How is it that one should respond,
When faced with untainted beauty,
And well-aware that it belongs,
To one who’s called the enemy?
“Go! Go! Go!” Raiden yelled, his forceful voice booming above the tumult of battle echoing within the outlying wood. As he screamed, he ushered his soldiers from the ship with a slap on the back and a “good luck” nod. With the last man’s exit, Raiden followed close behind, stepping from beneath the shade of the doorway and into the placid warmth of the low-set sun.
The leaves about his feet were dark and wet, compressed against the earth as if newly released from the weight of melting snow. The clearing was speckled with pallid patches that yet resisted the day’s heat, which wasn’t much but just enough to soften ice. Explosions rang out beyond the forest’s periphery, the waves of their sounding so dispersed by space and branch that their true intensity could not transmit. Still within the treeless region, a hill rose up like the beginnings of a mountain, edged by forest up its height. Raiden and his men dug boots in its muddy face, the dampened soil yielding to the weight of their heavy bodies and turbulent steps.
Upon the breadth of the hill’s crest, the soldiers looked out across the ocean of leafless branches that rolled in waves over undulating earth. Snow yet lingered within their shade, spreading like foam stirred up by rumbustious struggles. And the remnants of these struggles did not hide beyond the Fraquians’ panoramic view; they displayed with blatancy against dull colors, bright red plots amidst the sallow expanse, some even with corpse at hand. Beyond the dominating view of stretching forest and blood-stained snows, the northern base, to which the soldiers sought, dawned between two tree-clad slopes. Smoke rose in plumes from scattered fires like geysers spewing dirty streams skyward.
Raiden traced the dark tail of one blaze into the sky until it diffused to nothingness, and as he refocused his eyes, he noticed, just beyond its form, a craggy ridge that overlooked the base. “There,” he said, extending a finger southward at the find. “That cliff would be perfect for sniping. It’ll give us a clear view of the base and the land south of it, where the Calrians are coming from.” The men to his left and right nodded and looked on. “Remember, this siege has been going on for the last four days, so they’re very near now. They’re no doubt weary from the fighting, but so are our guys. We’re here to relieve them. Let’s get there.”
Raiden hurried onward down the far side of the hill, jumping with every step so that the mud would grab his feet and keep them from slipping out from under him. His squad of 50 followed at side, confident with their leader’s intrepid escort and the solid grips of their rifles in hand. Darren stayed close at Raiden’s back, feeding, from his lieutenant’s morale, his own lackluster stores of assurance. It was a half-mile trek through the barren woodland, and one they made with quickened pace beneath the urgent cries of far-flung combat.
Ten minutes vanished with their march before they came upon the precipice, its rocky surface bursting from the ground as a wall amidst the frozen wood. A stream of water trickled down from fractures in the stone above, its course ribbed with ripples of ice clinging like crystal to the jagged cliff face. Raiden moved to stroke the rock, his eyes shifting upward to judge its height. “It’s too smooth to climb and way too high. We’ll have to follow it around until we find the hill that leads up there. It shouldn’t be too far.”
The Fraquians moved on along the cliff’s base, their breaths fogging before their eyes like souls escaping from the coming sin. After 50 yards, the wall took a sharp right turn and began to drop in steady descent until it vanished into the snow, revealing the entrance to its top. Before they turned to scale the hill, a voice called out from the back of the squad:
“Lieutenant Whitmore, could I have a few words, please?” It was Osyrus who spoke, his dark face hard and somber and his rifle dangling by its strap in front of his waist.
Raiden nodded and fell back through the masses of his men, his unnoticed stalker, Darren, doing the same. “What’s up, Osyrus?”
“I’m not sure, sir.”
“What do you mean? You said you had something you wanted to say, right?”
“For a moment, I did, but as soon as I asked you back, the words left my mind. Sorry, sir.”
Raiden stared at the man with suspicion but did not voice the feeling. “Okay, that’s all right.” As he turned to head back to the front of the squad, a deafening shot rang out from beyond, barely sounding before the next shot followed and suddenly a stream of automatic fire. The Fraquians dropped to the ground and dispersed behind cover, but two soldiers at the front were already dead and bleeding in the snow.
