How did it come to this?
With the inflatable safely stowed among the rocks, and under the storm-flotsam she’d collected to conceal them from any planes, or satellites, during the two days they were still out on the open ocean, Emily Kane hauled Sergeant Durant across the beach and into the cover of the trees.
“Damn, you’re heavy, Mick. What the hell have you been eating lately?”
He groaned back at her, semi-conscious, and only able to push off one leg. Blood oozed from his hip and shoulder, and a gash along one rib covered by an ill-fitting bandage, and he winced when she adjusted her grip. Once she’d found him a comfortable spot in some brush beneath a eucalyptus tree, she turned back toward the shore.
“I don’t like the look of those clouds,” she said over one shoulder, not expecting a response. “This may not be good enough shelter. I’m going back for the water and bandages, and then we can try to move again.”
It didn’t take long to gather what she needed, scowling at the horizon the whole time, and when the inflatable bobbed loose from its makeshift mooring, she hauled it higher up onto the rocks, trading concealment for security “A lot of trouble for a raft we may never need again,” she muttered.
“You should’ve left me back there,” he croaked as she came within earshot again. “I’m just slowing you down. We both know what they’re after.”
Durant nodded, and forced a smile. After another three-legged stagger brought them deeper into the woods, she positioned him against a large rock sheltered by ferns, and handed him the last water bottle.
“Not a great location, LT,” he said. “Though the view of the beach is an improvement.”
“I’m gonna see what there is to eat in this jungle, before the rains come again. Hang tight.”
“What’s that stench?” He covered his nose when she dumped the results of her foraging onto a couple of large fronds spread out for the purpose.
“That’s the durians. Don’t sniff at ’em. People pay top dollar for these.”
“And the red, hairy things?”
“Rambutans. They’re sweet inside… and I found a few mangoes the birds hadn’t gotten to yet. This place is full of stuff to eat. ”
“You’re quite the outdoorswoman, LT. Where’d you learn all this stuff?”
“My dad. He was always trying to teach me to live off the land.”
“A man after my own heart,” Durant said, with half a mango in his hand, watching Emily carve up one of the durians.
“You say that now, but wait until we’re eating bugs.” When Durant cringed, she said, “Yup, that was my childhood.”
The sun hung a few degrees above the horizon, just south of the cloudbank of the storm, which now appeared likely to miss them to the north, and the moon hadn’t risen yet. Emily knew it would be nearly full tonight from what she’d seen last night, once the sky had cleared. The island curved away from their position in a lazy arc, providing shelter for a quarter-mile or so of beach, with the remains of what looked like dock-pilings halfway along.
“It must have been inhabited at some point,” Durant said.
“I just hope it isn’t anymore.”
“The thing is, those pilings don’t look rotted. Someone, or something, dismantled them, you know, like recently.”
“I know,” she said. “Could’ve been a storm, but whatever did it, we still need a place to lie low before we try to make contact. Your shoulder is a through-and-through, and the exit wound is small. We caught a break there. Now we just need to dig some lead out of your hip… as soon as you’re strong enough,” she added, examining the edge of his Ka-Bar knife. “This is definitely old school.”
“Yeah, I never liked the finger-guard on the newer ones.”
“Me neither,” she said, rubbing her jaw over the spot where a scar was no longer visible.
“And don’t get me started about the M9. I’m just glad SOCOM ditched ’em for the .45’s. I kinda feel for the regular Marines, you know. There’s nothing like a 1911.”
“Like you ever carried a Beretta, Sarge,” she said, with a snort. “Oh, don’t give me that look… as if I’d ever give anyone an Article 15 for an unauthorized weapon. I’m all about ‘creative’ armament.”
“Right now, I’d settle for an M9, since we may be here a lot longer than either of us likes,” Durant said. “I put us a couple hundred miles southwest of Palawan, but as much as we got blown around that first night, we may be halfway to Palau. Even if anyone thinks we aren’t dead, what are the odds they’d look here, wherever this is? And if the wrong people find us…”
“I don’t want to alarm you…,” Emily said.
“I see ’em, too. Judging from their movements, they don’t seem interested in stealth. You know what that means, right?”
“There’s a lot of ’em, at least platoon strength, maybe more… and they aren’t sure we’re here.” Emily arranged a few more fronds over Durant, and handed him the knife, all the while making only very measured movements.
“This isn’t very good camo, you know, and you’ll need this more than I will,” he said, trying to hand her back the knife.
“It’s not for camo. I’m more worried about that storm backing up on us, and you’re not much good to me dead from exposure.”
“I’m not much good to you at all,” Durant growled. “Take the damn knife and don’t look back.”
“Shut it, Sarge, and wait for me here, and don’t do anything stupid. Besides, I’ve got my own little pig-sticker.” Emily reached over her shoulder and drew the short sword she carried strapped to her back; with a blade almost a foot and a half long, it dwarfed any knife.
“That thing is definitely not regulation,” he snorted, running one hand along the back of his neck. “Much good it’ll do you against their AK-47s.”
“Aw, you know me, Sarge. I’m not really a gun-person. Now keep it together, while I draw them off.”
Emily slipped away into the underbrush, careful not to disturb any large foliage, until she could get a safe distance from Durant. “… and please don’t make me kill too many of them,” she muttered, in a sort of prayer. Keeping an eye on the jungle to her right, she felt something else in the air, just as she crested a hillock on the edge of some new growth. An older grove opened before her, a high canopy and scattered trunks populating a broad swale, with the moon blinking through here and there, and she felt the dirt and old leaves crinkle underfoot. Water burbled in the distance. “I’ll have to find it in the morning,” she thought. “If I live that long.”
