“No! What have you done?” Samara screamed.
Her body lay in a crumpled heap where she had been thrown during the blast into a dusty, smoky corner of the building. Well, what was left of the building anyway. The acrid smoke lay thick and heavy. Laced with the smell of burning plastic and sulfur.
Her nemesis walked slowly across the room toward the portal that now lay exposed. The heels of her boots clicked sharply as she walked. The crunch of rubble and the grinding of shards in each step grated on Samara’s already frayed nerves.
“Please, Andreia. Let us all through first. Then you can destroy the portal. We’ll never come back here again.”
Andreia set down the bag of explosives she was carrying carefully. Then mosied on over toward the woman in the corner. Samara panted heavily as she struggled to sit up. Careful to keep her arms pressed down against the floor and her back against the wall.
“My, my!” Andreia exclaimed. “Aren’t we resilient? Can’t believe you survived that blast. And are still moving. I underestimated you.”
Andreia stopped walking and cocked her head to the side to analyze the situation.
“Please. Let those of us that you haven’t killed through. We’ll shut it down ourselves.”
“Then you’ll just build another.”
“We took you in. We fed you. We treated you like our own. Why are you doing this?”
Andreia shrugged and stood back up. “This is why I came. To infiltrate your ranks. Find the portal and destroy it. I was raised to hate your kind. I was raised to hate what you represent and why you come here. My mission has always been to seek out and destroy these portals.”
She slid the rifle slung over her back. Barrel pointed to the ground and swung it in Samara’s direction. Samara heard the click of the safety as Andreia prepared to pull the trigger.
“Wait, Andreia. But we didn’t create this portal. We don’t have that kind of technology. We won’t be able to create a way to get back here.”
“No, but you’ll just find another portal to use `somewhere else. Then you’ll go there and scavenge off the land from the already established inhabitants like the parasites that you are.”
“But we are a nomadic people. We are constantly on the move. We don’t pillage. We trade our skills and services to enhance the lives of the people we come across.”
Andreia scoffed. “Tell that to the ‘nomadic’ people that came through our portal when I was a child and wiped out my entire village in a single day. They took everything we worked for. They burned our homes. Killed our families. Destroyed everything we had built.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, my friend. There are truly evil people out there. But those aren’t my people. That’s not what we do. You can’t stereotype all portal hoppers like that.”
“It’s nothing personal against you or your people. It’s just what I and my people do. Our mission is to shut down all known portals.”
Andreia turned around and walked back toward the large, black bag she had set down. Samara felt her bones twisting back together and our muscles healing. The nanobots were working quickly. Just a little bit more and she would be able to move again. She felt sensation coming back to her feet and legs. She could wiggle her toes again.
She watched Andreia sling the rifle back over her shoulder before picking up the bag. Andreia turned around only to find Samara in her face.
“What? How did you manage to walk again.” Andreia gasped as she dropped the bag and tried to grab the gun.
Samara blocked Andreia with her left hand and punched her with a right uppercut. Andrei would have fallen except Samara was still hanging onto the base of the rifle and the sling held her up.
She gave the gun a hard tug to pull it up and over Andreia’s head. Samara pointed the barrel down Andreia’s face who had fallen to her knees and was now begging for her life.
“You’re no better than the people who wiped out your village. You’ve become like them yourself by blowing up this building to kill my family and loved ones.”
“No,” Andreia pleaded. “It’s not like that. Just let me go and I’ll never try to destroy this portal again. Please.”
Samara scoffed and mimicked Andreia when she said, “No, but you’ll just find another portal to blow up somewhere. Then you’ll go there and blow up buildings and kill innocent inhabitants like the murderers you are.”
She reached down to pick up the bag of explosives. Andreia tried to grab the gun and push it away. Samara didn’t give it a second thought. She pulled the trigger. The bullet hit her square in the chest.
Andreia lay on the ground. Looking up with a stunned look of disbelief on her face. Then she saw the green lines running down the sides of Samara’s arms. She started to laugh but ended up coughing as she choked up blood.
“Now, I understand. That’s why you survived the blast. And how you got up so quickly. Next time, I’ll make sure to start with the more powerful explosives.” She said glancing at the bag after she had finished coughing.
Blood still ran out of her mouth. There wasn’t much chance of her serving. But Samara pulled the trigger several more times to make sure Andreia didn’t get another chance to destroy the portal. Then pulled the trigger a few more times out of sheer anger and grief at the destruction the woman had caused. The sound of a radio cackled lightly. Samara picked it up to listen.
“Are you coming, Andreia? We don’t have much time. Set the timers then meet us down at the docs. Do you copy?”
“Roger that. On my way,” she responded mimicking Andreia’s voice and accent.
Samara turned to the portal. She couldn’t see it clearly for the flames, so she climbed up onto part of the wall that was still standing for a better look. The blue sheen of the portal looked normal although it seemed to cackle with more electricity than usual.
It would be a little while before the flames died down enough for her to get over there. Meanwhile, she would have time to take out Andreia’s team and avenge the death of her friends and family. As well as search for any other survivors.
Samara checked to see how many bullets she had left. Then hopped down to go hunt the rest of Andreia’s team and prevent them from destroying any other portals like this one.
Ankur blinked a few times and shook his head in disbelief. What were these people, or creatures, or whatever they were? He had just blown the building they had been inside of to smithereens. And yet here they were, pulling themselves up out of burning rubble. They wouldn’t stop coming at him.
He sighed and rested his gun up over his shoulder as he watched them pull themselves through the hot coal and burning metal that covered the area. The heat of the fire wafted over him. It was stifling. Hard to breathe. Ankur twisted his head to the side to cough into the crook of his arm. But he never took his eyes off the undead corpses that were coming in his direction.
These were a different breed. They didn’t burst into flames themselves when they got too close to the heat like the Shufflers he had seen in NorthWorld. Nor were they fast like the Racers he had come across in Aria. They were slow but persistent. And the fire didn’t do a thing to stop them.
If only he had brought his axes or his swords. He hadn’t planned on needing them. Actually, he hadn’t even been expecting to come across any at all. Especially not this many all at once.
Someone had called in something suspicious. Ankur had come down on a whim. He had never been to Khmaodong before. He had been hoping to find out what the natives had seen and then dispel their fears of another local legend.
