Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Chapter Two: Wayside(Part One)



"We're safe here," Jason said, standing at the mouth of a small cave. Estelle, further inside, eyed him over the few pieces of fruit they'd collected on their mad dash.

"So you say," Kui replied. "How can you be sure?"

"This isn't my first time," Jason told him. The big man turned back to the pair, and he settled cross-legged on the cave floor. "Not even close. I have experience."

"Do you?" Estelle asked. She rested her hand on her bow, staring levelly into those green eyes. "Who are you?"

"I told you, my name is-"

"Who are you?" Estelle repeated. Her grip tightened and she contemplated grabbing an arrow.

"Please, don't," Jason urged. "It would only be nasty for everyone involved. Haven't I proven that I'm a friend, after what happened earlier?"

"You've proven you didn't want those...people to catch us," Kui said before Estelle had a chance. "That's not the same thing."

"No, it isn't." Jason tilted his head to the side. "Why should I volunteer anything to you? I know little enough about the two of you - little more than you know about me."

"You know who I am," Estelle challenged. Jason's lack of reaction iron-plated her certainty. "That's quite a lot more than I know about you."

"I only know in the broadest sense," Jason hedged. "You cannot completely disappear, Estelle."

"Who said I was trying to?" she asked.

"I'm well aware you weren't washed up on these shores by choice," Jason replied, "but to tell me you want to return home now would be a frightful lie."

"Proving my point," Estelle said. "You know far more about me than I know about you. Fix that."

Jason snorted. He leaned back just a little. "I am merely a hand of the Messiah. I serve the Guiding Light."

"What are those?" Kui asked. "A person and his little personality cult, certainly, but what are they?"

"Personality cult?" Jason blinked. "The Guiding Light is an order whose origins date back thousands of years. It was founded on the principle its name embodies: to be a Guiding Light for all mankind. To lead them forward and out of darkness."

"Cute." Estelle frowned. "I don't believe you're that simple and pure."

"Our agents have been responsible for preventing terrible atrocities and deeds," Jason said. "We protect the weak. We're the line in the sand separating the innocent from the predatory."

"And your Messiah?" Kui pressed.

"A legend," Jason replied. "You'll see him with your own eyes when you come to the monastery with me."

"No one said we were going any such place," Estelle warned. "And certainly not that we would go with you."

"You will be safe there," Jason said, voice very calm. "You can find your purpose in this life in a safe place, and unravel the truths of who you are."

"Is that what you did?" Estelle asked.

"Yes," Jason replied, without hesitation. "Before the Messiah found me, I was lost. Much like you, I was cast adrift in life and had to learn to survive and thrive on my own. But after he took me in, I discovered who and what I was meant to be: a warrior for the light. He saved me from my own demons."

"And who said I had my own demons that I needed saving from?" Estelle asked. Jason just laughed.

"You've spent almost three years on this island, learning to hunt and to live on next to nothing, throwing aside everything and everyone you once knew and were. You rescued Ku'uaki from his captors and in the process more or less started a feud with them. And you still carry your companion's knife." He nodded to Estelle's blade. "You are commendably resilient and viciously talented, but whatever your skills, you have a path forward beyond simply that of subsistence. And only we can illuminate it for you."

"What makes you certain I'm meant for anything but this?" Estelle inquired. "No one else seems to think so." She winced a moment later. That wasn't entirely true.

Jason was silent for a moment. "Faith." He regarded her. "How were you cast away?"

"Don't you already know?" Estelle glanced uncomfortably at Kui. The tattooed man regarded her very intently, and somehow she was certain she would have to tell someone something. So much for an unspoken understanding.

"I know some, but not all," Jason said. "How long were you adrift after the storm?"

"Ten days." Estelle folded her arms. "Happy?"

"You're remarkable for surviving that long," Jason said. "How did you do it?"

"I had help."

