|25 | A SICK MAN'S DREAMS: TRINITY|
In stride, Oriana groaned as she flexed the drawstring on her newly-crafted bow. It was a simple design made of hickory and beautifully crafted, if a little too sturdy. At roughly a meter long, it was just the right size for her and accentuated by a special accessory: the bulb of her deceased pet dissilo, Bulla. The antenna was tied to the top nock, but the ball lacked the mesmerizing glow she remembered. Such a memento was bittersweet each time she laid eyes on it, but it was all the little redhead had to remember him by.
That anguish steadily turned to animosity. Oriana looked over her shoulder to find the bastard that murdered her best friend. Instead, her crystal blues eyes found the boy who’d made her the bow moving in hurried steps.
Apollo reached out and snagged her by the shoulder. Oriana gasped, wondering why, and then quickly snapped forward. Nearing a break in the trees, she was just a few more steps from the ledge of a sheer drop.
“Pay attention, girl,” Apollo huffed. “You aight?”
After a moment, Oriana steeled herself, closed her slack-jaw, and shrugged his hand off of her. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”
Apollo frowned. “That didn’t sound liked a ‘thank you.’”
Oriana scoffed and looked away with her dainty nose turned up.
“It’s not like I was actually gonna walk off a damn cliff, A.P. I’m not an idiot, you know . . .”
“You’re a brat,” Apollo remarked, stepping past her. “And I wish y’all would stop callin’ me that.”
He knelt down by the ledge, slowly combing his fingers through the wiry grass leading up to it. Following the hoofprints, Apollo raised an eyebrow and peeked down below. It was a relatively short drop, no more than fifteen feet, but he wondered what could’ve made it throw itself over. There were a few branches broken off of the tree just beneath them, and signs of tussling of the bushes surrounding the trunk.
“You’re insubordinate,” Apollo said, standing up and straightening his own bow sheathed over his chest. He whipped a finger in an exaggerated and awkward motion at her, adding, “Insubordinate! And churlish!”
Oriana gave him a pity laugh. Embarrassed, Apollo looked away with his usual scowl. That actually made her giggle.
It was, as always, an infectious noise. The ever-stern kid cracked a shallow grin and laughed once. Satisfied, he nodded, having gotten a smile out of her, beating her at her own game. Oriana always tried to make him laugh, open up, and break his rigid façade, but normally came up empty. She made their triumvirate whole just over a year ago, but Apollo hadn’t quite let his guard down on her just yet. That wasn’t an easy task for anyone, though. Still, it was a daily challenge Oriana delighted in nonetheless.
By now, at the age of fourteen, Apollo . . . no, the wilderness itself had trained him to remain hardened and cautious and always the serious one in the bunch. Being the oldest of the trio, even if only by eleven months, made him the de facto leader of the group. They quarreled at times about such a title being necessary, but when things got hairy, it was Apollo they ran to as their savior.
His two partners lived with a wholly different carelessness about them that Apollo quietly hated. Yet, he felt responsible to protect that careless, uncorrupted, free spirit in them both from the world around them.
The world around them. That’s where his hatred truly lied.
After all that they’d been through, though, her smile shone as brightly as the day the original duo met her.
Speaking of that other member . . .
A blur of black and blonde zoomed down the path toward them, dust and leaves trailing in its wake. Apollo and Oriana coughed, swatting away at the debris, and the figure vaulted with reckless abandon across the gap. The spiky blonde daredevil, Azaris, vanished into the lime-green canopy. Leaves and branches groaned and snapped loudly. The shaking travelled down the tree until the boy fell out of the bottom. Tumbling and somersaulting, he finally hit the ground with a harsh thud. To his credit, the durable little bastard got up without dropping a single tear.
Azaris dusted off his trusty black leather jacket and jeans and found his compatriots looking down on him from above, bewildered. “What’re y’all waiting for?” he hollered. “We’re still looking for the thing, right? It’s getting away!”
The pair on the cliff wiped their hands down their faces in unison. Apollo looked to his left at Oriana. She looked to her left as well, finding the tree beside her wreathed in thick vines winding down its height. The tendrils spilled down to the ground below, and were plenty thick enough to rappel with.
“We’ll be down in a minute,” Oriana sighed, and then muttered, “Jackass . . .”
Carefully, yet admittedly with much less flare, Apollo and Oriana reached the forest floor and their rambunctious companion. As they walked up to him, they could see cuts and scratches all over him. Flecks of dirt and twigs littered his spiky hairdo, though, it was already a mess to begin with.
“Pussies,” Azaris remarked, pointing. “The both of you.”
Oriana shook her head and walked past him. “Why couldn’t you have just broken your neck? Or at least a leg”
“I’d’ve been cool with just a finger,” Apollo said, following her. “You sure you good?”
