‘A KNIFE FIGHT, A LIGHTNING STRIKE, AND A DIRTBIKE.’
“One, two, three. One, two, three…”
The gentle percussion of falling raindrops accompanies my mantra.
One radiant red ember bobs up and down in the gloom above the gas pumps. I can discern the silhouette of a single rotten rook as the dirty bird titters away, alone on his perch. The cologne of cannabis accompanies a cold breeze.
The back door bursts open with a bang and now a portly watchdog stomps out. He tears off his plastic football helmet and discards it like a piece of garbage. The helmet awkwardly tumbles across the cracked concrete before it comes to a stop in front of a rumbling, grumbling generator. Now the watchdog glances over his shoulder as he heads towards the corner of the gas station’s brick main building. As he opens a chain link fence and melds into the night, his silhouette does not escape my gaze, not even when he slides around the corner, confident he’s given his pals the slip.
The muted flash of orange flame announces the birth of a second red ember. This one smells warm and savory: tobacco. My lips involuntarily pucker at the thought of treasure poised for the taking.
Lightning strikes in the distance, offering momentary assistance to the waning crescent moon. White light tinged with violet washes over my hiding place, revealing only a murky shadow among the rocks to the untrained eye. The flash is quickly accompanied by a foreboding thunderclap: the menacing growl of my lonesome, only friend.
“It’s time to begin the show.” My boots barely touch the ground as I glide through the darkness like a shadow dancing in the depths of the ocean. The watch dog on the corner gradually grows discernable. He’s too worried about being caught by his friends to notice me standing just an arm’s length behind him now.
My knife doesn’t make a sound as it is drawn.
The watchdog is midway through sucking in another mouthful when my hand darts past his head. I do not feel the lit end of his cigarette against my gloved palm as it slams down over his pursed lips like an iron portcullis. The smoldering ember falls into the empty abyss of his windpipe, but the watchdog does not get a chance to cry out.
I rip him backwards by his face onto twelve centimeters of sharp, matte black steel: the chosen instrument for this passage. My knife slides through his ribcage like a skeleton key and I can practically hear his heart squealing through the tip of my knife. As I twist my wrist ever so slightly, I can hear its pitch whinny to a crescendo before he goes limp, lost in death’s embrace.
“Another breathtaking performance.” I can feel a smirk creep onto my lips the way a snake might wind its way along a tree’s outstretched limb.
I free my knife from the fresh cadaver and help my appreciative audience member to a seat against the adjacent wall. Tendrils of smoke ooze out of his parted lips while his dead eyes remain wide, permanently stretched into a state of surprise. Before I stand upright, a quick pat down of his pant pockets reveals a pack of cigarettes, which I pick up.
“Treasure for the taking.”
The rook on the roof continues to chuckle away, oblivious, even as I plant my foot on his fallen companion’s shoulder and test my weight. Satisfied, I step away from the wall for a moment, measuring about three paces.
“One, two, three…” My lungs inflate with air once more, as if to help buoy myself into the air. I spring forward with three steps and scale the wall with my new friend’s assistance before pulling myself up and over the edge of the roof.
I can’t really say for certain what that stoned bastard thought he saw when I floated up onto the roof like a phantasm. Judging by the way he dropped that joint in his lap, I’d guess he thought I was a ghost. Not far from the mark.
Unfortunately for him, neither is my throwing knife. He tries to scream but he doesn’t realize my instrument has nestled itself into the soft spot beneath his sternum. His diaphragm pinned by my knife, he clutches at the pommel, wide-eyed in mostly silent agony, as I casually saunter over to the lawn chair where the rook is perched.
I find myself squinting as a break in the clouds allows a ray of moonlight to reveal my face for a moment. The little rook’s terrified slack jaw is immediately replaced by an accusing scowl.
That doesn’t sit well with me.
“You need a new mask.” My baritone voice is barely a whisper beneath the wind. I can tell by his muddled eyes that he doesn’t understand and so I decide to show him my meaning.
With a casual flick of my wrist, I draw another knife and carve an ear-to-ear grin beneath the rook’s chin. Red rivulets of blood stream down towards the ground, leaking profusely from the rook’s freshly painted smile. I wrench my throwing knife from his solar plexus, freeing his pinned diaphragm and allowing his lungs to flood with blood as the rook gasps hungrily for air. His bubbling gurgles remind me of a fish and so my grin becomes a grimace.
“Shh… it’s rude to disturb a performance.” I chide him with another whisper. He bleeds out without further protest while I wipe my instruments clean using his shirt sleeve. As I do so, I notice the red ember of the rook’s joint on the ground and stoop down, pinching the cherry to extinguish it before pocketing it.
“Another rare treasure for the taking…”
Now my eyes flash towards the back door beneath me as I hear it burst open once more. My instincts tell me to get low and I hit the deck, hugging the roof of the gas pumps to avoid being seen.
