’s peevish satisfaction, he found Daniel Brandt to be exactly what he had guessed. …And he was, in fact, blonde.

“Apologies, sir. Just thinking aloud. Have you been told of my business here?”

“I have,” Brandt replied. “I’m required to inform you that Mr…. Nikolai Harkov has been granted political asylum by the United States.”

This was news to Alexei. “May I ask on what grounds?” he ultimately managed.

“You may, but I am neither required nor at liberty to release that information.”

“Are you aware of my investigation?”

“The vague details.”

“Then you must know that whatever arrangement you have with Harkov, it would not be affected by my investigation. Would it be acceptable for me to interview Harkov and close out the case while he remains in your custody?”

“I can’t see what good it would do; Mr. Harkov will not be released to Russia to face trial-” Brandt cut himself off; apparently he had said more than he intended.

“Well… then I have no reason to secure a confession.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“…Unless the United States would, as a gesture of good will, prosecute Mr. Harkov in the place of our courts. You would have full access to all the evidence, heck, we’d even pay the court costs. Mayor Sobyanin is a personal friend of mine who’s taken great interest in this case, and I’m sure he would be thrilled with the embassy for a favor like this.” Alexei lied.

Alexei could see Brandt’s soul darken beneath the mask of respect. “I… will have to check with my superiors on a request like that. But,” he raised a finger. “I’m willing to allow you to close out your investigation today, in respect for Mayor Sobyanin.”

“Thank you.” Alexei nodded his head, relief showing in his eyes.

“What do you need?”

“To interrogate Mr. Harkov. I need a confession.”

***

Alexei fidgeted as he stared at his reflection in the one-way mirror. He was eager to see the man who’s photo had elicited such a reaction from him earlier. He hoped that by spending time with Harkov, he would understand why. Had he known him, or did he merely resemble someone Alexei had met as a child?

“All right, recording.” an American tech said as he put on headphones and flipped a switch on his console. The lights dimmed in the observation room Alexei was in, reversing the two way mirror. Alexei found himself staring at Harkov as he was escorted into the interrogation room by an embassy guard. He was seated, then offered a glass of water. The guard moved away and took his position at the door. Alexei turned his attention from the window as Brandt entered the observation room, followed by and ordinary-looking suit with reading glasses. “This is Undersecretary of Extradition Pierce.” Brandt said. “He’ll be in there with us as an extra opinion. Alright, Federov, you’re up.”

Alexei took the lead as the three entered the cell. Immediately after seeing Harkov face to face, another long-lost memory swirled into Alexei’s head. “You’re gonna be a microphone, basically.” a silhouette had said to him through a secured screen. How long ago had that happened?

The random pictures and emotions didn’t stop as Alexei sat down across from Harkov. The fat older man exclaimed suddenly in a thick Russain accent, “It is very wonderful to be seeing you again, my friend.”

“I- we-?” The roiling memories resolved into a single image. Harkov was standing at attention next to Alexei. A dozen others were standing like they were, forming a line of young men. Boys, actually. A rep was striding down the line, briefing them, or maybe debriefing them? The man said: “You will all be confused at first. But you will know what to do. And you will know it’s right.” They were both soldiers. They were doing what they were supposed to. Alexei and Harkov, they had been brothers. Only, his name wasn’t Harkov, it was-

“Sullivan.” Alexei said. A ghost of a smile danced across Harkov’s face. But Brandt cocked his head, giving Harkov a suspicious glance.

“You remember.” Harkov answered, never taking his eyes off Alexei.

Annoyed, Brandt turned to Alexei. “Talk to me here. What’s…” He didn’t finish. Alexei kicked him directly in the kneecap, buckling his legs. As Brandt fell, Alexei stepped around him, secured a hand around his jaw, and yanked, hard. There was a snap, and Brandt went limp. As he did so, Harkov broke the mouth of his water glass on the edge of the table, leaped at the guard with the jagged weapon, and eviscerated him before he could draw. In a lithe motion, Harkov drew the guard’s handgun as the body dropped. Harkov tossed the gun to Alexei, and they strode to the door, the guard’s key in hand. Pierce had backed into a corner, wide-eyed, shaking. As the door swung open and the two Russians exited, Alexei fired the gun sidelong at Pierce without so much as a glance. The man dropped.

