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Authors: James Axler

Reality Echo (10 page)

BOOK: Reality Echo
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“Fomorians,” Kane grumbled. He fought back the images of a besieged army of humans fending off the monstrous raiders, his massive claymore biting into their flesh, dealing out wounds that would have slain mortal men. Back then, it had taken an armed and armored ancestor with his army to deal with the creatures.

Now, all Kane had on his side was an angered, furious black bear and the hand axes that the Fomorian hunters had hurled.

“Meat for the fire!” one of the hunters cackled.

“Flesh for the limbs!” another sang in counterpoint.

The creatures were deceptively slender and single-eyed, obscenely distorted orbs planted haphazardly on their twisted faces. Judging by the height of the branch that he had been strapped to, Kane could tell that the two huntsmen were well over six feet tall. The black bear snarled in defiance against the cruel duo, its paw full of
hooklike, razor-sharp claws slashing and gleaming as the Fomorians danced out of its reach.

“Who takes which, brother?” one asked, ducking away from the snapping jaws of the bear.

“Continue with your playmate,” the other answered. “I’ll deal with the human.”

The first laughed hideously and lunged in, driving a clublike fist under the jaw of the bear, rocking it off balance. Kane was impressed by the power of the punch, as he estimated the black bear to be around six hundred pounds, in line with the largest member of that particular species. He remembered Brigid Baptiste informing him that this particular section of the Poconos holding several records for the largest bears hunted and killed in the twentieth century. The kind of strength to stun one with a single punch meant that the slender-limbed cyclopeans wouldn’t need a hatchet to rip Kane limb from limb.

On the other hand, Kane had battled against menaces that possessed unearthly might before. He had gone hand-to-hand with Enlil himself, the seven-foot godlike king of the Annunaki. What Kane lacked in sheer physical might, he made up for with combat skill. Unarmed or not, there was no way that the lone Cerberus explorer was going to allow himself to surrender without a fight. With a howl of rage echoing the agony of the irate bear, Kane lowered his head and charged the Fomorian who had broken off to deal with him. Legs springing straight, Kane launched himself like a missile and speared the hunter in the belly. The impact drove the
wind from the monstrosity’s lungs, but it felt as if he had tackled an oak tree.

Their bodies crashed into the slope, and loose dirt and fallen pine needles served as a slippery surface. Kane and his opponent tumbled down the mountainside. The Fomorian tried to recover himself as he skidded on the ground, but Kane hammered his fists hard into his opponent’s kidneys. Each punch felt as if Kane was striking a padded wall, jolts of pain shooting up his forearms, but the Fomorian grunted every time Kane connected. Whatever damage he was doing, it was enough to keep the creature distracted. The wild slide ended with a crash as the hunter slammed headfirst into a pine tree.

The sudden deceleration tossed Kane off the one-eyed monstrosity, but his limber limbs, quick reflexes and remarkable agility allowed him to somersault to cushion his landing. He got to his feet, seeing the Fomorian stagger slowly to his knees.

Kane couldn’t let the hunter get to his full height. He scrambled up the slope and launched himself feetfirst at it. The flying drop kick caught the Fomorian dead on in the jaw and upper chest, all 180 pounds of Kane’s lean weight giving his strike enough force to flatten the mutant. A deceptively strong hand clawed up, grabbing Kane by his belt. It took everything he had to maintain his footing as the Fomorian tried to wrestle him to the ground. Had the monster not been so incredibly strong, Kane could have lifted a foot to drive a crushing kick
into his windpipe, but as it was, he needed to hang on for dear life, bracing against the Fomorian’s grasp.

“You’ll be a worthy addition to us,” the Fomorian snarled.

Kane grimaced and twisted at the waist, driving his attacker’s elbow into his knee. “Sorry. I’m not on the menu tonight.”