“Three…” Staggering steps beat out an oddly timed meter that turns itself around with a heavy thud. Retching ensues along with the wet slap of something splashing against the cracked concrete.
“Three will make four…” Now I listen and wait. A minute passes and the retching diminishes to a series of struggling hacks and dry heaves. I briefly wonder if this one’s a free win.
Another minute passes us by. The hair on the back of my neck is standing at attention now. I am a patient hunter though, and I am certain at least one opportunist will wonder where this dumb drunk got the extra booze from.
“… deal me out… be right back.” An older man’s voice, deep and full of gravel, rises to my attentive ears amidst the competing voices from inside. For a third time, the back door swings open with a bang and I hear a much heavier set of footsteps now. Stronger, more confident steps.
A strong wind catches the flat face of the door and slams it shut.
I pause for a few moments before I risk a peek. Less than two meters away, I spot two more animals: the dumb drunk skunk, doubled over in the dirt, and the opportunistic old owl trying to figure out where the dumb drunk is keeping his extra booze.
The old fart with the thick spectacles is too busy poking around his pal’s pockets to hear the subtle flutter of my black poncho as it sails through the air behind me. I can feel my feet and hips rotate behind and above my head as the wind and the wet rain whips me in the face. As I complete the front flip, I slam both of my boots together, driving the full weight of my body into the old owl’s upper back from above.
I can hear and feel the crunch of his ribcage breaking as he is completely flattened beneath my feet. A bloody gasp erupts from his lips as my weight squeezes the air out of his punctured lungs like he was a makeshift trampoline. The old owl writhes on the ground, but his flooded, collapsed lungs cannot muster enough air to cry out.
My momentum carries me forward into a breakfall roll. Turning and standing upright, I now come to regard the drunk skunk with a calculating gaze as he stares up at me, totally, well, dumbfounded. Before his addled brain can make any sense of the scene, I catch him with a vicious kick to the side of his head, knocking him to his side, then follow up with a few well-placed stomps to his head.
“One, two, three, four…” I murmur quietly. The rapidly approaching indigo thunderclouds voice their approval with a resounding roar. I squint instinctively as another wave of light flashes over me not a moment afterwards. I know I’m running out of time. My unblinking eyes come to a rest on the generator near the door as it continues to rumble away.
“A calculated risk.” I creep towards the door and the generator, knife in hand. The wind continues to whip the rain into my face as the downpour intensifies. Dirty rainwater glides down the weatherproof coating of my poncho sleeve as I reach my outstretched hand towards the generator.
I clench my jaw shut as hard as I can and hold my breath. The naked tip of my index finger touches the positive pole of the generator. In a single instant, electricity courses through my entire body. My teeth grind together as my brain struggles to process a single signal on rapid-fire repeat.
Pain! Pain! Pain? Pain! Pain. Pain? Pain. Pain. Pain? Pain…
Now that signal short circuits. Silence.
My right eye grows hot and itchy. I close my left eye and squint to reveal a crackling blue glow enveloping the generator as well as the wires conducting its power. Squinting harder, I can even see it through the walls, like my own private blueprint of the gas station. As I put together the layout of the building, I become aware of four human silhouettes inside, all seated in a circle.
A card game, most likely.
I pinch the jumper cables and disconnect them from the building’s back-up power supply routing. All the noisy white light vanishes without a trace, plunging the gas station into an impermeable din that not even the frequent flashes of lightning would illuminate through its boarded windows.
Dismayed voices echo out from inside.
Now I concentrate and imagine that hot, itchy feeling in my right eye traveling down the side of my neck, running the length of my arm. The scrape of somebody’s chair sliding backwards against the concrete floor increases my sense of urgency.
”One, two. One, two. One, two…”
Blue lightning lances down my arm and wraps its way around my fingertip and into the cable, instantly traveling into the building’s back-up electrical supply input.
The building’s interior once again becomes bright and the voices inside change their tone. A couple seconds tick by…
Then the electricity discharged from my fingertip overwhelms the circuit and causes a violent power surge. The sound of glass shattering echoes from inside the brick building as all the lightbulbs burst simultaneously. This is immediately accompanied by a confused cacophony of pained cries and angry shouts.
Two gunshots roar back at the competing thunder clouds in rapid succession. I instinctively duck down low. Two heavy thuds follow; these must be the sound of two bodies hitting the concrete. I hear the latch of a breach open: a double barrel shotgun.
It doesn’t shut again. Cold, hard smacks echo out inside now: fists on flesh, presumably a struggle over the weapon. The mechanical click of the latch closing shut followed immediately by another blast from the shotgun. A third thud. Quick footsteps towards my location outside the back door.