Behind the Plexiglas window, the shocked technicians radioed security. “Be aware, we have two apparent sleeper agents at large on these premises. Suspects are armed. Security is cleared to use lethal force.”

In a hallway several dozen yards away, Alexei said, “I remember,” as he rushed with Harkov toward the exit.

“Took you long enough.” Harkov replied. “It’s been fifteen years. The boys at Langley are very impatient to take that very special battery out of your head and see what you’ve got for them. Let’s get you home.”

Week III, Group II

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.

Chapter X: Alone, Save a Siren

That night, Peridas slept at the bottom of the stone staircase leading up the cliff, as far from the redoubt as he could get. His sleep was shallow and fitful, and he awoke feeling stiff and sore. For hours, he sat in a quandary as the sun rose lazily over the sea. Torrents of doubts and apprehensions coursed in a frenzy through his mind, nearly immobilizing him. Beads of sweat trickled down his face, and his head throbbed as he thought of his dilemma. But despite his raging debates with himself, he knew deep within himself that what he had to do was really quite simple. He had to do everything he could to save his friends, until he could do no more. He sat a while longer, deep in thought, until he felt he had devised a solid plan. His first step was to discover where the survivors had been taken, and the first logical place to look was, of course, the redoubt.

The boy chuckled without humor. At least, he thought, I still have my armor. For he had not taken it off since the attack.

And so, with determined steps, he climbed once more the carven staircase, ascending almost certainly to his doom. He decided to wait for cover of darkness, and while he waited, he fashioned a rudimentary spear with the sharp flange of his gauntlet. Even in the light of day, the shadows of the forest never dissipated; they wavered and rippled, but still clung to the trees as if they had substance, and the boughs and branches stirred without wind.

Ever so slowly, the sun completed its revolution behind the mountain, and darkness crept back into the deep places of the valley. So Peridas steeled himself, and crept cautiously to the redoubt. The gates were slightly awry, and he slipped through the gap with ease. Inside was a broad set of stairs that stretched into the maze of tall columns. Cursing his popping joints and the dry, steely slithering of his armor, he crawled on hands and knees up the stairs and into the redoubt proper. An ethereal mist drifted among the pillars. Broken masonry lay in heaps at the feet of the great pylons. Roots projected from the floor, wrapping around the columns as they climbed toward the high ceiling. There were no rooms, no altar, and no sub-levels to the structure. Peridas could not help but think how utterly useless an edifice it was.

There was a deathly silence in the air; not even crickets chirped in that place, and it made the boy’s futile sneaking seem almost comical. Of course, he found nothing comical about his situation. Fear enshrouded him like an oppressive cloak. It burrowed in his back, bidding him to turn around and face the monster that was never there.

The boy searched for hours among the columns, until he was entirely sure it was abandoned. With a sigh, he leaned against his spear. “Where are you?” he muttered to himself.

“…Here.” whispered a voice behind the boy.

He spun around and raised his spear. There, standing opposite him several feet, was the woman. She was unarmed, and wore a dark green cloak. Her eyes blazed with their usual intensity. Peridas began to slowly back away from her, angling toward the exit. Before he took more than a few steps, she said, “Do not flee, but listen. I would help you save your allies.”

Peridas wouldn’t be fooled. He quickened his retreat, but she only followed him. “Do not be a fool,” she said. “I would already have killed you, if I had so wished. Hear me…”

Her voice was deep and her accent thick, but there was something about her tone…. Despite himself, Peridas found he was standing still. “Who are you?” he asked, his spear still leveled at her.

Slowly, as if Peridas was an imbecile, she said, “I am the one who stabbed you-“

“I am aware. But who are you?” he asked again.

Regally, she replied, “I am Livaen, one of the vampiric sea-folk that your kind calls sirens.”

If he had been anywhere else, Peridas would have been surprised. As it was, he didn’t much care what she was. He only cared what her intentions were. “And what do you want?” He tried to project an air of confidence.

She was silent for several moments. Eventually, she said, “My people have become twisted in their isolation. Their minds are malformed, and their hearts are full of blood-lust. Though it troubles me, I know our time is ended. When I looked into your eyes on your ship, I saw in you the strength to challenge my people. Now, I need your help, as you need mine.”

