For every time in his life when Eustus was sure he could not be more terrified, another event would come along to prove him wrong. He mentally cursed himself for being a stupid fool as he plunged into the maelstrom as the prime movers growled behind him, hauling the civilians to what he hoped would be safety. Stupid or not, terrified or not, he simply couldn't leave Reza behind.
He let out a curse as he landed in knee-deep water. The curse turned into a sputter as his feet were mired in the muck and he pitched forward, landing face first in the mud and swirling water. His poorly made landing saved his life as a shrekka sailed over his head, the Kreelan's aim thrown off by his fall.
Struggling to his feet, he clambered out of the watery hole, squirming along the muddy ground until he felt slimy, spiny things moving under his hands.
"Shit," he gasped as he struggled to get to his feet.
He slipped and would have fallen back into the hole that was now churning with amphibians, had not someone grabbed his combat harness and hauled him out.
"Camden, you're a dumbass!" Ortiz shouted in his ear as she pulled him over to a log, behind which they both collapsed. It was perched over a large rock, which for the moment kept them safe from the amphibians. "Why didn't you stay with the convoy?"
"Reza jumped," he gasped just before he fired a few rounds at a moving shadow that he hoped was a Kreelan. "I have to find him."
"You're an idiot. You're all idiots."
They both turned at the sound of splashing feet coming up from the far side of the log, and popped up just far enough to level their rifles at whoever - or whatever - was aproaching.
"Don't shoot!" A familiar figure cried.
"Davis!" Ortiz shouted with obvious joy. Then she saw that Davis wasn't alone: he was supporting another Marine who was limping badly. "Walker! Jesus, I thought you bought it!"
"I would have, if not for this lug," Walker gasped as Ortiz and Eustus helped Davis get her over the log. With a grunt of pain, she collapsed on the rock beside them.
Someone screamed off to the left. Peering past the end of the log, they saw a Marine staggering in the direction of the Kreelans. He, or she, was covered from head to toe with the amphibians, which were busy eating the poor soul alive.
A shrekka sailed out of the darkness, mercifully cutting the scream short, and the Marine crumpled to the sodden ground. The blood and flesh drew even more of the creatures, and in seconds a pile of them thigh high were swarming over the body, snapping at the Marine's flesh and one another in a murderous orgy.
"Lord of All," Eustus whispered.
Ortiz spat. "He's got nothing to do with this shit," she muttered.
"That's not exactly the way I planned on punching out," Walker said.
"We're not punching out," Eustus told her, forcing some steel into his voice. "We're going to find Reza and somehow get the heck out of here."
"Reza's out there?" Walker asked. "I thought you had him on one of the damn flatbeds."
"He jumped," Eustus told her. "He wants to fight the Kreelans."
"Of course he does," Ortiz sighed. "Well, since we're stranded here, I guess we don't have anything else to do. But how the hell do you plan to find him in this mess?"
Eustus paused, not sure how to answer. Then he heard something through the cacaphony that tore away the imminent sense of doom that had begun to enfold him: faint though it might be, it was the unmistakable ring of sword upon sword.
"Come on," he said, getting to his feet and helping Ortiz up. "This way!"
Tia-Ulan leaned against a tree for a moment, her feet upon the elusive safety of an adjacent rock, gasping from the pain that radiated from her left arm. Baring her fangs, she growled in pain from the shredded flesh that was all that remained of her hand and lower forearm, the result of an encounter with the mindless creatures that continued to boil from the ground. But she consoled herself with the knowledge that, even so injured, she had killed two human warriors with her blade.
She sensed something behind her. Whirling around, she brought up her sword.
It was him. Reza stood a few paces away, his eyes fixed upon her.
With pride welling in her breast, she awkwardly knelt and brought her tattered left hand up to her breast and bowed her head. "Greetings, priest of the Desh-Ka. Great is the honor you bring us in Her eyes."
"Rise, Tia-Ulan," he told her, bowing his head. "Let us honor Her together."