Raiden leaned with Osyrus against the bark of a thick oak, his world in slow motion as he worked to comprehend the situation. He moved his rifle to one hand and used the other to free the knife at his belt. Its polished blade shimmered like a mirror, which he held beyond the trunk’s edge, the reflection in its face revealing flashes of fire from amidst the trees. The Calrians were attempting to use the forest for cover as they swooped around and attacked the base from the rear, but Raiden and his men had put a halt to their step.
“Fire at will, men!” Raiden hollered. “Fire at will!”
The reflection of his downed soldiers at the foot of the cliff made his blood boil so furiously that steam began to rise from his body. He had failed those men. He would avenge their deaths.
The roar of the SWUN consumed him, the sheer numbers of his men overwhelming the small Calrian unit. He dropped to a knee and sent bullets through the trees, the force of their flight cutting limbs to the ground with a crackle. Clouds of powder exploded into the air where they struck the snowy underbrush. No screams escaped the depths of that region for the turmoil rang so loud and unrelenting, and the bullets soared so thick and merciless, that nothing within could possibly manage a single peep before succumbing.
Raiden found himself pulling on the trigger without the will to ever stop. A monster had been unleashed. It was a monster that had been locked away for many years, and it was hungry, and eager, and furious. He screamed madly, his rifle jerking violently against his chest, the anger of his failure draining slowly with his wrathful clip. Nothing mattered in those moments but the pure destruction of every foe that lingered just beyond the trees. Gruesome images flashed before his eyes, consuming him in wicked lust, distracting him from his conscious actions in the present. He would shoot forever.
But there were two parts to the man—two wills at constant odds—and though the evil in him was impassioned, Raiden’s rational mind was no pushover. It fought from the moment the beast was released, and quickly, it regained control. His wits returned, his cries waned, his finger relaxed. His men, he realized, would have more battles than this one, and they all would need every bullet they had.
“Hold your fire!” Raiden roared. The racket lessened with his words, but did not stop entirely. “I said ‘hold your fire,’ soldiers!” This time, the silence came at once, and only heavy breaths and falling branches broke its solidarity. Smoke rose in wavering wisps from their rifles’ ends, its scent quickly stolen by the wind and swept off amongst the forest to warn the animals away. Raiden ran to the sides of his downed men in case there was a chance to save them. There wasn’t.
They had both been taken by surprise with bullets in their chests and heads. He closed his eyes and muttered some words to God, then glanced about the area until all five of his cadets’ faces had shown to his relief. At least his very own were still alive, though all the mens’ lives were his to guard. With the unexpected nature of this attack, they were lucky more had not been gunned down. He looked to his soldiers who stood in grief, their heads hanging low with wordless mouths. They needed words to come from his, lest their morale proceed to pine.
“You did well, soldiers,” Raiden said, rising from crouch to stand tall before them. “None of us expected the Calrians to be this far north. We underestimated the threat, and this is what happened. I can only blame myself for the oversight, but we must all learn the lesson. Always walk with a cautious step and a keen eye, and never allow yourselves to feel safe and secure in the midst of war. The unexpected is commonplace in times like these, and unfortunately, it’s often the most threatening. This won’t be the last surprise we run into. There will be more. That’s one thing we can expect.
“You’re all prepared for this, though. I should know. I trained you myself. I want your trust, but the weapons in your hands are what you truly must depend on. Your rifle is your life, and you are its. Take care of it, and it will take care of you. Watch over it, and it will watch over you. Believe in its ability to save your life, and it will believe in your ability to save your life. Are we all good here?”
“Yes, sir,” the men sounded.
“Then, let’s move forward with the plan. This way, men.”
Raiden waved them over from their scattered positions throughout the trees and led their hike up the hill’s side. The cliff they had just followed dropped abruptly at the group’s right. Wisely, the men stayed away to avoid accidentally breaching its unmarked edge. None of them wished to join their two fallen comrades, not necessarily because they loved life so much but more so because they feared the place they would be spending their afterlives.
“You know, that could have been the two of us lying dead in the snow back there,” Darren said. Raiden looked over his shoulder where his cadet followed behind with a cold, straight face and eyes like he’d just cheated. “We would have been shot if Osyrus hadn’t called you back to speak.” Raiden suddenly realized that the kid was right. It was a stroke of luck, but with it came new risk. Death was a monster that didn’t like to be bested: a monster that wasn’t likely to give up after one failed attempt. “So what’d he say to you, anyway?” Darren asked.
