by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 6
2,600 Words: 11 Minute Read
Bloated flies buzzed like static around the corpse in ODF fatigues. Even as swollen as the body was, Eric could still read the word “reaper” tattooed on its throat. He tried to breathe through his mouth. He could still taste the putrefaction, but it was dulled compared to the gut boiling stink that invaded his nostrils. The conscription eye tattooed on the dead man’s forearm stared up at them like a beast glowering over its kill.
“Take a hard look,” said Salmin, the sharp lines of his face carved in stone. “This is what happens to those who separate from their teams and get lost in The Mist.” He knelt by the body, swatting the flies from his face. “There’s no claw marks, no punctures. He got lost and the tattoo’s toxin did him in.” Salmin rummaged through the corpse’s pockets coming up empty. “Poor bastard must have lost his spare tablet.”
“Or traded it,” said Paydrin under his breath. Salmin had reorganized the teams after Tharp’s decree. Eric had no luck losing Corbin and had instead gained the gaunt, hunted-looking Paydrin to round out their team of four. He had slept no easier for it.
Salmin’s face turned sour. “We won’t disrespect our fallen brother with that kind of talk.” He returned his attention to the body and, while quietly intoning something that sounded like a prayer, stacked three small stones into a cairn at the man’s head. When he arose, he was onyx once more. Drawing his sword and shield, he motioned to the others to follow.
As they stalked off, Eric crouched next to the body and knocked three times against the sandy earth. “Good luck,” he said, his voice barely louder than the hush of the fog. He caught up with his team and slowed his pace to fall into step at the back of the foursome. “Do people really sell their tablets?” he asked in a low voice so that only Paydrin would hear him. The archer eyed him, all but sneering at his innocence. “Why would anyone do that?” asked Eric.
“Why does anyone do anything, kid?” Paydrin’s sallow face hung limp on his skull.
Eric kept on his heels like a puppy. “We’re issued a new dose each week. What possible reason could anyone have for wanting an extra tab?”
“You want to get out of this alive, am I right?” asked the archer, his wolfish eyes flicking toward Eric.
“It was just a question,” said Eric as if stung.
“I’m not done. So, the conscription eyes are laced with toxin slowly leeching into us every day, and the antitoxin in the tablets neutralizes it, right?” said Paydrin. “What if you took more than just enough of the antitoxin? What if you took a lot more?”
Eric’s eyes rounded as the answer came to him. “You could neutralize the whole tattoo!”
“Not as dumb as you look.”
“How many would you have to take?”
“Keep your voice down,” said Paydrin. “Those sorts of questions are dangerous.” His eyes shifted to Salmin, the tip of their spear.
“Come on. You must have heard something,” said Eric forcing his interest into a harsh whisper.
Paydrin pressed his thin lips into a hard line, sunken eyes searching all around. Finding no sign of snare or deception, he said, “If I knew for sure I would be out of here already.” He paused, scrutinizing Eric as if for the first time. He unclenched a degree and continued, “But I’ve heard twenty-five tabs is enough. Can’t just swallow them though. They’re meant to last in your system a week that way. You’ve got to grind them up and take them all at once. That way you get them in your blood as one single massive dose.”
He stared at Eric, his eyes lumps of polished amber. “You get caught doing something stupid, you leave me out of it.” His gaze gouged into Eric. Eric swallowed and nodded before jogging closer to the middle of the group.
The Mist loomed like a fortress wall bisecting the world into dishwater daylight and swirling fog as inscrutable as the deep ocean. Their patrol took them along the rim just out of reach of the wispy tendrils that fondled the edge. Ahead, a tangle of gray sticks and fur formed a table sized bowl that perched among the gnarled branches of a juniper. Salmin raised a fist to signal a stop and then waved Corbin forward. She crept along the sandy earth toward the tree trunk, her eyes locked and her spear ready. As she did, Salmin and Eric circled to her left and right, swords drawn. Silently, Paydrin notched an arrow and drew the bowstring back. It vibrated slightly under the tension.
At the base of the tree, Corbin paused, drew a deep breath, and drove her spear into the bottom of the nest. Eric’s muscles went rigid. Nothing stirred in the nest. She yanked her spear free and stabbed again. And again. And again, until broken twigs and tufts of fur littered the ground around her. The tightness drained from Eric as if a stopper had been pulled. Another abandoned nest.
