Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.
From The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.
The land had changed since the last time he was thru. Must have been years ago. Seemed like a lifetime. Blood-red rock baking under a noonday sun, Joshua Tree standing guard with their shadows, endless vistas of flatness, broken rock, and dusty plains.
The West never seemed so dry.
In the distance, he could just make out the mountains. Not big mountains, like the jagged crags of the Rockies with their peaks of white snow and ice. No. These particular mountains had lost their jags millions of years ago, worn down to slickened nubs of colorful rock by endless winds, countless rains, and eternal sun.
Domed with crystal blue skies, the mountains, range, and horizon framed a land baking itself to death. One day, one moment, one degree, at a time.
Vultures, appearing as tiny flakes of ash overhead, slowly circled, almost lazily, as they made their way to the desert floor- and the figure that drunkenly stumbled across it. Behind this first figure followed another, somewhat indistinct in the noonday heat.
Everywhere he looked lay rock. Burnt orange, deep reds, and smatterings of green. Horizontal bands of red and white stone, some running for miles, some not, stretched to the horizon.
He was in Hell, or at least Dante’s[i] version of it. Sad thing was, for all the desert around him, it felt like he was entering the haunted woods surrounding Hell.
Enormous stumps of broken rock sprang from the earth all around him, some close, most further away. In the past, these same mountains had vaulted towards the sky. Today, they lay in shattered remains on the plains below.
High overhead, trailing in caravans, hung a rag-tag collection of gray and white clouds, low hanging. They appeared moody, almost brooding. And for the last three months, remained dry and impotent.
The gas station was a distant memory now, burned out by the sun and heat. Everything he had done there, all that had occurred, swallowed up by the distance. In the end, he had walked on, leaving the body, the gun smoke, and the last sighting of ‘them’, behind. Ochre-smeared handprints on a wooden door frame ripe with peeling paint! Since that time, his world had become one of misery. Blast furnace heat, arid dry winds, and sun as unforgiving as a miser is stingy.
He looked back, assuring himself the ‘bitch’ was still there- she was, lean, and golden brown. The coyote followed. He imagined her head down, tongue lolling.
The coyote had been following him since his run-in with the girl in the gas station.
The girl he had killed.
Of childhood days spent on the banks of the Mississippi, green, wet, and roaring. Times as distant as the horizon, and as out of reach as the stars…
Of rainbows without end, spring rains, whispers of breezes, hints of dew-filled mornings, and silver shorn evenings. Of grass, green and tall, tickling the tips of his fingers.
Towers of grey stone topped with tattered banners, battlefields steeped in red. Of friends bound by blood and oaths, wars, and conflicts.
Of early morning skies, golden and red, giving way to cool crisp evenings of mauve, blue and purple. Hints of an early fall crisp in a twilight’s haunting gloam.
Of the star Polaris riding the rim of the world, while Mercury, seldom triumphant, glitters freely in the sky, if only for a season-
Of caves and dark, broken, places-
His present circumstances returned, stealing him from the past, and casting him into the forge of now. Reminding him of his vow to hunt ‘them’ down and put an end to them.
They had been hunting him since Creation, since the time they had been taken from the dark and scattered to the light. For years ‘they’ remained hidden, showing themselves only in whispers and fears, nightmares in a world that no longer believed- until it was too late. Whether pale and sickly sleeping in soil, or brazen under a noonday sun, or taking flight on the wings of night, what at first seemed to be legends and stories had become all-too-real fact.
This was the world today.
But there were other worlds, or so he had been told. Worlds that began where other worlds ended. Worlds that lay within the folding’s of a cartographer’s map, and beyond the boundaries of everyday sight. In these worlds, the four cardinal points and their orphaned siblings held little sway.
Directions and distances simply were.
In the days of his youth, his father taught him the use of the sextant, the only device capable of navigating these worlds. With the sextant, he could find roads… pathways. In days of old, such ways were called fairy paths or ley lines. His father named them the King’s Roads.
Whatever they were named, using the sun and moon, he could mark their time, place, and seasons, as well as his time and place among them.
