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.

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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.

.

 

La Isla de Desolacion

Chapter VIII: Shrieking Winds Redoubt

The comet-like sphere of crying energy sped toward Peridas, flying low over the granite bluff. In the velvet darkness, the banshee gleamed with iridescent brilliance. The boy rolled to the side, and the banshee splashed against the stone where he had just been with a screech of mind-numbing intensity, and glowing indigo globs of liquid fire sprayed into the air, where they coalesced back into a single entity. Then the creature whipped around and resumed its pursuit of the boy.

Thinking, this is a bad idea! Peridas sprinted to the edge of the cliff and dived off it toward the cove’s brackish waters. For a handful of heartbeats, the boy sailed downward, wind whistling in his ears and whipping through his hair. At the last moment he pointed his arms over his head, straightened his legs, and took a deep breath. An instant later he slammed into the water and continued to plunge downward for a frightening while. His chaser followed… and collided with the sea, splaying outward like an opening fist. Its tendrils grasped at the boy with jerky, bird-like motions, but apparently it could not pass through liquid, and with one last shriek that sent ripples through the water, the banshee dissolved in a sizzling cloud of steam.

Peridas unfurled his limbs and paddled to the surface, where he quickly refilled his empty lungs. As he swam back to the cliff pass, he wondered at just how suddenly everything had gone mad. The past few days had been uneventful and therefore blended together without distinguishable incident until the crow’s nest lookout spotted land three days before. It took the rest of the day for the current to pull them to what turned out to be a large, mountainous island with hundreds of smaller, rocky islets that completely encircled their parent. From there, the current pulled Colossus  into a sheltered, high-walled cove that was enclosed by two tall, angled peninsulas.

At the far end of the cove was a tall cliff that towered over the water like a granite curtain, casting a broad shadow over the cove. An ancient, crumbling set of steps was carved into the cliff from the ocean up. Any ordinary ship’s crew would have had no choice but to climb the steps, which seemed perilous indeed, but Colossus’ crew was able to surmount the cliff with only a ladder. Over the edge of the bluff was a granite plateau, enclosed on all sides by jagged cliffs, the precursors of the black mountain that stood at the far end of the valley, about which wrapped a broad, dark forest. Several hundred yards from the forest was a dilapidated, walled redoubt which appeared to have once consisted of a forest of columns resting upon a marble base. It reminded Peridas of a militarized acropolis.

Almost immediately, the ship’s crew began to set up a tent camp on the granite bluffs, in the shadow of the redoubt, more for the comfort of the sea-weary soldiers than Colossus’ sailors. Peridas was elated at the possibility of sleeping on solid ground; the incessant rocking of the ship lulled him in a way nothing else could, but Peridas was born and bred on land, and land was his home, not the unfurled blue scroll of the sea.

Back on Colossus, after consulting amongst themselves, Skipper, Quentis, and Colossus’ captain, a haughty, intractable young imperial named Frindic the Unbranded, concluded they were on the mythical Isla de Desolacion, so named by the Spanish explorers who first discovered it. Once this discovery was made, the three men burst out waving their arms and yammering like needy hounds. The overlapping voices were mainly incoherent, but Peridas caught several snatches of warnings of danger and madness, and mutterings of a gore-filled future. Frindic insisted that the men desert their camp and return to the ship at once, but they called him an anxious young worrywart and remained among the tents. On hearing their reply, Frindic bristled with rage at the blows to his pride, and threatened the crew with charges of mutiny. The crew responded with jeers, pleads, threats and beguiling, but Frindic was unmoved. Peridas was surprised at Frindic’s evident defensiveness and wrath, but… that wasn’t quite what it was, not really. It was… was it fear? Several brawls were beginning to break out on the ship and the bluff between those who wanted to stay and those who were unwilling to be labeled mutineers. Before the situation could further decay, Skipper intervened and said, “Captain, if the men are adamant, then let them rest on solid ground. They only wish to-“

“They wish to see me beg!” the captain roared, his voice full of tension. “They will be disappointed!”

Are you certain of that “sir?” Peridas thought to himself from where he sat, arms crossed, against a beam in the captain’s map room. The last word he thought was so rife with sarcasm and derision that he involuntarily said it aloud. The captain’s head whipped toward him. “What did you say?” he demanded.

“Er- just… that- everyone seems… afraid, sir. What is this place? Really?”

Frindic exhaled a long, shaky breath that bespoke terror and anxiety and danger. Then he looked Peridas straight in the eyes and said, “Hell.” And so it proved to be.

Again Skipper spoke: “Sir, the current would not allow us to leave anyhow. Let’s wait and see if it relents. If it does, we will leave at once, but until then, it would do the soldiers good to be free of their cramped quarters.”

