Authors: Glenn van Dyke,Renee van Dyke
Ash gasped in horror at the scene below, her soul churning torturously at the sight. Recoiling, she dropped to her knees—her trembling legs refusing to support her.
It’s a god-damned kitchen.
The tunnel she’d found was a chimney, designed to let the rising heat carry the smoke away.
The pungent odor that permeated the air had come from four very normal looking humans, being cooked. They’d been skewered, hanging upon steel rods above a long fire-pit. Their head, arms, and legs had been removed and placed into a steel basket that hung above a large kettle of what appeared to be blood. A mutant woman was turning a hand crank, lowering the basket into the pot.
Four other humans were still alive and hanging upside down by their feet, suspended from the ceiling. The mutant women were washing their naked bodies, prepping them for their turn on the spit.
When Ash heard another scream, she forced herself to rise and look over the edge. On the large cavern floor, dozens of mutant females were busily moving about, preparing portions of food to be distributed. They seemed completely unaware of the battle and the inferno that had taken place to the west of the mountain. Ash assumed that their own burning fires and smell of cooking flesh had masked the smell of smoke emanating from outside.
One of the women was carrying a large wooden bowl across the floor. Sliding it beneath one of the bound men hanging from the ceiling, the man instantly wriggled, screaming at her in a dialect Ashlyn had never heard before. The man suddenly stilled as the mutant slit his throat with a small knife. The bowl beneath him began to fill with blood.
Ashlyn’s stomach churned.
The three other humans, two men and one woman hanging beside him, screamed at their captors. They were wide-eyed, squirming and straining at their bonds to escape, knowing they were soon to share his fate.
Ashlyn’s anger welled. It was a world where normal humans had become nothing more than a source of food for their mutated human counterparts.
When Ash saw the mutant woman that had moments before slit the man’s throat, place a new bowl beneath the next human, the woman—Ash stood tall.
Without thought, she jumped atop the boulders lining the bluff. She hefted the sword high above her head with both hands and threw it. It twirled through the air, the tip of the blade striking the mutant woman in the center of her back. The mutant gave a shrill cry, looked down at the blade sticking out through her chest, and collapsed to the ground.
By the time the other mutants figured out what had happened, it was too late—Ashlyn was standing atop the boulder unleashing her rage. From her hands, bursts of fire shot forth.
The angered mutants came at her, bounding up the steep cavern wall of boulders. They were met with a long, steady stream of fire that ignited them instantly. Their writhing bodies tumbled down the boulders in a heap of flame—their shrill screams resounding through the cavern.
Jumping down to the cavern floor, making the thirty-five-foot jump look easy, Ash stood protectively in front of the humans. The mutants came at her in waves—jumping through the flames. Their snarling growls quickly turned to echoing screams of pain.
The room was ablaze. Each of Ashlyn’s hands were independently attacking the mutants that were jumping at her and climbing along the walls to try and get to her.
The three people behind her, watched in silence, stunned by the power of the god who had come to save them.
When Ashlyn was done, forty-two mutants lay dead, smoke rising from each of their charring bodies.
The woman called to Ashlyn, asking for help.
Ash gave a comforting grin, letting them know they were safe. “I’ll get you down.” They were all hooked to a chain strung over a pulley that led to a cranking mechanism on the far cavern wall.
Before she lowered them, Ash slid the blood-filled bowl from beneath the man who’d been killed. The three hanging people understood and respected her actions on behalf of their friend.
Their eyes were wide as they watched her call upon the rain to douse the flames. To them, it was but one more piece of evidence that confirmed she was a god.
Lifting the latch that locked the device, Ash turned the handle, lowering the three captives to the floor.
Kneeling beside the unclothed woman to untie her hands, Ash noticed the woman’s back was crisscrossed with lash marks. She couldn’t help but wince as it reminded her of her own brutal lashing back on Hadaesia. Ash admired their spirit and their will to survive. Not everyone would choose to live in such a harsh world—a world of unimaginable horrors—a world that was no longer made for them.
As the chains and collars around the woman’s feet fell to the floor, the woman scrambled away, going to the man who had been killed. She coddled him, kissing his forehead. She gave a soft, mournful wail as she looked heavenward.
Ashlyn felt deep sorrow.
I wish I’d arrived a moment sooner. I could have saved him for you…
she thought to herself.