The pivot should have dislocated his adversary’s elbow, but all it did was rip Kane’s pants and shirt, iron clawlike fingers shredding the fabric and freeing Kane from his grasp. It wasn’t Kane’s intended result, but he was now free, and he whipped his heel hard into the hunter’s face. He’d been aiming for the windpipe, but the Fomorian was too quick. Rather than a raspy gurgle of strangulation from a collapsed trachea, Kane heard the sickening squelch of the Fomorian’s giant eyeball bursting under the heel of his boot. The loss of the singe eye was accompanied by a desperate wail that keened through the trees, a high pitch that stabbed like an ice pick into Kane’s brain.

“You bastard!” the Fomorian spit. “You fucking bastard!”

Kane stepped away from his blinded foe. With one hand clamped over the gory remnants in its socket, the Fomorian crawled to his knees, swinging his remaining limb around. Kane knew that he needed a weapon to deal with the blinded cyclops’s brother, and that meant he had to take the Fomorian’s remaining hatchet. Of course, even blind, the hunter had too much strength to
simply knock out and disarm. Kane lunged, snaking one arm under the Fomorian’s chin, the fingers of his other hand sinking into the monstrosity’s scalp.

The Fomorian released his bloody eye socket, gore-stained fingers reaching for Kane as he tightened the headlock. The hunter was unable to gain a solid grasp on the Cerberus warrior, but the Fomorian’s other hand locked around Kane’s forearm. It was now or never, he thought, and he jammed both of his knees between the blinded creature’s shoulder blades. Before the Fomorian could pry Kane’s forearm from his throat, Kane threw all of his might into a savage twist. Tendons popped like gunshots, but Kane didn’t relax the pressure on the hunter’s neck. Now that the sinews of the creature’s neck had burst, it was the turn of neck bone to grind, crunch and finally shift violently. Vertebrae scissored against each other, slicing through the Fomorian’s spinal cord like a guillotine blade.

The six-and-a-half-foot corpse sagged in Kane’s arms, and he released it. He was out of breath and feeling spent, and there was still another attacker up the slope, finishing its battle with the black bear, his knobby fists smeared dark crimson from beating a six-hundred-pound carnivore to death with his bare hands.

“Brother!” the Fomorian shrieked. “You killed him!”

Kane hurled himself at the corpse, drawing the hatchet from its belt.

At least now, Kane was no longer outnumbered and unarmed.

Not that it mattered to the screaming cyclops who flew down the slope, blood drenched fingers slicing the air like claws.

Chapter 10

Kane knew that the Fomorian pouncing upon him in a rage was over 250 pounds of predatory fury who had just beaten six hundred pounds of black bear to death. As worn down as he was from killing the other Fomorian, Kane knew that he couldn’t rely on his reflexes to grant him the grace and speed to divert the path of the tackling beast. Standing up to take the hit would also be suicidal given the kind of strength and rage his enemy possessed. The only thing Kane could do was to fall flat on his back, six and a half feet of muscled monstrosity slicing through the air over his prone form. With a roll, Kane pushed himself to all fours, seeing the creature tumble out of control down the slope. Only his years of experience had been able to turn minutes of cool, collected analysis into a split second of decision on the cusp of a deadly attack.

Kane watched the Fomorian’s out-of-control body skip down the mountainside, and he would have considered the situation comical if it hadn’t been so deadly serious. The minute the Fomorian recovered his balance, he would come after Kane with blood in his eyes and
murder in his heart. Kane had a hatchet, but his muscles were screaming for respite. While he wasn’t helpless, he was still at a drastic disadvantage. Legs burning with the effort, he scrambled up to the bear, looking around in futile hope that he could locate any equipment that the first hunter might have dropped. A spear would be good, or any length of branch that would keep the Fomorian from closing to within grappling range. If those corded, muscular arms wrapped around Kane’s torso, his spine and ribs would be crushed.

Gunfire crackled in the distance, and Kane paused momentarily.