Raiden looked past him to the middle of the pack where Osyrus’ dark complexion pulled him out from the crowd. He stared blankly forward in march with the others, soon feeling eyes upon him and finding them in Raiden. He gave a quick nod of acknowledgment, and Raiden returned the gesture and swiveled back to face Darren. “Nothing,” Raiden replied. “He said nothing at all.”
Darren stifled his confusion and accepted the answer, keeping quiet until a far-off thumping crept upon his ears like rolling thunder. He strained to hear, for its resonance was weak, but surely it was growing louder and resolving to a more distinct tenor. It was the rhythmic beating of wings on air, rapid, though, and composed of more than a single entity. He suddenly imagined the Calrians riding into battle of the backs of great dragons like horses in the sky. But no. He was sure they didn’t command such beasts. At least he hoped. “Be quiet, everyone. Don’t you hear that? Helicopters are coming.”
The soldiers froze in mid-gait and looked to the air as if sight would aid their ears’ search. When Raiden finally heard the call, his response was not to address his men but rather to sprint without giving command. The others stood for just a few seconds before running uphill after their leader. Raiden stopped sharply as the ground disappeared at the cliff’s edge, revealing the spreading forest below and the Fraquian base in the distance. He stared south to where the helicopters were merely black specs against the grey-blue sky. The foreign sound of their beating blades told him that these were not of Fraquian descent, and through his scope, their images confirmed the suspicion.
“We’ve got Calrian birds flying toward us from the South,” he yelled to the others. “They’re out of range, for now, but when I give the command, we aim to shoot them down.”
“How’d they get this far?” Darren asked. “HQ radar should have picked them up miles ago. Our missile defenses should have taken them out.”
Raiden pondered the words. “I’m not sure. I’ve not been briefed on the set-up of this base’s defense systems, but I can only assume that the Calrians have discovered some way to undermine what’s been put in place.”
Following his voice, a sudden explosion boomed down within the base, drawing their attention from the sky to a large ball of fire expanding at the southernmost wall and rising into the air upon a pillar of trailing flames and black smoke. Stone chunks showered the area, their previous positions now a gaping hole in the wall.
Through his scope, Raiden spotted a duo of Calrian soldiers at the forest’s edge, one man’s shoulders encumbered with a bulky bazooka, the second quickly readying another warhead for launch. Farther back within the trees, he saw a gathering of infantrymen, their bodies leaning on anxious feet, prepared to rush the facility upon the second rocket’s launch. Without hesitation, Raiden sent a .45 caliber round in flight, its pitiless point piercing nearly 900 yards of air before entering the bazooka-holder’s skull and exiting the backside in a spray of blood and brains. His friend had but a second to gasp and step back from the mist before the weapon fell with its dead wielder’s corpse and discharged its new warhead into the ground upon impact. A mushroom cloud rose like a piece of Hell, the flames of its form churning with ebon currents of smoke that bellowed forth the roar of Satan. Raiden’s men flinched at the deafening blast, their cowering heads looking to him in idolatry for bringing about such utter destruction.
“Enemies are at the southern wall, and they’re about to storm the facility,” Raiden said. “Get your crosshairs down there and hold them off. Steady your hands and clear your minds. The distance means even the slightest movement on your end can translate to feet by the time it reaches them. Let’s show ’em what a Fraquian hailstorm feels like.”
The squad disbanded from their huddle and spread to line the overhang. Bipods projected down from their SWUNs’ barrels and dug into the soil with steady feet. Each soldier lay prone upon the rise, sporadic shots ringing out along their ranks. Calrian soldiers poured forth from the forest’s depths like hornets from the hive, their numbers far greater than the Fraquians had expected. Soldiers on site within the base’s walls and upon its towers were already heated in exchange with the invaders. Charging Calrians fell beneath gunfire, but the defenders were also taking casualties in return.
Raiden’s rifle exploded with each shot, kicking him back along the moistened earth. The red dot of his scope found Calrian heads almost effortlessly, the pull of his trigger instantly transmitting that red hue to its targets in a mess of blood. Enemies fell beneath the hail of bullets, their bodies piling around the hole through which they entered. Soon, Raiden thought, the corpses would patch the opening.
A group of Calrians had broken free from the masses, unseen, and now climbed the ladder of a western tower to assassinate the guards within. Raiden tapped Darren’s shoulder to his right. “The tower there! Help me take them out.”
