Methven - Day Thirty-Five - Part Four
The memories came flooding back clear and sharp as shards of broken glass.
. . .
At dinner, we were all pretty amped about finally emerging from the mountains. I said I thought we'd made real progress--and that we'd had a pretty easy time of it, all things considered.
Læ agreed, but added, "By far the most difficult part of our journey lies ahead, Mr. Wilde."
. . .
Blandy and I sat atop separate cabin-sized boulders with our backs to the fire, chatting as we let our eyes grow accustomed to the darkness.
"Dude, I am utterly stoked about coming back here with Læ this Winter. Can you, like, feature the skiing? I'll bet the powder is totally killer!"
I pointed out that, without ski lifts, tearing it up was going to entail a lot of work.
"Details, dude. Mere details."
At which point, Carleton interrupted our conversation in his inimitable, nurturing style.
"Put a sock in it, you two. People are trying to sleep. Drew, earn your paycheck."
. . .
I slipped easily into the enhanced sensory state Mantami called Seeing.
At first, my perception extended only a short distance--roughly to the perimeter defined by Læ's all-but-useless Wards. However, merely exerting myself to focus beyond my immediate surroundings dramatically expanded the reach of my "vision".
There was a price for the increased range, of course. I immediately lost the ability to sense the delicate, luminescent webs that micro-organisms formed across otherwise-lifeless objects. Then, as my perception stretched wider and wider, I lost Sight of the humbler of the creepy-crawlies. I could no longer See any distance into the ground, either--my apprehension of the nests and burrows of soil dwellers dwindled until I could only make out the flames of tacht-sized animals, close to the surface--and those faintly. In exchange, though, my abilty to See the higher-order animals above ground extended a good mile in every direction.
I always enjoy Seeing, although it saps my energy pretty quickly. Come morning, I faced what promised to be a long hike to the foot of the mountains and out across the vast Methven plain that stretched before us to the East. But I was still in no hurry to report to Carleton, so I simply sat there on my heels and took in the show around me.
The entire mountainside was alive with a radiant ballet of predators and prey. The constantly swirling patterns of light that made up their dance were endlessly entertaining.
After a while, something entirely new entered my numinous vision.
The difference between animals and men is easy to See. A reasonably intelligent animal--a tacht, for instance--is just a whole lot dimmer beacon than even a fairly stupid human. The creatures of light I Saw approaching from the East were definitely men, and there was nothing new about that.
What got my attention was the color of the energy that radiated from them like poison rays. It was the red of clotting blood--a red so deep and dark that it was almost black. I'd never seen that particular hue before and it took me a long, stupefied moment to realize what it represented.
It was the color of hatred.
. . .
"Carleton, we've got trouble."
"Four human-type guys headed pretty much straight this way--and they don't have good intentions."
"Less than a mile."
"Wake the others. Let's go--we don't have much time."
. . .
We waited there in the dark for our enemies to approach.
It was such a beautiful night. Stars rioted in the sky. Both moons were up--the larger one had recently risen over the vast Methven plain to the East and the smaller was soon to disappear beyond the mountains behind us.
The air was warm, but I shivered in the hint of a breeze. The sweat rivering from beneath my arms smelled rank to me, as I crouched there atop the house-sized rock I'd chosen for my cover.
I kept forgetting to breath.
A month before, when the rat pack attacked us, there had been no time to worry, no time to think. The space between alert and combat was measured in seconds--and not many of them. This was different--altogether different--than that.
This time we had warning minutes in advance. We had time to worry--and time to plan. We had an order of battle and I knew my place in it. And we had a general--Læ--directing us. And we had something else.
We had the Wards. Those goddamned useless Wards.
. . .
I actually could hear our attackers scrambling up the slope toward us when I realized I'd forgotten to load and cock the crossbow I'd been holding in a death grip for the past ten minutes. For a moment, I froze, panicked. Then I very carefully lowered the weapon's stock to the ground, braced it and gently, gently pulled back on the cocking lever.
The quiet snick of the bowstring snapping into place sounded like a cannon shot to me, but the bad guys--whose individual shapes I could clearly make out by then--didn't seem to notice.
My hands were shaking as I reached into my arrow case for a quarrel. I pulled it out and moved to slip it into its cradle..and it slipped from my perspiring fingers and--as I grabbed unsucessfully for it--went skittering, then tumbling, then clattering down the face of my boulder as I cringed in horror at my own stupidity.
The approaching figures abruptly stopped moving.
One of them barked a word that sounded like "barstool," and something--some shred of intuition--told me to look away.
. . .
A light brighter than the noonday sun flashed across the mountainside.