At the most, he thought he might find one of these creatures here that had made it up through a portal. Then he could have captured it and sent it back to his team to analyze while he took some much-needed rest and relaxation on the beautiful beaches this area was known for.
But now, here was a whole pack of them. He had caught one. But then he realized that a few others were roaming around. The locals showed him where they were coming from. Ankur had checked it out and thought there might be three or four hiding in the building.
He figured the easiest way to get rid of them was just to blow the whole building down. Expose them and then put down any that managed to escape. But that plan hadn’t worked. And now he had counted at least two dozen of these flaming corpses pulling themselves up out of the rubble.
Ankur looked around, but the men he had hired had all fled at the sight of the first corpse pulling itself up out of the rubble. One of the burning creatures closest to him snarled as it drew closer. The tall, lithe man slung the shotgun off of his shoulder and let go with both barrels.
The fiery corpse paused and snarled as it looked down at its chest and belly where Ankur had aimed. Ankur squinted, but couldn’t see much damage. He snapped the shotgun open and slid two more cartridges into the chamber. Closed it and fired again. This time aiming for the knee of the undead monster that was less than a few meters away.
This was a special weapon that had been developed by Ankur’s team specifically for close-range situations like this. It would have torn the legs off of a normal human. But it didn’t seem to do any major damage to this thing. The firey creature paused and hissed at him, but then immediately kept coming. And it picked up its pace as it got close and honed into his scent.
Ankur didn’t like this one bit. This was way too close for comfort. He scrambled to get away from this thing. He leaped from one rock to another, careful to avoid the hot molten metal flowing around them.
He had known that this was an aluminum plant before the people had abandoned it a few weeks back. But that wouldn’t have accounted for so much melted metal flowing around him now. It seemed to increase after they had tried blowing the building down.
Ankur hadn’t realized that it had been flowing around the area behind him while he was watching the creatures up ahead. There weren’t many places he could walk without stepping in it. The rocks and ground under him were hot. He could feel the heat through the soles of his shoes. The hard rubber melting and growing softer. He needed to find a way out of here and quickly.
He looked back at the fiery critter not far behind. It didn’t seem to mind the molten heat. It actually seemed to relish it and step directly in the reddish-orange lava flowing around it.
And then, Ankur slipped. He went down hard. Trying to stop himself with the barrel of the gun. But it slid out from under him. He twisted his body as he went down on the hard rocks. He felt the searing heat of the molten metal burning his skin. Hitting his head hard. And then blacking out. The last thing he saw, was the fiery undead corpse looming over him.
The dragon and its rider bolted into the night sky as hot, angry tears rolled down Akio’s cheeks. They didn’t make it far before the whipping wind peeled each one away from his face.
Akio looked back to see the Enforcers still blocking the way home. They seemed relieved that he fled without putting up a fight. They hadn’t even tried to stop him from leaving or attempted to pursue him. He realized that all they had wanted to do was prevent him from returning home with his dragon.
The fear in his heart abated when he saw that no one pursued them. Suddenly, Akio felt like a coward. He the might dragon warrior fleeing from the people he had fought to save.
He screamed with frustration into the cold, night air. The silent stars above his only witness. Not even the moon was out yet to watch him ride the wind. Shooting across the sky on the strong, firm back of Yunlong, the dragon he had pulled from the clouds. His only consolation for all of his effort. Everything he had been promised was a lie. They had used him for their own end.
“Not a lie,” Yunlong whispered in his mind. “You should go back. To your people. To your kind. I will return to the clouds. I will be fine. You will be fine. Better than fine. You have achieved a great thing. You will receive great rewards. You will be a hero to your people for what you have done.”
“No!” Akio roared, so furiously that his voice cracked and his throat hurt. It felt like he had torn a vocal cord. But he didn’t care. It wouldn’t hurt more than the tear in his heart. It wouldn’t ache more than the pain in his soul.
He would be hoarse tomorrow. He wouldn’t be able to speak for days. But it didn’t matter. Nor did he care. There was no one for him to speak to now except Yunlong. And it wasn’t even necessary since the dragon could read his thoughts. Speaking to Yunlong was simply a human habit that made Akio feel like the giant beast could understand him better even though he knew it wasn’t true.
Yunlong understood the human more thoroughly with a single sweep of her mind than Akio could ever express with a million words. And that was why Akio couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his new friend behind in order to return home.
“It’s not fair you can’t go back home with me!” he whispered hoarsely and instantly regretted it. He swallowed the pain and coughed to clear his throat.
Akio felt the pale dragon sigh briefly. He picked up on a mix of feelings. Anger. Regret. Sadness. He caught glimpses of hundreds of previous battles. But a strong residual sense of loneliness pervaded her memories through all of them.
“Humans and dragons were never met to coexist. We were only intended to be used as tools for a specific purpose. The Enforcers are right. It would only create confusion if I were to return with you.”
The rider didn’t try to voice his thoughts. He could feel her in his mind. Deep in each thought. No matter how brief. She could feel his pain. Sense his frustration. And he knew she understood him.
How was that possible? Two beings that were so different. Two creatures that warred for centuries. Mortal enemies throughout time. Yet felt the same feelings. Thought the same thoughts. And connected at such a profound level.
“What will you do now, Cloud Rider,” she asked in his mind.
It brought a brief smile to his face in spite of his frustration. It was a compliment coming from her because when they first met, she had mockingly called him Earth Crawler.
“I will find a way to return home and reveal the truth. I will expose those who sent me. They will regret choosing me to do their dirty work.”
“You can still go back to your people. You just can’t take me. Tell them your truth. They are your loved ones. They believe the lies, surely they will believe the truth when you tell them.”
“They won’t. They’ll call me crazy. The Enforcers will make sure that everyone thinks I’ve gone mad. Without you, I have no proof. And that is the only thing they fear. Having their lies exposed and people learn the truth.”
“Why is that important? You know the truth. And that is what matters. You can live a long and successful life with your people.”
Akio shook his head as he tried to process his emotions.
“No,” he finally sighed. “I’d rather live alone but free than to be enslaved with lies no matter how comfortable they may have once been.”
The rider felt his dragon smile. “Very well, young human. There is hope for you. Maybe we’ll make a real warrior of you yet.”
