Tripping, falling, overrun,
Holding on and forced to hide,
A hero come to seek and find,
This ghost that never even died.
Lexus dashed onward with the footsteps growing louder at her back. Her legs were much shorter and far from accommodating in her attempt to outrun the 15-foot ogres bidding chase. Although her mind was far from giving up, her body was beginning to tire. Her calves burned, her stomach cramped, her throat stung with hasty breaths. Then she heard Raiden’s voice above the clamor, rising up like God himself with the merciful message to spare her life.
How he knew that the monsters couldn’t see was beyond her, but it was a sweet bit of hope and she wasn’t going to second-guess it. She broke from her straight course, veering left toward the security of Raiden’s presence. His image beckoned her, shook up and down with her strides, then slipped up and out of sight as her foot rolled on a loose rock and dropped her swiftly to the dirt. Her adrenaline was running so thick that the crush of impact didn’t compute, but even so, the pain of her mistake coursed deeply.
The earth trembled beneath, and the encroaching bodies of her hunters swept over her like a violent storm, their roars like thunder, their shadows consuming her in a doomful murk.
A monstrous foot dug in beside her head and sent dirt against her cheeks. This is it, she thought. A few more seconds and a foot will find my skull and smash it flat.
That’s when she noticed a strap dangling from one creature’s gut, reaching toward the ground just slightly from a knot that bound the belt about its thick waist. Why these things were wearing belts, she didn’t know, but she also didn’t have the time to recognize how strange it was. All she could do was recognize her chance of survival and take it before it rushed away.
Lexus struggled to stand amidst the chaos—the bellies of the beasts were a good five feet off the ground—and grabbed at the first strap that came within arm’s reach. When her hand caught hold, she flew from her feet so jarringly that her arm nearly pulled free from its socket. She clutched so tightly that she feared the strap would crumble within her fingers. The thought of being trampled lashed at her. She wouldn’t let go.
Dust swirled about and she inhaled it with every breath, coughing and trembling as her feet dragged against the rocks. The stampede took her for quite the bumpy ride, over dirt and grass and down a hill and onward more. She couldn’t see where she was going, just accepted the course and fought to hang on, pulling herself up at times so that her feet would hover above the ground and give her a short break from the friction.
When her forearms began to fatigue, and her release grew increasingly imminent, she knew that time was running out. How much longer they’d be moving, she didn’t know, and so she had to end it herself, at least for the one pulling her along.
It was difficult to hang on with just one hand while the other reached for the pistol at her waist. When she had it, she pulled it swiftly forth and put a bullet in her ride’s chest. Maybe it was a lucky shot, but the beast fell flat without even the slightest cry, its legs crumpling up beneath its hefty torso, creating an empty space within which Lexus curled and lay protected. The rest of the horde continued on, unwary of, or indifferent to, the fall of their comrade, whose thick hair and fat had muffled the gunshot and left it to be lost amongst the heavy footsteps.
It was dark and wet within her nook of bleeding flesh. Lexus gasped for air and gagged. The stench coming from the creature’s sullied fur was enough to kill her itself. She inhaled through her mouth and held it until the ground stopped shaking and the air grew still and quiet. She squirmed around beneath the heavy corpse for quite some time before spying a small hole of light filtering in where the beast’s arm was twisted beneath its frame and shattered bone wedged open a tiny passage.
Lexus writhed her way out and spent a minute on her back, eyes closed to the gloaming sky as she savored the freedom of fresh air and open space. It would have been longer had the sound of shuffling feet not stirred her to action. She rose and peered beyond the edge of the downed beast, ducking close as three Grey soldiers emerged within a natural stone corridor straight ahead. To her misfortune, they’d been looking right at her when she poked her head out and were now sending gunfire to tenderize the carcass.
The thud of tearing meat drummed before her. Blood sprayed into the air and painted the dirt dark red. She wondered how long it’d be before the weapons broke through the creature’s body and found her own. Not too long.
