Chapter Eleven

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Author's note: I'm using a slightly different work flow (with my iPad vs. my MacBook Air) to publish this chapter, so hopefully it won't come out too funky looking here in Wattpad. If it does, just let me know and I'll repost it the old way. Thanks and enjoy! :-)

Night gave way to day after an eternity of fearful darkness. With dawn came dreary clouds that blanketed the sky, heralds of a storm that was releasing a deluge of rain to the south. Exchanging few words, the Marines broke camp and remounted the horses. Exhausted and frightened, every pair of eyes looked outward for any signs of their nemesis from the night before.
"We're ready, lieutenant," Davis reported quietly.
Ortiz looked out over the column of horse-mounted Marines and grimaced. After the loss of Kutuzov, she had reported in over the comm link to Captain Yamada and requested permission to return to base, but he had refused. "I don't mean to make light of his loss," Yamada said in a sympathetic but unyielding voice, "but periodic casualties are a way of life here, just like casualties from the Kreelans are an unavoidable reality out in the Fleet. I expect civilians to run from danger; it's the job of Marines to stand and face it. Learn from the experience and carry out your mission, lieutenant. Yamada, out."
"All for some goddamn shooting stars," Ortiz whispered.
Davis glanced at her. "Lieutenant?"
"Nothing," she snapped. "Move out."
With a hand signal from Davis, Castle, who was in the lead, prodded his horse with his heels. With an anxious jolt the old mare began moving, and the other horses followed behind her. Like the Marines, they were skittish, turning their heads at real or imagined sounds or smells, their ears flicking forward with equine intensity. None of them dipped down to sample the lush grass that grew at their feet as they returned to the main trail that led through the forest.
Riding in the rear half of the column, Reza's mouth was set in a grim line. The reins of Kutuzov's horse were secured to his saddle, the animal plodding along behind his own.
"It wasn't your fault," Eustus said quietly from behind him, and not for the first time since Kutuzov had been killed.
"The hell it wasn't," someone muttered, echoing a sentiment that had been expressed either verbally or through accusatory looks by several of the others over the course of the night.
Reza would have told Eustus, at least, that he was not burdened by a sense of guilt so much as confusion and consternation. He had no doubt that he had made the right choice in amputating Kutuzov's leg in order to try and save him. No, what concerned him far more was a failing, or at least a weakness, of his second sight. As a priest of the Desh-Ka, even for as brief a time as he had worn the sigil at his throat, he had been in awe of the amazing powers he knew dwelled within him, and knew there very well could be others. Having been denied the chance for Tesh-Dar to teach him, or at least to have been granted the time to read through the Books of Time to guide his understanding, he might never stumble across them. But he did know and understand, or thought he did, the power of his second sight, and it was as natural to him now as breathing. He should be able to reach out with his mind and see and sense all there was around him, as far away as he might care to cast his spirit within the bounds of the time he might take to do so. He had taken that power for granted, thinking it — and he — was infallible. Now he knew that it was not. Nor was he. He should have been able to easily detect the neo-tiger, but the beast possessed some unknown quality that masked its body from detection, and it made him wonder if he truly understood his second sight, or whether he was only able to use it at some rudimentary level. Could he have simply taken this gift for granted? The possibility nagged at him, inflaming the sense of inadequacy that had taken root in his mind.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he took in a deep breath before exhaling slowly, forcing the doubt and uncertainty from his mind. Once he had achieved a suitable level of inner calm, he cast his second sight out into the world around him, not to see what lay beyond the range of his eyes, but to better understand what lay within his spirit.
***
The patrol continued onward, wending its way through the forest under a leaden sky. Light rain fell intermittently, but the storm was content to otherwise let them be. After a time, the horses relaxed and fell back into their normal routine of browsing as they followed the trail, and the Marines, while still tired and morose from the previous night's horrors, began to shed some of their fears. All of them had fallen into a perpetual state of awe at the wonders of the forest around them: the trees, which seemed to grow ever taller as the patrol moved deeper into the forest; lichens that covered the many huge boulders that protruded from the ground, overlaying the gray granite with broad swaths of vivid red, orange, and green; fern-like plants with giant purple fronds in the shape of hearts; and ancient upended trees, slowly rotting into oblivion, with trunks as big around as a Navy corvette. Winged creatures that vaguely resembled large bats darted through the branches overhead, and other small beasts, which Davis noted were marsupials not unlike kangaroos on earth, but adapted to live in the trees, watched the procession from their perches aloft with large, gibbous eyes and hooted at the strangers. The forest abounded with life, and every creature seemed curious about the trespassers. The Marines were grateful for the audience, for the presence of the animals meant that the neo-tiger was nowhere nearby.
