by Christopher D. Carter, © 2015
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Table of Contents
The bandages that covered her legs had turned brown as the blood from her injuries dried. Beni had tried a healing spell, and she flexed the muscles in her legs to see if the conjuring had worked. She laid with her back flat on the earth, and she raised both of her legs into the air to exercise the joints, muscles, and the connecting tissues in between. To her delight, the spell seemed to have worked as there was no pain or discomfort that she could detect. She had earned some confidence in the experiment on her legs, and she gathered the courage to remove one of the bandages that protected one of the wounds. She pulled back the cloth and was again pleasantly surprised with the results. She rubbed her fingertips across the smooth surface of the new skin that had grown over the bullet holes, and Beni thanked the heavens that some portion of her magical abilities remained intact on this world. If she had not been able to heal herself, she knew that she would have eventually died from infection. She leaned down on one hand and rolled her body over onto one knee and one foot, and then she stood on both feet. She squatted to her knees once and then rose to full height, and there seemed to be no ill effects from the gunshot wounds. Beni had slept for a short while, and Burt had kept careful watch over her as she rested. When he saw her standing up with no long pants on, he turned his back to her in respect.
“You’re looking a lot better. Your injuries appear to be healed, Princess,” he noted as he turned his head slightly where she could hear his voice, but where he still could not see her bare legs. Beni smiled at his shyness, and she stepped over and placed her hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you for watching over me,” she said and then stretched her arms in the air as if she had awoken from a long night’s sleep. “Tell me, where is that girl that helped me earlier? Cindy was her name, I believe.” Burt answered her, but he did not turn around; he was still slightly embarrassed.
“After Anna accused her of hurting you, Cindy went off into the woods by herself. She seemed pretty upset at the accusations, and I thought it best to let her go alone for now, maybe to work things out on her on away from the group,” Burt acknowledged. He knew that Cindy had been the one to help the Princess get to safety from the rogues, and the accusations made him feel sorry for her. He knew though that she would come back when her feelings had mended. “I set Anna straight about how you were shot by the rogues, but Anna insisted that Cindy had stolen the child of stone from its resting place in the cave,” he explained and shook his head in disbelief.
“What is wrong, Burt? Was Anna correct?” Beni asked carefully. Burt hesitated before he answered.
“Maybe there is something to the story. I went with Anna to the cave, and the child of stone had been moved,” he said. “It was funny, too, looking at Cindy’s skin. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that her skin was . . . well . . .,” he searched for the right words, “. . . rocky or rough.” Beni’s eyes widened as she thought back to the history of her own world. The child of stone had been rumored to be a powerful magical item, but could it really turn someone into a stone?!
“How could that be?” she wondered to herself, and then she patted Burt on the sleeve. “It’s time to get back to work. Can you please find some pants for me, or at least bring me something to cover my legs up?”
Just then, a large object flew over the top of the mountain and roared over the treetops of the forest. It was a machine like no other, and none of the refugees had ever seen anything like it before. It hovered in one spot over a magnolia tree at the edge of the forest.
“What is that?” Burt asked, and he pointed at it in the sky. “It looks like a motorcycle, but it has wings and propellers.” Beni squinted her eyes to focus on the man that rode the bike high in the sky, and she watched as four more bikes with riders flew over the mountain to join the first.
“I have a feeling that we have been discovered,” Beni replied. She was unfamiliar with the mechanical technologies of earth, but she knew that what was happening was not good. She grabbed Burt by the collar and pulled him behind a rock to hide as the riders hovered over the forest. Some of the other members of the community were out in the open, watching the sky cycles hover in the air. They were not so lucky. The bike riders pulled guns out of their leather jackets, and they aimed at the scattering people below. Instead of the sounds of gunshots that they expected to hear, the guns were silent. Beams of light shot out from the weapons to the ground. Beni watched in horror as people were struck by the rays and instantly vaporized.
“No, no, no,” Burt gasped quietly to himself in disbelief. Some of his best friends died instantly in front of him. Light rays rained down and burned and burned and burned. People were running for their lives, and their bodies were turned to ashes under the beams of tremendously powerful light. Within a few short minutes, the majority of the camp had been slaughtered, and only a few had scattered into the woods. Burt was in shock, and he turned around and looked at Beni for guidance. She could offer no words for the terrible massacre that had occurred before their eyes. Together they looked out over the field, and they stared blankly as their eyes glazed over with doubt.
Had they really seen it happen, or did they find themselves in a nightmare? If it was real, it was just too hard to imagine. Nearly the entire camp had been murdered before their eyes. One moment in time, there was a person, and the next moment, the person was gone.
“This . . . is this real?” she asked Burt, and he nodded.
“It is,” he answered, and tears welled up in his eyes. Beni placed her hand on his shoulder and leaned her chin on him. For a moment, the only sounds to be heard were of the air bikes flying through the sky. Then a scream came from a nearby cave, and Burt’s expression grew dire as he realized who had cried out.
The word rolled off his tongue with dreaded ease as he watched one of the bike riders land near the cave. The rider dismounted and entered the cave with his weapon drawn. Anna’s voice shrieked from inside the cave, and then a few seconds after the biker had entered, a bright red flash exploded from the inside out. Anna’s cries for help ceased, and the rider in black leather strutted out of the cave alone. He looked around to see if there was anyone else to deal with while he was on the ground, and when he was satisfied that there was no one else nearby, he returned his gun to its holster and mounted the hover bike. Burt chanced a glance at the rider’s jacket to see if he could get any clues as to who was responsible, and he saw the letters “STUN” stitched into the fabric. What did that mean?
With a rev of the engine, the bike and rider lifted into the air and flew back over the forest to join the other members of the death squad. Burt grunted and his lips parted as if he wanted to say something to no one in particular. He was overcome with emotions: anger, sadness, guilt. Nothing could be said to change things back to the way they had been, but it should not stop him from saying something, no matter the risk. Beni saw what he was about to do, and she quickly covered his mouth with her hand. Though his head was rigid with anger and shock, Burt’s eyes flicked over to make eye contact with Beni. An understanding comfort passed between the two people as they huddled for shelter behind the rock. They stayed quiet together, and they listened to the sounds of war for the longest time. Neither wanted to speak for fear of missing someone’s last dying scream. They waited behind the rock, crouched in misery and uncertainty, and they counted the minutes while the roar of the hover motors grew fainter in the distance.
“Do you think it’s safe to come out now?” Burt whispered, and Beni shook her head from side to side. Something was not right; she could feel it, though she could not describe it with words. Burt listened to her and followed her example. He leaned his head back against the cold rock base of the mountain and stared at the clouds in the sky. Then a great rumble echoed in the forest, and the leaves of the large magnolia tree whipped around as if a tornado had sprung up from its roots. Three more hover bikes lifted from the far side of the evergreen tree, and one of the bikes looked like it had more than one rider on board. Neither Beni nor Burt had binoculars to use for distance vision, but Beni sensed that their attackers had found what they were looking for. They could not see it, but the bikers had captured Cindy and the child of stone. They had found her and the artifact, probably together in the forest, and they were taking her and the magic item away with them.
When the last of the hover bikes had flown over the mountain and disappeared from the camp, Beni sighed to herself in frustration. It seemed that no matter where she was, there was always senseless death and destruction close by. She felt as if her world was always under attack. It was getting to her, but she had to stay strong. She was a princess, and royalty was never allowed to be weak. Nervously, she stood to her feet and stretched her aching muscles from the cramped position behind the rock, and Burt joined her. They looked out over the field of the camp, and the ground was covered in burnt marks where the lasers had erased the lives of the many refugees from the Prince Argentine’s bondage. It was a miserable sight, and their hearts were heavy with grief. Beni no longer cared that she was clothed in only her shirt and underpants; she had lost many friends that day, and fashion was not at the top of her priorities any longer. Beni and Burt went together and checked the makeshift village for survivors, but there were none. Children, teenagers, adults, senior citizens . . . everyone that had been out in the open was gone, vaporized with nothing but a dark mark or crater in the ground to symbolize their passing. Beni thought that the strain of the loss was difficult enough for her to bear, but she soon found that Burt was affected as well.
“They were my friends,” he said with a tremor in his voice. “Together, some of us had worked the mines side by side for many years. And now this,” he said and pointed into the dark remnant of a laser strike in the earth. It was the mark where a person’s life had been extinguished. “‘STUN’, that is what one of their jackets had stitched into the leather.” Burt looked at Beni, and she shrugged.
“I am not from earth, Burt,” she replied. “I don’t know what STUN means.”
“Neither do I,” he said. “But I think we have to find out. No one but Crush, Pound, and Andrew Hunter should have known that we were here, and one of them must have sold us out.” Beni did not know whether to believe Burt’s accusations or not, but she could not disagree that the bikers had known exactly where they were. The question in her mind was whether someone had traded their lives in for a fee, or whether STUN had found them by some other means. Beni bent down and picked up a loose pair of pants from a makeshift tent in the camp, and she slid them on while they talked.
“I know Crush rather well, Burt, and I cannot believe that he would do such a thing to anyone,” she insisted. “Pound and Andrew Hunter, those two men I cannot be so sure of, but if they are friends of Crush, then I would tend to believe that they are honest and trustworthy men.”
