Mereck sat Indian style by the fire of the small camp, happily whittling a branch into another shaft for his quiver. The later summer evening chill was not intolerable. Pausing in his work, he glanced at Marcus, as the other man lit his third cigarette. The flare of the lighter illuminates for a brief moment the mans shrunken eyes and pale face.
You should go easy on those, Mereck offered. Marcus scowled, blowing smoke at the elf.
Clyde came stomping from the trees, an armload of kindling tucked against his massive chest. He stood nearly eight feet tall, every inch of his flesh covered by crudely constructed leather armor. Not a one of the group had ever seen him remove a single piece of the suit that hid his supposed deformities. He threw the kindling down as Mereck scurried out of the giants way. Clydes bloodshot eyes focused on the elf through the rough leather slits of his mask seeking approval. That be enough? Mereck nodded, hastily adding a piece to the fire.
Laughing , X371 rose from where he lay stretched on the grass at the far side of the camp. He leaned his frail form onto his steel crutches and hobbled toward the archer. He still gets to you, doesnt he? the albino whispered. Merecks ears twitched despite themselves as he met X371s pink eyes and gazed down at him. Mereck shook his head hopelessly, More than you know, cripple. More than you.
Clyde settled beside Xiels sleeping form, watching her chest rise and fall peacefully as she slept. He reached out a monstrous hand, gently flicking a strand of her long red hair form her face. She stirred slightly, rolling to nuzzle into his leg.
Captain Cook sat his book aside, pulling the grey trench coat together about his body as he moved to join Mereck and X371 at the fire. Better get some sleep, boys. Tomorrows going to be a big day, he ordered in a voice like stone. X371 suppressed a laugh as he did every time he noticed the archaic symbol on the captains armband, the silver crow on Cooks sleeve glowed in the firelight.
The sun rose early, though the camp was already a bustle of activity as its first rays made their way through the canopy of leaves overhead. Marcus awoke to the sight of a black boot inches from his face. Good morning, Captain, he said without looking up. I told you to lay off the whiskey, Marcus. Im not going to have you screwing up and getting someone killed. Marcus rolled onto his back, stretching like a waking cat, as Cook stood above him. Cook turned away in disgust. Get the hell up, soldier. Theres work to be done. Marcus scratched an itch on his side, for a moment debating whether or not to shoot the old man in the back. His gaze drifted to Xiels much more aesthetically pleasing posterior as she performed her morning ritual of the blade. Her katana flicked through the air, as she engaged phantom opponents.
Dont waste your time, X371 chided. If Clyde catches you staring, I may not be able to put you back together. Marcus swatted a crutch from where he lay, sending the albino sprawling to the dirt. Mereck helped X371 to his feet as Marcus readied his gear for the days march.
In a matter of minutes, the group was on the move. Clyde carried the bulk of their rations and equipment strapped to his back, serving as the companys packhorse. Mereck and Xiel took point, as the others trooped along behind in a loose formation. Cook stayed close to X371, helping him along. Marcus gloomily brought up the rear, cursing himself the lack of a morning smoke. Maybe he shouldve listened to the elf last night. He possessed no delusions about bumming one from Cook, the group's only other smoker.
The need for survival makes strange friends, yet Mereck wondered if they all would not turn upon each other before they ever reached Avalon. The elf understood little of the world in which he now lived. X371 assured him everyone felt as he did. No one had asked the reality storms to shatter time and space itself, yanking them from their worlds and lives to deposit them here. Their only hope of returning home lay in the distant city where the great scholars had built their device. The shield that was to protect the earth for the coming of the Devourers, blocking their city ships from entry into the planets atmosphere. It struck Mereck as ironic that the Devourers has gained entry to the world through the fractures in space time which caused the reality storms, created by the shield itself.
Devourer armies roamed the lands in search of flesh to feed their beastly urges. No one alone could hope to stand against the demons. So their tiny group had found over the last months, always travelling westward toward the city. Always, praying each day would not bring them face to face with the demon hordes.
Mereck turned his mind away from such dark thoughts, focusing on his task. He scouted farther ahead of the group, leaving even Xiel behind, as he bounded over fallen trees, and cut courses through the underbrush. His heightened senses were at one with the forest, searching for the demons presence. He depended on the group but they also depended upon him. Several times before only his skill had averted the carefully laid ambushes of the Devourers.