It was just past noon when the patrol topped a slight rise that again provided a breathtaking view of the great canyon.
"This should be it," Davis said as he checked the coordinates on his map display. "The end of the road."
"Anybody see any shooting stars?" Ortiz asked in a sarcastic voice.
Her query was answered with a combination of muttered curses and angry silence.
Reza knew her question was entirely rhetorical. Ignoring the others, he focused his energy outward, trying as he had all day to improve the clarity of his spiritual sight.
But he didn't need the powers of the Desh-Ka to see the glint from the forest off to his right. His second sight, however, showed him far more detail than his eyes could, and what he saw in his mind sent a spear of ice down his spine. "Here," he said to Eustus, quickly handing his friend the reins to Kutuzov's horse before Reza went charging into the trees, Caesar's hooves pounding at a full gallop.
"Reza!" Eustus called, and the others turned at the commotion.
Ignoring him, Reza guided Caesar through the deadfall to a small clearing. Bringing the horse to a sudden stop, he slid to the ground and knelt beside a scorched metal container in the shape of bullet that was large enough to contain a fully equipped soldier.
Or a Kreelan warrior.
"Holy shit," Davis, who was the first to arrive behind Reza, exclaimed. "That's an atmospheric penetrator, isn't it?"
"Yes," Reza confirmed as he moved around the container. Like all machines created by the builder caste, it was adorned with Kreelan runes proclaiming glory to the Empress. It was a relatively simple device, an almost exact duplicate of similar penetration modules used by the Marines to insert small teams into high risk areas where an assault boat or small lander was likely to be detected. It was dropped from orbit, and the occupant had to endure a grueling entry into the atmosphere to land, which was accomplished through the use of ablative shielding, parachutes, and a landing retro that, in the case of the Marines, had fractured the spine of more than one unlucky occupant. Looking toward the top of the penetrator, Reza saw that a black parachute had been folded up with typical Kreelan precision and tucked under the module to keep it from flapping in the breeze and potentially drawing unwanted attention.
"There's another one," Eustus said, pointing to the edge of the clearing where an identical module lay, partly obscured by a patch of ferns.
By now, the others had arrived and had spread out, searching for more penetrators. All had their weapons drawn and were fully alert. Unlike the neo-tiger, the Kreelans were an enemy the Marines understood, and their thoughts and actions were not dominated by helpless fear.
Leaving the others behind, Reza searched deeper into the forest around them. Eustus went with him, awkwardly holding his rifle while guiding his own horse and Kutuzov's behind Caesar.
Reza thought to tell Eustus that he would not need his weapon, that the Kreelans were no longer in the vicinity, but decided against it. While Reza wanted to help his comrades in arms as best he could, he also did not want to make them dependent on his abilities. Even a priest of the Desh-Ka was far from immortal.
When they returned to the clearing, they found Ortiz waiting anxiously. "How many did you find out there?"
"Eleven," Reza reported.
"So that's eighteen, counting the ones we found here."
"There are probably more," Davis said. He shook his head. "We couldn't have made a drop this tight, landing so close together. These came down within spitting distance of one another, but they probably had at least some that were blown off course, away from the primary landing zone. Even the Kreelans have bad luck sometimes."
Ortiz nodded. Keying her comm link, she contacted Captain Yamada. "Sir," she said in a tight voice as soon as Yamada came on, "we have a Kreelan incursion of at least eighteen warriors, possibly more."
Yamada was silent for a long moment. "Lieutenant, are you sure?"
Kicking one of the modules, Ortiz said, "One hundred percent certain, sir. Those shooting stars were atmospheric penetrators. We've got eyes- and hand-on confirmation. Enemy warriors are on the ground."
In the background on the far end, she heard Yamada shout an order at someone to put the colony on full alert. Then, to Ortiz, he said, "I have new orders for you, Lieutenant."
"Go ahead, sir."
"Search and destroy," Yamada told her in a grim voice.
***
Tia-Ulan led her warriors through the forest toward where she believed the nearest human village was located. They were supposed to have landed much closer, but they had been given no choice for their insertion window and had been blown off course by ferocious winds aloft. She and her companions had howled with the heady mix of fear and exhilaration as their capsules were thrown about in the airstream, but even stalwart Kreelan warriors dreaded the crushing force of the retro rockets that fired just before the capsules hit the ground. Normally they would have shed the capsules higher up and simply floated down on flying wings, but the intense wind made that impossible.
No matter, she thought as she stopped for just a moment and arched her back in a languid stretch, trying to relieve some of the discomfort left behind by the jarring landing. They had found a trail that led in the right direction, and the extra distance meant that she could spend more time appreciating the amazing natural beauty around her. She only wished the humans had been located in the opposite direction, so that Tia-Ulan and her warriors could have spent even a single moment more gazing upon the shattering beauty of the great canyon to the west. But that, she knew, was not to be. Such a sight would be a treasured memory until she passed into the Afterlife, for she did not expect to live long enough to see the canyon again. Her party was one of many sent among the worlds of this sector by Syr-Kesh in hopes of finding Reza, the banished consort of Esah-Zhurah, blood daughter of the Empress. Tia-Ulan knew the story of what had happened; every warrior and clawless one across the Empire's ten thousand suns knew. And each also bore a burden of Esah-Zhurah's soul-crushing despair and sadness, a song of pain and anguish that echoed through the Bloodsong and had since the moment the Empress had cast Reza from Her sight and love. Tia-Ulan did not know if finding Reza would bring Esah-Zhurah relief or more sorrow. All she could do was her duty as ordered by Syr-Kesh: to find the human who had become a priest of the Desh-Ka and bring him to battle for the glory of the Empress.
To that end, the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of search parties were not made up of the most experienced warriors. Only those who led, such as Tia-Ulan herself, had seen many battles. Those with her were junior warriors. While some had not yet fought against the humans, every one of them had competed in a series of ferocious challenges to the death for the honor of finding Reza and challenging him. None, even Tia-Ulan, expected to best him in combat, but that was of no consequence. To have the courage to cross swords with one such as he, to die by his hand, would be the greatest honor, and in so dying they would glorify the Empress far, far more than had they died in battle against the humans.
The leaders of warriors such as Tia-Ulan had been chosen by their record of deeds as recorded in the Books of Time and as shown in the pendants that hung from their collars. She was proud to have been chosen, and was elated at the nature of their quest. Rather than being embroiled in some great battle where thousands or tens of thousands of warriors might fight and die in a huge swarm, she and those who followed her could seek much more personal combat with any humans they encountered. The humans would no doubt win in the end, for Tia-Ulan suspected they could call on reinforcements, whereas she could not. But in the meantime the swords of the junior warriors would be blooded, Tia-Ulan would again take the lives of humans, and if the Empress truly smiled upon them, they might find Reza on this garden planet.
The thought buoyed her spirits, and she turned her face up, opening her mouth to taste the sweet rain that had begun to fall from the dark clouds above.
Her acting First, a tall and willowy warrior who seemed too thin and fragile to wield a sword (much to the surprise of her opponents in the arena), offered Tia-Ulan a shy smile as she, too, turned her face skyward and opened her mouth.
But instead of happily taking drops of water onto her tongue, she screamed in terror.
***
"Goddamn, but I hate rain," someone in the patrol grumbled over the comm link.
"Stow it!" Ortiz snapped as she and the others were pelted by a scattering of fat drops that were the promise of a coming deluge as the storm decided to pay them a visit after all. "Stay sharp, dammit. Gard, do you see anything?"
"Nothing yet," Reza answered in an uncomfortable half-truth. He knew, of course, exactly where the warriors were now, but he was torn between his desire to help protect his fellow Marines and to see that honor was paid to the warriors in not giving his human companions undue advantage in battle. "But they are —"
His reply was interrupted by a piercing scream from somewhere not far ahead, followed by frenzied shouts and cries in what were distinctly recognizable as Kreelan voices.
"Dismount!" Ortiz ordered. "In line, advance!"
The words had barely escaped her lips when the rain began to fall in a torrent so heavy that it nearly drove Ortiz to her knees.
"We can't maneuver in this bush!" Davis shouted over the roar of the deluge. "There's no way we can form a line and move forward. We've got to stay on the trail!"
Ortiz shook her head, sending swirls of water flying from her helmet. "That's suicide! They'll cut us to pieces."
"Not in this," Davis said. "You can't see your hand in front of your face. We can sneak right up on 'em!"
"Shit," Ortiz spat. "Movement to contact," she shouted, "single file!"
Stumbling through the epic downpour, the Marines left the horses to fend for themselves and plodded forward through the waterlogged humus, each desperately trying to stay in sight of the man or woman in front of them.
Over the enveloping sound of the rain they could hear yet more screams.
"It's the neo-tiger," Castle shouted, his voice barely audible through the comm link. "It's tearing the bitches up!"
"No," Reza told him in a grim voice. "A group of warriors would make short work of it at close quarters. This is something else. Something worse."
"If it's killing them so we don't have to," Ortiz said, "I'm not going to complain. Let whatever it is kill them all."
***
"Flee!" That single word, spoken by her own tongue, tore through Tia-Ulan's heart, for it went against everything she had ever known as a warrior. Like the others with her, she was terrified, but a warrior's honor demanded that she boldly embrace fear and danger. But at her core, as with all of her kind, warrior or clawless one, was obedience and discipline. She wanted with all her heart to face the horror that had fallen upon them, but the will of the Empress, expressed in the commands of Syr-Kesh, would not be denied. Find Reza and bring him to battle. That was Syr-Kesh's commandment, and it had become the sole reason for Tia-Ulan's existence. She could not allow her life, or the lives of the others, to be spent in any other pursuit, glorious though it might be.
She caught sight of the undulating horror through the sheets of rain, the enormous serpent that had snatched up Tia-Ulan's First and consumed her whole. The thing had been hiding in plain sight, masquerading as an enormous branch amidst the burgeoning leaves of the trees above, its true nature not revealed until it attacked. The beast paused for a moment, no doubt forcing its first victim down its gullet, before it struck again, smashing another warrior to the ground. Fangs as long as Tia-Ulan's forearm pierced the unfortunate warrior's armor and sank deep into her torso. The warrior screamed, but more blood came from her mouth than air from her punctured lungs. "May you find a place among the Ancient Ones," Tia-Ulan prayed as she hurled a shrekka at the doomed warrior, killing her instantly. She would never let a fellow warrior suffer needlessly.
Turning to the others, Tia-Ulan bellowed, "Follow the trail! Quickly! Go!"
Quickly recovering their composure, the young warriors pushed by as fast as the rain and treacherous earth allowed. Tia-Ulan counted them as they passed her. Satisfied that all the survivors were accounted for, she turned and followed them, bringing up the rear.
***
Reza knew from his second sight what awaited them, but that foreknowledge could not prepare him for the enormity or ferocity of this new foe as it came into view through the pounding rain. The head was as big as Caesar, the body as big around as two large men bound together. How long it was, he had no way to judge, for its monstrous body disappeared into the rain-shimmered trees above them. The thing turned to look at him, the shoulders and head of a Kreelan warrior still protruding from between its jaws. Reza noted with some small satisfaction the shrekka that protruded from the warrior's skull. She had not suffered long. He stared into the thing's unblinking eyes. He was filled with respect, but not fear. No warrior who had faced down a genoth of the Homeworld and lived would ever again truly fear another beast of nature.
Unfortunately, Reza was the only one among his war party who could claim such a feat.
Eustus snapped to a halt beside him. "Lord of All," he gasped.
Castle's observation was more colorful. "Jesus bleeding Christ!"
"Open fire!" Ortiz screamed when she saw it a heartbeat later, pulling the trigger of her own weapon.
Crimson and emerald energy beams sizzled through the rain, which greatly diminished their power before they struck the snake's tough hide. It took a moment before the hits even registered on the beast as it swallowed its latest kill.