While freeing the other two humans from their bonds, Ashlyn asked them, “English? Do any of you speak English?” She was hoping against hope that they could understand her.
The woman on the floor, beside the man, shrugged her shoulders and spoke. Like before, her dialect was unfamiliar, simplistic. She gave the man in her arms a last kiss and then rose to her feet.
She went to Ashlyn’s sword and pulling it from the dead mutant, brought it to Ashlyn. Taking Ash by the hand, she then led her to a tunnel hidden behind a wall of furred skins on the other side of the cave.
The woman then put her hand to her own chest and said, “Lima.” Pointing down the tunnel, she repeated the word, “Lima.” The woman then pointed at one of the smoldering mutants that lay nearby. “Urquay.” Again she pointed into the tunnel. “Urquay.”
Ash nodded. The message was clear. Thinking that Ashlyn was a god come to save them, she wanted Ashlyn to perform her magic on the mutants, freeing the other human prisoners from the Urquay.
The three humans, speaking in their foreign tongue were thanking her. Tears filled their eyes. They had not expected to live. When Ash turned and started into the tunnel, they followed, expecting that they would go too.
“No,” said Ashlyn shaking her head. “It’s too dangerous.” Pointing to the tunnel vent that she had come through, high above, Ash gave them a sympathetic smile. “Go.” She gave the woman a small gesturing push. “Go.”
Touching her own chest she said, “I go save, lima’s.”
The three of them understood and made an expression of thanks, taking Ashlyn’s hand and touching it to their heart.
The warmth of their heartfelt expression filled Ashlyn, a smile of happiness lighting her face.
Winding her way through the tunnel, Ash had no idea of what to expect. Her mind flashed with a hundred different possibilities, none of which turned out to be right. The short path through the mountain led her outside to a scenic overlook. Drifting on the wind, there was the faint smell of smoke in the air, a remnant of her fight on the other side of the mountain.
Walking to the edge, Ash stood in amazement trying to absorb what she was seeing.
Fifteen hundred feet below, spread out over several square miles were the wonders of the world. Dozens of ancient monolithic structures rose from the jungle floor, standing tall above the treetops. The sun setting behind Ashlyn’s back bathed all of them in a beautiful golden-orange light that took her breath away. Her heart involuntarily speeding with excitement.
In the distance stood the Parthenon, perched atop the Acropolis. Its beauty was profound, its majestic columns glistening brightly in the light.
To the south of it, stood the Colosseum of Rome, its stunning open archways slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.
To the west, sat the massive temple of Angkor Wat. A mile further to the west, sat the Taj Mahal with its ivory-white dome gleaming with brilliance.
Heading north of the Parthenon, in all its glory was the Sphinx. Its grandeur was unequaled. As expected, to the northwest of the Sphinx lay the Great Pyramid of Khufu. To the west, Khafre; to the southwest, Menkaure.
To the north of them all, atop a small mountain, lay the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu.
In the center of the massive complex, lay Teotihuacan’s, Pyramid of the Sun—the place where the gods were created.
It all seemed so impossible, and yet, they were undeniable. If that wasn’t enough—encompassing everything, was the Great Wall of China. Its serpentine structure wound like a snake over the hilltops, dipping low into the valleys of the countryside.
The magnificence of it all was too much for her psyche to absorb. It was as close to a spiritual experience as Ashlyn had ever known.
Amidst all the wonders, the horror of the reality still remained. On the roadways and closer structures, Ash could see tens of thousands of sleeping mutants.
What a strange world,
Nothing was ever what she expected. Ash turned her gaze toward the mountains on the horizon beyond the city. Though they were still far away, they were closer than before. The peaks along the range had fallen into the shadows, beyond the reach of the setting sun. Now, as she thought about it, she wasn’t even sure that she needed to go there. Perhaps the mountains were merely the source of the time wave and nothing more. Anu had said that she would know when she was ready to enter the arena.
Staring at the mountains, she watched for the flash, searching for an approaching time wave. There was nothing. For the moment anyway, the nexus wasn’t ready to let go of her.
“So what’s next on the menu, Anu?” said Ash.
Her answer came sooner than she expected.
Five mutants came running around the bend on the trail to her left. Seeing her, all but one growled and came charging hard at her. The fifth made a few clicking noises and turned around, heading down the mountain, his piercing whistle sounding the alarm.