In the wastes, three days before he arrived in Arizona, he was given a pocket watch by an enormous raven, what his father used to call a ‘blood raven’, for the birds seemed to haunt old battlefields and killing grounds, anywhere there was death and decay. The pocket watch was old, tarnished black by time and age. The raven he received the gift from had watched him for miles. Sometimes high in the air, circling and drifting, other times perched atop telephone poles, fence posts, or tall trees. One time the raven had been feeding on something dead, the stench unbearable. Other times it cawed out to him loudly, before taking wing and flying off.
He knew ravens like to collect things, shiny things, glittery things. From crystals and baubles to necklaces and jewels, the birds would often gather and deliver such treasures to their nests or hide them deep within wooden burrows.
The last time he saw the bird, it was perched atop a broken fence post, the watch dangling from its beak by a leather strap. As he cautiously approached, one hand on his pistol, the other outstretched, the bird had dropped the pocket watch in his hand before cawing once, and in a flurry of wings, launched itself into the sky.
He never questioned his good fortune, or the gift, knowing that with it he could measure both time and distance, two factors he desperately needed.
He stopped, bent over by the heat, and struggled to catch his breath. The asphalt beneath his boots felt soft. The temperature must be well over a hundred and ten, if not more. No breeze, no relief in sight. He would need to find shelter soon if he were to survive. Glancing off to his right, he spotted a shadow amongst the glare. Stumbling once, he veered off the highway.
Somewhere between hallucination and dehydration, he managed to reach the grotto, a small shadowed space facing the road. The rocky prominence that birthed it resembled an enormous tortoiseshell carved of red stone. He collapsed in a heap near the back of it, backpack and hat tumbling.
The coyote followed.
Time… slipped away.
Weatherworn and red, the old woman’s features seemed to mirror the sun-beaten wastelands around him, dry, craggy, and lined with shadows. Her mouth, lips, and teeth stained a deep ochre from chewing peyote. The old woman spoke in visions…
Gummy cackles echo throughout the grotto, reminding him of unseen water falling into hidden crevices. “They’re coming to kill ya, know that do ya?” The old woman, shoulders boney, and hair the color of midnight, stood out in deep contrast to the animal pelt she wore. The pelt she wore resembled a coyote. She wore the animal’s skull on her head like a cap.
In the darkness, the old woman moved, her eyes glittering points of reflected light.
“Skinwalker,” he muttered, waving her away. He was too weak, too vulnerable. “What do you want from me? Why do you follow me?”
The old woman did not reply.
In her native tongue, she is called ‘yee naaldlooshi,’ skinwalker that brings sickness.
He turns his face away. Beyond the mouth of the grotto, he watches the road. It remains empty, shimmering in the noonday heat. His lips are parched and peeling. His forehead, face, and arms feel the same way, blistered and burnt. This might explain what he is seeing, what he is hearing.
Though, probably not.
Managing a wry grin, more for his benefit than the old woman’s, he realizes the last thing he needs is to be argumentative with a hallucination brought about by heatstroke. Reaching out, he pulls his backpack close. All along its length, a glitter here, a stitch of patchwork there, lines have been drawn; road maps to where he has been, and passages to where he is going. Tales of heroics and song. Myths and legends. All this he passes by. He wants his canteen, the emptiness of which mocks him.
From the darkness, the old woman speaks. “Seen it in a dream, I have… you too, I reckon.” In the darkness, her chin goes round and round before she spits.
He groans and turns away. He has no time for this.
He needs water.
The soil within the grotto feels as dusty and dry as the hardpan outside. ‘I am delirious and dying,’ he thinks. And he would be correct- to an extent.
The old woman moves again, from squatting in the darkness before him to sitting cross-legged beside him.
He pleads for her to let him be, that he has nothing for her. “Blood no longer courses through my veins,” he says, “only dust and dryness, and drought.”
In the silence that follows the old woman shifts, paper-skin shifting over knobby bone, until the coyote returns, golden-red and lean to the bone.