I press my back to the wall. Before the footsteps can reach the door, a startled cry; the owner of said footsteps seems to tumble to the floor and something thick, presumably his skull, crashes against the metal door with a reverberating clang. The door’s latch prevents it from opening and I presume the crack that follows that he probably broke his neck.
Only the sound of the downpour around me and the steady rhythm of rolling thunder fills my ears. I stand and turn towards the wall, squinting through my right eye once more. They’re fading, but I can still count four motionless blue silhouettes lying on the ground. True to my prediction, the one closest to me lies with its head slumped up against the door, its neck cocked at an unnatural angle.
I’d like to let out a deep sigh of relief, but a pillar of lightning laces the ground across the street from the building. The clap of thunder is immediate and deafening. I know it’s time to go claim my prize inside and get out of here while I still can. Quick, light footsteps carry me around towards the front of the building.
Less than two minutes later, I find myself exploding towards the glaring white light pouring out from the bright LED headlamp of my brand-new treasure: a fully operational dirt bike. An incredibly rare treasure, indeed, and with a full tank of fuel and spare tanks to boot.
As I speed down the cracked pavement of the broken road, I chance a quick glance back there, over my shoulder. Sure enough, I can see that telltale indigo tinge up high in the clouds behind me. As I swing my gaze forward towards the road before me, I swear that I can see a massive dark shadow for a moment, like the sort belonging to some mythical bird of prey hovering high overhead.
“Now, now, Trent… it’s only your imagination.” The voice I hear inside my head this time does not sound like my own. I rip the accelerator and speed off into the night.
‘A HOME WITH ONLY WINDOWS’
I ride. I ride until I can’t feel my tender toes hidden inside my beaten boots – they’re doing little to ward against the unwavering winds whipping my hair around my face. I ride until the huge shock of adrenaline gradually erodes away, like some imaginary cadaver dragged behind me by a sturdy length of chain, grating against the dirt, the rocks, and the broken patches of pavement here and there. I rode until I could see shocks of sunlight streak across the sky, radiating from a single focal point behind distant peaks. I ride until I see the dawn sun crest the horizon and with it, bring a new day with new challenges.
My ride ends in a dim alleyway that the sun’s rays have not yet reached. I remove the key from the dirt bike’s ignition and proceed to open the door to the adjacent garage. While the bay doors to the garage are, certainly, locked shut from the outside, the side door here was left open. Fortunately for me, this bike will walk its way inside without a problem where nobody will be the wiser to it.
Yes, this will do. I tip the bike over onto its side, gently, and pull a dusty blue tarp up and over the bike, then scatter a few empty cans of paint and some other garbage around to make it look natural. Perfect. Nobody will see it. This is just another bombed out building on the outskirts of another ruined city. Not atypical for this world we live in.
Satisfied, I leave the building and shut the door behind me. I’m too tired to trot after riding for hours and so my tempo is not quite as lively as it normally is, but it is still spritely enough. After all, I know what is waiting for me – a clean, made bed to fall asleep on. I glance over my shoulder for a moment. Sure, I can still see the indigo thunderheads, but they’re now distant and hardly threatening. I’ll be able to get real sleep tonight. Finally. All the murder was worth it.
After a quick stroll, I arrive at an old apartment building a couple blocks away. I do not see or hear a single creature on my way there – and this is not unusual. Not here, close to my home, that is. I do not bother to walk to the front door of the four-story building. After all, there is no real way up to the top floor anymore. I’ve trapped the first two floors of the building and destroyed the stairwells. You aren’t getting up there unless you know the right way to approach it. Well, that or you’re impervious to tripwire shotgun traps.
Fortunately, I know the right way to approach it. After all, this is my home. I continue walking past the front entrance and around the outside, towards the adjacent brick building. Turning on my heel and rounding the corner, I spot my objective: an old fire escape ladder with several missing rungs. No problem. I simply muscle my way up past the missing rungs, as I’m accustomed to. I’m wearing gloves and so I don’t have to worry about the rusty iron too much.
Before long, I’m counting paces from the edge of the roof. One, two, three, four, five. Yes, that should be enough. I take a deep breath, steel myself, and spring forward to cross the distance in five bounds. After the fifth bound, I hurl myself across the chasm between the two buildings. I let momentum and gravity carry me into a graceful front roll as I pass through the open fourth floor window and land in my home, an old apartment that I’d appropriated and blockaded off.
Dark and sparse, just as it should be to avoid attracting any unwanted attention. Nothing unusual here. Nothing worth checking out. I glance over at the cupboards briefly, thinking to eat, but my bed looks too attractive at this point. I saunter over, spin on my heel once more, and allow myself to sink into the bed. I don’t even bother to burrow under the covers, but I manage to toe off my boots and kick them onto the ground.
Sleep comes for me now and with what to follow in its wake?