Frindic grudgingly relented and allowed the men to remain on the bluff if they wished, but warned them that the ship was to be sealed until dawn, and no one or thing would open its hatches before then. This elicited angry curses from the soldiers, but most insisted on staying anyway. Also, Frindic had Colossus anchored in the center of the bay, at the borders of the current, well away from any danger on the island.

These precautions were by no means subtle, but no explanation was given to the men, and great unrest was stirring the camp. The boy suspected he wouldn’t be the only one who was going to have a sleepless night. A pit was beginning to form in Peridas’ stomach, but he was heartened when Skipper and the Spartans elected to stay on the cliffs with him. Quentis Novale, too, preferred to rest on rock over water, and joined them in the city of tents. A large fire was lit in the center of the camp, and torch poles were stuck in the ground at frequent intervals, along with several watchmen stationed at every corner of the slum.

Early into the night, Peridas left his wool tent, armor donned, and crept to Ionus’s own gray tent. Along the way, he heard seemingly sourceless whispers of, “We be doomed,” or, “Did you hear that?”

“No, you’re being paranoid.”

Peridas knocked on the door post. “Hmm?” Was Ionus’s muffled reply. The boy entered. The tent was bare save an armor mannequin and a standard cot. His friend was laying on the cot with one arm tucked under his head and his other holding up a note which he was reading by lantern light. A look of profound sadness was on his scarred face. Ionus looked up from his note, and his features changed like quicksilver into a grin. “O Hammerbane! What brings one such as you to grace me with your presence?” He asked with a sarcastically loud voice. “Nothing in particular,” the boy replied. “I was just afraid that with nothing to do, I might fall asleep. And I do not want to sleep in this place, not tonight.”

“Mm.” said the Spartan, as if he had been expecting that exact answer. Silence gained dominance as the tension in the air suppressed their desire for conversation. After a few moments, Ionus scoffed, and said, “And how am I doing at keeping you awake?”

“Not very well, I’m afraid.” Peridas said truthfully, but with a sarcastic tone.

The Spartan scoffed again. The wind pummeled the sides of the tent, its howling making Peridas stir with unease. It sounded too sharp, too consistent… too sentient. It reminded Peridas of the wounded screams of agony from the men in the battle on Colossus. He shifted restlessly and said, “The bards sing of the honor and glory of war, but I’ve yet to find the honorable part. The politics aren’t. The killing isn’t-“

“Don’t tell my men that.” Ionus said. “They won’t know what to do with themselves.”

Then he added, “It isn’t dishonorable- the killing. Not in war.”

“No…” 

“And we don’t fight just to kill. If we did, you would be right. We fight to keep our people safe. There lies the honor, Peridas.”

Again the tension sucked away their attempts to be sociable. Peridas cast about for another subject. “Do you know the history between Skipper and Quentis?”

“I don’t.” replied the Spartan. So Peridas told him of the vicious quarrel that existed between the two men. In the midst of his story, the wind picked up outside the tent, and with his keen hearing Peridas could discern deep mutterings and whispers. Even Ionus tilted his head towards the noises. At first he thought it was just the watchmen, but then his jaw dropped as another gust of wind struck the tent, carrying with it snatches of whatever language the woman had spoken to him in. Horror burrowed between the boy’s shoulder blades. An instant later Peridas was out of the tent and sprinting through the camp, yelling, “They are here! They have found us!” He was too late.

The first thing that happened was that drums, deep and powerful, began to boom somewhere in the forest. Then a watchman’s torch was extinguished by a black whip that sped out of the darkness, and from the shadows where the guard now stood, a loud gag echoed forth, followed by a wet snick as a blade sliced through him. Then an unbearably loud shriek sounded sounded from the black void where the redoubt stood, and from its source flew five glowing orbs of energy that swirled and shivered with vitality all their own. They set upon the camp and whirled among the tents, burning through men and material alike, and sending drops of molten fire spewing in every direction before they fused back into a whole. A single man managed to swing an ax at one of the banshees, and the creature was rent in two, then crashed into the ground, creating a carpet of blood-red fire. Unlike before, it did not rejoin, but flickered and went out.

At the death of one of the creatures, the drumming intensified, as did the shrieking, and the Greeks screamed with unreserved terror. It was all Peridas could do to keep from being vaporized by the speeding creatures as the edges of his vision dimmed and throbbed in unison to their screeches. The boy had no time to think, he merely acted and reacted, dodging and diving and darting.