It had been like this for weeks, hints of threat without any real action. In the beginning, every jumble of twigs, every rocky hollow had sent electricity through the whole of him, but with each trodden mile, the feeling of real danger drew farther away. Eric was struggling to maintain any kind of true readiness outside of these fleeting moments of anticipated combat. He was beginning to doubt if they were in any real danger at all.
At least The Mist kept the route fresh. In his first days stalking the boundary, he had imagined The Mist to be a fixed thing, an immobile line of demarcation like the Berlin Wall. He was wrong. The Mist seemed more like a living thing. Its boundary shifted and flexed as if breathing. It advanced and retreated, constantly reshaping their path. But boredom is a devil, and even change can become routine.
As they approached the midday turning point, Eric stifled a yawn. The soles of his feet felt bound and stiff, yearning for the release of a delicious stretch. The Mist had grown languid, producing no grasping tentacles of vapor. Instead, its surface rolled gently like a soporific sea. His eyelids felt especially heavy today, and he looked forward to the short break Salmin would allow at the turn. To his right, Corbin’s shoulders had rounded, and her spear had grown less turgid in her hands. Behind, Paydrin’s loping, hungry stride had shortened to a shuffle, his eyes looking even more sunken than usual. Only Salmin continued his tireless advance, fueled by a furnace of unfathomable zeal.
A hot breeze frolicked through the trees, swirling a cloud of fine sand and dust into the air. Eric’s head began to nod. Every movement felt as if he was walking through a deep jacuzzi. The heat soothing him until all he wanted was to lay back and float, free of the weight of his body, of the world, of everything. He paused leaning against the coarse bark of a juniper.
The wind picked up again, but it was no longer coddling. Its chill bite startled him. A cold wind only came from one direction in midsummer. Eric lifted his head just in time to see The Mist raging toward him like an oncoming train.
It overtook him with a rush that snapped the loose fabric of his fatigues. And just as fast, The Mist stilled. The world around him was reduced to gray, ghostly shadows that swayed unnaturally in the cloying fog. Only the roughness of the flaking bark against his palm kept Eric from feeling that he had been transported to another place entirely. His body tensed. Sword and shield raised, he spun slowly in place hunting for some sign of his team. A hush like new fallen snow roared in his ears against the rasping of his own breathing. He couldn’t see or hear anyone. The pommel of his sword tapped lightly against his shield three times before his breath would smooth.
One step at a time, he crept toward where the others had been. The fog seemed to stretch the distance between everything. Trees were nothing more than towering phantoms until he was on them. The spiny shrubs were clouds with teeth. Yet none of the shifting shapes resolved themselves into Salmin, Paydrin, or Corbin. Maybe they had made a turn to exit The Mist? They might not notice he was even missing until they reached the pallid light of day. He patted the pocket that held his extra tablet, feeling for the reassurance of the vial. He thought of the swollen corpse of the guardsman, the way the black flies crawled on the dead man’s open eyes. Cold trails of sweat ran down his spine. The extra dose was still safely ensconced in his pocket. As long as he had that, he had time. Eric forced himself to take three long, slow breaths. The tightness in his throat eased. As the strain drained from his limbs, fingers of mist caressed his skin leaving goosebump trails in their wake.
The panic subsiding, Eric found it easier to retrieve the memory of his training, of the safety briefings they had been given. They had been warned against calling out. The sound was just as likely to draw the creatures that inhabited The Mist as it was help. Instead, they had been told to head toward the edge and to regroup beyond the boundary. It was the safest place to rally. That was protocol which meant that was what Salmin would do. Eric had been careful in his steps and, mercifully, had not gotten himself too turned around. That was a bit of luck. Now, he turned toward the direction that he believed with reasonable certainty to be east and marched purposefully ahead. He kept his paces metered and made sharp, right angle turns whenever he avoided an obstacle. A grin took root. Against all odds, he’d managed to remember some facet of his training. He couldn’t decide what he was looking forward to more: the glimmer of pride on Salmin’s face or watching Corbin eat her armor.
