Posted: Fri Jul 23, 2010 11:14 pm Post subject: Give In by Billy Wong
by Billy Wong
Feral screams echoed through the valley, mixing with the sounds of tearing flesh and cracking bone. Again and again the axe rose and fell, splashing blood through the air. The war-trained anklyosaur collapsed on its belly, its eyes glassy in death. With a triumphant howl, the warrior wrenched the axe from its cloven neck.
"You sure do fight noisily," said the brown-skinned youth watching from the ground.
Rhona the Wild Axe leapt from the carcass and landed lightly on her feet, dust billowing up around her boots. The little barbarian was covered with blood, her long, dark locks heavy with wetness.
"What works, works." She indicated the dead riders hanging from the dino's back. "Unnerved them well enough. What, did I scare you?"
His words came out fast and shaky. "Not really, not compared to the enemies."
"Don't worry, you did fine. Though I was a little worried when that soldier charged you. Thought you might change again."
Dukor's lips bent into a nervous grin. As a prince of Hautilu, he bore an odd family curse. When his fear was great enough, he transformed into a raging monster that knew no difference between friend and foe. "I'm all right-you've taught me control well enough. Let's get going before my cousin sicks any more of his pets on us."
"Yeah, let's." Then she added, carving a chunk of flesh from the anklyosaur's corpse, "But let me save us some dinner, first."
The two salvaged what they could from the defeated soldiers and continued their journey south. Soon rain began to pour from the sky, and thunder crackled over the jungle.
"We ought to find shelter," Dukor said.
Rhona regarded him with a frown. "What, stop for a little rain while your cousin plots to steal the throne? I've weathered worse storms before.
"Besides, this is the coolest I've been since the coast. This weather is harsh on a northern girl."
Dukor shook his head. "It's not just the rain. Look at how close together the trees are. The lightning is dangerous, more so than in your homeland."
"Bah, lightning. It's still a small threat, no matter how dense this forest is. Though it is dense."
"Come on, Rhona, let's just stop for the night. I'm tired, and we can make up the time tomorrow."
"All right," she said with a look to the west, "let's head for those hills we spotted before. There must be shelter there." She scowled. "You're tired? Who did the real fighting today, and who stood around shooting that wimpy bow? Sometimes, I wonder why I ever agreed to come with you."
Dukor touched her shoulder, his eyes meeting hers. "Rhona, you know how thankful I am to you. Don't think I forgot how you saved me when you had no real reason to, or the wounds you took fighting that assassin for me. But you choose to come here. We're friends, aren't we?"
At that, her face brightened and she smiled. He knew that as an outcast, who had run away from home at the age of seven and fended for herself ever since, she treasured those few friends she had.
"Of course you're my friend, Dukor. Why else would I put up with all this to protect you?"
He returned her smile and hugged her close as they turned to seek the hills. If not for her skills, he would be dead many times over by now.
They soon reached the edge of the hills, though it was difficult to see much of the area with such dense foliage. So they walked around the base of the first small mound they saw, until a second, steeper hill came into view.
"There's a cave," Rhona said.
It took Dukor a few seconds to spot the low opening at the foot of the hill. Rhona's warrior senses far exceeded his. For a moment, a primal foreboding touched his heart, and he imagined the hills were the swollen breasts of a malevolent goddess. He shook the feeling aside; such irrational fear would not sit well with his friend. "Yeah, I see it. Should we bring some sticks, for firewood?"
"We don't need a fire. It's plenty warm without it. Besides, everything's wet."
"But what will we use to cook?"
She chuckled, the humor in her voice offering no relief. "Cook? Not tonight, friend. This time you share raw lizard, with me!"
They entered the cave, a damp, fetid space much wider than it was tall. Still, the roof was a bit higher than Dukor had thought at first. Rhona could stand up straight, though he had to stoop. Noticing again how small she was, he marveled anew at her prowess in battle. She possessed strength far beyond what anyone her size had a right to. He tried to eat the anklyosaur meat she handed him, but gave up after chewing on it a bit.
"Damn, this is tough! How can you possibly eat it?"
She continued to chew as she spoke through the side of her mouth. "It's pretty tough, but not unbearably. If you'd gotten used to eating raw, it wouldn't trouble you so."
