"I told you not to fucking carry me..." she called, climbing out and rolling up the bag.
"I didn't." Sachiin sighed. Her gaze flew to Edward, who looked back at her wordlessly. “Pet’s place is up that gully and halfway down the other side.” the former advised, pointing out the neighbouring ridge while she waded toward them through matted, rotting fronds. Her expression brightened to an uncertain smile until he drew her attention to the ground at their feet. It dropped away in a deep concave, then a monstrous swathe of tumbled, bramble-choked tumulus where the hillside had lapsed wholesale into a gorge a century earlier, undermined by a spring buried in its shoulder. Cottage-sized blocks of rock studded the jagged, compacted chaos, some still garnished with randomized fragments of the original forest. The gradient alone rendered it impassable except to the slowest and most conservative descent, a prospect further complicated by the maze of nightmare boscage. Far below, like some dreary and imperfect déjà vu lay another river partitioned from contiguous view by the ridges running down to it, appearing dully petrochemical in its sunken course. The plateau on which they stood had been carved in half by the water's taste for its pervious stone, the distant eastern face of the cloven formation still rendered in the colours of night. "It used to be straight down to a ford from here."
"This is why they let us through." Susan concluded. "Now they can really have some fun with us." Neither of them contradicted her, watching her struggle back toward her pack.
"There's no way we can make it before dark." Sachiin called. She ignored him. "Christabel... it's too far and too fucked up. You'll go two clicks and fall on your face... we need a def pos." He peered at his brother through the hand he had pressed to his eyes. "Just say we have phosphorous... I just want to hear the words. I don't fucking care if it's true."
"Seven six two, some hollow point." Edward replied, laconic.
"He's an artist so he can disappear up his own arsehole, but I don't think there's enough room for three of us!" she laughed bitterly.
"Listen to me." Sachiin told her, tugging on his own ears. "You can not make that distance in the time we have. Not if you ran all the fucking way, and you're not running anywhere on those." He nodded down at her feet. She dragged on the rest of her clothes, bent to haul her pack onto her shoulders and walked past him, bowed under its weight. They watched her set off along the hill top alone, looking to each other until Sachiin hurried after her, bringing her back.
"I can't sit here and wait for forty fucking... for them to find me. I want to make them put some effort into it." She stared at him while he walked away from her to stand at the edge of the drop with his hands clasped on his head. Susan sighed again. “Sachiin…” she murmured, letting the pack fall. “Don’t get into a flap... think. What would you do if I wasn’t here?” He took out his lighter and began flicking its wheel, throwing it at the ground when it provided no relief.
“You are here, and if the wind blows the wrong way once the moon's up, sai'ith ah'na essir. Bon fucking nuit.” Edward reached into the pocket of his own trousers and drew out a coin, to which his brother raised a hand in sarcastic appreciation. “Hey, why the fuck not? Nothing says backwoods clusterfuck like a fucking rouble toss. Kiss it with your dick first.” Sachiin agreed despairingly, the thought of the coin’s impartial decree making him curse again under his breath. “She can't make it... they'll fucking run us down." His gaze fell to Susan. The brass case of his lighter lay by the toe of her boot, golden and impervious, a gleaming sigil to her irresolution. She nodded at Edward.
"Prends ton courage á deux mains. That's what Gideon told me. He said to never run."
“That’s because his fucking knees are shot.” Sachiin complained. She looked up at him and took his hand.
"Be quiet. It's up to me."
The weight of Susan's body conspired with the impetus arrested by the noose of bindweed on her ankle to pitch her violently forward; her hands closed on vegetation that slid wetly through her fingers until her face struck stone. She lay still. Blood ran from the tear her teeth had cut into the soft flank of her cheek, and from a stabbing pain alongside it. She spat a fragment of enamel onto her palm and shook rosy saliva from her fingers, rolling over beneath the arching canes and dripping hellbine, its glabrous filaments draped in tentacles of septic pink and slippery amphibious green. The vast pallium of coldly-glowing shadow thrown down by the retreating sun was like a hand upon her shoulder that could no longer be ignored, the river seeming no closer than two hours before. She spat blood again, head pounding and hands full of fended thorns, blinking eyes red with dust shaken from the brambles.
As her breathing slowed it let her listen to the tiny sounds around her, of the miniature animals moving stealthily beneath the briars as they recovered from the fright of her crashing descent, birds flitting overhead, darts against the dim sky, the small creaks and rustles in her clothing. The pistol kneed the small of her back and she drew it from her belt, setting it on her stomach and noting for the first time how little of its dull stamped shape seemed devoted to the workings of its purpose. She could find no real aversion to lying lifeless where she had fallen, solitude attending her as faithfully as ever. In its quietus, she overlooked her scattered bones as they lay, streaked soft matte grey amid the briars, their enduring forms dusted slowly into obscurity, her flesh flowering once more in the blossoms proffered by the thorns. Tiny insects couched in points of emerald green and ebony hove into the vacancy created by her passage, swept away when Sachiin leapt down from the boulders behind her; she sighed as he hauled her up, blood spilling down her chin.