Darren nodded and swiveled his rifle to the new position. Even before Raiden could let a round fly, Darren had fired and pierced the leader’s chest with a well-placed shot. The man released his grip upon the ladder’s rung and fell heavily down to the earth. The men below him looked up to the ridge where the shimmer of sunlight reflecting off a scope revealed the sniper responsible. In the midst of climbing, their hands were unable to wield weapons, so all they could do was hasten their ascension in hopes of beating the next bullet. None of them succeeded.
The lieutenant and his cadet brought lead upon them, and one-by-one they peeled from the ladder like a capsizing block tower, their bodies accumulating in a heap about the tower’s base.
“Nice shooting, private,” Raiden commended.
“Thank you, sir,” Darren replied, his cheeks nearly splitting beneath the stretch of his smile. He rotated his barrel back to the main fray and thundered a round into the infringing horde.
Before putting his eye back to his rifle’s scope, Raiden remembered the encroaching helicopters he had briefly forgotten in the frenzy. The Calrians were smart. They had timed their attack perfectly to draw attention away from their approaching airborne support. He looked to the sky where the helicopters were now much more than specs on the horizon.
There were nearly a dozen choppers hovering above the forest, the beating of their blades now seemingly silent amongst the overwhelming commotion of combat. Their doors slid open to reveal, just beyond, the barrel of a machine gun within each craft. No sooner had the weapons materialized than did the thunderous sounding of their usage begin to bellow, unrelenting, from above. The flurry of bullets etched whips of exploding dirt across the ground, the devastation slithering toward Fraquian guards as if giant beasts thrashed violently beneath the earth. These hypothetical monsters were bearish when they reached their prey, tearing Fraquians apart piece-by-piece in sprays of blood and flailing flesh.
“Take out those gunners,” Raiden hollered. “Then shoot those choppers down at the blades.” As his orders echoed forth, ropes suddenly dropped, flung from the helicopters’ cores, and down their lengths zipped soldiers at speeds near freefall until they vanished behind the cloak of leaf and branch. The Fraquians saw their descent from the corners of their eyes and longed to shoot them from the air but couldn’t, for the machine guns were their prime focus of the moment.
Raiden punctured the throat of one man and stopped the stream of bullets from the craft. He shifted sight upon another whose turret turned to face their sniping ranks. Raiden knew the devastation that the machine gun would have on his men if it were to open fire. They were all exposed upon the open stone shelf with no cover to hide behind and no shields to block incoming fire.
Even before his hands had steadied, he released a wishful bullet that bore through the gunner’s arm and came to rest within his abdomen. The soldier hunched over in agony but managed, none the less, to bring motion to the belt of bullets hanging from his weapon’s side. Three shells shuffled through the guns barrel before Raiden placed a decisive round between the Calrian’s eyes and stilled their advance.
One of Raiden’s soldiers took a stray shot in the back of his thigh and screamed as dirt chunks settled behind him where the other two slugs had burrowed into the earth.
“Medic!” Raiden screamed. “We need a medic over here, now!”
Leaving his rifle propped behind him, a soldier scuffled over to the injured man and flung a backpack frenetically from his shoulders, emptying it onto the grass.
Raiden refocused on the helicopters, relieved to find that their guns were now all unmanned. “Forget about the choppers,” he screamed. “Cover our troops on the ground.”
Before he’d finished his command, Osyrus, to his left, released a shot that clipped a helicopter’s propeller, snapping it in half and sending the craft into a downward spiral. “Woooo, baby,” Osyrus hooted. “Daddy’s shot himself a birdie, and it’s a big one too. We’re eating good tonight, gentlemen.”
Raiden grinned at his friend’s banter as his eyes traced the Calrian copter’s plummet. But the descent was unexpectedly brief. Awestruck, the Fraquians watched with mouths agape as a new blade rapidly spawned, ejecting from within the propellor’s central node to stabilize the craft’s upset lift as if nothing had happened. The chopper quickly regained its former altitude and fled the scene in due retreat, the other members of its squadron close behind.
“Did you see that?” Darren exclaimed.
Raiden said nothing as he watched the helicopters shrink into the dark blue distance. He was impressed, thus far, with the technological capabilities displayed by the Calrians. They were a small people, but what they lacked in size they clearly made up for in intellect. He hoped the little brainiacs didn’t have many more tricks up their sleeves. But he was wasting time. Men were dying. He refocused.
