On Four Legs 5
Predictably enough, Liz started screaming immediately. It was a perfectly justifiable action in my book, so I ignore it. The same way I ignore the way Kimberly lost all strength in her legs and collapsed to the ground, kneeling and staring upward helplessly as she finally succumb to despair. Barkin had glanced up before Tara, and then immediately grabbed the back of Tara's head and held it securely to his chest so that she wouldn't be able to follow the rest of our gazes. It was probably the best thing he could have done, seeing as Tara's sanity, as tattered as it already was, probably wouldn't have survived this final cruel blow.
"Alright," Bonnie said, her tone still dry, her expression unchanged. "I've decided that your running away and leaving all of us to die earlier has become an entirely understandable event and hereby forgive you almost completely for it."
"Almost?" I asked her, my voice just as detached as hers.
"Yeah. Complete forgiveness would only have been given if you had knocked me out and taken me with you in the first place."
Liz kept screaming in the background, her face going redder and redder, her pitch rising ever higher.
"Duly noted. So next time just go ahead and have my wicked way with you?" I ask, shifting the smoke in my mouth out of the way of a drop of blood that leaked down from what once was apparently a pancreas.
"Yes, please," she assured me. Then she glanced at Liz. "Shouldn't you do something about her? Won't she like give away our position or something?"
"Well, I'm pretty sure it already knows exactly where we are," I begin, then glance at the still shrieking blonde. "But it'd probably be bad for her throat if she kept at it."
Well, the quickest way to deal with hysteria like this is pretty well known. Without another word I back hand her across the face with my free arm hard. Her head snaps to the side, and the force of the blow knocks her to her knees. It apparently works. With her head shifted away and her loss of equilibrium she was no longer staring at the morbid sight above us, and with the remains of her one time comrade out of her sight she was finally able to shake loose of the hysteria that had gripped her. Desperately she pawed at the ground, regaining her hands and knees, and then began dry heaving, her stomach already empty of all its contents.
"We…We have to help her," Kimberly whispered. She did nothing more than stare upwards at the twitching torso, the sight burning into her eyes. Her voice was hopeless. She already knew that there was no helping the thing that had once been human above us. There was no medical treatment in the world that could repair that damage, no doctor or physician that could ever piece this modern day humpty dumpty back together. But still she tried to think of some way to do it, some way to keep her never say never attitude, some way to keep helping. Even though she knew that it was impossible.
"Yeah, we do," I answer, my voice distant, cold. In that plateau of terror that I had told them of earlier, even this wasn't enough to shake me out of the safe little zone my sanity had carved itself in order to protect itself from what it knew was coming. "Barkin. You still have my machete?"
"Yes," he told me, desperately holding Tara's head to his chest. She had apparently decided that if he was keeping her from looking up for a reason, then she would trust the teacher that had apparently become one of the staples of her reason and let him direct her actions appropriately.
"I'll need it for the triage," I tell him. I held my hand out to him, and he shifted, trying to juggle the bundle of shaking girl in his arms enough to be able to retrieve it, and when it proved impossible, simply turned around so that I could see it. He had bound it tightly with a piece of close sideways to two of his belt buckles where it would hang out of the way and still be accessible. I reached out and gave it a quick sharp pull. The blade was apparently still sharp enough and it cut through the pieces of cloth that were serving as an impromptu sheath easily.
I took a second to glance down at the tip in order to assure myself that it was still sharp, and then threw it up hard, so that it drove with a meaty 'thunk' into Marcella's ruined face, right between her vacant eye sockets.
The suspended girl let out a low groan as the neural pathways in her brain severed, the body stopped receiving input, and began to shut down. I'm pretty sure it was painless, but honestly, even if it had hurt it would probably have felt like a relief compared to what already must have been done to her.
I felt Barkin's eyes on me, and saw the way Kimberly's dropped to the ground. Bonnie kept looking upward for a few more seconds, and then she sighed and sagged against me.
"So," she said. "Got any more of those cigarettes?" Wordlessly I pulled another of the tobacco sticks from my pocket and lit it. I got barely a drag on it before she tugged it out of my lips and stuck it in hers.
"You bitch." Everyone in the clearing turned in surprise to Liz. Still on all fours, she turned her face up and was now glaring at Bonnie with all the hate in her eyes that not too long ago was directed at me. "You bitch. Here we are, getting picked off one by one, and all you can do is make sarcastic shots and ask for cigarettes! You vicious goddamn bitch!" She was growling now, her whole body shaking as everything that had been building in her slowly through the course of the wretched night finally reached a head. "And you!" Now all the hate in her was on me. "Leaving us to die wasn't enough, now you're going to kill us personally?"
