CHAPTER EIGHTEEN The boat had reached the opposite shoreline, with them noticing a relatively gentle area to stop the boat for them to get off. Arthur was guiding the outboard motor with one hand, while stuffing the gummi like fruit snacks into his mouth with the other. He had already gone through three bags yet these cheap soft candies were just tasting absolutely delicious, his mouth watering as his tongue tasted the cheap artificial flavoring. He even closed his eyes a few times to fully bask in the flavor. “Here,” Anna muttered with one simple word yet for some reason Arthur was able to decipher the statement and cut the power to the motor, letting them drift towards the shore until the shallow water would stop their boat and they could disembark. The Marshal had her Glock ready. It was a good chance that as soon as they got on the shore they could be ambushed. If that was the case, she was intent on at least getting the chance of killing a few of them before she went down. It would be unavoidable anyhow, the longer they spent on the lake, the more time their mysterious adversaries would have to regroup and essentially, hem them in. The bottom of the boat pressed against the soft mud and dirt bottom, slowly coming to a stop in knee deep waters only a dozen feet from the ominous wooded shoreline. In her other hand was the digital map with the supposed location of sanctuary. She jumped over the side of the boat, her bag strapped across her chest and hanging off her back, and had that scoped Remington slung off her shoulder. With the map in one hand and pistol in the other and a cowboy hat still fixed on her pretty blonde head, Arthur thought she looked like some sort of modern day gunfighter or pioneer. Very cool. He hopped out of the boat after her, before glancing back and making sure they left nothing behind. Shotgun in hand, a gymbag with an empty AR-15 barrel poking out, and the DNR officers’ pistol tightly squeezed into the holster of his liberated state trooper gun belt. “Looks to me,” she started to speak softly as they walked up the rapidly receding waterline onto the dry land. “…that this location is north of us about six or so miles. Looks to be located off the main road, somewhere right in the hills from this map.” “Helioburg is a mining town I think,” Arthur replied when he recalled something from the radio. “Didn’t that Fire Chief lady say that the mines were overrun?” “Not much of a choice really,” the Marshal replied with a shrug. “Unless you got another idea Arthur, I think we should head to where this map says.” “Just, it could be an old message,” Arthur reasoned. “It might have been down there too long to be of use.” She shrugged her shoulders, not looking back as they emerged from the brush and found themselves crossing a bike path that circled around the lake. “What do you want me to say Arthur?” the Marshal finally replied as she briskly jogged across the open ground to the opposite side where more dark woodlands provided nigh impenetrable concealment from any possible pursuers. It was four miles of going mostly uphill that Arthur finally breached the silence. “Do you hear that?” “Yes,” she simply replied. It was a loud noise, almost like a constant airy rumble as their eyes turned up to the night sky. A streak of fire crossed the night sky as the flames and starlight suddenly illuminated an awe inspiring sight coming down from the sky to their back. A massive airplane, emblazoned in yellow paint with black lettering struck against a foreground covered with smoke and streaking fire as they realized two of its engines, one on each o the crafts two massive wings, were alight with fire. As it got closer, the noise grew infinitely louder. From their tiny vantage point, it looked as if it was coming straight for them. The bulbous nose of the plane was already pointed low, directly at the slope that they were on as the Marshal, reacting quickly rather then wanting to think it out, immediately started running off to the side. But Arthur simply stoodfast and stared, ignoring his companions panic. Doesn’t it always look like its coming towards you only to have it turn out to be an optical illusion. Instead of running away in a random direction in a full sprint, he just took a few sidesteps behind a nearby thick tree, his eyes never taken off of the massive four engine aircraft. The sight of it was so macabre and yet so riveting. It was almost as if the plane, despite careening towards the ground at probably hundreds of miles per hour, came closer and closer. He was soon able to make out details of the craft, noticing the red specks on the white nose, looking almost like a bugshield. He saw little figures falling out of the side of the plane as the aircraft itself seemed to buck upwards, as if trying to avoid the inevitable crash into the hillside. As the plane came closer and closer, he could feel the power of the engines and saw those little figures falling from the sky, white parachutes billowing out then for some reason collapsing inward. He saw dozens of black specks apparently zipping over the parachutes and the wings of the plane as it came closer and closer and then heard over the boom of the engines the endless caws and cries of birds, literally hundreds of them, swarming. Several of the birds, large and black, with sharp beaks, suddenly shot outward like a whip from the aircraft and seemingly shot towards him now. A