The skies burned with plasma ordinance. It scorched the horizon with radiated violet fire, burning over charred mountains and skeleton forests as more ‘traditional’ artillery boomed in the distance. The still air smelled of burned leather and rotted flesh, it was unbearably hot, and the very tendons of the weary travellers ached under the relentless trudge through the ruins of the wild.
Sylissa wiped her nose on tattered rags, stifling the urge to cough as it would force her to breathe more of the despoiled air. Erilla – her seven year old daughter – sighed and bemoaned the crossing, dragging her feet in the sludge while Brin – her five year old son – pulled on her arm as he straggled behind.
In their escape from the city they joined a broken squadron of soldiers who received the order to retreat too late. Four weary warriors who looked more dead than alive.
The rat tag group of refugees marched along a river, quaint if not for the toxic colour and horrid stench. But the reeds still stood in their thousands along the bank, still a crisp gold as they hissed against one another without a breeze to speak of…
“Mum,” Brin collapsed and dragged Sylissa down with him, “I can’t walk anymore.”
“Come on Brin,” Sylissa’s sigh was a rasp through her dry mouth, “It’s not safe yet.”
“I can still walk!” Erilla turned and sneered at her younger brother, the opportunity to put a barb in a sibling overriding her own exhaustion.
“I hate you!” Brin surged up and stormed over to Erilla, screaming at her face. “You always think you’re so much better than me! I hate you!”
“Would someone please shut those children up!” One of the younger soldiers rounded. “Do you have any idea what we might have to go through to get to safety? Just shut up!”
“Hey,” Sylissa dragged her children apart and stood between them and the soldiers. “They’re only kids, this is hard for them!”
“It’s hard for them!” The soldier laughed. “Lady, you’ve got no idea what hard is.”
“Lay off it Jaspen,” the only female soldier stepped within his line of sight, leaning on her rifle like a cane. “This civvie was in the thick of it too, just, keep marching, maybe we can survive this.”
“Pfft, they’re your problem Reena.” Jaspen turned and hobbled along to the two other soldiers who were glaring at him and Sylissa’s family both.
“Thank you.” Sylissa said to Reena’s back. “I know it’s hard on them but I’ll keep them in check, I promise.”
Reena spun and turned her own venom onto Sylissa, “You better, every time that brat whinges he gives away our position. We aren’t just in danger from the enemy you know… the plasma ordinance… it does something, to the survivors… and not to mention the escort you chose.” Her gaze shifted back to the three soldiers continuing their march. “How long do you think they’ll try and protect a group of strays once they realise the whole countryside has been blanketed by violet fire? If you slow us down again, you’re dead.”
“I,” Sylissa bit her lip, “I understand.”
“Make sure the children do,” Reena turned and hobbled away.
Sylissa took a moment to breathe, choking back the foul fumes that rankled her nostrils and squatted to pull her children apart again. “Did you two not hear her? We’re still in danger!”
“But Mum!” Brin complained.
“But nothing! You have the energy to fight so you have the energy to walk, I need you to keep up, and I need you…” She glared at Erilla, “To not provoke him.”
Erilla scrunched her face and stormed ahead.
Sylissa sighed with relief, “Okay, come on Brin. We’re almost there.”
They continued their staggered march for another half an hour, following the bend of the foul stream which still bubbled with sickeningly pleasant sounds. Besides the water and the reeds that hissed against each other there was nothing else to hear. The artillery had stopped and there were no birds, no crickets, just seven tired souls.
“You said we were almost there!” Brin moaned.
“Almost there, Brin, I promise.” Sylissa lied.
“But I’m hungry!”
“We’re all hungry Brin,” Erilla sneered again, “Stop thinking about your own stomach!”
“I hate you!” Brin barked.
“That’s it!” Jaspen spun and stormed over to the family while loading his rifle. “If that little shit makes another peep, he dies!”
“Don’t you touch my child!” Sylissa pulled her children behind her and stood tall, despite her aching spine. “They won’t make another sound.” Sylissa desperately looked to Reena who stood back with the other soldiers, watching with trepidation.
“That’s what you said last time.” He cocked his rifle, and levelled it at her, “Do I need to make myself more clear?”
Something stirred within Sylissa, the same awful something that saved her family back in the city. “If you don’t aim that rifle somewhere else soldier, I am going to kill you.” Her voice was level, even, deep.
“Then you die first.”
Before he could pull the trigger, Sylissa surged forward. She didn’t know where the strength came from, she thought she had none left, but the shot of adrenaline that coursed through her was enough to satisfy one defiant thought – ‘He won’t hurt my children!’
She battered the gun away and racked Jaspen’s face with her nails, one caught in his eye socket and gouged the soft pudgy organ.
