Authors: Scott Toney
“Will… will I be alright?” she asked Riad is pained breath. Where the beast had bitten her back an acid-like feeling seared her flesh. Somehow she felt her wings reconnecting where they had been broken and her flesh repairing itself.
“Time will tell. Get up,” Riad instructed, blasting a beast charging toward them and leveling it to the ground. The thing clawed and moaned as it pulled itself on the rock in their direction. “If you morph into one of them I will destroy you.” Riad blasted the beast clawing toward them in the face, its human-like form glaring at them with red eyes before disintegrating in gore from the blast. “I can’t promise it would be painless though. With the essences bonded to you, you would die hard.”
“I appreciate your honesty,” Julieth said, still stunned at Riad’s coldness but glad Bayne would be protected from her if the beast’s saliva and bite were enough to change her to one of them.
She found she did not have the strength to fly now and instead kept by their side, limping as she moved. The pain somehow moved from her back to her legs.
You will survive,
a voice entered her thoughts.
Julieth looked to Riad’s leg, checking that Vrax was still there.
Do not speak to her, not yet. She is not fully ours,
another voice came.
You do not rule me,
the first voice returned.
Julieth knelt, holding her head with her hands. It throbbed in pain. “Wait. There is someone in my thoughts,” she spoke to her companions.
Riad came to her, holding his cybernetic hand to her forehead. She watched as its mechanics glowed green.
“The essences are contacting you. They have found a way to join with your consciousness.” Riad removed his hand and then shone the UV light from his gun down the tunnel, holding it braced there.
“I have never heard of that about them.” Julieth closed her eyes, trying to hold back words that whispered eerily in her thoughts.
“Not all with the essences hear them, but you have many essences bonding in your flesh. It is likely that they were triggered by the beast’s bite. Think of what calms you and you can possibly hold them back for a time. Bayne and I will continue. We must move to reach Ivanus and Andral if they are alive. Follow us when you are able.”
It was paralyzing.
She cannot reject us now. We can teach her and show her the ways.
Control her. I do not share what I possess without controlling the flesh.
You are but one of many in this form…
“ENOUGH!” Julieth shouted aloud, silencing both voices. She closed her eyes, focusing on the past, to that boy she loved in her youth, before he was taken from her, swallowed up by the sinking earth that claimed him. His eyes… his face. They were so beautiful. One moment she had been chasing him playfully through the desert, the two suns setting on the horizon, and the next moment his body had been swallowed whole.
Can no pain be spared me in my life?
she thought. Then she realized that the voices in her head had gone silent.
She stood, her body still burning, and illuminated the darkness before her with the light of her gun. Nothing. She did not see Riad or Bayne. None of the beasts were in her vision either. Just as she began to walk forward once more a hand clasped her shoulder.
She violently turned. Olan’s wounded people stood in a mass, staring at her with their hollow eyes.
Olan’s people trudged behind Julieth in near silence, a mass of a hundred at least moving but not speaking, murmuring while blindly following her lead.
“What happened to you? How long have the beasts been here?” she asked.
Their mentally blind, wide eyes had only stared back at her. Their silence sent a chill through her that she could not explain.
Some of Olan’s people remained shackled, their chains echoing as they dragged, clawing over the tunnel floor.
A great span of time passed as Julieth and the mass of bodies moved through the darkness. She had thought it only moments since Riad left her side, and when she had rejected the voices of the essences, but she still saw no sign of him or Bayne.
A warm rush of air blew thickly over her and she stopped, seeing a red light in the distance beyond the UV light of her weapon.
The light of an explosion erupted beyond the opening of the tunnel there, the force of the blast enough to shake the stone floor beneath her and cause her to brace her hand on the wall to steady herself.
They are there,
she thought, her heart racing.
And what else will we find when we arrive?
“Only the strong should follow me.” She turned back to Olan’s people. “There is battle at the end of this passage, and I have no spare weapons to give you. If you wait here, then I give you my word that I will return.
