Freshly united, but bound not by steel,
The lost was found but is lost once more
A split in a path, a parting of ways,
A trail to the prize and a rotten flesh roar.
When the first box gave way, one of its walls slammed down to the dirt and slid out along the grass. The dust of impact was still wafting upward when the creature burst forth in a violent charge and stopped a few meters out to stand tall upon two legs. It was too far for its details to show, but the prominent features of its figure were clear: colossal, bipedal, coated in fur. It was a beast of vast bulk, four arms flailing above its head, clenched fists shaking furiously as if meant to frighten an unseen enemy. The sunlight came at its back so that its face and torso were sheathed in shadow. A giant monster of anonymity: no eyes or mouth, no distinguishing characteristics, just an upright silhouette, shuddering and shrieking a terrifying threat.
Its shadow stretched toward them, long and wide and ominous. The violent drumming of its companions sounded all about, fading more and more as each new beast broke free and tore forward to stand in shadowed ranks. A dozen of them maybe, shaking and roaring like deep-voiced lions, standing tall and thick like houses.
“Holy shit,” said Aric. “What the hell are those things?”
“No clue,” Raiden replied.
“They’re not happy,” said Lexus. “Damn, they’re loud.”
Raiden nodded. “I don’t think they’re angry, though. Seems like they’re communicating with each other.”
Right on cue, the creatures ambled awkwardly from their scattered positions and clustered together at the center of the clearing. The roars came softer now, almost like their version of whispering, despite the fact that the humans could hear every bit of it.
“Where the hell did they come from?” asked Aric. “I don’t know if we should be shooting at them or running or calling out and asking for their help.”
“Well, they didn’t come from any of our planets, that’s for sure. My only guess is that they’re from Reticulum, meaning they’re probably not here to help us.”
Lexus nodded. “We must have really scared the Greys for them to bring in these things as reinforcements.”
“Yeah,” said Raiden, “and I’m wondering if our weapons will even dent their hides. Those things are so big, even a sniper round would be like a pinprick in their sides. I’ve only got a couple more grenades, if they even work on them.”
Suddenly, the low growls ceased to sound and the pack of beasts looked up from their huddle, their eyes now slightly visible as a single patch of black amidst their shadowy faces. The three of them knew not to speak, for those Cyclops eyes were set dead upon them and the monsters cocked their heads sideways, listening and focusing but seemingly looking right through them, not at them. There was no way the creatures didn’t see them standing there, right? They stuck out blatantly there upon the hilltop, clearly unfitting against the natural landscape, clearly watching, clearly human.
Raiden’s heart echoed in the silence. Were the monsters speaking to each other down there, questioning the identity of the three figures on the hill, deciding whether to charge for the kill?
Sweat began to rise in Aric’s palms. Should they start to run or should they stand their ground and hope their presence wasn’t noticed?
Lexus held her breath in waiting. The suspense engulfed her like a glutinous slime. She couldn’t move. She didn’t want to. Things passed slowly. Time was stretched. At any moment, the beasts would storm toward them and she’d be stuck, frozen, exposed, small like an ant beneath their feet.
The standoff lasted for less than a minute and broke as the mammoths blitzed forward in a rumbling horde. Their first steps were quick, their strides long, and then they dropped down to run on all six limbs. Their strong backs bobbed amidst the stampede. The ground rocked beneath their many feet, rumbling and kicking dust to the air. Vicious snarls laced their charge, rising up above the thunder, tearing up the quaking slope to chill the humans to their bones.
They were fast. Too fast. So fast that the pack had reached the bottom of the hill before Raiden and the others had even turned to flee. Every creature’s stride took it 10 feet closer. There was no way the three would be outrunning them.
Raiden looked over his shoulder as large heads breached the ridge at their backs. He merely glanced, absorbing in an instant the sight of their open, fanged mouths and Cyclops eyes that, at such proximity, were actually hundreds of smaller eyes grouped together. A horizontal slit like a fish’s gill cut their faces where no nose protruded, puckering and flapping as breaths passed through. The beasts hurtled toward them and they sprinted on, jumping at the warmth of pursuing exhalations, nauseating and rich with a humid stench.