Rhona had tried to teach him the acquired taste that was uncooked flesh, but he'd never taken to it. It was disgusting! "You can have my piece. I'll just eat the soldier's bread and jerky."
"Those tasteless things? Fine, be that way. But you'll never be as strong as me, if you keep eating such unsatisfying meats."
"So, Rhona ... when night comes we won't be able to see anything in here, will we?"
"Yeah, but we probably won't need to. Besides, we do have those torches we took, if there's an emergency."
"I'm not talking about emergencies. It'll be a little scary, in complete darkness."
"What are you going on about? You'll be sleeping, won't you? Why should you care if it's dark or not?"
Dukor opened his mouth to reply, then stopped as he glimpsed something move in the shadows deeper within the cave. His pulse quickened, and he reflexively squeezed his bread.
"Did you see that?" he said, lowering his voice to a whisper.
Had it been his imagination, then? But Rhona was looking away; she would not have seen it. "Deeper in the cave. I thought I saw something move."
She didn't even look. "Eh, probably just an animal. More scared of you than you are of it, mostly likely. Or, at least, more scared of me."
Dukor glanced back, eyes searching for the shape. But he did not see it anymore, and though still frightened he did not want to seem like a baby. "Yeah, probably just a small animal, or a trick of the light."
Dukor gazed into the darkness, imagining that something watched him back and wondering what it was thinking. Were they as scared as he? Rhona snored lightly beside him, but he could not sleep. Even if she was as alert in slumber as she claimed, he could not bring himself to lower his defenses. His eyelids grew heavy, and he wondered how he would summon the energy to travel tomorrow.
He had begun to doze off when the light jolted him wide-awake. A soft glow seemed to flow from the depths of the cave, sliding over the rough floor like an animate liquid. Then, the source of the glow came into view. Dukor's eyes widened, but to his surprise he felt little fear. Rather, his heart beat slow and steady, though some part of him warned him to be afraid. He ignored it, not understanding why he should dread the sight of this great being-a lanky, pale-green lizard with the posture of a man.
The being motioned to him, a long-clawed hand extending and retracting. Dukor barely felt himself stand. What is this creature? he wondered through the fog of his mind. Is it akin to me, in some way? He knew there were other shape-changers in the world, besides his own family. Was this some poor soul, whose curse was so terrible as to rob him of a place in society? Perhaps they were alike; perhaps he had found a friend. Or was he justifying his own submission? He walked forward, not particularly of his own volition. Soon, he would be in the arms of his kindred.
Rhona wiped at her eyes, yawning. "Dukor, where are you going? Already have to take a piss again? You're going the wrong-"
She stopped as she turned over, and saw her friend ambling as in a drunk stupor toward a glowing cross between a lizard and a man. In an instant she sprang to her feet, axe in hand.
"What the...! Dukor, snap out of it!"
The lizard-thing retreated, its glow disappearing and plunging the cave into nearly utter darkness. Little starlight could pass through the low entrance. Rhona heard a multitude of clacking footsteps closing in, and dug desperately for a torch in her pack. She sensed something dart at her in the darkness; a wild swing of her axe hit that something and knocked it aside. Another sharp thing grazed her leg, and she felt warm blood on her skin.
Finally, she managed to strike the torch lit. A dozen or more slavering, saurian visages leered at her scant feet away. Only now did she notice their most disturbing feature-the reversed placement of their eyes and nostrils. As fearless as she thought herself, Rhona recoiled from the unnatural beings. But whatever they were, they had her friend. She set her feet and braced herself for the fight.
One jabbed at her with a stone-tipped spear; she cut the head away with her axe and thrust her torch at its eyes. The thick slime coating its skin must have been very flammable, as its face erupted into an inferno. It must have screamed, but she heard only her own wild shrieks of fury. Another lizardman swiped its claws at her face; she ducked and hammered her axe into its side, all the way down to its spine.
The rest of them swarmed in, spears stabbing, axes chopping, claws slashing. Rhona met them head on, her initial lunge lopping the head from one reptilian fiend. Then she was a blur of flame and steel, dealing out death with both hands. Her torch enveloped a creature's back with fire, and she kicked it into a comrade to share the same tortured death. Another tried to wrap her in a bear hug; she tripped it and crushed its throat beneath a booted foot. A heavy club slammed into her shoulder, knocking her down. From the ground, she hacked through a monster's leg. Then a spear plunged down, piercing her side.
