No reply came, save the soft buzzing of insects in the warm, humid air.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll reveal our position to the locals?” asked Jomn, moving up to stand beside her. He shifted his carbine uncomfortably, casting his gaze around the immediate area.
They had been walking all day. When its tether line had snapped, Staun and Filia’s balloon had been blown by the wind. It had last been seen headed for this area. Ardrana’s dark hair, normally worn in a neat bun, had come loose and now hung in limp strands. Her uniform, once crisp and pressed, was stained with sweat and grime.
“It’s more important that we reveal our position to Staun, if he’s nearby,” Ardrana replied, though she privately agreed with the crewman’s concern. The dry, empty plain where the airship had crashed somehow felt more secure, since any approaching invaders would easily be seen. But as the search parties traveled, the desert gave way to scrubland,with some grasses and bushes tall enough to conceal a crouching man.
Ardrana had heard stories about Tajaniv Island, of how no colony or settlement had ever taken hold here. Some claimed that the island had a will of its own, and could either drive settlers to return to their homeland, or simply drive them mad. The people that did manage to live on the island led a semi-nomadic life, and did not always welcome outsiders.
Seven more crewmen, the rest of Ardrana’s search party, rustled through the stiff grass and came to a halt behind her and Jomn. Satisfied that they were still progressing, she continued walking and signaled the others to follow.
Jomn shrugged his wide shoulders and fell in step beside Ardrana. “I just would hate to meet up with hostiles with as little ammo as we have,” he said, casting an anxious glance over his shoulder.
Ardrana sighed irritably, flicking a strand of hair out of her eyes. The man may not have heard the stories about the island, but he was right to be wary. Still, she had to put up a reassuring front.
“Relax, would you? For all we know the locals are friendly, and helping Staun get back even as we speak. And if they’re not, they likely have never even seen a carbine, much less heard one fired. They’d probably just run away.”
“Let’s hope so,” Jomn replied, clearly unconvinced.
“Anyway, the other teams aren’t far away. You can still see Major Frendlen’s team over there.” She pointed off to her right.
“I know,” Jomn said, looking longingly at a line of crewmen, little more than dark dots, moving parallel to them across the grassland. He tore his eyes away from the distant group and looked ahead. “Let’s hope they’re in there somewhere.”
What lay ahead was a thick stand of trees, an island of green in the otherwise drab landscape. The vegetation within the copse grew taller and denser. Scattered about were a number of stone boulders, some of them appearing to have been shaped into pillars or blocks.
“If they came this way, it’s likely they would have at least investigated this area. It’s worth checking,” Ardrana said. She halted on the edge of the greenery while her team caught up. Once all eight people were together she spoke. “We’ll check this out. Stay close. Try to go two abreast where possible. Keep visual on the person ahead and behind. If you get separated, yell out — don’t be shy. If you get no answer, fire a round into the ground and stay put until we find you. Keep an eye out for any traces of Staun or … um … ”
“Filia,” a crewman snapped.
Ardrana faced him. “Filia, yes. Thank you–Montio, isn’t it? Now let’s go.”
The search party advanced into the copse. As Ardrana feared, the way through the vegetation became progressively tougher. In many places they were reduced to walking in a single-file line as the great stone blocks crowded close together.
“I wish we had brought swords,” commented Jomn as he thrashed his way through some heavy brush, following Ardrana between a row of blocks, each twice as tall as a man. “We could have cut our way through.”
“I think it thins out ahead,” Ardrana replied. She glanced back, satisfying herself that the others in her team were with her. She pushed through the brush and turned a corner in the passageway between the rows of stones. She paused, looking down, as Jomn waited behind her. “Yes! I see bare dirt, and it looks recently disturbed! I’m going to follow it. Wait here … I don’t want you to disturb the tracks!”
Ardrana walked slowly forward, her head down. “These tracks were made recently. It looks like they were made by someone smaller. I don’t recognize the tread, but it looks like at least one was barefoot.”
She continued forward. “I think they were headed into the thicket, but it’s hard to tell. I think they spilled something here.” She bent down and touched the ground, then brought her fingers to her nose. “No smell, so at least it’s not urine. They must have water, then.”
She took a step more. “Hang on. That looks like a different footprint. That’s three sets of tracks.” She straightened suddenly. “Natives.” Her voice tightened. “We better back out.” She turned back. “Jomn, tell the …”
The passage behind her was empty, with only greenery to mark the end. Her breath caught in her throat. She took a step toward the entrance to the passage, then staggered as the worst pain she had felt in her entire life seized her by the breastbone and froze her in place. Her hands clutched at her chest entirely of their own accord. Looking down, she saw a bloody spike protruding from the front of her uniform, squarely between her breasts.
Ardrana opened her mouth to call for help, but found that she lacked the breath to make a sound. Then the world spun around her. As she fell to her knees, she glimpsed a shaggy-haired man standing over her. He was dressed in cloth strips and patches of leather, and held a sword in his hand. The sword came up, then slashed toward her with terrifying speed. She tried to cry out again, then closed her eyes for the last time.
* * *
The passage between the stones suddenly filled with men, each outfitted in simple leather clothing and carrying blood-stained blades. They gathered around Ardrana’s fallen form, which was now surrounded by a growing pool of blood. The shaggy-haired man that crouched over her stood, and held aloft the woman’s severed head. He tossed it to the ground.
One by one the other men stepped up and tossed their burdens to the ground as well, until there were eight heads bleeding on the ground. The leader, bald and bare-chested, made a quick count of the heads, then was satisfied. He spoke quietly to the others, then motioned for them to go. A few men went to pick up the heads, but he waved them off. He made as if to heft one, then motioned with his hands to indicate something smaller. One of the older men held up a bloody token for the others to see: a severed set of male parts. The others nodded and moved off to seek their own trophies.
The leader went to Ardrana’s prone body and cut away her trousers. He rolled the body onto its back, then stopped, confused by the gender he saw. He muttered something, crudely cut off what he could, then turned to leave. As he headed out of the passage he paused to examine the heads. He watched silently as a fly landed on Ardrana’s dead face.
The chattering of his men caused the leader to look up. Some of them were examining the oddly-shaped wooden sticks that the strangers had been carrying, and wondering about their significance. He was about to tell them to leave the things alone, but curiosity seized him. Were they weapons of some kind? It was inconceivable that men would venture out unarmed.
He barked out orders. The men swiftly collected the sticks and, along with their human trophies, departed. The leader took one last look around, then faded into the jungle.
Silence fell. For a few moments nothing more stirred, then, high above the grisly scene, under a shallow ledge on one of the rock walls, a small sworl catcher slowly closed its eyes.