There are, I reflected as the murderous warrior charged me, a few basic rules when it came to hand to hand combat. First: Never fight anyone you know has more experience than you, unless you are trying to get hurt. Second: Don’t fight anyone who is so much bigger than you that they almost make you look like a child. And third: Never, ever, fight fair. Fair fights are long and bloody, usually for both parties. The faster a fight can be finished, the less damage you take. ‘Unless,’ I reflected, ‘You’re the loser.’
I was already breaking the first two rules. While I’d been in fights before, Darden had literally been born and raised for combat. Not to mention that the giant stood at least a foot taller than me, with cords of muscle standing out on any area on the man’s body that had skin showing. ‘So.’ I decided. ‘Time to play dirty.’
Darden leapt at me like a mountain lion, his hands extended towards me like two giant claws. Instead of backing away, as my instincts warned me to do, I dived forward into a roll. I felt his hands brush my neck as he reached for my throat, and then we were past each other.
I jumped to my feet and spun around, just as he slowly stood from his pounce. His face was filled with genuine surprise. “You dodged!” He accused in surprised tone.
I stared back at him, blinking slowly. “Of course I did.” I responded, confused.
His face grew red in anger. “I am Darden!” He yelled, his deep voice bouncing off the smooth walls. “Chief of Chiefs! When I say you die, you die!”
I tried to stop myself, I really did. But I found myself laughing loudly. “Buddy,” I told the man, “You aren’t my chief.”
With an enraged roar he threw himself at me again. But this time I was more prepared.
My entire left side was covered in blood. When I had rolled under Darden’s first attack, I had rolled through the puddle of blood from the dead warrior, whose throat Darden had slit open. I had also grabbed the dead man’s knife as I’d passed him.
The cold black stone glittered in the electric lights of the machines around me. I dived to the side, my body going parallel to the ground, and threw the knife at Chief Darden. I watched in slow motion as the knife flew end over end to bury itself in Darden’s stomach.
The man didn’t even blink. I landed hard on my side on the bare stone floor. Before I could get up, my left ankle suddenly blazed in agony. Darden had grabbed my left leg while I lay on the ground. The knife sticking out of his stomach was completely ignored.
He smiled at me, his eyes cold and hard. As if two hundred pounds meant nothing to him, the giant picked me up by the one leg, and began to spin me in a circle over his head. With just one hand. With the other hand, I saw with every spin, the man casually pulled the knife out of his guts, wiped it on his tiger-skin toga, and tucked it away. Only once he was finished with this task did he finally release my leg, throwing me across the room.
The smooth rock wall loomed up in front of me, and I knew if I hit it full on, my head would crack like an egg. I flailed in midair, just barely managing to hit the ground with a single toe. The sudden drag sent me tumbling end over end across the unforgiving floor, and I ultimately crashed into the wall with my legs and backside, while my head and back slid across the ground.
Stars danced across my vision, and I couldn’t quite tell which way was up, even though I was laying on my back on the floor. The buzzing in my ears got louder, though whether that was the ringing in my head, or the machines around me, I didn’t know.
I struggled to remember what I was doing on the ground. I tried to get my body to move, but it was sluggish to respond at first. Until, that is, Darden appeared in my field of vision, an ugly grin showing off crooked yellow teeth. “And so dies the son of Jack Malone.” He declared, raising his foot to stomp on my head.
There was no way I was strong enough to physically stop the large man’s foot. Instead, I rolled to the side, sudden adrenaline forcing my body to move faster than normal. The ground shook with the force of his stomp, missing my head by a mere inch.
I got to my feet as quickly as I could, only to almost fall down again as I put weight on my left leg. It was hard to say for sure through the dizziness, but it felt like my ankle was broken.
“Why must your family insist on defying me?” Chief Darden suddenly demanded in a frustrated roar.
“Must be in our weak blood.” I taunted, throwing his words about Susan back in his face.
In retrospect, I probably should have kept my mouth shut. He reached me in two massive strides as I tried to hop away backwards. He backhanded me across the face, straining my neck nearly to the breaking point, and I once again found myself airborne.