Was it Grant and Brigid, defying the Appalachians’ rules of engagement and coming to his rescue, or was it the false Kane, the thing sent by Thrush to infiltrate Cerberus? He cursed himself, realizing that each moment he wasted in battling the superhuman mutation on his heels was one step that Thrush’s doppelganger closed with his friends back at the redoubt. And he knew full well why the cybernetic being was going to Cerberus—to locate and launch a deadly strike against Enlil. While Kane wouldn’t mourn the loss of the lord of the Annunaki, he realized that such a conflict with the mad god and whatever resources he’d assembled would result in brutal losses on both sides. Thrush’s lackey had no concern for Kane’s partners, so any strategy formulated would be too brash, too vicious to entail anything other than grievous slaughter.

The attacking Fomorian popped up in Kane’s peri
pheral vision, and with a savage twist, Kane hurled himself behind a tree trunk as a swinging fist sliced the air at him. The hunter was as swift as he was stealthy, and when the knobby knuckles of the man-beast struck the pine’s trunk, Kane could hear the crack of wood. The tree groaned under its own weight, weakened by a blow that knocked the Fomorian’s fingers out of alignment. The one-eyed mutation grimaced, clutching his pulverized fist.

Now, with a shred of advantage over the enemy, Kane launched himself, swinging the hand ax with all of his might. The wedge-shaped edge slashed down hard, aimed right at the bulbous, freakish orb in the center of the creature’s face, but the Fomorian’s wrist swung up. Steel bit into skin as tough as cured leather, then stopped as it struck the mutant’s forearm bone. The creature let out a strangled gurgle of agony, wrenching his arm away from Kane. The hatchet’s handle was ripped from Kane’s grasp, but he wasn’t going to waste energy fighting for control of the weapon. The broken-knuckled paw rose to seize Kane’s tank top, but the Cerberus warrior pivoted, putting all of his weight into an elbow strike to the clawing mitt. Broken fingers released an ugly crunch as Kane connected, and reflexively, the Fomorian withdrew his hand, releasing a yowl of pain.

“Bastard!” the hunter snarled, swinging his arm, the ax still lodged in the bone, to smash the human that dared to defy him. Kane dropped to one knee and kicked his attacker’s shin. The spear kick knocked the creature
off balance, already dodgy thanks to the force of his swipe at Kane. The Fomorian toppled to the ground again, but this time, his momentum was lateral, not downhill. He wouldn’t repeat the escapade of errors that had sent him sliding down the slope again.

Kane leaped, pouncing like a great cat, both hands latching around the ax handle jutting from the Fomorian’s wrist. The leap and Kane’s weight combined to pry loose the ax blade in the creature’s bone. The Fomorian howled with pain. With one hand mangled and the other forearm sporting a savage laceration and a fractured ulnar bone, the Fomorian’s single eye had gone red with rage. His maw opened, but instead of another cry of pain, a bellow of fury split the air. Rotted, malformed teeth formed raggedy, yellow picket fences in the Fomorian’s mouth, and his breath stank of spoiled meat. The hunter lashed out with his mangled hand again, no longer conscious of any pain. Madness had taken control of the enemy man-beast, and Kane had only barely twisted out of the path of the falling blow. The impact sounded like a drum beat against the ground, and Kane knew that had he been a moment slower, his broken ribs would have speared through his chest muscles and he would be coughing up the gory remnants of his crushed lungs.

Kane chopped the ax toward the hunter’s face, but the steel edge wasn’t on target. Rather than pulverizing the Fomorian’s face bones, the blade deflected off his cheek and merely carved off an ear, along with a ragged flap
of flesh. The Fomorian reached for Kane’s throat with his good hand, ignoring the banner of slashed flesh fluttering on the side of his skull. Long, powerful fingers clawed for Kane’s windpipe, but he swung both of his legs into the mutant’s chest and kicked out hard. The massive hunter seemed to resist being lifted off Kane for a moment, but the laws of physics and leverage were in Kane’s favor. The Fomorian toppled backward as he was launched into the air, snarling in frustration at being thwarted yet again by his human prey.

“Damn you,” the Fomorian spit, his livid eye locked on Kane. “Why won’t you die?”