"Liz," Kimberly said softly. But whatever she was going to say was cut off as the furious blond turned on her.
"And you! The great Kim Possible! Aren't you supposed to save people! And you!" now she had twirled on Barkin. "You're a teacher! You're supposed to protect us! What the hell are you all doing!"
Throughout it all, the only one of us accused whose expression changed was Kimberly's. She flinched as though she had been slapped. Bonnie, Barkin, and my expressions on the other hand stay untouched. I think all three of us had already recognized what had happened.
Liz continued, her voice a shriek again. "Well I'm done! I'm done! I'm not going to hang around here anymore! You all probably made this all up! That's it isn't it? You made it up so you all could get me! You're all trying to get me, so you can cut me up and kill me like you all did to the others! Well I'm not going to stand for it! You're not going to get me!" Her expression was twisted as she declared this, and her words were interlaced with hysterical laughter. Turning, still on all fours she began to scramble up the side of the gully. Kimberly's eyes widened as she realized what was happening and started to go after her, but Bonnie surprisingly enough beat me to the punch and grabbed the red heads arms, stopping her.
"She's snapped," the maimed girl said, mumbling around the coffin nail in her mouth.
"Totally," I agree.
"Inability to cope with combat stress," Barkin murmured. Tara just lay very still.
"So we're just going to let her go?" Kimberly said. Her words should have been combative, should have had fire in them, should have been laced with disbelief. Instead, they were just soft whispers, as even she had already accepted what was about to happen.
"Well, now you know how I felt earlier," I told her, still looking to where Tara had disappeared to. I felt I owed it to her to at least watch her go, considering what was about to happen.
"What do you mean?" Kimberly asked me, her voice defeated as she excepted Liz's departure. It seems this final scene of logic defying cruelty and fear inspired insanity had finally managed to completely smother the fire that usually ran through her veins. She wasn't thinking anymore of how to take charge, how to fight, how to make things right, how to lead, or anything like that. Now she was just accepting the events that surrounded her, watching with drudged acceptance as events spiraled further and further out of her control and the edges fell away around her.
"Because we're going to use her as bait," I tell her. Her eyes widen, and I continue on, explaining to the group in general while looking at her specifically.
"The Yee Naaldlooshi knows we're following this gully. It's keeping far enough back so that the smoke won't react and we can't tell where it is. But it also reasoned we'd eventually come right here, so it went back, grabbed a victim, and set up a surprise for us. Even if it can't attack us head on, it can still fuck with us." Left unsaid with the loss of Liz was just how effective the attack it launched on us was. "We've been keeping a slow pace most of the night, so that we won't trip over anything, and so that we won't get too tired to move. At our current pace and path it'd take us about forty five minutes to make it to the river. What we're going to do now is leave the gully and cut through the forest itself and head back towards the camp as fast as we can."
"So we're going to risk our necks running through the forest at night where we can probably break our necks in order to go as far away from the safest place as we can?" Bonnie said slowly, her drawl slow pace of speech the kind you'd use to talk to either a very small child or a very stupid adult. She blew a puff of smoke into my face, and in retribution I stole the cigarette for my own use. "Alright, Loser, I can't wait to hear the reason behind THIS act of insanity.
"There are three things the skinwalker can do right now. It can attack us directly, counting on us not being able to hurt it enough to stop it, or it can try to repeat what it did earlier, maybe using two or three of its prey this time and in order to try and get another success like it did this time, or it can go after Liz, whose out there alone. Two out of three of those involves it not paying close attention to us for a prolonged period of time, and in the case of the third we'd be screwed no matter what we do. So we take advantage of the fact that it's not going to know where we are, and we move as fast as we can in a direction that it's not expecting, and we might be able to delay it long enough for daybreak."
"A strategic feint towards an unsuspecting flank," Barkin declared, nodding decisively. He could see the logic in my plan of action, and didn't even flinch at the thought of using Liz as a potential smoke screen. Kimberly just nodded quietly, the will to argue lost to her by this point. Only Bonnie spoke up.
"Do you think it'll work?" she asked. By now she knows that I'm not going to sugar coat my answer, or try to hide anything in order to give false hope just because she was an injured chick. I lay it flat out for her.