“That leaves us nowhere then,” Burt growled.
“Not exactly. All three of them have had contact with others, and maybe the information slipped out in a moment of weakness? Or maybe they documented their experiences, and then someone read the documentation? We cannot be certain of anything right now, but we should look for survivors,” Beni reminded him, and he nodded silently in agreement. While she buttoned up her new pants and slipped her boots on, she heard footsteps coming from the cave. She wheeled around to find Wilbur standing in the field, looking lost and afraid. Burt was pleasantly astonished to find that there was another survivor left.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Burt said with renewed joy. “We thought that everyone was gone.”
“I was hiding under the water in the cave, and they never saw me,” Wilbur said, and he wiped his eyes. “Anna’s gone,” he muttered in a heavy voice. Burt put his hand on his shoulder, and then he explained to him that he should go back into concealment until they returned.
“We’re going to go look for other survivors,” he explained. “We’ll be back soon.” Wilbur pushed his hand away from his shoulder, and he scowled at Burt.
“I want to go with you. What if they come back?!” Burt understood the fear that Wilbur was experiencing, but they could not let fear keep them from helping any of the others who might be wandering aimlessly in the woods.
“We will be back,” Burt reassured him. “And you have to stay here in case anyone else comes back to camp while we’re gone. You’re in charge while we’re away, and it is up to you to watch after this place.” Wilbur did not appear to buy the story he was selling, but he did not argue the point any further.
“What if the rogues come back?” Wilbur asked.
“In that case, hide until we return,” Beni advised. She was ready to get moving, and she motioned for Burt to follow. Beni started down the trail that led toward the road where Andrew Hunter had parked his car, and Burt watched her run up the trail alone. When she disappeared over the top of the hill, he looked around at the emptiness and destruction that surrounded the vacant camp, and he decided that he should catch up with Beni before she met up with the rogues that had separated from their group. He waved his hand at Wilbur, and he followed the princess along the trail.
“What a shame,” he thought to himself as he jogged up the hill. “Of all the people who should survive, the ones who caused the most disharmony in their little world were the ones who escaped the assault by STUN.” It was a contradiction of nature, the fact that the worst of the lot was still alive, but when he thought long and hard about the situation, he realized that he, Beni, and Wilbur had survived. Maybe they were only three deuces in the grander game of life. But perhaps the three deuces were wild in this game.
Andrew felt as if he were in the bottom of a deep, dark well. The air was thick and stagnant, and he was miserable from the aching swollen knot that pounded on the back of his head. With every beat of his heart, the ache rattled his tired brain, but he worked against his subconscious to open his eyes. His eyelids were heavy, and the battle to separate the eyelids was tremendous as he realized that he must be standing at the edge of a dream. He relaxed his mind and dropped the fight with his own body to wake up. If he was still in a dream, then he was going to take control of the outcome of the dream. He placed his hands on the damp imaginary walls of the well, and he pushed against both sides to make the surroundings move with only his slightest touch. To his satisfaction, his gesture worked, and the walls pushed away to let in the dim light of the moon above. He was out of the well, and the throbbing at the back of his head had stopped. With all of his concentration focused on one single goal, Andrew opened one eyelid this time. He was awake with one eyelid open, and he saw where he really was. At last, he observed the cold woods of the stark forest around him and felt the rough, hard surface of the tree bark that lay against his back. His hands were bound behind him, and when he tried to move his wrists, they did not budge. There was a numbness that seemed to travel up his arms to his shoulders from the bindings, and he felt the sensation of pinpricks journey through his upper limbs. He was numb, and his hands were tied behind his back. Though his arms were helpless, he could use his eyes. He was able to open the other eyelid and see that he was alone in the dim moonlight. The faint flicker of orange light reflected on the bark of the white oak tree in front of him, and the familiar crackle and hiss of hot, moist wood burning on a fire pricked at his ears. He was turned away from the campfire, and he noticed a rope going around the base of the tree in front of him. There was some movement in the shadows on the other side of that tree, and he guessed that Captain Colere was on the other side. The rogues had evidently tied them both up and had used the matches that he had bought with the groceries to start the fire.
“Was there anybody left down there?” he overheard one voice say weakly.
“Naw, man. Shoot!” another voice replied. “Nothing down there but black marks in the ground. That little statue was gone, too!”
“I gotta hand it to ya,” yet another voice added with a chuckle. “Nah, I’m just kiddin’, we found your hand down there, but I bet you can’t get it sewn back on now.” These words were followed by a thud of something limp onto the ground.
“What are they talking about?” Hunter wondered to himself. He kept quiet and did not venture to move an inch. He did not want to give away the fact that he was awake and listening in on their conversation.
“That’s brazen, Pete!” another voice replied. “If Jeb here wasn’t laid out, pale and weak from the loss of blood, you wouldn’t be acting out like you are. Apologize to Jeb while he’s in a forgiving mood.”
“Sorry, Jeb,” Pete said with not the least hint of actual repentance. “Ryan and I had no luck back at the camp. I’m just angry that we lost the treasure, that’s all. You understand, don’t ya, Jeb?”
“Yeah. Now let me sleep,” Jeb’s fragile voice answered. The sound of shoes scraping the dry dirt then came, and Hunter guessed that Pete and Ryan were getting up to walk away from the fire. Dry leaves crinkled under feet as the captors walked away and closer to the trees where the captives were held. As they drew near in the dark, Hunter closed his eyes and acted as if he were still unconscious. When they were far enough away from Jeb, the whispering started.
“Jeb ain’t doin’ so well, is he?” Pete asked.
“Nope. I don’t know that he’ll make it through the night with that big cut across his wrist,” Ryan replied. “Sliced it clean through the bone, she did. And the rest of the rogues left us out here to take care of Jeb. They’re long gone.”
“That witch is bad news,” Pete grumbled. “I’d finish her off myself if Jeb hadn’t done gone and shot her twice. She’ll probably die, too, and good riddance.”
“I wish he hadn’t shot her. She did save us from Argentine and his bug-headed mother, you know,” Ryan debated.
“We’re none the worse anyways. We’ve got some of the groceries, but the others took the rest with them. If we stay here and run out of food again, I’ll be so hungry I could, well, I could eat anything as long as it was cooked,” Pete groaned, and there must have been some devious hint in his eyes, maybe he looked back at Jeb’s dying frame, no one could say.
“That’s sick! Don’t you even suggest what’s goin’ through your head!” Ryan scolded. Hunter could not see their faces or what exactly Pete was implying, but he could read between the lines. “We lost the treasure, so we just got to get back to civilization like the others did. I don’t want to end up a charred ring of dust in the ground like the ones that died at the camp. Those men on the flying bikes, STUN agents, I think they were. They would end us if they found us out here. If we hike out of these woods, we can drift through town and take whatever we need from a store. No need for disgusting me with sick ideas like that, Pete.”
“I guess,” Pete agreed hesitantly. “What we goin’ to do about them boys what we tied up?”
“We’ll take care of ‘em tonight. By the time somebody finds ‘em, we’ll be long gone,” Ryan said, and Hunter could hear the grin in his voice. These were bad men that Crush and Pound had brought back from the mines, and Hunter was pretty sure that he was going to die out here in the forest if he did not find some way out of the rope that held him to the tree. He tugged with both hands, and though the rope did not give and his arms were almost numb from the awkward positioning, he felt that there was a tiny amount of slack in the line where it wrapped around his wrist. He let the tension go, and he tried to slide his hand through the knot with no luck. He would keep working at it. Andrew Hunter was not about to give up that easily, and he pulled against the rope until it tightened again around both wrists. He quietly wiggled his hands and wrists in the knots, and he found that the rope had slipped over the lump of one of his thumb joints and muscles. The back of the one hand then slid out of the knot, and it was free. That was sad rope work if he got out that easily. These men would not make it in a rodeo. As Hunter clinched and opened his hand repeatedly to get the circulation going in it again, Pete and Ryan stepped around to the backside of the tree where he sat on the ground. It was dark enough that they did not see that one hand was free from the rope, and Hunter quickly placed it back around the trunk of the tree where they would not see it. They did, however, see his head twist a few times, and so they knew he was awake.
“Hey, guys. How’s it going?” Hunter asked them. “My head really hurts. What happened to me?” At that moment, he thought that playing dumb might be his best option for staying alive.
“You didn’t bring any aspirin with the supplies, but I don’t think you’ll be hurtin’ for long,” Ryan assured him, and he brought out a large rock from behind his back.
