Authors: James Axler
“Head wound dealt with,” he muttered. He felt along his jawline and activated his Commtact. Kane cursed when he got no response from Cerberus. Whether his unit was damaged or there was a problem with the signal reaching Cerberus, Kane was on his own.
More gunfire now. This time, it was the unmistakable throaty roar of Grant’s Barrett. Kane grimaced and yelled, but the range was at least three hundred yards. He scrambled, knowing that his partners would have blankets or the scouts would at least be able to provide a spare fur cloak for him. Three hundred yards, though, meant that the others might have mistaken the Thrush duplicate for Kane. Though his legs complained at the strain, he started pushing himself, fighting against the incline. He swung himself from tree trunk to tree trunk, using whatever handholds he could grasp to speed his ascent.
That wasn’t helping the aches that were beginning to
awaken along his back and shoulders. Each extension of his muscles felt as if he were pulling himself apart.
“You get to the tree line, everything stops hurting,” he said aloud, as if he could get his body to shut up about the damage he’d done to it. There were no deals to be made with his muscles. Every step was an exercise in will as much as strength, and his battle was now with a mountain, not the monsters that stalked its slopes.
He wrapped both arms around one pine trunk, the rough bark clawing at his skin as he used it as a support to rest himself. Sweat had drenched his upper body, and his hair was plastered to his head. Kane was glad for the bandage around his forehead as it absorbed the perspiration that would have been flowing into his eyes. They were already burning and stinging from the blood and grit that had gotten into them during his melee with the twin hunters, and he was fairly certain that he was beginning to suffer dehydration from his blood loss. The lack of tears to wash the offending debris on his eyes and the dryness of his mouth were good indicators.
Further confirmation came when he realized he’d lost a great deal of bodily fluid when he vomited earlier. He’d covered a hundred yards, though, since he’d picked up the pace to catch up with Grant. He could stand another two hundred before he could beg for a sip from Brigid’s canteen.
Thunder pealed above him. Kane looked up, but he already knew that the skies above were blue and clear. One part of him hoped that it was perhaps the sonic
boom of a Manta transorbital craft launched from Cerberus. The sensor equipment on the sleek, ultrasonic flyers would be able to peer through the trees and find him, latched on to a tree trunk, gasping for breath, fighting off chilling temperature drops and in desperate need of water. There were still a couple of people back at Cerberus who were qualified to fly the swift craft.
The thunder didn’t fade, though, as it would have after the crack of a sonic boom. Instead, the rumbling sound increased in intensity, growing louder as it grew closer. Kane’s fingers dug into the bark of the tree and he knew that there was only one reason for the sound.
Grant had started an avalanche. He’d probably been told that there was an army of the strange mutant man-eaters down the hill, and for all Kane knew, there probably were hundreds of them.
But one more thing was in the path of the thunderous landslide hurtling down the slope.
Kane. And right now, there was not a damn place for him to seek cover.
It took Kane only a second to determine that the thunderclap above him was not storm related, nor was it a rescue ship from Cerberus. His keen senses and sharp mind worked together with their usual quickness to analyze the situation and make a decision. It was something that Brigid Baptiste had always grumbled about. Her intellect was undeniably greater, and her memories were stuffed with the knowledge of all the centuries of humankind, a storehouse of knowledge that was unsurpassed. But when it came to perceiving a danger and formulating a reaction to it, she awarded Kane with the sharper response. It wasn’t officially a competition between the two, but there were benefits to both Brigid’s incredible thought processes and Kane’s instinctual adaptation to crisis.
The primitive urge in Kane’s lower reptile brain was to run, and like many primitive reactions, it was a correct response. What his higher brain had to do was figure which was the most effective direction. The row of explosions that had started the rumble of the avalanche was on a higher elevation of the slope, meaning that heading
downhill was suicide. The landslide would simply spread wider as more debris was knocked loose, scattering before the main mass that plummeted in gravity’s greedy grasp. Uphill would take too much effort and be too slow and inefficient, and there was no guarantee that he’d slip past the widening arc of the avalanche’s leading edge. He’d potentially plow right into a wall of rocks and uprooted trees roaring in the opposite direction at around 125 miles per hour.
Kane had to rely on his perceptions and cut through the prevailing drone of the accelerating landslide, locating the direction it was in relation to him. Making things worse was that relying on that kind of triangulation was eating up the vital few seconds that could mean the difference between survival and instant death.
The avalanche was off to his right. Move to the left. The two thoughts had taken place so quickly that by the time they could have been spoken aloud, the avalanche would be right on top of him. But to Kane, knowledge was action. His exhausted, leaden limbs surged at the command of his will, and he charged, each of his strides eating up ground.
He put everything into the mad dash for survival. He either emptied his tank of everything, or he died. Neither option seemed to leave him in a position where he’d be in good shape, but at least with the first choice, he’d still be breathing, and his sapped muscles wouldn’t be crushed into a bloody pulp and smeared across a thousand feet of blasted slope.