“Not again!” Avrey screamed out in anguish as he tore at the flesh on his chest. Drew backed up against the overhang of the cliff wall at the sudden outburst of his friend that seemed to come out of nowhere.
They had just been walking along the trail up the mountain. Chatting as if everything were hunky-dory up until five minutes ago. Then Avery had fallen silent.
That had been the first strange thing that had happened because Avery was almost never silent. He had talked incessantly for the past three days. Drew had actually been relieved that his new friend had shut up long enough for him to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounded them.
Drew listened to the birds singing in the trees. He took a deep breath and let the smell of the forest fill his lungs. He had paused to let the breeze wash over him and cool away the sweat that had built up over the past hour since they had left the bubbling stream below.
But then the forest had gone completely silent. That was the second strange thing that had happened. He looked around to see what had happened to the birds. That was when he had noticed the fog moving down the mountain toward them through the trees.
Drew felt a twinge of nervousness. This wasn’t normal for this time of year. He had been up here several times over the past few years and had never seen anything like this.
“Hey, Avery! Do you see that? I think we’d better get out of here.” Drew mumbled quietly under his breath.
Avery didn’t answer him, but Drew didn’t take his eyes off the fog to look for the friend he had met at the base of the mountain when starting his trek.
At the time, having someone to keep him company had seemed like a great idea. Drew enjoyed having someone to chat with as they hiked over the trails. But now, he was glad that he wasn’t alone up here.
“C’mon, let’s get a move on it! We’ll get higher up the mountain and above this fog before dark.” Drew said as he picked up his pace.
Avery didn’t reply, even though Drew could hear him shuffling along the trail behind him. Drew threw a quick look over his shoulder to glance at his hiking partner.
His head was down as if Avery were staring intently at the ground. He was about twenty feet behind Drew although walking at the same pace.
Drew looked forward to watch the winding trail in front of him but then turned back again immediately for another glance at Avery. It seemed as if something about his face were glowing.
Looking back again, Drew couldn’t see the glow directly. Although he caught it again in his peripheral vision as he turned back to watch the trail in front of him.
“You okay, buddy?” Drew hollered out.
Avery still didn’t reply.
“Yo, Avery! Is everything alright?” Drew hollered back over his shoulder.
This time he paused his brisk walk to turn and face Avery. The fog was almost upon them. Running wouldn’t get them high enough up the trail before it covered them. And Drew was breathing raggedly. He wanted to stop to catch his breath.
Avery though didn’t stop walking, he just continued right on past Drew up the mountain through the forest.
Drew drew a deep breath and then started walking after his new friend. The trail twisted and turned up ahead, and ad they came around the bend, Drew realized they were headed directly into the fog.
“Hey, it’s getting dark. Maybe we should find a place to make camp. We need time to make a fire and set up while we can still see.”
The tall, lanky figure of his hiking buddy kept right on moving into the fog. Drew paused and watched him disappear into the mist. A strange sense of foreboding hit him.
Scenes from a hundred different horror movies flashed through his mind. Then he shook it off. That was silly. This wasn’t a movie. He pressed forward into the deep, grey mist that had suddenly flooded the forest.
All he had to do was find a nice place to set up camp and wait it out. Tomorrow the sun was come out blazing and burn the mist away so they could continue their climb up the Arntonas Peak.
“Yo, Avery! We need to set up camp, champ!” he shouted into the fog.
His silent friend was nowhere in sight. The fog had gotten thicker and he couldn’t see very far in front of him up the trail.
He kept glancing off the sides of the beaten path to see if Avery had possibly moved off to set up a camp. Drew began to worry that might happen, and he would walk right past his friend and not even notice where he had gone.
Then he would be alone on the mountain. Not that he hadn’t camped up here alone before. But Avery had been carrying a good portion of their supplies. He had noticed Drew getting tired and offered to carry some of his stuff.
Drew had been grateful even though he didn’t like admitting that he needed the help. However, he had recently been sick and was still recuperating. So, he had accepted the offer. It had been a relief to take some of the weight he had been carrying off his shoulders.
But now he began to regret it. What if he and Avery got separated here in the fog. He would be alone on the mountain, and the pack Avery was carrying had his tent and other necessary supplies in it.
He took a deep breath and picked up his pace in an attempt to catch up with Avery before darkness fell in the thickening fog.
Drew came around another bend and saw a shadowy figure standing in a clearing just off the trail underneath an overhang. He breathed a sigh of relief at the familiar frame before him.
“Wow! Glad I found you. I didn’t think you were going to stop for the night. I guess you were just looking for the right spot. This looks like a good one.”
He stood there panting and attempting to catch his breath. Avery still had his back to him, but shoved everything off his back and onto the ground.
“Give me a minute to breathe again, and I’ll start gathering wood for a fire.” Drew rasped.
Avery still didn’t reply. Drew didn’t take his eyes off the man. Something was off, but he didn’t yet know what.
“You feeling okay there, dude?” Drew asked.
A light yellow glow burst out around Avery and reflected off the fog around him almost as if he had tried using his lighter. But it didn’t dim out or fade away. In fact, it got a little stronger.
“Avery,” Drew said hoarsely. “What’s going on? Is everything alright?”
His instincts screamed for him to run as fast as he could back down the mountain, but he didn’t want to leave new friend up there alone in the fog without knowing what was going on.
He stepped forward and put a hand on Avery’s shoulder. The tall, burly man shrugged it off and took a step forward. Avery was panting heavily as if he had been running for miles. And the glow still reflected off the fog around him.
Drew stepped around him and gasped at the sight of Avery’s body. His eyes were closed, but still glowed yellow through his eyelids. And there was soft glow emanating from the center of his chest as well.
He didn’t know what to say and stood there for a moment, nervously trying to make up his mind about what to do. Drew had always been rather indecisive and making split second decisions wasn’t easy for him.
Leaving was probably his safest option, but he worried about what he would tell people when they asked why he didn’t stay to help a dead man up on the mountain. Not there was much he could probably do anyway. But still…
“What’s going on, Avery? Are you feeling okay?”
Drew started to reach out his hand towards Avery’s shoulder to get his attention, but paused nervously without actually touching him. After a brief hesitation, he went ahead and placed his hand on Avery’s shoulder.
