Charles saw the familiar old man on the airstrip and moved his hand just in time to stop Salazar from taking out his knife.
“Now’s not the time, Sal,” Charles said in a whisper and pushed Salazar’s hand down until the knife was secure.
“To hell with that,” Salazar broke free of the grasp and continued headlong forward. “I’ll take the old man, you get the guy next to him. We can stash their pieces in one of the hangers. Three minutes work.” Salazar licked his lips and reached for the knife again, the scars on his cheeks trembling slightly from the excitement.
The old man, whose name was Naramore, noticed the threatening movement but remained in a relaxed position, leaning on his cane. Charles reached over Salazar's chest, grabbed the insignia on his uniform, and shook him once.
“Not here, Sal. He’s obviously the client, and there are people around. We have a plan!” Charles’ voice rose at the end, which made Salazar blink like he’d just woken up.
“You’re right, Commander,” Salazar spoke in a tone flat as the tarmac around them. “I’m sorry I lost my cool.” Stiffening his broad shoulders, he let his hands fall limp by his sides.
Charles nodded at the display of obedience and released his second-in-command. Both men tidied their dark uniforms and made their way towards the unwavering old man.
“Now, let’s see what this walking dead man wants,” Charles said as they resumed walking with a steady gait.
Naramore continued watching them, and when they got close, his right cheek rose in a smug half-smile. Wrinkles like waves formed on his skin and extended all the way to his angular jaw. Eyebrows downcast because of the bright sunny day loomed like mossy overhangs, shadowing two spheres of razor-sharp blue eyes that looked with such coldness that the air around him seemed a few degrees colder. A man a few inches shorter than the 5'' 11' of Naramore stood behind him. Blond hair reflected the sun, and a tailor-made gray suit clung to the proud posture of the man. His face was round and acutely regular. However, the eyes gave him away. They were bright green and inquisitive. He too had noticed the attempted knife draw, and now his gaze jumped from knife to hands to faces.
Salazar got less than three feet away from Naramore and yanked him up by his collar. The blond man said and did nothing.
“Do you want to die so badly, you piece of shit?” Salazar's face threatened to merge with Naramore’s.
“I wasn’t planning to, Lieutenant,” Naramore said in a creaky, unpleasant voice.
Leaning forward, he gave Salazar a decrepit, self-assured smile.
“It’s Captain now. Lots changed in ten years,” Salazar shook Naramore’s shirt as he struggled to contain his bulging muscles.
“Congratulations on the promotion then,” Naramore said with a downward inflection as if commending a child on a job well done. “Although, now it must be rather awkward with Charles being a Captain as well. How do your men distinguish when addressing you?” The sleazy smile on Naramore’s face grew wider, the disturbance creating wrinkle waves again.
“Very funny,” Charles said with a fake smile, then his face became still. “Are you the client?”
“He is indeed,” the blond man responded, thrusting out a hand at Charles. “Collin Moor, I’m Mr. Naramore’s aid. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain Blackburn.”
“This is the Branch, and here, I'm Commander Blackburn. It's all in the files I'm sure you've read,” Charles said in a disinterested tone, glanced at the hand, shook it, and then returned his death stare to Naramore. “Let ‘im go, Sal.” He ordered, but Salazar did not comply.
Naramore looked from Charles to Salazar, then raised his cane between the arms holding him. Grabbing the cane from both sides, Naramore now had control over Salazar’s left wrist.
“Please comply, Captain,” Naramore's tone came out from behind his teeth like a menacing hiss, “or I’ll be forced to make you, and I detest damaging my retainers.”
Weighing the strength of the grip around his wrist, Salazar judged that a broken wrist was a fair trade if he got a hit in. Charles pushed the aid out of his way and grabbed Salazar by the shoulder. All tension left the straining forearms, and Naramore's shined to reflection brown shoes touched the ground. Salazar took a step back.
“Good boy,” Naramore sounded like he was petting a dog.
Salazar did not react or engage further. Running his palms over the creased jacket, Naramore grunted with satisfaction, then his winter-sky gaze looked up at Charles.
“Now then, let’s get to business.”
“Sure thing,” Charles gave a curt, soldier's nod of understanding.
The aid opened a small document bag he held in his hands, got out a manila folder, and gave it to Charles. Salazar came closer, taking a look at the pictures depicting an island. Charles examined the piece of land surrounded by sea. The images showed buildings encased in a clear substance that slanted the structures in such a way that made his head spin. If he tried to take a step at this moment, his inner-ear told him he would most definitely fall to the ground. The muscles on his jaw twitched from the strain of looking at the picture for this long. Before he reached his limit, he noticed geometric shapes on the surface of the substance. Closing his eyes, he pushed the photographs into his chest. Now that the nausea-inducing images were obscured, he opened his eyes.
"Pretty tough to look at," Naramore moved his chin up and down with understanding. "Those buildings are wrong, and you can't tell why, right? Like you're not supposed to look at them." His eyelids became mere slits that showed lines of blue, studying the reaction on Charles' face.
Charles decided not to give him the satisfaction of his agreement, so he looked back at the file and began to read. From the heavily redacted text, he learned that these were WWII reconnaissance photographs of an island near the border of Maltese and Lybian territorial waters. The next two pages showed, even more, obscuring black lines, between which Charles saw the words: headaches, severe vertigo, vanish. Closing the folder, he handed it back to Moor and looked at Naramore with half-opened eyes.
“Is this where you want to go?” his tone remained that of a disinterested government clerk, thirty minutes away from the end of the workday.
“Yes,” Naramore nodded, eyes closed.
“I assume you know its precise location?”
Naramore grunted dismissively, which made Charles step forward. Towering over the older man, Charles almost let slip a thrilled smirk when he noticed the shudder that shook the tight, old flesh.
“You better have made my superiors an offer they know I can’t refuse, or me and Salazar are going to be chopping you and your well-dressed friend here into itty, bitty pieces before he can spell bespoke suit.”
Charles could almost feel Salazar smile behind him, and by Moor's backward-sliding neck, he was sure he was. Naramore’s face made that awful grimace he called a smile again.
“Of course. Moor,” Naramore snapped his fingers.
The aid handed him a new manila folder from the case. In it was the contract Naramore had signed. The figures were there, all seven for team leaders, him and Salazar, and six for normal squad members. A safe delivery bonus clause was added, which would award the team one million dollars, a cool one hundred twenty-five thousand for each member regardless of their rank. The fine print stated that in the case of catastrophic loss of life during the ensuing operation and, or death of Naramore, the alternative will of the benefactor came into effect. It would be read at an address disclosed at a later date.
Charles pushed the papers back to Moor and made a phone call. As he talked, his back faced Naramore. Salazar was by his side, palm on the knife handle. The confirmation came from up top, and the orders were to follow Naramore’s commands fully as if they were coming from the all-powerful voice on the other side of the phone. Salazar’s fingers released the handle, making ancient lips curl into a sickening smile. The call finished, and Charles whispered the terms in Salazar’s ear, who looked at him for a moment, then nodded. Charles turned around.
“Chief,” he said, and Salazar came to attention by his side. “We’re to escort these gentlemen to wherever their island is and make sure they do their business in peace. Get the boys geared and ready. We’re in the air in thirty.”
Salazar saluted and stalked off. Naramore continued to ruin the landscape with his hideously crooked smile, so Charles turned back to look at his second-in-command. The figures that were always with Charles stood around the hanger. Neither he nor Salazar would ever admit to seeing those shades in the corner of their eyes. Their shapes were human once. The shapes of people they'd murdered during their last excursion under Naramore. The dark faces of the shadows seemed healthier today, their outlines almost bursting, now that Charles was so close to the man whose death could bring retribution for these harrowing apparitions. Their faces lacked defining features except for the pinpricks of red at the center of the smooth darkness of their heads. Those crimson irises stabbed their accusatory gazes into Charles and Salazar, blaming them for what happened. Charles tried to use his mind to force the sins of his past away, but like always, they stayed, lingering to torment him for his past transgressions and now, to admonish his decision to take this job and possibly facilitating another slaughter.
Charles never trained his mind to ponder things, so he buried the memories in his head and let the bone-deep fear give him ideas on his current dilemma - How to keep himself from murdering his client?