“You want my help… to kill your people?”

“I want your help to cure my people. The lord of the sirens is the reason my people became so vile. If we kill him… perhaps the sirens could be reasoned with. If not, we will still have killed him. And that is a satisfying thought for me.”

“Why?” he asked.

“That secret, I will keep to myself.” she replied.

For all her talk, she avoided the one excruciatingly obvious fact that Peridas couldn’t let go. “But you stabbed me!” he shouted accusingly.

“Yes,” she answered. “I showed you what will happen to your lands, if you should fail. When you succumbed to the bite of my blade, did you not see your country in chaos?”

“How did you know?” he asked, shocked.

“For ages, I have listened to the pulse of the earth, and I have learned much from the whispers of the world. I know of your war with the men of the North. I wove a spell about you when you were unconscious; a spell to inspire you to survive. I revealed what would become of all you loved, if you died here.”

“Why?”

“As I said, I need your help. I need you alive. I will lead you to the sirens’ lair, and together we shall free your comrades, and kill the lord of the sirens. So, what say you?”

It didn’t take long for Peridas to make a decision. He knew he needed help. “Very well,” he said. “Lead on.”

And so, Peridas and his new-found ally began the long and dangerous journey to the sirens’ lair. Livaen led him into the mountain foothills. She explained to him that their path led north through a great forest, a nearly impassable marsh that spanned much of the island, and, eventually, to the sirens’ lair on the northern coast. When Peridas’ stomach began to growl, Livaen procured a bow from under her cloak, and informed him that there were great herds of deer that wandered the wilderness nearly everywhere on the island. Peridas stared at the bow ruefully, then told her that he could neither hunt nor use a bow. Livaen appeared truly surprised at this, and from then on, she did the hunting, but she began to school Peridas in archery and the art of stalking.

Their trek through the forest took them several weeks, during which time, Peridas’ skill gradually increased. To his surprise, he found Livaen to be an excellent teacher. Her first teachings were somewhat stilted, and her apparent youth sometimes created discrepancies and rifts in her lessons, though she was really quite old by human standards. But she quickly began to comprehend the boy’s rhythm for learning, and after a few weeks, he could creep through the forest as quietly as a mouse, though his skill with a bow still left something to be desired. Livaen began to make Peridas hunt for himself, and when he returned, always empty-handed, she would admonish him about his form with the bow. They also took up sparring with sword-sized branches, and as she thrashed Peridas’ forearms and bloodied his knuckles, she would instruct him as to his technique, tell him to control his breathing, or give him various strategies for disarming her.

Once, when they were resting for the night, covered in bruises and blotches, Peridas asked, “How do you know my tongue?”

When her reply came, it did nothing to gain the boy’s confidence; she said, “Your friends were not the first prisoners we captured.”

***

Peridas notched an arrow and pulled back on the string evenly. By now, he remembered to keep the shaft pressed firmly against the bow. He drew until the fletching tickled his cheek, then clumsily worked his fingers round the string to hold the arrow by only the nock. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and let out a shallow breath. The string began to tremble slightly as his arm grew heavy and stiff. With an exasperated sigh, Peridas withdrew the string and made himself relax. The deer he had been stalking for the past three hours had not moved. He drew again, and focused not on his form but on his breathing. He raised the bow a hand above the deer and two fingers right. He breathed in, he breathed out. And he released just as a branch snapped somewhere behind him. The projectile whistled through the green forest-dawn in a shallow, twisting arc. The doe’s ears pricked up at the buzzing noise, and one of them was sheared off by the ill-honed missile. The beast grunted and bolted into the mist as Peridas strung another arrow and spun around to face… Livaen.

“What are you doing?” Peridas demanded. “I had-“

Livaen clamped a hand over his mouth and whispered, “Quiet! Listen…”

Peridas listened, and heard arguing voices in the mist far ahead. “What is it?” he asked.

“Sirens.” hissed Livaen.