Avery’s eyes flew open and squinted slightly as if irritated.
“Leave me alone,” he growled. “I’m not feeling well. Something isn’t right.”
“I can see that,” Drew said with a nervous laugh. “It looks like there’s a bomb in your chest that exploding in slow motion.”
Avery looked blankly down at his chest as if he wasn’t aware that it was glowing yet. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it off to the side. He placed his hands on his chest and pressed against it as if trying to contain whatever was inside.
“Argh! Not again!” Avrey screamed out in anguish.
Drew backed up against the overhang of the cliff wall at the sudden outburst of his friend that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Avery pressed his fingers into his chest and tore at the flesh. The skin covering his ribs peeled away as if it were melting silicone.
“What do you mean, ‘Not again’? Drew shouted. “Does this happen often.”
Avery continued pulling at the skin that peeled away from his body all the way up to his face exposing the inside of his body. Drew could see the yellow glow inside Avery’s chest cavity, his throat, open mouth, and eye sockets.
He stood there against the cliff wall. Flabbergasted at the sight taking place before him. To shocked to move.
“What are you doing?” Avery roared at him. “Haven’t you realized I’m dangerous yet. Or do you want to die? Get off the mountain before it’s too late!”
Drew stumbled forward, past the burning man in front of him. He started to run, but tripped over the backpack that Avery had dropped earlier. He scrambled forward and picked himself up.
“Tell my wife, I’m sorry. I really thought I could control it.” Avery shouted after him. “And tell my kids I love them.”
Drew turned around to glance over his shoulder as he ran down the path. He could still see Avery’s glowing figure between the shadowy trunks of the trees around them.
He kept running until it got to dark to see. He had to slow down in the dark as he continued moving by the light of his cell phone. Drew kept going until his cell phone battery died.
Fortunately, he was out of the fog by then and a full moon was out that night. So, he was able to keep moving through the night until he came to a cabin. He managed to get the door open.
Once inside, he pushed furniture up against the door and windows. He managed to sleep for a few hours. As soon as the sun was up, Drew was moving down the trail again. Going down was faster and easier than the climb. He made it back by the end of the day.
He told the forest ranger what had happened. The police were called in. Nobody believed is story of course. They wanted him to take them back up to where he had last seen Avery, but Drew refused to go.
They never did find anything up the there and Drew never went back to look for his friend. Nobody knew anything about Avery or who is his wife and kids might be. Not that Drew tried very hard to find him.
Drew never could get the image of Avery pulling the skin from his chest right off up over his face. What was he?
At times he dreamed of Avery. Sometimes he was an alien from outer space. Other times he was a cyborg whose internal battery had malfunctioned. Other times he was possessed by fiery demons in the fog.
Drew saw a psychiatrist a few times, but it didn’t do much good. He could tell that the man didn’t believe him. The shrink often asked him what kind of drugs he was using before climbing the mountain or what type of mushrooms he had eaten.
For a while, he actually thought he was going crazy. But every once in while he would hear stories of hikers who claimed to see a burning man walking up and down the trails. Others disappeared completely and were never heard from again.
And Drew would wonder, if maybe, just maybe what he had seen on the mountain that day hadn’t been a figment of his imagination and had actually happened.
Maybe someday, he would get the courage to climb back up there and find a glowing Avery living in a cave or swimming in a mountain pool trying to find a way back down to his wife and kids.
The buzz of static electricity filled the small dark room. A soft glow began to fill in shadows in the darkest corners of the cave. The clicking patter of small creatures who dwelt in the shadowy crevices and hidden cracks as they scurried for the safety of darkness intensified briefly. Then all grew still once again. But it was only the calm before the storm.
A loud crack shot out as a blueish-white bolt of electricity burst from the edge of the round opening overhead and connected with the square stone pillar that rose up from the ground. Six more bolts of electricity snapped out of various sides of the portal and connected with the stone. Then seemed to stiffen and solidify for a few brief instances as the form of a young man began to take shape within the light bluish-white mist that surrounded the stone under the pillar.
Ryuu breathed slowly and deeply as he waited for the transmission to complete. His head buzzed as millions of volts of electricity raced up and down his spine and throughout his body to rearrange his atoms. It was a strange feeling for sure, but it wasn’t his first jump. He knew it would pass just as quickly as it had started.
The ending was the easy part as his body came back together. He didn’t enjoy the start of the jump. Ryuu felt uncomfortable as the bolts of electricity began. Ripping the atoms that formed him apart and transferring them to the other end of the portal. Those were brief scary moments as he wondered if he would end up back in one piece on the other side. But it was almost over now.
Ryuu was careful not to open his eyes until the bolts of lighting stopped. But he wiggled his fingers and toes slightly. Careful to remain in the same position he had when he began the jump. Everything seemed to feel normal. When the last bolt of electricity disconnected from his body,
Ryuu opened his eyes slowly and waited for them to adjust to the darkness.
He focused on the red glow of the nanobots that throbbed softly just under his skin around his wrist. They communicated with other nanobots in his system who were analyzing if everything was ok. Upload successful. Transfer 100% Complete. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Ryuu rose slowly to his feet. He raised his arms out to the side in a long slow stretch. Twisted his head from side to side to work out the kinks. He took a deep breath and pushed out his chest. He enjoyed these trips, but it was always good to come home.
The young man pushed himself up and down on the tips of his toes several times. Then Ryuu raised each knee a couple of times and kicked his legs out to warm up and get his blood circulating again. Ryuu raised his arms up over his head in a classic crane kick move as he spun his body around like a ballerina with his raised right leg pointed out. His body seemed to be functioning perfectly and Ryuu felt great.
He shook his arms and raised them in front of him like a boxer. Then he relaxed and looked around. His surroundings looked familiar, however, things were eerily silent. He peered into the shadowy darkness, but there was no one to greet him.
Ryuu glanced up stars shining brightly through the portal overhead. Something seemed off. Stars were different than they normally look from home. Stargazing had been one of his favorite past times growing up. And every time he jumped to a new portal in a different location, it would always take time to study the constellations overhead.
“Shirou!” He called out. “Hello. Is anyone here?” Ryuu didn’t like this. Not having anyone from his team to meet him. At the very least his handler should have been there to debrief him. Or Naomi the assistant who helped get him through the portals and back. He glanced back up at the stars overhead. This definitely wasn’t home.
