I've Been To Hell, This Is What I Saw - Chap 4
Things happen when you’re in the shit. When it’s you or someone else on the line, the obvious choice is always going to be you. For a moment, the world falls away. Nothing else matters. Not the job, not your orders, nothing. The only thing you’ve got is yourself and that’s the one thing people instinctively don’t want to give up. When you’re boots on the ground, your team is your family. They’re an extension of yourself.
When your team is on the chopping block, you’d do anything to save them. Even stupid shit like throwing a civvie to a pack of skinless man eating giants, just to get them off your ass.
I don’t agree with what Compton did to Lila. I wouldn’t have agreed with it if he’d thrown Blake out there or if he’d gone out himself. But in some situations, the only call you can make is a bad one. Fred Compton made a bad call and because he did, Fireteam Whisky got away. I didn’t have to like that and I didn’t have to like him. What I did, was stupid. It was the right thing to do. But it was stupid. At that point though, I didn’t care. All I cared about was keeping Lila alive.
The three Sentinels hadn’t gotten far as I raced after them, screaming like a fucking lunatic to get their attention and to stop them. One of them carried Lila under its arm like a keg of beer. That was the one I shot first. When it looked back at me, I took aim at its face and pulled the trigger.
I don’t know how much my bullets hurt that thing, but I know they sure as hell didn’t tickle, especially when I hit it in the eye. Black blood dribbled down the Sentinels face as it let out a dry, inhuman scream of agony. Lila dropped from its grasp, hitting the ground hard.
“RUN!” I snapped and she didn’t need to be told twice.
One of the other Sentinels raised its tree trunk sized spear at me and I opened fire on it. My bullets struck its face and throat. I saw its skull crack and saw a spray of blood but it didn’t stop coming for me.
As it lunged for me with its spear, I dove out of the way. The third Sentinel was waiting for me though. Before I could get my bearings, a massive foot knocked me off my feet and into the mud. My gun slipped from my hands. I saw the giant raising its spear to impale me and I frantically grabbed for my rifle, knowing I wouldn’t make the shot.
Then came the explosion. My ears rang from the force of it. A flash of light, smoke and gore sprayed outwards from the head of the Sentinel that was about three seconds away from making McKay kebabs. What was left of its head at least. The massive creature fell backwards, its skull mostly pulverized by the blast.
The remaining two Sentinels recoiled from the blast and through the ringing in my ears, I heard gunfire. The least wounded of the creatures raised its arm to cover its face. It retreated along with its newly blinded brother.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Cook frantically reloading his grenade attachment with his final round. He fired it without hesitation. The grenade struck the blinded Sentinel in the shoulder but the blast was enough to take them both out. The ground shook as their massive bodies hit the ground. I can’t imagine there’s much out there that can stand up to a point blank explosion like that.
With the creatures dead, Cook hurried over to my side and pulled me to my feet.
“Come on. We’ve got to get the hell out of here.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Lila nearby. She’d had the good sense to hide as soon as Cook had gone loud. As he pulled me through the woods and back to Whisky, she reluctantly followed.
I could hear a distant, inhuman howl of rage. By helping me, Cook had just announced our presence to every Sentinel in the area. Ahead, I could see Compton, Blake and Serrano through the trees. Compton and I locked eyes as I rejoined the group.
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” He snarled.
“Me? She’s a civvie, Compton! A fucking civvie!”
“They were right on top of us! We were in a hole!”
“Can you two shut the fuck up already?” Blake interrupted, “Listen!”
For the first time in his life, Calvin Blake had a point.
The snapping of branches and rustling of leaves was distant, but it was still there. The Sentinels were closing on our position and fast.
“Move.” Cook said and in that moment, command structure didn’t stand for shit. My grievances with Compton could wait.
I reached out to grab Lila by the hand and pulled her along behind me as we abandoned our position We ran almost in single file, racing through the forest and the rain as fast as our legs could possibly carry us. The distant sounds of encroaching Sentinels never faded though. I couldn’t tell how close they were or how long we had left before they were right on top of us.