There was no way to get a clear shot without taking one in the head herself, and even if she did have the chance to shoot, she wouldn’t be able to. In her haste, she’d left her pistol buried somewhere beneath the bleeding hulk at her back. She needed to escape. This was clear. She was a fighter, not a runner, but she was a survivor more than anything. At this, she cringed and took her leave.
With the massive corpse concealing her, Lexus backed away from the gunfire and fled into a nearby forest of trees with white trunks. Barely into the woods, the shooting halted and her frantic feet became the only source of sound as they rustled through the leaves. It wasn’t long before the racket of gunshots rose again, this time bringing the crack of splitting wood all about her. Trees before her and behind her and to both sides were bursting beneath shots. White splinters soared through the air and across her path, striking her face with a sting that made her falter.
The forest was small and was shrinking behind her in little time. She dared not look back, for she knew the Greys were on her tail. At one point, her right boot became loose and nagged at her, but she couldn’t take the time to tie it and so it slipped off. She left it behind, hobbling in full sprint until her foot was cut and sore and the pain was too much.
No more running. It was time to hide.
Lexus ducked her way into a clump of tall, dried grass swaying off to her left. As the reeds enveloped her, she felt safer but not safe. She crouched into the heart of the thicket, pulling free her knife from its sheath. Her bare foot throbbed and her breaths were slow, but only because she forced them so. All was quiet but the murmur of wind through the hairy reed tips. She was faint from the run and somewhat dreamy: could have fallen asleep within that soft bed of grass and maybe did for seconds at a time.
But in minutes, the rustle of the reeds stirred her, energized her. The immediacy of action, of hands sifting through the grass, of her seekers closing in on the one that they sought: it hit her like a jolt to the heart and she jumped. She jumped, and she lunged, and she swung her blade forward with all the desperation of a cornered animal at the end of its road: an animal with no plan in mind but surviving and no thoughts but those of killing everything.
Her bloody footprints faded, but Aric quickly found new tracks pressed into the mud of the white forest. As he followed the path, the grim sight of splintered bark brought his heart to race. White flakes like a light snow sprinkled the peeling earth. Holes burrowed into trunks, jagged, rimmed by fractured wood. More footprints intersected, at least three more sets, small like hers: Greys.
It was a contest now, for he was not the only one in pursuit. They’d reach her first, but would he reach them before Lexus was hurt? He sprinted onward, leaving the shadow of the forest and trailing the path of scuffled dust that marked the way.
Then he was lost.
The ground was too hard. There were no tracks. There was no arrow pointing him the right way. All he could see were bushes and rocks and strange, yellow cacti covered in needles that had needles of their own.
He spun in circles, scanning the ground, searching for a trace of disturbance. He found it 50 yards ahead, brown like the ground but just dark enough that it stuck out. As he approached, his suspicions were confirmed. It was a boot: Lexus’ boot.
His hairs stood up as if the sight of it meant that she was dead. He forced the thought away. She lost it while fleeing, that’s all. He picked the boot up and glanced at the ground. And look, a new trail.
It was a single line of small craters that Aric deduced came from the ball of Lexus’ foot digging into the earth. Her booted foot left no trace because of the weight dispersion of the boot’s sole, but her bare foot was dainty enough to dig its way into the tough soil. It was perfect. She was lucky to have lost her shoe. Or so he hoped.
The dotted line of Lexus’ wake twisted around boulders and up and down stony inclines, leading him, eventually, to stop behind a berried bush. It’s not that the tracks led him to this bush, but rather that they blew right past and up toward a small knoll where three Greys were roaming about confusedly. The stress of urgency waned away, and Aric felt a great weight grow light. They were searching: a welcome sight. It meant that they’d not found her yet.
But should he continue on around them and try to get ahead? No. They were stopped for a reason. The tracks must have ended there. She was close. They would find her. Should he shoot at them? Try to kill a couple or at least draw them off Lexus’ tail? Maybe, but probably not. Lexus could be hiding in any bush or tuft of weeds. He’d have no way of avoiding her. He could hit her with a stray bullet.