Fortunately, Naramore either felt his intense hatred or was smart enough not to stoke it and kept his mouth shut as Charles ushered them towards the nearby hangers.
Salazar had gone ahead to gather the men, so Charles took his charges to the Flight Chief. They found him elbow-deep into the electrical vehicle he moved around in. Charles tapped his palm on the open hood, making the man's tinkering fingers stop.
"What can I do ya for, Charlie?" the man rose from his hanging position over the machinery.
"Morning, Zach," Charles nodded his chin at the man standing at least three heads below him. "You got something to spare today?"
Zach walked around to the other side of the hood, where he bent his neck to study a clipboard lying on the driver's seat.
“Don’ think so,” Zach said, tapping the edge of the clipboard with the pencil that hung on a string from the side. “This’n was the last beauty for about three hours.” Using his thumb, he pointed over his shoulder at a plane picking up speed three airstrips down from them.
Charles watched the bluish-gray aircraft leave the tarmac and move its massive bulk into the sky as if pulled by magic. The old man's assignment was time-sensitive, so Charles had to find a way for them to fly to the requested location. Naramore tapped the ground with his cane and stepped closer.
“No available planes for now,” he said to Naramore, who took another step, “but I can probably get a smaller helicopter to take you two, me and Salazar. But we’re going to-”
“Do not trouble yourself, Commander,” Naramore raised a hand, his features forming into a smug pile of wrinkles. “Transport has already been arranged. Since the trip is long and your superiors could not accommodate my time frame, I arranged to bring my own. Please have your colleague check for my name on the list of arrivals.”
Charles gritted his teeth at the condescending tone Naramore used but followed the instructions. Zach took a look at a few pages and confirmed there was a bird arriving in about seventeen minutes. Charles got his phone, finger about to speed dial his superiors when Naramore waved his cane in a placating gesture.
“No need to call, Commander. My instructions for your employers were not to tell you anything more than the time constraints and the amount of money you and your men would receive upon successful completion of the mission. I’ve picked a bad habit of putting retainers on the spot as a bit of a test but judging from your acrimonious stare, that was an error on my part, and I do apologize. You’re second-in-command asked me if I wanted to live, and the answer to that is still very much yes, so I’ll try to keep my eccentricities to a minimum.”
Charles took a deep breath through his nose and let the air out in a slow, controlled exhale. He wasn’t sure he’d be able restrain the need to hit Naramore, so he excused himself to go check if everything was ready. His brisk pace took him to the barracks in about three minutes. The men had geared up, and Salazar had also finished briefing them on the specifics. Charles faced the six masks and heaps of gear standing at attention.
“At ease, gentlemen.”
Once the sound of shuffling cloth and the jingle of equipment died down, Charles continued speaking.
“The Chief has already told you what the job is about, and now I’m here to give you a chance to opt-out,” Charles made a pause for his words to be understood by all, then resumed. “Last time I worked for this client, only me and the Chief got out alive. The old man’s fancy pursuits cost lives, and anyone who's lost a battle brother will know that the kind of pain we felt that day and now does not fade away with time.”
Charles saw five of the six obscured heads nod their heads in agreement. Their eyes bled the sadness of a warrior dragging the memory of a death behind them. The sorrow of the battlefield that never left the thoughts of those who had seen combat. The masked face that hadn't yet experienced that type of loss belonged to their newest man. Charles couldn't quite place the name, Searson perhaps?
“Naramore searches for the supernatural, the paranormal, and occult, while men like us with two feet firmly on the ground of the real world protect him from his own stupid whims and ideas. This is the last mission that me and the Chief will be on, and it won’t be because of the money we’ll receive," he paused, then continued in a tone as firm as the hard gaze in Salazar's eyes. "It will be because Cepheus Naramore is going to die today either by my or the Chief’s hand. Nothing more, nothing less, but since you are men that we’ve entrusted our lives to in the past, I felt like you deserved to know what was going to happen.”
Charles stepped between two sets of bunk beds and turned around, so his back faced the men.
“I don’t want to pressure anyone into going. If shame is keeping you here, I’ll stay like this for the next thirty seconds while whoever wants to leave leaves. Unlike past missions, I cannot and will not order you to come.”
Silence followed for the next half minute. Dark faces pervaded the windows and walls, coming closer to Charles, their formless eyes and faces fixated on him. Sensing their imminent retribution made them drift closer and closer to Charles. In his mind, all he wanted was to sink his fingers into Naramore's throat until all blood vessels in his face popped. That way the figures would rejoice, then hopefully leave, and allow Charles a single moment of peace after all these long and tortured years.
Opening his eyes, he turned.
“Right then,” Salazar's voice boomed. “What are you ladies standing around for? Move!”
The sounds of moving equipment soon left the building, and Charles observed Salazar's facial features, solid and unmoving like a rock. His longtime subordinate gave him a tight confirmation nod, then picked up a pack off the floor and handed it to Charles. Strapping the bag to his back, he palmed his knife and sidearm. Both cold to the touch and ready to exact righteous vengeance at their master's bidding.
Opening the door to the outside, Charles chased away the shadows and walked behind his men. Naramore was still at the same spot, leaning on his cane, his head traced the downward descent of a dark-blue plane. Landing gear met tarmac with a high-pitched squeal, and the doorway leading inside lined up perfectly with Naramore's position. A folding staircase unfurled in front of the old man's feet. Disregarding the fancy stairs, Charles inspected the plane, noticing its engines could spin on their axis, making this private jet capable of horizontal and vertical takeoff.
A blond woman with skin as pale as a statue's took measured steps down the staircase. The color of her outfit was the darkest blue bordering on black and consisted of a tight vest covering a white button-up shirt underneath. Her pants clung to her long legs just enough to accentuate form, not reveal it. She greeted Naramore, then showed an attractive upper row of radiant teeth. Naramore took the single step needed to reach the stairs then began ascending, his aid following close behind. The woman remained at the bottom, beaming hospitality with her bright smile. Once the men reached her, their heads moved from her dazzling face to the plane, then finally to Salazar. A curt shake of his chin gave them the go-ahead. A short struggle ensued until one man was able to squeeze through.
"Welcome. It's a pleasure to have you," the woman said, pushing the corners of her mouth up and revealing dimples that could turn men into putty.
Charles recognized the movements of the man in front. His name was Urton, and he made a point to stop in front of the woman, say his thanks, give her his manliest nod and only then begin to climb. Charles frowned at his unprofessional behavior.
The others followed up, mumbling thanks as they passed. Most of them admired the plane itself as they ascended towards the interior, but some threw backward glances at the soft angles at which the woman’s chin and cheekbones formed her pleasant face. Salazar shook his head at the men’s behavior to which the woman reacted with a perfect, coquettish half-smile. Looking at him, the woman gestured with her hand, and he made his way inside.
“You too, sir,” the woman chimed, snapping Charles out of his rumination about the assignment. “We can’t leave without you aboard.” The unassuming way she tilted her head up to urge him on and the gentle quality of her tone made his face twitch into a quick smile.
“Yeah, that’s true,” Charles began, his voice as awkward as a teenager on a first date, his right index finger scratching his right hip. “It’s just I have this thing where I have to be the last person going inside a new room. Work habit, you might call it.”
The woman's long eyelashes dropped down, and her head bobbed up and down in a solemn nod.
“It's actually required for me to be the last on board, but since you seem so bothered by it, I’ll go on up and overlook the rule this one time,” putting her right heeled foot on the first step, she pursed her lips and said. “If your problem is made up and only a ploy to check me out while I’m walking up, you didn’t have to bother. They make us wear these things, so you don’t miss a thing once I walk past you in the lounge.”
Charles couldn't look away from her pink-colored lips, the gloss on them almost beckoning to be touched. He closed his eyes to shake off the unnecessary thoughts, and when he opened them, he saw the rhythmic movements of the climbing woman. She was right. The clothes left precious little to the imagination. Charles swallowed, reaffirming his belief that doing security wasn't all bad as he watched the mesmerizing spectacle in front of him, beckoning him closer to the doorway.
Inside, his eyes darted from splendid piece of furniture to luxurious golden windowpane to an ornate, fully stocked bar that took up one-quarter of the lounge he was in. The woman reached around him, pressing a button which closed the door behind his back. Her hair left a trail in the air that smelled like a fairytale flower field. Willing his nostrils closed and breathing through his mouth, Charles rounded the attendant and took the few steps to where Naramore and his aid were sitting, joined by two of his men, Urton and Mattix, who no longer wore their helmets and balaclavas. Salazar caught the furrowed with disapproval brows of Charles and explained.
