I've Been To Hell, This Is What I Saw - Chap 3
Allen Hopper probably wasn’t a saint. I don’t think anybody walks out of this world without something staining their soul. At the end of the day, he fought for money. That wasn’t a secret. He also didn’t deserve a quiet burial at sea in some unknown other world but that’s what he got anyways. No folded flag. No 21 gun salute. None of what a soldier should get. Just silence and a few kind words before we lowered him into the sea and let his body sink beneath the shimmering blue waters.
I’m a little ashamed to say that we took most of his equipment off of his body before we buried him. But it wasn’t going to do him any good anymore and we couldn’t just carry his corpse around with us. We committed him to the sea and then we set sail again.
A light snow drifted down from the pinkish clouds above. I don’t know how many hours had passed without a change in the sky. Wherever we were, the light never seemed to fade. It just stayed in a permanent hue of twilight. At least it was prettier than fire and brimstone.
I’d noticed other boats out on the water. They kept their distance from us and from the looks of it, they weren’t the same as the boats that had fled the ruins of the village. In the distance I could see other icebergs with plumes of smoke rising off of them. Other villagers more than likely filled with other stragglers. I suppose it was something of a relief to know that the people we’d met weren’t the only ones out there. Maybe the refugees from the village Yan Naa’gha had destroyed would find shelter there. It was a comforting thought.
After we’d killed that Creature, Compton had sent Blake and I below deck.
“Let’s take stock of any supplies we’ve got left on this ship. Maybe see if we can’t find a map.” He said. He sounded exhausted.
“I’ll see what I can scrounge up.” I promised. Compton didn’t respond nor did he dismiss me. I let him be and gave Blake a rough nudge so he’d follow me down.
The lower deck of our ship was little more than a cargo hold. There were some fishing nets and a few worn crates of strange pink fish packed in ice. They’d probably make for good enough eating. I left Blake near the entrance and listened to him thump around, going through some barrels while I walked to the back of the cargo hold. There were about four animal skin hammocks that we could sleep in. Not much but better than nothing. I rifled through them, half hoping to find a map when I heard it. The gentle inhale and exhale of breath.
From the corner of my eye, I saw that Blake was still on the other end of the hold. He’d found a piece of paper that, from a distance, looked to be a map of some sort. The breathing wasn’t his and it obviously wasn’t mine. The breathing stopped as I looked towards a small stack of crates to my left and as I approached there was nothing but silence. From where I stood though, I could tell there was space behind them. Space enough to hide someone.
On instinct my hand rested over my holstered pistol as I rounded the crates to see just who or what was waiting for me. Something moved, shrinking back deeper into hiding and I drew my gun, moving almost entirely on autopilot before I saw just who I was aiming at.
It was a girl, barely older than a teenager and with tangled, messy red hair and jade green eyes. She said something that I presume translated into: ‘Please don’t hurt me’ or something like that. Immediately I lowered my gun.
Behind me, I could hear Blake approaching to investigate the commotion.
“Jesus Shit, there’s one on board?” He whined. I glanced at him, warning him to keep his mouth shut as I raised a hand to the girl.
“It’s okay.” I said to her, “We’re not here to hurt you.”
I took a step back, giving her some space. I could feel her eyes focused fearfully on me.
“Get Serrano.” I said to Blake.
“Serrano? Why? McKay, we just wasted that bitchs village! She’s here to slit our throats when we sleep. Let’s just put a bullet in her hea-”
I spun around, grabbing Blake by the balls and squeezing as hard as I could before I forced the barrel of my gun into his mouth.
“How about I put a bullet in yours?” I growled, “I’ve been very, very patient with you Blake. Very fucking patient. But right now, I’m at my limit. We just buried one of our own because of that bullshit you pulled back at the village, so if I were you, I would think very carefully about the words coming out of my mouth for the next few days. If you want to worry about someone slitting your throat tonight, worry about me.”
I pulled the gun away, and took a cold satisfaction in listening to Blake cough and sputter. There was a terror in his eyes that told me I’d put the fear of God into him.
“Go. Get. Serrano. That’s an order, Private.”