Or maybe she was nowhere near. Maybe she had realized she was leaving tracks and then changed her gait. Maybe she was gone, safe, and he had no reason to stir up trouble with these Greys. There could be more of them. He should just sit tight and watch. That was his best option.
Aric crept closer, moving from bush to boulder to bush until the Greys were so close that he could hear their gentle footsteps in the dirt, tiptoeing in circles as they looked for the Calrian. Then the three of them gathered in a huddle near a tall patch of reeds. They were done searching. However it came to be, they knew where she was and they were ready to pounce. Aric’s palms began to sweat. His heart quickened. The Greys nodded to each other, long fingers sweeping gestures in the air.
What should he do? A stupid question. He should shoot them. He should put bullets in their backs before anything more happened. These were his thoughts as the Greys sprang forward and parted the reeds with the barrels of their guns. These were his thoughts as Lexus’ screams rang out in pure terror, or was it mad rage? He didn’t know. He was still thinking about shooting the Greys before anything more happened, but that “more” was happening so quickly that he couldn’t react.
Lexus was screaming, but she’d only released one or two cries by the time Aric had his gun lifted and pumping lead. The shots were controlled, for she was right in there amidst them, shielded by their backs but still vulnerable to a stray shot if a Grey were to sidestep and leave her exposed. He let only four bullets fly.
One Grey took a shot to the skull and dropped. The others absorbed one round each in the back. One of them took two. That lucky one fell as quick as the first. The unlucky one groaned at the wound and then said no more as Lexus swiped her blade across its throat and left its head dangling by a flap of skin at the back of its neck. It toppled, the blood flowing over its chest like water down a cliff face.
Lexus stood panting and blood-soaked, staring blankly for a moment before realizing what had transpired. Aric was on her in seconds, his arms wrapped about her shoulders, pulling her in and telling her she was all right. She returned the embrace, her hands trembling, one still grasping the red-glossed knife. She thought for sure that she’d be dead by now, but Aric was there. Would she have survived otherwise? She wanted to believe so.
Raiden shook beneath the kick of his rifle, squinting from the sweat that dripped into his eyes and the dust that rose as rocks broke and struck the ground. The beast kept coming, ramming the small cave opening with froth on its lips that splashed Raiden’s face repulsively with every charge. The creature seemed invincible until a bullet hit it in a soft spot and sent it yelping away to die, he assumed. This was encouraging, but the sentiment was short-lived as another beast tore its way forward to continue the assault.
It went this way for quite some time, it seemed: Raiden shooting wildly, each beast eventually fleeing, another coming in to take its place. As each new enemy came and went, Raiden began to realize that the lower right chest was where his bullets hurt the most. It was good that he learned this too, for his last clip was nearly empty and would, otherwise, already be so.
The cave was in bad shape, Raiden could tell. It was creaking, and crumbling, and sending constant pebbles down in plumes of dust that choked him. There was no doubt in his mind that the structure would collapse any second, and if he were inside when it happened, he’d be dead in an instant . . . or injured so badly that the beasts could dig him up and pick him apart piece-by-piece without a fight. Neither outcome was acceptable.
He dropped a monster dead in mid-charge, and its body came to rest just outside the entrance. He couldn’t see beyond the mass of fur, but he knew there was another beast prepared to come forth within seconds. This was his moment. This was his last opportunity to escape. He took it without hesitation.
It was a tight fit, but he managed to squeeze past the corpse in his way and shuffle along the edge of the rock face. He moved swiftly, unwilling to look back, unwilling to look left and see if any beasts had noticed him or were coming after him. Maybe if he ignored them, just pretended he were invisible and kept running until he was safe, then they wouldn’t even see him. He was wrong.
At his back, he heard the smashing sound of another ram into the cave, this time followed by the ear-splitting uproar of splitting stone as the structure collapsed. Keeping to his plan, he refused to look and kept his pace forward. But pretending his enemies weren’t there was not quite enough to keep them away. Without a chance to even tense up, a giant fist punched him in the back and thrust him forward so vehemently that he could have just as easily been launched from a cannon.