"I was wrong and you were completely right. Not about everything... just this. I thought I'd force myself to say that." she admitted, smiling. He took the gun from her and checked its load before slapping it back into her grasp. Edward ducked beneath the veil of vines, climbing back toward them as a flash of fluted rays farewelled the day, the sun sliding behind trees silhouetted on the ridge above. She opened her mouth to query their unbidden confluence but Sachiin urged silence with a hand and they crouched together, listening intently.
High on the ridge a pair of widely-separated birds exchanged a mournful cry, repeated twice, almost in unison with the white crown of the lunar disc surmounting the eastern scarp, staining the shadows on her hands a deep, transparent amethyst. She expelled another mouthful of blood; Sachiin caught it in his palm before it could hit the ground, wiping it onto his clothing, then slid the pack from his shoulders and launched its awkward weight into the brambles beside them. He caught the two magazines Edward threw to him, stepping aside to let her down the tumbled rocks.
"Where are they?" she whispered, to which he divided his fingers and used them to point over his shoulder in two directions; the ache in her face was replaced by a sudden burn in her back and shoulders as though someone had seized them, fear wiping her mouth dry. She turned to scrabble onward through canes that opened to an uncertain drop, forcing her to let herself down onto bare stone, cracking her tooth along another axis as she landed badly. Stumbling over her own momentum, Susan dragged it up through her legs and used it to plough along a boar-track, regardless of the tendrils that whipped and tore at her hair and face and outstretched hands. With eyes screwed closed against them she stumbled out onto a sudden plane of flat ground peopled with the standing hulks of deracinated elms; as she skidded to a standstill a sound ripped free and rolled down through the living trees behind her, a hoarse, bloated, saw-like roar flushed from deep in something terrible and newborn, taken up by others until the gorge thrummed, charged with its nauseous harmonic. Sachiin seized and turned her around, drawing down the zip of her parka.
"They won't come all at once." he shouted over another burst of the sound as he wound the garment around her neck, knotting it thickly. "When they hit us, go down, keep your arms in, in, like this..." He tucked his hands under in demonstration, forced to lift his voice again over the roaring that rattled through the fluids in her throat and eyes, so close that she heard the raw breath dragged in before it. "They'll flank us... watch our backs and don't run, no matter what. Do not run." Edward dumped the ammunition from his bag and swung his rifle from his shoulder while Sachiin pushed her into the enormous tree, ripping out dead wood and honeycomb from the empty bole and showering her with black debris. They took up a guard before it, exchanging brief advice while Susan stood in the dead air of her hide, clasping the pistol in both sweating hands. He glanced back at her once, though anything he might have said was obliterated by the hellish chorus that hit them on the full, filling the tree and the caves in her head until she screamed with it, toppled backward through the rotten wood, and ran.
She was struck almost deaf as she fled by a high, tuneless tone in her ears. It drowned the roaring and smoothed her blind, scurrying flight into something she almost observed from without, wiping all notion of her companions until they caught her up and she glimpsed them as lateral blurs, sliding on her hip down another drop and crashing into cracking green and purple. Behind them alujha poured through the thickets like huge beads of mercury, fanning out to run them down from either side. The moon had breathed upon their skin, charring and dragging it taut over a frame that answered four feet as well as any biped could; they lurched horse-like but for their graceless weight and tailless quarters, long, ponderous heads hanging low and flat and earless, black holes gaping behind their blank white eyes, devouring sound. They pounded the ground as their voices had throttled the air. She felt a grasp on her clothes, Sachiin catching her and fending the dark shape that leapt at his shoulder, fist twisting in her sleeve. The ground failed under them both, falling away, and they plunged with the undercut earth and disarticulated litter into a torpid vacancy.
The tone in her head let her watch her two companions straighten out and meet the water with their hands, a moment before she smacked on her side into its black face, arms out against the bucking shapes hurled down on her, their braying cut short as the freezing darkness burst and swallowed them impartially. The surface soared away overhead, lost to her as she fought to disengage from her pursuers; her clothes flooded, plumes of silvered, beaded air crawling over her while cobblestone knuckles pounded and raked at her face and chest. She twisted and tore free of them, kicking desperately against the boots that dragged on her legs like sacks of stone. The night above proved a fouled and battering hell of choking spray and scourging limbs and she was trodden under again, gasping a throat full of water. Clutching the creature floundering beside her, she saw its great head swing back over its shoulder at her, jaws slamming with the sound of snapped bones; she braced her boots against its flank and dived back under.