snapping beak and a flash of dark plumage greeted him as in an instant he shot his arms up to his face as a blackbird collided with his arms, a sharp sting nipping at his forearms as he immediately scrambled back a foot. Overhead the infernal cargo plane let out a last rumble before a torrential explosion erupted and in an instant sound and air was ripped from Arthur’s body as he felt a huge fireball erupt higher on the hill. Pressure ripped soil from the ground and leaves from the trees as his winged tormentors recoiled away, as if carried afar by some invisible force. In the periphery of his vision he could see a rising orange cloud, lined with pure darkness, billow outward into an ever expanding firestorm. It was massive, and all encompassing, it almost devoured him even. But in fact it stopped a hundred feet short of his position downhill. The heat alone almost toasted his backside. He turned about, his arm still raised as he noticed the explosion had receded, pulling back to reveal a charred landscape where the plane hand landed. In the middle of blackened grounds and bare trees covered with charred bark where seconds ago, an actual forest had actual lay. Flames sparked across patches of dry ground, as streaks of fuel jetted across the land, still alight and treetops sparkled with growing embers. In the midst of the devastation lay its origin. The frame of the aircraft was alight with flames, bits and pieces of the fuselage peppering the landscape and caught in the tree tops. The nose was crushed up and inwards, with the tail section having been torn from the rear of the craft and pinwheeling into the hillside some fifty yards away, mangled into some sort of heap of twisted metal. The front fuselage was alight with flames and one of the engines, still burning, had a turboprop engine still spinning. Then there was the blackbirds. They were no longer swarming the airplane. Diced feathers were fluttering through the air as Arthur suddenly felt his eye sting and rubbed it, realizing these bird feathers and other detritus was filling the sky. He flinched a moment later, noticing a bit of red on his shoulder and flicked it away, realizing it was some bloody animal intestine. His vision shifted back up to the plane. The birds brought down that plane. At this moment he wanted to go to the bathroom, but he had so little to eat, or drink this day. It just felt like the appropriate time. “Wake the fuck up!” he heard a familiar voice scream when, turning his head to the side, he saw a literal cloud of feathers, beaks and talons practically surging outward from the darkness of the night sky, their noticeable mass again almost looking like a tendril, reach out towards their comparatively tiny prey. A little cowgirl wearing a leather hat. He raised his shotgun. She leaped into the hollow of a wide tree. He took aim. She held her thick utility police bag up against the entrance to the tree. He fired. The blast of his weapon seemingly dissipated into the surging throng of avian beasts, briefly disrupting the cohesion of the mass as it practically reflected off of the tree Anna had taken cover in. He almost laughed at how helpless they were until he noticed that same mixed flock of death was now aiming straight for him. Against that, even if his shotgun had birdshot it wouldn’t be enough. He started running, straight for the flaming crash site. The flock pursued, many of them with reddened beaks, hungry for warm flesh and barely satiated by that of the evacuated crew. It was almost a football field in distance, was there anyway he could beat the speed of flight. Couldn’t these birds go at two hundred miles per hour. Or was that just a dive. They didn’t seem that high up. The Marshal made it to cover. He glanced over his shoulder, cursing himself a moment later as he saw drawing ever closer to him was the massive flock. The crackling of flames and fire was overwhelmed by the horrifying bloodthirsty caws and croaks of the hundreds of countless birds and critters that made up this pack. Goosebumps rose along his skin as he felt the chill of the night crash against the heat of the burning wreckage. He imagined a death of a thousand little stabs, multitudes of sharp beaks and tiny blade like talons and claws ripping through his clothes, into his flesh. Eyelids ripped off, his eyeballs popped like balloons, the little hellish creatures nipping chunks of skin and muscle from his weakening body, ripping open every exposed bit of skin. He would die slow and in pain, as nothing more then a heaping blood mess, which would slowly erode into the ground. They came closer, but he was still sprinting ahead. They were faster, but not quite fast enough he hoped. His lungs started to burn, wanting him to give up. He reminded his body of the bloody death that remained if he failed and tossed aside his shotgun. With another shrug his gymbag hit the ground. In front of him a man sized pillar of flame rose from the ground where a last pile of debris was burning out to the bitter end. If he changed direction or slowed down, the surging flock of death behind him would catch up. Risking being burned alive, he ran through the flames. Pain seared across his face, he felt his shoes sizzle. The flock surged through the flames, extinguishing it with mass and the wind generated by a thousand flaps of wings. A coolness brushed across Arthur’s burning face. It almost felt relaxing as he dived