His SWUN stayed behind, jerked from his grasp and down to the dirt to be trampled by unyielding feet. Raiden, on the other hand, was flying through the air, blacked out from the abruptness of the punch, limp as he struck the hard earth and tumbled wildly down a wooded slope. He awoke halfway down the hill, realizing quite instantly that he was rolling. His body bounced off bumps in the ground. His eyes opened with flight and closed with impact, fragmenting his descent into chaotic flashes of red and black. As gravity pulled him along, all he could hear was the close sound of crunching leaves and snapping twigs and the periodic thud of his body striking craters into the dirt.
The fall seemed to last forever, but really only seconds had passed before he slid his final few feet at the hill’s base. He groaned. A roar responded, tearing its way down from the top of the hill. Raiden swore he could hear, somewhere within the unintelligible slur, the beast screaming “I’m coming down there now and I’m gonna rip you to shreds. You’re mine!” Maybe not, but he was sure it was something along those lines.
He rolled to his stomach and worked to stand. It was painful, but only in an aching way. Nothing was broken. The hiss of sliding leaves rose up in the air, and Raiden turned toward the hill where the beast was rushing downward so effortlessly that it appeared to be floating just above the ground. He reached to his side to confirm what he already knew: he had no weapon.
His next move was indefinite. Should he run, hide, search quickly for some kind of sharp stone or stick with which to stand and fight? This dilemma played out internally as he settled on the first option in the meantime. There was no way he’d be outrunning that thing, but at least he could give himself some more time to think of a plan. And if he couldn’t figure something out, at least he could give himself a few more minutes to live.
But if that was the case—if he was minutes away from having the life crushed from his body—then maybe he shouldn’t be spending those final seconds feeling the pressure of coming death, thinking of a way to avoid the inevitable. He should be lending his thoughts to his family. He should be recalling Victoria’s sweet scent, her loving touch, her gentle kiss. He should be laughing and smiling with Kristen and Katie, lifting them up in one-armed bear hugs, tickling them in his mind until the joy was so real that he could feel no pain within those final moments.
But no, to divert his mind to them would be to give up, not just on himself, but on them. It would be to accept death and embrace the devastation that it would bring upon his family. He knew he couldn’t do this. He knew he’d made a promise to return, and it was more important to keep than he could ever imagine. If his family were with him now, standing off in the woods and watching, they would be rooting for him.
Victoria would be rubbing her fingers together as she always did when she was nervous, pushing him with her thoughts: Please, Raiden, make it out of this. Please. His daughters would be jumping and screaming “Go Daddy! Hurry!” Kristen would be crying. Katie would be strong for the both of them.
Okay, enough! Raiden finally thought. He was doing exactly what his logic had decided against. So a plan. A way out. What do I do? How do I survive this?
As his mind vied for ideas, his eyes scrolled furiously, instantly assessing every detail in regards to “Will this help me attack or defend, or is it simply extraneous?” Thin trees flew past in a blur, bending and cracking loudly at his back as the monster in pursuit barreled over them without slowing. At one point, the wind of a falling tree brushed at his hair. The next tree clawed at the back of his ankles with the tips of its highest branches, and he knew, then, that the beast was right behind him.
Just as his promise was about to go broken—along with every bone in his body—an explosion rang out, and another and another. Gunshots: strident, incessant, and welcomed with every ounce of his being. To him, it was a sweet melody, streaming out of nowhere by the hand of an unseen musician, lifting him up with hope. Then, the chorus broke in, deep and hoarse and spewing wisps of saliva about his back: the death cry of his falling hunter.
He turned to see the hunkered mammoth. It trembled in hypovolemic shock, wheezing rapidly, shallowly, its four fists clenching upon puddles of its own blood. It lived for but a moment longer, relaxing with a final, dragging exhalation that brought the whole of its weight to settle against the dirt.
“Raiden, get over here!”
Raiden looked off to his right where Aric stood atop a small embankment, his rifle smoking at his left side, Lexus at his right.
“Hurry up. More of them are coming.”