Suddenly, he remembered that it was Shigatsu Baka. “Haha! Very funny, everybody.” Ryuu yelled out with a slap to his knee. “Today is the first day of April. You almost fooled me.” Shaking his finger in the direction they usually waited for him, Ryuu jumped off the stone pillar that he had been standing on.
But he didn’t feel the tug of gravity pulling him back down to the ground, and his feet didn’t touch the floor. Ryuu looked down in bewilderment. His body hovered there above the dark stones that lined the ground just inches below him.
Ryuu pointed his toe down toward the floor below him, and his toes brushed against a rock below. He kicked at it lightly. It felt solid enough, but he continued to hover there in the shadowy darkness.
He pulled his body down toward his feet in a half-crouch. Then from there managed to push his legs down toward the floor until his feet were on the ground. He took a few sluggish steps forward. Not that it was hard to walk because he didn’t feel any extra pressure or difficulty in walking. It simply felt like he was using more muscles than necessary to move in the direction he wanted to go.
The entrance to the cave was about ten feet away, so he decided to try to cover the distance in two quick leaps. Ryuu bent his knees and tensed his legs for the jump. With a quick push, he pulled his legs up and prepared to land.
But instead of coming down a few feet away as Ryuu had expected, he continued to float forward through the air about a meter off the ground. He pushed a leg down toward the ground but continued to move ahead.
The wall over the entrance loomed quickly ahead, and Ryuu had to throw his head back and bend over backward at the waist to keep from slamming against the sharp gray rocks that formed the walls around him as he continued to float down the tunnel feet first at a vertical angle.
He slowed to a stop and turned to look back at the distance he had covered. Almost 50 feet. Not a bad jump, he thought. The only issue was that he was just floating there.
Ryuu twisted and moved his body around until his feet touched the floor again. Fine, enough jumping for today. It was better just to walk around here. At least until he figured out how to move around this place.
He looked back down at the thin, red lines around his arm. Ryuu pulled up some numbers. Everything looked like it should. Except for one, small detail.
“Schmack!” Ryuu whispered to himself under his breath.
Everything was as it should, except for a few of the numbers at the very end. Someone on his team must have messed up. Or not. Maybe they had intended this to happen.
Latitude and longitude were correct. The time was correct. But he really didn’t know what those last few numbers meant. And his team had never changed them. Someone had speculated that they might indicate other dimensions around them in the same space and time.
If so, Ryuu had no idea where he was or how to contact his team to find a way back home.
Natalie faced the giant standing before her. A twinge of nervousness. She hadn’t expected Mael’s giant to be quite so big. Doash was almost four times taller than herself. It didn’t even have to do anything. It could just step on her like a cockroach or spider and crush her to smithereens. She turned on the chainsaw.
The giant growled in resonance with the sound of the churning motor. It followed suit almost as if keeping in tune with the sound it was hearing. She wondered what it would feel like to be run through with its giant horns
“Great, a musical monster!” she sighed.
The giant lumbered forward taking a step in her direction, close enough that she could see the large triangular tattoos burned into its massive, green forehead. At least it didn’t seem to move very quickly. It hesitated from coming forward but shuffled its feet slowly as if trying to decide what to do with her.
“Mael is dead,” she yelled up at it. “I killed him myself. I don’t want to hurt you. Just go back home where you belong and don’t ever come back to bother us again.”
The giant paused its shuffling and cocked its head to the side as if pondering her words. It looked over at the house it had just finished crushing before devouring the people who had come running out. It looked to the other houses beyond Natalie.
“Hungry!” it finally said. “Mael no give food. Eat.”
“Well, you can’t eat the people here. You have to go find food somewhere else. Go to a giant’s supermarket and buy giant food.”
“Hungry!” the giant growled again and took a step over her to move on to the other houses.
Natalie raced forward toward his left foot that was still planted on the ground. She drove the spinning blade across the flesh on his shins. The blade went in deep. Flesh, blood, and even a bit of bone flew in all directions.
The giant roared and swatted at her, but she had already moved on past it and circled around to the other side. She drove the chainsaw across the flesh above his ankle. Trying to go deep enough to cut through his Achilles tendon. Or at least where she imagined the Achilles tendon might be. She wasn’t a hundred percent sure. It’s not like she had ever fought a giant before. But Natalie was hoping to cut through the tendons that supported its weight so it couldn’t continue to move around and eat people.
The giant screamed and jumped forward before she cut through the tendon though.
“Pain! Hurt! Stop!” it screamed angrily at her as it leaned down toward her.
Natalie backed away and wiped bits of spittle that had rained down on her while it was screaming at her in rage. It was disgusting. Natalie gagged and turned her to the side for a second.
When she turned back, the giant’s left foot was over her head and coming quickly in Natalie’s direction. She leaped out of the way at the last second. Just far enough that the giant foot stomp just missed her. If she hadn’t turned to look or moved any slower, she would have been flattened like a pancake.
Natalie scrambled to her feet as the giant reached down for her. His right fist came down from the direction she was running in. She ducked and attempted to dodge, but was too slow. Its huge fingers were wrapping around her. Natalie jumped to climb over them and got high enough up that its fingers were only wrapped around her waist. Her arms were still free.
She smacked him with the chainsaw, but it had turned off in her fall and didn’t phase the giant at all. Natalie flipped the switch, but the chainsaw choked. So, she groaned and flipped the choke valve on. The angry woman kicked her legs, trying to get free while she attempted to turn the chainsaw back on.
It turned on after her third try. She pulled back on the throttle as hard as she could and drove the spinning chain down across the giant’s fingers. His index finger came clean off as the chain sliced through it and hit his middle finger.
The giant shrieked and let her go immediately. His opening fingers snapped the chainsaw out of her hands a good distance away. He shook her down to the ground hard. It knocked the breath out of her, but she managed to roll the way she had learned in gymnastics class as a child to minimize the damage.
She lay on the ground with the wind knocked out of her, moaning softly until she could roll back onto her feet. Natalie limped over to her fallen weapon of choice. The chain had come off, and she thought it had broken. But fortunately, she was able to slip the chain back into place while backing away from the giant and keeping an eye on it.