Raiden changed course to run left out of the monsters’ path and none followed. He dropped to his stomach and looked to their faces, none of which, it seemed, were looking at Aric and Lexus fleeing just ahead. It was as if they were running on a mission, heading somewhere, beckoned by an owner’s call and unconcerned with side distractions. Or maybe they didn’t even see the two humans. Maybe it was both. They’re blind, Raiden suddenly thought. “Aric! Lexus! They can’t see! Just get out of their way!”
The second he screamed, he regretted the choice. They were blind, not deaf. Instantly, they veered toward him, and he struggled to get back to his feet. Aric had split off to the right and was safe for the moment, but Lexus had chosen to move toward Raiden’s voice, and the beasts, having turned, were still hot on her tail.
Raiden ran back toward the valley from where they’d come, swerving out of his way to trample through a puddle of water. They could smell, he assumed. Best to break his scent’s trail. He wanted to scream to Lexus, tell her to move to the side because they still didn’t know of her, but doing so would have lured them back to chase again. He watched powerlessly. Lexus ran, wide-eyed, as fast as her little legs would take her, her face twisting in fatigue, her refusal to die waning beneath her body’s demand for rest.
She slipped on a loose stone, stumbled, arms flailing, and then crashed to the dirt in a cloud of dust. The monsters kept running, no clue she was there or no care if they did know. She had flipped to her back, looking up with terror in her eyes as they swiftly overtook her.
The monsters swarmed onward, their hands and feet pounding the earth, prepared to smash her bones to dust if she were to find herself beneath a pair. And she would, Raiden realized. The creatures were too close, their arms and legs too numerous. There was no chance that she’d pass out the back of that stampede alive. Lexus was dead.
In the distance, Aric stood watching the scene unfold, his hands in fists atop his head, pulling hair in panic as his eyes spilled helpless tears. He fell to his knees, staring blankly and panting in sad exhaustion. Raiden couldn’t stand to see the man so broken. He cast his eyes to the ground and listened as the rumbling faded and the earth began to stop its quaking. A flower sat amidst a patch of grass, light blue with multiple layers of petals. He escaped to it, admiring its simple beauty, unsure if he ever wanted to look up again. He didn’t want to face the sight of Lexus’ mangled corpse. He didn’t want to smell the blood, or mourn the lost beauty, or fight to resist Aric’s infectious anguish. No, all that was too much. This flower would suffice.
“Raiden!” Aric screamed. “Where’d she go?”
Huh? Raiden looked up, and Aric was standing upon the spot where Lexus had fallen, doing circles as he scanned the bare earth. He was right in asking his question. Lexus wasn’t there.
“She’s gone,” Aric said as Raiden walked up beside.
Raiden took a moment to investigate, himself. “I don’t know where she is, but there’s no blood here.”
“Could she have been picked up somehow? Taken away?”
“I can’t imagine those things could grab her while running. I don’t even think they knew she was there. I think they’re blind. They must use their other senses to see where they’re going.”
“Then, she must have grabbed on to one of them. Hitched a ride so that she wasn’t laying there when all the feet came.” Aric grinned. “That’s exactly what she did. She’s good.”
“But she’s not out of danger yet. Those things are headed somewhere, and whenever they arrive, she’ll be found. We have to go after them.”
“I know,” said Aric. “Let’s go.”
Without wasting time, the men took off along the top of the foothill, following the disturbed dirt and flattened shrubs marking the path of the creatures’ advance. The tracks led them left, down into another valley that wasn’t capped by cliffs as the last. It was large, stretching far to the right and half a mile deep before the next mountain began to rise. Trees and rock structures decorated the basin, blocking their sight from reaching the shadowed ground beneath. They descended the hillside, sliding on steep dirt banks and loose gravel, jumping over boulders and across fissures in the ground where rainwater would spill down the slopes in sunken tributaries.
In time, they reached the bottom where the ground finally leveled out and they could walk freely without the menace of gravity pulling them in alarming ways. The trail soon split in two and parted left and right down natural corridors formed of stone. Unsure of which path Lexus was taken down, Aric and Raiden took to separate roads, fearful that she was already dead. A tall spire of red stone rose in the distance, so high that it could be seen from anywhere in the valley that offered an open sky. This was where they would reunite by nightfall at the latest. The two of them, at least. Hopefully, three.
