Authors: James Axler
“She is safe, though scared,” Balor answered. “Who did this to us?”
“It was the one who passed himself off as our benefactor,” Bres answered.
Balor reached into the dirt, his powerful hand wrapping around the trunk of Bres’s body. The grasp splintered his ribs as he secured enough of a grip to pry himself out from under the avalanche’s debris. Bres coughed up blood as the shattered bones lacerated blood vessels and internal organs, but they were already on their way to repairing themselves. For all the brutish power his son had demonstrated in clawing Bres out of the earth, that might was turned to gentle care as he was lowered to his feet.
“Bring the woman to me,” Bres growled. “I have need of her gifts.”
Balor nodded his massive, misshapen head. “Yes, Father.”
The giant whirled and took off, running on his thick knuckles and the soles of his feet, the gait reminding Bres of a gorilla. Balor crossed the wreckage of the valley to a crater that had been torn open when Balor had dug himself out.
Bres frowned. He knew that Thrush had betrayed him. But he needed the granny witch’s mystic power to give him more information.
Thrush had wanted to replace a man, someone of extraordinary ability and resources, which meant that the landslide could have been used to try to destroy him, as well. And right now, Bres had little time to waste finding him.
That meant using the psychic powers contained within Epona.
The human, Kane, would be the weapon that Bres could utilize to avenge himself upon the false man.
Caked with thick dirt, Kane was glad that his perspiration had allowed for a protective shell. It was far less likely now that he’d lose body heat through his naked back and arms, though it wasn’t the same as being clad in environmentally controlled smart polymers with heating and cooling elements. As it was, Kane stopped every so often, looking for muddy soil to smear on his body to replace the dried dirt knocked off by his trek down the side of the mountain. He’d considered using the freshly hewn corridor that had been carved out of the slope by the avalanche, but he wanted to have the element of cover and concealment. Right now, all he had was muddy camouflage, and concealment was pretty good for most of the foes he had who were limited to human perception.
Not knowing what kind of unholy supersenses the Fomorians possessed, he could have been walking through clearings with a gigantic neon sign carved into the air over his head, visible for miles. Thus, Kane kept to the trees, which handed him the added benefit of being thick and bulletproof.
Every so often, Kane would drop onto his butt and slide on the loose pine needles and mixed leaves of the forest floor. The wet, slippery surface was just about perfect for Kane to continue his trek with minimal wear and tear on his slowly recovering limbs. As of now, though, Kane was pleased that he could move his arms without severe discomfort. He still hurt, the ache wrapping him in a blanket that served to keep him awake and alert for enemies.
He had descended at least two thousand yards over the past fifteen minutes, and found an outcropping that looked as if it would give him a good view of the valley. Kane descended and crawled on his belly to the lip in order to minimize his profile. Peering over, he saw that hundreds of tree trunks stuck through the bulk of the landslide like shattered teeth through mashed lips.
Two craters had been torn out of the floor of the valley. They were massive depressions, going by the estimation of the size of the tree trunks poking from the soil. He frowned at the sight of a Fomorian who bounded around on all fours, his arms slightly longer than his legs as he galloped to this task and the next. Kane wondered if the scale he’d applied to the scene was correct when his gaze fell upon two figures, one a tall and magnificent humanoid with long, flowing golden hair, and a small, dark-haired woman. Both of their skins had a bronze tint to them, but Kane could tell that the woman’s coloration came from sun and wind burning her face from life atop the mountains. As for the other, his hue
was born of something unnatural. He gleamed oddly as the last rays of the day struck his skin. It was as if he truly were metallic-skinned, the glint of sunlight burning like fire on the highlights of his flesh.
“Bres,” Kane whispered, sudden and ancient recognition settling in as he gazed upon the figure who had been torn from a jump dream, a glimpse of an ancient past recast whole. Kane’s visual estimate of the man’s height was dead on, because Bres truly was fully seven feet in height. The godling standing in the valley was virtually unchanged since an earlier warrior, fighting in the cause of Lugh, had seen the unholy prince of the Fomorians on the battlefields.
Kane’s eyesight focused on the woman, and though he didn’t have binoculars, nor the optical enhancements of his shadow suit, he recognized her, as well—Granny Epona, being exactly where she shouldn’t have been, her wrists bound together by heavy rope, her shoulders stooped from the weight of the bindings. Jet-black hair fluttered in the breeze that turned Bres’s golden hair into a living flame that flickered.