The invaders were making good progress through the complex. They had all managed to breach the first wall, and now the fight had spilled into the courtyard just beyond. The fight had shifted to close-quarter combat, with Fraquian soldiers overtaken by charging Calrians and forced to fight with hands, and knives, and rifle butts. The area was strewn with moving bodies, enemy and ally alike, and it was now much more difficult to find a clear shot.
Even so, the SWUN squad continued to take down combatants from their distant place upon the hill. Raiden made holes in backs and skulls, and the others, to his left and right, the same. On the battlefield, a fellow Fraquian lay dazed upon the ground as two Calrians rushed upon him with daggers drawn. As they approached, one fell dead from a brain-slicing bullet and rolled limply at the other’s heels. The remaining Calrian took no notice of his partner’s demise and continued his blitz before falling to his face with a shattered kneecap. With his knife jarred free from his hand, he was helpless at the Fraquian’s side and paid the price with a broken neck that snapped like a toothpick between the huge palms of his intended victim. The Fraquian looked up to the ridge where his protector lay sniping and gave a thankful wave before standing to rejoin the battle.
Entering from the forest side of the wall, the air-dropped reinforcements had arrived, and a line of nearly 30 fresh Calrian soldiers barreled in and shot their pistols liberally toward tower guards. Raiden could see an oddity amongst their ranks, twinkling like a ruby in a pit of gravel.
There stood a woman—the only female he’d seen yet—short and thin but powerful all the same. Her face was so vibrant and full of beauty that his trigger finger refused to mar its splendor. There was a sharpness about her eyes and a provocative darkness that ran down along her curves. It was more than the long black ponytail that trailed down her back from beneath her helmet: it was an aura of mystery, and she was some kind of forbidden fruit.
She wasn’t shooting, only standing and watching like she was tired of fighting and wished only to observe. It made no sense since she had just arrived, but Raiden could see it in the pursing of her lips and the way she rubbed the handle of her pistol nervously at her side, unsure whether she would draw it or not. Suddenly, a man beside her took a sniper round through the throat and slumped to flail like a fish on the sand. The woman jumped back and turned intuitively toward the bullet’s origin, her eyes, Raiden could have sworn, meeting his right through his scope.
Another Calrian jumped and grabbed her, their bodies tumbling to the dirt just as a sphere of dust erupted at her previous position.
“Damn it,” Darren said. “Barely missed her.”
Raiden glanced at his student, half enraged that he had nearly killed the beauty but well-aware of the sentiment’s absurdity. He nodded coolly and looked back to the base where the warring masses had begun to diminish.
The enemies had taken the fight around the edge of the second barricade to the far side of the facility, removing from the snipers’ sights the combat that their ears could plainly hear. Raiden quickly scanned the area for another sniping position that would lend their eyes the angle they needed, but none stood out. “We need to move closer,” he said, rising to his feet and restoring his rifle’s bipod to its upright position. “Our men are getting killed in there, and they need our help. Grab your stuff, and let’s go.”
The noise of gunfire and the shouts and cries of the dying urged them on with accelerated strides. It took but a minute to descend the hillside, and another five to traverse the separating forest and enter into the facility by the same makeshift passage the enemies had utilized. As they neared the second wall’s corner, Raiden released his SWUN’s blade with a schiiing of warning. His throng of followers did the same, engulfing their pack in the song of resonating steel.
Just as Raiden broke the corner, the sound of fighting grew exponentially. Only 10 feet ahead, a Calrian sat mounted on a badly beaten Fraquian soldier. With both hands, he gripped a large knife, which he fought to plunge into the struggling soldier’s chest. As Raiden rushed by, he slashed out with his sword and continued on into the battle, his eyes uninterested with the severed head that fell and rolled in his wake.
Two more foes were close at hand: one lying on his back with two furry hands about his throat and the other at the strangler’s rear thrusting his bloody dagger repeatedly into the man’s side, attempting to stop the choke. The Fraquian had taken at least six stabs before Raiden rushed in and sunk his blade into the attacker’s chest so forcefully that it burst out the back side and lifted him up from his feet like a rag doll. Before Raiden could dislodge his sword from its leaking flesh sheath, a Calrian in the periphery of his vision turned a pistol on him and prepared to shoot. Raiden dropped quickly to a knee and turned to face the gunman with his bayonet extended and the skewered Calrian still upon its length. The corpse caught the first few bullets before Raiden pulled his own trigger. A barrage of automatic fire followed, perforating through the dangling body until flying freely at his attacker’s chest and dropping him dead.