I let go of his balls and pushed him away. Blake was smart enough to head topside without a word of sass. He paused only briefly to grab the map he’d been looking at before he left. I holstered my gun and exhaled. It had taken a lot of restraint not to pull the trigger after what I’d seen him do. A lot.
I looked over at the hiding girl, watching as she remained still and dead silent.
“You can come out.” I said softly. I didn’t imagine she’d understand me, but she might understand my tone. “I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
I showed her my empty hands before offering one to her. She hesitated for a moment, staring mistrustfully at me before reaching out to grasp my hand. I helped her to her feet, her eyes still trained on me before she spoke.
“Thou art of Saxon blood, true?”
Her accent made the words hard to make out, but it was definitely English… At least, a form of it. I stared at her, caught off guard that I recognized anything coming out of her mouth.
“I… You speak English?”
“Such is the language of me people.” She replied, “Mine art Alwin. Beyond those of Nuoroma.”
Behind me, I heard footsteps on the stairs as Serrano and Compton joined us in the hold. The girl shrank back, as if to hide behind me.
“How is she?” Serrano asked, “Where did you find her?”
“Hiding behind some crates. She must’ve gotten on board before we did.” I said. I looked back at her.
“I think she speaks English… Or, something like English.”
“Out here?” Compton asked.
“Well, we saw other villages, right? Could be that there were more temples.” Serrano offered, “In theory, each one could have drawn in people from different parts of the world. If there were one in the UK…”
Compton nodded thoughtfully as Serrano brushed past me towards the girl and tried to put on a friendly smile.
“Hello.” He said, speaking slowly and deliberately. “Do you understand me?”
“Some.” The girl replied, “Who art thou?”
“My name is Doctor Neil Serrano. These here are my friends. Fred Compton and Jasmine McKay. Do you have a name?”
“Lila.” She said. Her eyes darted over to me, as if she didn’t fully trust Serrano.
“Lila. That’s a pretty name. Did you live in the village, Lila?”
“Nuroma? True. With mine husband though I know not his fate.”
“Nuroma?” I asked, “Was that the village we were at?”
“True.” Lila said, “I came to be married. To keep fresh mine bloodline… The stagnation of blood doth kill slower than Yan Naa’gha… Yet it kills the same.”
Compton traded a look with me.
“The temple beneath the village.” He said, “Did your people have one like it?”
“Alwin?” Lila asked. “True… Our Fathers desolated it in ages past. All peoples defiled the Temples vile. New Blood shalt not enter this accursed land and nothing shalt leave. Only we remain until we too die. The Rosen Prince hath crossed the border once. Nevermore.”
“So there’s no other working temples.” I said. Comptons brow furrowed.
“What about the inland temple?” He asked, “Was that destroyed too?”
Lila shifted uncomfortably.
“Our Fathers dared not leave the Sea. Too great a peril. Inland waits the tomb of The Vast Serpent. Dare not to waken it… Should that which waits upon the path not claim thee first.”
“So we still have a way home.” Compton said, “The Tomb.”
“Ye shan’t go!” Lila warned, “Dare thee not! The seas belong to Yan Naa’gha. The Land to Yan Kr’hnzh and sky to Yan Ch’imek.”
“I wouldn’t worry about Yan Naa’gha. It’s dead.” Compton said.
Lila paused. Her expression turned to disbelief, and then a quiet horror.
“Dead?” She repeated, “Dead? Thee hath slain Yan Naa’gha?”
“After what it did to your village, I figure we did you a favor.”
“Yan Naa’gha was a guardian of Mine and Mine people! Thou art mad! Slay it and invoke damnation upon mine people, upon all peoples!”
I looked over at Compton. His expression remained stern.
“After what I saw it do, I can’t say it was much of a guardian.” He said. His attention shifted to Serrano. “Doc, bring the girl topside. Since she seems to know a thing or two about the temples, maybe she can help you make sense of that map Blake found.”
“I… Yes, Captain.” Serrano said quietly. He offered a timid smile to Lila who still looked shaken.