Gunshots had sounded for a brief period and stopped: unnerving and curious for there were multiple shooters and he couldn’t imagine who else would be out there amidst the mountains. And were they friend or foe? Aric weaved his way down the winding stone passage, wishing he could run but knowing that it’d be too loud. The walls were only 10 feet or so apart. Those beasts must have had a tight squeeze. He looked up along the jagged surfaces, recognizing the layers and layers of sedimentary rock: brown, dark brown, light brown, red . . . . These mountains were old. They knew how to survive.
Little heads peeked down at him from atop the stone walls, birds and lizards and even a fox with long, pointed ears. He was a foreigner and they were intrigued. He ignored them and watched the path, his rifle pointed as he rounded bend after bend. Eventually, the stone walls disappeared and he was left standing in an open dirt clearing with patches of rust-colored grass and rocks all about.
Thirty meters ahead, a large mound of dirt rose up out of nowhere. It took only a few steps for Aric to notice the hair and duck down behind a boulder. He peered from behind his cover at the sleeping beast, lying all alone and motionless like a part of the land. In fact, it was suspiciously motionless, enough that Aric felt comfortable creeping up toward it. The buzzing of flies arose as he drew close, and then the crimson glint of blood pooling out from beneath its torso. Dead. He relaxed his tense muscles.
The puddle extended farther behind the towering mass of fur, still growing as the blood continued draining from the farthest corners of its circulatory system. Flies were landing on the creature’s open eyes, imbibing the thin layer of fluid from their surfaces before flying away and then landing again for more. Aric watched their frenzied dance before noticing the bloody footprints trailing off from the pool just behind them. He moved closer and the flies ignored him.
They were boot prints, small, leading on for but a few steps before fading successively to nothing. Lexus made these prints. Lexus killed this thing. She’s alive, but she’s alone. I need to find her.
Aric took off in the direction that the boot prints pointed, passing under the gnarled limbs of a dry, white-tree forest. There was hope, and for this he was happy, but the dread of diminishing time still prodded at his spine. Yes, Lexus was alive. But for how long? The answer, he knew, might depend on him.
Raiden wasn’t content in parting ways with Aric in such unknown territory. As he walked, his eyes were keen for threats but his mind was aloof, off in a place of worry where all the worst things were happening out of sight and out of reach. In this dark place, Lexus lay exposed amidst a pack of those creatures, unable to breathe heavy, let alone escape, for they couldn’t see her but would sense her every move and pounce upon that moment. Also in this place, Aric found himself cornered, his rifle ripped from his hands by a powerful claw, his face a mess of pure terror, wishing for Raiden’s sudden intervention but knowing that it would not come, knowing that he’d be a heap of shreds in moments, only after the agonizing journey from life to death beneath a brutish thrashing, all alone.
Raiden shook the disparaging thoughts only to have others, just as gruesome, take their place. This wasn’t working: this sense of duty, so unrealistic, this sense of guilt, so irrational. Why couldn’t he just worry about what he was doing and trust the others to handle their own? Why did everyone he befriend automatically fall beneath some kind of overarching shield that he felt the need to bear and never lower?
A growl came low and stifled up ahead, filtering through fluttering leaves and dampening as it bounced from stone wall to stone wall amidst the cluttered region. Even though its distance was held within its sound, Raiden dropped to a crouch as if its creator were standing right before him. An assortment of snarls followed the first, nefarious groans that caused his skin to tingle with a foreboding chill. His instincts said to turn and run, but the thought of Lexus pushed him forward through a patch of bushes and then down a short bank into a rectangular clearing where the ground was hard, brown stone covered by a shallow layer of dust and sand.
A tall line of blue-flowering plants rose up through cracks along the far edge of the clearing, and it’s from just beyond this hedge that the grumbling came. Raiden stayed low as he crept to the border and parted the thick jumble of stems and leaves. Straight ahead and down a slight slope, a group of beasts stood erect with their backs to him. He counted eight of them before three more emerged from behind a cluster of boulders off to the left. They joined the ranks and looked ahead, and that’s when Raiden followed their blind gaze to the unexpected image of the Grey general standing upon a large rock, looking out across the pack.