“Is that a biscuit?” Hunter asked and grabbed a handful of dirt from the ground. Then he flung it in Ryan’s face and slapped his hand to make him drop the rock. The ruse worked for a second; the stone slipped out of Ryan’s hand and rolled away from Hunter where it lay out of his reach between two roots in the ground. Pete kicked Hunter in the ribs with his foot, but his boot became entangled in the gap between buttons in Hunter’s shirt. Through the pain, Hunter kept his head, and he twisted Pete’s leg and made him get off balance. Pete fell down within reach of Hunter, and Hunter chopped down on Pete’s head with the back of his free hand. A bone crunched, and Hunter was glad to know that it was not his own. Pete’s face had fallen against one of the tree roots, and Hunter’s strike had smashed Pete’s nose on the root. Hunter leaned over and used the trapped arm to pull himself to his feet. Now that he was standing, he nearly fell from the numbness that had extended into his feet as well. Pins and needles lanced his thighs, and he pulled as hard as he could against the rope that was twined around the tree. As luck would have it, his captors were about as good at tying ropes as they were at fighting. Hunter dragged the loose rope from the base of the tree and held it in his hand like a whip. Pete was still rolling around on the ground in agony with his broken nose, holding it in his hand and swearing four letter words. Andrew expected no better from him; most likely because Pete’s vocabulary was limited to four letters or less. By that time, Ryan had cleared the dirt from his eyes, and he saw Hunter standing up. He lunged headfirst at Hunter, who sidestepped on his half-numb feet. Hunter then wrapped the loop of twine around Ryan’s midsection, spun Ryan around in a half-circle, and jerked him off balance. Ryan stumbled headlong into the hard wood of the tree. In a head-to-head fight, the wood won the battle. A grunt and a sigh issued from Ryan’s lips, and he fell over on the ground. Hunter unwound the rope from Ryan, and he left him right where he was as he rushed at Pete with a burst of adrenaline. By this time, Pete had also experienced a rush of adrenaline, but with the flight-or-fight mechanism going full steam, he wisely chose flight and ran off into the woods alone in the dark.
Free at last, Hunter worked the knot of the rope from around his wrist, and he rolled Ryan over onto his stomach and tied his hands up with the rope. With the blood flowing in his arms again, he could finally sense his fingertips, and he bent down to feel for Pete’s pulse on his neck. Relieved to find that his heart was still beating, he then hurried over to the oak tree where Captain Colere was still tied up. Hunter worked on the knot with his fingers for quite some time before he finally was able to get the fibers to slip out of the tightened loops. When he had successfully loosened the loop around the tree, Colere made no move to get up or to help. Hunter then felt Colere’s neck for a pulse, and he found that his heart was still beating and that his chest was moving in and out with regular breaths. He gently shook him to see if he would wake up, and Colere’s eyelids fluttered.
“Wake up!” Hunter whispered and shook him again. Colere opened his eyes and looked up at Hunter, and then his eyes grew wide with surprise. Hunter did not know what was wrong or what Colere was seeing that surprised him so much, but he heard a loud thud and a forced sigh from behind him. Hunter spun around in time to watch Pete fall over to the ground again, knocked out cold, and Beni standing over him with her sword in hand.
“You killed him!” Hunter exclaimed in shock. He did not care much for the rogues, but he also did not appreciate seeing life needlessly taken away from anyone either. Beni smirked and shook her head in disagreement as she put her sword into its scabbard.
“No, he’s not dead,” she explained. “I hit him with the butt end of the sword to save your life. He will wake up with a splitting headache tomorrow, though.” Hunter rubbed the knot on the back of his own head, remembering the injury caused by the rogues earlier in the day, and he felt a little less sympathy for Pete as his fingers passed over the lump on his own head.
“For what they had planned for us, it’s no more than they deserve,” he replied, and he wrapped his arm around Colere and helped him to his feet. “Thanks,” he added to show his gratitude to her for saving him from Pete’s cowardly attack. “We’ll follow you, Princess, but where are we headed?”
“I do not think it is safe to go back to the camp,” Beni explained. She did not say why, but when it came to talking about the massacre, she had a difficult time forcing out the words to describe what she had witnessed. She unsheathed her sword and cut the remaining bonds from Colere’s other wrist, and then she thought to herself for a moment as she studied their situation. “Maybe it would be best to keep moving away from Faraway Mountain and into your world, Andrew.” Hunter nodded, and they both helped Colere move closer to the campfire that was still burning. The feeling had not returned to the captain’s legs, and he was barely able to walk that short distance without stumbling. Hunter’s legs were not feeling much better, and he was exhausted from the long day that he had endured.
“Can we afford to wait for morning?” Hunter asked Beni, and she looked back in the dark in the direction of the camp. She had left Burt behind as she jogged along the trail to find Hunter, but he had not caught up with her yet. Where was he? She felt a nervous tension as she considered the possibilities, and they disturbed her. Yet, it was not in her nature to leave Burt behind in the forest alone. Just then she heard the sound of boots scuffling along the trail, and thinking it was Burt, she was relieved that he had finally caught up with them. When the shadows of the face emerged into the light of the campfire, everyone’s heart dropped.
“Put your hands up where I can see them,” the soldier in camouflage grunted. “Now!” he barked with a space age rifle pointed at them, and Beni, Captain Colere, and Hunter did as he instructed. The soldier then pressed a button on an earpiece. “Home in on my coordinates. I have them,” he said to the person at the receiver on the other end. Within seconds, a high-pitched hum from a machine grew louder, and a spotlight illuminated them from above the treetops. Beni recognized the sound; it was the same noise that the flying motor bikes had made. Then she saw the letters on the soldier’s uniform. She had not yet learned to write in English, but she recognized the word.
“STUN,” the words were spoken, but not by her. “I thought you fellows were into secret operations overseas?” Hunter asked the soldier, making sure to emphasize overseas. The soldier returned his question with a grin.
“We go anywhere we’re ordered to recover aliens,” the soldier admitted.
“Well, I’m a U.S. citizen,” Andrew Hunter replied. The soldier then pointed the weapon at him and shot him once in the upper right side of his chest. Fortunately for the mayor, the gun could toggle between shooting real bullets and the lasers that the other STUN agents had used to massacre the refugees. Hunter felt the impact of the shot, and he staggered with the brunt, but he was not vaporized on the spot. Unfortunately for him, real bullets could be just as deadly as a laser. Hunter fell to the ground with the force of the blow, and he did not move as he laid on his back in the dust at the edge of the orange glow of the blaze.
“Too bad. We only want the aliens, and I know you two fit the bill,” the soldier said as he turned the weapon on Beni and Colere. Beni had only a second to try to force a shield around herself and Colere, but since she had left her world, the magic required to form a screen had become more and more unreliable. While she hesitated, a cable with a loop on the end was lowered from the light in the sky, and the soldier swung the loop over to Beni. She caught it and felt the cold metal fibers in her hands. “Put the loop over your head and body, and sit on it like a swing.” At gunpoint, Beni did as she was ordered, and when she was secure, the soldier spoke into the earpiece. “One, ready,” he said, and the loop tightened and pulled Beni up into the light until she was gone. A second cable with a loop then came down, and the soldier shoved it over to the captain. He followed the same procedure as Beni, and when he was ready, the soldier said, “Two, ready.” The cable tightened and lifted Colere into the canopies of the trees above. He had no idea where he was going or what these soldiers were going to do with him, but he reckoned he was on a path to imprisonment and torture. Just as he was clearing the treetops, a small animal poked its head out of the tree and grabbed him by the leg. The creature crawled up his calf to his thigh, and Colere started kicking fiercely to shake the animal free until he recognized the little face that looked up at him in terror.
“Simon!” Colere said as he saw who the little monkey was, and he stopped kicking his legs. “What are you doing?!” The monkey crawled onto his back and hid from the light of the hover bike, and when Colere reached the stop just beneath the flying vehicle, no one noticed the small monkey that was obscured by the dark. He and Beni remained suspended by the cables in the air several feet below the driver.
“Simon!” Colere whispered over his shoulder. “You have to go down and help Hunter.” He did not know if the monkey understood, but he felt the little hands and feet crawling down his leg. He looked toward his feet, and he saw Simon dangling from his knees. Simon looked Colere in the eyes and nodded as if he understood. Then he let go and dropped down into the tree tops and out of sight.
“Hold onto the bars unless you like falling,” the driver instructed Colere and Beni, and they reached up with their hands to grab onto the cylindrical skids that were on the bottom of the bike. Soon the hover bike was racing across the sky, taking the prisoners in for questioning.
The sun had set, and the temperature had dropped quickly in the darkening forest. Burt jogged slowly up the trail, and Wilbur followed stealthily behind. The boy had endured mining for untold years in the mountain for Argentine; he had watched his childhood friend, Calvin Smith, give his life to save the slaves of the mine from the dragon; he had survived the journey through time and space to return to a world that had aged more than half a century without him; he had camped out for days and starved with the other refugees; he had witnessed the terrible massacre that had claimed the lives of many of his friends; and he was not about to stay by himself unarmed and alone in the camp to wait for STUN to return. Wilbur watched as Burt stopped abruptly and took cover behind a tree when the hover bike lights searched the forest one last time. The searchlight then extinguished itself, and the hover bike flew away with Beni and Colere.
When the whirring of the last hover bike motor had blended into the background wind and rustling of the leaves, Burt quietly crept up on the body of Andrew Hunter who lay silently next to the campfire, and he saw that the wounded man was alive and still breathing. At first, Burt was not sure who the man was. When he looked at Hunter’s face, he remembered him, for he had visited the camp with Crush and Pound. It was Crush’s friend, Andrew Hunter, and Burt could tell by the clamminess of his skin that Hunter was in shock. He quickly examined the gunshot wound beneath Hunter’s shirt, and he found that it had pierced the muscular and fatty tissue near the man’s shoulder. Wilbur suddenly came out of the woods and startled him as he looked over Hunter’s condition.