I flew into the center of the room, barely missing one of the pillars as it rose once more out of the machine next to me. I landed in a heap at the foot of the pedestal that held the Moonstone. As I pushed myself to my feet, using the surprisingly sturdy pedestal for support, I saw Dr. Johann standing behind the controls of the center machine.
He caught my eye, and nodded towards the stone behind me. I turned to stare behind me dumbly. I looked at the Moonstone through hazy eyes, my brain failing to comprehend what he was implying. If only the damned buzzing sound in my head would go away, I might be able to concentrate.
‘The buzzing!’ My clouded brain tried to tell me. ‘That’s what’s happening!’ The copper pillars were all the way extended from the machines, and sparks of blue-white lightning were beginning to dance from copper circle to circle. Dr. Johann was activating the Moonstone again.
“Hey, Darden!” I slurred over the sound of the machines. “How’d it feel to have a simple woman defy your authority?”
“What did you say to me?!?” He screamed.
“You must look like a really big man.” I yelled as sarcastically as possible. “The Chief of Chiefs, defied by a mere woman. And one that didn’t even have the ‘strong’ blood of your people.” I made air quotes in the air as I said ‘strong’, my arms moving limply. “How many of your warriors now doubt that you’re fit to be chief? How many are plotting against you? And all because of: One. Small. Woman.” I let each word hit him like a slap to the face.
He roared at me, and for a moment I didn’t see a giant. I saw a huge tiger, the skin on his back in my blurred vision mixing with the giant himself. “No!” He yelled. “Not because of a woman! Because of a man! She never would have dared to try to leave if not for him!” He began to run at me, the tiger-skin toga staring at me with dead feline eyes. Darden’s eyes glazed over in fury. “If I have to spend the rest of my life erasing his blood from every known world, so be it!”
I could have dodged him again, I think. But doing so would have probably ruined the trap. Plus, I was so damn tired. So instead, I just stood there as he came at me. He didn’t bother with any tactics this time. He didn’t jump at me, punch at me, play with me by spinning in the air while pretending I wasn’t there. Nothing. Instead, he just slammed out his right leg, leaning back at the same time, and throwing his entire momentum into the natural strength of the kick. The full force of the kick hit me square in the chest with the accompanying sound of breaking bones.
I flew out of the middle of the room, receiving a small electric shock as I passed by one of the electrified pillars. Just as I passed out of the triangle, the blue-white lightning sprang up again, trapping Darden inside the three electric walls.
“What is this, Shaman?” Chief Darden demanded of Dr. Johann.
“I’m changing our deal!” Dr. Johann yelled back as the volume of the electric pillars pitched itself up to its loudest proportions. “Instead of sending you home, I’m going to send you vherever zis portal takes you. Zen I’m going to miraculously discover ze lost Moonstone, and become famous!” Dr. Johann’s eyes gleamed madly.
I lay on the ground, too injured to move too much. I watched as the lightning once again shot from the pillars into the Moonstone. This time one of the bolts shot directly through Chief Darden on the way to the stone.
He screamed in agony as the electricity coursed through him, and I swear I saw the knife wound I gave him cauterize shut. Despite what must have been extreme pain, the giant managed to walk forward against the flow of the electric current, ultimately reaching across the machine and grabbing a hold of Dr. Johann by the collar of his shirt.
I struggled to sit up, and managed to drag myself behind the crates I had hidden behind before. Just as I got behind them, I saw, through the cracks in the crates, the Moonstone open up a new portal. The temperature in the room dropped significantly when the portal opened, and I soon saw why. While the portal was once again pulling things into it, like paper, grass, and flower petals, it was simultaneously spitting out a torrent of snow, as if an entire blizzard had suddenly erupted out of nowhere.
Chief Darden quickly disappeared in the billowing white haze, until only his hand was visible, still clinging onto Dr. Johann’s shirt. “No!” The small scientist yelled. “Let go of me!” He began slapping at the massive hand holding onto him. “Let go…..!”