“Thou art mad…” She said, eyes focused on Compton. He didn’t reply to her and instead looked at me as Serrano gently took her by the wrist and led her away.
“I’ll send Cook down in a moment. At least we’ve got fish. See if you two can’t find a way to cook some of it.”
“You’re not concerned about what the girl said?” I asked. I watched as she and Serrano disappeared topside.
“Not particularly, no.” Compton replied, “Look, I understand that these people have good reason to fear whatever the hell is living out here but I don’t think that applies to us. We’ve already killed one of these things.”
“With explosives.” I added, “Sir, the situation is FUBAR. We’re going to run out of ammo sooner or later. We should be playing things as safe as possible.”
“I thought you liked FUBAR ops, McKay.”
I gritted my teeth in frustration.
“That was before one of ours got gutted by a fucking sea serpent, sir. I’m reading the terrain. The girl knows this place. She’s a valuable asset. We should be listening to her warnings.”
“I understand your concerns, Corporal. I really do. Do you think I want to bury another one of ours? But staying here is not an option. We’ll be in even more danger the longer we wait. We need to get to that temple and we need to find a way out of here ASAP. That’s our top priority. Those creatures, they’re just animals. We know we can kill them if we encounter them. If we encounter them.”
“I’m inclined to think that’s a pretty big If, Captain.” I said.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Compton said, “I’m not discussing this further. I’ll send Cook down in a moment. You have your orders.”
With that, he turned away and left me behind.
There wasn’t much on the boat to cook with. Obviously it had been meant to stay at sea for a few days, so there was a small stone fire pit we were able to use to grill some of the fish. As for the rest, Cook and I both knew a thing or two about surviving out in the wilderness. We used the heat from the pit to dry some thin fillets into jerky. I figured that sooner or later, we’d need to leave the boat behind and I wanted to bring as much food as we could.
The fish itself was a little like bass or trout. Not too fatty. Perfect for jerky. If we rationed it right, I figured we might be able to make it a few weeks with the jerky. Until then, at least we had something a little fresher to tide us over.
Our first official supper in hell could have gone a lot worse. Cook and I brought the fish topside and we ate together. I noticed Blake sitting off by himself, near the stern of the ship. He’d been awfully quiet ever since our ‘talk’. It was good to know he’d taken my advice to heart.
Serrano sat near Lila, whispering to her over the map and I made a point to join them.
“So, any idea where we are or where we’re headed?” I asked.
“Somewhat.” Serrano said, “Lila here has helped me understand this place. This world… It’s strange. Look at the shape of the map.”
I leaned over to study it. It was a circular image with a landmass of some sort surrounded by ocean. I couldn’t make much of it.
“We’re here. Near the edge.” Serrano said, gesturing to a spot on the water, “We’re moving inland, so I’m going to guess the tomb of the Vast Serpent is here…”
He gestured to what looked to be a mountain range, near the center of the land mass.
“Alright… So I guess we know we’re headed the right way, then?”
“There’s not really any other ‘way’ to head.” Serrano said, “This world is… weird. It’s not natural. I mean, take the sky for instance.”
“Look up. Do you see a sun, anywhere? Stars? A moon?”
I hadn’t actually thought about it before but looking up, I realized that Serrano was right. There was no sun. Nothing in the sky to generate that eternal twilight hue.
“According to Lila, this people here, this place was a prison created to hold the Vast Serpent after it was cast into the underworld, ‘The Gloom’ as they call it.” Serrano continued. “Apparently that didn’t sit too well with the Serpent. It ripped holes in its prison to lure people from both the world of the living and the Gloom into its domain so it could feed on them. It promised them power, prosperity, life everlasting…”
“I don’t suppose it mentioned the part about living on icebergs.” I murmured.
“Well, I’m sure once the people figured out what was on the other side of those portals, that’s when they buried them.” Serrano said, “That blockage at the temple back in Italy. I think it was deliberate. Someone tried to seal it up… Prevent anyone else from getting in. I don’t think they were able to destroy the machine that brought us here so they did the next best thing. I can only imagine the other temples are still active as well, I mean, look at Lila here. Judging from her dialect, I’d imagine her ancestors came here at least five or six hundred years ago. The temple we found was far older than that. They probably stumbled upon one of the temples like we did and activated it by accident. I doubt they’re the only ones too. God only knows how many active portals still exist back home, buried beneath our feet and waiting to be discovered again.”