Xiel watched the elf pull further away, sniffing and examining the foliage as he ran. Something did not feel right in the morning air, perhaps today would be the day which she me the spirits of her ancestors. She stopped, raising a hand to halt the others behind her. Cook pushed his way forward to stand at her side, his MAG-10 unslung from his shoulder, ready in his grasp. Seeing her expression, the old man did not speak. Together they waited for Mereck to return. Xiels blade trembled slightly in her hands. She hoped the elf knew what he was doing.
The sharp crackle of a Devourers lightening force sounded in the distance. The old man was already seeking cover, as Mereck came sprinting toward them. Clyde cast away his burden, reaching for the morning star on his belt. X371 squeaked as Marcus shoved him to the ground, stepping over him.
He drew twin 9mm handguns, walking calmly forward. The first Devourer to enter Xiels field of vision was nearly cut in half by the Captains modified sub machine gun. Even as its insectoid head snapped backwards from Marcus carefully placed shot. Its companions were unslowed by the death of their comrade. They came flooding toward the company in unimaginable number. Each stood six feet tall, hulking juggernauts of jagged exoskeletons and muscle. The claws of those without lances clicked eagerly. Unable to ready his weapon in time, Clyde grabbed the first to reach him, tearing off its arms like a child playing with a captured insect. Xiel spun, sparks flying as her blade struck against the torso of the nearest Devourer. Mereck turned quickly, loosing an arrow at his pursuers. Marcus became a blur of movement too fast for X371s eyes to follow. Devourers fell as his guns blazed in unison. Fall back, the old man yelled over the clatter of his own submachine gun. Still the Devourers came. One creature threw its lance with inhuman strength. The weapon pierced Clydes armor sending the giant reeling, clutching at the shaft protruding from his chest. Mereck passed Marcus, pausing only to pull X371s ninety pounds onto his back. Marcus and the Captain gave ground slowly, leaving Devourer corpses in their wake. With a lucky blow, Xiel beheaded her assailant and fled as quickly as she could, X371 and Mereck already long gone. Wheres your God now, Marcus shouted as he came shoulder to shoulder with the Captain, surrounded by the creatures. Hes with us, Cook muttered. Marcus sneered. Lets hope so, as he reloaded. Clyde ripped the lance free, blood spurting. With a howl of fury, he launched himself at the Devourers, charging into their midst. He swung the lance like a bat, shattering a Devourers face.
That guys too dumb to even realize hes dead, Marcus giggled.
Shut up, the old man spat. You better thank the Almighty hes so stubborn.
The two men, finally, broke and ran as electric bolts streaked after them, setting the forest ablaze.
Over a mile away, Mereck collapsed to the ground panting, sending X371 rolling with his mountains. Jesus! the albino cried as a tree brought him to a sudden, painful halt. Mereck struggled to catch his breath, as X371 pulled out his small .38 revolver, staring over Merecks shoulder. Scattered gunfire could still be heard in the distance. Mereck barely managed to slap the albinos gun aside as Xiel burst into the clearing. Xiels eyes grew wide as she saw this. By Kalis breath, were you going to shoot me?
How the hell was I supposed to know it was you? X371 answered.
Weve got to move, Xiel said, glancing over her shoulder. The captain and Marcus can catch up later if they survive.
Mereck looked at Xiel. Its your turn then.
Xiel grunted jerking X371 up from where he lay. Maybe we should just leave him.
Hey, X371 cried, I can hear you, you know. Xiel grinned, putting an arm around the albino. I was only joking. Youre too valuable to leave behind. X371 pouted, not entirely sure he should believe her. Come on, Mereck urged, before disappearing into the forest.
A day later and reunited the company made camp once more. Marcus sat by himself, counting his remaining bullets. The old man, too, had withdrawn inside thoughts, speaking to no one. Xiel spent her time mourning Clyde and sharpening her katana vigorously. Only X371 seemed cheerful, he bounded around the camp as best he could trying to spread his joy. His latest calculations showed Avalon to be only a days travel away, the fact that it was under siege by several legions of Devourers did nothing to bring his spirit down. If Avalon fell, all hope was lost. Not just for the company but for this hellish world as well.
Mereck unfolded the latest maps, gleaned from the albinos lacking as the scholars of Avalons recon drone network, and studied the companys position. Twenty thousand Devourers stood between them and Avalon. The albino came to stare over his shoulder. We can slip through their lines, no problem, X371 pointed out gleefully. His white fingers stabbed at a dry river bed on the map. There. You see, it runs all the way into the city. The Devourers wont go near it. Theyre afraid of things like that. Their world had very little water. It holds a strange place in their religion.