With a scream, she gutted its wielder.
Rhona stood and plucked the spear from her body, her eyes ablaze. The remaining lizardmen advanced. She darted to the right, smashing her axe through the far creature's groin and pelvis. Wrenching the axe out, she whipped it up through a monster's chin. She parried a spear thrust with her torch, then her axe split its wielder's snout. Another lizard rushed her, jaws wide open. Unable to deny the opportunity, she threw her torch right into its mouth. It fell, thrashing like a fish. She knelt, scooping up a spear with her now free hand and driving it through a scaled chest as she stood.
Finally, her last two opponents turned to flee. She leapt between them, dispatching them with two easy swipes of her axe. Then she looked down, examining the wound in her side. It was deep, and bleeding profusely. Her body shook with pain-and a little fear. What had she gotten herself into, coming here? Those things did not belong in this world, nature had not created them. Was the south really the land of devils?
She glanced at the mouth of the cave, the natural urge to run tugging at her mind. But no, she could not do that. She wished she had never come, but she was here and had to do the best she could. She retrieved her torch from the dead lizard's mouth and started into the depths of the cave.
Rhona fought two more patrols of lizard creatures as she followed the sloping cave deeper and deeper into the earth, receiving several more wounds in the process. The first time there were ten, which surprised her. She'd thought they would send more after her first encounter. She took a gash over the ribs and a spear in the shoulder, but the pain was manageable. Next time, there were only six-yet these were more skilled, and an axe laid open her hip. She wondered if she was close to wiping out the tribe. She hoped so; her limbs were growing heavy and her head light.
She groaned as the great rumbling footfalls of a huge body echoed down the tunnel before her. The cave seemed to stretch higher as if to accommodate tougher opposition. A hairy biped thrice her height shambled into view, each of its arms splitting at the elbow into two muscled forearms. From the great maw that split its head vertically issued ugly sounds of "Gug, gug."
"You had better be as ungainly as you look," Rhona mumbled as the giant lurched towards her.
This was one foe she could not stand against in prolonged combat. She would have to end it fast. She waited until it was almost upon her, huge hands reaching out. Her axe cut into one inner forearm, causing the thing to retract the limb. Another hand slapped down at her; she hopped back, avoiding the blow, then dashed forward and ran partway up its arm. She leapt high, her axe slashing at its throat. But a heavy fist crashed into her body, driving her to the ground. Ribs snapped inside her, and sharp pains shot through her body.
Rhona pushed the pain from her mind and rolled between its legs, coming up behind it. She spun, her axe chopping through the tendons of an ankle. The creature fell to one knee, its "Gug, gug" sounds fast, urgent. Rhona swung again, hamstringing its other leg. It tried to turn and fell heavily on its side. Rhona's next two blows made a spurting ruin of its throat.
"You are that ungainly," she said, and limped on.
The tunnel brought Rhona onto the natural rock balcony surrounding a vast circular chamber. Below, she spotted Dukor standing rapt before the glowing lizardman who had led him away. Indeed, she must have destroyed the rest of the tribe; no other lizards were in sight. But the one gestured wildly with its claws, screeching an alien chant. The whole cavern was shaking, as though a god sought to break free of its earthly prison.
"Dukor, snap out of it!" Rhona cried.
He did not respond, staring dazedly at his captor, but the lizard did. A taloned hand came up and flung what looked like a dancing cloud of sparks. It hit Rhona in the chest, sending her flying through the air. Her body did a flip backward and landed hard, her face smacking against the stone.
Rhona spat blood and rose, running toward the balcony edge. Again that strange energy flew, but Rhona had leapt the rim and the blast flew harmlessly overhead. She threw her axe as she fell, burying it in the sorcerer's face. The lizard collapsed, its brains oozing out. The cave continued to shake.
Rhona landed on her feet with a grunt, then fell to her hands and knees, unable to keep her exhausted body upright. Forcing herself up, she retrieved her axe and turned to Dukor. His eyes were wide with confusion as he regarded the dead lizardman. She slapped him, knocking him on his rump.
"Snap out of it!"
He looked up, blinking. "R-Rhona? What did ... you do?"