forward and felt the air itself try to pull him off his feet. He wasn’t a big man, but large enough to keep his body rooted to the ground. The turboprop engine was still spinning, sucking in air as well as it did during the venerable run of the crashed aircraft. But not only air was sucked into the massive machine. Occasionally the unfortunate bird would get sucked in as well. Flocks of them were dangerous. Together they were deadly. But individually each was light, their numbers useless as in their bloody minded thirst, the origins of their lust still unknown, surged with a single mind towards the young man lying prone before the running engine. They wanted to rip into his flesh, pluck out his tasty eyes, slurp up his lifegiving fluids dry to the bone and then gouge out the marrow in his bones. Instead, one by one they were overwhelmed by the suctioning effect of the engine and as a flock, they were all sucked into the spinning propeller blades. Arthur never though that a propeller could make a sound similar to what would’ve been an industrial sized blender, but it did. When the engine exploded seconds later, Arthur had already rolled back down the slope only to be peppered by the still steaming debris that resulted from the explosion. He felt heavy though as he rose to his feet a moment later. Five thousand horsepower beats a thousand bird power any day of the week apparently. Lackadaisically, he clambered down the slope, picking up his gymbag and the shotgun, feeling even more exhausted and tired now, unable to believe that such a thing was possible a few minutes ago. Upon hearing the explosion, Marshal Anna Dugan literally came out of her hole in the tree, peeking her head out and then up the slope. Her brief smile of obvious relief immediately faded a moment later when she noticed Arthur standing in the foreground. Realizing he was standing with a shotgun before a blazing inferno behind him, the young man stuck his chin up and smiled. “Hail to the king baby!” he said with a confident nod before pumping the action of his shotgun. She flicked her eyebrows up and grinned at him warmly. “You look like a giant chicken,” the Marshal replied with a tip of her hat as she walked up to him. He glanced down and grunted. She was right. His jacket, his pants, his hands and arms and legs, even his head was covered in black and gray and white feathers, all of it stuck to his body by what appeared to be very finely chopped bird meat. “It’s going to be a warm night,” the Marshal said reassuringly as she walked up to him, about to pat him on the shoulder before realizing she didn’t want to get her hands dirty. Arthur coyly shrugged off his jacket and brushed the bloody gore and feathers from his hair as the Marshal, a serious looking covering her face again, checked out the wreckage. “Looks like a DHL plane,” she said finally when her voice picked up a bit of a hopeful accent. “Maybe they saw the fire. Did you see anyone jump out?” “Yeah,” he said dimly looking back down the hillside. “I think they’ve been pecked to death on the way down. About three parachutes came out, but they all collapsed to the ground.” She shook her head and then looked at him hard. “Think we should go back and see if there are any survivors because there are none here I bet. The nose of the plane is caved in and everything is on fire here.” “They’ll be coming,” Arthur said resolutely. He turned back to her. “We should head to the sanctuary.” She nodded. If the circumstances were any different, she’d want to check but chances were this plane crash was a beacon of attention. The sooner they departed the better. Once again the Marshal took the lead as she started running forward at a brisk pace up the slope, with him scampering behind her. They were close after all, less then two miles she said as they approached the cusp of the rocky hill. Her head popped over the high edge of the hill as she glanced over to what was on the other side of the hill, wondering even what this sanctuary even looked like. Instead she saw more hills covered in trees. No lights. No roads. Not even a shack. When she heard Arthur huffing and puffing as he caught up with her, she withdrew the digital handheld map. She opened her mouth as she saw the glare of a helicopter rising up the hill behind them, the reflection barely noticeable on the screen of the device. “Run!” she called out as just like that they both suddenly heard the rushing sweep of the helicopter behind them; a bright white searchlight illuminated their bodies completely, the choppers noises having been masked by the flames the entire time. The Marshal jerked on Arthur’s arm and they both started to tumble on the hillside as the helicopter started spitting out fire. No more semiautomatic rifle shots, the steady din of a door mounted machine gun erupted through the night air, streaks of tracer rounds tearing into the foliage and forest as the two survivors bounced and rolled down the hillside, narrowly avoiding death with every second. Intercepting trees seemed to come out of nowhere as bullets kicked up dirt and smoke around their falling bodies. The searchlight kept with them as the helicopter slowly flew sideways, following their haphazard trip down the heavily wooded slope. The Marshal shot out her legs under her, her hardy boots digging into the soft dirt, trying to slow herself down as innumerable saplings and branches whipped and snapped