Fulco never had the chance to finish telling the tragedy of Rex Gryphus. Though it was still a bit before moonrise, Avalona and its surroundings were ablaze. Another fiery blast rocked the hillside just below Kent and Cassie, sending flaming tree detritus flying. The bird halted in mid-air and spun rising high above the forest. Kent, lunged for cover, barely avoided losing his good eye as a burning stick flew at him. He saw a huge branch land where the girl had stood. He never saw her move, but found her hunched beside him. She dug meticulously through her satchel, pulling out the ornate athame. She ran her fingers over the sheath, before handing the blade to Wheelock.
“What do you want me to do with this?” Kent asked.
“That’s my village,” her hazel eyes pleaded, “we’ve got to go,” her face remained stone.
“You need a weapon,” Kent said, he was shocked at the sudden explosions, and bewildered that this rag-a-muffin girl would want to run into whatever danger awaited them, “you take the knife.”
“I have this,” she held up her left arm.
“Girls,” Kent sighed, “what’s a bracelet going to do?”
“You’ll see. Let’s go.”
With nothing left to say, they stumbled through the forest, mindful of burning branches, and careful to avoid the gaping hole left in the ground from that second blast. The valley was lit by explosions that indiscriminately sent pieces of buildings, fields, and the forest flying. Charred roofs collapsed. Trees burst. All around them raged a man-made inferno. Rapid fire machine guns beat like war drums. It took 10 minutes of headlong running for them to get close enough to see the red-orange glow of burning buildings through the dusty black smoke cloud that hung over the market square. They hid in the underbrush, behind the first line of trees that led to what had once been a field well-tended by the Peters family.
Fulco landed on Kent’s shoulder which startled the young man. “Before you go running to your deaths,” Fulco said, “I flew around Avalona. The villagers are lost. About 15 men patrol the perimeter. At least 30 more are in the village proper killing anything that moves. If the smuggler was here, she’s gone now. We may have made it before moonrise, but we did not make it before crisis.”
“Mercury’s balls!” the girl exclaimed in a whisper.
“What?” Kent muttered.
“We’ve got to get down there,” Cassie did not wait for Kent, but headed through the Peters’ field, keeping low in the once-plowed, now holey rivulets.
Kent cursed under his breath, with the athame in his left hand, he ran behind Cassie who stopped beside a 6 foot tall spiked wooden fence that wound around the village proper. He could hear bursts of gunfire, angry yells, and explosions. Occasional blasts shook the fence. They walked the perimeter until they came to a burning hole with white hot edges. Other parts of the fence glowed in bright red embers while sparks of orange and white timbers danced around them. Kent peeked through the opening. Having seen no one, he climbed through the hole nearly singeing his ‘nads. Once on the other side he motioned Cassie to follow. They ran to one of the adobe houses that lined the outskirts of the Avalona proper. With backs to the one story’s wall, they inched up the street towards the village center and market square.
A man, covered from head to toe with black military gear, turned the corner to find himself impaled. Wheelock removed the borrowed athame from the black clad man’s ribs, quickly flicking it across the man’s neck. It wasn’t a decapitation, but then again, an athame isn’t a shovel. They dragged the dead man to the hole in the fence. After taking what was useful off the dead soldier, Kent and Cassie shoved the body through the opening. The black shirt charred across the man’s midsection. “One down 44 more to go,” Kent laughed. But, nothing was funny. His eye hurt, he was hungry, and he didn’t know what a couple of teenagers could do in the middle of a battle zone. Besides, he was barely 17 and now had two deaths to account for, Iphigenia, be kind! The fence erupted in shards of flying wood as the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic gunfire sounded to the right. They ran back towards that one story adobe, scrambled up the porch, and then dove over the other side. From the opposite side of the porch, Wheelock surveyed the landscape. He saw the soldier who fired at them seated securely in the doorway of Avalona General Store. Remembering the survival lessons from his father, foster father, Kent thought bitterly as he steadied his hand. And then, while Cassie watched in confusion, the young bard whistled and shot the revolver he’d taken from the other dead soldier.