The twilight sky shimmered off of a shallow pond at the bottom of an incline to our left. Lila almost slid down into the water but I kept a firm grip on her and kept her at the top. The earth trembled from the massive footsteps and from the corner of my eye I saw movement in the trees up ahead, just to the right of Compton. He turned, noticing the attack at almost the same time I did. Almost.
The newly appeared Sentinel knocked Compton aside with a lazy swipe of one massive hand. He let out a startled cry before he was launched off the incline and into the pond below. No sooner had the Sentinel attacked, we retaliated. Fully automatic fire peppered its face as Cook and Blake retreated from it. I readied my rifle to open fire on the creature myself.
It staggered back a step, raising its hand to guard its face as it readied its spear to throw at us. Unlike us though, the Sentinels wider feet denied it sure footing on the incline. The wet soil gave beneath its weight and it toppled down into the pond, following Compton. It didn’t rise again. Black blood dribbled from countless bullet holes in its face and neck. I saw its chest struggle to rise, then fall before it died.
Cook slid down the incline after the Sentinel and raced towards the shape of Compton in the water. He was still alive at least. I saw him try to stand before he let out a cry of pain and collapsed.
“Fuck…” He panted.
“What’s wrong? You hurt?” Cook asked as he pulled Compton into a sitting position.
I glanced at Lila, making sure she was safe before heading down into the water to join Cook as he examined Comptons leg. Just a touch earned a cry of pain from the Captain and the angle it was bent at looked… wrong.
“It’s broken.” Cook said. He glanced over at me, “McKay. Help me get him up!”
I reached down, helping Cook lift Compton up onto his one good leg.
“My gun…” He panted, “Give me my gun. Put me up on one of the trees then run. I’ll hold out as long as I-”
“We’re not leaving you behind, sir.” Cook said. On the far side of the pond, there was a fallen tree and some rocks. It was hardly a fortress but it was at least defensible and offered some cover.
“You don’t have a choice, soldier. That was an order.” Compton growled. I heard Blake getting into the water behind us, while Serrano helped Lila down.
“We don’t leave people behind.” Cook said plainly as we dragged him to the rocks. We set him down and a few moments later, Blake brought him his dropped gun.
“They’ve heard the gunshots.” Compton said, “In a few minutes, they’ll be all over us. We don’t know how many there are. They could surround us… McKay, talk some fucking sense into him!”
I glanced at Cook. His expression told me that he had no intention of leaving Compton to die and despite my current grievances with the man, I wasn’t inclined to leave him to his fate either
“Serrano, can you get Compton mobile?” I asked as he and Lila joined us.
“I-I can try but I’m not that kind of doctor.” Serrano warned.
“Try. Blake, where’s our first aid? We’ve still got bandages, right?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Blake said, “Gimme a second to check my bag.”
I approached the fallen tree on our position and cut off a branch big enough to form a splint. I offered it to Serrano.
“Once he’s patched up, I might be able to carry him.” Cook offered.
“Carry me?” Compton scoffed, “We’re not going to make it over the mountains with me over your shoulder.”
“No, but we might make it to the structures just past this forest.” Cook said, glancing at Serrano. “That was your plan, wasn’t it? Get to the structures? How much further could it be?”
“I… I don’t know.” Serrano admitted. “A few hours, I think.”
He sheltered his map from the rain as he unfurled it and gestured to roughly the spot we were in
“It’s been… What, an hour or so since we left the shore, right?” He asked, “Maybe in another hour or two, we could reach the treeline.”
I looked over his shoulder. Compared to the rest of the forest on the island, the part we were in seemed like a sliver. I could see why Compton had preferred this route.
“We’ll make it work.” Cook said.
“Those things aren’t going to stop coming.” Compton warned, “Cook, please. Think about this. I’m dead weight. Let me cover your escape. You’ll move faster!”
Cook ignored him.
“We might be able to scare them off before our ammo runs dry.” He said, “Check your mags people. Breaks almost over.”