As if on cue, the not-so-distant bellowing of others swept over them like war horns. To Raiden, it sounded like “We’re coming to get you, human!” and so he wasted no time in joining his allies and hustling off into the winding topography of the mountain valley. Once they’d put some stones and hills and turns between them and the beasts, Raiden felt a tint of ease, but even so, ushered them all onward without rest for quite some time. Being so close to death had really awakened him to the reality of where he was and the risk he was taking. There was too much waiting for him in life to chance losing it.
As if he hadn’t been already, he vowed to himself that he’d be the most intelligent, cautious, and effective soldier he could be until his feet found themselves buried, again, in Fraquian snows. At the moment, that meant running tirelessly until safety was a certainty. That meant ignoring the protests of his companions, who moaned every few minutes about fatigue or thirst or how they thought the beasts were long gone and no longer a threat. Heck, maybe they were right, but Raiden wouldn’t bank on that. Not with his wife and daughters feeling the brunt of the debt if the gamble proved a bad one. They would stop when his instincts said it was safe.
As it turned out, that time didn’t come until they had scaled their way up the southern slope of the valley and found themselves amidst a strip of forest at the top of the next mountain. Once there, Raiden finally blessed Aric’s groaning with an affirmative response, and the trio sat side-by-side along the length of an overgrown log. Sitting was luxurious, nearly orgasmic as their worn bodies gradually discerned that they were no longer working.
With care, Lexus untied her right boot—even taking the time to loosen every crossing strand of lace all the way down—and slowly removed her tender foot from within. The trek had been far from constructive for her already-beat-up foot, but at least Aric had returned her boot before she’d attempted it. There would have been no way of her getting up the craggy slope of the mountainside with a bare foot, at least not without losing it in the process, bit-by-bit as it scraped away on rugged stones. She held her sore foot in both hands, massaging its muscles despite the way her skin stung at contact. A moan escaped beneath her breath.
Aric watched sympathetically, wishing he had bandages to wrap her up and make her all better—be her savior again. He liked that role. It made him feel important, and it made him feel like he was winning her over. He put an arm around her shoulder and she didn’t respond to it as she continued tending to her wounds.
He smiled coolly and stood, a beam of Fraquian light from above striking his handsome face in the darkness. “I’m thirsty. We need water.” He walked a few yards away as if something were pulling him onward, and then turned, his face now masked by shadow. “Do you hear that?”
Lexus was distracted, so Raiden replied. “Hear what?”
“I don’t know. It’s really faint, but it’s something. A stream maybe.”
“You’re just imagining it because you’re thirsty. I don’t hear anything.”
“No really, I hear it. It’s coming from up ahead.” He pointed farther into the trees.
“Check it out, then. Come back and let us know if you’re right.”
“Or maybe I’ll just drink up and come back and tell your lazy asses I was wrong.”
“Psh, I know you. Your pride is more important to you than spite. You can’t admit you’re wrong when it’s the truth, let alone when it’s false.”
Aric’s grin went unseen in the blackness. “Yeah. I guess we’ll see.” He turned and wandered into the trees, his shrinking image seen only briefly when he broke a beam of light a dozen yards away. Then, he was gone.
He returned shortly with an anxious expression about his face. He wasn’t short-breathed though, just visibly wielding something to share.
“So what’d you find?” Raiden asked.
“Hopefully you were right,” said Lexus. “I need to wash my foot off before it gets infected.”
“Well,” Aric began, “I was right, but it’s not a stream. It’s a river, and it’s down in the next valley, another hour’s hike at least.” He paused to savor the impressed look on Raiden’s face. He only glanced at Lexus’, which was of disappointment and irritation. “But there’s more. A base. I’m not sure whose it is, but it’s human for sure. It’s also in the valley.”
This bit was enough to lure Lexus from her sphere of misery. “A base? They’ll have a medic.”
“Yeah, and plenty of water,” added Aric.
“There are no bases in these mountains,” said Raiden. “Not last I checked.”
“Oh, it’s there. Just like the stream.”
“Technically, it was a river, so don’t get too big-headed.”
