Lethe

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Chapter 18

Chapter 18: Hunted

The shriek touches off some deep trigger rooted in instinct, urging me to run. But I stay put, staring up the barren slopes of the volcano that looms over the Loch. I feel naked and vulnerable.

“What was that?” I say, adrenalin pumping.

“Not sure,” says Sabonis. “Probably … just a monkey fight.” He looks nervous.

A herd of small and frantic animals appears on the slopes, trailed by a pair of trotting humans.

I point. “Up there.”

One man carries a dead creature slung limp over the same shoulder on which he carries a long bow. The other wields a sling, spinning it over his head on the run.

They chase a troop of survivors—not monkeys, but a different sort of baboon-like creature—across the ash and scrub.

A stone cracks against a boulder at high velocity. The baboons scatter.

“Hunters,” says Sabonis. “Keep walking. Just ignore them.”

“Squatters?”

“Not at those heights. Fringers most likely.” He scowls at me. “Stop staring! Just keep on walking.”

But I keep glancing back. I can’t help it. And I see one of the hunters lay a hand on his companion’s arm. They break off their pursuit of the baboons and start keeping pace with us along a parallel track.

“Goddamnit! I told you not to stare!” says Sabonis, staring. The men are swaddled in baggy, brown clothes that disguise their shape. They pull long, curved sticks from bundles on their back, split up and trot down the hill, not directly at us, but angling off to either flank.

“Shit,” says Sabonis. “Look at those assholes stalk us like we’re a couple of monkeys ourselves. Just … bigger meat.”

“Who are those guys?” An odd little ripple squirms out of my stomach and into my chest. “They wouldn’t … eat us … would they?”

“Oh crap. The one with the long bow’s stringin’ an arrow.” Sabonis veers across a shelf of solidified lava towards the sea. “Come on!”

The men in brown instantly cut down the hillside after us. Sabonis runs like an old bear, waddling from side to side. I jog alongside him, startled anew by the width of my hips, the unfamiliar spring of my female legs.

I glance back. One of our pursuers crouches and draws his bow.

“He’s gonna shoot!”

“Don’t worry. We’re way out of range,” says Sabonis. “No way can he reach us.”

A feathered shaft nearly three feet long comes whistling past and cracks against a rock. Shards of obsidian prick my shins.

My legs pummel the lava with renewed purpose, leaving Sabonis behind. I hear him puffing beside me as he too reaches a new level of locomotion.

The hunters separate. The sling wielder takes an angle that threatens to intercept us along the ocean bluffs. Sabonis sees this and turns, angling back towards the Loch. But the bow wielder is already slicing down the hillside to cut off our escape route.

Something hard and heavy thuds against my back and knocks me down. I skid across a ledge into a patch of soft ash. Sabonis yanks me back to my feet.

A rock the size of a clementine ricochets off the ground and bounces high over our heads.

“Keep on running!”

The sling wielder flings stone after stone at us while on the move, aiming his projectiles with astounding accuracy and velocity. Another arrow whooshes past, missing us high.

“We better find some cover or we’re gonna be someone’s meat.”

We reach a little glen with a deep gulley that cuts shoreward through the cliffs. As we enter the depression, we enjoy a brief respite from the barrage as we leave our pursuers’ line of sight.

Brick-sized chunks of pumice pave the floor of the glen. They clink when they knock together. I notice stickiness on my right foot. I am leaving a tell-tale connect-the-dot trail of blood with every other stride. I try not to think about it. I feel no pain.

“You can swim, right?” says Sabonis. It strikes me as an odd question to ask someone who had just floated across an ocean.

Sabonis points across a wide bay to a hazy peninsula of golden dunes and green hills. The seas look rough. A series of mountainous swells are preparing to roll in.

The man with the sling appears on the heights across the glen, blocking our original line of travel. An arrow slashes through my wind-billowed cloak and impales the black sand. Our brief respite is over.

“Better get under these cliffs,” says Sabonis.

He snatches the shaft out of the sand as he descends into the gulley. The arrowhead is hooked and barbed, with an x-shaped cross-section. As we run, another arrow skips off the top of a dune and spatters us with sand.

The gulley leads us down through a deep cleft to a twenty foot vertical drop over a narrow strip of beach studded with jagged boulders. It is too far to jump. Our pursuers sense our dilemma. They come after us. The sling wielder unsheathes a hooked blade from the scabbard on his belt.