Without warning, a headless body fell hard to his right, a deluge of blood flowing from its open neck and a knife clutched firmly in its lifeless hand. Raiden rose and turned to where the missing head was just coming to a rest and Osyrus stood with a stern look upon his blood-smeared face. “I’m making sure you get back to your wife and children, Lieutenant,” he said gruffly before sprinting off to kill some more.
I’m really starting to like that guy, Raiden thought. He did a quick spin-around to make sure there were no more enemies near and then hurried on into the action. Straight ahead, Darren stood surrounded by a group of three enemies, two wielding daggers and one empty-handed. Raiden raced to his student’s side, but he was nearly a hundred feet away and feared he wouldn’t reach him in time.
One of the Calrians lunged forward with his knife as another jumped on Darren’s back and wrapped his arms around the Fraquian’s throat, his boots dangling two feet above the ground. Darren spun quickly so that the attacker’s blade dug into his friend’s back, loosening the strangler’s arms and bringing him brusquely to the earth. Darren spun again with his sword forward and angled down, its edge cutting the assailant’s arm clean through at the bicep. The man howled in agony as his limbless shoulder spewed his life fluids upon the dirt.
Raiden was just about there when the final Calrian pounced. Darren’s reach was far greater, especially with the added length of his sword, so the soldier barely moved a foot before his throat was impaled and his eyes rolled back into his head. Darren charged forward to take the trembling man to his back, his steel still entrenched in the gurgling neck. A mercy pull of the trigger sent a barrage of bullets through the Calrian’s face and ended his suffering. Darren yanked his blade from the man, turning just as Raiden speared the armless one in the chest with a vigorous thrust and a growl of fury. A violent jerk dislodged his sword and let the victim crumble.
“Nice fighting, Slater,” Raiden said. “I taught you well.”
“Thank you, sir,” Darren replied, lifting his rifle, suddenly, to send a spray of bullets into a passing Calrian.
“Keep it up. They’re nearly finished.”
“Yes, sir,” Darren said and then shuffled off toward a group of fighting men. Raiden smiled inside, impressed that the young man had left his side willingly to join in the fracas. He glanced in the opposite direction where Osyrus was slicing up a couple Calrians that had drawn pistols on him. Fifty feet back, another enemy had a gun aimed at Osyrus’ back and pulled the trigger but failed to fire a round. Frantically, he discharged the empty clip onto the ground and dug in his belt for a spare.
Raiden ran toward the soldier with his rifle raised and pulled his trigger only to suffer the same fate: no more ammo. He had no time to reload if he was going to take the guy out before he shot Osyrus, so he tossed his cumbersome weapon to the ground and expedited his urgent sprint. The Calrian found an extra clip and jammed it up into his pistol’s grip, raising the handgun just as Raiden charged in with a hand reaching for the man’s throat.
Raiden’s massive fingers closed tightly around the runt’s neck and flung him from his feet as if he were weightless. Raiden maintained his grip and hoisted the soldier through the air until his skull slammed bone-crushingly into the unyielding wall five feet back. A loud crunch resounded with a splatter of blood upon impact, the man’s eyes glazing slightly in faintness and his fingers clawing to remove Raiden’s suffocating grasp. Raiden cocked his other arm back and came forward with a murderous fist that crushed the Calrian’s facial bones against the stone. Another punch pounded a crater in his face, compressing his brain enough to end his struggle.
Raiden released the man’s trachea and let the corpse collapse, admiring, fleetingly, the blood-splattered wall like some twisted abstract painting. He turned to his right where Osyrus stood above two bodies with his SWUN dripping at his side. Raiden retrieved his rifle and then ran to him.
“Did you just save my life?” Osyrus asked bluntly as he neared.
“I owed you one,” said Raiden, putting an arm around the man’s shoulders and pulling him along to walk beside him. In the vicinity, the fighting had ceased, and the air resonated with the groans of the injured. The two of them sauntered along the stone wall until they came to the corner and passed beyond to the other side. In the distance, there loomed a mammoth tree rising, twisted, from the earth, its branches like a ceiling casting shadow on a brawl beneath.