Seemingly by accident, two of the banshees crashed into each other while chasing the same man, and one jerked off course and spiraled into a tent a few yards from the boy, setting it aflame, and sending a green shock wave speeding into Peridas and throwing him backward several feet. Wisps of fire parted before him as he hurtled through the air and crashed into an oblivious soldier, from whom sounded a crack as Peridas landed on top of him. The man squeaked, wheezed, and thrashed for a moment, then died with a confused expression on his face. The death would have sickened the boy, but he was so emotionally numb that he barely noticed; he had just seen fellow comrades incinerated, and everything about the current predicament had a sense of unreality about it, like a nightmare. He needed to escape this madness.

He considered diving off the cliff into the ocean, but that seemed almost surely lethal. Next he spotted a descent hiding place several dozen yards away near the edge of the cliff and sprinted toward it. All around him, he heard the whistling creatures, and even felt the wind off one that came dangerously close. To his relief, he arrived safely at a man-sized cleft in the granite floor and crawled into it. The rift had a narrow opening that faced the camp, with a protective overhang that sheltered him from view.

And so he could safely see that at the edge of the camp, on the border of the anarchy, several pairs of red eyes appeared out of the gloom and advanced upon the Greeks. Time seemed to slow as Peridas beheld them. Banshees floated slowly past him, pursuing men that were moving like they were wading through honey. The red eyes left the cover of night, and a group of tall, snarling, hooded men with black cloaks and robes stepped into the fray. A soldier with his back to them retreated from a banshee, and one of the denizens swept his cloak over the man and pulled his screaming prize back into the darkness. Another of the hooded figures raised his hand and barked a twisted word in the same tongue that the woman had spoken to Peridas in. It was then that every hope he had that they were something else, something perhaps less dangerous than her, was erased. At the black figure’s command, the banshees ceased their assault and returned silently to the temple, suddenly placid and tame.

A wounded soldier with a broken leg and a steaming tunic noticed Peridas and crawled to his hiding place with agonizing conspicuity.

“Let me in.” he whispered.

“There isn’t room-“

A denizen noticed him and flung a wicked, twisting dagger out of its cloak, which buried itself in the soldier’s back with a muffled thump. His eyes widened and his mouth worked silently, then he collapsed over the opening to the cleft, obscuring the blazing camp. Peridas waited in darkness, scarcely breathing, with another’s blood dripping on his face, and he listened. He heard scuffling and cries of alarm, a few scattered sword clashes, a curse or two… and then nothing. After what seemed like an eternity, the boy warily pushed the body out of the entrance and surveyed the carnage. Piles of smoking ash lay everywhere, the remnants of the banshees’ victims. Appalling as this sight was, the sight relieved Peridas somewhat, as there weren’t enough piles to account for the number of soldiers that had been in the camp. But then, where were the survivors? Another, more disturbing thought occurred to him, and if it were true, he suspected that it would have been a mercy had the survivors been killed that night.

A low, buzzing drone, like some giant wasp mid-flight, reached the boy’s ears. Then a stray banshee swooped down to eye level and inspected the boy. It was a startling purple, and a nimbus of electricity crackled around it. The creature let out a triumphant wail, then darted for Peridas…

La Isla de Desolacion

Chapter VII: Hammerfall

Peridas observed the battle from the small deck outside the captain’s quarters. After landing on Colossus, the Viking forces formed one large semicircular shield-wall, which swelled to an enormous size as more warriors poured onto the deck. The boy glimpsed the feared Viking chieftain, Captain Borgrave, as he leaped onto the deck, clad in gleaming plate armor. The captain towered over the other warriors, standing over a head taller than his brothers in arms, who were themselves dramatically bigger than most of the Greeks- save the Spartans.

Borgrave wielded an impractically large warhammer with a double-sided head; both sides were divided into four symmetrical segments, and from each segment jutted a blunt spike about an inch long. The weapon’s shaft was even taller than Peridas and was as thick around as the boy’s forearm. Peridas guessed that just the head of the hammer weighed eighty pounds. The boy swallowed several times without noticing. We have to beat him? he thought.

A few other Vikings, arrayed in similar armor to Borgrave, joined him in the heart of the formation and formed a second shield wall well within the first. Clever… . Peridas thought. Any soldier that tried to reach Borgrave would have to fight their way past two walls and half the Viking army. Borgrave barked orders to his men with a thick accent and a harsh snarl disfiguring his face, doing his utmost to conceal the cowardice of his strategy; the three Greek commanders on Colossus were stationed at the heads of their battalions.

The last of the Leviathan’s crew had emptied onto Colossus’ main deck, and the massive force surged forwards- spreading out like an ocean tide- and collided with the Greek army, creating a deafening clamor.

