They hit a sunbathed clearing in numbers, the canopies of the trees thinning out here and the many patterned stones of a desolated building forming obstacles among the long grasses.
The Imperials once again fanned out in anticipation of capturing the girl. Or killing her, Mestarés reminded himself. They came across the most elaborate set of ruins yet, a temple entrance by the look of it built into the face of the hill, terraced and stepped to reach sacred chambers at its heights. The last heat signature they had traced of the girl was here, and it was likely that she had fled into the temple tunnels - or maybe she was hiding in grass, or in the nooks of the ruins standing before the temple. To that effect, the Imperials divided into many small groups to cover every inch, at least until someone could pick up something again on the infrared.
As the men searched, Mestarés kept looking at the ruins towering over them. There was something not quite right about them...
The first thing that brought Mestarés’s heart to a standstill was the tongue, at least ten feet long, snaking from the mouth, tasting the air in a dead quiet manner for the briefest second before shooting back into a mouth invisible still. They could not have picked up the lizard even on the infrared cams, its surface temperature not being much different from the temple steppes.
‘Gods have mercy,’ said Mestarés. The Stonegald had camouflaged perfectly with the ruins, and moving now, it emerged to bring on a hopeless terror over the men.It was a hundred and fifty feet long from its bearded mouth to the tip of its tail, a lizard of immense proportions. Most of the scaled body looked naked, pale and grey like the ruins, but the lower portions of the legs were sleeved in what seemed to be solid stone. That counted for the head and chest as well, encrusted and protected in the vital parts. They were known to be profoundly vicious toward man and were as likely a cause of mankind’s departure from this part of the world as any. Most of the Imperials had seen it by now as it started pawing its way down from terraces, having sat there like a fly on the wall. Only a few had the courage to open fire on it. Thereafter it wasted no time in streaking into the men, crushing them, and a mouth of terrible fangs opened, scooping up a man here and there, lifting its head, and its jaws moving up and down rigidly, disintegrating the Imperials into many pieces spilling to the ground in what was clearly a show of malice and not hunger.
For a few moments it looked like the ruins in the field might provide some shelter, but the monstra smashed its way through them, and sweeping its tail through already precarious structures to bury men under stone. Its stony feet fell tremendously hard upon the ground, often crushing a man in the process. But there was no satisfaction in the lizard, and it wasted little time finding a new target for the killing. Fedaro had appeared in the fray and at the very least Mestarés’s portion of the company was not too surprised to see him, forming a block around him that opened fire at the beast. When they had gained the beast’s attention, the lizard bearing down on them, Fedaro yelled, ’Scatter!’
Them spreading out, at least prevented a massacre right then.
Fedaro might be always prepared, but nothing was ever quite prepared for a Stonegald. Whatever bullets he carried were not enough to pierce or even slow down the Stonegald. Unless of course Fedaro dug really deep into that bag of tricks of his.
For the moment Fedaro kept taking long backwards strides, keeping steady fire at the Stonegald’s face, clearly aiming at the eyes, but with both him and his target moving he was merely smattering bullets against the cheeks and the brow ridge of stone.
Whatever you do Fedaro, do not abandon us, please! thought Mestarés. But it seemed the mercenary was not without a heart... or maybe he simply saw in the Stonegald something he hadn’t had the chance to kill yet.
Fedaro gestured to Mestarés to have his men try and drive the beast to the left side of the temple, where a tree stood that was more giant than the ruins themselves.
In the process, Mestarés managed to shepherd many of Sternroe’s men into this endeavour and even Sternroe himself, who was never shirking away from critical combat moments. He would only question Fedaro’s involvement afterwards.
They spread out, moving like a ripple through a flag, and opening fire selectively, just enough to redirect the lizard’s attention and drawing it to the tree.
Looking at the tree Mestarés saw what Fedaro had identified; it was already pulled halfway out of the ground, exposing the long roots. Mestarés guessed that their luck of surviving that day came down to this tree’s roots showing the rottenness that it did.
The men who rushed in, firing into the soft exposed area of the beast’s belly managed to turn the Stonegald at a vital stage, and Fedaro moved in close, very close.
Here come the fireworks, thought Mestarés as Fedaro fiddled with that bracelet on his left arm.Mestarés understood the device only to the extent that, whatever setting he changed on the bracelet, occurred inside the Musket itself. He took steady aim, and when he pulled the trigger, a red angry flash exploded at the muzzle, a bolt of fiery colours streaking from the gun and into the roots of the giant tree. The flames lanced through the already fragile roots, and the precariously positioned giant of the forest could bear its own weight no longer.
Seeing that the Stonegald might soon turn its attentions and simply outmanoeuvre the trap, Mestarés gathered as many of his men as he could, advanced, and opened fire, intensely focussing on keeping the monstra stationary. Struggling to identify a worthwhile target to charge at, the Stonegald opened its maw again and roared, venomous saliva whirling into the air from its fangs. During this the tree toppled across the upper back of the creature, finally pinning it to the foot of hillside. This was not ideal. The tree was taller than they expected, and whatever part of its weight hinged on the hill had failed to overpower the beast entirely. It bought them moments to further the retreat, but a sustained effort by the Stonegald saw it wrestling free from the tree.