I looked down at Compton who swore under his breath and shifted to get in a moderately comfortable position to shoot from.
“Cook, what if he’s right?” I asked, “We’re going to have a harder time carrying him out of here and we’ve got enough problems as it is.”
“So what? Now it’s okay to throw him to the wolves and run?” Cook asked.
“That’s not what I’m sa-”
“I’m not leaving him for dead without at least trying to get him out of here.”
“And if we all get killed in the process?”
Cook was silent for a moment. I could see Blake staring at us although he didn’t say a word.
“If it’s too much, he can get his wish.” Cook finally said.
Serrano headed over to Compton, holding the stick I’d given him as a splint along with a new one and several bandages. I watched as he set to work as best he could. The rain picked up around us. Judging by the sound of movement in the woods, the Sentinels were with us.
A massive spear flew out of the brush and soared over our heads. It landed in the pond behind us, making a huge splash as it did. Another spear flew out after it and struck one of the rocks below us.
I could see the Sentinels moving through the trees. A few of the braver ones stepped out. One of them regarded the body of its fallen comrade before looking at us. Their unblinking eyes displayed no emotion and conveyed none of the human intelligence I’d seen in the eyes of Yan Naa’gha. They only stared at us blankly as they began their attack. Some came with spears, others with clubs. Most of them held torches that flickered in the rain.
“Weapons free!” Cook said, but by then the shooting had already started.
The Sentinels recoiled when they were hit, but their advance didn’t stop. At most, they glanced at their wounded comrades before mindlessly shambling onwards. A few of them fell to the gunfire, collapsing as the bullets broke through their skulls, blinded them and pierced their throats. All in all, I counted about five who dropped by the time my first magazine ran completely dry. I discarded it and slid another one into its place.
We hadn’t exactly come prepared for a prolonged fight. A standard load was 7 30 round magazines, not counting the one in my C7. I imagined the others were carrying about as much. All the same, ammo goes quick when you need it. At full auto, your clip will be empty in three seconds and as far as I could tell, it took at least a half clip to the face before one of the Sentinels dropped.
I saw Blake switching out his own empty clip and I saw three others by his feet. We were going to run dry long before these things stopped coming. My heart raced in my chest as that familiar adrenaline kicked in. Never before had a firefight felt so… hopeless…
I tried not to think about it. I really did. I just focused on the moment. That familiar smell of smoke, the ringing in my ears from the countless gunshots and my next target. The Sentinel I’d taken aim at fell backwards without ceremony. Another took its place. I emptied my second clip, then my third, then my fourth. There were always more coming.
“I’m out!” I heard Blake yelling, “Compton, where’s your 508s?”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Lila was keeping low. I saw that Cook was changing to his last magazine. It sucks to be right all the time.
Then I heard it, above all the gunfire and the guttural grunts of the Sentinels… I heard the sound that I still hear in my nightmares. It came from within the forest and seemed to shake the ground itself. The scream reminded me of the one Yan Naa’gha had made only this… this was far worse.
It was half wolf howl, half human scream and it was the first thing I’d seen that made the Sentinels pause. The earth shook with heavy footsteps. Our gunfire had momentarily ceased. The Sentinels remained still, their heads all turned in the same direction, away from us.
One of them spoke, a low hiss that seemed directed at its companions. As if on command, I saw several of them retreating back to the trees. They left their dead behind as they fled and the ground quaked with the weight of something far greater than them.
“Yan Kr’hnzh…” Lila said softly, “He comes…”
Almost as suddenly as they’d come, the Sentinels were gone and we were alone. I heard a rustling movement in the trees as the second of the Trinity Knights came.
“Get down!” I whispered and gestured to both Blake and Cook. They did as I asked and all we could do was peek out from the rocks as something entered the clearing.
I don’t know what I expected to see. Some other skinless, humanoid monster perhaps. Maybe another creature bathed in some shadowy mist like Yan Naa’gha had been. I suppose on some of those points, the thing that stepped out of the woods didn’t disappoint. On others, though… It was much, much worse.