The armies appeared evenly matched, but the Viking warriors seemed to have more stamina, and ever so slowly pushed the Greeks back, step by step. Even the seasoned group of Spartans that Ionus commanded were hard pressed to stay out of reach of the Vikings’ hungry blades. Captain Borgrave and his guards were especially lethal. They swept through Colossus’ ranks with near impunity, Borgrave laughing grimly the whole while, leaving none alive. Their advanced armor and exceptional martial training were indeed a dreadful combination. We’ll need every man we can get before the day is out. Peridas thought, already nervous. He pressed his left hand to his numb side, testing the amount of force he could withstand. The puncture wound throbbed but weakly. Somewhat reassured, Peridas swallowed his trepidation and dropped from his vantage point, loosely holding onto a piece of rigging to control his descent.

The boy landed lightly, then rolled under a vicious two-handed ax-swing and kicked his attacker in the gut. The warrior stumbled back several feet. Peridas rose, grasped the Viking’s ax and smashed his knee into the warrior’s side. The Viking cursed but held onto the weapon. While keeping hold of the ax with his right hand, the boy spun quickly to gain momentum and smashed his left elbow into the Viking’s temple, dropping the brute. Then Peridas jumped, grabbed a crossbeam and swung from it with as much momentum as possible, driving both heels under the jaw of another Viking. There was a loud crack overlaying a series of simultaneous pops. The warrior tumbled backwards, teeth spilling out of his ruined mouth, which was hanging open wider than an idiot’s slackjaw.

A duo of swordsmen stalked toward Peridas, warily keeping their arms and weapons tucked close to their bodies. At the same time, a spearman advanced on him from the opposite direction. Peridas collected his thoughts, mentally labeled the attackers, and then darted towards the third man. Peridas grabbed the spear near its blade and tried to rip it from the spearman’s grasp. The spear slid partway out of the Viking’s hands, but then he tightened his grip on the weapon, immobilizing it. Peridas swore, placed his second hand on the shaft, and thrust the blunt end backwards into its owner. It struck the Viking in the chest and he grunted in pain. Twice more the boy struck him, the third blow cracking his sternum. As the spearman’s body fell, Peridas twisted to face the first two warriors. A nearly invisible strip of silver sped towards his neck, like a whip made of shining gray thread. Startled, Peridas jerked his head back with a cry, and he felt a faint tugging on his collar. Before the swordsman that had swung at him could recover, Peridas lunged and caught him in the throat.The Viking collapsed with a gurgle. The boy instinctively drew the spear’s shaft to his side at eye level to ward of the blow that he knew was coming from the second swordsman. There was a dull thud that jarred his arm, and then Peridas swept the warrior off his feet with a twirl of the spear and finished him with a single thrust.

For Peridas, most of the battle was a nightmarish jumble of tangled limbs and flashing weapons. He dispatched several himself, relying on surprise and momentum to compensate for his lack of strength. Others he distracted or provoked into charging towards him, into the groups of Greek soldiers, where they where immediately slain. The Greeks quickly learned to mind Peridas’ presence and to take advantage of the openings he provided. Peridas tried not to kill anyone- he wanted no blood on his hands- but he could not spare every berserker or overeager swordsman that tried to chop him to pieces. After all, their lives were not above his. Not his, nor Ionus’s. And so, when he was in truly grave danger, he killed. And killed… and killed… . And all throughout the battle the frequent sound of Borgrave’s hammer cracking shields and swords punctured the din, accompanied by his feral giggling. The enormous man and his heavily armored companions had punched through the Greek defenses and slain the Athenian commander- leaving just Ionus and Novale to command the Greeks- and Borgrave was even at that moment advancing on Ionus’s cluster of Spartans. I have to kill him- now. Thought Peridas, If he reaches Ionus-

A quick punch in between Peridas’ eyes shook him from his reflections. He had been grappling with an unusually bright warrior for the past few minutes, dodging and striking in grim disdain of his opponent’s wit. Peridas finally triumphed by feigning a punch, then abruptly kicking the warrior in the kneecap and headbutting him in the nose as the Viking fell forward. There was a wet crunch as the warrior’s nose gave way under Peridas’ forehead. As the body slumped to the floor, Peridas glimpsed Borgrave striding toward him from the opposite side of the ship, teeth bared in a wicked, twisted snarl. His retinue continued to attack the Spartans, but Ionus caught the captain’s change in direction and glared after the man with a cold fury in his eyes at being unable to help his friend.

“You’ve caused enough hurt for my men, boy!” spat Borgrave in Greek.

“Not quite,” Peridas whispered to himself, already moving toward the captain.