"If it's going back for the victims to lay a surprise, there's a good chance it won't notice us gone till it's too late, and then all of us, even Liz, will probably live. It's already proven that just cause Liz is alone, that doesn't necessarily mean that it'll go after her. It has no problems letting some people live, as long as it's had a chance to fuck with their heads enough. But it also might decide that it'll have the time to go after her and then come back to finish us off without realizing that we've already high tailed it, or it might just decide that more survivors are fine and let us go while it targets the one who already snapped. Honestly, I have no idea if this'll work, but I think it has a better chance than us staying on the gully waiting for new surprises."
Bonnie gives a nod. "Well then, let's go break our own ankles."
We ran. Well, ran might be too strong a word for it. We stumbled forward with extreme prejudice might be a better way of putting it. Tumbling over brush and rocks we heaved our battered bodies past all the debris and undergrowth, each of us trying not to be the one who eventually found that lucky rock with our ankles. We only had to keep it going for an hour and fifteen odd minutes by my estimation.
Thirty minutes into it, Barkin collapsed. It didn't really surprise me. He'd been carrying Tara's dead weight for what was probably most of the night. Combined with the fact that he'd no doubt been running a lot more than I did in order to catch up with me, and the fact that his leg was pretty much an amputation waiting to happen, it didn't surprise me in the least. I released Bonnie over to Kimberly's sole care and headed back to aid Barkin. It took a little work, but eventually the big man managed to shift Tara to a one arm hold, his arm supporting her under her bottom while she put her arms around his neck and kept her head buried firmly in his shoulder while I threw his other arm around my shoulder and gave him what support I could. The whole process was made awkward by the fact that through it all we never stopped moving forward, and Tara never stopped hiding her face. If the two of them make it out of this alive through some act of either divine intervention or demonic generosity I can only wonder what the future will be like for those two.
With the extra weight on me, I could feel my own endurance being sapped. By now I was down to the last three herbals. My own panting breath no doubt drawing some of the smoke into my lungs and causing them to burn faster than it would have it we had kept up the more sedate pace, but there really wasn't much choice in the matter. Lighting them one after another, the new one from the butt of the old, I kept my eyes half on the path ahead of me, and half on the smoke rising in front of me. It was hard to tell, with the rough pace we were moving causing it to disperse unevenly, but from my best guess, we were still both free and clear or the beast was still holding its distance while it waited for a chance.
My money was on it waiting, but that's just my pessimism shining through.
By the end of the second half hour all of my small supply had run out. I swear, if I do get out of this, I'm never going anywhere without a carton of these freaking things stashed on various places of my body at all times. But despite that, there was good news.
The sky had begun to lighten.
We could only tell slowly at first: subconsciously realizing that we were tripping less, that our range of vision was getting wider and wider, small things like that. When we finally realized that what we were seeing wasn't just our eyes getting used to the dark, but the fact that the dark was actually lessening, it was like Christmas had come early. Or Hanukah had been extended by another week for me I suppose.
Bonnie managed to sum up what everyone was beginning to feel rather succinctly. "Holy shit. The Loser's plan actually worked," she dead panned. When she broke the soft panting and sounds of our physical exertion with that declaration it was like an invitation for all of us to finally start hoping.
Had it worked? Had my desperate plan actually managed to carry through? My thoughts raced. By now it was actually light enough to see the forest around us. The chirping of birds filled the lightening air as nature began to shed the soft night noises of insects for the brighter sounds of daylight.
I let out a shuddering breath, softly so that it wouldn't disturb the others. Around that vast plateau of fear I was standing in, in that eye of the storm of terror, I felt the fear that had hounded me the entire night begin to ease. For the first time in what felt like forever I began to hope…
Shit. Shit. Shit damn fuck.
Well then. I guess there's only one thing left to do.
I slowed down and unwrapped Barkin's arm from my shoulder. He stumbled a little and drew the attention of Kimberly and Bonnie, who had gotten ahead of us by a few dozen feet due to their much less combined weight then me, Barkin, and Tara.
"Ron," Kimberly asked her voice tensing. I don't blame her. So far every time I've done something tonight seemed to have been a precursor to something horrible happening.
"You guys go on ahead," I tell her with a small smile, even as the rest of the group tensed in anticipation of what they no doubt expected to be me giving them more bad news. "I finally started to untense long enough for me to properly shit myself and I'd rather not do it in front of the rest of you. Might spoil my image as a badass," I tell them with a sheepish grin as I rub the back of my head in embarrassment.
Bonnie snorted at that. "Face it, Loser," she tells me, even as the unruined part of her face, the part not caked with blood and mud, stretched into a relieved smile of her own. "You and badass just don't go together in the same sentence. The two are mutually exclusive."