‘A PARTY BEFORE TEA’
Where am I, exactly? I look around with misty eyes and find myself in a forgotten train yard where the carts have rusted in place, unused for decades. Three men clad in the usual scavenger uniform: old athletic equipment, improvised kilts and vests made of pans and pieces of road signs picked up from the side of the old highways. Their lone prey: a dancing phantom draped in garbs of cloud gray.
I hear the crash of metal on metal and the sound is sharp and somehow refractive. A magnetic pull draws me closer to the conflict; there is a distinct rhythm within the sounds of strife. Now I find myself crouched down, hastily skirting along the length of a line of carts, sticking to the shadows whenever possible. Everywhere around me hangs a pervasive haze. Then, a sudden bellow, deep and guttural, followed by a weighty thud. Pause.
It sounds like one of my subordinates is wounded. I don’t feel much concern for him. He’s breaking an oath that he swore to me. All three of them are. This is one of my only rules: no preying upon women or children. Call me whatever you want, my reasons are my own. No women or children, at least so long as they don’t try to kill you first. I recognize there are reversals to every rule, but I also know these three animals well enough; just like before, my subordinates came here to quench their thirst.
There is no damsel in distress here, though. I peak under one of the carts and confirm that my ears did not lie to me: I spot one of my three subordinates, Gozz, now lying in the dirt, bleeding, and billowing clouds of crimson from a clean cut on his inner thigh. I pause in place, watching for a moment as he tries to drag himself away from the others. His strength fails. Just as he is about to expire, he looks up and spots me. When his eyes meet mine, my glare says it all: I have no remorse for those who choose to live like animals. Then he passes out in the dirt, his eyes still wide and pleading.
Unmoved, I crouch in place, scanning past the fresh corpse. I’m looking at the beautiful phantom and her swirling robes, watching as the occasional shaft of sunlight glints off of her blade or the sparkling sky accents on her robes. Slice. Her blade, evidently a genuine katana, sings through the air before finding the veins on the underside of Meeke’s forearm. I watch from beside the fight as my second subordinate’s overhand swing is methodically countered and his hand, now incapable of holding onto his weapon, lets his makeshift mace fall to the ground with a thud. Quickly descending into a state of blind pain and panic, Meeke grabs at his fresh wound with one hand, tunnel vision fixed on the blood red mist pluming from his leaking wrist. Just a moment after, the little phantom’s follow-up stroke takes his neck. Fwoosh. Another beautiful, precise cut leads to a sangria-colored fountain of Meeke’s blood as his head topples to the ground.
“She’s really good!” I think to myself. My lips part and I exhale softly. Now bewitched, I have no remorse either of the deceased and so I continue to make my way closer now, using the length of the carts for concealment. One underling remains, Necke, and he is the largest of the three by far. He towers over the little phantom now as they square up. She seems to hesitate. I don’t know why. She can’t see me, can she? For a moment, I catch a glimpse of her gaze. Her eyes are ethereal; two identical white canvases, each dotted with a single pearlescent opal radiating neon blue luminescence. Those eyes are unlike any eyes I’ve ever seen and they are certainly eyes that I will never forget; to this day, they still haunt my sleep.
“She sees me.” I realize as her eyes widen once they meet my own. Necke takes advantage of her distraction and takes the initiative. She’s caught off guard now and her rhythm is stuttered, but she is still able to deflect a two-handed swing from Necke’s spiked baseball bat. My body starts to move on its own: my boots, as if lifted by little ghostly wings, carry me soundlessly towards Necke and the dancing phantom. My right hand drops to my hip and I pull one of the straight knives from its sheath on my belt.
“Don’t move.” My last thought before I step into a throw, whipping the knife through the air with as much focus and muscle as I can muster. I squint, my eyes locked on target, and time seems to slow down. The bayonet sails through time and space as Necke pivots, recovering his nail bat to swing again. He is interrupted as the weighty bayonet manages to wedge itself deep into his shoulder blade. Now it is Necke’s turn to howl in pain. He still manages to swing, but without the aid of his strong-side arm, it’s just a feeble swipe.
The phantom makes good use of this opportunity by ducking down, well below the groping swipe, and hacking through both of Necke’s ankles with her katana. Necke bellows louder still as he begins his fall, but at the last second, he manages to catch himself using the baseball bat as a crutch. With both of his hands on the handle of the bat, he is helpless and unable to stop the little phantom’s final cut as it saws through his neck, immediately stifling his death wail. As Necke’s last moments of life pass him by, he finally falls to his knees, gurgling a moment before collapsing dead in the dirt. Now there is no obstruction between me and the little phantom’s murderous stare. For a second, it feels as if the ground is pitching beneath me, like I’m balancing on a raft in the ocean.
