Authors: Scott Toney
The man opened his mouth to shout but could not get out noise before Julieth connected with him, punching the man in the face with her fist and then using the feathers of her wings to muffle his mouth as the two careened to the ground.
As she grappled to tear the sword from his hand it flew out from his grasp into the darkness. Julieth held him pinned, but she could not defeat him without a weapon. Even in human form he was too strong.
With a thrust he knocked her off of him, his eyes deep with anger. “A prisoner has escaped!” he shouted before stammering toward the sword.
Julieth pulsed her wings, lifted off the ground and gave a hard kick into his chest that sent him to the darkness near where the sword lay. It was grotesque to watch his form change, his muscles moving and morphing like liquid into the beast’s form. Veins covered its flesh, pulsing as it gained footing and lunged toward the weapon. Without a moment’s thought Julieth dove toward the blade, hefting it and driving it deep through the beast’s chest, blood spurting out of the wounded cavity.
The thing tumbled, clasping onto one of Julieth’s wings and pulling her toward it with its claws. Its fanged maw snapped at her as she struggled, eventually finding the hilt of the sword, pulling the blade from the beast’s chest and then driving it into its skull.
The beast convulsed beneath her, blood spewing from its wounds as it quickly died.
Julieth withdrew the sword from its skull, hefting it as she stood and looking around for other beasts or men. She saw no one, only the shadow of Bayne’s form huddling in the darkness of the cavern passage. With a flap of her wings she moved quickly to him, placing her free hand on his back. “It is through. I have taken his weapon,” she spoke lowly.
Bayne did not reply, did not move.
“Can you hear me?” she asked him, jostling him with her hand in an attempt to get through to him. “Bayne, are you alright?”
After another shake the boy looked up at her. “What?” he asked. “Is it done?” His pupils were dilated and slowly returned to normal size.
“It is through,” she repeated herself, realizing he had not heard her the first time. “The man-beast is dead.”
“I must have shut down my mind so that I could not feel fear.” Bayne slowly stood.
“We need to find an entrance to the temple,” Julieth whispered. “That is where Vrax went and that is where we should find Riad, Ivanus and Andral.”
“Should I stay here?” Bayne asked. “Or somewhere close by? I worry that my fear will destroy us.”
“We can’t chance that. You need to control your emotions somehow, because if you are discovered here the same thing could happen, and it is possible that we will not be able to leave the temple in the same place we enter it.”
Bayne followed her silently as both he and Julieth approached the massive temple. Juieth stood for a moment in the sunlight, letting the sun charge her body with energy.
I will need this if we are to be away from it again,
she thought. She looked up, seeing how the temple rose in a spire above, a shell of earth near its peak where it actually spliced into the sun and the world above ground. She wondered why no other guards met them in attack.
Are they so sure that they are impenetrable?
As they walked around the temple’s base, an area the width of several structures of Kaskal, she saw no entrance, no opening in the massive rock bricks that piled one on another toward the sky. She laid her hand flat to the sunlit stone.
There has to be an entrance here. Riad’s bot was able to cross this façade. We will discover a way in.
A sudden glint of light flicked above them and Julieth looked up quickly, her sword braced at the ready for an attack.
…click, click, click…
Squinting, she could see the bot’s legs moving in the sunlight. She met Bayne’s eyes, motioning upward, and then clasped his hand and beat her wings, lifting upward to where the bot clung to the temple’s side. As she neared it the bot leapt from the temple, clutching to her leg and then forming tight to its muscles. She opened her mouth to speak to it and then stopped before the words left her lips. An opening in the temple side became visible above. She hadn’t seen it before because of the angle. It was about the width of a person’s torso.
Rising higher, Julieth set Bayne down in the opening, watching him get on all fours and crawl deeper in. She clasped the outer wall of the temple with her fingers and steadied her own feet, pulling her wings tight against her form and following him.
They crawled for several moments through the space, out of sunlight and into darkness, before Julieth spoke to the boy. “Do you see anything?”
Bayne stopped crawling in front of her and her eyes adjusted to see a red glow in the darkness around his form. “There is an opening here, dropping down into a big chamber,” he spoke softly. He breathed a sudden deep breath. “You will not believe… there is a horde of them below. And I see Riad encased in something, but not the others. I did not think the temple could be this deep.”
“Can you move so that I can come beside you?” Julieth asked.
“I can try.”
As Bayne hugged the wall to his side Julieth slowly crawled forward. Her wings scraped the wall and she wondered if their damaged forms would hold her if she needed to take to flight before the essences healed them. She looked down through the opening, in awe of how deep the chamber dropped.
The part of the temple that we approached initially was only its tip,
she realized. Eerie red light rose up from a massive inferno that licked and burned like a giant wave of flame in the chamber’s center. The beast-creatures stood in a large mass, facing a smaller group of them that sat in thrones on a platform rising up from the temple base. The low resonating noise of their voices climbed the temple’s walls to her ears.
“Where did you see Riad?” Julieth asked Bayne.
The boy moved beside her, looking down the vast opening. “There.” He pointed toward one of the corners of the room where human slaves bowed low on the stone floor. The light of the inferno glinted off a man with metallic limbs. An almost transparent casing covered his form. “What do we do?” Bayne asked. “We cannot save him.”
Julieth scanned the chamber for Ivanus and Andral in hopes that she could see what Bayne had not, but so far she could not spot them. A sharp pain surged through her leg where Vrax clung to it.
“Cyborg Riad instructs an explosion from above,”
the thing’s voice shivered through her thoughts.