As the two men charged, a pair of Greek soldiers darted in front of Borgrave and leveled their spears at his chest. Likewise, a Viking berserker wearing only breeches and covered with an elaborate tattoo that flowed over his entire torso, stepped forward and swung a massive greatsword at Peridas, as if to catch him in the stomach. Without slowing, Peridas caught the flat of the blade between his gauntlet-protected palms, yanked the sword from the Viking’s hands, spun counter-clockwise, and struck the berserker in the ear with the sword’s pommel. The man howled and dropped to the deck, arms wrapped around his head. At the same time, Borgrave swept both spears aside like they were nothing more than river reeds. Then, instead of slaying the soldiers with his hammer, the captain simply surged forward and trampled them underfoot, as a draft horse might.

…And they resumed their headlong rush at each other, bidding both armies to stop and witness their duel. As he ran, Peridas searched for anything in his opponent’s bearing that might provide him with an advantage. He found none- save Borgrave’s single-minded determination.

When they were but fifty feet apart, the captain lifted his hammer over his head almost as if he was preparing to throw it. The boy was aware of nothing but the man in front of him… thirty feet… and the drumming of his boots… twenty feet… and heard naught but the pounding of his pulse… ten feet… .

Borgrave took one prodigious leap and swung his hammer in a shallow arc that would have pulverized the boy, whether he dodged left or right. So instead, Peridas dove forward and slid between Borgrave’s legs. Before the captain could react, Peridas lashed out with both legs and kicked Borgrave in the back of his knee. The joint gave way several inches, held for a moment, and then buckled, sending the captain to his knees. Even on the ground, the man was so large that Peridas had to jump as high as he could to swing his hips and legs, and kick Borgrave in the side of his head with all his might. Through his leather boot, Peridas could feel Borgrave’s ear being smashed flat.

Having used both legs in his attack, Peridas toppled to the ground with Borgrave, who was cursing weakly in Old Norse. Before the boy could stand, Borgrave slammed his elbow into Peridas’ chest. The pain seemed too sharp to have come from a blunt strike; it seared and spiked deeply into his muscles, unlike the broad but dull ache that most punches elicited. Gasping in shock, he pushed off the deck and staggered to his feet, and remained there, stunned. As Peridas shook off his daze, a leg as tall as he was arced through the air and connected with his bicep. An inappropriately satisfying pop emanated from his shoulder as he flew through the air and collided with a mast. His neck kinked in a way it wasn’t supposed to, and a jagged line of ice-cold fire tore through his neck, then his shoulder, then his chest. He howled but couldn’t hear himself, couldn’t hear anything in fact.

With an enormous effort of will, he sat up and opened his stubbornly clenched eyes. Green… puddles- swatches of color- dominated his vision, but after a few moments they cleared and he saw the captain stumbling after him as if he were drunk. His right ear was torn and drooping, and his face was slack, but the position of his hammer bespoke everything. Peridas stood and an grimaced at the almost metallic shriek at the base of his brain-stem that punctuated his body’s thousands of protests. His heart fluttered like a wisp of flame in a gale. He knew what that meant, and if he was going to die, so be it. But if he did he was sure going to kill that smug maggot Borgrave first.

The chieftain’s stride quickened, and Peridas charged… and the hammer fell…

…And smashed through the deck where Peridas had been a half-second after the boy jumped backwards and landed safely out of reach. Borgrave tried to yank the hammer out of the planks, but it was wedged firmly in the deck. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Peridas darted forward and ran up the hammer’s shaft, then spun backwards and used his considerable momentum to kick Borgrave square in the chin. The boy heard a dull clack as Borgrave’s jaws smacked together, then he he completed his backflip and landed on a hand and a knee where he started off. He looked up at the captain; he was standing straight and rigid as a column, his jaws clamped so tightly, the bottom one appeared to be missing. There was a deep split running through his chin, which was dark purple and dripping blood and fluids. The ruined chieftain stood for a moment more, then tipped backward and collided with the deck. And throughout the entire ship all was still. And then a roar of excitement and admiration issued from the Greeks, accompanied by the Vikings’ groans of rage and despair. 

***

“Watch-“

“I’ve got him!”

“Not him-“

“Ow!”

HIM!”

Peridas ducked under a flying javelin and grabbed a short-sword from the ground. A Viking wielding two large daggers lunged toward him; the boy simply side-stepped him and continued. When he was within accurate throwing distance, he cocked his arm- ignoring his recently relocated shoulder’s throbbing protests- and sent the short-sword spinning end over end through the press of skirmishers and into the ribs of the warrior that had just wounded Ionus. The man dropped like an under-stuffed doll. Ionus inclined his head in thanks. The man with the daggers advanced on Peridas again. “Go away!” Peridas shouted. The Viking flinched, and the boy sprung forward and tackled him to the ground. A fist slammed into the boy’s side, his injured side, and he could feel warm blood starting to run down his stomach. Peridas gritted his teeth, then dug his fingers behind the Viking’s collarbone and yanked on it as hard as he could. A scream, a spasm, stillness… and the battle swept to a different part of the deck, leaving the boy alone with the dead.