She joined Reza in a rough circle of rocky soil that had formed something of a tiny meadow in the forest that was free of the amphibians. For now. As he turned to lead her toward the center, she could not help but notice by his gait that he was injured. Badly. She mourned for him, that she could not hear his Bloodsong, and that he could not hear the song of the Empress in the blood of his countless sisters. And yet, she mourned all the more Esah-Zhurah, whose blood had echoed her heartbreak since the day Reza had been banished from Her grace. Theirs was a story known by all who lived and breathed across the ten thousand suns of the Empire, and not a soul among the countless billions of Her Children did not mourn the tragedy that had befallen the two lovers. Theirs was perhaps the greatest story recorded in the Books of Time since the days of Keel-Tath, the First Empress. Pity was an emotion warriors rarely felt, but in this moment Tia-Ulan was nearly overwhelmed by it. Despite the cascade of cool rain down her cheeks, she could feel the warmth of the marks of mourning for the priest of the Desh-Ka who would likely take her life in the next few moments. And should she take his, it would bring her only sorrow that would follow her until the day she stepped into the Afterlife.
Other warriors, those who had been able to pull away from the humans who still fought tenaciously near the trail, emerged from the dark rain to form a circle around the combatants in the time-honored tradition. They, too, would have their chance at Reza, but Tia-Ulan would be first.
Turning to face her, unable to sense her emotions in his own blood, Reza drew his sword. "In Her name," he said, "let it be done."
"As it has always been," Tia-Ulan replied, "so shall it be now." Wasting no time, she attacked with a swift overhand cut of her sword. The attack lacked her usual strength, as she was only able to hold the weapon with her right hand. Reza raised his own sword to deflect the blow, but he was far slower than she had imagined. Whether from his injuries or simply because he was giving her the advantage out of his sense of honor, it did not matter. She loosed a torrent of strikes that steadily drove him back. She managed to get through his defenses once, and was rewarded with a sharp hiss of pain from her opponent as her blade sliced through the leatherite in a gap between the armor plates that protected his left shoulder.
But Reza was not to be finished off so easily. With her next attack, he deflected her blade to one side, then pivoted to bring his body close to hers. Taking advantage of her momentarily defenseless left side, he slammed a fist into the side of her chest, just below her armpit, that sent her tumbling to the ground, where she lay gasping.
Through the murk, she could hear the human warriors calling to one another as they moved closer.
"Quickly," Reza said to the warriors who stood silent in a circle around him. "You will never again be able to face a priest of the Desh-Ka, for all the days left to the Homeworld and more. Come. Make my end a worthy one, and glory in Her name."
As Tia-Ulan lay there, trying to regain her breath, the other warriors, weapons raised and war cries upon their lips, quickly closed in around him. The rocky clearing rang with the sound of swords and rending steel, of bellows of fury and screams of agony. Forcing herself to her knees, she watched, her soul torn, as Reza fought the survivors of her hunting party. They wounded him, over and over, before the last of them fell to his blade. Still gripping his sword, Reza swayed like a great tree whose roots had been exposed by a torrential flood. Slowly, he sank to his knees, his head bowed to his chest. His sword hand held his blade, the tip buried in the ground, a crutch that was all that prevented him from falling.
With a grunt of pain, now not just from her torn left hand, but from ribs that Reza must have broken, Tia-Ulan forced herself to her feet. Making her way to where he knelt, she fell to her knees before him, so close that her knees touched his.
She saluted him and bowed her head. "I offer you my life, my priest."
"No," he whispered. "Yours is the greater honor. Do what must be done." He smiled, a trickle of blood, black in the darkness, running from the corner of his mouth. "It is an honorable death. That is all any warrior can ask."
She dared to raise her eyes to look upon him, and he returned her gaze. Giving in to a sudden impulse, she let go her sword and reached out with her good hand, touching him upon the cheek, wishing she could touch his flesh through the metal and leatherite of her gauntlet. "All the Empire shall grieve this day."
"Grieve not, warrior. It is as She wills, and through my death, glory shall be Hers."
Taking away her hand, Tia-Ulan gripped her sword and again forced herself to her feet. Raising it high, she carefully placed the tip at the base of his throat, just below his collar.