“Tell me your name.” She doesn’t seem to notice anything unusual as she speaks. Her words fall upon me like heavy, wet snowflakes, carried aloft by a full and mellifluous voice, airy, perhaps a soprano, with highs like wind chimes and sultry bass notes all rolled into one delicious auditory sensation for my ears to enjoy. I can’t help but feel obliged to answer her and I find my eyes cannot leave hers once they lock. She tosses her head to the side, clearing a stray bang from her eye, keeping both hands on her sword’s handle. Her hair is just as striking as her eyes and even matches, somehow; tousled, shock white hair running down to her shoulders with the occasional cornflower blue highlights streaking the length of her locks.
“My name is Trent. What’s yours?” I hold my hands up, palms exposed: the universal gesture of surrender. I stand square, exposing my belly to her and remain motionless, waiting. She seems to eye me up and for a second, I feel a wave of paranoia wash over me, almost like that feeling you get when you know you are being watched but you don’t know from where. The little phantom’s eyes flicker like soft blue candle flames. I start to take a better look. Her face is beyond fair; slender eyes, and her skin, a deep tawny, is smooth, unmarred by age, and dotted with the occasional walnut freckle. Without realizing it, my gaze dips lower and I find myself looking at her lips: soft and full, mesmerizing me with each movement that was to follow.
“I am Seles.” She speaks again with that sirensong voice. I wish I could coax more than a few words at a time from her. Who is she, or better yet, what is she? Is this a human being standing in front of me? Is she like me, maybe? Where did she come from? All of these questions and more rattle through my mind as her silhouette seems to bleed into the surroundings for just a second. I find that I am still staring at her lips so I notice her playful smirk forming right away.
“I’m up here.” I can feel my cheeks tinge in embarrassment as I meet her eyes once again. She’s still got that playful smirk on her face as she speaks once more.
“You’re wondering if I’m human? I’ll take that as a compliment.” The pitch and dynamic of the siren’s bewitching song trail off as she steps towards me. Her words seem to echo in my head, registering once, and then repeating again a moment later, softer, and then again, softer still.
“Wait, did she just read my mind?” I think she did. She moves forward one step. I don’t notice her movie. Now, two steps. I’m within her range and the tip of her sword hovers in front of my eyes, in line with the bridge of my nose. I force myself to keep breathing and stay calm. Her smirk grows wider still and for a moment, she appears sinister. I gulp, thinking maybe I’ve overstepped here.
“Your low-life lackies ruined my shoes and my clothes, you know. I know why you followed them, too, but that still doesn’t make us even. Blood for blood.” I can’t tear my stare away and her voice continues to reverberate throughout my consciousness, drowning out any other sounds as the sweet songbird’s words echo and crash into one another like velvet waves breaking upon my earlobes. I feel dizzy for a second as the earth seems to tilt beneath me again. This must be a magic spell.
“Hold still…” She says with what I detect as a teasing, feigned innocence. As soon as she finishes her command, I can feel the cold edge of her katana bite into my cheek, severing the busy blood vessels there and letting them leak through. I wince but I do not make a sound, nor do I move a muscle. After a several quiet breaths, the little phantom lowers her blade, removing one hand from its pommel and slowly reaching up to touch my face. I wince again as I feel her fingers push apart the flesh.
Her touch is cool and contrasts the searing heat of the kiss left by her katana. She coats her fingers in red ink and then proceeds to smear it around my cheek, over my chin, my nose, my forehead, eventually covering my face. I scarcely dared to breath, much less flinch. Once she is done, she steps even closer and reaches up high, standing on her tip toes to streak my own hair, top to bottom, with a few quick swipes of her hand. Seemingly satisfied, she steps back and looks up at my face. Her smirk seems a little less cold now and I’d dare to call it a satisfied grin.
“You are mine now, Trent.” These are the last words I can remember before I wake from my dream, roused by my wristwatch’s shrill chirping, a sharp contrast to the mysterious songbird of my dreams. I sit up in my bed, looking around. It’s still dark out, but the sun is about to rise. I swing my legs off the side of my bed now and insert them into my hiking boots, one foot at a time, and then proceed to lace them up extra tight.
After all, I have a lot of ground to cover today.
‘A MAN AND A PLAN’
The first step towards getting anything done is coming up with a plan. The most important part of any plan is the goal. So, what is it that I want? Is it simply to survive in this shithole, alone, until I finally slip up and get myself killed? No, I’ve had enough of that. That’s not a life: that’s waiting to die. I want to at least live a little bit before I die.
I also want to see her again, at least once. Miss You-know-who. The little phantom. Some know her as the Queen of Dreams. Others know her as the Siren of the Sunken Shore. I simply know her as Seles. You know what I noticed about her name? If you spell it backwards, it is still the same: Seles. It suits her. After all, she’s always so quick to tell you what’s on her mind. She’s usually just as quick to tell you what’s on yours, too.