The sound of trees snapping, their trunks bursting or their roots wrenching out of the dirt and rock that they’d clung to so savagely for years, signaled the damning approach of the landslide. Smaller rocks and pebbles whizzed through the air as if they were a rain of bullets, and Kane could feel them plucking at his heels and calves as he charged headlong away from the center of the avalanche. The peppering debris impacted his legs, informing him that the front of the turgid mass of collapsing mountainside had spread. The center had moved the swiftest, naturally, but the edge was working its hardest to catch up, and for as fast as Kane ran, he still was in the path of the expanding thrust.
He could only tell that the avalanche was closing in by touch and hearing. His eyes were focused on the path ahead of him. If he stumbled, tripped, was slowed one iota, his end would be certain. A pine tree cart-wheeled behind him, its branches shattering as it tumbled. He could see its shadow as a brief slice of sun showed up through the cleared forest, but darkness blotted out the sky.
The core of the avalanche was now covered by a towering cloud that had blocked out the sun, and twigs and splinters stabbed into Kane’s back. A rock the size of an apple bounced off his sore shoulder before it careened down hill, and a jolt of dread filled his gut. He was certain that he hadn’t made it far enough, and by now, the landslide had expanded so that the big stuff was
coming down on him. The impression of failure would have made anyone else lose a step, but Kane kept pushing on, even as he heard grinding and twisting trunks give off their final bellows behind him.
To stop running would be an act of surrender. Kane fought on, one step after another, his powerful legs hurling him two yards with each stride. A pine needle stabbed into his cheek, and wincing reflex almost inspired him to blink, but he knew that to close his eyes would be to make his steps uncertain. Kane ran with all of his might, not blinking, not allowing the acid seething in his thighs to slow him. The roar of the landslide reached a crescendo that made Kane feel as if his head were being crushed by the vengeful ghosts of the Fomorian hunters he had slain.
A branch spun and cracked him hard across the side. The impact slammed Kane to the ground and he rolled, arms clawing fruitlessly for a handhold. As he rotated, he saw that the sky was a smear of darkness that dominated everything around him. Kane stopped, his broad shoulders slamming into the roots of a pine tree that stood its ground as dust and pine needles seemed to bury him in a stifling cloud. Kane twisted, pushing his face against the trunk of the tree, using his body to block out the falling debris so that he could suck in a breath of life-giving air.
Kane ached, and he clutched the roots that had slowed him. The thunder of the landslide faded, but he couldn’t tell if it was because the avalanche had passed
him by or because he had been entombed beneath a wall of soil. All he knew was that darkness had engulfed him, and the only sensations he possessed were the firing of his nerves as muscles, skin and bone all protested their mistreatment. Just before he pulled up the urge to relax and sleep in the burial mound the Pocono mountain had constructed for him, he remembered the leering, cheerful face that Thrush had stolen from him, and how it would now be used to place Brigid, Grant and all his other friends back at Cerberus in grave peril.
The dirt was heavy across his shoulders, and his arms twitched as he fought to push above the blanket of debris. He grit his teeth, feeling his tomb crack and pour off his back. Finally his head burst above the soil that had engulfed him. He gasped down fresh air and pushed and writhed until he’d cleared enough dirt away so that he could breathe easily.
The air was still cloudy, but Kane could see a dim flare of sunlight through it. Soon enough, though, the cold air would drift down from the mountaintop. Already his cheeks could feel a chill.
Kane sighed. For now, at least, the tomb that had threatened to smother him was a shelter, blocking out the frigid air before it could rob even more life from his exhausted limbs.
“Rest a few moments,” Kane muttered. “Let everything settle down, stay warm.”
He wanted to blink, but he knew that if he slept, he’d lose daylight. Fighting his way to a warmer altitude
while half naked and beset by mountain cold was going to be hard enough while he could see and be warmed by the sun’s nurturing rays. In darkness, he’d be facing a cold he could never outrun.
Just until my arms and legs stop twitching, he promised himself, not even allowing himself to blink for fear that sleep would overtake him.
He had to stay awake in order to get back to Cerberus.
Kane didn’t have any proof right now, but he knew in his heart of hearts that Thrush, the faker who had donned his skin and flaunted it before him, had inspired the avalanche.
Right now, the doppelganger was looking at the scar he’d carved into the mountain, and was wondering if the landslide had buried him, or if Kane still lived.
Kane clenched his fist beneath the dirt, then shrugged his arm free from the tomb. The pain had dulled from fire in his muscles to a constant throb. He pried himself out of the soil and stood, looking up the mountain, grimacing over the fact that he couldn’t see through the airborne debris.
“I’m still alive, Thrush,” Kane growled.
His legs wobbled, rubbery beneath him, and his mouth was dry and parched. Already his arms were tingling, bitten by the crisp mountain air. He’d need water, food, rest, medical attention.
But for now, anger at the false-faced usurper would be the fuel to keep him warm, to push his steps, first downhill then back to the parallax point.
Even if there were a hundred Fomorians between him and Cerberus, Kane had to get through them.