“Today’s not good for me,” Kane answered, crawling back to his feet, hefting his hatchet. “Can I pencil you in for next millennium?”

The Fomorian reached out, talonlike fingers wrapping around a rock the size of Kane’s head. “No. It’s now or never.”

Kane braced himself as the monstrosity hefted the stone. He was going to have to rely on every ounce of his point man’s instinct, the near supernatural edge of his razor-sharp perceptions. He’d need perfect timing to avoid the fifteen-pound missile that his opponent was preparing to throw. If he reacted too soon, he’d be off balance if the Fomorian changed his aim. An instant too late, and the rock would become a permanent part of his skull, evicting his brain with bone-shattering force. His eyes stung from where blood and sweat had dripped into them, but his bloodstream was so charged with adrena
line, he wasn’t feeling that discomfort. His limbs felt wooden, however, genuine exhaustion threatening to overtake him once he survived this fight.

The Fomorian’s chest and shoulder muscles flexed, alerting Kane that the throw was in process. The Cerberus warrior kept himself physically loose, not committing to any direction until he knew that the mutant hunter had committed himself to the attack. The one-eyed creature swung the stone around, putting all of his weight into the throw, and as Kane noted the shift of weight, he dived forward, slicing the air under the path of his opponent’s toss. The rock flew like a bullet, its stony mass cracking against the thick trunk of a pine where Kane had been standing. In the meantime, Kane somersaulted, getting his feet beneath him again in order to launch his body at the Fomorian. He led the way with his hatchet, the wicked chopping edge catching his foe’s abdominal muscles in a wicked, flesh-ripping swing.

At least it should have been a flesh-ripping swing. The dense muscle and skin of the beast did yield under the force of Kane’s chop, but Fomorian flesh was not as elastic or pliant as human tissue. The hatchet stuck, and Kane felt as if he’d dislocated his shoulder with the sudden stop. A spray of blood gushed from the monstrosity’s wound, dousing Kane’s face and chest. It was a blinding splash of gore, and Kane backpedaled away from the Fomorian. Gangly fingers clawed at Kane, and only his keen reflexes saved him from his adversary getting a firm grasp on him. Nails dug into Kane’s tank
top and peeled the cloth off his body. The Fomorian snarled in frustration as he hurled away the rags.

The man-beast’s other hand was now an insensate club, two fingers missing from when he had punched too hard into the earth trying to kill Kane. There was enough of a limb left, however, that it connected glancingly with Kane’s head. Had Kane caught the forearm dead on, he was certain the impact would have shattered his neck, but this was a palm slap up the side of his head. Even the Fomorian’s muscular wrist yielded, just enough flex to turn a fatal strike into a brain scrambling yet survivable punch. Kane let himself crash to the forest floor, further robbing the blow of its full power.

Going prone also gave Kane one advantage he’d work to end this fight immediately. He lashed out with both legs, scissoring the ankles of the Fomorian. With all his might, he twisted, driving the hapless mutant face-first into the ground and kept rolling until he’d bent the monstrosity’s lower limbs double at the knees. With that kind of leverage, he had the Fomorian pinned and not knowing how to wrestle his way out of the grapple. It wouldn’t last long, and as soon as the Fomorian pushed with all his upper-body strength into the ground, the creature would be free.

Before that could happen, though, Kane lunged, grabbing the waggling flap of flesh hanging off the mutant’s head. It was a wild grab, but the creature’s ear provided an excellent handle to the bloody banner of skin. With a firm hold on the sliced hunk of scalp and
face, Kane straightened at the waist and pulled hard, fingers dug into the skin and ear of the man-beast. More flesh ripped in a hideous crackle, and the Fomorian let loose a wail of agony as the back of his head was stripped of skin. White skull and muscle tissue were exposed under the peeled dermis. Kane didn’t want to take pleasure in the discomfort he caused, but there was a grim manner of satisfaction when he saw the Fomorian flailing around from the cruel tactic.