Ash took a step to the side, dipping under the swiping claw of the first attacking mutant. Bringing the sword square across his midsection, she sliced him cleanly in two. In a continuous motion from finishing off the first attacker, Ashlyn came up into the chest of the second and rammed him with her shoulder, bouncing him over the edge of the cliff. His fading shriek echoed as he fell.
Using her momentum, Ashlyn took two steps and jumped onto a small ledge jutting from the cliff. Springboarding off it, she launched herself over the third, oncoming mutant. As she passed over him, she thrust the sword into the top of his skull. The blade went straight down through his throat, exiting just below the sternum.
Ash landed on the ground in a tucked roll that brought her up onto her feet. With both hands grasping the hilt, Ash thrust the sword forward, piercing the fourth mutant through his heart.
Without hesitation, Ashlyn sprinted down the path chasing the one that was trying to sound the alarm. She was running hard when she came to the bottom of the mountain trail.
A horn in the city began to blow, bringing her to an abrupt stop. Her heart was pounding, her breaths heavy. She was too late.
Other distant horns around the perimeter of the city answered. The sheer magnitude of the sound and what it represented sent a shiver up her spine. There was going to be thousands of them looking for her.
Running to her left, Ash headed into the jungle. She moved stealthily, taking advantage of the heavy foliage and natural cover.
Hearing the clicking sounds of mutants communicating ahead of her, Ash slid into a small hole beneath two fallen and decaying trees. A heartbeat later, the fast moving hunting party broke through the brush not twenty yards away. Giving a silent sigh of relief,
Too close, way too close,
she thought to herself.
Jumping atop and over the trees beneath which Ashlyn was hidden, the mutants headed toward the trail leading up the mountain. As she watched them disappear from sight, she knew it wouldn’t be long before they found those she’d slain. Having killed dozens of women, the mutants’ thirst for vengeance would be relentless. They would hunt her mercilessly day and night.
Wanting to put distance between herself and the mutants, Ash came out of hiding, running deeper into the jungle.
A few hundred yards later, she came to a stop against a vine covered stone statue nearly forty feet in height. While taking a moment to catch her breath, Ash looked up at the darkening sky, searching for any sign of the flying creatures that might be tracking her. The sky was clear, the first stars appearing. For the moment anyway, it appeared she was safe.
A horn atop the mountain sounded as they found the bodies of those she’d killed. A second horn in the city returned the call, giving three short blasts. The howls of mutant hunting parties in the jungle acknowledged the alert, giving organization to the search pattern.
I could use a little help right about now, Anu.
Ash didn’t have a clue what she was supposed to do. She could only assume that her task would reveal itself. Right now, she just wanted a place to hide—to rest.
The crack of a breaking stick stilled her breath. Ash tipped her head, listening. It was followed by the barely audible click of a mutant, communicating. He was close, just feet away from her. She’d not known the mutants to be capable of such stealth before. In fact, they’d shown pride in the loud howls and noises they made, as though it made the hunt more enjoyable. She’d assumed it was one of the perks for being at the top of the food chain.
Closing her eyes to focus, Ash let her senses expand. Distant noises in the jungle grew louder, clearer. Her sense of smell became bloodhound sharp. Hundreds of different odors, each uniquely different—begged to be categorized and given meaning.
Ash turned her head to look at a moth like insect as it took flight next to her. Each flap of its wings appeared to be in slow motion, the sound similar to that of a boat’s outboard motor. She watched its clumsy, awkward flight until it settled on the ground ten feet away—seemingly exhausted for the effort.
Within her mind, she saw a handful of birds nestled down for the night atop the statue at her back.
Ash stiffened sharply as she realized that there was not just one mutant nearby, but several. She could hear them inhaling and exhaling. Blocking out the noises around her, she focused her heightened senses, separating them into four distinct heartbeats.
The four mutants had come to a stop. They were sniffing at the air, using her scent to track her. She also saw that they knew precisely where she was. One of the mutants silently gestured, sending two of his group around the backside of the statue, while he and his companion planned to come at her from the left.