“You don’t listen well,” Burt said to Wilbur. “It’s dangerous out here, and I thought I told you to stay put,” Burt reminded him.
“You did,” Wilbur replied as he bent down on the other side of Hunter. He had helped the wounded in the mines, but he was not familiar with gunshot wounds. “I don’t have any supplies to stop the bleeding, and it’s too cold for him to be out in this weather.” Burt looked at him and finished what he had to say.
“This isn’t a game, you know. This is real life.”
“No kidding, Burt, but I can take care of myself just fine,” Wilbur snapped back. Hunter let out a moan, and then whispered to them both.
“When the soap opera between you two is finished, can you spare a little help?” he asked with a strained smirk on his face. Wilbur and Burt dropped their argument and started working on stopping the gunshot wound from bleeding. The bitter wind blew across Faraway Mountain on the cold, night air, and the changing season was taking a turn for the worse.
The STUN agent placed his hand inside of his jacket, and he felt the weight of the satellite phone in his fingers. Steven looked over at the other two members of their wandering party, the DAM agents who had gotten him into this fiasco, and he felt a small pang of guilt for what he must do. The guilt did not manifest itself because he had grown to like them; the guilt came from knowing that he would not receive all of the credit for catching them. They were sleeping next to the small fire that they had made to keep warm, and he knew that the time to act had come. Steven warmed his hands by the fire one last time before he ventured out to the mouth of the cave. He suddenly wished that he had a pair of winter gloves to put on as he heard the wind howl on the steep mountainside, and he walked to the outer edge of the cavern to peer outside. With his back to the rock wall, he watched the wind blow the soft snow across the lip of the cave. In the distance, there was only the black of the night sky to be seen. Steven carefully moved out of the protection of the rock walls and out onto the icy cliff side. The farther away from the campfire that he moved, the better he could see the twinkle of the stars in the night sky. The fog and clouds had passed through the canyon, and the cosmos had opened its pages to him to be read like an open book. If he had been an experienced seafarer, he could have found North, South, East, and West by the brilliant stars and their locations.
“But I’m not a seafarer,” he said to himself, and he cautiously withdrew the satellite phone from his pocket. He pressed the power button, and the phone booted up over the next couple of minutes. He eyed the flickering shadows of the cavern suspiciously, and he sheltered the phone beneath his coat as he waited for the sequence to complete. When the screen was ready to initiate a call, he noticed that the signal strength was too low to make a connection. “That shouldn’t be,” he thought to himself. “The sky is clear, and there’s plenty of battery power.” He remembered a tidbit from his training: the overhang of the cavern combined with the solid walls of the nearby mountainsides created a partial block to the RF signal. The phone could transmit a signal in a line of sight manner to where he could see the sky, but most of the signal was shielded by the cavern and the surrounding mountains.
“Crap, no signal. I’ll have to get out into the open, or wait until we hike to a better location,” he reasoned, but the cold weather had put him into an ill temper, and he was ready to get out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Steven bent over and felt the condition of the rocky ledge with his fingertips, and his fingers sensed the thin layer of snow crystals that had accumulated. The ledge was slippery with the frozen crystals, but it was not completely impassable. He placed his foot on the frosty shelf, and he stepped up onto the bottom lip of the cave and paused to see how his balance was on the ice and snow. His balance felt steady while in a crouched position, and he moved outward from the cave to the mountainside with small, easy steps. Within a few paces, he had escaped the lid of the cave, and he was outside in the elements with nothing inserted between the stars and himself. The sky overhead was clear, and the wind howled back and forth on the steep mountainside. He then pulled out the satellite phone and checked the signal strength. The signals that the phone received were still weak, and he thought that there was way too much static for a conversation where he stood now. To add to his dilemma, if Dr. Tatum and Seth happened to come out to look for him in his present location, they would be able to overhear his very private conversation. He could not have that happen. He would have to climb a little higher to get out of earshot of the others and to see if the signal strength improved. Standing on the snow and icy rocks, his balance was still suspect, and he looked around for something nearby to hold. There was nothing within arm’s length, but as he surveyed the open terrain, he saw a grouping of buckeye trees up the hillside. With the first cautious step, Steven leaned forward and placed an uncertain foothold on the step of an icy rock, and as he exerted his strength to hoist himself up, his foot slipped on the rock, and he fell face first against the snow covered mountainside. Fortunately for him, he managed to retain his position without sliding down the mountainside, but he watched as loose rocks tumbled down the steep incline. With a sigh of relief, Steven recovered his wits and his courage, and he hopped up onto the icy ledge and held onto the cold glassy surfaces of the rocks the best that he could. Inching his way along the ledge, he angled his weight in the direction of travel, and he slowly made his way to another rock that stepped upward toward the trees. At one point, he felt his weight slide sideways, but he retained control of his emotions and did not panic. Though his feet slipped regularly the entire way, he managed to climb out to the snow covered buckeye trees that protruded like a fuzzy pimple on the mountainside, and when he wrapped his hands around the thin, slow-growing limbs, he exhaled a breath of relief.
Steven’s smoky breath rose high in the night air, and he looked down the hill where the cave opening jutted out from the hillside. From his vantage point, he could see the reflections of the campfire flickering out over the rocks below, and he imagined how the cave opening looked from the mountain on the other side of the canyon. Earlier that day, they had been on the opposite side of the canyon, fleeing from Lord Felino and his three mountain lions, and they had literally walked on air across the great expanse to get away from him. They were supposed to be in hiding, and yet the flickering mouth of the cave betrayed them as they slept. He shook his head in aggravation at the orange glow of the beacon below him, and he wondered how it was that they believed they were concealed from the trackers that hunted them. When he surveyed the situation that presented itself, he came up with only one conclusion: they were doomed. Steven checked the signal bars on the phone for strength from within the safety of the short trees, and still yet, the signal strength was too low to guarantee the integrity of the connection.
“Man, that stinks!” he exclaimed out loud before he could catch himself, and a twig snapped in the bushes below. He examined the area quickly with his eyes, and he refused to blink for so long that the surface of his eyes dried out in the cold wind. There was nothing down there that he could see, and he put the phone back into his jacket pocket and climbed further up on the mountainside. Twenty yards higher, he spotted the outline of a plateau, and he dug his hands into the dirt and frozen grass and pulled himself up the hillside one footstep at a time. Midway to the plateau, he sensed with a grave mood that he was being watched, but when he scanned his surroundings, there was no movement save the rustling of the grass and leaves by the wind. “Must be my nerves,” he figured, and he continued pulling his way up the incline. The snow crunched under his shoes as he climbed, and his hands were starting to lose sensation from contact with the ice. Soon, his fingers were burning from exposure as he neared the edge of the rocky plateau, and he stumbled ever higher until he was on the level plain of stone. When he reached the mesa, he looked back down the path that he had made in the crunchy snow and ice, and he saw some movement within the congregation of buckeye trees below. Just as quickly as it had started, the movement stopped, and all that he could make out was that the leaves were blowing in the trading winds. The air flow on the plateau was even worse than on the mountainside, and he rubbed his hands together for warmth, but the wind was too cold and too strong to allow him to recover any heat whatsoever. He looked around the rocky shelf for a shelter, but there was none. If he were going to make his phone call, he would have to do it soon or suffer a quick death from hypothermia. As he reached for the phone inside his jacket, his hand shook until he had to take it out of the pocket and touch it to his chest for warmth, and he could feel the bitter cold that had settled into the bones of his hand. He was struggling just to get the phone out of his pocket. He had to hurry though, so that he could get back down to the cave. Thoughts of the hot campfire swirled in his mind, and his hands seemed to warm with only the adrenaline produced from just the thought of being near a fire. Then tiny beads of sweat popped out and froze almost instantaneously, and for a moment, he felt even colder than he had before. His numb hand finally found the satellite phone in the liner of his jacket, and Steven withdrew the phone and looked at the signal strength. One extra bar. That was it, but it might be enough to complete the call for backup.
“No, not backup,” he reasoned. “This is a call for help.” He fat-fingered the numbers on the face plate, and missed three in a row and had to back up each time to erase the incorrect number. STUN would not allow their newest agents to even have a phone, and they certainly would never allow them to contact the home base directly. It took five years of experience on the job with no screw ups for an agent to even be considered for a phone requisition, and even then, the site director had to approve the allotment for the agent. In Steven’s case, he had spent ten years on the job before he was assigned a mobile satellite phone, and the rules dictated that he save no contacts into the memory of the phone. For good measure, STUN had their own programmers to make sure that the phones could never store numbers from missed calls or dialed calls. Steven had to rely on his own memory to recall important numbers, but like most people in his line of business, he kept a small backup phone list that was sewn into the lining of his shirt. The list was encoded in case it was lost, and this hairy detail meant that if he ever needed to read the list, he would have to remember the coding at a minimum. Such was the life of a field agent. The job paid well enough for his tastes, but on this particular mission, Steven felt that he was getting the short end of the stick.