The sound of a sharp whistle pierced through the air, the sniper turned towards the noise. Weapon at the ready, he focused into the dark when something knocked the wind out of him. The soldier reached up to his chest, a warm wet substance covered his hand. The man gasped, realizing his error, then toppled out of the doorway. I can’t believe I hit that fucker. I really didn’t think that’d work. I always hit too far left. I guess there’s something to be said about missing an eye, Kent mused as he ran to the general store where he jumped into the doorway the sniper had recently occupied. In mere seconds, he stripped the body of ammo, flashlight, and anything else useful including a boot knife. Cassie watched in horror, but said nothing. She might not like it, but she knew Kent was right to take what weapons he could. Once the dead soldier was of no more use, the teenagers dragged the body into the nearest corner. The lights were off in the store. Through the big broken bay windows, the burnt sienna of destroyed buildings offered enough light for Kent to find the snack aisle. He grabbed a couple bags of trail mix and some nuts, shoved the mix into his pocket, ripped open the nuts, and ate almost half the bag. With a little food in his belly, he quickly sought out the drink section. This place was strictly Podunk compared to some of the department stores on the Strip where Kent used to shoplift. While Kent pillaged the Avalona General Store, Cassie followed suit, shoving lightweight foodstuffs into her backpack.
“Hey,” Kent called softly to Cassie.
“Do you know another way out of here? I heard some voices out front. We need to get hidden. And, quick.”
“There’s a loading dock around the back. Don’t know if it’ll be any safer.”
“Better try it,” Kent urged Cassie to lead the way. They eased through the dried goods, around the cold storage to a door marked, ‘Staff Only.’ The stock room was full of crates stacked on the floor and shelves; it was nearly as large as the shopping floor. Cassie weaved among the shelves leading Kent towards a midsized rolling delivery door on a pull chain. When Cassie started for the chain, Kent grabbed her hand, “wait. That thing will make all kinds of racket. Is there another way out?”
“It’s this or the front door.”
“I’m gonna lay on the ground,” Kent said. “You pull it up slowly. Just a little bit. If it’s clear, I’ll give you a signal to raise it up some more. If it ain’t clear, drop it!”
Nodding in agreement, Cassie took the pull chain in both hands. When Kent was laid out on the ground with the dead sniper’s gun pointed towards the door, she yanked the chain down. The loading door slid up a foot, high enough for Kent to see an alleyway with nothing but embers blowing on the breeze. He motioned up with his hand and she yanked the chain again. They waited for a full minute, before sliding under the door. Once they were in the alley, Wheelock stopped suddenly, looking for a place to hide.
Three men turned down the alley, upon seeing the teenagers they opened fire. Kent and Cassie ran back the way they’d come, jumping up the loading dock. The whiz and whine of a bullet sliced passed Kent’s ear as a sledge hammer ripped through his arm. The force of the impact caused the boy to swing and tumble, banging his knees to the ground. Laying in a heap, Wheelock palmed both the boot knife and athame. He breathed as shallowly as he could. It was only a few moments before the sounds of the three attackers were close enough to raise the hair covering his body.
“Excuse me,” a gentle voice asked.
“What the fuck?” one of the trio grunted.
“Kill her,” an angry female ordered, “kill them both.”
Cassie blandly responded, “violence is not necessary.”
Kent hazarded to peek, he saw the glint of yellow when a red and a green spot of light shot from the girl’s wrist. The black uniformed invaders fell to the ground.
“Damn, girl,” Kent laughed, “that’s one bad ass bracelet.”
“I told you so,” the shaggy haired blonde laughed.
“Where’s that stupid bird at?” Kent mumbled. Quite unexpectedly, Kent could see out of his left eye. Fulco swerved, dove, and attacked two men hiding in one of the guard turrets, the men flailed and fell while fighting off the bird. Kent’s stomach flipped. The vision dispersed, sweet darkness fell over his left eye like a veil.
“What did you see?” the girl asked.
“Fulco’s killed two more.”
“Have you seen anybody from here?”
“No. Just soldiers,” Kent said.