She grabbed his hand and yanked him to his feet, her teeth clenched in annoyance. "Saving you again, what do you think? Now let's get out of here!"
That you will not do, boomed a monumental voice in her head. The chamber bucked and heaved, throwing Dukor headfirst to the ground. Rhona refused to fall, dancing awkwardly to maintain her balance. Spider web cracks appeared in the middle of the floor, growing larger and larger as they spread. A tooth-covered rubbery appendage the size of a ship's mast rose from the center hole. As it descended toward Rhona's face, she realized an eyeless, sexless humanoid visage rested on its tip.
"What are you?" she asked, her voice more subdued than she'd known it could be. "What do want with us? Why us?"
I could not tell you what I am, for your little mind would burst to know it. But those who know me call me T'Deineks the Plenty, the Star Within the World, the Giver and Taker of Unseen Gifts. What do I want of you? I want nothing of you. You are nothing ... as strong as you may be, the lives of all mankind are as specks to the likes of me.
"Then you'll let us go?" Rhona asked, daring to hope.
No. It is your poor luck to be here. I have been called, and you are the only ones to remain. I must have a sacrifice.
Rhona scowled in anger at the blind cruelty of its words, its indifference to human life. It was as if she were only a piece of meat, a fleshy morsel in a cosmic feast. She closed her eyes briefly, drawing in a deep lungful of air as she considered how to save her friend.
"Only one? If I promise to go with you, you'll spare Dukor?"
"Rhona, no," the groggy prince moaned, blood oozing down his face.
The great being seemed to consider, its face hovering silently before the warrior. Yes. I need only you. But she could not tell if it spoke true; what would it be to such a creature, to lie to a speck? She could not give in, without being assured of her friend's safety. Better to do her best to save them both, than leave Dukor to its mercy.
"Then take me," Rhona said, a defiant grin spreading across her face, "if you can!"
Her axe flashed up, splitting that eerie face in two. Jerking the blade free, she ran to the edge of the hole and leapt down to meet her destiny.
Dukor dragged himself to the pit, blinking to focus his vision. What came into view sent daggers of terror tearing through his soul. His friend stood astride what looked to be an immense mass of writhing, toothed tentacles, flailing her axe wildly to stave off death. He felt his muscles begin to spasm as the transformation came on. Instinctively, he fought for control, to keep the beast from taking him.
Wait. But he was useless as himself, wasn't he? There was nothing Dukor could do to save his friend, but his inner beast had never shown itself to know any fear. If he gave himself to the change, he might be able to help Rhona-or at least avenge her. With the last of his will, he dragged himself over to fall into the abyss. As he fell, so too did his mind fall away, the avatar of death taking his place.
Dukor felt a thick, sticky liquid on the ground against his cheek. Blood, he thought. This was the monster, or god, or devil's blood. He opened his eyes slowly and pushed himself up with his arms. A few feet away, he spotted the great creature's inanimate mass, yellow blood spread out for yards around it. Rhona sat against the corpse, eyes closed and unmoving. Her clothes hung in shreds, her flesh gaping open in a score of places.
"Rhona! Please don't be dead..."
Her eyes popped open, and she gave him a wry grin. "Good job, Dukor. I never thought you could fight like that."
He dragged himself to her side, peeling away the remains of her garments to inspect her wounds. His whole body ached terribly, but at least he could move.
"We kicked its ass," she said, completely serious. "Good thing it knocked you out before the end, or I might've had to kill you too."
"Sorry about losing control, when you told me I should never do so."
"Never? Did I say that? Well, there's an exception to every rule. We do what we have to do. I couldn't have taken it without you."
"Rhona ... are you going to be all right? Your wounds look really bad."
"Take a look at yourself. You're cut to ribbons."
He was in a lot of pain. "I'd rather not look just yet. Well, can you move? We'll need each other's help with the wounds we can't reach ourselves."
"Yeah, I can move. You're getting pretty brave on me, you know."
Not sure how to respond, Dukor gave a token nod. "You plan on eating its flesh, too?"
"No. A nasty thing like that? I'd rather eat you."
Dukor's jaw dropped, then he realized she was joking and broke into painful laughter.
Then she added, "By the way, did you realize you're naked?"
He sighed, remembering that inevitable result of his transformation. "Oh, well. It's not as if you haven't seen it before." And with that, he began to bind her wounds.
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