“This isn’t an orthodox mission, so I told the lads to take their helmets off this one time. I thought it’d be a good idea-”
Charles’ raised hand stopped Salazar from continuing.
“It’s alright,” he waved the issue away. “Mind if I join you?” He asked, then sat next to Mattix before receiving permission.
“Of course, Commander,” Naramore's said from the far left, across from Charles.
Their employer's face did not shift into the grotesque shape he called a smile.
“Pretty nice to ride fancy, right lads?” Salazar's spoke up and tapped the table with his palm while his head nodded approval. “For once, we’re riding in style, right?” Genuine satisfaction was plastered all over his scarred cheeks.
Everyone murmured agreements. The man sitting across Naramore was the loudest. The wrinkled face squinted at his nametag, which read Urton.
Both men made eye contact, and Urton spoke. “Mr. Naramore, sir, the Chief told us that you guys’d be coming along, like on the ground proper. Which is, excuse my saying, very weird for a fancy pants rich bloke like yourself.”
Salazar’s jaw muscles clenched. The staredown that followed had such fiery intensity that Urton looked ready to run away through the round window on his left.
“Heh,” the shriveled throat half-croaked, half-cackled. “I’m not like the other rich blokes, Mr. Urton, so none taken. I really like to see my money’s worth. Up close, where the action is.” He put his index finger up to request a moment, then lifted his shirt to reveal his abdomen.
His skin was tight and healthy, tanned and looking like it belonged on a youthful body, not the walking husk Charles saw. The abdominal muscles were toned and bulged as if for a fitness photoshoot. What Naramore was showing off wasn’t his impeccable physique, however, but a several-inch-long, jagged scar that ran from his belly button almost to his heart. Its shape was like a drawn stylized bolt of lightning, except the color wasn’t yellow but the weak pink that came from the piling of scar tissue.
“Gnarly,” Urton said, receiving one of Naramore’s glass-shattering smiles.
“Show them yours,” Naramore urged, poking Moor's upper arm. “You guys are gonna love this.” He proclaimed while straightening out his outfit.
Moor unbuttoned his dress shirt and showed a similar-looking scar across his left pectoral muscle. The men over on the adjacent row nodded in approval as Naramore began describing a wicked ceremonial knife with jagged metal teeth below the point. It had caused both scars, the internal damage much more severe than the external one. The tale of wicked blades incited a general unclothing of a dozen fit male bodies for the flight attendant to enjoy. Many of the men showed off their battle marks by exaggerated movements that flexed their muscles. The woman, whose name tag read Elizabeth, smiled politely and admired whatever they presented her as she passed by to leave the ordered drinks. Urton was the most recent recipient of a chilled water bottle and was now up on his feet. Eyes and neck veins bulging from the strain to make his abdominal muscles pop out as much as possible. Charles saw Salazar’s jaw clench and decided to intervene before Urton got chewed out.
“If you give me your number,” Urton was saying to Elizabeth, “I can show you a lot more. A lot.” Urton put both of his muscled arms up, and the space between his palms was just about ten inches.
“Miss, I’d like another water, please,” the low and calm voice of Charles made Urton’s smile disappear. “And I’ll ask you to please stop indulging my men because it seems they forgot their common sense outside.”
Salazar’s gaze swept all the faces, muzzling their wild antics. Urton's shoulders slumped. The collar of his shirt went over his frowning face, then he sat down with the petulance of a child denied its favorite candy.
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry,” Elizabeth lowered her head, a few strands of gold hair swaying through the air in a gentle motion, then went to get the order.
Charles realized he had used his disciplinary tone when speaking to the innocent woman. The thought twisted his mouth into a sour expression that reflected with perfect accuracy how he felt inside. He made up his mind to give Elizabeth an apology after she left his bottle on the table, but once she did, she took out a business card and began writing on its back. She left the card face up on the table, and looking at Urton, pushed it forward halfway. Urton’s eyes lit up and a satisfied smile formed on his lips, but the corners of his mouth soon fell down when the card made a quick switch in direction and finally came to rest under the bottle in front of Charles.
Looking over to the Commander, Elizabeth said. “You, however, never said anything about yourself.”
Leaning back in a slow and deliberate manner, she gave Urton a downcast look filled to the brim with condescension, turned, and walked away.
“Urton, you utter muppet,” said Tolliver from the other table, and everyone exploded in laughter.
“At least the woman’s got a head on her shoulders,” said Rookard, the man next to Tolliver. “Way to make it easy for the Commander, Urton.”
More shouts of agreement followed as Urton sharply waved their words away, turning his head to look out the window beside him. The plane picked up speed, and soon the coast of Spain disappeared, giving way to the shining in all directions Mediterranean sea. The men clumped together at the available window on their side, and when it was not enough, they spread out to look through the other round apertures. Charles didn't order them back to their seats, leaving them to enjoy this luxury trip. Thoughts elsewhere, his fingers spun the card left for him on the table. He watched Elizabeth's hands move across the bar, tidying it up with calm proficiency. He wondered why everything the woman did appealed to him? Her soft brown eyes drank the light coming from above the clouds, then remodeled it inside herself and returned it to the world in the form of their own warm luminance. Charles had never met a woman he’d liked this much, even after months of interactions, let alone no more than an hour. The card under his fingers made his heart beat a little bit faster. He noticed the hard look of determination on Salazar's face. The stern, furrowed brows made him crash back to reality like a punch to the gut. He tucked the card away and caught the glances Naramore was throwing at one of his men on the other table. The safe moments Elizabeth had created, shattered. Charles' fingers crept to the knife handle. The cabin's interior oozed black shadows, that trickled towards Naramore’s head. Relaxing his mind and releasing his combat knife, Charles kept hold of the armrest with his other arm, not trusting himself fully. He looked to Salazar, who's shoulders returned to resting on his seat. Moor relaxed as well, and Charles cursed himself for letting not one, but two people see him lose control over his rage.
“Can I help you with something, young man?” Naramore leaned forward and turned towards the man staring at him.
The shadows, Salazar, Urton, and Charles, looked over to Seaborne. He was the only one who hadn’t nodded in the barracks.
“He’s just new, sir, no need to worry bout ‘im,” Urton said, his face scrunched into an angry grimace.
Naramore continued his intense stare until the other man finally looked away.
“Sorry, sir,” Seaborne said in a meek voice. “It’s just this is my first big mission, and I’m a bit jittery, that’s all.”
Mattix, who sat next to him, grabbed his neck, giving it a brotherly squeeze.
Charles' hand was close to his knife again, but this time the watchful eye of the aid was already on him. Salazar settled his gaze on the face of Charles, then shook his head side to side in a slow, almost imperceptible motion. International waters weren’t that far off, and plane crashes happened all the time. The shades in the cabin rejoiced at the thought of finally tasting vengeance, but Charles looked at Elizabeth, then beyond, to the pilot’s cabin. These people had nothing to do with it. Fatal accidents on these missions were commonplace, but Charles would do his best not to involve those undeserving of punishment.
“Urton,” Charles commanded.
The man stood up and dragged Seaborne out of his seat to the lavatories at the tail of the plane.
“Everything is in order,” Charles spoke to Naramore in an even tone, his features motionless. “You don’t need to worry. We’ll get the job done.”
“Yes, I know,” Naramore leaned back in his chair, then took a sip of his whiskey on the rocks. “I’m staking my life on it.”
Urton and Seaborne returned a minute later. Naramore’s eyes narrowed as they followed the younger man with suspicion. Seaborne sat down, the skin on his face much paler than before. Salazar threw a covert angry gaze at Urton. Charles did not acknowledge the situation in any way because Moor refused to let him out of his sight.
“Dear passengers, this is your captain speaking,” the crackle of the intercom announced. “ The weather report for our landing area was bright and sunny, but those weather guys guessed wrong again.” He tried his best to sound quirky and reassuring, but the speakers only conveyed awkwardness.
Despite the joke's odd delivery, Salazar's scarred cheek rose in a faint smirk.
“Since we are landing on the water directly, I’m sure experienced men like yourselves don’t need a reminder to strap in.”