Aric laughed. “Point is, I know what I saw. It’s big too. Built right against the mountain.”
“No, let’s skip the showing and just go there now,” Lexus blurted. “We’re tired, but what’s another hour of hiking when we have soft beds and water waiting for us? There’s no way I’m gonna look down at that base and then wander back here to sleep in a pile of leaves while my foot rots off.”
The men looked at her and then to each other. Neither had anticipated traveling more until the sun was up. They were in their relaxation modes. But the woman made a strong case, and she had a beautiful face as she made it. There was no resisting that.
It only took five minutes or so to exit the forest and then another few to reach the far edge of the mount’s top where the ground dropped abruptly in a steep cliff that fell halfway down into the valley. From where they stood, they could see the entire basin in all its grandiosity. It was enormous, much bigger than any normal vale found amidst the border of two mountains. Down its center, there weaved a river that glistened in the pale light of Fraq, stretching off in wild curves like a ribbon laid into the earth. Even from afar, they could hear the gurgle of its stony voice rising up through the silence.
Unlike the last valley, this one was wide open, its endless grass breadth unspoiled by the roughness of trees and rock structures. Straight down, there stretched more mountain, and down from that there was light—artificial—reaching up at them with feeble fingers. In the soft radiance, there showed walls of stone, squares and rectangles of buildings and barracks, circles of tower tops where guards were probably leaned back, twiddling their thumbs and whistling. It was a base all right, and Aric, having already spent the time to observe it, simply stared at Raiden with a shit-eating grin, admiring the way the man attempted to ignore him out of playful resentment.
“You were right,” Raiden finally admitted. “Wow, that sounds so wrong to say to you.”
Aric laughed. “Yeah, I was right. I was right and you were . . . .”
Raiden glared at him through squinted eyes. He knew where the Arthian was going with this.
“You were what, big guy? It’s tricky, so I’ll help you out. You were wrrrr . . . .”
“You can help me out as much as you want. I’m not gonna say it.”
“Come on. I saved your ass back there, and you’re not willing to give me this tiny bit of satisfaction? What kind of thanks is that?”
Raiden pondered the statement. Aric made a good point, although he didn’t have a beautiful face to hammer it home. “Hmm, okay, okay. I guess I owe you at least that.”
Aric flashed his grin again, leaning in so he could hear the coming words in all their glory.
“You were right,” Raiden began, pausing for a moment to reassure himself that continuing would not make him any less a man, “and I was—”
Roar! A beast. Beasts, in fact. More than one. Howling like banshees in the night. Echoing low and malevolent from unknown directions.
Raiden took his opportunity and stopped his humbling declaration to stand at attention. Aric would have been upset had he not been filled with dread by the circumstances of the copout. He swung his rifle around from his back. Lexus pulled her knife free. Raiden hovered defenseless, for his knife and rifle had long been MIA. He clenched his fists to give himself the illusion of having weapons.
“Where are they?” Lexus whispered.
“I don’t know,” Raiden replied. “The wind tends to take sounds and pull them along. They could be miles away.”
“Or they could be right behind us,” said Aric.
Lexus had her answer soon enough as the familiar thundering of automatic rifles began to explode in the air. The three of them rushed back to the cliff’s edge, from which they’d begun to back away, and looked down to where flashes of fire speckled the darkness from the ends of wall-mounted turrets. The trickle of the river was lost now, absorbed by the commotion of snarls and gunfire and shouting men.
“They’re attacking the base,” said Lexus.
Raiden nodded and began jogging off along the ridge, hoping to find a spot where the sheer rock face would turn to a hill that they could descend. “We’ve got to get there and help.”
Aric and Lexus ran after him without having to be told to do so. “I’ve got a rifle with half a clip of ammo and she’s got a knife. How are we supposed to help?”
Raiden yelled back to them without turning his head. “Those things are nearly impossible to kill.” He jumped down a small ledge and slid on loose gravel down a short slope. When he stopped, he recognized a path down to the valley floor and turned to seek his following comrades. “But I know how to kill them!”