Raising his eyes to her, Reza spread his arms wide, embracing his release from life, even if he were to spend eternity in the Darkness. In his mind, he summoned an image of Esah-Zhurah, his love, that he would carry with him into eternity. "May they Way be long and—"
Tia-Ulan's forehead exploded in a warm spray of blood, bone, and gore as a single shot from an assault rifle echoed from the darkness. The sword slipped from her dead hand and clattered to the ground as her limp form fell forward on top of Reza. Their bodies, entwined like lovers, sank to the cold, wet stone of the clearing.
Too weak to move, Reza lay on his back, Tia-Ulan's body covering his like a sleeping lover. He stared into the black sky, raindrops burning his eyes, wishing that he could see the stars, wishing that he could cast his mind's eye across the galazy to the Homeworld to see Esah-Zhurah one last time. He had spent most of his life surviving the harsh ways of his adopted people, but the time spent among the race of his birth had seemed so much longer, and all the more cruel without she who held his heart, without the Empress, without the countless sisters that had once sung in his blood. He wanted to rest, for it to be over.
The dead weight of Tia-Ulan was tossed aside, and the dark sky and rain were replaced by Stalin's craggy face.
"It is not time for you to die," Stalin said as he pulled Reza up and slung him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, carefully prying the sword from Reza's hand and taking it along. "Not yet."
"No," Reza whispered. "Leave me..." Then he passed out.
Stalin did not hear him, and if he had, he would have ignored Reza's request. Turning around, he saw that the other Marines had made their way to the relative safety of the rock-strewn clearing.
"We can't go back that way!" Ortiz shouted, putting a restraining hand on Stalin's arm as he made to go back the way they'd come. "Those damn things are right on our heels!"
"They're over here, too!" Davis cried. He was shining his tactical light on the forest on the far side of the clearing. Thousands, tens of thousands, of squirming bodies were flowing toward them.
The Marines began to fire short bursts into the tiny predators, hoping to dupe them into feasting on those that were blown apart. That the amphibians did, but then the ones behind them got wind of the blood and surged forward like an ocean wave festooned with millions of needle sharp teeth.
"Cease fire!" Ortiz ordered. "We're just making things worse. Shit."
"Lord of All," Eustus gasped as he stood beside Stalin, doing what little he could to help protect Reza.
Stalin spoke, but not to Eustus. With his eyes firmly closed and a serene look upon his face, he was praying.
Calhoun guided the big tractor through the forest, his powerful hands gripping the wheel tighter than he had ever gripped the hammer he used to shape steel. Beside him, Chunlan clutched the children, who cried out as the vehicle slammed down into a culvert hidden by a stand of thick-leafed trees. The civilians on the flatbed behind him screamed, but all he could do was to spin the wheel to the left and jam on the accelerator, sending the tractor careening through the water. He followed the path of least resistance until the big tires gained what purchase they could in the muck, with Calhoun praying to the Lord of All every moment that the axles didn't get hung up on a hidden rock. Glancing in the display that showed a mud- and water-spattered camera view behind the tractor, he saw the other vehicles following his lead, their headlights blazing through the rain.
He turned back just in time to see the ground change from mud to rock, and then to empty darkness as the vehicle sped toward edge of the escarpment that overlooked the titanic canyon.
"No!" Frantically stomping on the brake, Calhoun spun the wheel to the right, praying the huge vehicle wouldn't jackknife. The children and the civilians in the back screamed in terror as the transporter went into a sideways skid toward the abyss, the huge tires clawing for purchase on the slick ground. Fighting through his panic, Calhoun let up on the brake and instead put some power to the wheels as he continued to try and turn the rig to the right, away from the drop-off. With a shudder that shook the entire vehicle, the tractor's tires suddenly regained some traction, and he throttled forward as much as he dared, for the trailer behind them was still swinging toward the yawning chasm. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw on the rear view screen a number of civilians leaping from the trailer as the rear left wheel slowly spun out over the abyss.
"No...you...don't," Calhoun said through grated teeth, the tendons standing out on his powerful arms as he wrestled with the controls.
Then, as if the vehicle had passed through some invisible wormhole in space and time, he had control again. The tractor pulled the dangling trailer and its screaming passengers away from the edge, back onto safe ground. With a heaving sigh of relief, Calhoun brought it to a stop. He sat there for a moment, wondering how much of his hair had turned gray, when he heard the sound of cheers from the trailer behind him. Turning to look through the cab's rear window, he saw his passengers standing and clapping. He also saw with infinite relief that the vehicles following him had seen what had happened to his own rig, and had slowed down in time to avoid their own doom. One by one, they pulled up alongside.