Julieth immediately reached back, clasping at the bot and gripping it hard as she attempted to remove it from her flesh. A burning pain struck through her until she released her grip on it and let it be. The leg it gripped went numb and convulsed as it cramped.
“Do not attempt removal of Vrax. Temporary symbiosis is necessary for mind communication.”
“Not with me,” Julieth spoke lowly but harshly to the droid. “Release my leg or I’ll find a way to remove you.”
“What?” Bayne looked to her in unknowing.
Surprisingly, Vrax released her leg instantly. Small, bloody punctures remained where the bot had clung to her.
“Vrax repairs organics,” the beady-eyed thing spoke, and then brought two of its limbs toward her leg, sealing the punctured areas with metallic alloy.
Warm, muted pain moved over Julieth’s leg. She thought for a moment. The droid had seemed to suggest they explode the temple’s roof.
It may work, if we can figure out a way,
But we all might be killed in the fall and the rubble.
“The bot spoke in my mind,” she informed Bayne. She told him what it suggested.
“But how could we do that? We have nothing explosive and Riad is captured.”
It suddenly struck Julieth. “Vrax, do you know where my quiver is? I had fire-powdered arrows in its case.”
“Vrax knows,” it spoke quickly, turning and leaving the way they had come, out of the hole in the temple’s roof.
They waited, silent for long moments as they watched the brood of werebeasts below. Their apparent leader, a creature much larger than any other’s size, sat on a massive throne in the center of the raised area. Several humans kneeled before the beast as others fanned it at its sides. Julieth noted tunnels leading from the chamber along the base of the room.
She watched as the massive beast stood. “
We have overthrown many cities of man since you have chosen to follow me!
” Julieth could barely make out its words echoing from below, but was completely still as she listened to what it said. “
This city is not any better or worse than the rest. We have taken what we need, eating their food, mating with their women and using them as slaves to erect temples to commune with our fellows in the worlds beyond Solaris. But we must travel on beneath the land’s crust if we are to survive. Olan offers nothing to us now.
A roar erupted from the mass below.
And so the time is coming soon for Blood Night, the time when our captives choose to become us, or choose a death of fire.
“What if we choose neither?” Riad’s metallic voice just barely carried to Julieth’s ears. The humans chained around him quaked with fear.
You dare to stand and defend your life?
” the massive beast asked. It reached an arm out and shoved one of the human’s bowing before it to the ground, pressing down hard on it as it cried out in pain. “
You and your followers are new, metallic one, but do not doubt that you are the same as these pathetic slaves. The difference, the only difference, is that they have learned enough to know to join us. They will give up free will for survival. It is a gift we offer them, to join with our blood. And the few who do not,
” the beast held its muscled arm out toward the writhing inferno, “
we will relish in the cinder of their and your deaths as the rest are transformed.
Roars and howls filled the chamber.
“We will do what you say! Release us!” a woman’s frail voice called out through the noise.
Above it all, in the hole in the temple’s roof, a shutter crept over Julieth’s skin.
What have Olan’s people experienced that they would surrender to be transformed into these beasts?
Then something else came to her.
Bayne is controlling his fear again. He is learning, but with that is he losing his human emotion as well?
She took a hand and reached in the dark until it rested on his shoulder. She could feel Bayne’s body relax with her touch.
“I hear it,” Bayne’s voice came in a whisper beside her.
“What?” she asked.
“Vrax, I can hear it returning to us through the opening.”
Julieth focused her hearing behind them and not on the temple’s lower chamber. She could make out the faint noise of Vrax’s legs clicking on stone. The droid came to them quickly, dropping her bow and an explosive arrow beside her, and for a moment, turned its beady glowing eyes toward her. She handed the sword back to Bayne now that her bow was returned.
“What do we do now?” Julieth asked in a hushed voice.
It did not respond, but instead clutched the remaining three explosive arrows in its claws and left the passage, scaling the inner wall of the temple’s roof until it reached a spot it seemed to like and began burying the arrows in nooks in the stone. After placing the arrows, Vrax scurried off along the roof of the temple away from them. It was now positioned far overhead Riad. It blinked twice in her direction.
“I think it wants me to blow the explosives. Hold on to me if we fall after the blast,” Julieth said to Bayne as she reached down and picked up her bow and the one explosive arrow that remained. She cocked it back against the bowstring, her arms shaking with her nerves.
Then she watched curiously as the droid let go of the temple roof and fell straight down on top of Riad’s back.
She faltered, pulling back in the arrow as she watched werebeasts clambering toward Riad, and then watched the thing that contained him disappear. Julieth stepped back in the passage as she saw Riad remove something from his leg and then level it at the roof.
Light and electric charge blasted into the roof where the explosive arrows were. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The sounds of their blasts hurt Julieth’s ears and left them ringing in their wake.
One moment she was steady footed and the next the ground beneath her shattered, thrusting up around her and then falling away. She clutched her bow and arrow with all her strength, praying that the arrow wouldn’t collide with rock and explode.
“Grab onto me!” she shouted to Bayne as they fell in a mass of large stones toward the temple floor. Moments passed. She feared the boy was already dead or would not reach her in time.
Or will his fear prevail? Then these rocks or the beasts will kill us both.
A sharp rock gashed against her leg and she beat her wings, desperate to maneuver through the falling stone upward to safety. Her wings pivoted her through the stones, their sharp edges tearing at her feathers, and then she felt Bayne’s hand grip desperately at one of her wings. He gripped tight to it and she barely maintained flight. She reached back with her spare hand, grabbing onto the boy’s arm and pulling him off her wing. She cradled him close beneath her as she continued to maneuver and soar upward.