I guess we know where those things came from, now, Raiden thought.
The general wasn’t speaking, but somehow, it seemed, he was engaging the brutes in conversation, directing them, eliciting head nods and snarls that appeared natural, animalistic gestures but were apparently more intelligent than that. How he kept those things from swarming forth to chomp his bones was beyond Raiden’s comprehension. Were these wild creatures, in fact, more than that? Were they thinking, feeling beings that just happened to suffer from an unfortunate, outward disposition? Were they actually a new breed of soldier from Reticulum: the face of humanity’s newest opponent? It seemed, to Raiden, that maybe all this was so.
After a few moments of observation, the rustle of grating sand swept toward him from behind. He spun and jumped flat as a trio of armed Greys shuffled forth at the left corner of the clearing. They were coming right along the hedge, inevitably to see him lying there amidst the weeds. He could shoot now and take them off guard, but that would mean alerting the monsters just beyond: not the best strategy.
He grabbed a small stone from amidst the brush and tossed it toward the narrow opening of a cave across the way. The Greys perked up as the curious clatter of impact came ricocheting toward them. One broke away to investigate while the other two continued toward Raiden, their eyes now affixed to the cavern.
Perfect, Raiden thought. He’d been hoping the whole lot would head in and leave him free to slip away. He forgot that these things were smart: too smart for such a simple trick. But oh well. At least he’d thinned their numbers and diverted their attention. He squirmed from his stomach to his knees, taking care not to rattle the stalks about him. He summoned his blade. Stealth would be essential.
The investigating Grey disappeared into the cave’s interior just as the other two made their way past Raiden, their eyes transfixed to the cave and their backs to him, exposed and unwary. Raiden called white heat into his sword and then sprang forth from his cover, the blade swiping a silver streak through the air as it arced down across his victims’ necks. The Greys were so small and his arms so powerful that the motion hardly sputtered as the edge cut through both spinal cords consecutively: flesh and bone, flesh and bone. The heads rolled and the bodies slumped and Raiden had to shoot when the third Grey emerged with his gun drawn and pointed.
It was just one shot—precise and deadly through the rushing Grey’s forehead—but that was all it took to elicit an eruption of growls from beyond the hedge. Raiden barely had time to recognize the danger before the ground began to quake and the towering face of a beast came up over the plants. He sprinted away as it burst through in a spray of leaves and blue petals. He didn’t get the chance to see how many were chasing him, just turned and bolted his way to the cave entrance where he hoped the monsters would be too large to get at him.
To his instant dismay, Raiden found the cave to be little more than a shallow depression into the rock, big enough to fit maybe four of him comfortably. He dropped to his bottom and dug his back into the rear wall as far as he could, his knees bunched up at his chest and his SWUN protruding between them toward the opening. His ears wrenched with the sudden boom of cracking stone as the first beast rammed its head against the stone arch of the entrance. His breath escaped unpleasantly. The wall at his back trembled, and the low ceiling dropped dust and pebbles all around.
The cave grew dark as the sunlight fell behind the monster’s figure. Through the opening, nothing but a patch of grubby hair could be seen, shifting erratically as the creature moved. Raiden released a stream of gunfire into that patch, the roar of exploding bullets deafening but not enough to mask the roar of the beast in pain. It fell back from the entrance, and the light returned for but a brief second before the tremor of the next ram brought more darkness and falling rubble. This bout was even more violent than the first, at least in the amount of damage caused to the cavern’s structure. It was tough stone, but the assailant was determined to break it.
The monster snarled and smashed and snarled some more, and Raiden shot and leaned away, evading the scraping claws of a hand reaching in to grasp at his throat. He gagged at the rotten smell of the assailant’s breath, finding relief only in the time between roars in which burning gun powder was the primary odor.
His bullets were finding their mark, breaking skin, drawing blood but not drawing an end to the onslaught. His shelter was failing. His exit was blocked. His heart was sputtering, his eyes blurring, his breaths grating through phlegmy turmoil. His rifle clicked with no ammo, and he let the clip fall and jammed a new one in place. His last one. His last chance.