Sabonis hops across the cleft onto the cliff face and works his way around and down a series of toe-holds to the ocean side. I have no choice but to follow gingerly.

We reach a mass of stony rubble where waves have undercut the basalt. Columns have collapsed, creating a tangle of catwalks leading down to a narrow beach. The overhang screens us from view from the sling wielder above us, though a shower of pebbles reveals his presence overhead. We have lost sight of the bow man.

Sabonis picks his way through the collapsed basalt with the surety of one who had gone this way a thousand times before. The swells we spotted earlier crash ashore and consume the beach. Rank after rank of larger waves are about to follow. One explodes against the rubble and drenches us.

“Man, this ain’t right,” says Sabonis. “Tide don’t usually come in this fast. We’re gonna have to take the high road.”

We thread our way back to the top of the heap. Sabonis leaps at a shoulder-high shelf of limpet-encrusted basalt, throws one leg over the top and hauls himself up. He leans over to help me as another monster wave crashes. His sturdy grip on my wrist is the only thing that keeps me from being swept away.

We clamber along a network of fractures below the overhang, out of reach of the waves. The stone is slick with slime. We choose our footfalls carefully.

“Least they can’t follow us along that beach,” says Sabonis. “These gotta be storm waves. Must be a pounder brewing somewhere out there.”

I see only fog beyond the bay. I concentrate my wits on keeping my feet on the face of the cliff.

I sneak a peek behind us. The bow man has climbed out of the gulley and is clambering after us atop the rubble, just out of reach of the waves. The precarious footing precludes him from deploying his bow for the time being. I bump into Sabonis’ backside.

“Quickly!” I say. “We’re being followed.”

“Hold your horses,” says Sabonis. “I’m going as fast I can without dumping us in the drink.” We maneuver around a bulge in the bluffs, taking us out of our pursuer’s line of sight. There’s no sign of the sling-wielder.

Progress is slow, hindered by the rugged, pocked surface—a messy layer cake of lava and pumice and basalt. Rotten pumice crumbles like Styrofoam under our feet. Waves meet rock twenty yards below us, smothering us with splash and spray. The water has risen to swallow the beaches, even between waves. The sea below is a dizzying blur of whirlpools and clashing currents.

Our path is as tortuous as a stock market chart. We move up and down the cliff face, never forcing the issue, letting the mountain decide which way we should go.

We remain protected under the overhang, at least from above, but I am more anxious now than when we were under fire, with no idea of where or when our pursuers might spring out. A shower of pebbles and dust sifts down just ahead of us, justifying my fear.

“Step careful,” says Sabonis. “Don’t knock any shit off the ledge. He can’t see us. We want to keep him guessing.”

But stealth proves impossible. The traverse only gets trickier as we go. The stone is so friable and loose, we inevitably trigger slides that send masses of rubble splashing into the ocean.

My panic is in full surge, but what exactly did I fear? It couldn’t be death. I was already dead. No sea could drown me. No arrow could slay me. So why should I care? How worse could it be, becoming a Shade? How many times did a person have to die before they were out of the game?

“Tricky spot ahead,” says Sabonis.

The booming increases in volume as we pick our way along. It has the brittle resonance of thunder, but rounder at the edges. The roar reverberates. The stone trembles beneath my fingers.

We edge around a protruding, refrigerator-sized knob of lava and the source of this liquid thunder comes into view. A narrow chasm slices deeply into the flank of the volcano. Huge waves barrel far up the crevasse and explode into a huge bowl undercutting the walls. Between swells the water churns and swirls like a whirlpool before gushing back out.

“Oh man.” Sabonis frets. “Tide shouldn’t be in this far. Ever. We should have been able to walk across this.”

“So what do we do?”

There is so much noise, Sabonis doesn’t hear me. He just gawks at the chaos below.

Voices filter down from the bluff top directly over us, one of them female. A third hunter has joined the group.

“Mr. Slingshot’s found a friend,” says Sabonis. He hugs the cliff face, inches his way around and enters the chasm. “Follow me.”

The ledges are narrow and dripping with spray. Every blast of wave rattles the walls of the crevasse like an earthquake. My stomach churns as much as the waters below. My head seems ready to spin off my shoulders.