Time to attend to the details. I need to make myself presentable. That means finding someplace to bath and wash my clothes. Should have enough water in the rain catchers to handle that. What else? Right, I should visit Izya’s place and see if I can trade for a quick trim and a clean shave. That shouldn’t be too hard if she’s in a good mood. If not, I may end up getting cut. A considerable risk, sure, but so is looking like shit.
What else? I’ve got the dirt bike now. Easy transportation. There are plenty of places to siphon fuel around here too. It does get pretty fucking cold riding that bike at night though. I should go for a walk around the ruins and see if I can find some heavy coats since we’ll be on the road for a long time. Maybe Ruina will inspect that bike for me. Don’t want it crapping out and leaving us stranded. On that note, I should probably bring a good present for Ruina, just in case she’s still mad at me.
What next? Oh, right. Medicine. Surgery. All the forte of my friend Dr. K. She’s the first person I see any time I get stabbed or shot. Yes, it happens more often than you might think. She can also take care of animals, too; Dr. K has a knack for fixing all kinds of broken things. She also likes to keep her company limited to the furry four-limbed variety and so I don’t think she’ll be keen to roam the world with us. With any luck, she will agree to put together a care package for the road.
Okay. That’s the plan: first, scavenge the ruins, then I’ll make my rounds.
Then I’ll see Seles.
Now it’s on me to make the plan happen.
‘A PILE OF DEAD RATS AND THE HUMAN MOUSETRAP’
One, two, one, two, one, two…!
“How long have I been here?” My thoughts wander for a moment. No. Don’t break the flow. I need to keep moving: if I stand still, they will surround me.
Footsteps closing in behind me now. One pair is near, the others lag behind by more than a few seconds – that’s long enough. Adrenaline seems to bind the hands of time as I drop my shoulder and tuck into a low roll. My pursuer can’t slam the brakes on in time. He tries to skip a step and to hop over me. When he does, my knife lashes out like a whip and I can feel its razor edge tear through his groin from below. A startled yelp preludes a crash followed by horrible wailing.
I’m already up and running again before I can check my handiwork. Barely lost a step against my other pursuers, from the sound of it. They’re still after me though. The Covetous. Fortunately for me, this museum is massive and full of dark corners, catwalks, and balconies. If not for that, I might be dead already.
“One less rat!” I look over my shoulder as I shout back to my pursuers. When I do, I see one of them plant his feet and raise his pipe shotgun. Shit. I swerve suddenly and not a second later I hear the crack of a lead slug rip the air where my head had just been. Time to disappear again.
“Get out of the fuckin’ way!” I can hear him berating his comrades so that he can get a clear shot. No, I don’t think so. I round a corner suddenly to break his line of sight. There are walkways above that are still adorned with ancient, rotting cloth tapestries. Excellent interior decoration idea. I jump, kick my way up the wall to the tapestry and grab it. It barely supports my weight as I use it to quickly scale the wall and ascend to the second level.
Crack! Just as I clear the railing and disappear from sight, another slug flies by me and ricochets off of the stone wall.
“Who taught you rats how to shoot?” My voice drifts down towards them, accompanied by my mocking laughter. I need that one dead. His shotgun is dangerous, even if it is just a steel pipe rigged up to a piece of wood and a few scrap bits. Crouched low and out of sight now, I quickly make my way across the walkway and create some more distance between myself and my pursuers.
“Split up and find that fucker!” I recognize the man with the shotgun’s voice again. He’s the leader. That means he’s probably the only one with a gun, too. Well, you know what they say… strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter. I force myself to take deep, full breaths and slow down my heart’s thunderous percussion.
“How long until you slip up, Trent?” I feel the hair on my forearms quiver with goosebumps as the voice inside my head takes this break in the action as an opportunity to taunt me. The shadows dance across the ground in front of me again. I look up and see a ceiling above me. Great. I vigorously shake my head to dispel the specter. Focus! You need to survive this. You have to see Seles again.
“It’s not time for me to die yet.” I murmur. Just like that, the doubt and hesitation fade away like a morning mist melting in a midday sun. My vision sharpens. My knuckles crack as I try to crush the steel handle of my hunting knife in my palm. I can feel the electricity starting to crackle and course through me now. That’s right. It’s not time for me to die just yet, not without speaking to her one more time.
Back to business. The man with the shotgun is, predictably, surrounding himself with cannon fodder now. I don’t need to peek over the balcony to know what they’re doing because I can hear the pairs of cautious footsteps beneath me.
“That’s right. Two at a time so your buddy can watch your back for the boogeyman…” I think to myself as I smirk. Predictable behavior. I continue to crouch in a dark corner on the second floor, listening, waiting for them to spread out more. After all, I’ll take the odds when it’s only two against one. Looking up, something interesting catches my eye; all along the second floor, between the balconies, there are steel cables. Some of them still suspend strange, foreign objects and structures in the air above my pursuers on the first floor. That could be helpful.
