Chapter 16: The Unnamed
They slogged through the frosty waters of the mountain stream as quickly as they could, the sound of chopper blades rising in the distance buoying Kerri’s spirits and driving her on nearly as fast as the threat of Darren looming somewhere behind them.
“Kerri, the chopper’s there. How far are you?”
“Hard to say. Ten minutes? We’ve got to keep to the stream and it’s not a straight shot.”
“Alright, I’ll let them know, just try to get there as fast as you can.”
“Working on it,” she puffed, moving her sodden feet faster by sheer willpower.
A few minutes later, though, Jim’s voice returned, swearing into the receiver. “No, tell them not to leave! I’ve still got a line on at least two people down there! Kerri? You there? The chopper’s had to move off. Darren rushed the shore when they came into range and started hurling rocks at them. They tried to hover out of range, but Darren managed to crack the windshield. After that, they said they had to put some distance between the bird and the shore.”
“…How much distance?”
Jim took a deep breath. “Darren’s rock hit them at a half-mile. They’re hovering two miles out until you’re in visual range of the shore.”
Kerri felt her heart sink as Jim spoke, knowing in her gut the chopper pilot wouldn’t chance coming back into range if Darren was able to bring it down just by throwing stones. “I’ll let you know when we’re there,” she said, voice shaking despite her best effort. She wasn’t going to get out of here. And she knew that Jim knew it, too.
“Atta girl,” he choked out in return.
Tiponi suddenly stopped in her tracks.
“Ker? What’s wrong? Why’s she stopped?”
“I don’t know. Tiponi?”
But Tiponi thrust out a cautionary hand, head swiveling about as she listened, gaze sweeping the forest like a hawk.
Suddenly, she froze, eyes fixing on the trees off to the east. Crouching, she drew her knife, stepping carefully back out of the water and letting out a low, predatory hiss.
Following her gaze, Kerri stared at the trees, at first seeing nothing, but then a whisper of shadows caught her eye and she backed immediately away, moving to stand beside Tiponi and placing the moving water firmly between her and the approaching shape.
“Do not fear him.” The Hopi woman’s voice was a calm whisper against the turmoil rocking Kerri’s gut.
“Is it Darren?” she asked, still not able to properly make out the shape moving between the trees, but, no… it couldn’t be. It was too tall, to broad to be a person.
“It’s not Darren,” Jim answered, “He’s still eyeing the chopper from the—wait… Ah, shit, Ker, he’s running, he’s moving fast—northeast out of camp!”
Oh, no, no, no… “Darren’s coming for us,” she whispered. “We need to get back in the water.”
“No,” Tiponi answered, eyes not leaving the shape looming out of the early shadows among the trees. “He comes to his master.”
“His…” and Kerri turned back to the hulking creature, a wave of dread making her knees go weak and her skin race with numbing prickles. “Oh God…”
“Do not fear him!” she snapped, causing Kerri to straighten and look at her before turning back to the approaching shape. “He may be wicked, but he is starved. He may be cunning, but we are fierce. You must. Not. Fear.”
In the distance, the sound of drums rose on the wind.
Kerri’s heart beat in time with them, thudding nearly out of her chest as she and Tiponi backed away. I must not fear.
It approached slowly, shape coalescing out of the dim light like gathering smoke. The outline of immense, lichen draped antlers loomed above its head among the branches of birch and hemlock, its steps never quickening as it closed on them.
A rush of crashing underbrush jerked Kerri’s attention to the west.
“Kerri, I can see you. Get out of there!”
But there was nowhere to go. Hot tears ran down her cheeks as she watched Darren rushing toward them through the trees.
Tiponi crouched by her side, blade in hand, eyes darting between the two threats. As a last resort, Kerri bent and picked up a heavy rock from the stream bank, needing the reassurance of having a weapon in her hand, primitive as it was.
Turning back, she saw Darren was nearly upon them, moving faster than she would have believed possible, gaze fixed somewhere in the distance over her head…
Then she remembered, the ash…
Mirroring Tiponi’s stance, she crouched, heart soaring when his gaze didn’t track her motions. She could see the whites of his eyes now, and when he was within range of Tiponi’s arm, the Hopi woman suddenly spun and slashed the obsidian blade along his body as he rushed by.
Darren let out a yowl and staggered to the side, enough to catch Kerri’s arcing blow against his temple.
He crumpled, but not for long, rising to all fours and shaking his head like an animal. Kerri staggered backward, her shoulder meeting Tiponi’s as she hurried to do the same. Darren was watching them now. Or, he seemed to be, face tracking their movements as they backed through the underbrush. His lips pulled back to reveal sharp, elongated canines. Tilting his head, Kerri could see tall tufts of black hair topping his now-pointed ears.
A lynx, she thought, her biologist’s need to classify things helping her mind keep focused. He might not be able to see us, but he can certainly hear us.
Orienting on them, he crouched, bunching his body in a cat-like stance as he prepared to pounce.
Kerri’s breath was hissing in and out through her teeth as she readied herself to be taken out by Darren’s sprouting claws.
In the distance, the Unnamed lifted his gnarled hand, a guttural keening rising from its throat.
Kerri shrieked, coiling her arm to swing, but not before a black-tipped arrow erupted from Darren’s chest.
Gasping, Kerri dodged as Darren fell to the ground at her feet, shuffling backward until her back fetched up against the trunk of a tree. Wide-eyed, she looked up to find Mahasani, garbed in ceremonial splendor and flanked by two ash-painted warriors, bows drawn.