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Xenolith, Page 46

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 38: Reckless

  A gurgling scream pierced the ambient murmur, channeling its agony and indignance through Canu like spirits through a medium. Canu bounded to his feet and reached for his dagger, but his fingers met only cloth.

  For endless moments, Canu could not remember what world he stood in. Alien hills rose before him, painted in the glow of first light. Thickets of unfamiliar shrubs and saplings swallowed the foreground. Only when he saw Ara hunched and asleep over a boulder, did his senses return.

  He shook Ara by the shoulder until her puffy eyelids parted. She looked up at Canu, wobbly and disoriented. But the scream focused her eyes and cleared her head in an instant. She flew up from the boulder and raised her chin against the breeze.

  Echoes bounced and deflected the screams in all directions, confounding its location. Canu saw a flicker of comprehension enter Ara’s eyes. “Upstream,” she said, with a squeeze of Canu’s arm. She ran off towards the river. Canu wavered for a moment, but went after her.

  Ara followed a dirt road littered with piles of construction debris. The land descended to the river channel in a series of steps. Where the road dead-ended, they pushed through a patch of tall grass and came upon a grisly tableau in the terrace below. In a pebbled clearing near the riverbank, one Cuerti lay face-down beside a blood-spattered bush. Beside him a blue-robed Venep’o holy man writhed, clasping his neck, panting and whimpering in spasms.

  “Is this your friends’ handiwork?” said Ara, aghast.

  Movements drew Canu’s attention to a thicket behind the barren glade. A Cuerti prowled there, stalking Pana, saber in one hand, crossbow in the other. Pana dipped and dodged beyond reach of the man’s saber, his home-forged short sword a pitiful match against his opponent’s finely-crafted weapon.

  “I’m putting a stop to this,” said Ara. She stepped forward and called to the Cuerti in Venep’o.

  “Ara! Get down!”

  Canu tackled her just as the startled Cuerti whirled and shot a bolt that whistled straight through the spot she had been standing.

  Pana took advantage of the distraction and lunged after the Cuerti, who swung his crossbow like a shield to fend off Pana’s blade. Pana harried him at close range, offsetting the advantage of his opponent’s longer, lighter saber. Though Pana parried every strike, he could not land any decisive blows of his own. The Cuerti backed away. Pana pressed after him.

  Canu picked up a half-rotted tree limb and went to join the fight. Ara scurried after him. “Canu, stop! Are you insane? You can’t fight a Cuerti with a stick.” She grabbed at the heavy limb, but Canu wrested it away, leaving her with a fistful of crumbly bark, as he charged towards the skirmish, the fungus-eaten branch raised high over his shoulder.

  Canu’s charge made both combatants glance. The Cuerti backpedaled away, hopping over a fallen log. Pana surged after him, but tripped and fell onto his knees. In the space the stumble created between them, the Cuerti was able to raise and ratchet a bolt into his crossbow. With a loud snap, the bolt flew and slammed into Pana’s midsection at close range. He grunted and fell backwards. The Cuerti pounced and impaled him with his saber.

  Canu, realizing the folly of his attack, aborted the charge. He had hoped to brain the Cuerti with the limb as Pana engaged his saber, but Pana now lay bleeding on the ground. The Cuerti tossed his crossbow aside and wheeled to face Canu, advancing in a crouch, saber extended. Canu backed off slowly.

  Ara, several paces behind Canu, pleaded with the Cuerti in Venep’o. The Cuerti spat curses back at her as he spiraled in closer. As Canu backed over a heap of concrete debris, he spotted a length of rusty metal with one end encased in bits of cement. He swooped down and retrieved it with his free hand, just as the Cuerti initiated a swipe intended to liberate Canu from his head. Canu swung the rusted rod upward and connected with the Cuerti’s ribcage, knocking him backwards as chunks of concrete sprayed off the rod.

  The Cuerti kept his feet, and came after Canu with renewed focus, like a frustrated lion determined to finish off its prey. Canu gripped the center of the rod with both hands and used both ends to fend off the saber. But the saber flew swifter than the heavy rod. One slash scraped across and slashed into Canu’s palm, mixing blood with rust and slickening his grip. The Cuerti intensified his attack. Canu’s parries came ever tardier. The Cuerti lunged for the kill.