I continue to work my way along the walkway, staying low and out of sight. My pursuers have spread out now, but I’ve lost track of where the leader is. Another quick scan of my surroundings reveals a nearby staircase. More cautious footsteps now, echoing up the corridor. My lips part slightly and I force myself to keep breathing deep even as the adrenaline continues to flood my system.
The first pursuer steps up onto the landing. Silence. He doesn’t see me crouching behind the pillar adjacent to the landing. The trudge of quiet footsteps continues as he begins moving in the opposite direction from my hiding place. I hear the second set of footsteps clear the landing and continue off in the same direction.
One, two, three, one, two, three…
Heel to toe, heel to toe, gradually rolling my weight across my foot with each step to remain quiet as I creep up behind the two. They’re close now. Crack. I inadvertently step on a piece of broken glass.The man in back snaps around and turns to face me. Too slow: I’ve already blasted my knife through his oily, black beard and into his throat. His eyes bulge in shock and horror as I raise my knee and snap my leg into a front kick. The weight behind my boot is enough to send him staggering backwards into his confused partner. I’m already following up, charging at the tangled duo.
The survivor stumbles forward as his partner slides off of him and tumbles to the ground, clutching at the hole in his windpipe. The one still standing turns towards me and swings with a steel pipe as he does so; I lean back just far enough to avoid it and I can feel his swing push the air past my nose. As he recovers, I rip one of my knives across the back of his arm, tearing through the muscles. He howls and tries to swing with his free hand. I raise my left hand to block the haymaker, step inside to reduce its power, and drive my knife through his solar plexus with my full weight behind it. He gasps as I wrench the knife free and then he doubles over. I grab him by his mop of unruly blonde hair to hold his head down with one hand. A quick flourish to re-grip and now I’ve slammed my knife down into the back of his neck, through his spine.
“Two more dead rats…” I call out in a mocking, sing-song voice as I skip over to the one that I stabbed in the throat and finish him with a brutal round kick that connects squarely with the tip of his chin. Crack. Silence again. Knowing damn well not to stick around in the same spot, I duck around another corner and distance myself from the scene. How many have I killed already? I can’t remember. I had more important things to think about anyways, like how to kill the rest of them. How many are left? I steal a glance at my wristwatch next – and then I realize I do not have much longer to play around here. Shit. Focus. Don’t break the flow.
“He’s over there!” I hear a distant voice call out. I turn my head and see the man with the shotgun clear the landing of the second set of stairs. He levels the shotgun in my direction and I don’t think, I just react, planting one foot on the railing and launching myself off of it towards one of the artifacts suspended by steel cables: an ancient airplane, something Moria had often spoke of. Crack. Another slug rips the air where I’d just been standing a second ago. Thud. I land squarely on the center of the plane’s wings and throw my hands out into the air to steady myself as it sways under the impact. The steel cables supporting the sculpture groan but I ignore it as I make my way across it with quick, careful steps.
“Don’t let that fucker get away!” I can hear the leader’s voice getting louder now. He’s trying to get a better shot. I look down below me for a second. Three have gathered below me, looking up at my perch like hungry sharks eyeing a fresh slaughter. I’m already two steps ahead of them though. I take a deep breath and harness the lightning coursing through my veins. My right eye begins to crackle and itch as I drop into a crouch, my legs coiling like powerful springs ready to explode. A burning blue silhouette encapsulates the man with the shotgun as he raises it towards me in slow motion.
Nothing escapes my eye now. I can see the electrical impulse travel from his brain down to his trigger finger. Right before it reaches its destination, I explode up and off of the suspended airplane and into a soaring backflip. He fires and his slug ends up blasting off the tip of the airplane’s wing, where one of the steel cables had been attached. A deafening groan fills the museum hall as the old airplane, no longer balanced, careens sideways, straining the remaining connections. Pop. Another connection point comes loose, followed by another, and then the entire plane ends up slamming to the ground with a deafening crash. I hear a pair of startled screams as at least one of the men are crushed beneath the massive artifact. The impact of the plane slamming against the ground kicks up all of the dust and soot that had gathered in the museum over time and fills the hall with a cloud of dirt and deafening reverberations.
My poncho flutters around me as I complete my flip and begin to fall towards the ground. I twist my torso, reaching back with my hand to grab onto another one of the rotting cloth tapestries hanging from the balcony. My fingers close around the fabric and I squeeze, trying to break my fall. The cloth begins to tear almost immediately, but it’s still enough to slow my fall to a manageable pace. As I approach the ground, I stomp my feet to absorb the impact and allow the momentum to carry me forward into another roll. Now I find myself on the first floor once more, concealed within the cloud of dust that the impromptu plane crash had kicked up.