Two Fraquian soldiers, unarmed for some reason, had cornered the Calrian woman against the jagged trunk. In her hands, she held a sign post she’d uprooted from the soil, one end garnished with tattered paper and the other coming to a point with clots of mud clinging to its surface. She swung the spear in wide arcing flight, its sharpened tip maintaining the soldiers’ distance. The two watched her tenacious struggle from afar.
“I don’t know who she is,” Raiden said, “but there’s something special about her.”
Osyrus nodded. “She’s gorgeous. Quite the deception though. That woman’s a real man-killer. I saw her kill three men a few minutes ago: one with her pistol, one with her knife, and the final man with her bare hands. She’s a fighter.”
“That she is. Look at her. There’s a darkness about her, not evil, but taboo. It’s like I can’t touch her, or rather I don’t want to.”
“Yes,” Osyrus agreed. “I’d liken her to a black widow, myself. It might be best to leave her alone.”
Raiden glared across the courtyard, captivated by her perseverance and her fluid movements, so cunning and resolute. He mouthed “black widow” beneath his breath as if his whisper would catch her ear. Interestingly, she glanced to him, and once again their eyes appeared to meet in destined union. The instant that she broke eye contact, a shot rang out from off to their right, dropping one of the Fraquian’s before her. The remaining soldier, for just a moment, looked in shock upon his comrade’s bleeding body. That moment of laxity was all it took to receive a dirty skewer to the throat.
The black widow fled with rapid pace, leaving in her wake the trembling soldier upon his feet, drowning agonizingly in his own waters. Raiden and Osyrus hurried to the dying man’s side, Raiden shooting after the killer with his pistol but finding only dirt and empty space as she zigzagged and then disappeared behind a nearby building.
“Stay with him,” Raiden yelled as he continued onward in pursuit. A swarm of Fraquian soldiers now came from scattered regions, their numbers merging in chase. Many of them ran before him, and gunfire rang out from beyond the edifice. Strangely, Raiden feared for the woman. He worried she would already be dead by the time he rounded the building’s edge. He began, even, to wonder if his sprint was truly seeking to kill and not to save.
Upon passing beyond the structure’s wall, he could see, far-off now, the fleeing Calrian ducking behind statues, and trees, and barrels that captured the bullets meant for her head. Close at her side ran a partner in crime: a man not much taller than she but much less beautiful. Raiden looked ahead to where they were running. An old, stone building, engulfed by vines—obviously native-made—sat quietly in the corner of the yard. With Fraquian forces closing in from all angles, this would be their only refuge from the ill-intending fire.
Raiden dashed toward the decrepit shack, his feet moving more quickly than the shooting soldiers who already trailed. With bodies moving at full speed, the Calrians rammed through the hovel’s faded wooden door and fell into the darkness of its sheltering interior. Thirty seconds passed before Raiden reached the entrance first and burst through the swinging door with a leading shoulder that nearly broke it to pieces. Almost immediately, others followed behind with their rifles smoking and prepared to smoke more.
It was a large, one-room shed with a dirty wood floor and two small windows near the ceiling on opposite walls. The light filtered in weakly, leaving mostly shadows in the corners. Raiden activated the flashlight at the bottom side of his rifle and waved its beam about the space. The circle of its light rippled over the edges of the room and the textures of its surface, breaking darkness to reveal, unexpectedly, the absence of a single entity.
“Where’d they go?” someone shouted.
“This is the only exit. There’s nowhere they could have gone,” said another.
Raiden stepped around the room, ensuring no inch remained unchecked. “Well, they’re not here,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense, but they’re not.” The men stood in the doorway staring at him with confounded expressions. “What are you waiting for? Get out there and start looking around. They must’ve gone somewhere. They can’t be far.” The soldiers nodded and left the building to comb the surrounding areas.
Raiden lingered by himself amongst the gloom of the shed. “You’re a sly one, Black Widow,” he mumbled. “Where the hell are you?”
He stepped to the doorway prepared to exit, but turned quickly around for a final glance as if the woman could have suddenly appeared from thin air. She hadn’t. He chuckled to himself, unsure if she was even real or maybe just some kind of spiteful apparition. Did he really want to find her? Of this, he wasn’t sure.