As he fumbled with typing in the phone number, he saw a shadow in the corner of his eye, and his eyes darted over to a clump of rocks that lay along the border of the ledge. There was nothing unusual to be seen, but he walked over to the edge and examined it anyway. He had the phone in one hand, and he placed his other hand on the snow-covered rocks and leaned down to look over the precipice. Nothing. He wiped the snow from his hand to his pants, and when he went to type in the last number, he saw that the signal strength had disappeared again.
“Geez!” he murmured, and he followed his tracks back to the spot where the magical RF connection had occurred just a few seconds earlier. When he returned to his point of origin, he checked the signal strength, and the bars had returned. His frustration melted away, and he entered the final digits and pressed “Send”. He placed the phone on his ear and discovered that his lobe had little feeling left in it either. The dial tone rang several times and then picked up. For a moment, he thought that he was going to speak to a real person, someone in his own organization that he could talk with to ease his mind and spill his thoughts. At the fifth ring, he knew he was out of luck, but an answering machine clicked on, and Steven left this message.
“This is Agent 333. When you get this message . . . ,” he paused as another shadow flitted by on the opposite side of the plateau. He looked around, but there was nothing there. “When you get this message, track my phone, and you will find me along with the others that we have been tracking from the DAM. I have them in my custody,” he said, though nothing could be farther from the truth. Steven had possession of no one, not even himself at this point. He was joined together with the two DAM agents, and he needed them more than they needed him. “We’re out in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and we have an interesting object that would go well with the other recent acquisitions. Send a helicopter to get us,” he added and then hung up. That was it; he had succeeded in getting his call through to home base, and if all went as planned, he would soon be out of the woods.
“The timing could not be any better,” he thought to himself as his fingers burned from exposure to the cold. He needed to get back to the campfire and hope that frostbite had not set in. Steven started to walk across the icy plateau when he spotted another shadow moving to his left. He whipped his head around to see what was roaming out in the cold night, but there was nothing. He was not sure if he was just imagining the movements or if maybe it was just a small animal that had followed him. He turned his head and looked back around at the cliff wall that led further up the mountainside, and a pair of circles shined in the night. “It’s nothing,” he said to himself, and then the circles blinked. They were not human eyes; the spacing and contours were all wrong for that to be the case. Feeling fear creep into his bones, Steven backed up slowly while his eyes were locked onto the other animal’s eyes.
“Hoo!” The voice called out over the wind, and Steven knew that sound well. It was the call of an owl, and his fear lessened when he understood that he was only being watched by a harmless night bird. “Hoo!” the call came again, but this time the noise came from his right, and he turned his head away from the eyes to a short tree that grew at the edge of the plateau. A tall bird sat in the top of the tree, and its head swiveled around to gaze at him. This bird’s eyes were different than the orbs that glared at him from the dark cover of the mountainside. He returned a glance to the first pair of eyes, and the shiny duo had a head formed around them. The head was that of a big cat, a familiar big cat that he had met before.
“Cats don’t make that sound,” he told himself, but he could not deny what he was seeing. The feline’s head was held high over the brush of the mountain, and it stared at him inquisitively as Steven began to back up slowly to the pathway that had led him there. Steven moved back several steps, and the cat stayed ever so still while the distance between the two increased. He was getting further and further away from the cat with each step, and his fear was lessening as the void grew between the two. As he neared the ledge of the plateau, the big cat’s eyes narrowed into glowing slits, and the head popped out of the shadows and into the pale moonlight. Steven continued to walk backward, and he increased the speed of his pace. The mountain lion leaped out of the brush and onto the snowy rocks, and the cat kept him in its sights as it stalked Steven and maintained a steady distance with the STUN agent. Steven’s forehead broke out in sweat, and he slipped backward on a rock as he quickened his pace toward the ledge and tumbled over the precipice. He dove heels over head down the side of the mountain and into the buckeye trees below. His arms and legs were tangled in the limbs of the short trees, and his midsection had broken a tree top with the force of the fall. He felt his body all over, and luckily, he was not impaled by any of the branches. All in all, Steven was still able to move without much pain. He used the extra distance that the fall had awarded him to his advantage, and he hurried down the icy ledges toward the mouth of the cave as quickly as he could without slipping further down the slope. He had not gone more than twenty steps before the roar of a mountain lion sounded in the trees behind him, and he spun his head around to look for the source of the feline’s wail. There at the base of a buckeye tree, hidden in the gloom beneath the limbs and snow lay another set of pale eyes that watched him with curiosity. Steven was mesmerized by the dangerous beauty reflected from within the soul of the beast, and he stopped in his tracks. The eyes rose up and out from beneath the dead leaves that had dried on the buds of the limbs, and the big cat’s head jutted out from the protection of the tree.
“Had this second lion been there the whole time, watching him and waiting for the opportunity to attack?” he asked himself as he renewed his effort to climb down to the safety of the cave. He looked up for only an instant to see the first lion peek over the plateau, and he knew that his time for escape was running short. In fact, he was not sure that getting to the cave would be considered escape. Once he got there, what would he do then? Hide behind a rock? Wake the others up just in time for a midnight snack? Steven’s hands trembled and his feet quaked with fear as he descended, making his chances for error increase with every movement. Steven had fought many enemies in his tenure with STUN, but he had never been this close to succumbing to an enemy before. The fear of losing the battle and being eaten by a cat were all too real for him right then. He clamped his jaw and accidentally bit down hard on his tongue, and the taste of his own blood filled his mouth. He wiped his lips with the hard, ice-covered sleeve of his jacket, and a drop of blood dripped down into the snow. He watched the blood seep with dendritic fingers into the crystals of the snow, and he felt the intensity of the moment begin to take control of his emotions. He was scared. The two lions were slowly closing in on him, alone and unprotected on the mountainside, and there was nothing that he could do to defend himself. He looked around frantically for a club of wood or a loose rock to snatch, anything that he could find to lash out with against the lions, and he spotted a sharp rock sticking up out of the snow. As he focused his vision in on the rock, his eyes also caught sight of a stirring in the valley below. Some fifty yards down from his present position, a third lion stalked up the hill with Steven in its sights.
“No!” he yelled out audibly over the wind, and he dove very dangerously for the loose rock along the steep path. Though he still had no sensation in his fingertips, Steven gripped the sharp-edged stone in his fist, and he laughed aloud at the irony of being ‘the hunted’. With the stone held head high, he turned to find the lion that had been hiding beneath the trees. He would smash it with the stone, but when he looked around, the beast was gone. He looked up at the lion on the plateau, and it was gone as well. He whipped his body around to face the lion from below, and that big cat had vanished likewise. Wildly, Steven scanned everywhere on the mountainside for the presence of the lions, but there was nothing to see. Just as quickly as he had spotted the first cat, he was once again alone. He dropped the stone that he held in his hand, and he laughed aloud to himself, not with the laughter of happiness, but with the laughter of madness. When he had finished wiping away the foolish tears, he collected his wits, and he started toward the cave again. All was going well as he neared the entrance when one of his shoes lost traction, and he slid down many feet of rock until he stopped at the base of a pair of trees that stood at an angle on the mountainside. The wooden bases were covered in snow, and he grabbed the trunk of one tree with both of his hands to balance himself. He leaned his body against the tree and rubbed his hands together for warmth, and to his surprise, the trunk was warm on his body as he leaned against it. He had expected to feel the chill of winter radiate through his jacket, but there was no such icy bite into his body. He placed both of his open hands on the tree trunk, and he began to feel the tingling of the cold numbness subside with each passing moment. While he warmed his hands, he looked along the mountainside past the two huge trees that stood before him, and still there was no trace of the lions anywhere around him. With warming hands, Steven’s nerves calmed, and he sighed in relief at the sudden but pleasant change to his dire situation. Steam rose from his chapped lips, and the hot vapor condensed on the tip of his nose and made his snout colder than it already was.
“Time to go back inside,” he said to himself, and he pushed off from the tree and started walking against the wind to the flickering cave below. “The wind must be stronger than normal tonight,” he thought as the trunk of both of the trees swayed. Then something really strange occurred, and he had no explanation that could explain it. The trees swayed against the wind, and one of the trees lifted itself completely out of the snow. The light colored bark followed down to short stumpy roots that were shaped almost like carved wooden toes, and the stump lowered and placed itself in the path between himself and the cave. Steven looked up the height of the leaning wood, and the two trees seemed to join together in a twist at the upper part of the trunks. Even odder was the fact that the trunks appeared to become larger in diameter as the trees grew higher. Animal legs grew thicker moving up from the feet, but not plants. He rubbed his eyes with his cold fingers, and he blinked away the sleep that had gathered from his lashes to better clear his vision in the dark night. For a second, the outline of the trees took the grotesque shape of a twisted giant.
Was this the monster that they had heard outside of Lord Felino’s cave? The lions were close, surely Felino was also nearby. If it was, he could not imagine how a being could be so enormous and have hardened skin made of bark. It seemed impossible, and yet here he was beneath the joining of the legs, staring at the monster’s crotch. It was ridiculous and dreamlike, and he was too tired and too frozen to care.