The people of Olan said nothing. She turned and looked to them, watching their hollow eyes stare at the red-lit passage in the distance. “Then do as you will. I have done what I can do for you for now. If you protect yourselves, then I will come back for you.”
With her strength returned, Julieth pumped her wings and soared quickly through the darkness, embracing the cool air of the cavern as she spliced though it, and yet remaining alert constantly.
Howls echoed over the passage’s rock walls as she neared the red illuminated chamber. She landed in the darkness. Juieth remained a way back, squinting to see cells much like the ones she had been held captive in lining the far wall in the red chamber. Sweltering heat wove over her form as she walked closer. Her vision swam, as if her sight were a mirage.
Another blast rocked the ground beneath her, lighting up the chamber with fire and then blanketing it with smoke as the bodies of two beasts were thrown through the air, landing in front of her. One of the bodies morphed back into the form of a man, its arm severed and its body covered in char from the explosion. The other beast was stunned for a moment, but soon dug its massive clawed hands into the cavern floor, hefting itself up, looking around and locking eyes with Julieth. Its spine curved grotesquely and its beady, haunting eyes shimmered, sending a surge of fear through Julieth’s body. A grin moved over its saliva-coated maw.
It moved quickly as it rose, running on all fours towards her.
With barely a thought Julieth held the guns high, drenching the beast with UV light from the one and blasting it with electricity as it leapt for her. Meat shed from bone and it howled in agony while thrashing into her torso, knocking her to the ground.
It was dying, but still fought her, thrashing with its claws down toward her skull.
Julieth thrust her head away as its claws bashed against the rock below them, sending a screeching sound through the chamber. As it lifted its arm to strike for her again, she grappled for her weapon on the ground nearby. The beast’s arm thrashed down and she blasted it with her gun, disintegrating it with electric charge and sending it toppling to the ground beside her in agony.
Julieth’s muscles burned as she stood. She illuminated the thing once more with her light. Its muscles twisted and pulled as it morphed back into human form. Blood soaked the rock floor from its wounds. Half of the now human looking thing’s jaw was missing.
“Why? Why do you hate us?” Julieth asked it. “Why would you choose to live a life like this? Surely there is consciousness and morality somewhere in the makeup of your race.”
The dying man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as he convulsed violently, choking on the blood pooling in his throat.
I will put you out of your misery, whatever you are,
Julieth thought. She leveled her weapon at its chest and fired a long blast of electricity, decimating its core and charring the blood that had been liquid in its extremities.
Searing bile rose in her throat as Julieth turned away from him to walk into the red illuminated chamber.
It cannot be worse there in the unknown than here with his corpse.
As she entered, another blast shook the chamber, causing her to drop down and brace her arms. She looked up to see a horde of beasts attacking what appeared to be Riad and another man a good distance away.
Is that Ivanus with him?
Her feet landed heavily as she moved, eager to join the battle and assist the men. Then, with a pulse, she beat her wings and took to the air. The beasts looked up as she flew above them. Riad picked them off in pairs, illuminating them with UV light from his weapon and then blasting them apart before eliminating more.
She leveled her own guns at the mass and ripped electricity into them at random.
A beast charged for Ivanus and he thrashed away its claws with a sword. It howled as he ran it through and before he could remove his sword from its gullet another beast ran at him.
Julieth’s heart raced as she redirected her fire and blasted the thing, thrusting it aside so that Ivanus could withdraw his blade in time to hack into the thing’s arm and deal it a death blow to the skull.
Battle raged for what seemed an eternity as beast after beast attacked them. When the enemy’s number dwindled, more appeared from the tunnels. The enemy had no way to attack above, however, and so Julieth had the upper hand. Riad continued to explode light and fire grenades as they fought them off, and as only a few remained, Julieth dove down and stood with Riad and Ivanus. The final two beasts fell as Riad illuminated them with light and then reduced them to ash with one blast from his weapon.