Peridas lay on top of the corpse, panting, and gazing through the twisting system of ropes into the azure sky. Beneath him, he heard the steady rhythm of his dripping blood hitting the deck at an alarming rate. Phantom images floated across his vision. He saw children gazing forlornly into the gloom of night, waiting for parents that would never return; he saw widows- ragged, threadbare, and abandoned- weeping over empty caskets surrounded with lilies and wildflowers. He had killed earlier, but he didn’t have time to think about it. Now that he could, he was revolted. Families, farms, hopes and homes; how many of those had he destroyed by taking only a few lives in battle? He leaned over and wretched on the deck. His eyes darted involuntarily to the corpse’s chest. He willed himself to look away. He thought over and over: That must have hurt. How could I… What if someone did that to me? …That must have hurt… 

Beads of sweat trickled over his brow and down his nose. His hands shook, and his eyes couldn’t focus. His dripping blood sounded so loud, it hurt his head. He felt his fingers again closing around the Viking’s collarbone; crushing, constricting. Peridas let out an unexpected groan, which made him start at the noise. He stood and focused on breathing through his nose and out his mouth. Eventually, his heartbeat slowed, the tears ceased, and his hands stopped shaking.

The boy heard a faint whistling and turned, and a fist curved into his jaw and, for a brief instant, Peridas stumbled back, half unconscious. Before him was a weaponless Viking with a gash in his armor. He attacked again, and Peridas tried to deflect the blow, but missed, and an elbow hit him in the stomach. Stunned, Peridas kicked blindly upward, hoping to hit his attacker, who caught the boy’s leg and held it, and then said, “First you, then all of Greece!” and Peridas saw the Viking unsheathe a dagger.

“No!” He shouted, climbing up the man’s leg.

Peridas grabbed a shoulder and pulled himself onto his feet, then pounced and sank his teeth into the Viking’s neck muscle. The man screamed and fell onto his back, swatting at Peridas, who lost his grip and fell on his hands and knees. He lunged and tried to bite the Viking again, but the man maneuvered his arms between them and held Peridas at bay. The boy pushed and snapped with abandon, and thought that must be quite how a wolf or some such creature must feel when trying to subdue it’s prey. Beneath him, the Viking was uttering a high-pitched stream of curses. Before either of them could gain the upper hand, a shadow fell over the two men and the tip of a sword pressed against the Viking’s jugular. Peridas looked up and beheld Skipper, battered and scraped, but whole. With an exhausted sigh, the boy rolled off the frozen man and lay heaving on the deck, utterly spent. Peridas turned his head and looked toward where he thought the battle should be. A few hundred limping figures where striding over the remains of the carnage, scavenging equipment. “Skipper… did we win?” he asked between breaths.

“Yes, O Hammerbane.” replied the old man with a twinkle in his eyes. “We won.”

A loud crash emanated from the Leviathan to their right, and moments later a team of Greek saboteurs leaped off its deck and landed safely on Colossus. Then the Viking ship slowly began to drift away, sinking into the sea the whole while. Peridas gazed down at his blood covered hands. He was lacking a couple of fingernails, and a large chunk of flesh was missing from his left hand. “I’m not doing too well…”

“Come on, then.” Skipper said, grabbing him by the arm.

He led the boy back to the doctor’s quarters, passing Ionus along the way. The Spartan squinted and said, “Peridas, is that you?”

“Aye.” he replied, conscious of the motley of bruises and cuts and welts that covered his face.

The screams and groans of wounded men filled the doctor’s quarters, creating such a hideous clamor that Peridas wanted to plug his ears and leave. He sat in an empty corner and held his sleeve over his mouth and nose in an attempt to filter out some of the putrid odors that wafted through the air. After the better part of an hour, his wounds were dressed and bandaged, and he left for the barracks, hoping to forget the horrors of battle in the warm embrace of sleep. Any soldiers he passed in Colossus’ enormous and unnaturally quiet corridor greeted him with curt nods and mutterings of, “Hammerbane,” and while he found the title immensely pleasing, it was disconcerting for him to be recognized and addressed by complete strangers. Once he reached his designated bunk hold, he found an empty bed and collapsed into it, weary and haunted from the day’s events.

La Isla de Desolacion

Chapter V: Reunion

“Peridas? At last! No, don’t move boy-” Peridas attempted to sit up, only to yelp in agony and collapse back onto the deck as his wound smarted. Looking down, he saw a soiled bandage wrapped around his abdomen. He gingerly lifted it and saw a scarlet sheet of dried blood coating his left side. “You’re lucky,” Skipper remarked. “The blade missed your kidney by about a half-inch.” Skipper extended his hand and Peridas grasped it. As he was gingerly pulled onto his feet, the boy saw the body of the woman- if indeed he could call her a woman- slumped against the mast, though whether she was dead or unconscious he did not know. A single lantern was alight on top of the stump, bathing the deck with a ruddy orange light.