Azaris lagged behind, quietly bemoaning his bruised shoulder. “I’m a fucking beast! That was nothin’! I just might go back and do it again.”
“Make sure you land on your head this time,” Oriana quipped. “It’s sturdy enough.”
“You’re right,” Azaris said, trailing behind them. “I’ll get up and be here to save your asses from the next pack of sea wolves we run into. Don’t you worry, pretty lady.”
Oriana sighed explosively. “You threw a rock at it, and ran tail right behind us! You’re such a fucking poser!”
Azaris shrugged with a toothy grin. Apollo ignored their bickering as he usually did. He stopped at a rather obvious spoor made in a plot of mud outside the tree line. A light shower passed overhead northbound a few hours ago. It was the opportune time to find tracks like this. The outline told him the creature was at least small enough for them to take down, but it was also oblong and the upturned dirt around it meant the beast was in a dead sprint from here.
It was running from something.
Apollo kept that note to himself and started walking again. “Let’s go.”
“You know what it is yet?” Azaris asked.
Apollo walked beside the hoofprints, and had trained the other two not to disturb animals tracks either. “Not yet.”
“Not even a clue?”
“It’s got hooves,” he said. “It might be a laniger, but we won’t know until we find it.”
Azaris gave a disappointed sigh. “Another one. Great . . .”
“We take what we can get,” Apollo told him with a glance. “You want something else, go get it yourself.”
“As if he could,” Oriana muttered.
Azaris laughed loudly, reached behind his waist, and pulled out a knife crafted from the horn of a bufus carcass they found a few weeks ago. It was crude, but it usually got the job done. “Oh, don’t worry, kid,” he bragged. “I’ll get it done today for the good of the group like I always do.”
“Not today,” Apollo asserted.
Apollo jabbed a finger over his shoulder, just past his nappy afro. “The bow works better in this situation. When she gets a hit on it, we can follow the blood trail until it slows down.”
Oriana blushed at him choosing “when” rather than “if.”
Azaris fluttered his lips. “Why’re we changing up now?” He twirled the knife by the hilt with practiced ease. “I just got this thing and now you wanna just kneecap me and drag this chase out even longer. I can sneak up on it just f—”
“Last time you almost got your ass killed,” Oriana barked. “Hell, you almost got all of us caught by that damn basilisk being so damn loud.” Azaris rubbed just below his ribs, sensing the scar there through the fabric. “That’s about all you’ve been good for lately. I wish you’d grow the hell up, dude!”
“Both of y’all are loud as shit right now,” Apollo said, eyes glued to the tracks. “Keep it down.”
Azaris’ scowl was locked on the back of her red head. It floated over Apollo; he didn’t like how their “leader” played favorites with the runt of the crew. Even if only by a year, they knew each other longer than either of them had known Oriana. Yet, he was consistently siding with her as of late.
“You know, A.P.,” Azaris started, stuffing both hands in his pockets. “I don’t know how comfortable I am putting my life in the hands of a li’l rich girl who doesn’t know the first thing about survivin’ out here . . .”
The three of them stopped on a dime.
Apollo felt his stomach overrun with butterflies.
Oriana said nothing for a moment. The way the forest seemed to quiet in the wake of his unprompted revelation only made the air more tense. Both of her hands curled into fists then fell limp. Apollo turned and cut a fierce glare at the blonde. Stubborn eyes met his. He stomped toward Azaris, right over the old hoofprints, but Oriana barred him with an arm.
His amber gaze floated down to hers. That bright light in her eyes had faded, as if it had never existed in the first place.
“It’s fine,” she whispered.
No, it wasn’t.
Apollo brushed harshly past her. Azaris took his hands out of his pockets, ready for a fight, but his best friend stopped just short of that aggression. Even only an inch or so taller, Apollo loomed over Azaris with a threatening scowl. There was a look of fear and betrayal in the blonde’s maroon eyes. His freckles and pale skin were flushed with red as he tensed up.
Apollo wanted to deck him so bad. He told Azaris to keep it to himself. He didn’t want her to feel like an outcast—a young heiress running away from everything the two of them could’ve ever dreamed of. That’s not where Azaris’ instincts went, though. She was the dumbest person in the world in his eyes.
Oriana walked up and forcefully uncurled his fists. “It’s fine. Really.” Standing closer to him now, she could see the edge of guilt in the blonde’s eyes. Her crystal blues rose up to Apollo. “When . . . When did you guys find out?”
Apollo sighed through his nose, hesitating. This wasn’t time. And It wouldn’t go down like this. “It doesn’t matter.” His narrow glare bored into Azaris. “Does it?” The blonde said nothing. Apollo motioned to the girl’s left shoulder. “This is the only family that matters, right?”