A sound like pouring sand slithered through the air. Eric spun left and then right trying to hear the source over the rushing blood in his ears. It was growing louder, closer. The fog wrapped too tightly around him, making everything an impressionistic gray. The sound was nearly on him when the ground beneath his feet began to tremble. He whipped around in time to see the earth explode. From the wound, leaped the shade of a creature growing more solid as it hurdled toward him through The Mist. It had paws like shovels each tipped in a rake of long claws. They were outstretched towards Eric, prepared to funnel him in toward a star of fleshy digits that ringed a salivating maw of rodent’s teeth.
Eric jerked back. His heel caught on an exposed root, and he tumbled, landing flat on his back. The creature landed with a puff of dust at his feet. It wasn’t as large as the Diyakosha had been, but it was more solid, a mound of fur covered muscle the size of a mastiff. The fleshy digits at its mouth wriggled as if fondling the air, its head swaying side to side. In a flash, Eric realized the creature was blind. It might not be able to see him, but it would likely hear him if he just got up and ran. Not daring even to breathe, he silently propped himself up on his palms. If he could just scoot backward a bit, he could make it to one of the trees. In its branches, he could just wait until the creature went looking for other prey. He could make it. He just needed to get his feet under him. Slowly, he raised his leg, bending it at the knee and—
The creature swatted. Its claws sunk into the flesh of Eric’s calf. His eyes bulged, but he clamped his mouth shut. It was all he could do to keep from screaming, his face growing livid with the effort. The creature pulled, dragging him through the scraping sand. A whimper escaped his lips, cutting through the muffled quiet like a gunshot. His fingers scrambled through the sand before finding the wrapped leather of his sword hilt. He chopped at the beast, opening a gash at its shoulder. It released its grip on his calf with a feral hiss, scuttling back a pace or two. It was enough. Eric lurched to his feet. His calf throbbed, and he winced as he tried to put weight on it.
Snarling, the creature advanced, more cautiously this time. Eric batted at it, but it was faster than it looked. It darted forward and back, side to side with startling agility. It was all he could do to limp backward, struggling to keep his sword between them. The creature showed no signs of slowing. His chest felt tight as if gripped in a mighty fist. Each breath was a ragged, hard won thing. The creature was advancing, out pacing him. He had to get away. It feigned right and then, as Eric spun to guard, darted left with a swipe of its massive paw. The claws raked his thigh, shredding both his pant leg and the flesh beneath. A wild bleat like a doe in the clutches of a tiger burst from Eric’s throat. He slashed where the paw had been but struck only sand. It had already darted back, readying for another attack. He didn’t want to die, not here, not like this. The idea of being torn apart limb by bloody limb by some over-sized mole set every nerve in his body alight.
Eric swung wildly, manically. His sword cut a flurry of singing arcs through the air. He was fighting like a cornered rat, a torrent of sharp edges and reckless fury. The creature dodged and weaved, hissing as its claws clattered against the whirling steel. It was working. The creature began to back away in staggered, frustrated steps. A lightness buoyed in Eric’s chest like a soaring balloon. He was winning. He was going to survive this! Fuck this monster and fuck this rotten world. It wouldn’t get him. It would never get him!
A screech so high pitched it was nearly inaudible rocketed through the fog. Eric’s stomach rolled, and the world tossed like a ship in a squall. Not again! He choked back the burgeoning vomit in his throat and swung blindly toward the sound. But he was too late. A blackened mass like a charging bull slammed into his chest. His legs gave way and he crashed into the ground. His head bounced with a sickening crack. His vision doubled and danced. Through the swirling, Eric recognized the bat-like face of the Diyakoska and its rows of needle teeth. Shadows gathered at the edges of his vision, and he could no longer feel his body. It was as if he was falling back into himself, away from the pain and torment, away from the end that had finally arrived. Sinking into the void felt like drifting off into a feather bed. The fear and the pain were gone. There were no hard edges here.
Somewhere far off there was a sound like a shout underwater and a golden light. The Diyakoska snapped its head up toward the sound and reared, its great wings flapping as it pulled off Eric. The wind felt nice, ruffling his hair. His eyes drifted shut and he knew nothing more.
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