“Skipper, how… what happened?” As if in response, a pair a soldiers bearing the Greek insignia on their helmets strode forward, into the light. The boy didn’t recognize either of them, and they seemed disinclined to introduce themselves, so Skipper began, “Peridas, these are Lieutenant Tor and Commander Quentis Novale, of the Greek dreadnought Colossus. They helped me save you.”

The men inclined their heads, and Peridas did the same, then whispered, “Skipper, was not Quentis Novale…?”

“Aye, but that’s for another time. They are friends, you are safe, and we must get you back to Colossus to properly dress that wound.”

“Wait, Colossus is here? That is, she survived?” Peridas asked, incredulous. 

Colossus was the largest, heaviest, most lethal ship in the Greek navy. She was essentially a floating city, as secure as any fortress, and nearly a mile long. “Yes, boy. And this ship was commandeered by her crew and has been serving as her escort for almost a week.”

“We were on a scouting trip when that devil attacked us,” Tor said, gesturing at the woman, “She was so quiet, it-” He faltered.

Novale rested a hand on his shoulder and continued for him. “Half of the men were dead before they hit the floor. We hid in the armory until we heard your fight. When we emerged, we found Julian fighting the wench and together we bested her.” 

Julian! Peridas thought, glancing at Skipper with a wry smile. The old man shot him a look that could make a shark squeal. The boy suppressed an even larger grin. “Where are we going? What is Colossus’ destination?” he asked.

“Makes no difference.” Novale said. “Ever since the storm, we’ve been pulled by some immense current. It must have been hard to notice on a raft, but there be nothing we can do to until we get where we’re going.”

As the old man spoke, Peridas saw the woman rise lithely and glance at the men- Peridas’ eyes widened and he shouted a warning- then she sprinted to the railing and dove into the ocean, leaving a trail of blood splatters in her wake. The men ran to the railing and gazed into the dark waters. They stood guard for hours, then gradually relaxed and resumed their conversation.

They were in the captain’s quarters now, and Peridas was inhaling cold bread and cheese, and gulping down a waterskin. The three older men were hunched over a sea-chart of the Mediterranean, talking the nonsense of sailors. He knew that what they were saying was important, but the words seemed to go straight through his head, no matter how hard he tried to retain them. So he was content to sit and gnaw on his meager meal while they waited for Colossus. After the food and water was gone, Peridas crossed his arms and legs, leaned against the wall and dozed off. 

Again, he saw the island, only this time the fortress was above the water and in its full glory. Pale light flowed over the grand stonework from a harvest moon nestled between the peaks of the mountains surrounding the lake, which was back as tar. Brass-grated marble canals laced the base of the city, and silver canoes drifted serenely down them, like folded swan feathers floating on liquid midnight. The dragon-monument protruded from the heart of the castle, towering over the other parapets in its grand climb toward the stars…

Peridas woke to the pale half-light that precedes dawn. He stood and walked to a nearby washbasin. He filled it with water and doused his face and neck, then studied his appearance. His pupil and iris had pulled over the scar, knitting into a rough imitation of the scar’s shape, and therefore making his left eye appear slitted like a cat’s. He had a short, rough beard that made him seem far older than he truly was. His hair, which was usually short and trimmed, was now somewhat shaggy. A purple bruise discolored the entire front side of his neck. His mouth was set in a continually grim expression that reminded him too much of a weathered adult’s visage. It was an unsettling experience for him. He returned to his place by the wall, disturbed.

***

Skipper kicked Peridas in the shoulder. “Ow…” he mumbled, still half asleep. Skipper kicked him again, harder. Startled, Peridas rolled away and directed an accusatory look at the old man. Skipper simply shrugged, said, “You won’t want to miss this, boy,” and then walked outside. Muttering to himself, Peridas got up and followed.

Once his eyes adjusted to the light, Peridas gaped at the inconceivably large ship that their small vessel was tethered to. It stood over three-hundred feet out of the water, casting them in a hopelessly broad shadow. It had rows upon rows upon rows of cannons layering the hull from each of it levels. It had not one, but three masts, holding a dozen sails, and a complex network of ropes, lines, and crossbeams that made a flawless spiderweb look rudimentary. “I am not seeing this,” the boy said to himself. Skipper appeared equally stunned.

Tor simply laughed and said, “Behold, Colossus, the blade of Poseidon.”

“How could the Vikings even think to challenge us, with this on our side?” Peridas questioned.