There was no way that the witch should have been down there, not when it had taken Kane this long to reach the bottom of the valley. The woman who had greeted them with the scouts had to have been someone, or something, different. A dread sickness filled his gut as he wondered if perhaps the scouts who had accompanied her were similar abominations, recrafted Fomorians cast into the skins of the Appalachians. If that was
the circumstance, then he wondered if Grant and Brigid had been allowed to escape back to Cerberus.
“They’re fine,” he said aloud to reassure himself. “As fine as could be with an impostor posing as me in their ranks.”
Kane slid back along the outcropping, moving slowly so as not to draw attention from the valley below. There were about ten Fomorians, not counting Bres and the apelike monster galloping around on his knuckles and feet. The Fomorians and their titanic kinfolk had applied their strength to hacking at a section of mountain while Bres watched over the captive woman. He was outnumbered twelve to one, and from the looks of things, the mutations were busy digging more of their brothers out of the mountainside. The odds could double or triple, and the only things that Kane had with him were his wits and skill. He’d been rendered almost crippled fighting two of those Fomorian hunters one at a time. The current odds, for want of a better term, sucked.
Kane pushed his worries aside. They would be a good guide to keep him aware of what would happen if he failed, but he had to move past envisioning failure and formulate a plan of action that didn’t entail one-on-one combat with a twelve-foot, one-eyed gorilla. Of course, with everything buried beneath tons of rock and shattered tree trunks, Kane was not going to have any luck finding a rifle to even the odds.
He closed his eyes, wincing at the thought of having to go bare-handed against anything down there, espe
cially with his limbs aching from fatigue. He ran his thoughts over the possibilities and focused on the idea of sharpening a branch with a flat rock, or perhaps splitting one end and tying a particularly sharpened simple spearhead in place. Stone would penetrate at least one Fomorian hide easily, but that meant leading at least a couple in pursuit. If he could pounce on one of the mutated hunters and take him down with a well-placed thrust, he’d get hold of a rifle and spare ammunition. Considering how the beasts had gone after a bear while wearing only a loincloth and carrying a simple hand ax each, the chances of getting more than a full magazine would be spotty.
Something mewled in the distance, making Kane open his eyes. Just what he needed while formulating his line of attack on Bres, an interruption by…what?
Kane squinted, and he caught a glimpse of movement. It sure as hell wasn’t a Fomorian hunter stalking the woods for survivors. It was too small, too wiry and too quick.
Kane rarely saw feral cats in the wilderness, and those that he spotted were mostly blurs of motion, running away from him if they detected his human presence in their territory. Felines had long ago lost much of their trust and curiosity in regards to humankind. Sure, there were a few pets within villes or various other societies, but that was only due to an abundance of food and a surplus of time for their owners to pay attention to them. Elsewhere, the cats had reverted to their
wild ways, being hunters of the small, and avoiding anything that was too big to get involved with.
So, in a day that had been filled with amazing sights and sensations, the approach of a brown, snaggle-toothed old warrior cat, staring at him with sharp, intelligent green eyes, proved to be most mystifying to Kane. The lean and spry creature advanced on Kane with an almost regal air. He was able to sense the ancient leonine majesty that was still prevalent in the feline’s genes.
“Shoo,” Kane whispered, waving at the thing. The cat ignored his warning dismissal, choosing instead to seat itself, staring at him. Kane grit his teeth at the little beast, but rather than be impressed, the cat released a bored snort.
Kane had the instinct to kick a clot of dirt at the wild creature, but those piercing emerald eyes peered deep into him, something tugging at his mind, stopping his kick. The cat’s expression bespoke a familiar intellect, a friendly face. Epona sprang immediately to mind, and Kane couldn’t help but notice the subtle rustle of thoughts echoing in the back of his subconscious mind, the sensations reminiscent of his telepathic rapport with Balam, the last Archon.
“Balam never required an intermediary to tell me what he thought,” Kane said aloud to the cat, keeping his voice low so it wouldn’t carry.
The cat’s head tilted in response to the statement. Those almost human eyes never wavered from his own as the feline padded toward him, eventually making a
gentle hop into Kane’s lap. Instincts guided Kane’s hand to the back of the cat’s head, fingers scratching behind the animal’s ears. “Makes sense. Not only have witches been known to communicate with their familiars, but Morrigan was able to see through the eyes of her raven messengers. That was also a gift shared by Apollo and Odin, two other gods whose chosen animal was the raven.”
