Colton’s boots on the ground let out an awful noise with each step until I slid after him, muffling the sound with my grip on the air. He was right. He’d never make it without me.
But he was certainly extorting me to get there.
I stayed behind him, cautiously looking around. Just like before, every few feet, he’d pause and tap the helmet, listening in to the static and traffic.
We dove this way and that, dancing around in the muck, as distant soldiers passed through the depths of the Mobile bayou. The water rippled slowly and languid, nearly stagnant despite the flow into the bay.
I could taste the salt.
It took a long while of walking, but the path became easier after a bit. The difference between the ground and the shore side became more pronounced; more existing. Instead of blind steps over treacherous ground, we were rising up from sea level. Up, up, desperate little inches and then-
We found a hill.
The banks of the bayou solidified into a triangular land mass that rose up from the brackish water into a defiant plateau. Sharp banks and heavy brambles hid anything from our gaze. Hid any hint of what was going on that required the Renegades to be this far from their base in Birmingham.
But the hill wasn’t heavy enough to hide the sounds of an active camp.
And all of the trees between us and the camp had been chopped down to reduce cover. The trees had been picked with skill in mind, just enough of the canopy left to obscure the sky, but enough of it down that it was practically a straight line between the road and the half turn towards the gates.
We weren’t visible, yet, but it was only a matter of time before someone showed up.
And the only path out would be straight through the island, as the path could only continue through the camp.
I stared at the ridge, and reality set in as I realize the island was surrounded in thick brackish water. This close to the camp, any movement in the water could give us away.
I shot a look at Colton, and his helmet radio turned on.
A flurry of spanish I could barely hear, and his shoulders stiffened.
I raised an eyebrow, my heart starting to thump.
Colton paused, and held a hand up, then his hand jerked, I stared at him, looking around desperately, and then heard the press of boots.
Then he shoulder checked me into the deep of the bramble bushes
I didn’t fight him for more than a second, but brambles caught on my armor and we were instantly engulfed into a maze of branches and leaves. Hooked claws and thorns.
With the masks on our faces, there wasn’t a risk of being blinded, but long scratches bled down my face and neck.
Colton froze up, staring at the branches, but he couldn’t voice anything-
But I was already on it.
I conjured up a light breeze to rattle the branches around us, drifting through the edge of the island.
Saw, just barely, the top of the head of a helmeted soldier. Didn’t like the looks of it, this close, but hiding in the pushes, pressed in among the depths of fallen leaves, detritus, and bayou mold and algae, smeared across every surface, I looked more like a driftwood log than anything threatening.
From my position in the mess of writhing branches, I could barely see boots moving past us. Ranks of them. Polished. Well kept. Covered in brackish water.
And the corpses they were carrying, covered in shrapnel holes and blood. I could smell it again, mixing with the blood trying on Colton’s neck, and the fresh blood that oozed when Colton took too much of a move.
Each time we had to stop and hide, each time we argued, it had bought the corpse retrieval party more time. What the hell were they retrieving the bodies for?
Now we could see the results of our handiwork in pure detail.
If I still had breath in my body, I might have given us away while they argued, the smell was rank now. How odd to look at something that was my enemy, but human; reduced to bloody chunks of gore rather than squirming with life and vitality.
Then they stopped in front of the bush. Boots pointed at each other.
Colton’s breath came out in short gasps, and I had to relinquish my hold on the light breeze to make sure it wasn’t going to get much worse.
After a moment of his gasps muffled by the movement of the soldiers next to us
His head jerked to the top of the bramble patch, which grew up the side of the island. It was conceivable he could climb up.
The recon would be invaluable. If he could get to the top of the ridge and scout it out, then…
We wouldn’t have to go through the camp. We might be able to crawl around.
Would take forever, but it would be safer.
I held up a hand, but the meaning was lost without our words.
Colton shook his head, and gestured at his helmet. Then over the ridge.
Slowly, the hand turned into a wavering thumbs up.
Colton’s shoulders stiffened. Determination. And he moved, rattling the bushes.
I conjured another breeze, sweat rolling down my neck, exposed to insects, mosquitos, and every other pest.
The boots moved. One pair faced towards me. Agitated spanish from a soldier. I made the breeze stronger, wishing I didn’t hear the pounding of my own heart and-
The barrel of a gun pushed into the bushes, moving them to the side.
My breeze made the bushes bob all the more and-
A strange hissing.
The gun jerked away from where I was and firmly into the opposite side of the bushes and-
Into the head of an alligator.
The beast turned to snap at the soldier, and the rifle went off. Three rounds.
My ears rang, and I saw stars from how close it was.
But the alligator went stiff from the holes through its brain, and the soldier dragged it out, tossing it onto the path. Arguments in Spanish.
Colton had made it through the bushes, and I stared at him. From my position, I could do very little.
Colton’s legs jerked as he peered over the top of the ridge. I was torn between watching him, and making sure the soldiers weren’t going to see us. What exactly were we supposed to do here?
Breathed in. Hot blood. Long scratches down my exposed skin, stinging with algae. Breathed out, lungs ached.
Colton’s body stiffened, and I watched and-
Bayous are never stable places. It came from being perpetually surrounded in water; island disappear during storms, held together by gnarled tree roots.
Nobody had ever been stupid enough to lay on top of that ridge. It only attracted birds, not humans, or deer, or anything else that could get up there.
So as Colton swung back to cover beside me, a chunk of it fell down into the camp. A large chunk. More of a boulder, really.
A number of things went through my head at that. What little part of me that could still bother thinking calculated out how slow my thoughts were working and how much adrenaline might be slamming through my body like Colton could slam whiskey.
Dangerous, perhaps, but-
The rest of me was screaming that if I didn’t intervene in the next few seconds, Colton was going to look a lot less like Colton and more like the dead bodies we’d sent to the bottom of the bayou, and there was no way that I, Gale, was ever going to let that happen to him. It screamed from the depths of my heart, lungs, cells, and maybe even my soul.
Which meant this was going to get a lot worse for us, but to not react at all would lead to Colton’s death.
The half boulder hit the ground, and the camp noises stopped.
Then the single plinking of a grenade landed in the middle of it. I spat out the pin, and reached for another.
Cries in Spanish, and then the movement of many people, like ants, gear abandoned, things left behind.
Then another plink, like a hot wet stone.
Then another, like an apple.
The brambles shook, but it was nothing compared to the sound of military explosives.
It was nothing to the beating of my heart.
Colton lunged out of the foliage, knives twinkling like diamonds in his arms, and slammed full force into the soldiers carrying the corpses of their fellow men. In. Out. In. Out, his skin covered in hot red, his muscles straining to complete it once more, barely sooner, just maybe maybe maybe and-
A soldier got a shot off-
Colton whirled around and-
The helmet shattered. Ballistic glass decorated the bayou floor. Held my breath.
The knight master finished turning and the knife caught the solder across the neck, digging in deep.
Then he tore his helmet off of his head and threw it into the muck. It bounced once, and then sank into the marsh.
“Come on,” Colton said, shooting me a grin. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Behind us, I could hear the soldiers. They sounded more like hornets.
Time to run.