“Because,” Quentis said, looking serious, “The Vikings have a dreadnought of their own, the Leviathan. Longer and more slender, but its hull is thick and its ballistae are many.”

Peridas grunted an acknowledgement and strode to the edge of the deck. There was a metallic grating as a panel slid open halfway down the ship’s hull. From it fell a large steel chain with links spaced a foot apart and as thick as a man’s leg. The chain crashed into the water and stretched taught. Without asking permission, the boy grabbed the chain and climbed up as easily as if it were a ladder, wincing as spikes of pain lanced down his side whenever he stretched his left arm. It was a daunting climb, and by the time he reached the entrance to Colossus he was thoroughly coated with a film of sweat, and his ribs throbbed sharply. With one last heave, the boy pulled himself through the open panel. He froze.

He was in a small, dark entry room with two boulder-sized spools on either side of him, for storing the climbing-chain. The spools were connected with cables, and fed through to a lever for controlling the chain’s climb and descent. And standing opposite him, in the exit doorway, was Ionus. He looked unharmed, and wore a large grin. Relief washed through him, so profound it left the world throbbing with emotion. The boy stuttered for words, but it felt as if his heart was blocking the noise in his throat. “Ionus.” he finally managed. “H- how did you…?”

“Survive?” Ionus chuckled. “I jumped from ship to ship until I ended up here… It’s good to see you, my friend.” He studied Peridas seriously for a moment, then said, “Peridas, you look like a hammered-” he was cut off as the ship lurched and several horns sounded above them. A volley of yells followed a second later.

“What is that?”

“I don’t know-” The ship lurched again and a low, rumbling drone shook the very air.

“Come- to the surface!” Ionus said as he rushed through an oaken door. Peridas followed, and found himself in a huge corridor that connected every lock, hold, and cabin in the ship. As they raced down the long, bustling main corridor- Peridas relying solely on his friend to lead the way- the rumbles increased in speed, and plumes of dust drifted from the beamed ceiling. The booms alternated sounding from different places on the ship. Then, they paused for a handful of heartbeats… and sounded again, all at once. Peridas’ head rang, his ears and throat tingled, his teeth vibrated, and his eyes watered.

“The cannons.” Ionus explained. But what are they shooting at? They reached the surface hatch and Ionus shoved it open. Light. Pure and white and blinding. Then Peridas’ eyes adjusted and he found himself on a deck two hundred feet wide and two thirds of a mile long. The deck had multiple levels, separated by a step or two. Hundreds of soldiers and sailors swarmed over it like a colony of ants. A group of Spartans trotted over to them. “Ho, where is the commander?” Ionus asked.

The lead Spartan stood panting for a moment, then said, “The commander was just killed. Struck by a javelin. Captain, that means you are now our commander.”

Ionus took a moment to digest the information, then asked, “Killed by who?”

“Sir, it’s the Leviathan. The current’s pulled them right beside us.” Ionus and Peridas exchanged glances.

“Sir, your orders?”

Ionus’s eyes wandered as he thought. “I… don’t know.” he said, sounding surprised. “Follow us for now. I have to join Quentis Novale.”

They set off to the captain’s quarters. When they arrived at their destination, which stood some sixty feet above the deck, they found Skipper, Novale, and a tall, armored woman with a stocked quiver and a wood and silver bow slung across her back. Peridas assumed the woman was Colossus’ third commander. “…your forces cut down the center. Agreed?” Novale asked.

“Agreed,” the woman confirmed, “As long as it doesn’t-“

“Ionus, finally.”

“You were expecting him-“

“We need to talk later.” The woman said flatly, staring at Ionus.

“Why-“

“Not now! Ionus, you need to get-“

A javelin head, lathered with flaming tar, punched through the wall and abruptly slid to a stop before it could exit. The oily flames danced almost mockingly around the blade. Everyone in the room jumped, frightened, except for Ionus, who simply lifted an eyebrow at the disturbance.

Quentis resumed, “You need to-” A second javelin broke through the boards and joined its companion in the wall, about ten inches down and to the right.

“…need to get-” A third javelin head erupted from the wall and sat neatly in between the first two.

“Blast it- go! Just go! Take up arms and command your troops!”

When they were outside, Ionus ordered his Spartans to form a knot at the front of the Greek lines and said that he would join them shortly. Then he led Peridas to the armory and bound his stab-wound with a tight numbing-poultice. Then he fitted Peridas in a flanged leather cuirass and mail-backed gauntlets. “Not that you’re in any condition to fight.” Ionus explained. “But just in case.”

He also gave the boy a new pair of boots and a small dagger. “Stay in the captain’s cabin until I get you- go.” Then he was gone.