“Thee had best hope they are not.” Lila said gravely. She picked at her fish as she listened to Serrano talk. “Damnation must remain closed till we all fall into the Gloom.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure you won’t be getting many tourists.” I said. Serrano cracked a half smile at that.
“Yeah… There’s one thing I still don’t get.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well, while the portals on our end still seem to work, the people here made a point to destroy the ones on their end. As far as I can tell, people used to be able to come and go through the temples before. Supposedly there were also people inland up until a few thousand years ago.”
“You’re losing me.”
“The people here are afraid of something.” Serrano said, “Beyond the trinity of ‘Knights’ we keep hearing about. Y’know. Yan Naa’gha and the others. There’s something else. The Rosen Prince.”
“Better to speak not the name.” Lila warned, “Tis an evil thing.”
“So you keep saying.” Serrano murmured.
“The Vast Serpent tore his prison. Knowing not what would enter… Something far more wicked than he.” Lila said, shaking her head as she spoke. “I shalt speak no more… Inland lies naught but Gloomless death.”
Serrano seemed to shrug as he looked at me. I got the feeling it was better not to ask any questions on the subject. Just mentioning it had drained the color from Lilas skin.
I count us lucky that we didn’t encounter any trouble over the next few days at sea. The hammocks weren’t the most comfortable to sleep in, but we made do. We slept in shifts. Two asleep while four did the work. I spent most of my time ensuring we had rations for when we made landfall.
Looking back, I can say that the days on the ship were the easiest. It was when we finally made it to shore that everything went south.
Cook was the one who spotted it first and Serrano took us in. I remember when I came topside to see the land before us. In the distance, I could see mountains rising up over a treeline of strange flora. Trees I didn’t recognize with pink and black leaves. Mushrooms that rose in strange tiers and a beach with sand as black as night. It looked like something out of a fantasy or a fever dream, alien and yet familiar.
On the black sands, a short distance away I saw another ship beached nearby. One that looked almost exactly like ours. Lila seemed to notice it too. She couldn’t stop staring at it.
“Might be some survivors.” I offered as I approached her. She looked back at me, her expression cold and almost bitter.
“Nay.” She said calmly, “No survivors, McKay. Not here.”
As we brought the ship in to beach it, just like the one we saw in the distance I felt an unfamiliar knot in my stomach. A sense of wrongness… Trespassing. It wasn’t a feeling I wanted to ignore although I don’t think I had much of a choice in the matter.
As we beached the ship in shallow waters, Compton was the first to disembark. He kept Hoppers gun in hand as he dropped down onto the black sand and Blake was the first to follow him down. When I left the boat, I scanned the strange landscape around me. The sand shifted under my boots as I helped Cook unload some of the supplies we’d packed. Lila stayed on the boat, watching us. She didn’t seem as if she was in any hurry to get off.
“McKay.” Compton called, “Leave the unpacking to Blake. I need you on recon.”
“Alone, sir?” I asked.
“You and Cook. Blake, the good Doctor and I will get us mobile.” He said. I watched as Blake swore quietly and went back to the boat as Cook helped him up. He dropped down to take his place.
“One hour. Get a read on the area. You find anything out of place, you let me know. We’ll plan our route around it.” Compton said as he looked at us, “Don’t shoot unless you’re engaged. If we hear gunfire, we’ll be right behind you but I don’t want to give away our position to anything that might be out here.”
“Something worrying you, sir?” Cook asked.
“No more than usual.” Compton replied, “One hour. Move out.”
Cook nodded and turned towards the treeline. I hesitated for a moment, looking up at the ship and at Lila before I turned to follow him into the brush.
Both of us kept our rifles at the ready although aside from the nearby crash of the waves on the beach and the rustling of our own movement, I didn’t hear a sound. No birds. No animals. Nothing. Cook turned, cutting a diagonal path through the trees. He moved with purpose.
“You see something?” I asked.
“The other ship on the beach.” He replied, “You saw it too, right?”
“Makes sense we check it out first. I wanna get a look at it from the trees, see if there’s anyone home before we find out if they’re friendly.”
“After Blakes stunt at the village? I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Maybe not… But we’ve still got Serrano and the girl. They might be able to help us make nice. All I’m saying is that there’s strength in numbers. If we can make friends out here, we should.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
As far as I could tell, the boat was abandoned… As for if that had been the choice of its former occupants, that was another story entirely.
The hull was splintered as if something had forced its way through. There were footprints in the sand but I couldn’t make out much about them. Their abundance told me that there’d been something going on though.
Cook studied them from the treeline for a moment before he stepped out onto the beach once more. He glanced down towards our ship as if to make sure it was safe before advancing on the broken one. I followed in his footsteps.
Looking down at the sand, I was sure I could make out two different types of footprints. One looked to be about the same size as my own and Cooks prints. The others seemed almost triple the size. Cook approached the break in the wooden hull and stopped in the middle of it, studying the damage.
“Something cracked this thing like an egg.” He noted.
“Maybe local fauna or one of the knights?” I asked.
“Hard to say. There’s blood in here. No bodies… Cargo hold looks ransacked. Take a look.”
I followed him through the break in the hull. Somebody had gone through that place in a hurry. There was splintered wood and scattered, melting ice. No fish, though. It had been cleaned out almost entirely. The stink of fish still remained but that was it.
“What the fuck…” I said under my breath as Cook turned to step out. He stared at the woods, following the large footprints back there.
“Someone was on these people after they landed.” He said.
“No shit.” I replied, “I don’t like this. Whoever did this, something tells me they aren’t someone we want to fuck with. We should go back to Compton. Push the boat out. Find somewhere better to land.”
Cook nodded before heading for the treeline again.
“Well we’ve still got about 45 minutes before Compton expects us back. Let’s see if we can at least find out who’s out here.”
I lingered on the beach for a moment before following him, keeping my rifle at the ready. We were in enemy territory and I had no intention of being caught off guard.
Cook kept a light step as we slowly made our way through the forest. I could see footprints in the dirt that he was following. I saw him check his ammo and his grenade attachment, making sure both were ready. I hoped to God we wouldn’t have to use them although doubt God gave much of a shit about that place.
It didn’t take long before I picked up the scent of cooked meat. There’s a difference between the stink of burnt flesh and the scent of something cooking. This walked the fine line between them. Cook raised a hand, warning me to pause. I paused, waiting for him to give the order to proceed. When we did, we stayed low and we stayed quiet.
The smell got stronger as we got closer to its source. I could tell there was a clearing in the brush ahead of us. Through the brush, I could see structures ahead of us. They looked like canopies woven out of the nearby brush. They lacked the craftsmanship of the huts back on the iceberg. These seemed far more utilitarian. Whether or not this was a village or just an encampment was up for debate although frankly, I’m not sure I wanted to know the answer to the question.
I saw the fire first. The heat from it was so intense I could feel it from our spot several feet away. The flames must have been at least twelve feet tall but that was not the part that turned my stomach. It was the branches on the edge of the fire, planted into the ground at an angle so the human bodies impaled on them would roast.
I pressed my arm over my mouth to stop myself from gagging. Cook only stared in silent horror. I suspected we’d found the ‘survivors’ from the boat. They’d been decapitated and gutted. Their skin was charred and crispy but the shape of a human body was still identifiable…
Behind the bonfire, I could see movement and I strained my eyes to see the figures beneath the canopy. They too were massive, easily two to three times as tall as I was. Their bodies were thick and muscular. They looked almost as human as the survivors they now roasted on an open fire save for one crucial detail.
I could see every exposed muscle and bone, the flex of tendons and their lidless, unblinking eyes. The color was off. There was a paleness to their bodies as if the muscle had somehow scarred over into something harder. Their limbs seemed too thick and their malformed bodies reminded me of Yan Naa’gha although not quite as warped.