Much like the last Knight we saw, there was something vaguely human about its appearance although less so than it had been with Yan Naa’gha. The shape of the skeleton was like a strange amalgamation of a human, a wolf and a deer, kind of like someone had tried to build a wolf from memory using human bones but gave up halfway through and built a deer instead. The limbs seemed way too long and ended in strange ‘hooves’ that looked like fused fingerbones. The skull looked as if someone had stretched a human skull to look like a dog and added horns. The horns looked… cancerous. There were too many of them, stretching up from the skull like dead tree branches. They were red, as if they’d just shed velvet.
Unlike the Sentinels or Yan Naa’gha, the skeleton didn’t seem to be part of its body. It seemed as if it was outside of the body entirely. Exposed muscle and tissue was still visible and it seemed to pulsate and move more than it should have. But that was not the worst of it.
No… Aside from the horrific wrongness of that creature, there was more. Its exposed flesh and bone seemed overgrown with some sort of moss or mold. It changed in color from green, to blue, to pink. Roots and vines stretched across its body, clinging to it. Vibrant flowers that spanned every color of the rainbow seemed to bloom in the spaces between its ribcage and protruded from between its horns. Yet with all of that life growing on it, it seemed… sick. Diseased almost. Its eyes were a pale, milky white. An overpowering sweet stink seemed to radiate off of it and a dark reddish haze seemed to waft off of it.
The creature, Yan Kr’hnzh, descended down to the waters. It sniffed at the Sentinel bodies in the pond before letting out a raspy huff. Then it bent down and opened its horrible maw. I could see colorful tendrils emerge from its mouth and grasp one of the bodies. Despite the size of the Sentinels, they seemed small in the mouth of Yan Kr’hnzh and as the tendrils pulled the corpses into its maw, it swallowed them whole.
I watched as it grazed on the dead, its muscles seeming to squirm unnaturally with every corpse it ingested. I could see Lila watching the creature before us in silent horror and I remember thinking that she knew something was wrong with it. A glow began to rise in the stomach of the creature, blue, then green, then pink. The flowers on its body seemed to perk up. Their grotesque petals spread wider as it fed.
From the woods, I heard a defiant cry from one of the Sentinels before a spear flew out. But this time, it wasn’t aimed at us. This time, it was aimed at Yan Kr’hnzh. It pierced the creatures neck and it didn’t so much as flinch. It looked up, towards the direction of the woods as if it had been ever so mildly offended. A few more spears were thrown at it but it hardly reacted. Instead, it turned towards the woods, away from us and loosed another one of those horrifying screams. It made its way up the incline with ease, as it headed into the woods to deal with the Sentinels.
I didn’t get much of a look at the battle. But I saw enough to know that the Sentinels had bigger problems than us now. I felt Serrano’s hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t know about you, but it looks to me like they’re busy.” He said, “If we’re going to go. We should go now!”
No arguments from anyone there.
Cook rushed over to Compton and took the gun from him. He handed it off to Blake before he picked the Captain up in a fireman’s carry. With our enemy distracted, we left the rocky outcrop behind and stepped into the pond once more. I could hear the sounds of battle in the background.
“Lila!” I called and gestured for her to follow. She lingered for a moment, looking in the direction of the battle.
I grabbed her by the arm. She looked at me, wide eyed and confused.
“I do not understand… They were given unto the Knight as servants. They should not have quarrel with him…”
“Well they do. Let’s go!”
“Tis not right…” She said before I pulled her along.
We didn’t move as fast with Cook carrying Compton. But some progress was better than none. The sounds of the distant fight faded into the distance and we kept quiet, moving as fast as we could with Serrano in the lead.
I don’t know how long we walked without rest. It was hard to gauge time with the unchanging sky and our electronics had died days ago on the boat. We didn’t so much as think about stopping for more than a few minutes at a time.
The forest around us was dead silent. No approaching Sentinels as far as we could tell. For at least a couple of hours, we had something resembling peace.