With a jerk that pulled him off of his feet, Dr. Johann disappeared into the snowstorm. I didn’t want to go out there, but the portal wasn’t closing. If I didn’t get to the red button on the machine, it was possible that the two men might find a way back through.
I crawled out past the safety of the crates, and almost immediately felt myself being pulled across the floor by the vortex. It was getting stronger the longer it remained open. Suddenly my worry wasn’t that the other two would come back, it was that I’d get sucked in too.
As I dragged myself closer to the machine, my legs began to lift up off the floor. I clawed my way the last few feet, and suddenly found myself flying through the air towards the portal. I grasped at the giant machine beneath me, just barely managing to stop my forward motion by catching my fingertips on the very top edge of the machine. Using nothing but pure adrenaline, I managed to pull first one hand forward, then another, and finally a forearm.
Holding myself in place with my left forearm, with my legs dangling up and behind me towards the Moonstone’s portal, I reached forward with my right arm. The vortex of wind jerked at me as if it had its own gravitational pull, and it took a great deal of effort just to get my right hand to reach the few inches. Finally, I slammed my hand down on the red button.
The portal snapped shut in an instant, and the vortex of wind ended. My lower body dropped like a rock, along with everything else that had been picked up by the wind. My knees banged against the back of the machine, and a pile of snow dropped all around me.
I groaned, and dropped to the ground, turning so that I sat facing the pedestal holding the Moonstone. I leaned back against the machine and sighed. ‘I survived.’ I thought with wonder. The thought made me laugh with relief. The laugh, in turn, made me feel good enough to brave standing up. I couldn’t put weight onto my left ankle, but I could hop on my right leg, as long as I did so slowly. My ribs dug painfully into my chest each time.
I made my way across ten feet of paper, snow, and flower petals, bright against the now white floor. I leaned against the pedestal when I finally got to it, and studied the Moonstone up close for the first time.
That it wasn’t pure black in color I saw almost immediately. There were small spots of color, the size of pinpricks, all over the Moonstone, almost as if it was a rounded version of the night sky, with an entire galaxy contained within. I grabbed the stone and held it tight in my fist. This was the secret to finding my father. It was the reason my adopted sister’s daughter would have to grow up without a mother. And it was the reason that she would be able to grow up at all. Suddenly I knew something for certain: The museum wasn’t getting this rock.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up suddenly, though the room was warm enough now that I wasn’t cold, despite the snow. Which meant someone was nearby. I stood up straight, sure that I was no longer alone. Being careful about my left ankle, I slowly turned around to face the entrance to the room. My heart stopped beating in my chest at the sight.
A dozen or more people squatted at the room’s entrance, and not a single one of them sparked a presence on my mind. My physical reaction had literally been the result of feeling that many eyes on me, and not from whatever special ability I had. They all wore various forms of the same design: three red dots in the shape of a triangle. The Crimson Makos.
The leader of the group, the only man who was standing, had a big grin on his face as he stared at me. As if he was the cat who got the cream. He held up his hand with his index finger pointed down. Without a word, he spun his finger in a circle, as if asking me to do a little spin for him.
I stared at him stupidly for a second, but figured there was no reason not to do so. Hopping carefully on my right leg, I spun in a slow circle. When I finished the spin, all of the Crimson Makos had the same giant grin on their faces. “Gone.” The leader said quietly.
The other members echoed him, and the word, “Gone” bounced off the walls wildly. At the confused look on my face, the leader tapped the back of his neck with two fingers, then pointed at me, this time with his index finger straight at me, and his thumb pointing into the air. He was acting as if his right hand was a gun.
He winked at me and lowered his thumb slowly. When his thumb touched the side of his hand he declared loudly into the silent room, “Bang!”
The entire group in front of me burst out into wild, maniacal, laughter, just like on the afternoon they branded me, a little over a day ago.
For some reason I knew that I was supposed to laugh with them. But aside from that, it felt like the right thing to do as well. I laughed. I laughed so hard that my leg gave out on me, and I fell to the ground. I don’t know when my laugh began to sound like theirs, but by the time I was able to clear my head, my laugh was the only one left echoing off the walls, and the Crimson Makos were nowhere in sight.