Hands fastened seat belts, and a moment later, the intercom relayed the captain's next message.
“Excellent,” the voice sounded like a pleased uncle after a family dinner. “The weather's holding for now, but we might experience some turbulence, so hold onto your gear.” The pilot chuckled and cut the connection.
Charles saw Elizabeth sitting down behind the bar and strapping herself in as well. He pushed further into his luxurious seat and watched Moor’s face disappear, buried beneath the mass of shadows clamoring to get to Naramore. Hands of all sizes reached out to hurt the old man. Their intangible dark fingers drifted through his skin, inflicting no damage and leaving no trace. Unable to satisfy their frustrations, they turned their sad, empty eyes to Charles. The plane shook, and the jumble of shades was gone. He closed his eyes and escaped the visions for the thirty minutes left of the flight.
A tap on his boot awoke Charles. He opened his eyes and saw Salazar readjusting his posture after pulling back his leg. The plane was quiet, and Charles guessed that he’d just missed the pilot’s voice that they were landing. He double-checked his belt, then looked to Naramore. The old man watched the passing water outside and paid him no attention. The plane began to descend, and the world became darker for Charles. In part because of the returning shadows from the corners of his gaze. The more tangible reason being the dark clouds blotting out the sun. A minute later, the cabin shook, and the plane came to a stop on the water's rocking surface. Elizabeth was first to unstrap, and once she did, she made her way to the captain’s cabin. Everyone else stood up, checking Kevlar vest straps and ammo clips. The group of armed men circled the door while Naramore stood in the lounge, his back turned to them. Charles was just about to call out when the pilot’s door opened. Elizabeth came out, holding a few photographs in her hand. She handed those to Naramore. Her eyes lingered on Charles for a moment, then she returned to her seat behind the bar. Naramore turned and handed the photographs to Charles.
“Reconnaissance,” he said with an unsightly smirk and equally unpleasant, smug tone.
Charles ignored him and looked at the pictures. The island’s outer rim was barren and made up of jagged rocks. Disembarking from a boat could be done only on the south side, where there was a pier and a large building next to it. Two footpaths began around the building and a few hundred feet in, came together to form one single road, leading up a steep incline. Stone walls on each side framed the way until it reached a ridge. The road continued through a single crack in the unbroken ridge that formed a ring around twelve buildings. Trees grew on the edge of the ridge above the buildings, creating a natural high ground barrier.
Eleven of the buildings encircled the one in the exact center of the clearing. Towering in the middle, it was square-shaped and at least three times bigger than the rest. Charles wasn’t sure if he was making it out correctly, but he thought he saw sand all around the focal building. The photograph showed a liquid flowing down from the trees towards the buildings. Squinting and straining against the pictures, he couldn’t make out anything else relevant, so he passed them on to Salazar, who scanned them as well. Salazar showed them to the rest of the squad and made instructions for what was to be done when different landmarks were reached. Charles lowered his head to watch the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves through the nearby window while his men got ready. Salazar tapped him on the shoulder, making him lean back up.
“Open up,” Naramore said without breaking eye contact with Charles.
Elizabeth stood up and came closer. The men made way so she could get to the button on the wall. The door opened, and the sea air rushed inside, ruffling hair and clothing. The staircase appeared from the plane’s hull and descended until it reached the calm waters. The sound of something being released drew everyone’s attention, and when they looked outside, they saw a dark, donut-shaped floating device. The donut-boat tried to drift away, but a green nylon rope held it moored.
“You can find paddles attached to the sides of the staircase, gentlemen,” Elizabeth said in a business tone. “Good hunting.” She added, then made it back to her seat.
“Go, go!” Salazar ordered.
The men filed out in militaristic order this time. Once everyone was in their rowing position, Charles, Naramore, and his aid came aboard as well. Three minutes later, they stepped on the pier. Above them, the stormy sky made the prevalent gloom even darker.
Two men went up the stairs to the large building overlooking their boat. At the top of the stairs, they split up and took position at each corner. Salazar followed. His assault rifle trained on the large double-door while the other men covered the first and second-floor windows. Charles watched as the four men made it to the entryway and stood primed, waiting for Salazar to finish attaching a breaching explosive device on the door’s handle. A loud pop broke the silence around them. Four sets of boots beat the pier’s boards, disappearing inside. Charles listened to the radio in his ear as the squad cleared room after room on the first floor then moved up to the second.
Nothing was inside the building. Nothing was around it as well. The dark clouds continued to gather above the island. An unnaturally cold wind for this climate was the only source of sound as it ran invisible fingers through hair and wrinkled clothing. Naramore and his aid stood behind Charles and waited for his signal. Raising his right hand, he waved his wrist back and forth, urging them closer. Going up the stairs, Charles sensed a new smell overpower the one of the sea. Still alert, he slowed his pace and took deeper breaths in through his nose. The smell was most definitely coming from the trees as he could almost taste their bark through it, but there was something else on the air, faintly reminiscent of pine.
Walking inside, Charles asked. "You smell that too?"
Salazar nodded. “Yeah, probably the trees up above, but it smells like pine to me, and those aren’t pine trees,” he let his rifle hang in front of his chest, eyes scanning the neglected room.
Charles joined in, noting that everything inside and out was made from rough, yellow stone. The walls on the inside weren't covered with plaster. Black lines ran between the stone slabs of varying sizes used to create the unsightly interior. Running a finger across the nearest slab, Charles was reminded of the old ruins and still standing buildings he’d visited near Jerusalem. Someone ferried these stones here and made the settlements, Charles was sure, as the size of the island and what he’d seen from the aerial photos offered no strong support for other hypotheses.
“We should have someone look those trees over and then continue,” Salazar said, making Charles look away from the uneven wall.
“No time for that,” he shook his head and glanced over to Naramore.
Salazar followed his gaze. Charles thought they were too close to the plane, and if anything happened to Naramore here, the pilot could report it and ruin their plan. He pulled out the photographs from his bag and pointed at the building surround by the others. Salazar looked at it then nodded.
“Leave someone on overwatch here. The rest of us will push on.”
Charles left the building and waited for his team and clients to snake out. He wanted to tell Salazar who to leave behind, but the shadow's voices shrouded his thoughts in fog. They made it hard for him to remember the names and faces of his men. The only face he saw in his mind was that of Naramore, his features butchered by his knife. Limbs torn off and mutilated beyond recognition. His eyes plucked out and thrown to birds of prey to feast while Charles observed with glee.
The black mass trickled down the old facade, making its way to Naramore, who stood by the entrance. The accumulated darkness formed a hand two-story tall, its tar-like fingers reaching down to crush the old man. Charles clenched his teeth and focused his mind until he'd chased away the monstrous vision. Taking a deep breath in, he filled his lungs with the sweet tree smell. In his mind, he urged the apparitions to be patient a little while longer. Retribution would be near at hand. Going over to the right side of the building, he took the final spot in the line of men, reserved for the person in charge of rear security. The first two piles of equipment moved forward, and Charles followed.
Making the turn, Charles confirmed that the windows on this side, as well as the ones up front, were sealed shut with unevenly shaped stone blocks. Sparing only a moment for an upward glance, he saw the second floor was the same, which meant that every possible way inside was barred, giving this building's design the feel of a tomb. Rounding the next corner, Charles soon took steps on the road that joined the two paths together and led up a steep incline. Both sides of the road were flanked by tall walls that ended at the entrance of the ridge. Charles visualized the ridge's ring formation as seen from the skies, and the odd idea that the trees were jagged, green ends of a crown invaded his head. His mind conjured up the image of the island being the head of a sleeping titan, whose feet touched the seafloor as he dreamed. The sudden hum of activity in that specific part of his mind made Charles angry. Intrusive and vivid imagery produced by his subconscious had no place on this current mission of monumental importance. The shades poking through all surrounding surfaces swayed with agreement like reeds shoved around by an angry gust of wind. Charles called for a halt to compose himself. The road was clear enough, so he whistled loudly and waited.