“Don’t move a muscle,” a deep throated growl echoed through the alley.
“Shit,” the kids said.
Before either could act, the dragon and phoenix once again burst from her bracelet and swarmed the unfortunate voice. A scream reverberated through the alley, answered by the enchanting song of the phoenix. Where the bodies should have been were scorched ash piles. Kent stared in disbelief at Cassie, the shaggy-haired blonde girl Fulco had called ‘Messenger.’ After what he’d just seen, he had no desire to know what message she carried.
“My family lives there,” Cassie said while pointing down the alley towards the market square. “I have to find out if they’re alive. And, if they’re not…” she didn’t finish the thought, instead she repeated, “I have to find out.”
It wasn’t that Kent felt he was out of his league, the poor boy knew he’d stepped into something way beyond himself. Not for the first nor last time that day, Kent silently cursed his bad luck, Fintan, and the strange events that led him to a burning village in a foreign land. As he and the girl headed to her family home, Kent thought of Rick Wheelock the man he’d called ‘Dad’, his so-called foster father. All those survival lessons, Dad, Kent grimaced, Rick, you didn’t teach me about any of this crazy magical bracelet bullshit. Did you even know? The duo safely made it to the remnants of Cassie’s home. They found shattered glass, broken walls, but no people. Inside the two story brick house, the jagged walls were dotted with bullet holes. Pale and weaving, Cassie grabbed hold of Kent. The boy waivered at her weight, but managed to hold them both steady. In a bolt of green lightening they were no longer in Cassie’s house, they stood on the edge of Avalona in the middle of a small camp full of black clad soldiers.
“What just happened?” a dazed Kent asked.
“Mercury’s bracelet,” Cassie hissed as if that explained everything, “your bird didn’t say anything about these guys.”
When the teenagers suddenly appeared in the middle of twelve soldiers setting up base camp, the soldiers understandably freaked out. Two ducked behind the kitchen tent, three dove for cover under one of the four A-Tracks, while the other seven froze staring in wide-eyed apprehension. Not a single one reached for their side arms or made for the rifles and machine guns leaning together in smart little cones of death.
“How the fuck’d you two get here?” a surprised and quite pissed off Master Sergeant finally managed to ask.
“Don’t move,” Cassie said to the soldiers
“What are you doing?” Kent whispered.
“The alley,” Cassie mouthed, before saying, “stay right where you are. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Having recovered from the initial shock of seeing two people appear out of thin air, the seven frozen soldiers started laughing. Climbing out from their hiding spots, the other five soldiers slowly joined their compeers. The Master Sergeant grinned, a mischievous look if ever, “girl, I’ve met some fellows with brass balls the size of Mt. Darin. I ain’t never seen’em on a lil’ girlie like you. Boys, it looks like a couple of playthings wandered into camp. Take’em.”
“I don’t suggest that,” Kent said.
“Don’t much matter what you suggest,” the Master Sergeant stated coldly. “Boys, you know what to do.”
Having gathered their wits, the soldiers pulled their side arms, and pointed the Danian issued military revolvers at the teenagers. Two of the soldiers walked over to the leaning tower of rifles and machine guns, both grabbed half with the intent of handing out the bigger guns. Before they could pass the weapons out, an ominous orange and lime glow pulsed from the girl. What felt like hot white fire seared the men, who all dropped like cult members that drank the not-so-sacred juice. The teens stared at the bodies, watching in disgusted fascination as their twelve would be attackers became ashes blown away with the night wind.
“Oh, that’s…dust to dust,” Kent said. He was not only disturbed, he was terrified the girl might turn her bracelet on him. “It’s all over me.” He looked at the girl, the Messenger, “I’ve never seen a bracelet that could do that before.”
For a moment she said nothing. Then, she said, “I think it’s the only one. Mercury knows, I hope it is.” Cassie touched his arm, he flinched. “I guess that hurts,” she said while looking around, “Haven’t found my people, but I know where we can get your arm patched up.” She darted out of the now empty camp and headed back into Avalona. Kent followed at a slow jog, every footfall shot pain straight to his brain.