The giant wasn’t paying attention to her at the moment though. He was holding his hand and moaning over his chopped-off finger. As soon as he heard the chainsaw start back up though, the giant turned his full attention on her and roared in her direction. The giant threw its finger at her, and it came limping back in her direction with its usual lumbering gait.
But this time, Natalie knew what to do. She dodged the flying finger and danced around in front of him until he had his right foot firmly planted in front of her. Natalie spun around him and dug the chainsaw just above his ankle once again. Angling the blade of the chainsaw until it met with her previous cut. Then pressed in the blade on through until it sliced clean through the tendon that supported the giant’s full weight.
The giant toppled over onto its back and hit the ground hard. Stunned from hitting the back of its head hard. It gave Natalie enough time to race up onto its chest a jab the spinning chainsaw blade into several major arteries on its neck and then its wrists.
Green giant blood spewed everywhere as the giant writhed and twisted before expiring in the town square. The townspeople came out and cheered for Natalie who stood exhausted to the side. Several people brought her towels to clean up with before leading her to the mayor’s house for a giant victory celebration.
“You better not come any closer!” Marcel shouted. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. If you come any closer, I’ll kill you. You’ll never get close enough to use that stupid chainsaw.”
Marcel felt rather silly for having yelled that same line again for the fourth or fifth time tonight. But unlike the previous times, he had always had a path of escape through the flames. Only this time he was completely surrounded by the fire. The only way out was past Natalie.
He nervously took a step back and stepped on a small branch that cracked loudly under his weight. The sound startled him and he jumped forward again.
“Listen, Natalie. I know you liked Mirek, but I was ordered to do what I did. It’s not my call to make. I would have been the one to die if I had disobeyed. You know how it is. You can’t blame me for what happened.”
The young woman said nothing. The fire roared loudly around him. The crackling flames and snapping in the underbrush unnerved him. He looked to the sides for a break in the surrounding inferno for a way to escape. Marcel licked his dry lips and took a deep breath. The heat forced him to cough.
The slobby, old man took another step back. Away from the girl who stood silently on the other side of the ring of fire that surrounded them. The heat burned into his back through his thin, red cotton shirt. Forcing him to take a step forward. He untucked his shirt and pulled it away from his back.
His pants were thicker and protected him better against the heat. He pulled them higher up around his large belly to protect more of his back. They slid back down to their usual spot. So, he pulled them up again and held them in place. Leaning forward slightly to keep the heat from blistering through his skin.
An internal heat welled up inside of him. Anger and rage at being humiliated by this bratty, little lady. She couldn’t treat him like this. Shouldn’t treat him like this. He wouldn’t tolerate it.
The fury boiling up within Marcel gave him a sense of newfound bravery. He took another step forward. Briefly enjoying a sense of relief at stepping away from the fire.
Marcel raised his arm toward Natalie and pointed a chubby finger in her direction. “That is enough there, young lady! I hereby command that you put that chainsaw down and go on home. You’re angry and need to take some time to cool your head. We can discuss this at a later time and I will convince Mael to forgive you for your insolence and insubordination.”
A brief smirk twitched at the corners of her mouth before the hatred and rage flickering in her eyes along with the flames brought the scowl back. Marcel could see the resolve. It was hard to believe that this was the same girl that had joined the group only 3 months ago. Marcel hadn’t expected her to last a week.
Now, she had hunted him down. Trapped him. And was closing on him. After killing everyone who had stood in her way.
Marcel knew there was no escape. He was trapped in this ring of fire that was slowly closing in on him. He felt the heat of the flames inching closer. Crackling loudly in his ears. Smoke burning his eyes.
He fell to his knees to beg for his life. The tears that began to run down his cheeks weren’t from the smoke and flames. It was fear for his life. All that he had fought for was now coming to an end. And he was so close to achieving everything that he ever wanted.
The blubbering man continued to plead for his life as he watched Natalie’s slow, measured steps coming in his direction. The low growl of the throttled chainsaw growing louder as she moved toward him. Scenes from his life flashed before his eyes. Marcel fell back on his elbows as he tried to move away from the edge of the chainsaw.
The grown man screamed like a little girl. He kicked at Natalie’s feet. Moaning as the spinning chain came toward him. He flipped over onto his belly and covered his head with his arms even though he knew it wouldn’t do any good.
He listened but the sound didn’t get any closer or grow any louder. Marcel wondered if he had already been killed, but his mind just hadn’t realized it yet. He held his breath for a second before opening one of his eyes and looking around. The grumpy, old man turned his head till he could see Natalie.
“Get up you big crybaby,” she growled. “Don’t think you’re getting off that easily. You’re gonna take me to Mael.”
Marcel’s heart skipped a beat and he stopped breathing for a split second.
“I’d rather you killed me now,” he sobbed. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. Besides, you’ll never be able to get to him.”
He saw the glint of fierce resolve flash in her eyes once again. “That’s exactly what you said about me getting to you, and look where we are now. I’ll find that monster and kill him myself with my bare hands if I have to. And you’re going to take me to him.”
Tora heard the noise before she saw him. Loud crashing. Shattering glass. Crackling flames. Terrified screams. She rounded the corner and looked past the mounds of destruction that littered the street. Tora paused before pressing into what was left of the large building before her.
The girl could barely see through the smoke and dust that floated down around her. She squinted against the burning in her eyes as she looked around for the beast.
At first, she could only see the hazy light of the sun trying to press its rays through the suspended debris into the interior of the building.
Tora’s eyes slowly adjusted to the scene around her. Her nose began to itch from breathing in so much pollution through the contaminated air. She scrunched up her nose at the smell of burning plastic and pulled her hoodie around to cover her mouth and nose.
It was too late. Tora felt a sneeze coming on. She squinted and pressed her finger under her nose while holding her breath, but it was no use. Her sneeze echoed loudly through the silence in what was left of the building.
Something rustled overhead. Tora glanced up into the shadowy darkness to the floors above and watched a large dark shape falling in her direction.
Hyacinthe landed with a resounding thud in front of Tora. The tentacles flowing from his back cushioned his drop from the building above. Tora took a step back but kept her weapon pointed down so the giant beast wouldn’t take her for a direct threat just yet.