"Really?" It was Kui this time, and he snorted. "You expect me to believe you let someone else take care of you? A go-getter like you?"

"I was a different person," Estelle said shortly. "Besides, I never said he took care of me, flat-out. But he told me what needed doing, and he was experienced at fishing and survival."

"Tell me," Jason urged. Estelle met his eyes, and he leaned forward intently. "Tell me your story, Estelle. How did you survive alone in the ocean?"

***

The soft lapping of the waves was the only sound. The sun Maximus beat down from overhead without pity, and Estelle knew her tattered dress couldn't protect her from burning in its harsh light. She was miserable.

But she had patience and will. Two qualities that kept her eyes fixed on the dorsal fin protruding from the ocean surface and circling her little, battered lifeboat.

The shark was curious. It wove its way closer and closer, until it was practically next to the boat. Like lightning, it lunged, and it wrapped its jaws around the fish by the boat's side.

That's when the hook inside the fish dug into the shark's mouth. Patience and will.

Estelle's arm flashed, and she drove a five-foot spar straight down through the surface and into the back of the little shark's head with all her strength. Blood exploded in the water and the creature thrashed. It took everything the slim young lady had to keep her hold on the spar, and she more than once cried out as splinters peeled off and dug into her palms.

It took hours...or, at least, it felt like it. Finally, the manic struggles faded to mere twitching, and Estelle could breathe. Not for long, though: there was blood in the water, and she knew what that meant.

"Come on," she whispered, reaching down into the sea and wrapping her arms around the dead predatory fish. "Sorry about that. You are rather magnificent in your own way."

She hauled the body aboard. Her arms ached from the exertion, but it didn't matter. For all her tiredness, she was elated as she plucked a long dagger from where it lay in Maximus' sunlight and drove it again and again into the shark's brain, just in case.

"I'm not going to die," she told herself in a low voice, heedless of the spattering blood that just days ago would have made her vomit. "I'm not going to die."

She bled the shark and dissected it as quickly as she could, dizzy and hurting as she was. Blood coated her chipped fingernails, and what little of her once-perfect polish remained found itself disappearing rapidly. She'd never fished before, or prepared a catch, but Estelle had patience, and will...and a small book she consulted frequently. The liver became bait for her next lines, and all the rest she either set aside for her meal now, or salted from a pile that had once been ocean water in the hot sun, then set out to dry.

Finally, she laid the bloody knife down. Estelle sank to a seat, barely able to breathe, and clutched the shark's meat with white knuckles.

For the first time in three days, Estelle ate.

***

It rained that night. Estelle used the remains of her once-elegant coat as a makeshift bag, and she caught as much rainwater as she could. She lay on her back in her little boat's bottom, mouth open as she tried to catch the rain in her mouth. Every so often, she had to get up and bail using a military helmet that she clutched while she lay.

Once, her grip on the helmet slipped, and it nearly fell into the ocean. Estelle let out a manic cry and barely caught it in time. She quivered in the rain, thinking about what had almost happened.

Eventually, the rain subsided, and Estelle took down her meager winnings of water. She had no other container to put it in, so regretfully, she used the helmet as a bowl of sorts.

As she drifted on through the night, Estelle curled up and shivered her way to sleep in the damp stern of her little boat, afraid, lonely and dispirited, but held together by patience, will, and one thought that she drove back and forth through her head like a band saw on a log.

I'm not going to die.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Chapter One: Fight(Part Two)



The first man, Kui spotted and intercepted. The assailant had a club, which was nice and all, but Kui had the spear he sometimes fished with, made from a long, thick branch Estelle had fetched on one of her hunting trips, the end whittled down with the dagger she'd been washed ashore with, the tip hardened in a fire.

Not that Kui needed the tip. He simply vaulted to his feet and gave the attacker a nice, solid whack that flung him straight off the ledge and into open air. The man shrieked terribly as gravity seized his arms and dragged him toward the far-below water's embrace. Unfortunately, that exposed Kui to the second man in the chain of what must have been a dozen, and this one had an honest-to-the-gods iron sword.

Estelle's arrow took him right in the weakest point she could find: his eye. He screamed and fell backward into his companions, and that was all the woman needed.

"Kui, come on!" She drew another arrow as the man practically appeared beside her in a flash of smoke.

"The stiff?" he asked, but Estelle chose to aim and fire and take one of their enemies in the shoulder rather than glance at Jason where he stood at her heels.

"My name is Jason-"

"I think he's a friend," Estelle said. "Where did you say-"

"We have to go this way," Jason ordered, and that it was an order was not open to doubt. "Now!"

He turned and sprinted straight for the jungles on the landward side of the mountain. Estelle paused to fire another arrow at their pursuers - and then to duck as someone shot back with a crossbow. The bolt ripped a small branch almost in half, and the raven-haired woman winced to imagine what it would have done to her.

"Estelle!" Kui practically hauled her past him in Jason's wake, and she didn't resist or argue. Instead, she clutched her bow and hunched over, her companion behind her and her unlikely ally ahead. They tore madly down the rocky slopes of the mountain, and before Estelle knew it, they were in the trees.

"How far?" she asked of Jason.

"Not terribly," he replied, not even sounding winded by what must have been a mile or two at a dash. Estelle envied him that: her breath came in ragged gasps and her legs only continued moving because she knew she'd feel so much worse when she finally stopped.

"Do better," she challenged through her teeth. "How far until we're clear?"

"Well, I imagine they'll have sent most of their best at you head-on, and set up a perimeter around the mountain," Jason said. "It all depends on if we can lose them in the jungle."

His arm flashed like lightning, and Estelle winced as she saw him take a knife from his belt and, in one smooth motion, fling it into the greenery overhead. An instant later, a body fell right in front of her, four inches of steel driven between his eyes.

"That's the perimeter," Jason commented, voice as level as if he were discussing the weather.

"Estelle!"

She threw herself forward on her shoulder at Kui's warning. An instant later, something went through the air where she'd just been, and she rolled to her feet, automatically slipping her bow over her shoulder.

She had all of a second to take in the man lunging at her, but then her hands were up and, as methodically as she would have done to one of the predatory lizards inhabiting the island, she wrapped her arm around his neck and threw her weight on his back. In an instant, she had him pinned face down in the dirt. Further instinct drove her on in that fraction of a second, and the long dagger she used for crafts and hunting found its way first into her hand, and then straight into her victim's ear.

It all happened before Kui or Jason had managed two steps her way.

I'm not going to die.

"More!" Kui's spear shot out and drove through the next man's arm. Estelle rolled upright, knife in hand, blood dripping from its tip, and set her teeth.

Jason intercepted the next one...and then the next one, at the same time. His elbows flashed, and in his movements Estelle saw the grace of a dancer as much as the brutality of a brawler. His enemies only struck air when they lashed out, and each of Jason's strikes seemed methodical and precise at least as much as they were forceful.

It was the final one who came for Estelle, and she fought panic with will: she would not die. Whatever it took. A cold flush went through her veins.

The man must have thought she'd be easy. He didn't reach for the axe on his back, likely assuming his friends could handle Kui and Jason long enough for him to finish this castaway girl standing before him. She would run, certainly, and lugging his axe around would impede his ability to chase her.

So, yes: Estelle ran. Right towards him, white-knuckled fingers wrapped around her knife's hilt.

"What-" No, he didn't expect that. Estelle stabbed, and she drove her blade up to the hilt in his bicep. The man retreated, and out came the red blade, Estelle slashing wildly as she pursued. She scored his shoulder, then his cheek in quick succession.

He caught her wrist and yanked. Strength versus strength was his advantage. Estelle's was his continued effort to underestimate her.

His fist caught the side of her cheek. Estelle reeled, gasping from the pain and stretching her free hand down her leg. Again he lashed out, and she couldn't get her hand up to block in time.

"Estelle!" Kui started for her, but his own foe had him pinned down.

The third hit came in. Estelle cried out, her hand grabbing for her thigh. She would endure. She had patience, and she had will.

Blow four sent blood spraying from her nose. She was dizzy and woozy and...and...

Her fingers wrapped around wood and feathers.

She'd never studied any martial arts, never fenced, never even taken proper lessons in archery...but she was a survivor.

I'm not going to die.

Her free hand rammed an arrow from her thigh quiver straight into her attacker's knee. He cried out, and Estelle's own knee went for the weak point she needed no training or experience to know men possessed. Before her newfound friend could finish doubling over, he released her hand, and that was the last mistake of his life. She drove her knife into one side of his neck at the same time as she snapped her arrow in half and drove the splintered end into the other side. Using knife hilt and arrow haft alike as handles, Estelle yanked her foe downward, and his head hit her other knee.

She drew her knife from his carotid artery as he slumped in ruin.

"A rare woman." Jason paused to kick one of his two broken, barely-conscious foes as the man tried to crawl away. "Let's go. There will be more."

"Of course there will." Estelle sheathed her knife, rubbing at her face with the back of her hand. "Lead." She met Jason's eyes. "And if you're lying to me and this is a trap-"

"What will you do?" the green-eyed man asked, sounding more curious than anything else. Estelle had only to glance at the two men he'd ruined completely to decide his bravado wasn't foolish. Jason was dangerous.

"Just lead," Kui ordered. He made a disgusted noise and threw his spear aside.

Without another word, Jason turned and started into the jungle. Estelle and Kui traded a glance before following him, listening carefully for sounds of pursuit.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Chapter One: Fight(Part One)


"Well, you almost look like you've had a good day," the tattooed man said as Estelle laid the carcass of a lizard almost her own size by him and the fire he tended. "Better than mine."

"Fish not biting?" Estelle asked: her first three words since dawn, when she'd left. 

"Only the little ones," her companion replied. "The good ones, they're waiting. Waiting for a better prize than a speck of bait. Or maybe they know where we fish. Animals are animals: animals are not stupid."

"Makes someone around here, Kui," Estelle said. She patted the quivers strapped to her thighs. "That's why I prefer this. They don't have to bite. I do."

"Huntress," Kui said, with a spark of a smile on his lips. "I'll take care of dinner." He glanced out at the beautiful tropical paradise splayed out below his chosen vantage point on a ledge halfway to the top of an old volcano. Estelle did the same, and she drunk in green trees and sparkling waters: crystal clear in the shallow bay directly below, and trending darker as her gaze passed over the reefs and shoals all but sealing the bay and out into the ocean.

It was a beautiful view. It was an old view: Estelle didn't know how long it had been since she'd been cast away here, but it had been months at minimum.

"No trouble?" Kui asked. Estelle shook her head. 

"No. Those men know better than to mess with us. I haven't seen or heard anything. I think they're playing their games on the other end of the island."

"Which implies someone lives there," Kui pointed out.

"Probably someone even nastier than that gang of kidnappers and savages," Estelle replied, and Kui didn't argue that point. The young woman turned for the cave entrance behind her only friend. "I'm going to get a drink and make some more arrows. Let me know when the food's ready."

"Sure." Kui was a pretty laid-back sort. Estelle had never asked about his life prior to the island, but she got the sense it hadn't been anything particularly extraordinary.

And well that she didn't ask, she supposed: she felt like it was an unspoken accord. She didn't ask about his story...and he didn't press for hers.

Estelle entered the cave, setting her bow aside. She walked over to the little spring in the rocks that had iron-plated her decision to settle here, so long ago. So long ago, in fact, that she hadn't had Kui with her. She'd brought him here, after-

She froze.

