Time seemed to freeze on the deck of the ship.
A few steps from where Cato and Anica stood were Princess Maeira, Kieran, and Kyros, all with weapons drawn. Around the three of them were a dozen heavily armed Elven soldiers. Beyond the soldiers, stood six black, gaping holes in the air, shaped like eight foot tall, monstrous creatures. Cato’s eyes refused to find any semblance of shape or form in the blackness, save for two large, shining eyes that caught the light of the sun in a way that seemed to defy logic.
For a moment, Cato considered their options. One of these creatures, alone, had been dangerous enough. Fighting six of them was obviously suicide. But they were at sea. There was no land to swim to. The only other place to run was below deck, and that would only delay the inevitable.
The alien shapes of the creatures moved. In a second, three of the soldiers were cut down. The long claws of the creatures sliced through metal as if it were air. It happened so fast that the slain soldiers made no sound beyond the escape of their last breath.
Chaos erupted across the deck. Swords, spears, and axes cut through the air. The creatures’ movements were unnatural holes in reality, always followed by the death of a soldier in one gruesome way or another. Whether any of the soldiers landed a strike, Cato could not see. They were being cut through like wheat, the creatures mercilessly making sure that none could escape.
A soldier in the back turned to the Princess and said something that Cato couldn’t hear over the growing sounds of armor crashing onto the deck. She nodded, said something to Kieran and Kyros, and the three of them sprinted back to Cato and Anica.
“Follow!” was the only word that Maeira said as she ran past, nearly barreling through Cato in the process.
There was no time to ask what she was doing before she was already below deck, with Kieran a step behind. Kyros at least had the decency to shrug helplessly. But Cato found himself hesitating. He turned to the rest of the deck, seeing those six tall forms killing their way through the line of soldiers that remained. Even if they were trying to fight back, Cato couldn’t help but see them as a wall of bodies, only serving to slow an enemy’s advance.
It was strange that it bothered him.
A hand grabbed his arm like a vice and yanked him down the stairs. Cato didn’t need to look to know it was Anica, but when he did he saw she was scowling at him. They said nothing as she dragged him after the others, winding through the lower deck of the ship until they reached a door.
Above them, the sounds of the massacre were slowing. Soon, the creatures would be coming below deck. As Princess Maeira opened the door, she glanced back to the rest of them, her face impossible to read, “We’re leaving.”
“Leaving?” Kyros looked back the way they’d come, noting the sounds above them had stopped, “How do you plan to do that?”
The Princess stepped into the room beyond, a small library with a single table near one wall. Pel sat there, a half dozen books around her, not including the one they’d taken from the creatures weeks before. She looked up at them, alarmed, “What’s happened?”
“They found us,” Anica spoke the words plainly.
Before she could add anything else, the Princess grabbed a book off of one shelf and tossed it to Pel, “There is a spell on the fourth page. Read it.”
Pel flipped to the page, scanned what was there, and looked up to shake her head, “This isn’t safe! The destination is variable. It’s impossible to tell where we’ll come out!”
“If we don’t use it, we die,” Kieran looked back over his shoulder, also noting the silence. It wouldn’t be long now.
As Pel nodded and started to read words that sounded like nonsense aloud, Anica went to the table, shuffled through the tomes there, and retrieved the one they’d stolen. The one the creatres wanted and, for some reason, also feared.
The air in the room grew cold. An almost inaudible pop came from no where in particular, and suddenly there was a glowing blue hole in the wall where a window had been before. Nothing could be seen through it.
“Everyone through one at a time,” Kieran spoke to all of them, then lowered his voice and looked straight to Maeira, “This is the right thing to do, Maeira.”
“I know,” her response was just as quiet, and Kieran gave her a nod before turning and disappearing through the portal. The Princess then turned to the rest of them, “Anica. Take the book and go.”
Anica shook her head, “Pel should–”
“Go, Anica,” Pel cut her off, her face serious. Something was wrong and she wouldn’t say. Cato wondered if anyone else caught it.
Anica did not seem to, as she nodded and went through the portal with the book next. Maeira was next, but she looked to Pel in a way that told Cato that he was not the only one that knew something else was happening here.
Kyros looked out of the room to the rest of the lower decks before putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder, “You first.”
“No,” Cato shook his head and pushed his brother over towards the portal, “I’ll be right behind you.”
For once, there was no argument. Kyros only nodded and then he, too, was gone.
Cato looked to Pel, seeing in her eyes what was left unsaid, “You aren’t coming.”
The Elf woman shook her head, “It has to be closed from this end.”
Silence. Cato didn’t know what to say. He’d never really liked Pel. She was always glaring and yelling at him. But he’d have been dead a few times over without her, and despite her generally angry demeanor, he knew she meant well.
“See this through, Cato,” Pel motioned to the portal, “Go.”
The unspoken words froze Cato’s blood. He turned and saw a rush of unnatural air enter the room, the shape gliding more than walking. It stopped, and for just a moment, Cato thought he could see a horrible, monstrous grin on the creature’s featureless face.
Suddenly, the creature’s claws thrust through Pel’s torso from behind, blood covering the shapeless black and making it even more unreal than before. The claws retreated from her chest and she dropped to the ground with a loud thud.
But Cato didn’t see Pel fall. He was too busy doing something monumentally stupid.
Sword drawn, Cato charged the creature. The room was small enough that he was on it in a moment, driving the point of his sword straight into where it’s stomach should have been. And his sword did go in. There was a strange push against the blade, as if the metal refused to accept that it was impacting with something real.
But something happened to the creature’s form. It shimmered a moment around the blade, and Cato could almost see what looked like shining veins growing out from where the sword had dug in.
For good measure, he twisted the blade before pulling it out. The creature did not fall, rather it stumbled back before seemingly blinking out of existence, leaving only a tense air of wrongness and death in the room.
Cato looked down at his feet to see Pel. She had the spellbook under her as she lay in a pool of her own blood.
“Can you close it?” it was heartless to ask, but Cato had to. If not, he knew he’d have to be the one to do it. Or at least, to try.
Pel struggled to nod, gritting her teeth and managing a few more struggled words, “See. This. Through!”
Before any other of the creatures could reach them, Cato went through the portal. It was only as he stepped through that he realized he hadn’t even thanked her.