Standing in the heart of an evergreen forest were two men, each wearing the tattered remains of an MTF uniform. Faded and spattered with dirt and grime, the Eta-13 emblem was still visible on their vests as they held their rifles tightly. Their breathing was quiet as they attempted to remain unseen.
A bald man of medium build with dark skin made a gesture towards the nearby rise in the forest floor. His face had numerous scratches, and his right eye had swollen shut. The name Donald Blaire was barely visible beneath the mud and dried blood that was spattered on his patch.
Behind Blaire was James Candle. The tall, lanky man looked to the rise that Blaire pointed at and nodded before looking back behind them. Sweat dripped down his face as he struggled to control his breathing. His eyes twitched from branch to branch, and from tree to tree before he finally returned his gaze to the rise.
Three days prior, after the Foundation has lost contact with Cronos Outpost, Blaire had lead Eta-13 to this branch of the Gate Passage. Their mission had been a simple one: reestablish contact with the outpost. They arrived to find the facility in cinders. A literal bloodbath then followed, leaving eighteen of the twenty members of the original team exsanguinated. Now, the two survivors were attempting a final dash back to the Gate.
A branch broke beneath Candle’s feet, ending the silence. As he looked down in shock, his face drained of color. He winced and tilted his head upwards towards the treetops. “No…” he mumbled as a sudden breeze began to make the branches dance.
“Shit! Run!” Blaire shouted.
Candle bolted towards the rise. The sound of wind chimes rang from behind. He glanced back to catch a glimpse of his hunters.
Hovering behind him, and swiftly gaining, where three humanoid figures, each covered in a brownish-green cloak. No feet dangled beneath them as they sailed through the air. They were without a face, a spherical mirror taking its place underneath their hoods. In their six-fingered hands, they gripped black crossbows trained on the fleeing agents. As they flew through the air, the clatter of wind chimes became louder and louder.
The wind chimes then became the blaring of trumpets as the hunters fired a salvo of crossbow bolts. Candle reflexively dove to the side, turning up a cloud of dust and pine needles as he crashed into the ground. Coughing as he rolled onto his side, Candle raised his rifle. The natives were already scattering when a stray bullet managed to catch one in the back of its “head.” The sound of glass shattering filled the air, flowed by a death wail resembling a grand piano crashing down stairs. The being’s lower body violently cracked as it was sucked into the hole Candle had made before completely vanishing.
“For… fuck’s sake…” Candle wheezed, the barrel of his rifle trained on the tree tops, even as Blaire helped him to his feet.
“Nice shot though.” Blaire patted him on the shoulder.
Together they resumed their dash towards the hill, eventually reaching its wooded crest. Standing roughly a hundred yards before them, in the center of a ring of trees, was a woven circle of twigs about two feet high. The men looked to each other and let out relieved sighs. Candle wiped a thick mixture of dirt and sweat from his brow. He was home free.
He had only managed a few, relaxed steps when the thunderous sound of a tuba blasted from behind them. Wearily he glanced over to Blaire, and then over his shoulder. Floating behind them were a dozen or more of the natives, each carrying a freshly loaded crossbow. From the center of the group one native floated forward. Its cloak was red, and rather than a crossbow it carried an ornate javelin. Upon its mirror was an engraving of a hand being encircled by a large serpent. It pointed its spear at them and issued another call, this time in the form of a short electric guitar riff.
Candle turned to his commanding officer and nervously chuckled, then looked back to the natives who remained distant. Tears made trails along his dusty face as he managed to mumble “Don’t they ever give up…”
Blaire responded by punching him in the shoulder, and then gesturing to the ring of woven twigs before them. Candle watched as Blaire’s lips curled into a sheepish grin. He couldn’t help but follow suit, and nodded.
With what little strength was left, Candle sprinted towards the side of the crest, weaving between the trees in a haphazard pattern of zigs and zags. The sound of a tuba once again blared behind them, followed by a chorus of wind chimes.
Candle felt his feet fall heavy on the soft forest floor as black crossbow bolts embedded themselves in the trees and ground, pieces of bark and clods of dirt flying through the air around him. As the woven ring drew closer he felt his pace increasing to a full sprint. Candle finally broke stride when a searing pain shot up his left leg, and caused him to tumble forward. He screamed in agony as he landed, somersaulting over himself twice before his momentum died, leaving him with a face full of pine needles. Looking down, Candle saw the end of a bolt sticking cleanly out of the back of his calf. The wind chimes turned to trumpets as Candle heard them grow louder and louder.