Within the river's echoing bourne the blackness was a backcloth against which all pale shapes were rendered in plastic, bloodless white, her hands corpse-like before her. The water had carved itself a depth too great to reckon by the moon; she lost her bearings and pulled around toward the crack and rumble of submerged violence, using all four limbs and brushing back her snaking tendril hair. From her remove she watched Edward ascend from the obscurity beneath one of the struggling beasts and stroke his arm across its belly, drawing a wound that birthed a gravid flush of serpentine entrails and stained him marbled shades of cold, sweet pink. With no need of the surface he read the rhythms in the champing jaws and toiling limbs, moving to their dictates, becoming one more of the water's horrors with a knife that opened their assailants as though their bloody contents longed for the release; he joined his brother as the latter drowned the last uninjured beast, dragging it beneath the surface with his arms locked around a head that spun slowly in a grinding circuit. Hooked claws in his feet tore its taut skin as he punched his knife into the silver-flashing eyes and the gleaming, knotted flesh behind its skull. Turning away, Susan caught a draught of air and sounded again. Through the gloom the far bank loomed as ashen and uncertain as a distant sea mount, rising steeply beneath an unseen shore.
The shelved stone offered little purchase to boots that skidded hopelessly against it, forcing her further along the ledge. She kicked herself onto a stretch of silt, humping over mud until her knees found solid ground. One and then another of her companions hauled up on either side of her, Sachiin grasping her with a torn hand while the last beasts pawed at the far wall of the gorge, vainly seeking egress. Overhead and clearly limned for the first time, their remaining fellows loomed atop a cliff no longer entailed by shadow. Where she thought of the wolf, they scarcely obliged her, both canine and hominid subsumed by a churning fusion that confounded the sum of its parts; they crouched, held down by the weight of their saurian heads, funeral hues caping their minotaur shoulders before flanks stratified with heaving musculature. They sucked the breath from her mouth with their argentine stares, maws lolling open and thickly spiked with fat, flared tusks.
Sachiin boosted her over rocks she could not negotiate in her mud-greased state toward Edward, and they climbed into the trees where she sat down, the river pouring from her bagging garments and the mirror bag still hanging round her neck. Her arms and shoulders shook, but he lifted her back onto her feet.
"Thi'i sai'inae." Sachiin told his brother, wiping his face on the torn sleeve of his shirt. She watched dumbly as he headed back down to the river, Edward catching hold of her arm.
"He's going for your pack." he advised, anticipating her demand as she gasped its first syllables. Taking the rifle from his shoulder he chose a clear line through the trees and targeted the beasts still leering on the cliff top, scattering them back into the scrub while she closed her eyes against the muzzle flash.
On the far side of the ridge top Edward let her lie against a tree and catch her breath, though she continued the broken song that she had droned during their march uphill, her damp clothes still sucking at her skin. The moon's shadow leant out across the tiers of broad, sedate nocturne beneath them; the river, having curled south and looped behind the ridge, passed eastward, seated deeply in the basement stone of the wider valley. Conifers once more usurped the broadleaves of the hills behind them, clothing the windward mountains with their dour, balsam-scented recurrence, thin arms held out as though in an expression of dread. When he glanced at her again she was staring back at him, unblinking, and he replied with a look that should have discouraged her, though it did not. He took up his rifle and moved off and she fell in, catching and pushing past him on the narrow way and trundling down into the swept and dusty vacancy beneath the pines. As if something had tripped her Susan went over on her face and lay flat out on the ground; he stooped to catch her parka, standing her back upon her feet and watching her continue on without a word like a toy he had set back onto its tracks.
A thick pelt of dead needles had blown across a narrow way before them, its regularity evolving into a crooked line of hand-cut steps pouring like a frozen cataract from a crevice in the stone. Their cracked, decrepit increments could not have been more welcome if they had been clad with carpet and lined with rails; she leant over to inspect them minutely, first scowling suspiciously, then laughing to herself in macabre delight, the sound tumbling away into the valley. Blood ran from her mouth and spotted the stone, her cackles giving way abruptly to gurgling expectoration. She followed them to a divergence where one flight headed down into the gorge, the other cutting across a cirque toward the north and its termination in a basaltic redoubt, the formation standing like the lonely corpse of some slab-sided pachyderm. A shallow curve of hollowed shapes crowned it in the waning moonlight, a plain, perfunctory colonnade staring through arches toward sister peaks on the far side of the gorge; Susan trudged the path across the slope to its agreement with the flank of rain-streaked stone, where it barely allowed the width of her companion's shoulders. The steps ended in a mound of alluvium washed from the cracks in the rock overhead and the studded ruin of a postern door, its black timbers fretted with finger-deep cracks. Leaning against the abutting stone, Edward spoke in Russian, as though to someone standing on the other side.
Ten minutes passed before he was answered by the tapping of miniature feet. The door was hauled back off its giant latch and Petrouchka retreated with it in the folds of a black fur, murmuring a greeting to him while Susan stood humming tunelessly, her own blood dried around her mouth and chin, hair and clothing hanging like a drowned pelt.
"You are very, very strange girl." the vampyre remarked as the latter shuffled past her.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce