Chapter Seventeen

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As the ragtag convoy churned through the mud along the same trail that Ortiz and the others of her detachment had taken toward the canyon, the civilians desperately clung to one another and to the few handholds available on the flatbed trailers. Reza and Eustus were doing the same on the trailer being driven by Calhoun, while Stalin had distributed the handful of remaining Marines among the other vehicles. Eustus had his arm draped around Reza's shoulders as they sat on the hard, pitted metal, quietly fretting about his friend. He had never seen Reza so weak. Reza had become in his own mind a kind of superhero, unafraid, unconquerable. Immortal. Eustus couldn't comprehend what Reza had done in the town, what magic he had wrought that had bought them all some time. But it had clearly come at a cost.
He held his friend tighter, willing him to be all right.
"I will be fine, my friend," Reza said just loud enough to be heard above the rain, which was falling even harder now, if that was possible, and the roar of the vehicle's engine. "I just need a while."
"Yeah, right." Eustus didn't say anything else. Even with the rain pouring over them, he could still make out the streaks of fresh blood flowing from Reza's nose, and he suspected he was bleeding internally, as well. "You're a lousy liar, you know that?"
Reza managed a grin. "I will try to work on that." The grin turned into a grimace as Calhoun took them over a deep rut in the trail that had turned into a small but furiously flowing stream of mud and debris. Many of the civilians on the flatbed cried out in surprise as they were momentarily inundated with a deluge of muddy water, which was followed by screams of anguish and terror as two people were washed overboard and quickly swept away.
"Stop!" Eustus shouted to Calhoun. "Stop! We've lost someone..."
Calhoun let up off the accelerator and the big vehicle slowed.
Reza clutched Eustus's shoulder. "We cannot stop, even for a moment. Every second counts. Tell him to keep going. He must...not...stop."
Eustus saw the stricken faces of several civilians, no doubt the families of the victims, staring at him, begging for the vehicle to stop. Hating himself, hating this world, hating the entire universe, he ordered, "Belay that! Keep going."
Calhoun poked his face through the window that looked back on the cargo area. "Eustus..."
"Keep going, dammit!"
The blacksmith nodded. A heartbeat later the big vehicle began to accelerate again. A man jumped off the trailer into the swirling water, calling a woman's name.
Eustus closed his eyes.
Eustus was not the only one musing about Reza's condition. Stalin stood near the head of the trailer of the tail-end transporter, holding onto a stanchion for support. While his eyes ceaselessly, and uselessly, scanned the deluge around them for threats, his mind was focused on Reza. I know what I saw, he kept repeating to himself, even now still trying to force himself to believe it. He had seen Reza in the street through the scope of his rifle. The image had been indistinct, the electronically enhanced display in his sight distorted both by the rain and the animal stampede, but there had been no mistaking the vaguely human shape standing still among them. With the crosshairs centered on Reza's chest, Stalin's trigger finger had been slowly applying pressure. He was taking his time because if he killed Reza now, he would never know if he, Stalin, were truly the better man, the better killer. It was a battle he had been fighting in his mind since the day that Reza had bested him and broken the bones of Stalin's hand. Killing him and beating him were not the same thing. To kill the Kreelan in human skin, even one wearing the special collar, would not, Stalin believed, have been terribly difficult. Even toward Stalin, Reza was too trusting. But that would not satisfy Stalin's curiosity. He had to face Reza on as equal terms as possible and best him in a fight. Then, and only then, could he be satisfied with killing him.
Stalin had just taken the pressure off the trigger when the entire town was lit up by a titanic cyan flash that overloaded the electronic sight and temporarily blinded Stalin's other eye. It was as if he had been looking directly at the birth of a new star. He and the other Marines with him and shouted in surprise and fear, too late trying to shield their eyes from the blast, and their eardrums nearly ruptured from the sound of the explosion. The explosion. That's what the other Marines thought it was, the spontaneous detonation of chemicals used by the distillery, or perhaps explosives from the Marine barracks.
But Stalin knew better. Even as he tried in vain to blink away the after-images, he knew the truth: the chain lightning, as he thought of it, had originated with Reza. The last glimpse Stalin had of him through the scope before it had been overwhelmed was of Reza surrounded by a halo of thermal energy. How Reza had done what he did, Stalin had no idea. But he had no doubt that Reza was the source of the energy that had killed the animals and stunned the amphibians all the way back into the forest. He wanted to marvel at the technology the Kreelans possessed that would allow any of them to do such a thing. Part of him, however, was not convinced that it was technology, at least not as he or any other human might understand it. Being a deeply spiritual man, Stalin could not help but wonder if the power he had witnessed had actually come from within Reza, without any technological assistance. And if so, what did that make him?