Oriana reached up and thumbed the rough triangular scar on her shoulder. The other two had matching brands on the same shoulder as well. It looked a lot better on their shoulders than it did Apollo’s; he had the careful hands to do it precisely for them. He remembered how Azaris was a little too excited to burn him.
Symbolically, the last vestiges of whatever attachments to their old lives and places once called home were burned away that day, too. All that mattered was them. Here and now.
“Yeah,” Azaris said, grinning. “You cried more than she did. Remember, A.P.?”
Before Apollo could respond, a distant cry saved the blonde.
Neither of them heard it, but Apollo did. He spun around and crouched down. Azaris and Oriana did the same, eyes sweeping the greenery surrounding them. The girl looked up and saw Apollo chopping two fingers further down the hoofprint track. She unslung her bow and followed closely behind the group’s designated tracker as he paralleled the spoor.
The trio pushed through twenty meters of thick and tangled shrubbery. They carefully treaded down a sudden slope into a swale and followed it to the edge of an open pasture. Apollo’s eyes flashed: there they were.
Two laniger grazed out in the open. One was twice the size of the other, likely a mother and calf. Both were facing away from them. Good, Apollo thought. Not just for the element of surprise . . . but their masks creeped him out. It was rare to see any outside of a herd, but looking left and right, Apollo figured they must’ve been separated somehow.
As he thought on it, the earlier signs of a chase pointed to exactly that. They must’ve broke from the pack, escaping whatever predator was on their heels. Apollo swept their surroundings one more time.
By the time he looked back, Oriana and Azaris were already prone, melted into the wiry grass beneath them. Apollo pulled his bow over his head and laid down next to them. He looked back and nodded at Oriana. She had the quiver. The redhead pulled out two arrows, handing one to Apollo.
The laniger began nickering and the trio flinched, but their quarry remained where they were. Without looking, Apollo gave Oriana the thumbs up to get ready. They had prepared for this for a week. It was her time to contribute now. Elbow over elbow, Oriana crawled up next to him.
Apollo looked up, seeing the adult caressing its youngling. It staggered around, following her brood, and Apollo’s eyes widened. There was a deep gash on its other hindleg, and blood soaking all the way down the cannon bone. The bone itself showed through the skin. Sitting up a bit, he saw a trail of blood staining the pasture. Perhaps that’s why they had stopped.
It was a lot. She must’ve known her time was near.
Ever cautious, he scanned for whatever might’ve been chasing it the same as them.
“Aim for the rump,” Apollo told her. “Just above the—”
“I know,” she interjected, raising to a knee. “I know.”
The brush beside her provided good cover. Drawing back, her form was perfect: rear arm aligned with her ear, forward arm slightly bent but strong, string tickling her dainty nose. Between breaths, she let it go.
The bolt arced over the pasture and plunged right into the left rump. The adult shuddered and its hip dropped. It tried to scurry away but now both legs were critically damaged. The calf jumped away from its groaning mother and trotted away. The mother called out in its guttural language.
Apollo couldn’t tell if it was begging for help or telling its spawn to run away. There was a certain reluctance about the calf that Apollo noticed, eyes locked on its mother as it moved away in hurried steps. It stopped just outside the tree line for a moment, then finally disappeared.
The mother stopped yelling and laid its head down, seemingly resigning herself to her fate.
Azaris mouthed “holy crap” to himself, amazed at the precise shot. Oriana seemed less than surprised at her supreme accuracy. Apollo wasn’t either. She tagged a small bird on a branch at a farther distance than this.
“Good shit,” Apollo whispered.
Oriana nodded, but Azaris raised an eyebrow, saying, “What do you mean? It’s not dead yet.” The other two scowled at him not giving her the just due she clearly deserved. Azaris stood up and pulled out his bulfus knife. “I’ll show you how it’s really done!”
The other two stood up, dusting themselves off, and watched him cross the pasture. The blonde’s eagerness to gut creatures with that knife of his was beginning to worry them both. Apollo realized that was probably why she seemed so docile after the shot. Oriana didn’t like watching him finish their prey off so heartlessly.
To Azaris, it was mercy.
To anyone else with eyes and half a brain, it was butchery.
Apollo almost wished some fanged monster would burst from the tree line and chomp a healthy chunk out of his fat head . . .
He would immediately regret that thought.
“Come back,” Apollo shouted in as low a voice as possible. “Come! Back!”
Azaris stopped and turned to him, quizzically. Then, he heard it, too.
