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.”
“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…