She felt the cameras, too, though there wasn’t enough light to see them, and it confirmed what she’d been thinking for a while, though she hadn’t wanted to discuss it with Durant. This island was not at all what it seemed… but underneath that obvious fact, a deeper recognition purred at the edge of her consciousness, as if someone were summoning her, a familiar spirit, one that had made a claim on her before. It almost seemed to speak to her, at first in one voice, then in many.
“This is your home,” they seemed to say. “Live and die in our shade. Bury yourself here and become one with us.”
A snap in the near distance broke the spell, and she knew it was time to set things going. In a single stroke, she slipped the sword out and hacked off a shoot from the base of a kalantas tree. The noise of its fall drew the attention she aimed for and men’s voices began to call out and then shout, running her way. Eluding her pursuers wouldn’t be difficult, at least initially, but she didn’t want to lose them completely, or they might turn back to the beach and find Durant.
Once they’d gotten close enough to hear, she took off at a dead run through the grove, heart pounding in her ears, weaving among the trees, circling to her right and finally ducking behind one of the thicker trunks. Two teams of four rushed by in pairs, not yet recognizing that they were no longer pursuing anything. Her first instinct had been to slash at the throat of the last man, and then roll up the rest of the squad from behind. Hacking and stabbing, blood spraying everywhere, it would have been the work of a moment. But something about her surroundings stayed her hand… and quieted her heart.
She scanned the woods for other targets, and finding none, took off after the last man. A kick to the back of a knee upended him, and she hit him behind the ear with a second kick that drove his face into the ground. “Not dead,” she muttered, as she ran past his twitching body. The next two men were brought down before any sound reached the front of the team, but the fourth man was able to shout before she could silence him.
When the first team turned back, she dashed into a denser section of the jungle, even though the underbrush made stealth impossible. The shouts she heard behind her did not seem to be in Mandarin. It occurred to her that it could have been a dialect she didn’t know, but something made her think otherwise, perhaps the faces of the men she’d already subdued—one of them sported a wispy beard—or the way they moved, but whatever it was, they didn’t seem Chinese to her.
“These are not Diao Ming’s men,” she muttered. “But then who are they?”
Another turn brought her back into the grove, and she dodged from tree to tree, until she glimpsed a brighter clearing through a few layers of foliage. With the moon approaching the top of the night sky, a silvery-gray light bathed the scene that flickered before her eyes in eerie familiarity. She pushed past a huge, fan-shaped fern and stepped into a grassy meadow, and looked up at the sky to behold the shining disk of the moon.
The voices following her drifted into insignificance as she concentrated on the heavens, with no care for them, or anything else for that matter. Those other voices seemed to call to her again: “Bury yourself here and become one with us.” The invitation was almost irresistible, as if it came from her oldest friends… or even her father.
“No,” she gasped. “It can’t be.”
The noise of the men who’d burst into the meadow and now surrounded her could no longer be ignored. One of them barked a command at her, and she turned in his direction. Eight men, which meant either this was a different squad, or more men had joined them. How many were there altogether? Would it even make sense to fight them? Two men stepped forward, lunging for her, and tried to force her to the ground. Impassive, glowering at them, instinct and training took over, and she seized the hand one man had clamped onto her shoulder, wrapping her fingers across the back and around the thumb, and twisted up and out, then pivoted under and pushed the elbow over, in a simple pain-compliance hold that sent him crashing into the second man. Their heads collided like pumpkins and they collapsed into a heap.
More men came, and she fought them off without worrying that the circle around her kept growing. Strangely, no one fired, or even raised a gun in her direction. At one point, she felt the impulse to draw her sword and slash through the whole crowd, but when she reached back over her shoulder, a voice that seemed to come from the moon itself whispered to her.
“Protect,” it said.
But who needed her protection… who, other than Princess Toshi? The mere thought of the little princess seared Emily’s consciousness. Much as she would have liked to take the island spirits up on their offer, the destiny of a descendant of Amaterasu-omikami, the goddess of the sun, was not to be trifled with.
Just then, more men stepped out of the jungle, dragging Durant by one arm and shoving him out into the meadow. He stumbled forward and landed on his side with a loud groan.
“Sorry, LT,” he said.
When three of the men aimed their rifles at him, Emily thought again of her sword. A paroxysm of violence would freeze them, she knew from long experience… and as she let out a deep breath, her heart reached out beyond the confines of her chest, and she saw how it would unfold. The men with guns would hesitate, uncertain whether to shoot Durant or to aim at her as she hacked and slashed her way through their comrades. She’d be moving too quickly in the dark for them to risk shooting their own, and the fact that none of them had fired in her direction during the pursuit through the woods told her they didn’t have permission to kill her. Still, a stray shot might hit her, or Durant, and though that didn’t deter her, the thought of killing so many did.
She took another long, trembling breath, knelt down and gazed up at the moon. A man who seemed to be in charge, the one who’d barked some sort of command earlier, stood over her and snarled something she didn’t understand, though she hardly cared, since at that moment only the moon mattered.
The butt of the rifle struck her across the cheek and nose and forehead, and she slumped to one side. The lights in the sky grew dim, and the darkness that lay behind them invited her in, and she let herself accept. As she drifted off, the words of the moon reverberated one last time in her ears: “Protect your priest.”