No time to spare. I start to make my way towards the stairs, before I can do so, a hand grabs my shoulder and spins me around. Thud. A fist slams into my jaw, but I turn my chin with it to break the impact. My head snaps back and I can feel the fury in my eyes. He goes to swing again, but I grab the inside of his bicep to stop the swing, gripping his jacket sleeve like my dirt bike’s clutch. Taking his trapped arm with me, I pivot to the side and drop to my knees, pulling him over the top of me and throwing him through the air head over heels. His back slaps against the tiled floor and as soon as it does, my other hand is ready to plunge my knife into his eye socket. Another dead rat. I slink away into the shadows once more before his comrades can spot me.
The dust from the crash settles, the reverberations echo away, and silence returns to the museum. My right eye is still itching, crackling with electricity, and a quick scan reveals two fading silhouettes beneath the crashed plane. Two more dead rats. There can’t be that many left. I had counted maybe a dozen at the start. I look down at my wristwatch again and see that the timer I set continuing to tick down, unabated. Two of the electric blue silhouettes peer cautiously over the railing and down at the crashed plane. I don’t see any others remaining. Time to finish this.
One, two, three… one, two, three…
I slip through the first floor of the museum without making a sound and then I swiftly ascend the staircase. The hair on the back of my neck is standing at attention now – that means the storm is going to be here soon. I have to finish this and get out of here. My remaining pursuers are scared now; I can tell because they are sticking to each other like glue, moving very slowly, constantly glancing around. Pressing my back to the wall still, I pause to think how I can separate them, or at least close the distance and kill the leader before he can blast me with his shotgun.
Then it dawns on me. I clear my throat.
“He’s over here!” I call from the stairwell, cupping my hands over my mouth to try and disguise my voice. It seems to work. I can hear the footsteps coming towards me now. Closer still. Three seconds, two seconds…
“I don’t see—” The first man who rounds the corner starts to respond, but he’s suddenly interrupted as my bayonet pierces the soft flesh beneath his jaw and drives upwards into the roof of his mouth. He looks at me with big, bulging eyes, like a minnow on a fishhook. I’m not done with him though. Using my knife to control his head, I turn him and put him between me and the leader. BOOM! The crude, improvised shotgun’s rapport is deafening as it is fired at point blank range. The slug thuds into a scrap armor backplate, pierces it, and burrows through the man’s chest before it is stopped by his chest plate. I’m already pumping my legs to drive him forward, towards the man with the shotgun. One step, two steps, and then on the third, I shove my human shield into the leader.
“Motherfucker!” He screams at me in rage, realizing he’s just killed one of his own men. He bodies the wounded man away to get a clear shot on me. Click goes the breach of the shotgun as it opens and he hastily stuffs another shell inside the barrel. As he snaps the breach shut and raises the shotgun to fire, the tip of my boot finds the bottom of the barrel as I bend backwards and kick it out of his grip. The shotgun sails high overhead, spinning circles in the air. In one practiced movement, I draw one of my other knives with my left hand and tear it across his throat before he can react. Hot blood sprays my face and I squint to see. The shotgun gradually descends and lands in my waiting right hand.
“You lose, pig.” I smirk before I pull the trigger on the shotgun. The slug takes the man’s head clean off of his shoulders from this range and a geyser of crimson erupts from his torn neck. Strangely, he manages to stand on his feet for a few more seconds before he drops to his knees, then slumps over backwards. An awkward looking corpse, to be sure. I wipe the blood off of my face with my poncho and collect my knife. Deep breaths, Trent. Deep breaths. You did it. My shoulders slump as the collective exhaustion from this encounter hits me all at once.
I begin to make my way towards the exit now. As I do, something interesting catches my eye. A porcelain figurine of sorts, life-sized, illuminated by a single ray of sunlight beaming through the window above. The statue is wearing a long coat of sorts, very heavy and made out of thick leather. I can tell that this coat is much older than I am, but it seems to be in good condition. More interesting than that is the short blade belted to the statue’s side. I grasp the handle and draw the blade. My ears are quick to appreciate the bell-like chime the blade makes as it is removed from its sheath. I look it over for a minute – the blade looks to be about twenty inches long, much longer than any of my knives, but still manageable. I swipe the blade through the air a few times to test it. I like this.
A few minutes later, I am back on my dirt bike and speeding through the city streets, careful to swerve around the many breaks and obstructions littering the old roads. My leather duster flaps behind me as my new blade rests in its sheath by my side. I glance over my shoulder and see the telltale indigo hue of my lonesome only friend gradually growing more and more distant. I’ll need to take a bit of a roundabout route to get to my next stop, and so I rip the accelerator and speed off towards the setting sun.
Written by Jungle.
(C) 2021, all rights reserved.