By the time I saw light through the trees, I hardly believed it was real. My legs hurt more than they had in a long, long time. Cook lagged behind us with Compton on his shoulders and none of us had spoken in what felt like hours. I broke into a run, heading for the edge of the treeline and praying I wouldn’t just see black sand waiting for me. I didn’t.
Instead, what I saw was a vast field of grass stretching out seemingly forever. In the distance, I could see the rolling shape of the mountains in the distance but before that I saw the closest thing to salvation we were going to get.
Several massive stone structures were waiting for us, just a few klicks away. By the look of them, there had once been a city there. What was left was crumbling, abandoned and overgrown but at least it offered something we needed. Shelter. Serrano stepped out of the trees behind me, silent as he laid his eyes on the ruined city for the first time.
“It’s here…” He said softly, “The structures, they’re really here! We made it!”
Cook exhaled and grunted as he set Compton down. He leaned against another tree for rest. I looked back at him and caught a small, ghost of a smile cross his lips. I smiled back at him. Might as well let him have his moment.
“Well fuck me, then. What the hell are we waiting for?” Blake asked, “Looks like the coast is clear! None of those skinless motherfuckers are out there. Let’s get going!”
“We should rest now while there’s still cover.” Cook said, “Ten, fifteen minutes. Then we’ll push forward and camp for the night in one of those structures.”
He reached into his pocket, taking out a piece of fish jerky he’d packed. He offered some to Compton before he took one for himself. Lila stood at the edge of the woods, staring pensively out at the city in the distance.
“You know anything about this place?” I asked as I approached her.
“I do not. The old Cities were before the time of my Fathers, Fathers. I know only the legends…”
“Legends?” Serrano asked, “What legends?”
“Once, long ago our ancestors bound the Vast Serpent within his Tomb. In his absence, they found prosperity and the great cities were born. Legend spoke of their beauty. Never once did I think that my eyes might lay upon them…”
“So what happened to them?” I asked.
“That, I cannot say. Only that the great cities fell. Those of the valley, those who prospered were driven back by The Rosen Prince. In desperation, some chose to awaken the Vast Serpent. It chose three men, wicked and cruel as the Serpent itself. It reshaped them into its trinity Knights and set them loose upon the world. Our ancestors were driven back into the sea and the Serpent returned to eternal slumber. I know the valley belongs to the Rosen Prince and the mountains to the Serpent. What else hath been lost to history”
“Looks safe enough to me.” Blake said, “Any of you guys noticing the treeline around here?” He gestured to some of the distant trees surrounding the valley. It took me a moment to see just what he was referring to.
It was faint, but I could pick up plumes of black smoke rising above the canopy. They seemed evenly spaced out… Like checkpoints or camps.
“Sentinels.” I said quietly.
“Yeah, but only in the trees.” Blake replied, “Nothing in the valley.”
“Tactically speaking, the trees offer cover.” Cook said, “And judging by that map Dr. Serrano has on him, the forest surrounds this area.”
“It’s a perimeter.” I said, “You think they’ll follow us in?”
“Hard to say.” Cook replied, “Sounds to me like there was some sort of battle here. Aside from the city though, I don’t see anything. No other camps, no signs of life…”
He was right. Aside from a few scattered trees and the abandoned city, the valley looked abandoned.
“They shall not follow us.” Lila said, “Fear of what waits within.”
“I don’t suppose you want to go in either then, huh?” Blake asked.
“True. Yet what choice is there in the matter? Thee shalt go. I shalt follow. My words shall not sway thee and I do not wish to wander here alone. I hath faced death once today. I shalt not face it twice.”
I’m pretty sure she shot a dirty side glance towards Compton. If he noticed it, he didn’t say anything. He just stared out at the distant city.
We didn’t linger for long. A few minutes later, we gathered our bearings and left the forest behind. The city loomed before us, mysterious and hopefully safe. I could hear the scream of Yan Kr’hnzh in the distance, far enough away that I was sure we had nothing to worry about. Still, we moved as quickly as we could. Best not to be caught out in the open. Just because we couldn’t see anything didn’t mean that we were safe.
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