Read past episodes and catch up on the story here. *** Our hero finds himself alone, unarmed, and hunted. As the traitor Eude and his
Read past episodes and catch up on the story here.
Our hero finds himself alone, unarmed, and hunted.
As the traitor Eude and his Hypogean companions neared the boulder I crouched behind, I edged my way around the farthest end, marking positions by their flashlight beams. It was guesswork, as I caught bits of them silhouetted against the glare. I tried to time it—I’d only have one chance…
Under the sound of a crashing wave, I rushed the man nearest me, spun him, and pushed the barrel of his gun away from me. As I whirled him, I caught hold of the sling with a hand and planted a fist into his kidney.
He went down with a grunt and took me with him. The rocks of the beach dug into my exposed skin. The submachine gun’s sling tangled around his arm.
As a beam flashed over me, I dropped to the ground beside the trooper. Gunfire cracked and his body convulsed with the meaty thunks of the bullets that raked him.
The shots stopped and there came shouts in an indecipherable tongue. In the beam of a dropped flashlight, two figures struggled for a gun. I took the one from the slackened grip of the corpse, made an approximate aim, and pulled the trigger.
One body went down. The other scrambled backward and dove behind the boulder where I’d hidden. I had a feeling for who it was. “Thought you’d get me while I was down, Eude? But you were too incompetent to do the job, and you took out one of your own people. That, and you were stupid enough to grab his gun. Now, you scurry back under the rock you crawled out from.”
Silence met me. I tightened my hand on my gun’s grip.
I strained to hear anything over the sound of the waves as I slowly moved over the rocks to the fallen flashlight. I crouched and fumbled for it as I kept my eyes, and the gun, trained on the boulder. There was a second gun on the ground in the darkness, and I didn’t know where it fell.
My fingertips brushed flashlight and I closed my fist around it. A plan formed in my mind.
I turned the beam slowly away from the boulder as if searching the shore, but I kept the gun trained on it. With a pull of the trigger, two shots ricocheted off the rock. A dark smudge shot out from behind it.
I led the barrel of the gun ahead of it and fired another shot, which sent up a plume of gravel in the flashlight’s beam. I trained it on Eude’s trembling form and smiled. “Vindictive, self-aggrandizing, and spineless. You’re the ideal fanatic.”
His eyes blazed, but he didn’t try anything.
I continued. “If you hope to live, you’ll show me the enemy camp.”
He made his best attempt at a sneer. “You don’t have anyone else to guide you.”
“Then you’ll be dead and I won’t be any worse off than I am now.”
He clenched and unclenched his fists, but then he twitched an affirmative nod.
“Which way?” I gestured with the gun.
He pointed in the direction of the salt marsh.
The sulfurous stink of the swamp practically soaked into my pores. And the uneven ground, where the mud wasn’t trying to root me in place, had me constantly checking my steps. It made the task of keeping Eude in view seem like I was juggling chainsaws, and perhaps it was just as dangerous.
“If you lead me into a trap, I let your brains out for some air.”
He nearly missed a step at that comment.
I grinned to myself.
It seemed like hours, but we finally crested a rise, and below were the lights of a military camp.
He turned. “There you go.”
The question came before I thought about it. “Do they have the empress?”
“Maybe.” He smirked. “What do you plan on doing? Defeat them by yourself? There’ll probably be another patrol here soon. Maybe you can try out against them. Sort of a warm-up.”
“First, I plan on doing this!” I stepped in and brained him over the head with the gun. He dropped and groaned with his hands clamped over his skull. I kicked him until he quit moving. Then I checked his pulse, he wasn’t dead.
With the sharp edge of a stone, I cut strips from his suit and bound him, hand and foot, with sturdy knots. Then I dragged him under some undergrowth.
From cover, I waited for the patrol.
They came, four of them, in the same dark uniforms, and I could pick out some details in the light of the moon. I trembled again with exhaustion. Indeed, I didn’t know how I kept going on. Everything hurt. It felt as if my sinews were fraying, and I would come apart at the joints. Body and spirit, I was only holding on by a few threads.
But that’s all I needed if I was going to rescue Aeliana. Just a little more. I could sleep when I was dead.
I shook off my self-pity like so much dust gathered on my shoulders and turned my eyes to the patrol again. I tried to catch the rhythm of their steps and the course of their path as I edged my way out of cover.
Keeping as low as I could, I followed at a distance but copied their movements to match the sound of their footfalls. And so I followed, with neither plan nor certainties, except the determination to save the woman I loved.
To be continued…