“Your life I do not seek,” the creature says. In her coyote form, she uses her teeth to clamp down on his right wrist. The coyote’s tongue is as dry as the surrounding desert. Something warm trickles down his forearm and drip from his elbow. He struggles to free himself, but he is too weak. He attempts to draw his pistol, lex talionis, but his hand quivers too much, he lacks the strength to draw the weapon. ‘So, this is how I end,’ he muses, ‘fitting, I suppose. Still…’
“Relax,” the old woman cackles, “If I wanted you dead, you would be dead. I would have killed you at the gas station.”
His mind drifts back. He remembers seeing the coyote following him, watching from a distance as he entered the station- before all the gunfire.
What began as pinpricks of pain in his wrist have blossomed into wells of agony that burn. He groans, back arching. “Away,” he mutters, lips weeping blood. “Get away from me!”
The coyote’s jaws tighten, more teeth break the skin. “Do you think you can so easily banish me,” she barks. “I don’t think so. We are becoming one. One blood, one bond, one purpose!”
He continues to struggle. The old woman seems intent upon killing him, not so much with iron or steel, but with teeth and words.
“I come to offer many things,” she goes on. “An alliance among the least. This is what I come to do.”
He laughs. It sounds terrible. A fit of coughing grabs him roughly, wrings him to the bone. “A dalliance…” he spits blood and phlegm. “This is what you offer me? I am on my deathbed, woman!”
The coyote’s jaws lessen. “And yet, I am here to offer life,” she says.
For a long time, nothing, only the pain in his arm and the fire in his veins. Time once again fades.
The next time he turns her way, the coyote is gone. The old woman has returned. She sits beside him, bent like a shepherd’s crook. She draws forth an earthen vessel of clay. She opens it. Bitterness fills the grotto as surely as darkness. She places it against his lips.
“Drink,” she says.
At first, he struggles to turn away, unsure of what to think or trust. His body betrays him. Poison or not, he drinks, yearning to quench the thirst that burns within him.
Memories… of being ravaged by a fever in a world gone black, lips parched, throat ravaged by fire, raw and unrelenting… Into this world of pain a cooling touch, a mothers’ caress, whispered words-
“Away,” I moan, pushing what the old woman offers. Bitter liquid rolls down my chin and chest.
Still, I swallow.
Memories… of green grass and greener trees. Acers of woods and swift-moving streams. There is a song in the distance, its melody haunting, revealing…
“Accept my offer,” she parlays, “let us be one. Yes?” She cackles. In the darkness, beneath furrowed brows thick with shadow, twin sparks of bitter light glow.
Skinwalker…! Flesh-taker! I draw lex talionis, place it between us. I have drawn a line, and she knows this. She withdraws the vessel. “Dina d’malchuta dina,” I mutter, wiping my lips. The law of the land is the law.
“You hide,” she accuses, setting the vessel down.
“I stay alive,” I say. “I do not hide!”
She turns to look about the grotto. “And yet, you are here,” she grins.
She is right. It is a bitter pill I swallow.
Rock rattles near the grotto entrance. Lex talionis in hand, I point that way. Streaks of dried blood line my wrist where the coyote bit me. A man stands there. He looks familiar.
“Elijah,” I ask, confused? Can’t be. Elijah’s been dead for more than a decade.
Beside me, the old woman shakes her head and smiles. Her smile seems sad. “That would be royal, wouldn’t it,” she says. “He too was shunned, despised, hated by everyone except his god. He too was hunted and sought after. Always it has been this way- speak the truth and the world will hate ya.”
“Elijah confronted,” I state. That is why Elijah lies dead!
“Aye, that may be, but at least he did not hide his face. He faced his fear, the enemy. In death he was victorious!”
I close my eyes. If I did not know any better, I’d say I was arguing with no one other than myself. When I open my eyes, the figure before the grotto is gone.
I turn to stare at the old woman. She is little more than a child in stature, yet she speaks like a giant. Strength burns within me. Whatever she gave me to drink has saved me.
The old woman sighs. “Enough,” she says. “I speak plainly when the universe lies. To survive, you hunt or become hunted, kill, or be killed. It is simple as that. Ya?”
“Can anything ever be that simple?”
“This time, perhaps.”
I manage a smile, “You are my lhiannan sidhe,” I say, my angel of doom.
Cackling laughter “I have never known such a name, yet it may be as you say.”