Jaspen screamed and fell back, firing the rifle wildly into the air. The shot rang out across the silent heath. “You bitch! You bitch you got my eye!”
“You stay the hell away from my children!”
Sylissa made to press forward when she noticed the other soldiers rushing over, one aimed his rifle at her – at a distance – and shook his head, the other wrenched the rifle from Jaspen as he tried to fire blind, and Reena pulled out a medical pack.
“Dammit Jaspen, were you really going to just murder a family out here in the wild?” Reena spat. “What I said still stands though, you can’t march with us,” she glared at Sylissa, “Find your own way.”
The soldier aiming at Sylissa dropped to one knee and trained his sights on the reeds.
Reena and the other able bodied soldier followed suit, their rifles sweeping the hissing river bank.
“Shut up,” Reena said to the groaning Jaspen, “Shut the fuck up soldier!”
“Where?” Sylissa crouched down and held her children low, “Where is the contact?”
“I saw something, in the reeds.” The soldier said. “There!” His rifle trained to the left and the other two followed. “Leprezan soldiers, identify yourself!”
A figure waded out of the water and through the reeds, squelching with each step and moaning like a wounded cat.
Sylissa’s hairs stood on end.
“Fuck me!” Reena said, “It’s a survivor, shoot him!”
“He’s a survivor though?” The soldier turned with a questioning glance, “We should help?”
“Violet fire survivor! Just take the fucking shot!” Reena ordered.
The soldier turned and fired, the crack rung out along the river bank and the figure in the reeds stumbled… and then pushed on.
“Shit shit shit,” Reena clicked her weapon, “Switch to full auto, all of you, take that thing out!”
The three soldiers opened fire, pilfering the figure with automatic fire until it finally went down in a shuddering mess under the onslaught.
Ears ringing, Sylissa looked up from shielding her children who were quivering under her arms. The soldiers reloaded and trained their sights on the figure’s location.
“Did we get it?”
The reeds thrashed as dozens of figures loomed out of them, dozens of disfigured, gaunt, corpse like bodies shambled towards the refugees. The soldiers engaged in a useless battle, spending a clip to take down a survivor each as a horde emerged from the river.
Sylissa grabbed her kids and ran, tripping and face planting in the dry dirt. She looked at her ankle, a reed and shot out and ensnared her, gripping tightly. She released her children and told them to run as she tried to free herself but more reeds shot out form the bank to bind her, wrapping around her arms, her legs and her mouth as the soldiers were overwhelmed and torn apart in a blood curdling row.
In the desperate grappling match wit the river bank, Sylissa realised in horror that her children had been snared too. She felt another shot of adrenaline on their behalf, she ripped free of a reed as the horde of survivors converged on her and her offspring.
More and more reeds reached forth to grab her, to choke out her cries and screams as her writhing children were stilled under the restraints of the river bank.
The survivors ambled closer, moaning, rasping, and Sylissa fought all the harder. More and more reeds ensnared her as she broke free of them, until she found herself unable to move at all. All she could do was watch her bound children with tear blurred eyes, waiting for the end.
She went limp with hopelessness
The survivors reached her, and passed over, heading for her still children. They passed over them too and continued their march into the wilderness, the whole horde ignored her and her family.
She watched them amble away and felt another presence behind her.
“I have haunted this bank for untold centuries, expelling my rage on the living.” The voice hissed like the reeds, with every word her children and herself were released, stalk by stalk. “When this war began, I delighted, more pain for the living who had wronged me, and then I felt my error. I realised that rage begets rage, horror begets horror. At times one must make the strongest choice of all, and just let it flow. The horror and the pain pass over you, it is frightening, it is painful, and then it is gone.” Sylissa was free enough to spin around and see the pale transparent shape of a robed figure blending back into the reeds. “Sometimes it is wise to fight with unrestrained rage, like you with the soldier, other times is draws them,” it gestured to the horde, “embodiments of bile, bitterness and resentment. It is difficult to know which time is which, it is even more difficult to act on it… so I helped you, mother of two, to make some amends for the suffering I myself have caused. Survive, and do not let the horrors of the world consume you, like it did those soldiers, like it did those things… like it did me.”
The wraith bled back into the reeds and was gone.
Sylissa tore the plants which were cracked dry from her limbs and rushed to her children, embracing them in tears.
“I was so scared I lost you!”
She held them close, and they held closely back.
“We have to keep moving.” Brin said in shock.
“We need to stick together.” Erilla sobbed.
“We’ll do just that,” Sylissa kissed them both and stood, her body protesting in exhaustion, “Stick to the reeds, and control your tempers. There are my little troopers, let’s go.”
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