under her. She slowed as a line of machine gun fire cut a smoking path of death beside her. She rolled out of the way in desperation, heading for the nearest tree. The searchlight kept going on. Arthur was still falling. Fortunately a tree broke his fall, as his legs whipped across its thin trunk, causing him to flip over several more times, rolling across his back and head before finally coming to a stop a few dozen feet farther down. Before he could catch his breath, a torrent of gunfire was already tearing the nearby trees to shreds as the searchlight shot farther down the slope only to realize it had lost its quarry. Braving the torrent of blind gunfire, Arthur raced horizontally along the slope, desperate to find real cover before he was spotted again. Meanwhile some sixty feet upslope and a few more feet off to the side, Anna unslung her rifle and steadied her leading hand as she tried to draw a bead on the shifting helicopter. It was going to be a hard shot as she focused through her scope, trying to get the gunner in view. But the aircraft kept shifting and bobbing in the air, the crew probably still looking for Arthur. She hoped he could get to cover as she took aim. Then, in midair, the helicopter suddenly made a turn, the door gunner and searchlight setting upon her position. They remembered where she stopped. The bright white searchlight blasted her face, blinding her as the machine gun erupted anew. A spray of gunfire tore into the thick tree that she was crouched behind, tearing open chunks of bark and natural wood. As thick as it was, it wouldn’t provide protection from concentrated gunfire. She clutched her rifle tightly. No shot from here without getting her head blown off. Any other cover would be just as useless as where she was now. Could she hide? No, she needed a distraction. But what? Maybe Arthur would come up with something. The bullets were tearing through the edges of the tree trunk now, the deadly rounds punching through her cover, coming ever closer to her cowering body. The vest wouldn’t protect against concentrated gunfire. Arthur saw the predicament from his new hiding spot, crouched under a small dropoff beside some thick gnarled tree roots. Shotgun couldn’t work here. Maybe if he fired his pistol he could distract them. He was in a better concealed place. Just maybe they could think of something then. The man popped out from behind the waist high dropoff of dirt and roots, leaning to the side from behind the tree and started squeezing off rounds from his pistol. Each shot was distinct. He took time aiming. But it was almost impossible. The plane was at least a hundred feet up and another hundred away and moving. He closed an eye. Used both hands. Single shots. Compensating for recoil everytime. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Nothing. He wondered if they even noticed him firing. She screamed audibly. The great old tree she was cowering behind started to sway as its trunk was torn to shreds. For some reason the helicopter started slowly shifting to the side, the gunfire shifting around the edge of the tree trunk as the Marshal, realizing they were circling about for a new angle, immediately scrambled around to the other side, hoping to keep the trunk between her and the gunfire. It was enraging. Fuming. Ferocious with rage, Arthur bet they were laughing at her. Tormenting her. Toying with her. He snarled at them as he charged up the slope, firing his pistol at the helicopter, pistol rounds deflecting off of the thick airframe of the helicopter, the gunner intent on scything the tree away to get at his target. He emptied the second clip. In desperation he hurled the pistol at the chopper, watching his useless, empty weapon spin up into the night air. Useless and helpless. Now they would both die. The pistol arched higher and higher, spinning end over end, glimmering in the starlight when it came close to the helicopter, almost as if it would hit it. But that was just an illusion, the chopper was dozens of feet away, the little gun only rose in between his view of the murderous machine. Then a torrent of blue and white surged out from the sky itself, falling around the chopper, engulfing it in a brilliant mist of pure power and force. Arthur stumbled back in shock as he saw torrents of water fall around the helicopter, the rotors thrashing in desperation as the liquid sloshed over the trembling aircraft. The searchlight flickered, not from shorting out but from the water itself. The bird jerked upwards, still rattled as the water falling around it shook its airframe, washing out the interior. The tail bobbed low to the ground, the rear rotors cutting into the trees. The helicopter jerked hard to the side, the tail whipping around, colliding with another tree top, the small rear fins tearing into hard bark and branches before sparking, metal clashing against metal. Water shot outward from the spraying rotors as the aircraft itself suddenly tottered off to the side, careening ever closer to the ground. The searchlight shot blindly across the night sky, the shaft of light arching straight upwards as the helicopter panned away, its tail rotor exploding into fire as the vehicle itself crashed sidelong into the hills rocky promontory. The main rotors were still thrashing, each blade slicing deep into the ground before snapping and braking, launcuing the resulting shards outward. But the two survivors