My strength continues to build. “You saved me,” I say, “and I thank you.” I re-holster my weapon. “You are friend or foe,” I say. “I cannot decide which.”
“One can be neither enemy nor friend,” she says. She pats my leg. “Those that seek you will find you at the appointed place. You run before them, so prepare. Where earth and sky meet shelter and home, ancient among the ruins, you must hide. Until then, you must rest, gather your strength, for sorely you will need it.” I protest. “Know this,” she interrupts, “After tonight you may seek me, but I will not be found…” With this, she fades, until only darkness and space remain.
I sleep, and in my sleep, I dream-
Of a high place. Far beneath me lies the desert floor, a dry and brutal tapestry of red and green. Overhead the sun continues its slow, lazy march towards the horizon.
In my dream, the boy is no more than seven years old, errant strands of pale blond hair frame an innocent face. The boy’s eyes are the color of milk, but as ancient as midnight.
A man stands beside the boy. The man resembles the shadow of a crook, one that has been bent and twisted upon itself, much like the old woman.
“Why do you seek your doom,” the shadow asks.
“I seek answers,” I say. “I seek justice.”
“Justice,” the cooked man scoffs. “Justice for who? You? I highly doubt that.” The crooked man leans forward. His hand rests upon the young boy’s arm as if guiding him. “Until Polaris rides the shoulder of the world, you will not find the answers you seek. I am here to warn you.”
The boy and his shadow pass-
When next I open my eyes, it is dawn and I am alone.
Beyond the shadowed confines of the grotto, the desert remains. The road remains. While in the sky, being chased by the rising sun, hangs the pale luminescence of a crescent moon. Beside me in the dust lie the shattered remains of an earthen vessel. Next to it, my canteen, now sloshing with water.
I cannot explain what has happened, or the night. Instead, I gather my things, check my weapon, and walk out into the light, leaving the grotto and shade behind.
An hour later I am back on the highway, thumbing for a ride I know will never come. Miles pass, the sun glares, the wind blows.
After a time, I run across a rusted sign that leans drunkenly to one side:
Betatakin Cliff Dwelling
The road continues west, veers to the north, then east. All the while I follow, miles passing.
I have arrived. Spread out before me, stand the skeletal remains of what was once an ancient Navaho village built of clay and daub. The ruins sit within and beneath, an overhanging clamshell of rock, many hundreds of feet high and twice as wide. Many of the remaining structures, those that time and the elements have not taken down, have been marked by graffiti, swaths, and streaks of blue, red, and black paint. Crushed and spent beer cans, countless cigarette butts, shards of broken glass, and bits of paper litter the ground. All relics of a time when countless tourists and visitors had visited the site, only to leave their Twentieth Century ‘mark’ behind.
This is where the trail leads me. This place. These are the directions I had been given at the gas station- and verified by the old woman -a place ‘where earth meets sky… ancient ruins.’ I had seen the map, drawn upon the dead girl’s back, the one I had killed at the station, carved into her flesh like some terrible tattoo, lines and coordinates, leading me here.
But to what end? And why?
It occurs to me then, as I look around at the scrub, the miles of stunted brush, and empty canyons- what a wonderful place for an ambush!
And it all made perfect sense!
I hurry forward, eyes behind and around. I gaze towards the horizon for any sign that they might have found me. Arrived ahead of me. Perhaps the old woman was a liar. Perhaps she worked for them? One never knows. I live in a world where nothing remains, not even the truth. This world has become a world full of tombs and open graves. Where nightmares walk on human legs and plague the night. Where skinwalker’s and shamans hold sway, sit behind the moon, all the while practicing a belief and religion as old as the world.
I arrive at the ruins and scout out a position. An hour later I am finished, my knees and hands scuffed. Dirt cakes my face, sweat turns into mud upon my brow, marking me with war paint-
They are close; I can sense it.
Secure behind an outer wall of broken stone, situated high above the desert floor, I draw forth my father’s sextant. I aim for the thumbnail moon, the remaining sun in the sky. Armed with these calculations- and after recording my location in a journal, a journal whose pages still remind me of the girl I once loved, I double-check the time, calculate again, and then compare that figure against the time left on the pocket watch.