I kept my head turned to the left and squinted against the glare. Below me, I saw the crouching forms of Carleton, Tong, Blandy and Bruno and the standing figure of Læ--with arms outstretched and hands in furious motion--brightly illuminated in their festive forest green Robin Hood suits.
The light lasted long enough for one good, hard look, then it cut off as suddenly as if a switch had been flipped.
A skipped heartbeat later, some kind of bolt or beam of psychic energy slashed past on my left. I barely caught the fringes of its effect--and that was enough to cause an instant, blinding headache and a shower of bright, twinkling motes like a fireworks display inside my head.
As I blinked away the sparkles, there were three flat cracks--they sounded like rifle shots--and three separate eye-hurtingly-bright pencils of actinic light reached out from our unwelcome visitors toward the clump of boulders that Læ had been using for cover. Where they struck, the rocks smoked and split, stinking and spraying fountains of white-hot chips.
From my vantage, I could see Laelig; lying unconscious behind the rapidly-shrinking boulders as the ravening energy blasted away her cover like a garden hose flushing an ant hill. In mere seconds, she would be fully exposed to their deadly force.
Carleton must have seen the same thing. He stood up from his own hiding place, loosed an arrow at Læ's attackers, then cast his bow aside and charged toward them.
If he meant to distract them from their assault on Læ, he succeeded. All three beams swung away from their attack on Læ to slash at Carleton, literally cutting him to pieces in front of me.
Blandy started toward the smouldering butchery that had been Carleton and one of the purplish lances struck casually sideways and cut him neatly in half.
Blandy's legs collapsed, throwing his torso forward. He landed on his hands, turned over in the scree on one elbow and looked back in shock at the two halves of his body and the three feet of glistening viscera that connected them.
"Blandy, LOOK OUT!"
It was Tong's voice, much too late in warning. A lash of violet energy swung toward him, but wavered and went out, just as it touched him.
He fell backwards, out of my sight.
"Dude. This is so not cool."
I looked back at Blandy, who looked directly, into my eyes. His face displayed both shock and childlike hurt--his outthrust lower lip trembled and he looked like he might cry.
I didn't dare offer him even reassurance for fear of betraying my own position and attracting the attention of the two beam weapons that remained--now once again focused on the few remaining rocks shielding Læ. There was nothing I could do for him. Blandy was already dead. He just hadn't stopped breathing yet.
There was nothing I could do.
I looked away, back toward our attackers.
. . .
I was just in time to see Bruno fling a fist-sized chunk of rock with deadly accuracy at the head of one of the two remaining weaponeers--so fast that the blur of his arm and the soggy thump of the stone's impact against his target's temple seemed almost simultaneous. The gunner went over as if he'd been hit with a Louisville slugger.
What Bruno couldn't see was the big, bald guy with the disk embedded in his forehead who was sitting up, blinking behind the cover of a chest-high rock. One side of Baldie's head was a gory mess. Bruno must have grazed him with an earlier throw--it looked as though the rock had actually torn off his left ear.
I fumbled for a quarrel and awkwardly began fitting it to my still-cocked crossbow. My hands felt like I was wearing mittens--awkward and unfeeling. My heart hammered like a machine gun and it seemed like I hadn't taken a breath in a long, long time. The bald guy was getting to his feet now, still careful not to reveal himself to Bruno.
I heard the muted twang of a Vomisa dart gun and watched the lone surviving gunman start to fall, even as he was slapping at his neck--right where Bill's poisoned dart had caught him.
Bruno paused, with a rock in each fist and no visible target.
The bolt in my sweating hands slipped into its groove atop the crossbow.
The big, bald bad guy straightened up and gestured at Bruno, as if pitching a basketball to him at chest height. A bolt of lightning, crackling with electricity, sprang from between his hands and reached out to embrace Bruno, wrapping him in a cocoon of fire.
There was a baritone twang and six inches of my crossbow bolt stood out of Baldie's chest. He and what was left of Bruno both dropped to the ground at the same time.
I turned back to look at Blandy.
It had only been a few seconds, but death had already caught up with him.
His sightless eyes were still fixed on me, accusingly, as if to say, "This is all your fault. Dude."
I deserved the blame. It was all my fault. If I hadn't warned our assailants by dropping that quarrel, they'd have bumped into Læ's useless, stinking Wards. That would have given us the advantage of complete surprise--at point-blank range--while they were still off-balance from running into an invisible wall.
Instead, I'd alerted them before Læ had even had time to whip up some hocus-pocus for our side and they'd cut us to ribbons as a consequence.
My stupidity had killed Carleton and Blandy--and most likely Bruno and Læ, as well--just as surely as if I'd pulled the trigger myself.
It was all my fault--the whole fiasco.
All my fault.
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)