Heavy footfalls smashed dirt and fallen branches underfoot with frightening force. Azaris slowly pivoted forward again, finding the obscured figure lurching toward to the pasture from the opposite side. Branchlets gave way to the beast stalking through. It finally broke into the clearing, and Azaris felt every muscle in his body seize up.
“Basilisk,” Oriana whispered.
She crumpled to the dirt, laying flat, trembling. Apollo’s stomach rose in his gut. The feeling was similar to a sudden drop in altitude like falling out of a tree. But, this time, it didn’t go away. This time, it stayed. Every nerve ending on his skin buzzed like static, as if his subconsciousness were shouting out to him “get down.”
Eventually, he did, but his eyes stayed locked onto his friend.
The beast was a fully-grown adult, standing a full foot taller on all fours than Azaris. Its red scales were covered in long scratches and bite marks, despite the adamantine exterior—mementos of battles it had obviously come out on the victorious end of. It sat deep in its stance with bulky arms and haunches, ready to pounce on either the laniger or the blonde.
Whether it was waiting for Azaris to make a move or fully aware of how terrified the boy was, Apollo couldn’t tell.
Azaris stood locked in a standoff, unable to move. He tried peeling his eyes away from the beast, but couldn’t. Something told him staring at the creature was pissing it off even more. He wanted to move, but every move he could think to make felt wrong, felt like it would get him torn to pieces.
Azaris closed his mouth, and his fists.
No. He wasn’t scared!
I’m not scared, he repeated to himself.
This was something the creature was doing to him. Its milky white eyes had that effect. He knew Oriana and Apollo were both down in the dirt, paralyzed. It worked on a physiological level that they couldn’t fight, but just knowing that meant he still had some control.
The beast stepped forward and stooped over the laniger, who laid still, breathing heavily. It was laying claim to the kill—their kill.
Azaris didn’t even want the damn thing, but it was still their kill!
Hours of trailing this fat beast through the wilderness couldn’t amount to this!
The wood handle dug deeper into his palm as he tightened his grip. It was so tight, he felt his metacarpus bow. The pain shot through his hand, and his fingers flexed as he regained control. Good, he thought. The bones in his legs fought against his tensed calf and thigh muscles, and eventually won out. Shimmying his soles into the dirt, his stance steadied.
The hardened shell intimidated him, but its eyes were soft flesh just like his. He’d gouge them out and hopefully his compatriots took the opportunity to drag the laniger away.
Just as his foot lifted up to move forward, a dark blur shot across his peripheral and wrapped around his throat. Another arm curled around his chest and pulled him backward. Azaris tried to struggle against it, but he could feel Apollo trembling as he pulled him close.
“Let,” Azaris stammered out, “Let me . . . Let me go!”
The fear in Apollo’s voice was restrained, but still palpable. “We gotta get outta here. We have to leave!”
“We have to!”
The beast didn’t move. Saliva driveled from its protruded jaws. The laniger was completely still now—dead. Apollo crossed the tree line where Oriana remained plastered to the forest floor, eyes closed and shaking in terror. Apollo set his friend down next to her, laying over the blonde and keeping him still. The basilisk stood tall and let out a rippling roar that shook the three of them down to the bone.
Its webbed jaw stretched wide, and then swooped down and crushed the carcass. The muffled sound of bones breaking and flesh tearing and oozing made Oriana gag. Azaris struggled against his friend even harder. “Let me go, A.P.,” he begged. “Let me go!” Apollo placed a hand over his mouth, pulling tighter on his throat. “L-Let . . .”
Apollo watched the hulking beast, sharing the same fury as his friend, but fully aware their prey was out of his reach now. Azaris’ vision began to blur. Before everything went black, he watched the thief pick his catch up in its maw and disappear into the forest.
The struggling stopped. Azaris was out cold. Apollo felt a tear spill down his hand and finally let go. He rolled over onto his back, feeling his body still inadvertently shaking. His heart beat at a thousand times in a minute as he hyperventilated.
Looking over to Oriana, he could see tears falling from her flush cheeks into the dirt. She began to weep, crawling her fingers through the damp dirt.
Apollo’s stomach grumbled loudly.
In his peripheral, the second coming of the storm loomed on the horizon.
Apollo awoke in his bed. His amber eyes met the blank ceiling and the pane of moonlight carving through its shadow. A deep sigh escaped his nose. He vividly remembered the feeling of his skin tingling—the feeling utter terror and helplessness.
It wasn’t a welcome one. He brushed the thought away, snatched the pocket watch from his nightstand, and checked the time: 1:14 AM.
He’d be awake for the next several hours, he thought.
As his mind crawled out of its listlessness, the curious sound of paper sliding on the stand rushed back to him. Apollo leaned over and grabbed it. It was a letter addressed to him.