Exactly fifteen seconds.
Somewhere along the way, I had gained a full fifteen precious seconds. Combine that with the time I have already accumulated, even with the time lost in the grotto, and I was left with a full minute thirty to work with.
I had a chance.
An hour later, they arrived.
Of the original ten that started this journey, only three remained- two men in various dregs of blue jeans and tee-shirts and one woman in a vintage red dress. All are dust-covered. All sport at least one injury or another, scrapes, bruises, cuts, gouges- their wounds mute testimony to the violence they inflicted upon themselves reaching this place.
I set, crouched among the ruins. It had taken me an hour to find this location- perfect for what I needed to do. Taking on one of them was bad enough, taking on all three suicidal.
As expected, as soon as they crested the last hill before the ruins, the woman stopped, calling out harshly in a guttural bark. Hunkered together, the trio appeared to converse for a moment before splitting up. One man, whom I will call Red because of the color of his hair and unbelievably sun-burnt face, remained with the lady. The other gentleman, I tagged as Raven thanks to his midnight black hair, struck off to my right. Their plan was obvious. The lady and Red would charge straight ahead, while Raven would attempt to flank me.
Damn! I was hoping they would come to me as a group. I bring lex talionis to my forehead, the gun’s barrel ice cold against my skin. Think, damn it, think!
In the gas station, the girl had taken me by surprise. Here in the ruins and desert, I needed this to be reversed; I needed to take them by surprise!
Flash of insight. Backpack stashed, I scurried off toward Raven.
I had faced their men before. Tough and determined, they could put up one hell of a fight. In the end, however, they could be killed. Their young girls were the same, just as determined, just as fearless, just as ruthless. Blink, and they would gut you from the ground up, that or chop off your head and feast on your corpse.
It was their women, however, their mageia, that were unpredictable and dangerous- too darn close to their undead goddess.
I had faced two such mageia in my life, one in the ruins of New York City near Central Park, the other outside of Omaha, Nebraska amidst the ruins of a traveling circus. Both times it had been one hell of a fight. A fight I had won, but at a terrible cost. The only thing I had going for me now, was this mageia, the one in the red dress, was relatively young.
I just hoped she was young enough!
Knowing that the lady in red and her companion would have to climb a series of ladders and trails to reach my current position, I figured I’d have time to take out Raven, before having to return and finish the remaining two off.
Head low, I speed between two walls- a sheltered walkway between one level of ruins and the next. Leaping over rusted trashcans, their sides caved in, their contents scattered, I managed two chains, an overturned bench, and two ‘Walk This Way’ signs, before stopping to catch my breath.
I took off again.
I had just rounded a series of low structures, their insides crawling with darkness when Red popped into view. I think we both surprised one another.
Red had done well, considering the distance he would have to have traveled to get here. The lady in red was nowhere in sight!
Red’s cheeks were hollow, gaunt even, dark circles blackened his eyes, his skin was blistered, face, arms, and hands. And yes, like all of them, he was packing ancient iron, robbed from the graves of gunslingers.
Red immediately drew and fired, a motion so quick it never even registered-
Triple claps of thunder rolled across the village, broke from canyon walls, and scattered across the plains-
In hand, ‘Justice’ tattooed in blue across my knuckles, lex talionis smoked lazily, its entire length wickedly hot. The weapon had spoken authoritatively and with finality. Red lay before me, sprawled across the trail, streams of ruddy red bubbling forth from beneath him. Eyes wide, mouth open in a silent scream, he attempted to move. Once- but my shot had been true. The bullet had entered just beneath his left eye, leaving a black dot, only to explode out the back of his head. The second had caught him in the chest, just below his sternum. In less than a breath, he moved no more.
I’ll give him this, he had gotten off the first shot, the shell so blistering close to the side of my head that it had severed several errant strands of hair, however, like love, war, and hand grenades, this time, close did not count.
With glares of thunder still echoing off canyon walls, the dislodgement of gravel sounded from somewhere behind me. Spinning quick, I dodged behind the nearest stone; an elephant-shaped mass easily the size and shape of its namesake, even as an errant shot careened off the elephant’s ass, and into the wild. Dust and debris flared around me.