Naramore and his aid made their way up, and Charles used the time to inspect the walls by the sides of the road. Both had a thin sheen over the surface of the stone like delicately laid glass on a silver frame. Extending a finger and giving the wall a tentative touch, he felt the texture of the coating resembled resin. Resin polished to the point of showing him the mirror image of his digit as it moved back. Naramore reached them, and Charles motioned him to stay put. Salazar touched his ear and gave a command. Four explosions ejected stones from the second floor of the building behind them. The man on overwatch checked every window that faced inland then reported no movement spotted. Charles acknowledged, and the armed men resumed their climb. Naramore had to stay in his spot until called again.
Salazar and the two other men following him took care of the left flank up until now, but the road got narrow enough for that to be unnecessary. The Chief tilted his wrist to the side and motioned them to get behind him. Taking point, he then set the pace. Charles remained as the rearguard, keeping his eyes on the ridge that towered over them. Their climb finally reached the peak of the road. Charles looked over the heads of his men and saw the temple-like building surrounded by the other houses. The rift in the ridge allowed them to see only so much, but that was enough for him to verify that he'd seen sand around the buildings when studying the photograph earlier. He whistled for Naramore and enjoyed a small smile before the two men arrived.
Going down now, the men stepped with practiced caution and carefully scanned the visible ridgelines. Reaching the jagged exit out of the ridge-path, Salazar requested a report from the man on overwatch. Nothing had moved towards the building or the team. Salazar took another step and passed through the craggy gateway. Clearing the opening made time slow and crystalize for Charles. He had planned to call for Naramore and butcher him and his aid in this forgotten place. Looking over his shoulder, he couldn't make out the old man or his blond companion. The break in the ridge swarmed with shadows, clawing to get into the narrow path with him. Taking the haunting sight in, Charles turned and walked forward. Odd happenings didn't matter now. All that mattered was that once Naramore went through the blackened portal, the torment plaguing Charles would end.
Charles stepped into sunlight, and the angry voices ceased. The muted demands for retribution by way of murder disappeared. His men fanned out, keeping a close watch on the surrounding buildings. Half-forgotten tear ducts spilled a few streaks across the sunbaked cheeks of Charles. Before his subordinates could see, he wiped his face with the back of his combat gloves. Charles turned around to call for Naramore, but the old man was already across the threshold. His sharp gaze sliced the scenery, darting from building to building. The section of ridge above Naramore caught the attention of Charles. The trees lining the edge secreted a pale substance that flowed down the cliff face towards the buildings, adding layers to the already coated walls, ground, and rocks. The sheen from earlier was on every visible surface.
“What a sight!” Naramore said, his head revolving as if on a swivel. “Alright gentlemen, listen up.” He continued in a commanding tone that drew in everyone except Charles and Salazar.
Charles looked at his second-in-command, who returned a questioning gaze. Salazar's hand grabbed his knife, but Charles gave him a covert head shake. Salazar set his jaw, then came closer to their target.
“Right now, this is one of the most dangerous places on this planet,” Naramore said with his scraping voice. “Touch nothing without my permission. Look at nothing without asking and don't even think about breathing on any of the buildings.”
Naramore waved his aid to follow and began leading the group as if the information he’d given was enough. Salazar took position behind Narmore, and everyone followed without question. Charles waited at the back, his body moved like after a hard night of drinking. Sluggish and curt, his legs stepped on the ground, moving him forward. The weapon in his hands seemed foreign. The finger near the trigger refused to budge even a millimeter. The stock braced on the crook of his arm felt like he'd never touched it before. The world, both inside his head and out, was at peace after the departure of the shadows. Walking on and past glass added unnerving to Charles' growing palette of raging emotions. Reflections of distorted faces and odd triangular shapes littered each surface. Looking at a nearby wall, Charles could swear that one of the sides of a triangle moved towards the central building ahead of them. The sound beneath his feet switched to boots crunching on sand. Leaving the glass ground behind, Charles climbed a soft incline of the man-sized dune that surrounded the large building.
Its walls had noticeably better design, making it look like a forgotten place of worship and veneration. Each side of the temple-like building had openings on the wall beneath which sand piled high. The eleven structures surrounding the temple had their outsides covered with the encroaching resin. Charles inspected the windows of the nearest house and saw that each had no sill. All had fallen on the ground, consumed by the reflective substance. Every protruding part lay flattened into a sheet of shining glass.
The group stopped to wait for Charles to finish his investigation. Noticing, he jogged over, the sand making his steps sound like breaking bones. Naramore looked at the entrance of the building, Latin writing carved on the top of the entryway. Looking down at a piece of paper in his hand, then back up, he said something to Moor. Charles came closer to listen.
“Can’t make it out for sure,” Naramore fumed in a low and yet still shrill voice. “The sign should read Et triumvirali potestate cave, but erosion damage is too extensive to tell without analysis.” Frustration ruffled his mass of wrinkles into a frown.
Charles looked at the carvings and could only make out trium and cave for sure. Naramore turned around and began looking at the reflective walls around them. His index finger and thumb squeezed the tip of his nose.
“What does ‘trium’ and ‘cave’ mean?” Charles asked.
“Trium means three in Latin and cave is beware,” Naramore answered absentmindedly, “its in reference to a three-sided power that is to be feared. The builders called them Triumviratu metus, the triumvirate of fear.”
Charles furrowed his brows, taken aback by the outlandish things spoken, and waited for further explanation.
“So if one of the directions they could move from was those walls,” Naramore looked down and brushed some of the sand by swiping his boot from side to side. “Yes, that's it! They won't be able to come from above because of the sand.”
Naramore turned to Urton and the man beside him.
“You two,” he pointed with ring and middle finger, “start digging in front of the entrance until you hit something solid.”
The men looked at Salazar, his eyes unfocused and staring into the space between two houses. He did not respond, and the men shifted their attention to Charles, who nodded agreement. Naramore's right foot tapped the sand in the rhythm of impatience. Charles went over to Salazar, pulling him aside by the shoulder.
“Did they disappear for you too?” Charles asked, beads of sweat forming on his temples.
“Right when we came out of the ridge,” Salazar said, finally meeting Charles’ eyes. “Something about this place is…wrong. I’m not sure what, but it's bad. We have to get the lads out as soon as possible. This isn’t worth it. He isn’t worth it.”
Salazar's words left a painful cut within Charles. He now understood that the vengeance they’d sought was spurned by the shadows at the entrance to the ridge, but still, Naramore had done more than enough to deserve death. Charles gripped his rifle, its muzzle rising.
“Step back,” Naramore said, pushing the digging men aside and slamming his heel down.
A crack appeared between the two great stone slabs of the door. Everyone listened to the loud, scraping sound, and when the two wings had parted enough, Naramore dashed inside with the agility of a man fifty years his junior. Salazar and the others followed, leaving Charles and Moor to stare at each other from the opposite sides of the doorway.
Moor spoke. “You should do a better job of keeping your bloodlust hidden.”
The blond man's professional tone made Charles smirk.
“You should do a better job at pretending you’re a civilian.”
Moor smiled back and took his glasses off, placing them in a vest pocket.
“I’m well aware of your grievance against mister Naramore. He is only searching for truth, be it in his rash, unapologetic, and crude way. Nothing was ever personal with him. He’s a simple man with a simple mind. This trip will be fatal for him, and he knows that. He’s set his affairs in order before even approaching you. The truth is enough for him. Perhaps he is of the mind that it would make his solitary life meaningful in some way.”
Moor exhaled, his right hand plunging into his vest, reaching for something on his lower back.
“I’m afraid my mind won’t allow me to go down without a fight. If only you’d gone in the building like you were supposed to, I would be halfway to the plane by now,” Moor’s eyes showed regret at the thought. “But here we are.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“I would only ask for a level fight. Do you agree?” Moor's gaze dipped down to the rifle, then back up to his face.
Charles removed his hand from the weapon, then in a slow and deliberate manner, uncoiled the rifle, leaving it by his side. He knew Moor wouldn’t be allowed on the base with a firearm, so he gripped the handle of his combat knife, deciding to oblige the man's final request. The aid's features relaxed into serene gratefulness.