The Fomorian had at least seventy-five pounds and six inches of height on him, and his rope-cord arms made his reach much longer and deadlier than Kane’s. Coupled with the ferocity to punch a bear into a bloody mash of crushed flesh and bone, the Fomorian hunter was not something that Kane wanted to treat fairly. With his opponent distracted by the gush of blood from the peeled scalp, Kane was able to bend at the waist again. He clamped both hands into one hammer fist and brought them down on the Fomorian’s kidney. He hoped that the altered anatomy of his mutant foe was not that radically altered, and thankfully it wasn’t. Driving both fists into a kidney-smashing chop, Kane put enough force into the blow to burst the organ in a normal human.

The Fomorian’s cries of pain turned into a tight whine, his bulging cyclopean eye clenched shut against a fiery agony unlike anything he had ever felt. Though Kane wondered if his blow could penetrate the sheet of tough muscles bunched in the Fomorian’s back, he was rewarded with the sudden limpness in his enemy’s
trapped legs. Untangling himself, Kane scurried to his feet. His back and shoulders burned from the Herculean effort of inflicting crippling pain against the man-beast, but Kane realized that he didn’t have long to win this fight. He ripped the hatchet out of the Fomorian’s wounded belly, and stomped one foot on the back of the monstrosity’s partially defleshed skull, driving his face into the dirt.

One hand rose, wrapping Kane’s ankle in a grip of iron. The few moments he’d managed to buy himself were nearly gone. Kane grimaced and brought the hatchet down on the exposed spot where the muscles connected to the base of the creature’s skull. Bone caved in and flesh parted with the force of the brutal chop. The crushing fingers of the Fomorian loosened and slipped from around his ankle.

Kane staggered away, not bothering to dislodge the ax from where it had been stuck in the dead man-beast’s neck. His only saving grace was that he had nothing left in his stomach to eject. Though he didn’t keep a record of his victories in combat, Kane knew that this had to be one of the more gut-churning battles he’d ever engaged in. Completely drained by the exertion of the battle, he wanted to curl up under a blanket and sleep for a week.

No, Kane told himself. My body wants to recuperate, but right now, I’ve got to get back to Brigid and Grant before I have to fight any more of these things.

With a lurch, he pulled himself to his feet again, and
started his ascent when he heard the snarl of weapons. There was a gunfight going on only a hundred yards away, by the sound of things. Though it was hard to pinpoint, thanks to the echoes of gunshots bouncing off tree trunks, he could at least gauge the general direction and distance by the sheer mass of noise. The shooting had grown more intense.

Kane grimaced. He was unarmed, even if he could stomach ripping a bloody hatchet out of the corpse of the Fomorian. Bringing an ax to a gunfight was not on his list of things to do in life, and actually was on his short list of damn fool ways to commit suicide. He was tempted to just climb, and hope he could reach the tree line where the others would likely see him.

Kane paused and realized that climbing half-naked over the tree line would expose him to near freezing winds. Also, he had to deal with the blood loss from his clawed skull. He began going through his pockets, and realized that while these were cargo pants, they weren’t the ones he’d worn on the mission. Those trousers had pockets loaded with useful items, including a thermal blanket that he could have fashioned into a parka, and a small packet of gauze and adhesive that could have formed a compression bandage. Just to satisfy his curiosity, he looked down the waistband of the cargo pants and saw that his doppelganger had taken all of his shadow suit, leaving behind only the tank top, boxers and socks.

Just enough clothing to protect him from the rela
tively temperate climate of the pine forest that clung to the side of the mountain. With a deep breath, he reached down and tore off the boxers from beneath his pants. Long strips of cloth came free, giving Kane at least something that he could bandage his bloody head with. It wasn’t going to be the most glamorous field dressing ever applied, but at least he’d be shielding himself from infection and keeping his eyes clear. He had more than enough fabric from the underwear, so he stuffed the spare strips of cloth into one of the cargo pockets so that he could change his bandage later.

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