How do you know so much about them?
Hey, man, I am the best scholar ever produced from the X3 line. There was no expense spared in creating me, buddy. Ill know more than youll ever realize.
Mereck shook his head. Right, and Im the being of the Silver Vale.
The greatest city of my world. A forest eternally green, which stretched for leagues. It was the seat of the council and the greatest achievement of my people, before the reality storms destroyed it.
Yeah, whatever, Im right. We can make it through, Mereck. You just need a little faith. If youd like I can get the old man to give you a sermon.
No, thanks, Mereck laughed.
Aw, come on, you know you want to hear some more about the almighty and the glories of the chosen people in the church.
Mereck glanced down at the map, his finger tracing the outline of the river. You really think itll be that easy?
Bet on it, X371 smiled, ambling away to harass someone else.
The companys journey to the point where X371 suggested entering the river bed was largely uneventful. Mereck managed to steer them clear of the Devourer patrols.
The bed was over twelve feet deep, its parched surface cracked and dusty. Mereck leapt in first, landing with agility. He scanned both directions, half expecting a mob of the demonic creatures to be awaiting them. He gave the all clear, flicking Marcus light once in the darkness. He hated to do so because the small fire messed with his vision, leaving burning red dots dancing on the insides of his eyelids. The others, unable to see in the darkness clearly, made their way down, lowering X371 carefully. Mereck did not know if the Devourers magic gave them the ability to see in low light as clearly as his people could, but he hoped they would be as blind as his companions.
A new energy seemed to grow amidst the group, overcoming their weariness and fears. Avalon, a chance to go home, lay so close ahead of them. They marched onward toward the rest of their hopes.
It was easy to tell when they reached the Devourers lines. The night turned a sickly pink from the glow orbs the Devourers used among their tents. X371 explained the technology in whispered, fast sentences. No one cared, but X371 did not seem to notice as he rattled on excitedly.
The team picked up the pace as they drew nearer to the city; the crackle of the Devourers massive electrical cannons seemed to shake the earth itself. The scholars, safe behind defensive shields, returned fire with energy weapons of their own. A badly aimed Scholar bolt struck the western edge of the riverbank. Dirt and rock rained like shrapnel over the company. Xiel was the worst injured. A larger stone sharpened by the erosion of the long dead river cleaved off her left arm neatly at the elbow. She screamed as the old man wrestled her to the ground, trying to use the cloth of his armband as a tourniquet. Marcus drew his weapon before realizing Xiels screams had gone unheard amid the chaos of the battle outside. X371 leaned over to help the captain frowning. Theres no way we can treat this out here, X371 said sadly. The shock alone will probably kill her. The Captain grabbed the enfeebled scholar by his tunic pulling him close, We leave no one behind. Is that clear? X371 began to reply, but the captain shoved him away, focusing on Xiel. The young swords mistress was now unconscious, and still bleeding despite the old mans best efforts. Mereck looked terrified. Theyll smell the blood, was all he managed to say before the first Devourer appeared above, on the embankment, clicking loudly in its native tongue. Mereck loosed an arrow, which struck perfectly where the heart would have been, had they been human. It stumbled and fell into the river bed. The old man leapt with the speed of a man thirty years younger than he appeared, planting a Vibro- knife deep in the things throat. It gurgled loudly, thrashing against the old mans hold before expiring. Two more arrived, above, to take its place, firing down at the company with energy lances. Run! the captain yelled, returning fire. Mereck picked up X371 flinging him onto his shoulders in a piggyback fashion. Despite the added weight, the elf left Marcus far behind. The Captain shouted orders for Marcus to wait but the younger man kept running. Sweeping the bank with a burst of fire from his gun, the old man tried desperately to hoist Xiel up into his arms. The days march had taken its toll on his strength. He could not carry the girl. Cursing, he rolled away from her lax form as several beams of electricity fried the spot he had recently occupied. Cook crossed himself, muttering a prayer of forgiveness. He aimed carefully, putting a burst through Xiels forehead. More bolts rained down, one slamming into the soil by his face. The old man fired upwards, emptying the guns clip, then ran after the others. In his mind, he swore Marcus would pay, for the girl had not needed to die.
Mereck reached the metal grill through which the river had once flown, nearly running into it before he could stop. He sat the albino down. Dont touch it, X371 warned as Mereck scavenged the scattered corpses for the numerous Devourers some still smoking, as smoking as if theyd been cooked alive merely seconds before.