Both men made a step forward toward the small patch of non-sandy ground. Charles moved low, his right hand guarding his throat and head, his Kevlar vest keeping his chest safe. The terrain behind was almost unusable as footing, so he didn't expect many attacks from his opponent. Moor was the first on solid ground. His hand went towards Charles’ neck. Charles raised his left hand to block the strike, but it was too late, his skin broke, and he felt the blade go inside. Moor pulled the knife out for a second strike, Charles pushed the hand away. Moor lost a valuable moment that allowed Charles to arc his combat knife, digging it between Moor’s vertebrae. The aid's body went limp, falling into the ready arms of Charles. With a single, practiced move, Charles confirmed his kill by stabbing the knife in the man's brain stem. Relaxing his arms, he let the body slide out of his embrace. Returning his knife to its scabbard, Charles stood in front of the temple’s entrance. A lightning strike illuminated the passageway, which led to a dark corridor with no sources of light. Nature's fury managed to make the primal darkness receded only a yard in. Charles took out his torch, and in the corner of his eye, he caught movement on a nearby house wall. He looked at the frozen resin and saw a triangular shape switch position without really moving. The shape vibrated the piece of wall it inhabited upwards, a fraction of an inch, then dragged the same piece along the surface. The action he perceived made him queasy on the brink of throwing up. The sight made his eyes water and his head ache from a thunderous migraine. Putting his back to the shape, he knelt and touched the ground for support. A few moments passed until the pain disappeared. The triangular shape was still behind him, its abhorrent presence leaving a palpable mark in the air. The thing on the wall had three sides, so it might be the trium that the builders warned against. Charles took the strap of his weapon and put it on his neck. Rising to his feet, he checked the readiness of the rifle for what came next. Trium or no, he had a job to do, and these unnatural shapes would not get in his way. Turning on the torch, he took a step into the dark passageway.
Another lightning strike came from behind, the storm’s fury growing as Charles walked deeper and deeper. The corridor had no side passages or other doorways. Moving forward, Charles felt comfortable in this dark, stony passage. Its shadows were unaccusing or vengeful. In the distance, shafts of light glimmered, and Charles picked up his pace. He knew Salazar wouldn't make a move without him being there, but he still wanted to catch up as fast as possible. Thirty seconds later, he walked through a stone door covered in shadowed etchings. His boots stepped on sand once more.
The gloom in the room was only disturbed by his team's bobbing flashlight beams. Even with the minimal illumination, he noticed the painted walls, which ended in square openings that stood a few inches beneath the ceiling.
“Chief,” he called out, and one of the shadows turned.
“Right here, Commander,” Salazar jogged over and pointed a finger at the center of the room. “He’s reading something over there.” Tapping his shoulder, Charles moved past him and gripped his weapon.
“Naramore!” he shouted as the kneeling man pushed down on a prominent square piece of floor.
The roof split open. The sound of scraping rock followed by thunderstrikes. Charles looked up, and the light streaming down blinded him. His eyes took a few moments to readjust. When they did, Naramore was already climbing. The old man moved like a trained acrobat up a stone pylon covered in markings. A large, green gem atop its summit. Charles aimed and let loose a volley of bullets. His goal was to maim, but he missed. Naramore got to the top and took the gem in hand.
The roof reversed direction, drawing the monumental slabs to a close. Sand poured from the dark openings in the walls. Naramore looked down and hesitated for a moment. Charles fired four shots, two of which found their target. The roof was about to shut when Naramore jumped on top of the pylon, balanced on one foot, then caught the edge of the moving ceiling and squirmed out.
“Why didn’t you finish him?” Salazar shouted, his eyes darting across the sand swallowing the room.
“We’re not doing it like this,” Charles answered through grit teeth, his ankle vanishing beneath the sand.
Salazar growled and shoved Charles out of his way. The entryway behind them had fallen shut as well.
“This room is much smaller than the rest of the building, and we found no way out on ground level,” he said and continued to wade through the dunes towards one of the faraway corners of the room. “The blasted sand is probably kept inside the walls, so going through could be our way out.”
“Everyone to me,” Charles ordered and moved to the opposite corner of the room.
He knew what Salazar was planning, and it was going to be loud. The sand reached over the knee now, and the men grunted with each hard to take step. Gasping for air, they all made it to his side. Salazar's hands groped the wall, trying to find the right spot to plant the explosives that would free them. Sand levels reached above their upper thighs, and Charles calculated how long it would take the Chief to get back. Salazar dropped his pack and looked over. He had reached the same conclusion as his Commander. He wasn’t making it back.
Charles pointed to the pylon, which Salazar could use as an anchor to drag himself away and hide behind from the blast. Salazar shook his head, then took half the C4 he had out of his bag, placed it on the wall, and armed it. The bag he launched as close to them as he could.
The last words he uttered before activating the detonator were. "Get it done."
The rolling ball of fire almost reached them. The explosion burned away the oxygen and burst open the wall. Air crashed in, creating an indoor breeze that pushed smoke through nostrils and throats. Despite the protective earbuds, Charles still lost his hearing. Choking down a scream, he was the first to half-crawl, half-swim on the dunes towards the new exit. On his way, the pack of C4 tangled around his left hand. Reaching the hole in the building, he sifted through the sand, searching for any part left of Salazar, his last and only friend.
The sand yielded nothing, so Charles' fingers squeezed through the grains until his fists closed under the yellow surface. Getting up, he fumbled to the outside, tumbling when his fingers slipped on the broken wall. Lightning flashed, hurting his stinging eyes. Rubbing them clear, he saw parts of the temple had been thrown against the nearest building, destroying it in the process. Resin-coated fragments were strewn about, and inside them, triangular shapes squirmed in a frenzy. Seeing that many forms at the same time almost made Charles pass out. Shielding his eyes with his palm, he rolled to the side. Turning away towards the temple wall, he focused on it as his whole body shook. The things infesting the walls had no place existing in this world.
Charles got up and shuffled along the wall towards the ridge. The temple wasn’t very tall, but the roof stood high enough to be dangerous to go down without equipment. That meant there was a good chance that Naramore injured his legs and wasn't far off. Someone screamed, and Charles looked back.
One of his men lay on the rubble, right on top of the shapes. The air beneath him shimmered, and a whole swath of his torso vanished. Charles followed the crooked angle of the missing flesh and his eyes rested on the sky. The clouds above the island had become a flat disk of darkness. Lightning raged and struck the water, but never the island proper. The bottom of the clouds above Charles held an image. After a few moments of staring, Charles finally grasped that what he saw plastered on the sky was one of the shapes, magnified a thousandfold. Triangular in form, the shape had three points, and inside it was a smaller triangle, its squiggling feelers extending outward trying to touch or help it orient. Charles didn’t give a second thought about the mechanics behind the feelers because his eyes couldn't look away from the center of the monstrous geometric shape haunting the sky.
Inside the center was nothing. A cavernous void that devoured the clouds, leaving emptiness in its wake. Looking at the void made the splitting migraine return, and with it came pain so fierce it made the world tilt and spin. The whole sky shimmered, and the thing was gone. Charles tried to contain his shivers by exercising better breathing control, but the magnitude of the horror kept shaking his body. The temple wall was his only support and last barrier against the things. Even in his shaken state, he wondered why the things looked so flat and geometrical? Charles had been to arcades when he was young, and those triangles looked like they belonged in one of those machines, not in the real world. Something shimmered in his periphery. He looked right, towards a nearby house. Whistling that hurt his ears came from the roof, and a moment later, the triangular form was up in the sky again. He kept his gaze away from the shape and continued along his path, realizing it led to the ridge and the houses. Falling to his knees, he put his forehead against the temple and breathed. There was a way out of this. He just had to find it.
More of his men came out of the temple. Charles looked over his shoulder, parting his lips to issue a warning that could never come in time. A stone near one man’s foot shimmered. Half of his shin disappeared. The man yelled, toppling back and bracing himself on the wall of the building behind. Charles followed the line of attack and saw a red shape had formed roughly where the man’s flesh would’ve hit the wall. The hand he leaned on sank inside the resin. The man's frightful howl made Charles wince. The resin consumed the hand with the slow and deliberate pace of a hungry predator. Passing out, the man's howling stopped. His body slouched forward but did not fall to the ground. It rose, propped up by the hand stuck to the resin. Flesh continued being engulfed even while the arm ascended along the reflective surface. Charles noticed a white handprint adorned by a crimson halo where the first contact had been. His eyes continued upwards to see the same white and red picture being painted with his man’s flesh. Charles realized that the things were pulling the man inside, layer by layer. The rest of the men rushed over, not understanding like Charles did. The first one had his head removed when he stepped between two intact walls. The other lost his footing, and falling face-first, a shape sliced off his upper torso. Now, there was no one left to scream.