As the leader and his follower skillfully and silently crept up on her, coming to within a single step from her—Ash whirled around the corner, confronting them. In a blur of movement, she swung the sword. The single, horizontal blow at head height, dropped the two of them in their tracks. The sword had cut a clean slice through their skulls, separating each of their brains into two pieces.
of her sword on the mutants’ skulls, and the dull thuds of their bodies hitting the ground—roused the birds perched atop the statue. They took flight in distress, squawking as they flew. The noise provided Ashlyn the perfect cover to run around the backside of the statue and come up upon the other two from behind. Distracted by the noise, the mutants were staring upwards at the fleeing birds as she swung the sword and removed both their heads. They’d never known what killed them.
Ashlyn’s heart fluttered as her gaze was drawn upward, and she beheld the face of the statue. It was one of the immense heads from Easter Island.
Steven would have loved this place. It’s right out of the Twilight Zone.
Ashlyn’s mind flashed back to Anu’s words and his description of the netherworld. The similarities to the show’s opening monologue were uncanny.
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies—”
A howl less than fifty yards away sounded. Bolting into the jungle in search of cover, Ash grew concerned about the trail of bodies she was leaving behind.
A blind dog could follow my trail. I need to be more careful.
Ash knew that her best chance of staying alive lay in avoiding the mutants, not killing them.
She’d not gone but a few hundred yards when a long, mournful howl rang out. The hunters had found the four bodies of the mutants she’d slain. Two other nearby hunting packs responded, returning the call. They were on all sides of her.
Spotting a small hole at the bottom of a thicket of overgrown rosebushes, Ash made a dash for it. Thorn pricks were a small price to pay for the generous cover the large bush would provide, not to mention that the aromatic flowers might cover her human scent. It was the best she could hope for.
Hidden within the thicket, Ash waited, listening to the hunting parties searching for her. Their olfactory senses were amazing, as time and time again they followed the scent to the surrounding area, then lost the trail. The only possible explanation was the roses. On more than one occasion, she heard the mutants sneezing as they wandered too close, and the sweet odor of blooming roses overwhelmed them.
She knew that eventually, the mutants would begin to broaden their search, assuming that she had somehow managed to escape the net they had cast for her. But she also realized that they might discover what they were overlooking—the rosebush.
Ashlyn’s mind raced to find an avenue of escape—when suddenly, the answer came to her. It was so simple, she’d missed it. The rain. She was aware that a light rain was known to make it easier for trackers to find their prey, while a heavy rain was capable of washing the scent away entirely.
Calling upon the water and wind elements, Ash envisioned a massive rainstorm.
A large clap of thunder shattered the evening air. Heavy drops of warm rain instantly began to fall. Waves of relentless wind started the taller trees swaying. The downpour kept growing stronger, more intense until it was near hurricane levels. There was a loud crashing sound in the jungle as a tree cracked and toppled.
Ash couldn’t help but wonder what the mutants were thinking. In a heartbeat, it had gone from a clear evening sky to an immense storm of incredible destructive power.
When Ash saw the mutants flee at the sound of thunder and the first drops of rain, Ash wondered if they were superstitious. If so, it was the first sign of weakness they had shown.
Though the thorns were pricking her as the wind rustled the rosebush, Ashlyn thought it best to exercise caution and wait a bit before coming out.
Thirty minutes later, the sky alive with lightning and claps of thunder, the ground an inch deep in water—she came out of hiding. Feeling secure that she was alone, Ash ran hard, detouring around uprooted trees and dodging flying branches. Unsure of her destination, she ran, waiting for the nexus to guide her.
Sloshing through the water, she spotted the outline of the Great Wall ahead of her. It was heavily overgrown with ivy, shrubs, and vines—all of which would provide good cover and give her a chance for some much-needed rest.
Not wanting to slash at the tangle of brush, fearing it might be spotted, Ash struggled to squeeze her way inside. It was harder than she’d expected. The intertwined vines were incredibly strong, but eventually she made it to the base of the wall.
Hidden within the hedge, she took a seat in the puddle that had formed against the wall. Ashlyn’s nose wrinkled as she caught the strong scent of foul odors emanating from the other side of the wall. It was overwhelming. The ancient structures had become a diseased and unsanitary nest for the mutants.
Ashlyn called for the rain to stop. Exhausted and feeling faint, Ash leaned her head back. She was tired of being damp, cold—uncomfortable.
I’d give anything for a bed right now.
Closing her eyes, she felt a wave of nausea as the world spun.
Two hours. Just give me two hours to sleep.