He started his trek into the half-buried valley.
OR THE SPACE
of a few moments, Bres the Beautiful was happy again. Most of his millennia-long lifespan had been spent in a state of numbness. It was why he was such a beautiful-faced and perfect-bodied being while his touch only mutated and deformed others to release their power. He had been given a gift, a power that had been buried deep within the core of his being. The joy of this present, handed to him by the Dragon King Enlil, was that he was immortal. No amount of force could slay him, and the spark of fire that motivated his body would never burn out.
There had been a curse to this gift, however. Nothing short of the kind of strength and brutality that could flay his everlasting flesh produced a sensation strong enough for him to feel. Brushing his hand through broken glass yielded the same numb feeling of lifeless fingers as it would running through the silken hair of a gorgeous lover. No pleasure would ever be great enough for him to be teased or tickled again, while it would take the strength of giants to cause him enough harm to savor the sting of parting flesh and snapping bone.
It was why he was so beloved of the Fomorians. Not only had Bres unleashed the might within their genetic code, the bestial force that had been constructed by the Annunaki to wage their war with the Tuatha de Danaan,
but he also provided them with entertainment. The twisted freaks, the cyclopeans and their monolimbed counterparts, would engage in cruel games of competition to see who among them could garner the most response from their leader. Some took the opportunity to see how much damage they truly could do with their bare hands. Others devised wicked, skin-peeling tools of pain and cruelty to accomplish this goal.
And between each flaying, between each intense beating, the Fomorians cackled and howled with glee as Bres’s body reconstructed itself, bones mending and flesh flowing like mud until he returned to his original shape. It was the only thing that kept Bres as sane as he was, those nights of torment and torture that broke the never-ending dullness and void of sensation that was his life.
The rumble of the avalanche was a mile off when Bres first noticed it, and for a moment, he glanced around, looking for clouds in the sky. Since it wasn’t that, and there had been no aircraft for the past few centuries that would have produced such a sound, his vision turned toward an odd cloud that accelerated down the mountain slope.
“Avalanche!” Bres bellowed at the top of his lungs. The landslide was accompanied by a cloud of debris, and it spread quickly, tumbling toward the valley floor. “Balor!”
The greatest of Bres’s children, the mighty giant with the baleful eye, torn from the lifeless face of Bres’s father, leaped across the Fomorian compound. Balor
had been propelled by legs that were easily as thick as tree trunks, layered with sheets of muscle that turned his seven-hundred-pound bulk into a swift, often graceful form as it moved. When he spoke, his voice was almost angelic, making his appearance even more of an abomination. “Father?”
“The prisoner—you must shield her,” Bres whispered to his favored and most loved creation.
Balor’s craggy maw twisted into a smile. His cyclopean head nodded, and with a leap, he soared twenty feet into the air, crossing the distance to Granny Epona’s cage in a single bound. Seven hundred pounds of weight had been proportionally distributed across Balor’s nine-foot frame, and he knelt over Epona’s cage. Broad shoulders and a back rippling with muscle formed an impenetrable wall against whatever assault the mountain could drop on them.
This had taken only seconds, and the avalanche was still a quarter of the way up the mountain. Bres’s perfect features darkened with anger, his lip curling in spite. The caverns where the Fomorian horde bivouacked honeycombed the slope up to a hundred feet off the valley floor, and the outdoor compound he had stood in was actually the ruins of an Appalachian outpost. Bres glared at the buildings where they had stored the rifles and vehicles granted to them by Thrush, and as he turned back toward the onrushing storm of stone, he knew that Thrush was once again a traitor.
Thrush had promised great things from their collabo
ration, but the moment that Bres had done one thing for the pandimensional mastermind, he ripped it all away in the most destructive and anger-filled way possible. He couldn’t have just sabotaged the equipment that had been given to the Fomorians. No, he had to rip off the side of a mountain and hurl it down at them, a clear rebuke to Bres and his clan.
The world caved in on Bres as tons of mass moving at over a hundred miles per hour struck him. Wood and rock smashed against his perfect, normally unfeeling body. Flesh was torn from his bones in a manner that he had not felt since he was in Nagasaki. There, it had been the power unleashed by a nuclear explosion, concussive force and heat searing the flesh from his skeleton. Here, it was simply the power of gravity acting upon a loosened sheet of mountainside. Bones shattered and his eyeballs liquefied as they were driven from his face by the wave of devastating force that hammered on him.
The impact was over, and Bres was trapped in complete silence and darkness. Though he realized that it was simply that he was buried under tons of material, he allowed himself the fantasy that Enlil’s grand gift had finally been spent, that he had been allowed to die.
His cheek twitched, and he realized that already the jeweled node that was at the core of his being had at least reconstructed part of his face. Vibrations shook the earth around him, their nearness causing his limbs to flinch in response.
There could be no doubt, even before thick fingers
pried a chunk of boulder away, revealing clear sky marred by the brown, fused features of his son Balor.
“I am well,” Bres answered. “Our prisoner?”