A Devourer leapt into the river bed between the two men. It slung one of its armored barbs at Merecks head the elf evaded the blow, ducking under the attack. Mereck threw his weight against the creature catching it off balance, the pair went sprawling, a tangle of limbs. X371 struggled to get his revolver free of its holster.
Marcus arrived, guns blazing. Bullets tore through elf and Devourer alike, as he ran to the scene of the struggle. Marcus stopped just short of X371, his guns leveled at the near invalid. Dont even think about trying it, wimp. X371 managed to pull his revolver free but in the process lost his grip on the weapon. It went skidding along the dusty ground. X371 stared at Marcus in horror. Open the gate, Marcus ordered. But..., X371 stuttered. Now! Marcus shouted, gesturing threateningly with one of his handguns. X371 stumbled over to a panel hidden in the side of the riverbank. He brushed dirt form its controls, before placing his hand on the waiting screen. DNA check confirmed. Welcome home, X371, a monotone voice droned. Voice code, please.
X371 turned facing Marcus. We should wait for the Captain. Marcus fired a single round, shattering the fragile bone of the albinos left knee. X371 collapsed his eyes burning with tears as he clutched the wound.
Im not going to ask you again. Marcus growled.
As the captain came into view of the pair, he threw himself into the dirt hoping they had not noticed his approach. Lying prone, he awkwardly clutched the crucifix about his neck, and began to pray. His form shimmered as light bent around him. In seconds he was imperceivable to the human eye. He rose then, walking calmly toward Marcus, drawing his remaining knife.
Marcus stood, oblivious to the old mans approach as X371 spoke. Voice confirmation code: Zeta-X3-Mark2-7. The grate folded inward, clearing the way into Avalon.
X371 watched as Marcus flung a hand to his throat. Blood spurted from his slit throat. Marcus raised his other gun at the albino but an unseen force knocked it from his grasp and hauled him from his feet. X371 wasting no time crawled toward the open grate. Good you could join us, Captain. Where the hell have you been?
The old man materialized, standing over Marcus corpse. Xiels dead.
So I gathered, X371 grunted, A little help here?
The captain pulled X371 to his feet as the albino threw an arm around his neck. So Captain, I guess youre more than ready to get home?
The pair entered the gates and navigated the corridor upwards. Cook felt as if he were walking into Heaven itself. The streets of Avalon were filled with silicon towers and even the walls of the city seemed to crackle with energy. The Albinos science was so far advanced it seemed like magic to Cook. The war-torn world he was from had nothing to match its beauty. A group of other albinos came rushing forward to greet them when they saw the unlikely pair emerging from the tunnel. X371 pulled away from Cook and fell onto the ground. The others rushed over and began to care for him right there on the street waving some kind of small metal box up and down the length of his wounded leg. X371 rolled over to face Cook.
I guess I need to tell that you were brought here for a reason. All of you were. You see, we could never win this war on our own but by grabbing hundreds of people like you, Marcus, and Xiel, and stranding them behind enemy lines it created enough chaos for the Devourers to force them to guard their back and flanks rather than concentrate on the city of Avalon with all their forces. It gave us the time we needed to complete our work on dimensional shift weapons and now the Devourers will feel what those weapons can do. As we speak, above us on the towers of the city we are preparing a little trip for the Devourer armies, straight into the heart of a sun many parsecs from here.
I dont understand, Cook said watching a heal X371 raise to his feet and stand before him unaided.
You were a pawn, Captain. And now, you usefulness is at an end I am afraid. The albino giggled like a girl as two of his companions pointed small triangle shaped energy weapons at him. Cook dove to the side as they fired and beams of blue energy vaporized the ground he had been standing on.
Cook threw his knife at one of the albinos. It wedged in the mans throat and he fell gargling on his own blood. But X371 joined the fight, producing a beam weapon of his own. Its blast took Cook full in the back as fled towards the tunnel and out of the city. A huge hole blossomed in his torso. Cook looked down in disbelief as his eyes so suddenly heavy shut off their own accord. His body dropped to the cobble-stoned path and lay still, his wound smoking and already sealed from the heat of the weapons discharge.
X371 walked over and tore the cross from Cooks neck. Clutching it in his frail white hand, he laughed loudly as he and his brothers headed into the city of dreams and nightmares untold.
Copyright © 2003 by Eric S. Brown