A sallow light of sickly yellow appeared above the twisted joining of the tree trunks, and the glow of the light lowered itself down to hover above his head. Steven felt the joy of his life fade as the light drew nearer to his skin. The radius of the rounded glow was surrounded by smoother bark and cracks, and great limbs of wood enclosed him in a cage with the parasitic light burning a cold glow over his frame. When he thought of light, he thought of warmth, but there was no warmth from this radiance. To the contrary, the blooming radiance grew brighter as his life energy waned, and just before this final thought passed through his mind, Steven imagined the great tunnel of light that he had heard tale of at another’s passing from life to death. He screamed as his body was pulled almost magnetically to the deathly light, what had once been the very hope of a life after death, and the sickly beacon faded as his own life passed to an ashen darkness. The twin trees became stock still on the cold winter night while a black suit of clothes fell emptily to the ground. Steven, STUN Agent 333, was no more.
The satellite phone blinked once in the empty suit pocket, but there was no one to notice.
Seth shot upright from the uncomfortable dirt of the stone floor, and he stared at the gaping mouth of the cave through the crackling fire. There was nothing so disturbing as being awakened suddenly with no apparent reason for waking up, and he blinked his eyes as the focal point of his vision transitioned. There was a contrast from the hypnotizing flames which danced along the reddish coals to the black background of the night sky. It was hard to focus on both the dark and the light at the same time, but he wanted to see the front of the cave. He held his hand up to block the light of the fire, and that helped. He noticed the snowy white outline of the mouth of the cave, and there was the contour of a figure standing quietly at the edge. Seth then looked behind him where Dr. Tatum had lain down for the night, and she was not there.
“Doc? What’s going on? Why am I awake?” he asked, and the head of the figure turned his way.
“It was the screaming,” she replied calmly, and the wind whipped across the face of the cave and tossed her hair back. She stepped backward away from the opening and assumed a place behind the warmth of the fire. She had positioned the fire between herself and the mouth of the cave, and Seth wondered why she had done so.
“I don’t think I heard you correctly. You said ‘screaming’, but I think you meant ‘wailing’, as in ‘the wailing of the wind’,” Seth corrected her, but she seemed to take little notice of him. She looked ahead and never took her eyes away from the cave’s opening. Then she rubbed her arms beneath the covering of the fur coat that she bore for warmth.
“Maybe,” she said with doubt, and she knelt down next to the fire with her hands clasped together beneath her chin as if she were praying. Seth was not sure about why her mood had turned so glum, and he yawned as he looked for Steven. His eyebrows furrowed when he could not find the STUN agent. Dr. Tatum rubbed her face with her warm hands, and she sighed. “If you’re looking for Steven, he isn’t here anymore,” Dr. Tatum added, and she looked down into the fire as she clasped her hands together and leaned her chin on her knuckles. It was all making sense to Seth then.
“He’ll be back. It’s too frigid and rugged out there for a man to survive alone,” he rationalized with hard truth, and he regretted the words as soon as they had left his lips. “What am I saying? Even my own words don’t make me feel any better about our situation though, Doc. I guess I’ve been denying it for some time, but things don’t look good for us,” he explained with reluctance. She listened and nodded silently, but she knew what she had heard outside. She wished that she could listen to Seth more, and she looked up into his eyes as the fire flickered and saw the fear and growing discontent that was in his heart. Dr. Tatum then stood up and walked quietly back to the mouth of the cave and looked out at the snow covered hills. With the light of the fire behind her, her eyes adjusted quickly to the dark, and she noticed the shadows of some large trees that she had missed before. The more she looked at the shapes, the more she sensed that they were not trees but possibly something different altogether. There were two of the trunks that were smaller at the ground, and they grew in girth as they rose up into the air until they disappeared from her view. Whatever they were, they were taller than most of the other trees surrounding the cliffs, and they seemed out of place. She reached her hand beneath her jacket, and she cupped the magical charm in her fist for security. Dr. Tatum was hesitant to clasp it too tightly and turn invisible. The magic was difficult to control, and she was afraid that one of these times, she would lose her way back to the visible world. Maybe she would end up like Sherry Tatum, never to be seen again. Just the thought of being lost in another world scared her, and lost in her thought, she let the charm slide down the necklace and dangle out of her hand to her chest. Seth came up behind her and placed his hand gently on her shoulder, and he whispered to her.
“Legs,” he said. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she turned to look at him.
“What?!” she asked as if she were insulted. He paid her little mind, and he pointed out to the two tall objects that now stood on the mountainside.
“Those things look like huge legs,” Seth clarified, and she looked in the direction that he pointed. Now that he mentioned it, she thought that they did look like legs. As they stared at the mountainside anomalies, a shadow appeared outside of the cave, and it rose up to block the view of the legs that they were gazing at. The soft purr of a mountain lion followed, and reflexively, Dr. Tatum grabbed Seth’s hand and the charm with the other. The magic was almost instantaneous, and the reaction to their bodies was not far behind. They turned invisible to everything in the real world. The mountain lion showed itself in the flickering firelight, and Dr. Tatum and Seth jumped out of the cave and into the night air. The mountain lion sniffed the ground where they had been, and with its nose to the ground, the beast followed their scents to the lip of the cave where they had jumped out into the air only a few feet away. Instinctively, Dr. Tatum pulled Seth, and they walked further out on the open air to get out of reach of the big cat. The moonlight was too weak to provide much guidance, but they knew that sleeping anymore that night was out of the question. They would have to keep moving through the remainder of the night, and then maybe they could stop again once daylight had returned. They hiked around the mountain through the sky, always maintaining the same altitude, and the last remnants of their campfire disappeared behind a snowy slope.
“Where are we going?!” Seth whispered, and Dr. Tatum looked back at him.
“Do you care?” she answered, and after he thought about it, he realized that he didn’t.
Crush, Pound, and Sherry materialized through the “Eye Ward” doorway, and when they reappeared, they found themselves submerged in deep, dark water that rose over their heads. Crush had Sherry by the hand, and when he had exhaled bubbles and let gravity point the correct way higher, he started swimming up in hopes of finding air to breathe. Pound followed, and they did not have to go more than a few feet before their heads popped out of the surface of the water and into an air pocket in a cave. The pocket was low overhead with about twelve inches of space separating the stone from the rippling water, and they treaded water there as they breathed in the fresh air. The doorway that they had come through was still lit with a dim glow, and they could see a round hole just big enough for a person to climb through in the low ceiling overhead.
“Where are we?” Sherry asked. She seemed to be taking the crooked turns in their adventures with a calm strength. Pound wiped the dampness from his eyes, and he spit out a mouthful of water before he answered.
“The eye ward, whatever that means,” he said. Sherry reached up into the dark hole above them and searched with her hand.
“There’s something up here, I feel it,” Sherry said as she patted cold, hard surface with her hand in the dark. Whatever it was, it had a metallic cylinder attached to it, and she gripped it with her hand and pulled herself up. Her body lifted as if she were doing chin ups, and she reached up with her other hand to lift her body from the water and into the hole. “I think this is a ladder,” she said as her head and upper body disappeared into the hole. Soon, all they could see were the bottoms of her feet, and then she was gone.
“Yeah, I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Crush remarked, and he jumped up into the hole and started climbing the ladder beneath her. Pound did not have to wait for an invitation; when Crush’s feet were through, he reached up into the hole and latched onto the lowest rung.
“Wait for me,” Pound said, and he then drew himself up into the hole and clambered up the ladder. The hole was more of a vertical shaft, and he knew that he was at the top when there were no more rungs to grab. The three adventurers reappeared safely in the dark on the top side. The portal had led them from a doorway in a dark pool to the confines of a murky, cavernous space, and they were troubled by their surroundings.
“Does anyone have a light?” Pound asked. He could barely make out Crush and Sherry’s outlines ahead of him, and he sensed that he was being watched. “I think that we would have been better off facing the bear,” he admitted. They all stood there in the dark, quietly assessing what to do next.
“We can go back if you would like,” Crush replied, and Pound laughed at the ridiculous notion. Neither of them had a flashlight that they could use. Sherry reached into her pocket, and she retrieved a keychain with a cylinder attached to it. She twisted the end of it, and a light came on at one end. It was a flashlight of sorts, though the light source varied constantly as if it were a swirl of light instead of a solid light source.
“In case, you’re wondering, this is a lollilight,” Sherry explained. “The Bear gave it to me. It’s sort of a mixture of firefly light with a touch of bubble gum-flavored lollipop.” She licked it once and then held it out to Pound to try.
“No. I am hungry, but not for fireflies,” he said with a hint of wonder and disgust. She laughed, and her happiness spilled over to the other two, and soon they were all smiling. It did not last long, and when the moment had passed, Crush and Pound looked at each other suddenly with an idea. They had both thought the same thing at the same time. They then explained to Sherry that they were not who they said they were, that the outfits which they wore disguised them from discovery while in this realm. When they told her that they were Crush and Pound, she stood and thought quietly for a moment. She then looked at each one of them closely, and she could see resemblances of familiar expressions in each. She placed a hand on each of their faces, and memories of her past life began to trickle into her mind. Though they were in disguise, she knew who these two men were.