La Isla de Desolacion

La Isla de Desolacion

Chapter IX: Enemies in Unfortunately High Places

After Peridas climbed the seemingly endless steps back to the top of the bluff, he searched the ruins of the camp for any survivors. He found none, and by the time his search was over the sun was just visible between the walls of the cove, a thin slash of red at the borders of the horizon. It suffused the sky with an all-too-cheery radiance that seemed almost inappropriate after the events of the previous night. As if in response to the light, Colossus raised anchor, unfurled her many sails and glided back to the bluff on the sturdy morning breeze. Once there, dismayed sailors exited the ship and escorted Peridas back on deck after scrounging the sooty wreckage for useful equipment. Along the way, they prodded the boy with endless questions of what had happened. Peridas recounted the tale, and having witnesses the banshees from the ship they believed him. They scoffed, however, at his mention of the hooded creatures.

“No men live on this island!” shouted many, or, “Boy’s done heard too many ghost stories.” These statements were not jeering, but concerned, for Peridas had saved the entire ship, and his presence always elicited a degree of respect. This facet of recognition never failed to disorient Peridas, for in his mind, all the men still had greater experience and authority than he.

On boarding the ship, the boy was informed that the tide had miraculously dispersed, and throughout the ship, preparations were being made to leave the island. When he heard this, Peridas demanded to be taken to the captain, who he found outside the first mate’s quarters, thirty feet above the main deck. He was surrounded by high-ranking sailors, and was intently studying a sea-chart. The first mate, Garvrek, a scraggly man that Peridas could smell from across the way, nudged the captain with his elbow. Frindic looked up at Peridas and said, “We’re glad that you are still with us, Hammerbane. When we first beheld the camp, many feared that there would be none left alive. Do tell me how all this occurred.”

Terrible anger welled inside the boy. If Frindic hadn’t left the men and retreated to safety, Colossus might have been able to drive off the attackers. And now, with half the ship’s crew missing, and just perhaps still alive, Frindic was preparing to abandon his allies. Peridas bit back an oath and, in a deceptively civil tone, recounted the story in as much detail as possible, leaving out his conversation with Ionus. When he finished and all the men were digesting what they had heard, the boy politely asked the captain as to why he was abandoning their friends. He worded his argument to sound as if pursuing the denizens was the only logical solution, for in the deepest, most cunning and mature part of his mind, he reasoned that unwavering determination and logic would impress Frindic, he being still quite young. But his tactic didn’t work.

Frindic rejected the proposal, saying, “Even if we could find them, I have no fit soldiers, only sailors. And we don’t know where they are, what attacked them, or even if they are still alive.”

“I’ve explained what attacked us,” Peridas replied, “and I tell you now, they are alive… they have to be. …They have to be.” He said again, as if repetition would make it true.

Frindic scowled. “We don’t know that. We actually know very little, save that banshees are now haunting our only port.”

Peridas mentally sighed. He hadn’t assumed Frindic would believe in the black figures, but had still hoped he might. The boy struggled to come up with a valid argument, but thousands of others were raging as well, just in his mind but equally exhausting. How would he find his friends? What would he do if he did? Did he really expect to challenge whoever controlled the banshees like dogs? Finally, he gathered his wits and said, “You yourself called this place hell. What did you expect to find here? Fat monks and lavish temples and merry revelries between all the men who were shipwrecked here? Do you honestly believe the whole world as tame as Greece? Think of all the beasts that we used to call monsters, but were merely animals! Here is no different! What will be said of us, when we tell our story back home, and everyone learns that we abandoned our friends on this gods-forsook island! Banshees can be killed- I’ve seen one die, as can everything else in this place!”

“Including us! Peridas, do you not know what this place is? Truly? It is the realm of legend more than anything! I’d wager you didn’t know that it is impossible to reach this island on purpose. Dozens- nay, hundreds have tried, but only a few succeeded. We know that because they were never heard from again.”

The boy’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean, it is impossible to reach?”

Frindic scoffed. “Where do you think we are, boy? The Mediterranean? No, we were swept out into the ocean and pulled for hundreds of miles!”

Peridas suppressed his expressions of surprise at these remarks; he had to be rock-steady if anyone was to be convinced of the necessity of his mission.

Frindic continued, “Getting pulled by the current is the only way to get here. I’ve no idea what sea we are in now. No one does! There is no hope of rescue for us, unless we help ourselves. If we stay, we risk everything. Even more lives would be lost-“

“Aye, but they would die doing the right thing! Look around you, Captain. All these people will die some day. You, me; we all die. I would make certain that my death meant something!”