Cook stared at the giants and I saw him shuffle back a step. Without a word he’d turned to leave. He didn’t need to tell me where he was going. I already knew. We’d seen enough.
We kept quiet as we put the camp of those giants behind us but Cook kept a brisker pace this time. He was a little less sure footed, not that I blamed him. I kept glancing back, dreading the sight of one of those things lurking behind us. If anything was there, I didn’t see it. That didn’t mean we were safe, though.
By the time we made it back to the boat, Blake, Serrano and Compton had finished most of the unloading. Compton looked over at us the moment we stepped onto the beach.
“Back already?” He asked, “What did you see?”
“You don’t wanna fucking know…” Cook murmured, “We should load the boat back up. Fast. We need to leave as soon as we can.”
He brushed past him and grabbed some of the bags of supplies we’d packed. From the boat, Lila watched him quietly.
“What the fuck?” Blake snapped, “We just got that out!”
Compton stared, stony eyed back at Cook.
“What exactly did you see?” He demanded, looking from Cook to me.
“Humanoids, sir.” I said, “Very fucking big humanoids. From the looks of it, they attacked that other boat, just down the shore. We tracked them back to a camp, barely a klick away from here.”
As Cook hauled himself back up onto the boat, Lila stared down at us.
“Sentinels.” She said plainly, “Thee hath seen the Sentinels. Guardians of the inland shore.”
Compton looked up at her before smoothing down his hair and sighing.
“I take it they’re not friendly.” He said.
“They were cooking people on fucking sticks, Compton! We’ll check the map. Find another way inland. We’ve got the supplies to last a few more days on the water!”
From the corner of my eye, I noticed Blake pick up one of the bags to help Cook. Compton sighed and shook his head.
“Now let’s just wait a second, here… You said you saw a camp, right? That was your word. Camp.”
“These Sentinels. If they’re making camps, then they’ve probably got a presence all over this area. We might make land again tomorrow and find more of them.” Compton said. He looked over at Lila.
“You called them Guardians, right? So they’d be all over this place, wouldn’t they?”
“In the forests, True.” Lila said gravely. “Stories tell they once were men. Cursed unto servitude by The Vast Serpent, kin to the Trinity Knights. Soldiers of Yan Kr’hnzh.”
Compton looked back at me, then at the forest.
“If they’re all over these woods, we’re not going to find a better insertion point.” he said.
“You don’t know that!” I warned.
“Thine Captain speaks true. Tis without hope.” Lila said, “Thou shalt not pass the Inland Shore. None survived before. None shalt survive now. Tis mercy… there is Gloom in the death they bring yet I shalt not step foot upon these sands!”
Compton scanned around, looking at all of us.
“Whisky, get ready to move out. We’ll avoid engaging the enemy unless absolutely necessary. If we stay low and keep our mouths shut, we might just walk out of this.”
“With all due respect sir, are you out of your fucking mind?” Blake asked, “I dunno if you were listening to the part about cooking fucking people on sticks but I was! Absolutely fucking not!”
“This isn’t up for debate, Private.” Compton warned, “We need to get inland and Dr. Serrano’s map shows that the forest isn’t as thick in this area. There’s a valley on the other side.”
“So what? They can hunt us out in the open?” I asked, “Sir, do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
“I agree with the Captain, actually.” Serrano cut in, “According to the map, there’s some structures in the valley. Possibly an old city.”
“If we can get there, it would be a defensible position we can hold as we plot our way through the mountains.” Compton finished, “It’s our best bet.”
“Hold it with what, exactly?” I asked, “Our ammo reserves aren’t going to last forever. If we get these things attention, we don’t know how many we’ll be up against. We are not equipped for a firefight right now, sir!”
“They don’t know that. Besides, we’ll be the only ones with guns.” Compton said. “It’s a plan and it’s better than the alternative! Now move out, soldier. We’re burning daylight.”
I could see Blake and Cook both hesitating. Blake was the first one to move, shouldering one of the bags and swearing under his breath. Cook caved second. I didn’t have much of a choice after that. Going this alone was not an option.
“Thou art damned, should thee go!” Lila warned from the boat, “I shalt not set foot upon these sands!”