“Stop it, Hya!” she barked out an order as one would to a disobedient puppy. “It’s time to go back home.”
Hya growled. Tora felt the sound reverberate deeply in her chest just below her throat and in the spine at the base of her neck. It still gave her chills when she heard it, which wasn’t often. Hya rarely made any kind of noise. Much less something that loud and menacing.
Tora managed a smile even though the sound unnerved her.
“Calm down, Hya,” she said in a softer tone. “It’s okay. I know how you feel.”
Hya growled again. Then snorted. He crouched down and exhaled furiously.
The girl looked around at the destruction and havoc that Hya had ravaged on the buildings that surrounded them. She could see a few survivors peering out from behind the rubble where they had managed to hide and stay safe during Hya’s rampage. Someone had pulled out a cell phone to film what was going on. Tora needed to deal with them and then get Hya out of here quickly.
“C’mon, Hya. It’s time for dinner. Let’s go on back home.”
The petite girl took a step forward toward the towering figure before her and stretched out a hand. Her light footsteps in the concrete rubble barely making a sound.
Hya hissed loudly and took a step backward. Unlike Tora, his huge foot crunched loudly as it shattered bits of rubble on the ground around him.
“Don’t touch me, child,” he growled. His giant fist balled up and ready to crush her.
Tora sighed and looked around at the destruction he had already caused. She was already in so much trouble. The girl thought about calling for backup, but she didn’t want to have to get anyone else involved. If she could deal with Hya by herself, they might not think she was so incompetent. Even though this wasn’t all technically her fault. Hya had done this to himself. But they wouldn’t see it that way. She would most likely end up becoming their scapegoat for this whole mess.
“So, you’re okay?” she asked. “You know who you are and what you’re doing here?”
Hya growled. “Of course I do. Did you think I’d gone mad or something?”
Tora looked around at the destruction he had caused. She bit her tongue at the sharp retort that was oozing its way out of her.
“You had me worried for a bit. What exactly are you trying to accomplish here?” Tora said instead as she walked over to the man with the phone. He ducked down and covered his head with his arms. Tora yanked the phone out of his hand. Let it drop to the floor and stomped on it. The screen cracked, but she was too small and light to crush it as she had intended.
“Just making a statement,” Hya replied. “So, that they know what’s coming.”
“Well, I think you made your point clear enough,” the girl said.
Tora kicked the phone off to the side and pointed her gun toward it.
“So, what’s the next step in your plan.” The girl asked as she pulled the trigger. She held the trigger longer than necessary. Letting the irritation she felt over this whole situation ooze out through the barrel.
“I don’t know,” Hya admitted. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“Well, you have to think these things through,” Tora snorted. “You can’t just do things impulsively and expect to get the result you wanted. Especially if you don’t even know what you’re trying to accomplish. What do you want out of this?”
Hya shrugged and looked around at the mess he had made. “I guess to make them pay.”
Tora cocked her head to the side and scowled at him.
“Knocking down a few walls isn’t the payback they deserve for what they’ve done to you. All you’ve made yourself a target. They’ll see you as a threat and come after you.”
Hya shrugged and looked down at the floor sheepishly. “I was just so angry at them, Tora.””C’mon,” she said softening her voice. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll take you somewhere safe for now.”
“Thanks, Tora. You’re the friend I can always count on when things get tough. Here, let me give you a ride.”
Hya wrapped her gently with two warm tentacles placing her up on his back as he prepared to leap back up into the smokey darkness overhead.
Nadia walked hurriedly through the thick crowds of early evening. Some leaving work for the day. Others out for an evening stroll or looking for a warm, inviting place to grab a bite to eat on a Friday evening.
She smelled the scent of fresh food wafting from inside the restaurants as doors opened to let eager, ravishing customers inside. Her stomach growled, and Nadia wished she could stop herself. But at the moment, she was in a hurry. She still had one more meeting before she could call it a day. Supper was going to have to wait.
Nadia glanced down at her watch. She was cutting it close, but she could still make it if she picked up her pace. She had wanted to leave earlier, but her boss demanded she turn in some bit of paperwork that he deemed urgent before letting her go for the weekend.
She didn’t know why. It’s not like anyone was going to look at until Monday anyway. She sighed and glanced down at her watch again to see how many minutes she had left. Nadia hated being late for an appointment. She hated making excuses. If she walked just a little bit faster, she might yet make it on time.
The auburn-haired woman felt a drop of rain hit her shoulder and looked up at the evening sky overhead. She had seen the weather forecast before leaving and come prepared by bringing a small umbrella just in case.
Nadia had thought about using one of her ridesharing apps to catch a ride, but it wasn’t that far away. And besides, at that time of day, it probably would have taken longer for a driver to pick her up than for her to walk to her destination.
She had forgotten about this particular stretch of deserted road though. Nadia had cut through a back alley and come out in a sketchy part of town. Normally, she would have skirted around it. But due to the short amount of time to get where she needed to go, Nadia had decided to risk it.
The rain had picked up. She quickened her pace. Partly due to the rain. Partly due to her soon tardiness. And partly due to being in the wrong part of town after dark. She scanned the area around here. She saw a man up at the corner.
Nadia didn’t know if she should be relieved at the sight of another person, or afraid at the sight of the stranger on the street. But it was too late to turn around now. She couldn’t pick up her pace. Any faster and she would have been running.
The man squinted his eyes when he looked up at her. Nadia glared at him. Daring him to try her. Her hand already on the pepper spray in her pocket. He simply nodded from the dry spot where he sheltered himself from the rain and lifted a cigarette to his lips.
Nadia continued on as fast as she could. Her heart pounding wildly. Kicking herself and vowing that she would never do this to herself again. Never walk around this area after dark. Never let herself get this far behind on her time. Never let her boss push her into working overtime when she had another appointment.
The angry woman started to cross the intersection when she heard the sound of someone sobbing. She turned her head and saw a young boy at the other end of the street.
She didn’t hesitate. Someone else’s safety was more important than hers. Someone else more defenseless than her needed a hand in this sketchy neighborhood. It made her feel like a protector. She no longer felt defenseless or afraid.
Ten years of training and working in social services kicked in. She ran over and squatted down beside him. Holding the umbrella over the young boy’s head, Nadia asked him what his name was and where he was from.