He nearly burst into tears as Talia and Ben threw their arms around him, and he squeezed his eyes shut and held them tight.
After a moment, he opened his eyes and found Chunlan looking at him. Her dark almond eyes were sad. "I will look after them," she said softly.
The words tore through Calhoun's heart, because she knew exactly what she meant. He only wondered how the woman always knew the things she did.
"What does she mean, Daddy?" Ben asked.
"I've got to go back and get the Marines," he said, barely able to force out the words as he looked into his son's eyes.
"No," Talia whispered, her hands now gripping his shoulders tight. "No, Daddy, you can't!"
"I can't leave them, honey," he said.
"But you don't even know if they're still alive!" His daughter cried.
Calhoun's gaze shifted to Chunlan, who nodded.
"Reza's with them," Calhoun told his children. "As long as he's alive, they have a chance. But even he won't be able to get them through the forest full of those things."
Talia glared at him, and Calhoun's chest tightened as he saw the passionate fury of his wife in his little girl's eyes. "If you go, we're going with you."
"No, that's —"
Letting go of him, Talia sat back against the seat, crossed her arms and stared at the dash panel. After a moment, Ben did the same.
He looked helplessly at Chunlan, who shrugged. "They are their mother's children." She smiled. "And their father's."
"Lord of All save me," Calhoun muttered.
Ortiz had no idea who had said it, but all of them were thinking the same thing. The surviving Marines were in a tight circle now, back to back, in the shrinking stretch of rocky ground where Reza and the Kreelans had fought. Ortiz longed to have their blue-skinned, sword-wielding enemies back, because she would have much rather faced them than the horrible little creatures that were soon going to tear her and mer Marines into little tiny pieces. They had been able to buy themselves some time by shooting and lobbing grenades into the swarm at differing distances away from their safe zone, causing the tiny predators to go into short-lived feeding frenzies and temporarily drawing them away. But that tactic was no longer working, partly because the Marines had nearly run out of charge packs for their pulse rifles, but also because there were no so many of the damned amphibians that they were simply flooding the forest. There were so many, in fact, that the act of digging themselves out of their deep hibernation lairs had compromised the root system of many of the trees, which had begun to crash to the ground, bringing yet more chaos to the night.
She had ordered her Marines to keep a single grenade apiece in reserve. When the time came, which shouldn't be long now, none of her people would have to worry about being eaten alive.
"We should just do it," someone muttered in the dark. "There's no way out of this shit."
"Shut your mouth," Walker snapped.
Ortiz was inclined to agree with just activating the grenades and being done with it all, but she was too stubborn.
The only one who didn't seem frightened at all was Stalin. He stood there like one of the giant statues he had once showed her of his namesake on centuries-ago Earth, still carrying Reza's unconscious body over his shoulder. His lips moved ceaselessly, the words she could hear in a language she didn't understand.
One of the Marines fired a quick burst from her pulse rifle. "Out," the woman said, disgusted, before she flung the useless weapon into the creeping tide of amphibians. Around the spot where she had fired, a storm of ravenous beasts erupted. But all too soon, the frenzy died out.
Having run out of words to say, they waited quietly amid the bedlam, now clutching their grenades. Ortiz was just about to give the order to activate them when she saw a pair of flashes through the murk. "What the hell..."
The flashes resolved into a pair of lights that bobbed and bounced in the darkness, growing brighter, growing closer.
Then she heard the unmistakable growl of a transporter through the deafening noise of the amphibians.
"Someone's come for us!" A Marine shouted.
"I'll be goddamned," Walker said.
The transporter crashed through a patch of thick brush and ground toward them, its huge wheels crushing thousands of the horrible little creatures with every revolution. The resulting chum of blood and smashed remains left a gigantic wake behind it of other amphibians gorging themselves on their dead fellows and one another.
"Jesus," Ortiz said as she realized the their salvation could also be their undoing. "They're not going to be able to stop to pick us up or we'll be gobbled up by those fucking things! Grab onto the trailer as it passes by or your dead!"