“Crush and Pound,” Sherry whispered to herself, and a bleak feeling of cheerlessness suddenly came over her, not from comprehending her old friends, but from some other presence which populated the space. The three people were there alone in the narrow beam of the lollilight, and a bodiless whisper came over the dank air of the cave. Sherry shined the light as she spun in all directions, and they were in a hollow with a high domed ceiling that was pocked with craters. The wet craters oozed with a mixture of water and minerals, and the drops splattered on stalagmites that rose unevenly from the floor. The cavern was an altogether despicable place, and all three of them shivered with goose bumps as a cold wind whipped through the grotto and chilled their damp clothes to their skin.
An itchy sensation tingled the hair around Pound’s ears, and he rubbed the back of his damp head with one of his hands to ease the irritation. The itching ceased on his head and transferred to his wrists, and he brought his hand down to examine the source of the nuisance. In the dim light, he could see black specks on the back of his hand, and the specks crawled across his knuckles. Pound shook his wrists violently, and then with the lollilight shined directly on his hands, he saw that the crawlers were gone. Sherry shined the light beneath her own face so that Pound could see her smile, and her cheeks were covered with the black bugs scuttling across her features. Pound backed away from her, and as if he could find no words, he simply pointed at her face with a terrified expression on his own. He then fell to his knees on the uneven cave floor, and he began to whimper as fear overtook him. This was strange behavior for Pound, and Sherry could not understand what was happening to him. She knelt down beside Pound and placed her arm around his shoulder in a hug.
Crush watched helplessly as his friend broke down in terror, and it occurred to him that maybe they had chosen the wrong doorway of escape from the Bear. They had done well in finding Sherry and in taking her away from the Bear’s realm, but they were paying a heavy price for their meddling. Possibly, it was just the beginning of their punishment, he thought, and he looked around to find the hole in the ground that they had crawled out. To his dismay, it was gone. Someone very dark and sadistic was interfering with their minds; the hole had to be there, and he rushed over to where he thought that it should be. Scrambling on his hands and knees, he could find no void in the continuity of the surface, and he slammed his fist to the ground in anger and despair.
“It’s your fault!” Crush spat out in fury, and he pointed a condemning finger at Sherry. She held Pound while he wept, and she watched Crush with his hands pressing either side of his own face. He, too, had become engulfed in mental anguish, and though it was Crush who spoke the words from his own lips, she knew that he was not himself at all. Crush squished his head in his hands to relieve the pain that throbbed in the center of his mind, and a tiny voice called out to him from deep inside his mind.
“I know you!” the voice whispered in his mind, and the soft voice recalled some long forgotten chapter in his own history, yet he could not place it. “How soon we forget those that we knew as a child and those whom we have fought,” the voice dripped with loathing. “You have come back, and I will have you this time,” the voice promised. As if they were suddenly drawn out of a deep coma, Crush removed his hands from his face, and Pound ceased his childlike crying.
“Are you two okay? What was the matter?” Sherry asked them, and Crush placed his finger to his lips to call for quiet. She apparently had not heard the whispers, and indeed, she seemed untouched by the words that had brought them to such anguish. He then motioned for Sherry to turn the lollilight off, and she did, though she did not understand why he preferred the dark. Crush leaned down to Pound’s ear, and he whispered to him.
“If there are any plants in this cave, then we need their help,” he urged Pound, and then with his catlike vision, he scanned the immediate area for movement. There was none, but while he looked, he spotted a nearby stalagmite that would make a good hiding spot. Crush grabbed both Sherry and Pound by the hand and led them through the thick darkness to the mineral spike that pointed aimlessly at the ceiling. They packed into the tight space between the stalagmite and the cavern wall, and they sat for a long few minutes until Sherry ventured to speak.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” she urged Crush, but he did not answer and quickly motioned for her silence. Whatever was wrong, she would have to wait until they were ready to explain it themselves. A wild wind blew in through the cave and blew them all off balance, and they had to grab onto the natural ridges of the stalagmite to keep from toppling over. Because of the wind, Pound could hardly concentrate and reach out to discover if there was any moss in the nearby cave; all that he could do was simply balance himself against the wind that circled the lining of the walls. The winds moved from the outside in and circled about the center of the cave, forming a funnel of dust, water, and debris that churned ever stronger at the core. Crush was the only one who could see well enough in the dark, and as the sudden winds died down and the dust began to settle, he saw the outline of a body take form in the center of the vast room. He could not tell who or what the body was, but he knew that it was the center of a great power.
“Anytime that you can get us some help would be much appreciated,” he laid his hand on Pound’s shoulder and whispered again to him. Pound did not say a word; he just nodded, though he could scarcely see who he was talking to in the dense blackness. Pound reached out with his mind, and he searched the room an inch at a time as he listened for some indication of plant life in the dark. Since nearly all plant life relies on sunlight for photosynthesis, he did not hold out much hope of finding anything of use, but he had to try. At this point, they had no idea what they were up against, and they may need the extra few seconds of protection that he could engineer from the local fauna. He reached and reached, and yet there was nothing. Nothing.
The form stood silent and still in the heart of the room, and they waited and waited for the person, creature, or thing to make a move, but nothing happened by them or by the creature for the longest time. The contact finally came, and it was in the form of a concentrated attack. The attack was not physical though. The attack came through Crush’s mind and spirit.
In his mind’s eye, Crush experienced a pin prick of light that started out as an insignificant speck, but then grew exponentially in size until the greenish light exploded in his mind. At the center of the sickly light of his psyche, there stood a figure, one that he had seen once before, one with which he was acquainted, and the figure skated toward him while it glided across the room to where Crush stood. As the figure approached, the roundness of the creature’s head became pronounced, and the spherical head seemed to be half of the body size. The legs were many, they were long in shape with pointed endings, and they crept along the surface of Crush’s mind, ever pointing, ever needling, and ever bounding on his thoughts.
“I knew that you would come back, my friend,” the voice of death’s agent whispered in Crush’s thoughts. “It was only a matter of time.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Crush thought, though his other thoughts bounced along in his head to give him away. “I am Figgus, and I am only visiting for a moment, and then I will be gone.”
“Oh, you will be gone, for I see all who are dying and all who will die, and I see those who assist in the process. That is why I see you,” the sphere bobbed as it drew closer, closer, and then near enough to see the features of the iris and pupil mounted on the slithering black tentacles of death. The eye side-wound up next to Crush and laughed heartily as it draped a slippery appendage around his chest. “You are not Figgus, for I know Figgus well, and he would not dare to come into my world wearing my items of incantation,” the orb noted as another tentacle pulled the amulet with the eyeball from beneath his robe. It was the amulet which Director Roosevelt had commissioned him to wear, and the thoughts wandered by like traffic in his mind for the eye of death to see. He was angry with the director for putting him in a place of weakness and danger, and he was bitter at himself for not recognizing the ruse. He was not, however, ready to give up the mental struggle so easily to so strong an opponent.
“I am Figgus, and you are the Eye of Death in this world,” Crush explained to the creature. The tentacles tightened across his chest, and he felt the damp cold of the fibers dig into the skin of his arms, probing for a pulse.
“Do not lie to me. We are sworn to truth,” the Eye said as it clutched him in a knot. A tentacle flicked the amulet of the eye back and forth, toying with it as it swung back and forth on Crush’s neck, but the creature did not remove it from his collar.
“You know I speak the truth then,” Crush rationalized with the talking organ. “You know the reason that I am here, and you know that I am only a visitor for a short time.”
“Why a visitor?! And why do you bring him?!” the Eye bawled, and Pound suddenly appeared in his mind. There were tentacles holding him about his throat. “I feel nothing beneath your skin, no beating heart, no love of life, but I feel his pulse! He is garbed as Branchus, but Branchus has no heart! Why do you lie to me?!” The eye amulet, which Crush named ‘Bob’, must be protecting him from the Eye’s probing tentacles, but it was doing nothing for his partner. The tentacles tightened around Pound’s neck, and his face began to turn red with the pressure.
“I do not lie!” Crush yelled, and the pupil of the Eye dilated as the light of Crush’s heart shined through his thoughts. “Let Branchus go! Now!” Crush ordered, and the Eye released the noose around Pound’s neck just enough so that he could breathe.
“You cannot give me orders in my own world, Figgus, or whoever you are,” the Eye replied. “No, go back to your own world and reap the dead. I give the orders here, and I order you to tell me the truth.” Crush was speechless, for he was not prepared for this encounter. He had narrowly escaped the Eye once before in Possum’s world, and he did not know what to do to get out of this confrontation. If he played it the wrong way, they could all end up dead, though he found it odd that the Eye had not taken notice of Sherry. He certainly did not wish to bring her into the battle of wills, but he wondered how she was staying hidden.
“Don’t push us around, Eye,” Crush said with faked confidence. “We are only passing through. If you will just show us the way out, Branchus and I will move right along and bid you a fond farewell.”