He seemed to be speaking. But Nadia didn’t understand anything he said. It wasn’t English and definitely didn’t sound like her native French language.
“Come on,” Nadia said, as she took his hand and stood up. “Let’s find your mommy and daddy. We’ll get someone to help you.”
They started to walk down the street. Nadia felt warm and fuzzy inside. Helping children like this was why she loved her job even though she hated the paperwork and bureaucracy.
She heard footsteps behind her and turned to see the man whom she had passed earlier walking toward them. He was leering at them. Nadia couldn’t believe that she hadn’t kept an eye out and noticed him coming sooner.
“That’s my son. I’ve been looking for him,” the man growled.
Nadia knew he was lying. She squeezed the boy’s hand more tightly and looked down at him. It was obvious the boy didn’t recognize him.
“What language does he speak?” she asked, pushing the child behind her.
“English, of course,” the man replied.
The woman took a few steps backward, pulling the boy’s arm back behind her. The man lunged forward and pushed her backward with a mean, hard shove. He grabbed at the child’s arm.
As Nadia fell, she twisted her body to catch herself on the ground and lost sight of the man. Most of her weight landed on her left wrist. She screamed in pain. It seemed like she heard a roar and another scream even louder than hers.
When she turned around, the man was gone. The child stood there, licking his lips. The boy smiled at her and picked up the umbrella. It had broken on one side and part of the covering had torn. But she took the tattered umbrella from the child numbly and held it over their heads.
Nadia looked at the ground for some sign of the man. Wondering what had happened to him. It looked like there was blood running off in the puddles and rain. But it was dark. The road was black. And she only hoped that the man had run off of his own accord.
Too scared to defy the child. Too uncertain to leave him there in the rain. They continued walking down the street under the cover of her tattered umbrella.
The humongous, dark figure loomed hideously in the shadows. Mei froze. It was too late. Her hopes of getting in and out of the cave before being spotted were now dashed. She hunkered down in the shadows, hoping she wouldn’t be seen.
But the giant figure took another step in her direction. Mei fought her instinct of turning to run. There was no way she could outrun the small dragons that she was used to seeing fly around the mountains of her home country. Much less a giant one of this size.
She slipped her hand into the soft, leather pouch at her side. The dragon stopped moving and snorted loudly. Its head moving steadily in her direction.
Mei stopped tugging at the object in her pouch. She held her breath.
She watched the soft gleam in the dragon’s eye grow brighter. Then flare to life. A bright, orange glow emanating from deep within its fiery body.
The black dragon opened its humongous mouth and hissed loudly.
“I smell you human. Come out and answer my questions before I torch you alive. What brings you to my cave?”
Mei stood back up to her full height which barely came to the height of the dragon’s claws. It opened its mouth and hissed even more loudly, sending a trail of glowing smoke along the damp, cave floor.
The fiery glow from the dragon’s belly lit up even more of the dark cave. Mei could see greater detail of its body in the orange light. Its giant claws were enormous. It’s large, hard scales were impenetrable, making it almost impossible to kill.
Mei had never heard a single story of anyone ever killing a dragon before. The fact that she would even attempt to do such a thing, seemed to be the epitome of foolishness. She had hoped to find what she needed and leave before being discovered.
The old blacksmith had told her that he found most of his iron here over the past fifty years. And he had claimed that he had never seen a dragon around this particular mountain. She had honestly thought that she could come and go without facing one of these monsters.
But now it was too late. She was here, and the dragon had spotted her. But she wouldn’t go down without a fight. If only it weren’t so big though. Why couldn’t she have been found by a smaller one?
Mei wrapped her hand around the large, solid rock inside her pouch and slid it out behind her right thigh. Away from the dragon’s line of sight.
She didn’t know if the dragon knew what this object could do, but she didn’t want to risk taking the chance that it might recognize what she had.
“What are you doing here?” Mei asked the dragon quietly. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, but I was told that no dragons had been seen in the area for over 50 years.”
“Silly human,” the dragon hissed. “Dragons are never seen unless we choose to be seen. And I have never chosen to be seen by a human until you caught me unaware. And only because I’ve been busy making preparations for the arrival of my young.”
“I apologize honorable Dragon. I will leave and never return.” Mei said and took a step back.
“It’s too late, human. I can’t let you leave now. Besides, you came at just the right time. My young are about to hatch. They’ll be ravenous. You saved me from having to go out and find them something to munch on.”
Fear hit Mei like a lightning bolt. Her heart dropped to her stomach. She instinctively activated the weapon in her hand.
Mei let the Rudruntyne rock drop to the end of the Oskil chain it was attached to. She snapped it up into a quick spin behind her. And before she could pull it around in front of her, the dragon blew out a stream of blazing fire from its mouth.
She felt the heat, but it didn’t hurt. Even from behind her body, the Rudruntyne weapon absorbed the flames before they could harm her. The ground still hissed and burned where orange drool had dripped from the dragon’s fiery mouth.
The giant beast hissed in fear and fury. It tried to get off another stream of fire but came up empty. It stood there with its mouth wide open as if it were about to devour her whole. She felt the wind coming from its breath. But there were no more flames.
Mei didn’t hesitate to finish off the job. She flung the Rudruntyne into its mouth and deep down its throat. The dragon choked and tried to spit it out. It took several tries before the Rudruntyne hit the ground, covered in dragon drool.
But it was too late. The weapon had done its job and absorbed the fire from the dragon’s body. The giant beast lunged away from Mei. Trying to head deeper into the cave. Then it writhed and squirmed. And eventually lay twitching before breathing its last.
Mei gulped and rubbed her eyes. She could barely believe what had just happened. The girl had barely believed the blacksmith when he told her it could protect her from a dragon. But she had no idea just how powerful it was.
She snatched the Rudruntyne up and wiped it down before placing it back in the pouch. She started to leave, but curiosity got the best of her. She wanted to see what dragon eggs looked like.
They weren’t that impressive. They looked like skinny, leathery ostrich eggs. She put the four eggs in her pouch as well. She kicked at the dragon’s corpse as she walked back past it. She wondered what others would have to say about her when they found out she had killed a dragon.
Would they call her a heroine or consider her an enemy for breaking a taboo.