Raven had reached me.
‘This will be as good as it gets,’ I imagined. Raven’s shot had come dangerously close to calling my bluff, as well as my life.
No time left to react, I withdrew the pocket watch, held it before me, thumb wiping the dust from its yellowed crystal face. I pressed down on the upper stud, one indent, seconds… two indents, minutes… I had never pressed it three times in a row. Gripping my pistol, wiping sweat from my brow, I pressed the stud and began the countdown.
Time ceased to be, at least according to everyone but me. Like a cartographer’s map, time remained a construct, and like a map, wherein folds lay unknown lands, between one second and the next lay all the time in the world- or my case, one minute and thirty seconds of non-time.
Thanks to my father, I knew how to walk non-time on the King’s Roads.
Scrambling forward, I backtracked, a cool breeze passing. I was hoping to run into the lady in red. If I could get her next to Raven, things would be so much easier. I could deal with both at the same time.
They say Lady Luck is a fickle thing.
I nearly ran into myself ten seconds into my return flight, passed myself without so much as a glance at eleven, and ran into Raven at eighteen. He was no longer before me, but heading to find me, still. Since I could do nothing traveling the King’s Road, I toggled the stud-
To his credit, Raven knew exactly what had happened. Before I could level lex to fire, Raven hammered it from my grip, his hands locking down on my wrists. As one we went down in a cloud of loose gravel and dust, my knees and elbows striking rock, fists clenched and striking, hands grappling, sweat pouring. Sudden blood as my face goes numb. My world rocks back. We continue to scuffle, fight, and kick- a sudden piercing sting causes me to pull away breathless.
Raven has a knife; because of this, I am now sporting a single cut across my right bicep approximately three inches long. It is bloody as all hell, but harmlessly shallow.
A glance off to my right- lex lay in the dust and rock a good four feet away- might as well have been a hundred miles. Raven would kill me long before I reached it.
Raven’s licking a split upper lip, his left eye beginning to swell shut. With not a word spoken between us, for what is there to say, it is time to go Darwin. We square off, each looking for an opening the other would desperately rue. I could use the remaining seconds on the pocket watch, but why waste them? The lady in red was still somewhere and would need to be reckoned with. And I can guarantee you this. She would not be wasting any time at all!
So, mano a mano it was.
We continue to square, sweat pouring. I dare not blink, instead; I keep an eye on Raven. I had landed a blow on the right side of his face, dotting his eye. Eventually he would have to blink that eye, and when he did, he would be mine.
As with everything, timing is crucial. At his first blink, I did nothing. On his second, we continued to circle, his left hand sweeping out, testing me. The third time he blinked, I attacked. Reaching in, I grabbed him by the knife hand, with a crack I twisted it to one side, before bringing it straight up under his chin. The blade entered his throat, coursed up through the darkened ring of dirt there, and into the man’s brain- closing his mouth permanently.
I’d like to say his death came quickly, that one minute he was alive, the next gone. But that would be a lie. We struggled, bloody drool on his lips, nose flaring, eyes glaring. It took everything I had to maintain my grip, keep the knife embedded and pressure applied- grunting, I twisted the knife forty-five degrees, and the light and fight left his eyes immediately.
Raven arched his back, hands out as if to catch himself from falling to death. I lunged for my weapon- as a tattered and scuffed high-heel slammed down upon my wrist, numbing my fingers, crushing my hand, and causing me to lose my grip. Towering over me, impossibly tall, a flash and swirl of red. A hammering kick to the side of my head brought darkness and distance before the pain came rushing back, bringing with it all the light and noise of the world.
I lay still, not moving, desperately breathing, hand still flailing for the gun- but the lady in red was having none of that. Barking a laugh, she picked up lex and placed it atop the remains of a shattered wall, ten feet away, her movements so quick, I could barely follow.
“Why did you do that,” I asked, gathering my feet beneath me. Blood ran freely from the head wound she had just delivered. It tasted copper on my lips.
The lady in red said nothing, just stared me down, her eyes little more than blackened pits. In another life, she would have been considered beautiful even. Petite in stature, coppery hair, high cheekbones, and pouty lips. But she was one of them now. No amount of makeup in the world could fix what they had broken.