Barkin chipped in with his own two cents, his exhaustion tempered with pride. "Go on soldier. You're relieved of duty, honorably this time. You've earned a little privacy."
With an awkward chuckle I start to head off on my own to take care of business.
Naturally, just like the rest of the night, it was Kimberly that fucked it all up.
"Ron," she said clearly, her posture suddenly ram rod straight. "You're lying."
Damn that girl for being able to read me like she does. "What do you mean KP? Everything's fine. Well, except for the lack of toilet paper, but I'm pretty sure not even poison ivy is going to be able to make the day any worse." Please, just let it go. I don't want what's about to happen to happen here. Instead her eyes narrow.
"Now I know you're lying. You haven't called me KP since camp," her eyes are like slits, and behind them I see the fire in her start to re-awaken. The others are beginning to pick up on the tension between us, and starting to realize that it was more than just a long overdue fight between two teammates who were on the outs.
With a sigh, I give up the pretense. "Man, Kimberly, you really have had to fuck up everything I've tried to do tonight," I tell her, turning around to face them. As I spoke, I continued to back away from them slowly.
"Loser," Bonnie said, the smile on her face gone, "what's going on?"
"Do you know what false dawn is?" I ask them, ignoring her question, and not giving them time enough to answer before continuing. "It's the period right before actual dawn, when the light of the sun is refracting of the earth's atmosphere and lighting everything even though the sun isn't out yet. I told you earlier that black magic had a short life span? And that dawn would force the skinwalker to retreat? Well when I said dawn, I meant dawn, not just light." Their eyes widened as they heard me explain. "Well then, I thought to myself just a second ago, if I was a sadistic evil freak who was trying to cause as much terror and pain as possible, when would be the best time to do it? When the group I was hunting was running desperately, by picking them off one by one? Yeah, that would be pretty vicious. But what would be even more vicious is to wait till the very last moment, to hold off till the exact second that the poor fuckers would think they were safe, right at the moment when the really thought it was all over, and then come down and shatter that hope completely."
Their eyes had widened as I explained and the looks they gave me let me know they were following my thought process, and agreeing with it. I continued.
"So then I asked myself, who would be the best target? And in response I figured that the best target would be the one who had helped all the others, who had managed to come up with a workable plan to save the rest, the one who had managed to give the others a little bit of hope that just maybe they'd make it all out alive." Their eyes were wide, but they weren't looking at me. They were looking above me, behind me.
I let out a sigh and my head fell and my eyes closed. I didn't really need to ask, but I did anyway. "It's standing right behind me, isn't it?"
And the Yee Naaldlooshi spoke. Its voice, though human still had the sound of cicadas and crows, and the rustle of maggots, and the echo of dark things that hunted in the wretched night. "You are a clever one, little shaman." Its voice came from behind me, next to my ear. Now that I had identified it, predicted its actions, stolen the surprise of its attack, it revealed itself to all of us completely. I didn't turn to face it, but I could feel its presence, hear it shifting its unnatural joints behind me, the sound of its black heart pumping, the breeze of its fetid breath on my ear invading my nostrils. "It has been ages since I hunted one such as you. You were hardly pathetic at all."
"Well," I ask plaintively. "Was it good enough to warrant you letting me go?"
"No, little shaman," it whispered to me, it's voice almost intimate, if you look past the fact that the very sound of it was like venom on my ear and caused what was left of my fragile sanity to shriek in gibbering horror. "You have hurt me, little shaman. Not once, but twice." Claws circled around me. Great gleaming scythes of bone traced down my forehead, across my shoulder, along my hip, down my leg simultaneously. Where they touched they parted my skin and clothing effortlessly, razor sharp, raising thin beads of blood all along my body. "I will reward your efforts with my full attention. I will rework you into a masterpiece, a testament of my joy that this hunt has given me." Wow. I guess I really impressed the thing.
I looked up. Bonnie had let go of Kimberly, and had collapsed backwards onto her ass, staring at the scene in front of her with the first hints of emotion I'd seen on her face since she'd lost half of it. Barkin had collapsed to his knees, all his reserves gone. I could see in his face that he wanted to come, to drive the thing off of me, to get revenge for his lost students, to save at least one of them and to hurt the thing that had hurt his charges. But he couldn't, not with Tara still shaking against him, not with his leg finally collapsed and not responding to his brain's orders, and not when he simply had nothing left in him to give.
Kimberly still did. I could see it in her eyes. She'd already lost so much of her essential Kimminess this night, seen too many of her friends and charges dragged into the night. No matter how much baggage this night had given the two of us, no matter how much we'd both hurt each other tonight, she wasn't going to allow this. Not now, not her oldest and best friend, not right in front of her.