Charles stood up and clutched his rifle. He wasn’t going to die like this. A rooftop nearby shimmered, and the creature appeared in the clouds. He surmised the writing on the entrance was in reference to these creatures, and he did indeed fear the Trium as instructed. The Romans who’d been here had the temple filled with sand and left nothing reflective inside. Charles speculated that the Trium could only move between such surfaces, which would explain why that thing in the sky could only go up and down. He had a few grenades and the leftover C4, which should be enough for him to blaze a path to the ridge. Tossing the first grenade, he waited a few seconds for the explosion and ran.
The blast broke walls, leaving soot marks on the wall. Debris cut the air like shrapnel, burrowing into the polished resin. Charles ran through the smoke, whistling sounds coming from above his head and around his feet. Sharp pain coursed through his right shin, but he didn’t slow, ducking out from between the buildings. The sand gave way to glossy ground. Charles fired twenty rounds in a straight line, then fired twenty more, creating a lane flanked by cracks. The Trium in the sky returned, drawn by the sound, or if it didn’t experience sound, the vibrations of the explosion and gunshots. Charles pulled the pin on a second grenade and threw it to the side, away from him. The explosion ruffled his hair. The whistling came again, and looking up, Charles saw the sky was absent of monsters. It was time to test out what the Trium reacted to.
He ran between the bullet holes on the ground. He’d been careful to space them out close enough that the cracks would bleed into one another and, hopefully, create a barrier that the Trium wouldn’t be able to cross. He was halfway through when a triangular shape crashed into one of the cracks. Trying to move past it, its feelers couldn’t find a break in the thin clefts. Charles smirked then went pale. The air above the Trium whistled and shimmered. It zipped up into the clouds, trying to circumvent the barrier by going up into the sky. Charles ran headlong. Now near enough to the ridge's entrance, he dove through the shadowed portal. Rolling to his feet, shades surrounded him on all sides. Shadows bubbled out, waling at him, demanding that he do what they asked. Ignoring their paean to violence, Charles looked back beyond the angry spirits. A single Trium struggled to force itself through the edge of the resin. It undulated on the smooth surface, waiting for anything to come into its all-devouring range. Behind it, Charles saw boot prints at the point of his jump. The thing had caught up to him, but it seemed that if your momentum was big enough, the Trium couldn’t quite hold on to you. Making note of that, he turned and began climbing the winding road.
At the top, he slowed, knelt down, and observed. The resin coated both sides of the road here. Charles considered the C4 for a brief moment but dismissed it immediately. He couldn’t be sure how much to use not to cause a rockslide. Salazar would’ve done it in two heartbeats. The thought of the immense loss he'd incurred made his chest as tight as it got after a whole day of drills. Movement on the dock caught his attention. A limping figure had come out of the building and was now making its way to the sea. Charles jumped to his feet and fired three shots at the left wall. The bullets hit a few of the shapes, making them shiver, then separate into several pieces. The individual parts caused the air above them to shimmer but did not jump to the opposite wall. The distant figure turned, revealing a face ravaged by the unkind passing of time. Naramore hobbled faster. Charles took a small stone from the ground and tossed it in front of the bullet holes on the walls. Nothing came out, so he aimed at the right side and fired again. He did his best to hit the Trium where they stood. Even if the pain of looking at them was too much, he kept firing and moving, left to right, right to left. The Trium sought to destroy him, but the cracks kept them disjointed and slow. In some cases, they couldn't even jump to the opposite side because their landing surface was broken or marred. The reflective walls ended, and Charles looked up to see the large Trium in the sky, circling above him.
Charles jogged down, taking cover behind the right corner of the building. Wracking his brain, he tried to remember which of the men Salazar had left on overwatch. Their names and faces faded into oblivion, to be replaced by the wails of the vengeful apparitions. Searson, that was the name! Salazar knew the lad wasn’t up for what they needed to do and left him behind, sparing him of the butchery at the end of their journey and alleviating Naramore's growing paranoia.
“Searson,” Charles spoke through ragged breaths, his fingers on the earpiece, “do you read? Over.”
No reply came.
“Searson. Are you there. How copy? Over.”
Charles rounded the corner, taking cautious steps towards the shore. Checking his weapons, he had no ammunition left. All of it had ended up on the walls of the path. At the front of the building, he debated whether to try and find Searson and scavenge whatever Naramore had left on the body. Knowing the crusty old man, nothing useful was left. Naramore was already in the water and a quarter of the way to the plane. Blood traced his path like crimson foam left by the tide. He’d forgone the flotation device and had bet on his own limbs to carry him over to the plane. Charles only needed his knife to end this. Discarding equipment and shoes, he rushed to the sea. Diving in, he swam under the waves for a few feet, and when his head popped out, Naramore was halfway to the plane. Spurned on by the raging shadows growing out of the waves, Charles pushed his muscles to their limit and paddled.
Naramore reached the plane first, but fit as he was, he was still old. Limping up the stairs, he put all his effort into getting to the door and shutting Charles out. Seeing Elizabeth at the threshold, he waved his hand for her to come help him. She went down three steps and lent him her shoulder. At the top of the stairs, Naramore turned around to see how close the Commander had managed to get. His gaze met the darkened eyes of a man about to tackle him.
A broad shoulder pushed Naramore through the door. The old man fell to the floor, shadows streaming all around him, creating expanding pools of darkness. Charles looked to Elizabeth, picked her up, and threw her overboard. Coming inside, he pressed the button for the door. It slid to a close, leaving twilight fill the whole cabin. The luxurious lounge pressurized, and the pilot began the take-off procedures. Charles leaned forward to compensate for the plane's upward movement. Naramore dragged himself to the nearest lounge chair, sprawled on it, his chest expanding with the pained breathes of extreme exertion. Blood spewed from his shoulder, ruining the expensive upholstery. Reaching its necessary altitude, the plane moved forward. The pools on the floor grew and gave birth to dark outlines of things that had once been people. Naramore's eyes drifted around the lounge and occasionally out the small window next to him. Clutching the green gem in his right hand, he smiled as if he'd just discovered the biggest secret mankind has ever had.
“It was you all along,” Naramore said in his old, rickety voice. “The dark around your irises. You were right there, and I missed it.” He slammed his left hand on the nearby table.
Charles saw the man’s eyes move and, for a brief moment, focus on the shadows standing around him. Naramore could see the shadowy tormentors that cried for his blood ceaselessly. Charles lost mental and physical balance. Bracing on his hand, he kept from falling, but his mind reeled at the fact that the shadows were real, and not a figment of his war-torn mind.
“Whatever you’ve planned,” Naramore raised his hand off the table, “it has to wait. Do you understand?”
“Oh,” Charles feigned interest. “How'd you figure?”
“This thing,” Naramore tapped his thigh with the fist wrapped around the gem. “There’s something inside it! Something that’s trying to get out.” He looked away from Charles, craning his neck to see through the window.
"Oh, you mean like there was something inside everyone's drinks when we were in that Japanese fishing village?” Charles took a step forward.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. They already had something in their drinks to facilitate their rituals. I just didn’t expect…”
“You didn’t expect what?” Charles screamed, impaling Naramore’s left hand with his knife, blade sinking into the table.
The slim, deflated man let out a quiet whimper but otherwise made no movements.
“I didn’t expect,” Naramore grimaced, speaking with an even tone, “that what I added to the drinks would make you have such a strong, negative reaction.”
Charles grabbed Naramore’s wrist, and in a few quick motions, dislodged the knife, turned it sideways, and plunged it back in, breaking bones. Naramore screamed this time, making Charles shake from satisfaction.
“So you didn’t think that mixing two psychotropic substances was a bad idea? Have I got that right?” Charles sneered, leaning closer.
“Yes, that's what happened,” Naramore snarled back like a dog. “I’m trying to find out the truth, you imbecile! Do you think your life or that of your men is worth that much consideration? If you do, then you're as dumb as the brick shit house you resemble.”