“No!” Candle screamed as he clumsily turned himself over. He fumbled with his rifle before finally letting out a spray of bullets into the swarm of natives descending upon him. The clearing roared to life as the sound of shattering glass mingled with the sound of an orchestra exploding. Candle felt his magazine run empty, the immediate natives having long vanished. Slowly turning his head, Candle could see the second wave approach. He closed his eyes and simply began to count.
“GOD FUCKING DAMN IT JAMES!”
Candle heard Blaire’s voice, followed by the heavy steps of a man darting towards him at full speed. Candle opened his eyes to witness his friend slam a spare magazine into his hand and begin to pick him up. Blaire let out a herculean grunt. Candle felt himself being heaved into the air and slung over Blaire’s shoulder, his view now changing from the tree tops to the approaching swarm behind them.
Candle bobbed up and down as Blaire let out a heroic yell and sprinted towards the Gate. The entire time, Candle did his best to send bursts of covering fire into the pursuing natives. A symphony of destruction sounded as one by one the hunters imploded.
The men yelled in unison as they made it to the home stretch. The Gate shimmered as the chicken’s feet they each carried in their pockets opened the path to their travel.
We’re going to make it! We’re going to make it! We’re…
Candle’s mind raced with relieved thoughts as the natives fell further and further behind. The wounded medic hefted his middle finger at the native’s leader. Candle’s grin soon vanished, however, as he saw the native raise its javelin.
There was a crash of thunder, and the next thing Candle knew, he was flying backwards through the air. Once again the sound of a tuba pierced the hill top.
Candle moaned as he propped himself up. Several yards behind him, Blaire lay face down in the dirt, the native’s javelin sticking straight out of his back. Candle could see the tip protruding beneath Blaire as a growing pool of blood stained the pine needles below. The native leader made a claw with its right hand, and the javelin began to return, dragging Blaire with it.
Candle watched as Blaire screamed in agony, blood was visible in his mouth as he looked longingly at the medic. Candle’s eyes darted between Blaire, the native leader, and the remaining natives who were already reloading their crossbows for another strike. Grunting as he fought the pain of his right leg, Candle rose to his feet. Slowly, he raised his rifle, took aim at the red cloaked figure, and pulled the trigger.
Candle looked down at his weapon in disbelief.
Frantically, Candle patted himself down for another magazine, but to no avail. He turned his attention back to Blaire. The defeated medic’s expression was a mixture of shame and sadness.
“Candle?” Blaire shrieked as he was slowly pulled further and further away. Blood oozed down his chin. “James?”
Candle looked around once more. The natives had nearly finished reloading their crossbows and were already closing in.
“James!” Tears were visible in Blaire’s eyes as he tore up the earth around him in a struggle to locate something to grab onto.
Candle then turned his head to see behind him. The Gate still shimmered, ready to accept passage.
“Ja… James? For god’s sake, please!”
With every last ounce of strength he had left, Candle hobbled to the Gate, and threw himself over the threshold. He immediately fell through, tumbling slowly down a sloped, ivy covered passage before coming to a gentle stop.
Before he passed out, he could hear Blaire give out one last, primal shriek.
Candle snapped his attention back to the matter at hand. Standing by his side was Researcher Joseph Bell. Candle had lost himself in thought, staring at nothing in particular. He was once again standing on that hill top.
“You okay?” Bell asked.
“Yeah,” Candle mumbled. “Fine, just, lost in thought…”
“I can imagine this place will do that to you.” Bell smiled as he looked around. The evergreen trees swayed in a light breeze against a violet sky. The balmy smell of a temperate summer filled the air. “It’s simply breath taking. Something about it just pierces you.”
Candle nodded, doing his best not to cringe at the young researcher’s last comment. He once again looked back around the clearing. For a brief moment, he believed he could see the drag marks Blaire had made in the dirt.
Wells was now calling the task force to order. Before he joined his comrades, Candle closed his eyes. He remembered something Blaire had said about him long ago.
“Remember, if anyone gets hurt, crawl to Candle. He’ll get you back in one piece.”