Kane winced as he felt the influence of Brigid Baptiste. Without her present, Kane had fallen into the role of lecturer as he wrapped his mind around the concept of intraspecies telepathic communication. All of this was known to him simply because he had gone back and done research on Morrigan, a familiar figure from one of Kane’s jump dreams, a person whom he had met in an earlier life, according to Fand. As Kane researched the bits of that past existence as Cuchulainn, he was able to explore the myths of the Tuatha and other European gods. Given that the Annunaki lord Marduk had confirmed that he had been Zeus in Greece, then it was no surprise that the “powers” of many of the gods were repeated, such as the powers of remote viewing and communication through animal forms. Marduk had required a bit of Annunaki technology to broadcast his thoughts, utilizing cloned tissues as his transmitter. Epona’s ability to do the same thing with simpler central nervous systems seemed as reasonable as the sun rising and setting. The weird thing was that Kane hadn’t even remembered reading about this until Epona made contact with Kane through the feline.
Kane tenderly put a knuckle under the cat’s chin. “I know
want me to continue scratching, old boy, but what does your granny witch want from me?”
A feint mew was Kane’s undecipherable answer, but given how easily Epona had planted the idea of the cat being her representative in Kane’s mind, her need for communication had faded for now. That, or she was being grilled by Bres, forced to search for him via her granny witch powers. Kane thought back to Bres, looming over the woman, and tried to decipher the order of events and the reasoning behind this particular contact. The cat could have been one of hundreds of animals that still survived on the mountainside in the wake of the avalanche, and Epona was legitimately searching for Kane in order to appease the irate Bres. It was unlikely that the animals were sent in search of trapped or injured Fomorians as Kane had seen the uninjured mutants digging at the slope, trying to penetrate into collapsed caves for their brethren.
That only left Bres looking for the Kane that the Thrush doppelganger had left behind on the mountain. It was logical that Bres wanted to catch up with Kane, most likely as a means of evening the score with whoever had unleashed the landslide on Bres’s settlement of mutants. Whether that meant that Bres wanted to utilize Kane as an ally or pulverize the creature that Thrush wanted protected and out of the way was the question that weighed on Kane’s mind. The answer to that would determine how roughly the Fomorian would
treat him, should Epona direct the hunters toward him via her psychic link with the animals of the forest. The cat didn’t move, so it hadn’t been summoned away by Epona, which didn’t mean anything in itself. Still, the emotional bonding that had been projected through the animal informed Kane that Epona felt what her familiars experienced. If danger was en route to this spot, Epona would have dismissed the cat, rather than suffer its agonies at the claws of the savage mutations. As well, Kane’s own perceptions were as sharp as ever, and he had no indication of danger looming, not even with his almost supernatural point man’s sense. Rather, Kane was in a place of calm, the lounging cat exuding soothing, almost healing vibrations.
It was then that Kane’s mind wandered for a moment, reexamining the moment that the bear had lurched into view. Though it had swatted him in the head, a single claw carving open his forehead, Kane now realized that the blow had not been intended to decapitate him as he originally thought. The limb that had been wounded had been harmed in the process of the bear lunging to protect Kane, not beforehand. The whole thing now stank of deus ex machina.
Kane looked into the cat’s eyes and spoke clearly. “That was you with the bear, as well, wasn’t it, Epona?”
A gentle paw reached out to rest on Kane’s chin. There was a sudden, deep pang of regret in Kane’s heart, a sadness that enveloped him as he caught the emotion in the cat’s eyes. Epona was mourning over her ursine
pawn. It could have been projection, but Kane also felt regret at the loss of the magnificent animal to the brutal fists of the Fomorians. At least Kane had managed to avenge his rescuer.
There was a brief flicker in the cat’s eyes, and its raspy tongue brushed across Kane’s bristly chin. The thanks of a witch for an act of justice against a murderer.
“So, is this a trap?” Kane asked the cat, feeling a slight bit silly. When the cat put its paw over his lips, the silliness disappeared. This was genuine conversation. It wasn’t the mind-speech that he’d shared with Balam, though; it was more a transmission of ideas, sort of like classical music scores without accompanying operatic verses to make sense of things. Concepts were transmitted through nonverbal interpretation. For a moment, Kane felt the urge to bury himself under some foliage to hide from the Fomorians. It wasn’t a precise exchange of thoughts, but the implication was clear. Epona wanted Kane to remain in hiding, and any efforts she made to assist Bres were only obfuscation.
Kane racked his mind to come up with a term for the process by which Epona had kept in touch with him through the cat’s mind, and he went back to a term Brigid Baptiste had encountered in the
a journal of unusual phenomena that stretched from alien life to odd zoological specimens. Brigid was able to supply Kane with a lot of background information on creatures he’d encountered and odd places he’d been to.
The term that Kane cast about for finally came to mind: telempathy, long-distance emotional communication.