looked up and saw the landing skids instead as slowly a man in a black balaclava came out, bits of bones ripping through his forest green fatigues, covered in blood. A single gunshot rang out, and the mans neck exploded out of his back in a geyser of gore as the Marshal offered a bit of revenge. The machine gunner, suddenly grasping this new injury with a shattered arm, tumbled over and out of the bottom of the fallen helicopter. Arthur raced up to ‘check’ on any more survivors when a new searchlight suddenly illuminated them both. Anna and Arthur glanced upwards towards the sky. Their savior was divinely inspired. It was another helicopter. And it had the same markings as the crashed out. Even the lettering was the same. Ulric Country Fire Department. Then they saw something else. A side door opened up and a man in a blue uniform peeked out. His features were unseen from this distance, but as the two survivors fixed on him, he shouted something. The Marshal was already determined to believe they were friendly, and started waving her badge up in the air, screaming back at them and waving the digital handheld map in the other one. The man in the chopper had a badge on his chest too. He showed them his outward palm then retreated back into the cabin of the chopper. Arthur glanced down at the crashed helicopter, not wanting any surprises. The man Anna had shot was laying in heap before the crash site. He looked up again. The remaining chopper, a massive one from the looks of it, with a giant water tank installed where the normal hold for cargo should be, was slowly lowering to the ground. But the helicopter wasn’t setting down. Instead the man in the chopper, realizing neither of them could hear the other, now had a large black knapsack in his hands as slowly the helicopter moved directly over them and he unceremoniously pitched the fully laden pack over the side. Arthur’s face slackened. They weren’t going to rescue them. They were just going to drop them some crap and leave. Was that this so-called sanctuary? Maybe it was some sort of sick fucking game. Make a checkpoint alive and get some goodies to stay alive. Or were they infected or something? That helicopter just dumped a few tons of water on its supposed sister craft, like hell they couldn’t take them wherever they were going. But the man in the cabin gave them a wave and seemed to shout good luck before retreating back into the helicopter and closing the door. “Come back!” the Marshal screamed, still waving her arms futilely. But the massive firefighting chopper was already pulling away. It wasn’t until it was clearly out of sight that her arms finally, limply, fell to her sides. Her head lowered to the large knapsack they had pitched over the side. It was packed tight with something. Arthur walked past it though and approached the crashed helicopter, shotgun in hand. The machine gunner who Anna had shot was still moving, or at least breathing it seemed. Arthur kicked him onto his back and aimed the shotgun at his head, his eyes scanning for weapons. He saw none but backed up as soon as he confirmed it. A pair of cold gray eyes stared back at him from beneath the balaclava mask. He was still alive. “Who are you?” he screamed at the man. The machine gunner raised his hands, palms facing outwards. “Fatum…” “What?” Arthur asked, not quite sure on what he just heard. From the tone though, he could tell it was condescending. “What the fuck did you say?”Anna approached the crash site, but not towards Arthur and his victim, but instead circled around to the ground of the helicopter and fired a pair of rounds into the cockpit to finish off the pilot. “Ego mos utor…” the man barely managed to whisper from a weak, raspy voice as blood oozed out of his neck, spilling down his mask, pooling on the ground. “…titulus vestri caput capitis in quris.” “What is that?” Arthur growled at him. “Is that Latin?” He screamed and suddenly shot forward and drove a kick into the side of his attackers neck, causing a brief eruption of blood to occur. “Speak English damn it!” “Ut center of orbis terrarium…” the dying machine gunner started to whisper, his eyes locking with Arthurs, so firm was his grip it the survivor silent. These next words, though meaningless in construction to him, still felt powerful. “…Acheron… ut superficies. Ut domus of Hades vos ero sentio.” “Hades!” Arthur quipped. “I know who that is. What about Hades?” He leaned in closer when suddenly two hands shot outward, gripping his throat in a vise like grip. The man dropped his shotgun as he felt his attackers iron like clasp slowly press his fingertips inward, slowly crushing his throat as he pulled him in closer. “Vos mos animadverto Hades…” A hardwood rifle butt split open the assailants’ forehead as Anna shot forward with the butt of the Remington rifle, hearing the reassuring crack of bone as she struck in with all of her strength. The deadly stranglehold dissipated with a surprising immediacy as life just seemed to flow from his attacker. His body slowly relaxed and then laid down calmly. “Look but don’t touch…” the Marshal snickered, her jovial attitude somehow returning as she treated another near death experience with a somewhat disturbing and offsetting comedic attitude. “Ain’t that right Kwai Chang Caine,” she added with a friendly nudge of her brain covered rifle butt. Apparently the profoundness of what just happened was lost on some.