Mestarés felt that if they could just escape the beast’s attentions they could get away with their skins intact, as most of the men had already fled from the clearing. Surely this thing will not hunt us to the ends of the earth.Mestarés looked over to where Fedaro now sat on his haunches, observing the situation keenly to determine whether he too would be able to flee or if he’d need to provide cover fire for the rest of them. Mestarés sure as hell didn’t want to the leave the bush he was hiding in, but he would do so if necessary. After struggling so mightily to get free the Stonegald suddenly seemed less enthused about seeking out the Imperials. Mestarés grew hopeful.
Right then Gloria emerged from the tunnel at the base of the ruins. Why she had darted from safety only she would ever know. She was immediately within the sights of the beast, and Mestarés knew the creature was going to finish the job for them.
They stood mutely as the Stonegald reared up, like a snake readying to strike, for some reason making more of a ritual of attacking the girl than it had the Imperials. Can it sense her powers?
Somehow Mestarés wasn’t convinced he wanted to see the girl bitten in two by the creature even though it would mean mission accomplished. All this time Mestarés thought the girl had a detached look to her, but seeing her calmly fitting an arrow to her bow he knew there was something not quite right with her. The arrow drawn suddenly shone like a star. When the Stonegald dared to strike she released and the light that escaped her bow passed through the stony chest of the Stonegald unhindered, and disappeared into its heart. The Stonegald was halted in its tracks, suddenly recoiling in pain. The creature thrashed violently, shaking the earth, and its tail coming around and knocking Gloria senseless. They all watched in awe; a few moments later the Stonegald was still and dead.
No one witnessed the event more surprised than Fedaro. A light went up in his mind, calculating at a mile a minute. He found himself running to the scene, ignoring the wide-eyed face of the Stonegald and checking the girl’s vital signs. She was alive; concussed at most. He shook her awake. A hope began to build in him, or maybe at this point in life, simply a sense of duty. He had honestly thought that he had put that old prophesy to bed. It was difficult to explain, but a hundred flashbacks of that night rocked his mind, of a Wiseman’s telling of the Goddess’s fall. But with Gloria’s powers there was finally a chance to kill the Goddess. This alone would make him take a path he thought was not the destiny of any mortal man. Eight years ago they had failed at this very task. When Fedaro helped the girl up, the Imperials started moving in, seemingly detecting in Fedaro some change of heart. He looked across at Mestarés. He wasn’t sure they could be called friends, but it would be the last time that they would ever be on the same side.‘Run!’ he urged the girl, and the two of them disappeared into the woods.
Fedaro didn’t like where this was going. He was chasing mindlessly after the girl in a move that was much too dangerous according to his mandate. He was blind on all sides, the growth so thick that something could hit him in the run without him knowing of it until it was too late.
He lost her at some stage, and he yelled, trying to persuade her not go on without him. It was in vain.
He picked up her trail again, running frantically, but he lost sight of her every now and then. He couldn’t help but feel he had taken a huge gamble with his future just to see this girl escape from his grasp.
But fate had one last strange hand to show today. Fedaro caught up to her just in the nick of time. Of all the things, the Hippo had hunted her down just like he promised, blindsided her, and was busy manhandling the girl.
The trail ran by a solitary wall now almost indivisible with the many plants beside it, and the roots running down it like a curtain of sorts.
Having thrown her around Beluka now slammed Gloria to the wall, his huge hand wrapped around the side of her face as he pressed her to the stone, the other arm curled back in a fist intent on murder. Fedaro aimed his Musket at him.
‘Let her go Beluka!’ commanded Fedaro, already committed to kill the Hippo if necessary.
‘She killed Gesper! She is a witch!’
‘Really?’ said Fedaro steadily, aware that the sheer weight of Beluka could crush Gloria’s skull against the wall. ‘How many arrows did you see in your friend?’
Beluka relented slightly. ‘But the monstra killed him because of her!’
‘Do not begin a path of lying to yourself, Beluka, it is a quick way to misery.’
Fedaro’s finger squeezed harder around the trigger...
Beluka suddenly let her go and she fell to the ground clutching and covering her face, sniffing by the sound of it. Beluka himself collapsed on his behind and had a faraway look as the girl lay crying not two feet away from him. Fedaro lifted his rifle up into the air, relieved. This might yet work out alright, he thought.
Fedaro answered a call that came through from Mestarés.
’What on earth are you doing? Did you capture the girl?’
‘I thought it was pretty obvious that I’m not interested in handing her over to the Imperials when I told her to run,’ answered Fedaro.
’Listen, if this about you growing a conscious and not wanting her killed or abused then I swear to you I will make sure that she-’
‘It’s not about that. Mestarés, if it’s any hint, look at my past for answers. This girl just changed everything.’
’You cannot begin to understand the ramifications here Fedaro! You will never have a life again anywhere near Doma Arak. Any fortune you have built up will become worthless!’
Fedaro didn’t answer him at first, ‘some things are a calling...’ Looking across at the girl, Gloria, he slammed another magazine into the Musket. It was simple really; the way to any sensible future was going to be paved with death, and a whole lot of bullets. And maybe one fortunate arrow.
Mestarés’ voice came over the radio again. ’You’ve made a dreadful mistake my friend. I cannot protect you even if I wanted to,’ and then he dropped the call.