But if the Marines thought this dumb animal would simply retreat before their technological might, they were badly mistaken. It was the top predator of its domain and knew no fear of any other creature.
The heavy weapons gunner, Lance Corporal Pervez Jamali, advanced on the thing, his weapon blazing away. Jamali had been placed in rehabilitation for compulsive gambling and had never learned to read, but that had never mattered when it came to his aim: every shot hit the snake squarely in the head. Had the energy bolts not been weakened by the heavy rain, he might have been able to kill it all by himself.
Instead, he simply enraged the snake. With speed and agility unbelievable for so huge an animal, it drew back, opened its maw, fangs extending, and struck at Jamali.
The snake's jaws found only empty air. Eustus had flung himself at the gunner, knocking him to the ground just before the snake's head passed through the space Jamali had just occupied.
The other Marines poured fire into the thing at point blank range, drawing its attention and giving Reza the opportunity he needed. Dancing forward with inhuman speed, his movements masked from the others by the rain, he drew his sword and slashed through the beast's thick hide, severing the spine.
Thick branches above exploded with a series of deafening cracks as the snake's body convulsed and fifty meters of writhing serpent crashed to the ground. The head, jaws still agape, smashed into the ground, the fangs sinking deep into the sodden soil as the thing's body coiled and twisted around it.
"Get back!" Ortiz screamed. "The damn thing'll crush you!"
The others backed away. Jamali grabbed Eustus and hauled him out of the way as a coil of the snake's body twisted and fell, nearly crushing both of them.
Nimbly dodging the twisting, turning body, Reza moved up behind the head, which was now snapping at empty air, and drove his sword into the massive skull. The tip of the glittering living metal blade found the serpent's brain. With a final convulsion, the massive body lost its tension and the loops and coils settled to the ground.
"I hate this planet," Castle whimpered as he kept his rifle trained on the thing's head and the dead eyes that stared out at him.
Ortiz snorted. "Amen to that." Then, to the others, she said, "Is everybody okay?"
"No," Jamali said, kneeling beside Eustus. "There's something wrong with him."
"Eustus!" Reza was beside him in a heartbeat. "What is it?"
"Don't...know," Eustus managed, his voice barely loud enough to be heard above the rain. "Can't...breathe...can't...move..."
"Look for a wound," Ortiz snapped as she dropped to her knees beside him. She and Reza examined him as carefully as they could in the rain and muck. "Oh, shit." She looked up at Reza. "One of the snake's fangs must've grazed him when he tackled Jamali."
"The snake's venom contains a neurotoxin," Davis told them. "It's actually not exceptionally potent in the adults of the species, but it doesn't have to be. It can inject over a liter of venom in a single strike, and if that doesn't kill you —"
"Jesus," Ortiz said, cutting him off, "we get the picture! Reza, go get your horse and...Reza?"
Reza had already gone.
A few moments later they heard something crashing along the sodden trail from the way they'd come. The Marines raised their weapons, ready to fire until they saw Reza, riding Caesar, galloping toward them. He drew the horse to a sliding halt.
"Hand Camden up," Ortiz ordered. Castle, Jamali, and Davis helped her lift Eustus, who was now completely paralyzed. Getting his limp body onto the horse would have made for a great comedy routine had not the situation been so grim.
But at last Reza had a firm hold on his friend in the saddle. Looking down at Ortiz, he said, "Beware the warriors. They're ahead of you, and almost certainly will seek to do battle."
"If they want a fight, we'll give them one," she said grimly. "You're the one who should have to worry. But you don't, do you?" She stepped back. "Watch your ass, Gard, and good luck."
Reza flashed her a cryptic smile, then whirled Caesar around and charged ahead along the trail, disappearing into the thundering rain.

Revision posted 3/30/2017 21:46

Author's note: If you enjoyed this chapter, please give it a star if you like it, and of course feel free to comment, throw tomatoes, etc. ALSO, if you haven't already signed up for my mailing list, you might want to do that: if you do, you'll get a free copy of a fun little short story entitled THE MONHEGAN EVENT, which is only available to my newsletter subscribers. If you're already a subscriber, I'll be sending it around soon to the entire list. The subscription page is on my site at http://www.authormichaelhicks.com/newsletter/ - Enjoy! MRH

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