It makes him a much more dangerous opponent. At that thought, Stalin's lips slowly turned up in a grim smile.
Ortiz and the others waited in the brush along the trail, not so much to keep out of sight — not that it was necessary in the deluge — but to stay out of the rushing creek the trail had become. She had run out of words to describe her loathing for rain and this world in general.
She set her silent cursing aside as she heard Walker over the radio. "We're only a few minutes from the rendezvous point, lieutenant."
"Roger that," Ortiz replied. Of course, she could only hope that where she thought she was and where Walker was going were actually the same place. It was impossible to be sure with the rain interfering with their systems, and any kind of dead reckoning impossible in this terrain. "Watch out - the damn trail is swamped here."
"And everywhere else. I've never seen so much goddamn rain! I hope the fleet heard our mayday and can get us off this stupid mud ball."
"Damn straight." Ortiz cocked her head. "I think I hear you guys...yeah." Multiple lights, looking like the glowing eyes of another of the forest's nasty denizens, appeared and quickly grew brighter, accompanied by the low growl of vehicular engines. Ortiz stood up and waved her flashlight. "Do you see me?"
"No...yeah, there you are!"
Despite the perils of their situation, Ortiz couldn't help but be relieved that her detachment was back together again. She moved aside as Walker pulled up in one of the LTVs, then stepped up to the driver's hatch.
"Going our way?" Ortiz asked with a smile as the other Marines moved out of cover and gaggled behind Ortiz. Walker laughed. "Okay, you sad sacks," Ortiz shouted to the rest of the detachment, "find a spot somewhere and make your buddy smile. Let's get the hell out of—"
She happened to be looking right at Lance Corporal Kamikawa when a Kreelan throwing weapon sliced through his neck, cleanly decapitating him. Behind her, Walker yelped as a weapon sailed through the window, right in front of her face. The spinning blades left a minor cut along the bridge of her nose before embedding themselves in the head of the hapless civilian sitting in the passenger seat beside her.
"Ambush!" Ortiz bellowed, her training overcoming her shock as Kamikawa's head toppled from his shoulders and his body crumpled to the ground. Pointing her weapon into the gray rain, she fired off a few quick bursts in hopes of giving the Kreelans something to think about for a precious second or two while the Marines turned to meet the threat.
But instead of forcing the enemy to get their heads down, they launched a volley of the hissing throwing stars. Ortiz dove to the ground, which was more like diving into shin deep fast-flowing mud, grimacing as she felt one of the weapons land a glancing blow on her helmet. Three more Marines went down even as the others opened fire, the bolts from their pulse rifles dissipating in the rain mere meters from the muzzles. Much to her relief, the ineffective fire from the pulse rifles was quickly supplemented by the projectile rifles used by the colonists as the remaining citizen soldiers began firing from the vehicles.
Scrabbling to her knees, still firing blindly, Ortiz shouted to Walker, "Get your ass moving! Keep the convoy together and get those civvies out of here!" For the briefest moment, she considered ordering the Marines on the transports to dismount, but there wasn't much point. Besides, if Ortiz couldn't deal with the Kreelans here, the Marines with them might make all the difference.
Walker paused just long enough to give Ortiz a nod of acknowledgement and farewell before she stomped on the accelerator, sending the LTV shooting up the far side of the rapidly eroding trail. The other vehicles followed, even as the firefight expanded to both sides of the trail, the dark shadows of Kreelan warriors emerging from the brush, the blades of their swords glowing.
Ortiz dove into the mud again to avoid another barrage of the throwing stars. As she was pushing herself back up with her left hand, her right still clutching her rifle, her fingers closed over something slimy that wriggled in her grip. "What the..." Bringing her hand up out of the muddy water, she found herself holding something that looked like a distant cousin to photographs of Terran frogs that she vaguely remembered seeing in her childhood.
Her surprise turned to pain as the thing bit her between the thumb and index finger with an oversized mouth that was clearly lined with teeth suited to a vicious, if small, carnivore.
"Fucker!" She tried to shake the thing off, but it clung tenaciously, rapidly sawing its jaws back and forth, carving through her flesh while gripping her hand with webbed feet that had suddenly sprouted spikes that lanced into her skin, helping it hold onto its prey.