Lipstick on a pig and all that!
She reminded me of the girl back at the gas station, the one that tried to ambush me. The one I shot in the head. She too had been young. She too had been taken, changed… broken by them. The only thing that saved me then. That girl had been too young to fully realize her powers. Even with the symbols and words cut in her hand.
They do not come out of the grave fully trained, thank God!
Still watching me, the lady in red bent down, removed her high heels. They clattered to the rock behind her.
She was meaning business.
“Can we talk about this,” I asked, buying time. If I could just draw her away from the pistol.
She answered with a lop-sided grin. Hands clawing into fists- the ground beneath her feet began to crack, to peel back revealing darkness… and something else. Something that stank of grave and rot.
I turned to run. I needed to reach Raven. Raven still had his gun on him.
I did not make it three steps before I was tossed high in the air, only to fall down, hammered by chunks of stone, choking on dust, fresh agony in my hands and knees, unable to see. I scrambled towards where the lady in red had placed my pistol, hoping to get there first, before she got to me, all the while tripping, slipping, and stumbling over broken rock.
In the distance, high above and all around, a low rumble was building.
As I scrambled forward the lady appeared, mouth snarled, a wickedly curved blade in hand, swinging like a lumberjack towards my head.
Eyes bleeding tears and mud, I slipped down to one knee, kicking out and catching her with the other, my blow causing her to miss, sending her blade over my head by a hair.
I could hear her cursing, even as the dust and debris cleared-
See what I was saying about inexperience. An experienced mageia would never have used her power in such a way. An experienced mageia would have killed me in a heartbeat when she had my pistol in her hand.
So goes inexperience!
Amazingly, the wall holding lex still stood. I reached my hand up, even as the lady in red turned behind me.
Pain erupted from the back of my leg, a sliver that seemed to drive itself deep into the meat of my thigh. I screamed, tumbling forward, hand desperately reaching for my pistol. As my left knee bit into the ground, I turned, bringing my right hand to bear. Only seconds left, I could see the lady in red reversing her swing, the edge of her blade smeared red with blood. My blood! The next time she struck, it would not be my leg she would cut, it would be my head. I could see it in her eyes, my death, and in the sneer on her savagely drawn lips.
Time seemed to slow down; the lady’s blade became a blur. Hatred burned in her eyes, her mouth had opened in a scream, and the only thing I could focus on was her bone-white teeth. There were too many of them, far more than any human should possess.
She would eat me with those teeth.
As she swung she shouted something guttural and incomprehensible- a curse perhaps, or an exclamation -in a language last spoken over five thousand years ago, reminding me of black lava seashores in the Mediterranean, and a city swallowed by violence, volcanism, and the sea.
When they first arrived here!
I fell backward in a desperate attempt to evade my world, becoming one of vertigo and blur. As I fell, I managed to squeeze off three shots.
Thunder and lightning flashed.
The first shot caught her high in the shoulder, yanking her violently to the right, pulling her blade up. The second shot caught her just under the left collarbone, jerking her sharply to the left. The last shot popped her head back like a Pez dispenser, a mist of red, bone, and brain tissue splashing the stone wall behind her. She crumpled like a marionette whose strings had been cut, only to lie still.
My head hit the wall behind me, delivering a numbing, thundering blow, causing me to bite my tongue, and bringing about sunburst moments of darkness, light, and pain.
For the second time, I lay still, the rumble above growing in waves, as great waterfalls of rock and dust fell from the sky. Betatakin was collapsing, the whole damned thing of it. What the lady in red had begun with her magicks, it seemed, Mother Nature would soon finish!
The lady in red lay before me, face down in an ever-spreading stain of red. Shaking off the fugue, I struggled to stand, crying out as the wound in my leg reopened-
She was there, the she-bitch in all her dusty red glory, nipping at my boots, willing me to move.
Holstering lex, I began stumbling back towards my belongings, scooping up my backpack along the way. Rock and debris filled the air, blocking out the sunlight and turning everything pre-naturally dark. As I moved, the coyote moved with me, whining and barking, snarling, and nipping, driving me ever forward.