The driver seemed to have the same thought: the big vehicle was coming right toward them, offset just to the edge of their safe area.
Then the night was torn by pulse rifles firing from the trailer into the mass of creatures, which set off feeding frenzies all around the stranded Marines. For just a moment, the amphibians backed off, drawn by the blood, and the driver of the transporter gunned the engine.
"Get ready!" Ortiz bellowed, her heart hammering in her chest. She did not want to die here.
The tractor went past, dead and dying amphibians flying from its wheels, and then the trailer was sliding past at what seemed like a ridiculously high speed.
"Get aboard!"
She had planned to wait until the others had clambered on, but didn't get the chance. Two pairs of hands reached down and snatched her from the ground, even as the amphibians flowed into the safe zone, covering the rocks on which she and the others had been standing.
"We got them!" Corporal Mukherjee shouted toward the cab. "Let's get out of here!"
Looking around, Ortiz saw that all the others who had been with her were no safely aboard the trailer. Looking up, she saw the other Marines she had sent with the convoy, along with some civilians who had volunteered to come along for the ride. "Who's the lunatic who led you fools back here?"
One of the civilians, a woman she didn't recognize, said, "Calhoun. Who else?"
Shaking her head, Ortiz said, "Crazy bastard."
The return journey to the canyon's edge seemed almost routine. The Marines didn't bother trying to talk over the racket made by the amphibians, but sat and lay, exhausted, on the flatbed. Calhoun guided the big vehicle through the vegetation it had crushed on its way to get them, having made a trail that was now easy to follow on the way back.
Eustus sat beside Reza, worrying over him. Oddly enough, Stalin sat on Reza's other side, scowling at the younger man as if willing him back to health. Eustus didn't understand Stalin or his motivations, but couldn't argue with the fact that Stalin had saved Reza's life.
At last, the transporter emerged from the forest onto the rocky ground that led to the canyon's edge. Turning north, Calhoun took them up a winding trail that led to a large, rocky ledge that overlooked the edge of the forest, and was where the other vehicles had parked.
"Hey, will you look at that!" Davis cried, pointing in the direction of the other vehicles.
Turning to look, Eustus couldn't believe his eyes for a moment. Two assault shuttles, either of which was large enough to hold all the survivors of this wretched place, squatted on the ground just beyond the now-empty transporters and LTVs.
"Well," Walker said, "I guess they heard my mayday call."
Calhoun wheeled the transporter around to the ramp of the nearest shuttle and brought it to a stop.
"Everybody off," Ortiz shouted, "unless you want to get eaten!"
With passionate curses, the Marines and the civilians who'd helped them climbed down and headed for the shuttle. Shouldering Eustus aside, Stalin pulled Reza from the flatbed and again slung him over his shoulder. "Carry this," Stalin said, holding Reza's sword out to Eustus. Gingerly, Eustus took it. It was the first time he had ever touched any of Reza's weapons. "Do not drop it." Then Stalin marched into the shuttle, where corpsmen, obviously shocked by Reza's armor and hair, began to work on him.
Satisfied that his friend was in good hands, Eustus turned to look back toward the forest below. Although he had completely lost track of time, the sun must have been up, for the world was now merely a deep, dark gray instead of nearly black, and the rain had tapered off. Slightly. The sound of the amphibians was still deafening, even from here, and was punctuated by the sound of trees falling over. He could even see them now, where the forest canopy simply vanished here and there.
And then the swarm emerged from the forest.
"Christ," Ortiz whispered from beside him. "Look at the little bastards."
Eustus could never have imagined such an awful, terrible sight. It was like a tidal wave of small living things had burst from the edge of the forest, flowing toward the edge of the canyon. In but moments, millions of the things were hurling themselves into the chasm thousands of meters below, and the wave continued to spread out along the forest edge to either side, including toward where the two Marines were standing.
"Come on, Camden," she said, patting him on the shoulder. Behind them, the engines of the shuttles began spooling up, their roar quickly covering up the horrible melody of the amphibians. "Let's get the hell off this damn planet."

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//Last revised on 9 September at 1205 PM EST//

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