Julieth looked to her companions, their faces gashed, bloody and sopping sweat. She sucked in a deep breath before clasping her knees with her hands and pulling her wings tight to her back.
“You know that is not all of them,” Riad spoke coldly. “We will not have rest until we are away from this place.”
“Where are Bayne and Andral?”
“In a cell along that wall.” Riad pointed to the far left wall.
Julieth ran in that direction. “Bayne! Andral!” she shouted, relief rejuvenating her as she saw the two boys running towards her. She quickly hugged both boys, kissing their foreheads.
“Thank you for protecting my brother,” Andral spoke. “Thank you for coming for me.”
“I would not leave you with these beasts. If either of you would die, it would only be after I gave my own life,” Julieth assured him.
“Look!” Bayne pointed to the tunnel Julieth came from. Something moved in the red-lit dark.
“The people of Olan have arrived.” Julieth led the boys back to Riad and Ivanus. “Come, we need to meet with them and see if they know of a way out.”
Then a human voice rose above the rest of Olan’s people’s clambering noises, shouting unintelligible words that the rest of the group repeated.
“No…” Ivanus gasped nearby. “My
has returned. Olan’s people will eat the beasts.” A look of nausea washed over his face.
“It must have been the beasts that blocked the abilities given you by your essence.” Riad walked quickly toward the mass of humans. Olan’s people grabbed at the limbs of fallen beasts, dragging them into the darkness away from the larger group.
The sound of cracking and grinding bone sent an eerie shiver up Julieth’s spine. The sucking noise of muscle being torn from bone came to her ears as moist whispers. “Why are they like this?”
“Perhaps the beasts began the change in Olan’s people, turning them into beasts themselves, before we ever saw them. Possibly this is the way it manifests. Whatever the reason, beneath Olan is not a place we want to remain.” Riad looked back to Ivanus. “If your abilities have returned, then that must mean there are few beasts left in this area, though I am certain they reside in other areas beneath Solaris’s crust. We should be safe to leave the way we came if Julieth has the strength to fly us out of the temple’s roof.”
“I can do that.” Julieth lifted into the air, aiming her guns at Olan’s people as she flew above them. The others of her group moved along the wall and into the tunnel they came from. She looked at Olan’s people’s eyes as she dipped into the tunnel, haunted by their glossed-over stares and the tears dripping down their faces.
Julieth closed her eyes as she flew. Darkness consumed her. She blocked out sound and emotion. She always knew the world to be cold, but this… Her skin was chilled.
Then heat swam over her, growing warmer and warmer until her wings filled with it and she began to lift higher. She opened her eyes to the inferno of the temple’s fire.
As she landed on the floor of the chamber, a young man lying in a beam of sunlight moaned, dirt caking his face as he looked up at her. She looked back to the tunnel, not seeing Riad or the others yet, then went to him.
“Can you hear me?” she asked, placing her hand on a weak muscled shoulder.
He turned, looking quickly into her eyes. They were a royal, crisp blue. “Yes.” He stood slowly, looking up at the sky as if he had come from there.
There was something strangely familiar about him.
“You do not look like the others. What has happened to them?”
The young man stood silent, looking blankly at her. Then, after many moments, he came to her and spoke. “Kaskal.” The rasped word licked off his tongue.
“How do you know where we’re from?” she called to him as he ran, leaping from the sunlight and into darkness before morphing into the form of a beast and quickly clawing his way up the temple’s wall. He did not look down, but moved frantically upward.
She pulsed her wings, soaring up near him and leveling her weapons. “How did you know?” she shouted. She could not fire. It had done nothing to harm her.
As they reached the temple’s destroyed top she burst into the sky, watching as the beast morphed back into the form of a man in the sunlight and ran away as fast as he could.
It might be a trap. What if I am lured away and the others cannot escape?
With a deep breath she swooped, plummeting into the dark, inferno lit temple, thrusting and crouching to the ground just as Riad and the others emerged.