“I don’t think so, Figgus. Whenever I detect a beating heart in my realm, I know something is amiss,” the Eye said, and the tentacles that held Crush captive relaxed their hold on him and slithered down his robe to the cave floor. “Any living being that comes into my realm is passed forward to the afterlife,” the Eye explained and looked Pound over with curiosity. “There is a quota to keep, you know, and I never fall behind. If I can push past my quota, I always do so,” the creature threatened, and there was nothing left for it any longer. Crush lunged across the space of his own mind and tackled the Eye headfirst, grabbing the slithery body beneath the orb and wrestling it away from Pound. The Eye withstood the force of the attack and slid back several feet, carrying them toward the center of the white space in Crush’s consciousness. The cat-man snarled as his claws ripped through sinews of black mass and oozing plasma. Tentacles flailed and whipped as Crush held the Eye to the white canvas floor of his thoughts, and Crush willed his fist straight into the pupil of the beast where his arm went elbow deep into nothingness. The pupil then swallowed his arm up to his shoulder, and before he realized what had happened, Crush’s spirit and consciousness were engulfed entirely into the world of the Eye.
Inside of the Eye, Crush fell and fell through a gray, sunlit sky. He hurtled toward the puffy white clouds below, and when he struck the thick, white vapor, he passed through the veil of gas and plummeted to the blue waters of the ocean that waved below. Though he was falling to his death, he did not feel at all discouraged or desperate. He felt free for the few seconds that he existed between the cosmos of the Eye and the waters that waited beneath. As he drew near to the water’s surface, he pinched his nose and straightened his body for the plunge, and when he struck the liquid at such high speed, he expected his body to disassemble. He expected the end.
The water engulfed his face, and air bubbles cascaded as the aura of the atmosphere traveled with him into the chasm of the deep. Crush held his breath beneath the warm water’s surface, and he opened his eyes to see for the last time before his drowning. The air bubbles stayed with him and did not float to the surface, and there was no sting of salt in his eyes as he looked through the blue of the depths. Nothing. He saw nothing.
Then something. There was something, maybe it was the rays of light that pierced from above, or maybe it was the thickness of the columns of water that waved through the great mass of the ocean. But there was something that moved in the deep. There was a white sheet that flowed in the distance between the waves of the water and rays of the light, and the sheet rippled as it flowed across his plain of view. Crush could tell that there was something solid about the sheet, as if the sheet were covering a figure with a head and four limbs. One figure turned into many, and Crush found that he was in a sea of many people, far enough away to be out of reach, but close enough to still see. They were above, they were below, they were all around. He breathed out as the pain of his lungs forced him to let go, and he placed his lips on a bubble that floated with him and inhaled the contents until the bubble was gone. One bubble was not enough, and he swam to another and inhaled, and to another and inhaled. The people bobbed through the water, but the more he swam toward them, the further they moved back. When the last bubble was gone, he swam upward toward the light, and his body buoyed through the air as it broke the surface where he drank in the air of the world above. Crush twisted and turned in all directions, and he was alone as he floated in the ocean. He was abandoned. He closed his eyes, and he willed himself to reason.
“What was I thinking,” Crush said to himself and wondered if he were inside of the Eye, but yet still inside of his own dream. He was, or he thought that he should be, and he believed it. He had faith in the idea that no matter where the Eye had led him, he was still in his own mind. He willed the clouds to move, but they did not. He willed the ocean to be still, but it did not. Nothing he did here obeyed his thoughts, and he was trapped inside of a world within the Eye.
Nothing made any sense to him in this battle of the minds. He thought and he thought, but nothing would come to him. Then Crush remembered the dark and the light and the swirling colors that he could control within his own imagination, and he thought, “What if I pull the colors through the pupil of the Eye?” What if he did? What would happen? He wondered . . . and then he thought. And he thought, and he thought, until there was a thought storm swirling in his own mind. And when the storm raged, and the wind blew, and the lightning cracked, he thought of an airplane flying high above the storm. The airplane was his own, and it had pontoons instead of wheels to land on the water. Then Pound was the pilot, and within his own imagination, Pound would fly the plane straight down into the pupil of the Eye, and the plane would be here in the world within the Eye.
Crush listened to the waves of the sea as they broke across the water. Among the background noise, he heard an approaching buzz. The noise grew louder with the approach, and strangely, the buzz sounded the way a child might blow their breath across a blade of grass. Crush treaded water in a circle, but he could see nothing out of the ordinary on the horizon, only the blue of the water and the white of the waves. As a consequence, he looked to the sky and the angry clouds that had formed in the Eye’s world, and he saw a red spot fly between the clouds and disappear into the vapor.
“Could it be? No, that’s nonsense, it couldn’t be,” Crush reassured himself. But it must be, he thought, and he watched for the red spot as the clouds passed across the sky. The noisy object pierced the vapors as it neared, and Crush saw the pontoons and the wings as he floated there on the blue waters, and his heart lightened with the sight. He stuck his arms up into the air and waved them back and forth in hopes of being seen. The plane slowly descended as it passed over his head, and he read the white letters that were painted on the bottom.
“M-A-D,” the letters read. That was backwards from what he imagined it would read, but it was a little closer to how he actually felt after being swallowed by an orifice and dumped into the sea. The plane circled around and dropped lower as it went, and the pontoons soon touched the water and skidded across the surface, following the direction of the waves until it coasted toward Crush. The whirring propeller spun angrily as it neared Crush, and he had to dive several feet below the surface to keep from being struck full on by the propeller and the pontoons as they slipped over his head. He eagerly swam with the eddies that flowed nearby, and he popped his head out of the water and snatched onto the skids of the plane as it floated in a loud swirl on the water. The pontoons dragged him through the water, and his robe billowed behind him in the pool. Bob, the eyeball amulet, hung from his neck and blinked repeatedly as the water dripped from his head. The latch to the airplane door snapped overhead, and a tattooed arm forced the sliding door open. A familiar head looked down at him and smiled.
“Crush! Are you getting in or not?!” Pound shouted over the din of the raucous motor and propeller, and Crush swung one leg up onto the pontoon and dragged himself out of the water. The cat-man climbed into the hatch that led into the passenger compartment, and he soaked the dry carpeted floor as his saturated robe dripped all over the commuter section of the plane. Pound did not seem to care about the neatness of the plane any more than Crush did; after all, it was Crush who had dreamed up this airplane in the first place. With goggles and a set of head phones on his head, Pound slid the door closed and motioned for Crush to come up front with him.
“You look ridiculous with those goggles,” Crush said as he followed him to the cockpit of the plane.
“Yeah, I know, this isn’t even an open cockpit biplane where I would need goggles, but it’s your dream,” Pound pointed out. “Since you’re dreaming this up, you could dry yourself off, you know.”
“I can’t do as much as you think, Pound. Inside of the Eye, my dreams don’t work, but if we can get back out of here and return to my own mind, then maybe I can regain some control.”
“Wait a second, are you saying that you’re out of your mind, because I’ve been saying that same thing for years,” Pound replied with a smirk, and he buckled up the seat belts of the pilot’s chair. Crush plopped down in the co-pilot’s seat and buckled up the safety restraints as he looked over the dials.
“I didn’t leave you with many controls and gauges, did I?” he said as he thought that the front panel looked fairly empty.
“It doesn’t matter, the basics are here,” Pound reassured him. “We have the altitude gauge, the level of the horizon, the speedometer, the RPM gauge, the rudder controls, the wing controls, the joystick, the Fire button, and the Pause button.” He clicked open a dashboard button, and an assortment of video games were neatly situated within the console. “In case you get bored at sea.” Crush rubbed his eyes and drew his fingers down his face, stretching the skin and making his eyelids droop.
“At least the plane flies,” Crush sighed, and at that very instant, a thump rocked the bottom of the plane. They both looked at each other questioningly, and then another thump followed on the passenger entrance door. The latch was locked from the inside, but the handle was being rocked back and forth on the outside. Pound looked out the side view mirrors, and there was a person on the skids, leaning with their weight on the door handle. To his dismay, there were arms and legs and heads of all kinds popping up out of the sea, and they were latching onto the skids of the plane. The faces were drawn and pruned as if they were ancient and had been withered by the salty water, and they were expressionless except for their determination to drag the plane down with them into the sea.
“What the heck!” Pound yelled. “We’re being dragged down by zombies!”
Be sure to come back next issue to find out what happens to our heroes. With the team split up in every which direction, there’s no telling what will happen to the DAM. One thing’s for sure, it doesn’t look good for them.
Christopher D. Carter is an engineer by day, and transforms into a writer and artist by night. He lives with his wife and cats in central North Carolina.
Crush and Pound have jumped from one other-worldly plane to another, diving into the dangerous and deadly Eye Ward, and things aren't looking up for them. Dr. Tatum and Seth are busy hiking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains alongside a dubious and untrustworthy STUN agent, trying to escape from the clutches of the mysterious Lord Felino with no end in sight. Meanwhile at Faraway Mountain, the princess Beni and her guardian Captain Colere are swept up in a deadly round of battle with the mercenaries of STUN. Read on, if you dare!