Several of the sailors were nodding in agreement and uttering low affirmations. Frindic fixed his eyes on the floor, and for a moment, Peridas believed his words would make it through Frindic’s thick skull, but then the Captain glared up at the boy. Peridas glared back, and both men’s faces contorted and reddened until they appeared more demon than human. The reason for the hostility was perfectly clear to the older sailors, the ones who had seen more than their share of mutinies. Peridas had the respect of the sailors, and he played on their hearts, while Frindic had the obedience of the sailors, and played on their fears.

Their argument continued for the better portion of the day, until Frindic thought of a cunning angle that he hoped Peridas had overlooked. “What happens to Greece if we stay here and die ‘honorably’?” he demanded. “Who would be left to challenge the Viking fleet? Without Colossus, Greece may already have lost the war!” 

Exclamations broke out among the younger crew members. Peridas, however, had anticipated the question, and said, “My family awaits my return in Greece, same as yours, but there is nothing we can do for them, now. If what you say is true, there is no chance of returning in time to aid our people. Athens has emptied, and we are all that’s left of it. Sparta will decide the fate of Greece.” He turned to the crowd. “‘Tis a dismal truth, I know, but if we still have the chance to save our friends from death here, then on my life, I will see it done!”

A few broken cheers went up from the crowd, then died away, replaced by scattered clapping. A hesitation rippled through the men, and then they threw off their shyness and roared and shouted and whooped; banged their scimitars against their legs and stamped their feet on the deck. Frindic bristled and shouted, “Silence! SILENCE! You can listen to this naysayer, this coward, but I tell you now, we are the hope of Greece. We will save it, and be sung of as heroes! Stay and be slaughtered if you want, but I for one am not about to let my city and family be massacred. And I will not send my ship to the bottom of the sea over the hallucinations of a blood-addled boy!”

The crews’ support shifted as easily as childrens’, and they responded with cries of, “To Athens!”

Frindic nodded, appearing satisfied. Then he turned to Peridas- who was sifting through his mind for a witty retort- and said, “Your snake-tongue would have seen me cast off my own ship! I, Captain Frindic the Unbranded, name you mutineer! Garvrek, throw this boy off my ship!”

“Yes, sir.” said the first mate with a smirk.

Peridas growled, dropped his noble tone, and began to curse Frindic as a coward and a child. The captain stiffened and said, “Now if you please, Garvrek.”

Still swearing, the boy was dragged up the stairs to the Captain’s deck by the foul-smelling sailor. That deck was a bit higher than the bluff, perhaps twenty feet. The men on the main deck had used a ladder to surmount the cliff, as Frindic considered his quarters too special for ordinary sailors to tramp through. Then Garvrek laid both hands on the boy and threw him off the deck. This took Peridas a bit by surprise; he hadn’t expected Garvrek hated him that much. The boy was still flailing about when he hit the ground. Hard. He landed on his left side- his weak side, and pain flared up his ribs. “Argh!” he exclaimed as his vision flickered and dimmed, and an image floated before him like the blobs of color he saw whenever he shut his eyes. It was gone in an instant, but he had time to see… a group of men standing on a glacier. A spiked tail erupted out of the ice and impaled one of them… That was all he could remember from such a brief image.

A loud grating sounded below him as Colossus raised anchor. Ever so slowly, the massive ship veered away from the bluff and sailed out of the cove. Peridas gazed after it, feeling nauseous. Those sick animals… they left me here… alone… with nothing. “You just left me!” he screamed. “Alone!”

He resumed his tirade against a mental image of Frindic. Presently, he was surprised to feel tears streaming down his face. Despite his disgust, he found himself on the very brink of losing his composure. His oaths became wordless, hiccuping yells, and his head swam with a sense of disbelief. And soon Colossus disappeared out of the entrance to the cove. With the vanishing of the last light of civilization, he let out an agonized howl and collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily. There he lay, alone in his misery; Desolate. And the horizon became a rich orange gradient as the sun set, blessedly removed from the worries of the world.

And so, after having spent not even two days on the island, Peridas found that it was beginning to own up to its name. His desolation had already begun.

.