Having survived more than her share of battles with Kreelans and enduring the likes of Marines assigned to the Red Legion, Ortiz wasn't about to be bested by a frog. Bringing the thing up to her lips, she decided to give it some of its own medicine: she opened her mouth wide and shoved it in as far as she could before biting down on it. She was rewarded with a high pitched keening as her teeth sank through skin and flesh to crush the tiny bones and internal organs. Whipping her head to one side, she ripped the thing from her hand and spat out the still-wriggling body. It landed in the water, which erupted in a feeding frenzy of similar creatures that ripped apart her attacker.
"Jesus Christ!" She shot to her feet and backed away, nearly backpedaling into the path of one of the lumbering tractor trailer rigs carrying dozens of terrified civilians. She heard some of her Marines screaming, and could tell it wasn't from anything the Kreelans were doing to them. Around her, the water was suddenly filled with the things, and every inch of ground that wasn't covered by water was shifting as if it was alive. They're burrowing up from below. The pounding of the rain was quickly overshadowed by a scree-scree-scree sound that made her skin crawl.
Now she knew what the civilians had been running from.
She looked up as piercing screams arose from the ranks of the alien warriors. For a moment, Ortiz hoped they would break off their attack, but that hope quickly faded: her Marines were still pouring fire into the attackers.
For a moment, she was paralyzed with indecision. She wanted to break contact and get her people away from the damn things coming out of the ground, but knew she couldn't until the last of the vehicles was safely away. She fired a brief burst into a group of the swimming, hopping nightmares, blasting a few to bits and sending the others into another feeding frenzy, which momentarily cleared what she hoped was a safe path that she ran through, moving toward the bulk of her people. "Marines!" She called over the radio as she killed a Kreelan warrior that was about to cut down one of her people. "Cover the convoy and close with the enemy!"
If she was going to die, she'd much rather do it at the hands of a sword-wielding Kreelan than a swarm of toothy amphibians.
All during the bone-jarring escape from the town, Reza had focused his energies inward, trying to heal himself. He was not, of course, a healer, but he knew from the many stories he had heard from Esah-Zhurah and the healers of the kazha where he grown to become a warrior that priestesses — and priests — had some capacity to heal themselves and others. With all the distractions in the world around him, it had taken an inordinately long time to reach a deep meditative state. But once there, he was able to focus his consciousness on his body in much the same way he could send his second sight far beyond it. He was not surprised to find that some of the tissue on the outer parts of some of his organs, including his heart, had been seared, charred by the energy he had forced from his body.
Bringing his metabolism as near to a complete halt as he dared, he focused first on repairing the damage to his heart, lungs, and the primary arteries. The damage done to his other organs would likely heal of its own accord in time, but to function, to fight, his brain and muscles needed the oxygen carried by his blood. He began to force closed the ruptures in his arteries where the arterial walls had become brittle from being burned, at last sealing up the leaks in his cardiovascular system. A great deal of blood had pooled in his chest cavity, making it difficult to breathe and putting pressure on his heart. Slowly, hoping Eustus would not notice, he drove one of his talons between his breast and back plates, puncturing the leatherite and undergarment beneath, then the skin and muscle. He kept forcing it deeper until the razor sharp tip reached the bloated reservoir in his chest, then removed his finger from the wound. Even in his deep meditative state, he literally breathed a sigh of relief as the blood drained from his body, then was washed away by the rain.
Focusing now on his heart and lungs, he did what he could to repair them. What he was doing was nothing like what a healer could do, but he hoped it would keep him alive long enough to fight well in the coming battle.
After the poor civilians had fallen from the flat bed and he had told Eustus to keep moving, Reza remained in meditation until he heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire mixed with screams. Even before he opened his eyes, he cast out his second sight and saw that the group of warriors that had been attacked by the snake had stalked Ortiz and the others, and had finally attacked. He admired their determination, and would give them the right of combat that they so obviously desired.
At least half a dozen civilians on the flat bed were firing into the murk, and Eustus had joined them. Getting to his feet, ignoring the frightened looks of those around him who stared at his alien armor, Reza took a deep breath and drew his sword. Moving close to Eustus, he said, "Live well, my friend." Then he leaped from the flat bed, disappearing into the rain.
"Reza, no!" Eustus stared after his friend for a moment before turning to look at the cab of the truck. He saw Talia's face, her eyes wide with horror, staring at him. "Tell your dad to keep going," he shouted. "Don't stop until you're all safe! Understand?" Slowly, she nodded.
Good luck, kid was his last thought before Eustus jumped into the chaos of gunfire, screams, and piercing cries of the amphibians that were rising from their subterranean slumber.

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