by Resha Caner
part 2 of 7|
page 2 of 2
The General walked without presence. Nothing stood in his place but a fearful emptiness, and the reek of Black Soldiers crept around the edges of his body.
The General stopped, and the Captain heard a soft sniffing. Then the order came. “She bears the mark. She is mine. Give her to me.”
The Captain had never feared anyone, never known the presence of a General. The Red General had been killed defending the Fifteenth Queen, and the Sixteenth Queen had never replaced him. The Captain had not realized until this moment what the brash, untrained decisions of the young Red Queen had done to his Colony.
“Give her to me.”
His body cried out for him to obey, to relieve the horrid feeling and rid himself of the thing tearing at his gut. Then the girl’s crying faded to a sob and he remembered her touch.
He pulled the knife from his boot, and in the same motion released it toward the General. The Black commander swept it out of his way like an angry bear swatting a fly.
“Crush him and give me the girl.”
He could not hope to escape, nor could he prevail through strength. He needed a diversion. Then he remembered his new gift. The Black General would never expect a Captain to speak. The Red Queen had failed to give her army a General, but the Captain would now remedy the error by conjuring an army of ghosts from the vapid winds of the tunnels.
“Forward men!” The Captain bellowed with all his might. Then he seized a rock from beneath his feet and slammed it into the roof of the tunnel to release a shower of dirt and debris.
The General hesitated.
The Captain picked up the girl, and ran. The way down was blocked by the enemy, and the way back into the colony was blocked by a chaotic mass of bodies, so the Captain turned to the upward tunnel as a plan formed in his mind.
“Send the Arachnids,” the General ordered. “I want the girl.”
The Captain heard the order, and it stole his breath. He knew his speed could never match an Arachnid’s, and the desperation sapped the strength in his legs. The girl became like the weight of a great stone dragging him into the depths of a bottomless pool. He choked and sputtered, and dipped low, needing his hands to keep himself from collapsing on the floor of the tunnel.
The Red Colony had lost the art of taming beasts, and hence the Captain’s only experience with Arachnids came from battling the Black Colony. He had been a young Soldier when he first encountered them, assigned to guard Gatherers transporting food. He remembered a soft padding sound and a breeze with a bitter smell. Then the stingers of a dozen creatures no bigger than the palm of his hand pierced the man next to him. Without a sound, the Soldier had gone limp, and the Arachnids swarmed over their victim in waves.
The Captain shook off the memories, but he felt too old for such a contest, and his chest ached as sweat poured over his forehead. He could carry the girl no farther, and slipped her off his shoulders, waving up the tunnel. “Go.”
The girl ran.
Maybe it was best this way. Maybe she could escape while he spent his last moments delaying the Arachnids. As he struggled to draw breath into his lungs, the air filled with a bitter smell.
He wanted to know their shape and number, and so he cried out. The sounds of his shout echoed off the walls, floor, and ceiling, and found their way down the tunnel. They rebounded off oval shapes on eight legs, and he estimated them in the hundreds. He sensed their softness, but they led with sharp claws on their front legs. Their speed was great, and he felt the supple tremor of their approach like the angel of death sweeping up the tunnel in a black cloud.
His idea for escape returned, and he thought of what the Diggers had left in the tunnel above him. If only the girl were fast enough to get away. If only he could reach the equipment before the Arachnids overtook him.
Pushing up from the floor, he ran on.
He called to his mind the memories of Diggers laying pipe and the torches they used. He had seen the remnants of an accident when one of the torch fuel canisters cracked open and spilled its contents.
With desperate cries spilling between gasping breaths he located a torch abandoned by a fleeing Digger. He felt the swarm of Arachnids sweeping up the tunnel, pushing stagnant air before them. Ripping the igniter free, he lifted the fuel canister over his head and threw it with all his might. It smashed onto the floor, and fuel rolled across the stone.
“Retreat!” The Black General backed up into the breach. “Fall back!”
The Captain struck the igniter and threw it into the slough of fuel, dropping to the ground.
A wall of heat rushed through the tunnel, and the Captain heard the high-pitched yelps of the Arachnids mixed with the pained roars of the escaping Black Soldiers. As the inferno passed over, the stench of burning flesh pierced his nose.
The tide reached its peak, and then surged backward, stripping the tunnel of all oxygen. The Captain’s head swirled, and he gagged, his lungs retching out of control as they tried to suck in fresh air.
The Black General wouldn’t wait, and neither could he. He moved as soon as the heat began to abate and oxygen flowed again.
The higher he rose, the fresher the air became. His head cleared, and the stench drained away. His body regained strength and his pace quickened. Moments later a clanging sound echoed from below, and he realized the Black Soldiers were on the march again. They would not give up, and he had to find the girl first. He had to find her a sanctuary.
A hundred meters passed beneath his feet with no sign of the girl, and dread picked at his concentration, taunting him that she was forever lost. He came to a branch, and realized he had climbed higher than ever before. He didn’t know these tunnels, having always chosen duty among the lower ways, leaving the upper ways to young Captains. Without a clue as to where the girl had gone, he could spend forever searching. Mistakes would force him to double back, giving the Black Soldiers time to catch up.
He dropped to his knees, feeling along the floor, letting his palm skid over the surface without disturbing the grime of years gone by. His fingers detected a slight indentation in the layer of dirt covering the stone, and he paused. Tracing the perimeter, he convinced himself it was the footprint of the girl. Even if others had passed this way, who else could have made such a tiny print? She had taken the right fork of the tunnel.
He leapt to his feet, scuffing the marks to obliterate the signs of her passing. Then he moved up the left tunnel, scratching the walls with his fingernails to leave a distracting scent. Satisfied with his diversion, the Captain doubled back to take the right tunnel.
Another fifty meters passed, and a faint whiff of blood caught his nose. Leaning forward, he sniffed out the location, and found the floor swept upward to form a sharp slant of broken rock. The girl must have fallen and cut herself on the edges. How badly was she hurt?
The thought struck him hard, and he realized his defense of the girl had gone far beyond the Red Queen’s expectations. She had wanted the girl to be caught. She wanted the enemy to kill the girl so they would assume victory.
He turned his face up the tunnel, considering the fall of rock. The comfort of familiar tunnels packed with Red was gone, and no one would help him. Setting his jaw, he began to climb, not caring what the Red Queen had planned. The Red Queen was far away, building a new colony in safety. He was here, and the girl needed his help.
The Captain pushed on, and soon picked up a raw trail of blood. The girl was hurt, and needed medical attention. Minutes passed in painful succession, and his concern grew that even if he found the girl she would be beyond help.
Then he heard a whimper, and a confused mass of relief and trepidation washed over him. He sprinted the remaining distance toward the little girl’s sobbing.
But something was out of place. He knew her scent well as it wafted into his nostrils, but something else came that he could not identify. It was neither Red nor Black. It was not a beast or plant he had ever encountered.
“Sssh. You’ll be all right,” something said to the girl.
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Copyright © 2010 by Resha Caner