"Hello, Estelle," said a man she'd never seen before in her life, standing quietly in the shadows at the back of the cave. She took in his green eyes for a moment.

"You." Her one-word manner of introduction didn't seem to faze him, so she elaborated. "I've seen your eyes in the trees. You've been watching me."

"Yes."

"That's creepy." Her fingers wrapped around her bow, and her other hand inched toward one of her arrows.

"Only when you've been awake," the man pointed out.

"Still creepy." Estelle snapped her bow up and drew an arrow back. "Name."

"Call me Jason." The man raised his hands. "If you'd be so kind as to lower that-"

"I'll use it," Estelle warned. "One move-"

"You're impressive," Jason said, with no warning in particular. "I've watched you kill six men, Estelle. Three individuals - one of whom you took that bow from, I note - and then three more all at once. That was when you rescued Ku'uaki, I believe. A fight you actively chose, unlike the others. You tore them apart."

"You sound pleased," Estelle noted. She pulled her arrow back a little more. "Who are you?"

"As I said, my name is Jason," he replied, very calmly. "I represent a man who wants to talk to you."

"What man?"

"He is the leader of an order," Jason said, serenely. "We call ourselves the Guiding Light."

"And that means?" She reflected for a moment. "I've never heard of you. Explain further."

"All in time, Estelle," Jason said. He pushed himself off the wall. "I'm afraid we don't have much of that - time, I mean. Those men you hate so much? The ones you've fought, the ones that you rescued Ku'uaki from...they're coming. That's why you haven't seen them today. They're preparing to be done with you two once and for all."

Estelle considered. "And I should believe you...why?"

"You'll see for yourself, soon," he replied. "I'm here to help you escape them. I'm here to take you somewhere safe."

"Where would that be?" Estelle inched back toward the door, thinking of Kui. "Off the island, maybe? Don't tell me it's back in-"

"Certainly not back home," Jason said. "No. There is a monastery, on the far end of the island. That's where I'm from. The master sent me to watch you because he believes you need us. And we need you."

"Rich." Estelle paused as she heard Kui stir, as if he'd seen something. Jason nodded.

"They are coming, Estelle," he said, emphatically. "What are you going to do?"

She snorted, then lowered her bow. "Is that even a question?"

"You're going to fight, are you?"

"I don't really have a choice, now do I?" Estelle asked. "If this is to be how it ends, then I'm going to take this end and run with it. I won't go down soft."

"You are a rare woman," Jason complimented.

"I don't think that's so," Estelle replied. She tested the pull on her bow.

"Have you been trained?" Jason asked. "In fighting?"

"No." Estelle shook her head. "Learned to shoot by good old learn-or-starve motivation. Only kind of fight I got in before I washed up here was when I speared a shark on my little lifeboat." She paused. "Which was also a learn-or-starve moment, since it was my dinner."

"You have something that cannot be taught," Jason said. "Something a warrior who has trained and drilled himself for fifty years could lack. Something innate. I know only because I've watched you."

"And that is?" She set an arrow to her string with a little sigh, wishing she could have at least had a drink first.

Jason stepped closer, and Estelle met his eyes as he looked her over. There was a kind of light in those green irises she couldn't place, save to be certain it wasn't one of the usual suspects: not anger, not disappointment, not lust.

"You have the will to act," Jason told her, voice soft. "The determination to survive."

"Of course I do," Estelle said. "When I was cast adrift, a friend was with me. He told me we were going to survive." She took a breath as she heard faint shouting. "He didn't. So...I have to. It has to mean something. His choice has to mean something."

"I can get you out of here," Jason said. "You and Ku'uaki alike. Safely. It won't be easy, but it will be done."

"Estelle, problem!" Kui shouted. Estelle didn't react. She just stared Jason down with all her will.

"Do you trust me?" the green-eyed man finally asked.

"No," was Estelle's instant response.

"Clever girl." He actually grinned at her in the instant before all hell broke loose.