She knew she couldn't win. She knew she would fail. But she also knew that at least she'd be able to join me in what comes next.
And now matter how much I wanted to be saved, no matter how much I desperately didn't want to face what was about to happen, I couldn't let her come with me this time. I couldn't let both of us fall.
"Mother says you have no place here," I say, and the claws already caressing my flesh flinch and freeze. "Father says you are ugly."
The Yee Naaldlooshi screamed. The noise of it shook leaves off of the tree limbs around us; it made gravel shake, and the underbrush around where the two of us stood, me and the monster, died under the sheer weight of the hate of its scream.
It had taken me much time to learn that prayer, and even then, the shaman wouldn't tell me the rest. I was not of the people, I was not a proper apprentice. I was just one of the white men who had taken his people's land and left them broken and desolate. But I was one who knew of the creatures that hunt men, and I did hunt them back. And I had come across the beast the prayer was meant against, so he had at least told me that much of the ancient charm. And with those two sentences, I had managed to cause more pain to the abomination behind me then it had probably felt in centuries. Earlier, with my athame, I had irritated it. Now, I had actually hurt it.
And that would make the thing enraged. Before, it had been playing, now it would be punishing.
And from my pockets I withdrew my last two athame, and turned, screaming, and drove them both into the black thing behind me's chest.
And as I screamed, I finally felt something other than fear.
I was fucking pissed.
This thing had hunted us, hurt us, warped us, maimed us, and now it was going to dismiss the others so they could spend the rest of their lives in fear and pain while delivering that fear and pain to me personally. I knew, enraged as it was now, it wouldn't stop at me. After hearing that prayer, it was going to come at the rest of them and slaughter them for having seen it weakened. So there was only one option left: attack. I had to hurt it, hurt it so badly that it would be forced to flee. I had to show the others that even in the face of despair action was still possible. I had to give them some hope.
Even if there was none left for me, they had to be able to have some. Even if this was my last stand, they'd still have more before them. And so….
And so, screaming, I stabbed it. I stabbed it again and again and again. More than that, I had pressed into a charge, my own thin weight enough to shove the startled thing backwards, causing it to stumble and I cut it over and over again.
I couldn't let the others get involved. If I was going to go, then fuck all you better believe I'm going to go down clawing, biting, scratching, stabbing, kicking, punching, that everything I can do to hurt the thing would be thrown at its face in defiance.
That was what this was. My final act of defiance. Not just to hurt the beast, not just to defend myself, to avenge myself. This was for KP. This was for maimed Bonnie. This was for broken Barkin and Tara. This was for mad Liz and dead Marcella. This was for all the rest of the lost cheer squad, and for every other soul this thing had ever marred. I was going to show them that there was still hope left, that even death can accomplish something.
And so as I stabbed, as I cut, as I tried to hurt it, it finally recovered, and every bit as blood mad as I was, it returned.
Ivory claws violated my flesh, digging deep into me, cutting me to my core.
Fuck it. I was dead anyway.
I press in closer, willingly forcing the crimson dyed white deeper into me just so I could continue my relentless assault. I cut every piece of flesh in front of me, I pushed my blades as deeply as I could into it, as often as I could, twisting them and raking them side to side.
It screamed again, this time in pain as well as hate.
My thoughts began to become muddled as all my being focused on hurting the thing in front of me. Time disappeared. The world around me disappeared. I cut, and was cut. I stabbed and was stabbed. The noises around me became extraneous, unimportant. The forest around me became blurred and uninteresting. All that mattered were the claws in me, and the blades in it.
And suddenly, it was over.
The thing in front of me was gone. What was it again? I remember vaguely that it was something bad. Well, that's good. If it was bad, and it's gone, that's good.
What's this? There's something in my hands? They're so heavy… Too heavy for me to hold. I let them slip away. Really, it's just too much effort to force my fingers to hold them.
I stumbled a bit, and turned around. There was something behind me I had to look at. People? The people look okay, so that's good too. I don't think I wanted those people to not be okay. They were making noises. They sounded worried. I tried to smile for them, but coughed. Something red came out. So I tried to smile again, and this time it worked. That made me feel happy!
Behind them I can see something through the trees. Well isn't that amazing? It's the sun!
That's funny. The people in front of me are saying things, doing things, but it's the sun that's making me wonder.
Isn't the sun supposed to be bright and warm?
Then why is it getting so dark? And why am I so cold….
The end. Because sometimes, that's just the way it goes.