Charles didn't mind the insult, but this conversation with a corpse had dragged on for too long. Easing his breath, the muscles on his face relaxed, and he pulled the knife free. Naramore's gaze never shied away from Charles as the weapon rose. The old man began to laugh, a slow, shrill, triumphant laugh. Driving the weapon down, Charles jabbed, and sliced, and stabbed. Naramore cackled for quite some time, and Charles only stopped hacking when the wiry eccentric no longer polluted the air with his voice. He made no attempt to defend himself from the retribution Charles delivered. With no breath left in his ancient body, Naramore's right hand opened up, the gemstone rolling onto the table. The many-sided shape settled into place, leaving the lounge in silence. Charles noticed the sounds of the plane, the low hum of rushing air, and the soft whir of the engines. The minatory whispers no longer filled his head.
Charles wiped the knife on his pant leg, then hitched it to his belt. Naramore's blood covered his hands, forearms, and even upper arms. The pulpy remains sat on the chair, but Charles paid them no heed. He was free, and maybe even - happy? He wasn’t sure if he had been happy since that night in the village ten years ago. The gemstone on the table gleamed with a faint spark. Charles picked it up and looked it over by the window, noticing movement inside the faceted walls. Squinting his left eye, he focused the other on the heart of the precious stone. Lightning boomed outside, and the refracted light flashed into his gazing retina. The light projected an image of a rhombus, spinning inside the green walls of the gem. The vision impaled his mind, giving him a throbbing headache that made his fingers drop the jewel. Going after it, he realized his right eye did not function correctly.
Trying to get off his knees left him lurching forward, almost slamming into a chair. His left eye showed the world as he knew it, full and three-dimensional, while his right showed everything flat. The dissonance between the two viewpoints threatened to make him pass out. He closed both eyes, rubbing them in a vain attempt to assuage their condition. Opening the left, everything was fine. Opening both felt like an ax to the forehead. Closing his eyelids, he only peered through his working visual organ. The pain receded. Following the relief was a soft tapping sound. Rhythmic, like a metronome, it came from the glass window in front of him. The window showed nothing but darkened clouds, yet the sound persisted. Swallowing, Charles closed his left eye and opened his right.
On the see-through surface was a geometric figure. It didn’t have arms or legs, instead, its whole body was a large rectangle. From that rectangle, two lines protruded up like the crude neck a child in kindergarten would draw. The lines ended in two large scalene triangles stuck together by their longest sides. A flat rhombic shape inside one of the triangles gazed into his left eye. The other triangle stood empty. The shape's rectangular body took up most of the window, and at its center, millions of Trium squirmed. The mass pulsated, sending circles of endless triangles to the edges of the figure's body until the rectangle filled to bursting with two-dimensional shapes, each capable of unparalleled destruction.
Charles fell back, trying to get away, but his two-dimensional vision didn’t register his movement. His brain was aware he was in a three-dimensional space, but his eye showed a different reality. The rhombus in the triangle, the thing's eye, spun once around, sending stabbing pain into his brain. The rhythmic tapping came from the window again, then again and again. Charles concentrated on closing his eye. His eyelid disobeyed, so he lifted his hand and put the gemstone in his line of sight. A sheet of pure green filled his vision. The shape inside the jewel spun at the same time as the tapping came. The thing spun again, and Charles hurled his eyelid down. Not trusting his eye to stay closed, he switched arms, putting his right hand over his socket, and gripping the gem with his left. The noise came again.
Charles got to his feet and ran to the captain’s cabin.
The door opened, and the man gave the blood and gore-covered body of Charles a mortified look.
“We need sand!” he said to the pilot, his right hand leaving a blood print on the man’s white shirt. “Take us to sand!”
“Wait…what?” the pilot head bobbed in confusion, then he tried to look behind Charles, who blocked his view at each attempt.
“Naramore’s orders, now go,” Charles shoved the pilot back inside.
Leaning his back against the door, he slid down, sitting in front of it. Opening his left eye, he scanned the room and saw tens of surfaces that held reflections. Around the cockpit, however, everything was dull and matte. The creature couldn’t come at him here.
The glass walls of a nearby whiskey bottle chimed. Charles rifled through his pockets for something to cover his eye. Finding nothing, he ripped his shirt and made a temporary eye patch. The sound now came from a different liquid container. The unseen taps repeated over and over and over, ever unrelenting. Charles covered his ears to no avail. The sound echoed inside his mind, reverberated inside his skull, and came stabbing right back. The torment continued for hours. Charles lifted his forehead off his knees when he sensed the plane tilting downward. He got to his feet and barged through the door.
“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted at the distressed pilot.
“I’m landing,” he gave the confused answer. “See? We’ve reached, um...sand.”
“No!” Charles dashed, closing the distance in the blink of an eye. “No reflections. No people.” His knife resting on the pilot’s throat.
The man’s features stretched in fear when he saw the one-eyed, blood-splattered Charles. He shifted his stance enough that the remains of Naramore would be visible. The pilot's skin went so pale it almost blended with his shirt. Taking shallow, frightened breaths, he nodded to Charles.
“Let me just check the map to find a road outside of town where we can land,” the pilot tried to turn around, but the knife pushed into his skin.
“No roads. Land in the desert,” Charles said in a dead-serious, flat tone.
The pilot opened his quivering lips to protest, but one furious look from Charles’ good eye kept him quiet. The plane veered off its descent a moment later and headed towards the shimmering desert on the horizon. Charles kept the knife to the man’s throat for a few more minutes until he was sure they were far enough away from civilization. And reflections. Putting the weapon away, Charles sat down on the seat next to the pilot and strapped in.
“So,” the man began, “how far out of town do you want us to go?”
Charles looked forward and saw the frightening geometric shape, the corners of its eye spinning.
“Until we fall out of the sky,” Charles answered as his eyelid fluttered from exhaustion.
The crash sent the straps digging into his chest. His left hand bent and nearly broke. One of his ribs did break, and at least two others cracked from the seatbelts' painful grip, keeping him from hurtling through the window. He was glad for the pain because it kept the tapping quiet. The pilot began speaking something on the radio. Charles turned to him.
“This is flight 14626. We’ve crash-landed at coordinates-”
The knife sunk into the radio, making the pilot shut up. Head ringing, Charles unstrapped himself.
“Are you crazy? Do you know how far off we are?” the pilot gesticulated with the radio's receiver still in hand. “No one knows where we are.” The man's eyebrows furrowed, and he continued to fume.
Charles ambled towards the door.
“We could die here!” the pilot's shout ran through Charles' skin like a cool breeze as he walked out of the cabin.
“Good,” he answered under his breath, gripping the bar's counter, pulling himself to the exit.
Pressing the button opened the door halfway. Prying it open, the desert's wind hit his face and speckled his lips with sand. He went down the stairs. The tapping on the nearby window made him trip. He fell headfirst into the sand and lay there for a moment, listening.
He still wasn’t far enough away. Plunging his free hand into the sand, he pushed himself up and crawled away from the wreckage, all the while listening.
He heard the single tap and smiled. His palms burned, and the water in his body quickly boiled out of him, but the taps got quieter and quieter. Soon, he stopped hearing them altogether. His muscles couldn't carry him anymore, and he fell on the blistering grains. Lying there, he waited. A faint sound came from the gemstone. Without removing the eyepatch, he opened his hand and lifted the stone to his face. The light refracted through its green walls, and behind his hand, Charles saw the shape project itself onto the sky. The vast, cloudless expanse filled with Trium, squirming on the thing's body. Its one eye spun twice, gazing at Charles.
Seeing the horror displayed on the boundless blue canvas made Charles' unwilling muscles convulse. Using all of his leftover willpower, he closed his eye and was free of the thing’s hold. Turning, Charles dug with one hand while the other kept the gemstone hidden beneath the shadow cast by his body. The skin on his hand burned as he scooped the top layer of scalding sand. Dropping the gem inside the makeshift grave, he used both arms to scoop from all directions, trying to bury the thing’s imprisoned eye as fast as he could. Carrying out the task, his legs shook from the dread in his bones and the thought that if he’d seen that monumental imprint in the sky with his damaged eye, the thing could use it as a portal to invade our three-dimensional universe. Charles drew more sand, shivers running all his body from the prospect of his thoughts. His arms shoveled until boils appeared on his skin, and only when they burst open, spilling his blood on the sand, did he stop. Turning his injured hands towards the sky, his head fell, and his forehead touched the scorching ground. Then he heard it again.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
From the third terrible and gentle tap, the sky cracked.