Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Xenolith, Page 45

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 37: Showdown

  The monotonic prayers of the Initiate had slowed and quieted to a low drone. From beneath the canopy of shrubs, Pana watched the contrast grow between branch and sky as the darkness receded. The imminence of dawn alarmed him. Had he dozed off? With a Cuerti patrolling only paces away?

  Every passing minute revealed more of his surroundings: a withered mushroom by his elbow, a mouse trail tunneling through sun-bleached grass, a yellow-tufted wildflower rising from a rosette on a hirsute stalk. He knew that the extra light had exposed him as well, so he inched back beneath a ceiling of branches, away from the clearing, behind another rank of bushes.

  He crept behind a dead tree with truncated limbs that spread like pleading arms. An odd, slender appendage sprouted from one of its higher boughs like a misplaced twig: smooth and slender, with graceful fletching. It was a crossbow bolt; probably a stray shot of his comrades, intended for the Crasacs emerging from the portal, too high to retrieve without being spotted.

  Pana’s attention flitted to the clearing. The Cuerti seemed jumpy, reacting to every leaf that fell, every bird that alighted on a bush. He stood facing the dead tree, his head poised like a wolf sniffing the wind, as if he had a vague perception of Pana’s presence.

  Pana longed to fetch the bolt in the tree. A second bolt would provide some insurance for a miss, but only if he had time to reload before the Cuerti could slay him. Only one set of arms on his double-strung crossbow remained functional.

  Retreat grew ever more tempting, but something kept Pana in place, counter to all his instincts and fears. Whatever compelled him, it didn’t feel like courage or duty. If Ikarin knew what he faced she would only beg him to run. But somehow, he stayed by the clearing, crossbow ready, retained by forces he didn’t understand.

  The Cuerti guard walked over and spoke to the one who lay on the ground. Pana heard the other man respond. Now he knew for certain that he had two to contend with, although he strongly suspected that the prone man had been badly injured.

  The Initiate’s prayers had ceased, but he still knelt on the ground, rocking back and forth. The guard came up behind him, passed a few words and passed out of the clearing towards the river. The Initiate stopped his rocking, and gazed nervously about.

  Pana seized the opportunity. He rose behind the dead tree and reached high. The bolt lay just beyond his fingertips. He stepped up on its exposed roots. His fingers grazed the feathered fletching. He dug the side of his sandals into the bark at the base of the trunk, but it crumbled. He slipped off. Any moment, the guard would return. His chance was fading.

  The stub of branch that had collected the stray bolt looked stout enough so he leapt and grabbed on with one hand, reaching for the bolt with the other. The branch cracked away with a sound like bones breaking and landed with Pana hard against the gravel. He ripped out the bolt and popped to his feet to find the Initiate staring straight at him, his face dismayed. He backed away, shouting.

  The wounded Cuerti struggled to rise off the ground. Pana stepped forward and raised his crossbow, aiming with care as the Initiate turned and fled towards the river. The bolt flew. Too high, he thought. But the Initiate fell clutching his throat. He howled with pain, cursing in Sesep’o, begging Cra for mercy in every language he knew, invoking even the minor gods of the Sinkor Faith.

  The injured Cuerti now stood, saber in hand, stalking after Pana. He shouted over his shoulder, a guttural plea to the one who had gone to the river. Pana hadn’t counted on this one being mobile. He fumbled to slot the bolt he had just retrieved, recognizing the mottled feathers that Pari favored in her fletching. The Cuerti, struggling to plant his blood-soaked leg, lurched towards him. Pana had no time to cock the bolt fully. He ratcheted it to half-tension and let loose. The bolt disappeared into the Cuerti’s unarmored chest, dropping him several paces away.

  The other guard exploded onto the scene from behind the same dead tree that Pana had used for cover having circled around in an attempt to ambush Pana in his hiding place. Pana threatened him with his unloaded crossbow, stumbling backwards. The Cuerti barely hesitated, seeing at a glance that Pana had no bolts.

  The Cuerti’s eyes followed Pana coolly as he dodged about the clearing, anticipating Pana’s movements with his crossbow. With a crack, he let his bolt fly. It whistled past Pana’s mid-section and disappeared into the shrubs. The Cuerti drew his saber and advanced, wielding his crossbow like a shield. A voice within Pana begged him to run. Instead, he drew his own sword.