We cleared the ruins, chunks of rock, some as big as semis, crashing all around me, or should I say ‘us’, dust and debris, an avalanche of rusty-red rock and soil, stunted trees, all raining from the sky. As we ran it occurred to me, we would never make it. I was too crippled up, we were moving too slow, and the world was crashing down behind us too quickly. Each time I stopped to gather my breath; the coyote would be there to drive me forward.
As one, me cursing, she snarling, we continued our erratic run towards safety- until the world abruptly ended in front of us. Beneath our feet, a good hundred feet, if not more below, ran a river, a black-blue ribbon crusted in white, snaking its way through the desolate wasteland leading to who-knows-where.
The mountainside behind us continued to collapse in pieces, high ground crashing into low. We were caught in between, standing on the brink of a cliff overlooking a dizzying fall. As rock continued to hammer all around us, I turned towards the coyote. The animal was watching me; lips drawn back in a snarl, hackles up, head down. I shrugged, “And here you thought I couldn’t find you.” I picked the animal up. She was burning with fever and rail-thin. Without a second thought or glance back, I leaped out into space-
We seemed to fall forever; the coyote squirming against me, claws raking, teeth snapping- and then, just as suddenly, we were slapped into ice-cold water, so abruptly I lost my breath.
The world churned around me, muffled, disoriented, struggling to hold what little breath I could while maintaining my grip on the animal- the current seized us, tossed us about in a torrent. I felt like a leaf caught in an undertow, the water around us, overwhelming. I kicked out, struggling to reach the surface, which was… somewhere. Everything was muffled. My chest burned. Everything told me to breathe out and breath in.
First heat-stroke, now drowning…
No other choice, I had to let the coyote go. To hell with saving ‘her’, I needed to save myself!
Sudden blinding pain as something struck the back of my head, pulled ragged down my back. My mouth opened, uttering a silent scream of anguish, along with the last of my air.
Hands outstretched, I tried to straighten myself, as the river continued to drag me ever forward, ever deeper. Around me, everything took on a tunneled look, black closing in. It was all I could do not to breathe. My chest involuntarily tried to expand- but there was no air left to draw in, only water, water as black as night and as cold as the grave-
Suddenly, something grabs my right arm, yanking, twisting, pulling me sideways. With no more fight in me, I surrender- as all around me finally goes black-
The next thing I know I am face down on a bed of river rock, black water draining out of me like a sieve. I turn. A coyote stands there, licks my face. The damned thing looks so bedraggled, so miserable, I nearly laugh, but cough and choke instead, “I guess we’re even,” I manage. Then again, were we ever in a competition to begin with?
I know no more.
Later, after picking the bones clean, I toss them back into the campfire. The remains of dinner, a wild hare the coyote had caught and brought to me, still dripping fat and grease. We were under a large tree of some sort, its bark grey and twisted by the desert heat, sun, and wind. A river, the same river we jumped into to save ourselves, rolled before us, trapped between two riverbanks of smooth stone, sand, and boulders.
I had my feet up, and my head tipped back against one of them.
Beside me lay the coyote, licking its chomps, and nipping at its paws. We make a good pair, coyote, and me, I saved her life, and she saved mine. This is a good thing; because we have a lot of miles to cover, and a short amount of time to get there.
Rubbing my hands through the animal’s fur, I allow my mind to drift back, beyond the ruins, beyond the gas station, to where this whole journey began- when I woke up and found myself on a pillar of rock deep within a darkened cave, dry leaves, and green moss all around. My weapon looked different then, more like a blade than a pistol.
Oh well, times change.
How far I have come since then, the horrors I have seen, the lives I have spent. Even though the world was ending, mine was just beginning. This was a good thing.
“I guess it’s just you and me,” I say, stroking the animal’s fur.
The coyote growls deep, even as she pushes closer against me. I relish the heat of her.
I turn to the sky, to the bands of darkness overtaking light. A storm is brewing, I can feel it in the air, the way the clouds build in the distance, the taste of ozone in the air. We need to move, and soon- but not tonight.
I manage a deep breath, and with the fire crackling, the coyote watching, and the river rushing, drift off to sleep.