The chasm cuts deeply, a quarter mile or more, but the space between the walls narrows, the farther we penetrate. A hundred yards in, a boulder is wedged like a bridge, but it barely touches either wall. It looks pretty dodgy for a bridge.

But seeing that boulder makes me feel better about our chances, until a brown-hooded figure comes rappelling down directly over it.

I point. “There … th-there!”

“I see him,” says Sabonis, calmly.

At least there is still no sign of the bow man.

“So what do we do?” I say.

Directly across from us a table-sized ledge juts out from the opposite wall of the crevasse, cutting the gap to about six feet. Without a word, Sabonis plants one foot on a knob of basalt and leaps, landing on both feet just inches in from the lip of the table. He skitters on some loose stones and falls on his butt, barely catching himself from rolling into the crevasse.

The hooded figure swings closer to the boulder bridge, buffeted by the stiff wind surging through the chasm. I stare at Sabonis across the void.

“I … I can’t do that,” I shout. “Not with this body.”

“Sure you can,” says Sabonis, ducking around a protruding ledge. “And you’d better do it quick.”

The hooded figure touches down onto the bridge. It is a woman. She kneels, extricating herself from the rope twisting around one thigh. A bow and quiver ride high on her back.

“Come on!” says Sabonis. “Whatcha waiting for?”

I look down at the confusion of water and foam.

“You go ahead without me,” I say. “I’m … not a good jumper.”

“Get your ass over here now!”

Would I rather drown or have two savages butcher me like a monkey? Neither option appeals to me. I know I’m already dead, but that little detail doesn’t seem to matter to my gut.

I peek down at the knob that Sabonis used for leverage, look across at my hypothetical landing point on that rocky shelf and I jump, shutting my eyes in mid-leap. I land as light-footed as a cat, astounded to find myself secure well onto the shelf, opening my eyes just in time to see Sabonis take an arrow above his collarbone.

“Aah, f-f-f-f-fuck!” he screams, clutching the feathered shaft protruding from his neck. Another arrow comes for me and careens off the wall where my chest had been a moment before. I scramble along the ledge behind Sabonis. He’s frantic as he works his way out of the chasm and back to the sea. He takes his bloody hand away from his neck and a crimson stain spreads down his muslin shirt, trumping all the other stains that cover it in layers like marbled paper. I help him along, supporting him when he falters.

The protruding arrow scrapes against the bluff as he edges along. Sabonis groans. He braces his feet, frees both hands and attempts to snap the shaft. It flexes but won’t break. He tries to back out the glassy obsidian head but it’s wedged into the bone and refuses to budge.

The bow man reappears at the mouth of the chasm. He lines up another arrow, point blank, but a wave serendipitously knocks him off his feet.

We continue around a protruding ledge that momentarily protects us, but I hear stones fall on the other side of it. The woman has crossed the bridge and is coming after us. She and the other bow man will regain their line of sight when we move away from the ledge, but we can’t stay put either. Another hunter is directly above us.

The tumult below is all suds and foam like a monstrous, out-of-control washing machine. We clamber along the wall like frightened crabs. Sabonis keeps picking at the arrow.

“Leave it alone for now,” I say. “Otherwise, it’ll bleed.”

“Fuck you,” he says, his face scrunching in pain.

He stops fussing with the arrow. He fishes a blade out of his waistband. It is clear and crystalline and splits the light like a prism.

“Step around me,” he says.

“Fuck no! Keep on going!” I shove at his chest, trying to get him to turn around.

“You go on. I can take this one.”

“You don’t need to. We can just run.”

He tries to climb around me. I grab his arm and restrain him. He shrugs me off, grunts and jabs me with his elbow, knocking me off my foothold. I slide down the slant of slickened stone.

“Shit!”

Sabonis lunges for my outstretched arm and loses his balance. My foot wedges into a crack, arresting my slide, but Sabonis tumbles past me into the chasm. His startled eyes lock onto mine as he plunges into the sea and disappears under the white churn.

As I dangle, the woman appears around the point of the ledge. Again I face the question, do I prefer to be carved into sweet meat or drown? I choose to join Sabonis.

As I un-wedge my foot, the wind blows her brown hood back. Her long, black hair spills out. She reaches out her hand to me, eyes alight with concern. I recognize that face. Alecto! But I am already falling. Her eyes go sad as I plunge. My feet knife into the water. The world disappears in a mass of bubbles and froth.
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