“I don’t think it matters to the Sentinels, honey.” Compton said, “From the sound of it, your friends back there didn’t leave the boat either. You’re welcome to come with us. If you make it to the Temple, I’ll be happy to get you out of this place. Likewise you’re welcome to stay here in which case, it was a pleasure knowing you.”
Lilas brow furrowed. She gripped the edge of the boat as if she meant to retort before she paused. I knew she was doing the math in her head and I knew what she was going to choose as well.
“Damn thee…” She murmured before climbing over the edge of the boat. Cook helped her down onto the beach and offered her one of the bags of supplies.
“Smart girl.” Compton said, “Alright Whisky. Let’s move out. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
With that, he started off towards the treeline and though every instinct that I had told me not to follow him, I did it anyway.
As we made our way through the forest, I kept my ears open. Every distant sound sent a chill through me. Every sideways glance seemed to contain danger. I don’t think I’d ever been so on edge before. I don’t think I was the only one either. Lila shadowed me closely. Of the five of us, I think I was the only one she actually trusted.
It was almost an hour before the rain started and the sound of it dripping down through the leaves didn’t help any of our nerves. It was a distraction. Additional noise that left us at a disadvantage. The strange colors of the flora around us made it hard to determine what was just a plant and what was an enemy.
When I heard the distant snapping of branches though, I froze in my tracks. Compton looked back in the direction the sound was coming from, eyes wide. I wonder if he’d realized he’d fucked up.
“Hide!” I whispered, “Now!”
I saw Blake break rank and move towards something off to the side. A large tree that had once been on an incline. Rain and time had eroded the soil away, revealing some of its roots… but it made for a good enough hiding spot.
Compton raced in behind him, dragging Serrano behind him. Likewise, I pulled Lila to safety beneath the roots. With Cook down there with us, the fit was tight, but at least we weren’t out in the open.
The rusting sound of movement and the snapping of branches drew closer. I caught a glimpse of a soaking wet, yellowed figure clumsily meandering through the brush and I felt my heart stop in my chest. It carried a spear that had probably once been the size of a small tree in one hand, and a torch in the other. From the corner of my eye, I saw two more of the Sentinels, armed with the same weapons treading down the same path we’d been on.
We were being hunted.
The two Sentinels stopped several feet away from the roots we hid under. I could hear one of them sniffing the air before it muttered something in a guttural growl. I don’t even think Serrano knew what language they spoke.
The sniffing continued and my heart skipped a beat as both Sentinels turned to look at the tree we were hiding under. One of them raised a hand to point at us. Their lidless, unblinking eyes were fixated on us. I don’t know how good their eyesight was, but I knew we were caught. They sniffed the air again as they approached the tree. A third Sentinel appeared from the woods, coming up behind them and I saw Compton tensing up.
They were almost on top of us now.
Lila had gone stiff as a board. She didn’t breathe. She didn’t move. She only stared with wide, horrified eyes that seemed ready to burst into tears.
The Sentinels didn’t move. Perhaps they hadn’t seen us… Perhaps they only smelled us. They grunted amongst themselves before I saw one lean up against the tree and begin to push.
In one fluid movement, Comptons arm shot out. Before I could stop him, he grabbed Lila by the shirt and pushed her out from under the roots. She uttered only a simple scream before one of the Sentinels grabbed her, huffing in triumph as it did. I stifled my cry of protest but readied my gun.
I could hear Lila screaming. I could see her limbs flailing… Then I watched as the three Sentinels turned and walked away, seemingly satisfied with their catch. My focus shifted to Compton who watched them go.
“What the fuck are you do-?”
“Shut up! My priority is the safety of my fireteam! Not some straggler!” He hissed.
I watched as the Sentinels walked away from us, my heart racing in my chest.
“Move out, Whisky. Double time!”
Oh I moved alright.
Gripping my rifle, I slid out from under the roots. If Compton or anyone else tried to say something or stop me, I didn’t hear it. Lilas screams told me that she was still alive for now and as I charged after the Sentinels, into the brush, I aimed to keep her that way.
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