“Here it comes – this is it,” Shamus said in a hushed tone. He was preparing to pull off the biggest heist of his life.
“The caravan is massive. Six carabao to pull it. Do you think it this will be the big one?” said Silo, Shamus’ right-hand man.
“I know it is,” said Shamus. He lay hidden with his four men in a jungle brush, overlooking an ocean bluff. The caravan held the mother load of Portallium. Even for Shamus, an accomplished mercenary, this haul would be worth more than he’d ever taken in a single hit.
But Shamus wasn’t in it for the money.
Bigs cut in, “I’m gonna buy me a nice palatial estate. One with a gym and a pool.” His voice was giddy and mouth wide. Was he actually drooling?
“Already got one of those,” said Silo. “Overrated. What do you reckon Shamus? You’ve brought in more haul than any of us.”
Shamus was silent. Amateurs. The last thing a good mercenary thought about before a heist was the prize.
Cueball, the smallest and newest member of the team broke the silence. “What did they promise you, Cap’n? You still never told us. Must’ve been quite a fortune to get you to come out of retirement all the way out here, especially where – ” Cueball bit his tongue. He hadn’t meant to bring up the sore subject. It was the excitement of his first job that got the better of him.
Portallis was where Leilani Sharpshot, Shamus’ only daughter, had died.
“It’s ok, Cue,” Shamus said, barely audible. He didn’t make eye contact. “They promised to take me to where it happened.” He felt pressure in his eyes build up but blinked it back. Leilani was all he had left on this world. He wouldn’t believe that she was gone. He couldn’t believe.
He had traveled around the world to the lost colonies of Portallis to find his daughter. Everyone thought he was insane but he didn’t care. If he was insane then maybe he could at least be closer to her.
The team turned their heads and looked at Shamus. They were silent. This was the elephant in the room that they avoided these long months at sea.
“For Leilani then” said Silo. “This will be for -”
Shamus growled. “This filthy work we do is what took my little girl from me. There is no honor in it.”
“Sorry sir” said Silo.
“For the record, no one actually saw her drown,” Shamus said.
There was silence. Everyone but Shamus believed that Leilani was dead. There was no sense in rehashing that difficult conversation, especially when they needed to keep their eyes on the target.
“Let’s get this over with then,” said Shamus.
Here in the lost colony of Portallis, the team lay hidden beneath leaves and bushes in the jungle. Their bodies were caked in brown mud, blending them in with their surroundings. A hundred meters ahead of them rolled a caravan the size of a large shed traversing its way along the rock bluff. To its left was a steep drop-off into the Portalline Bay. To its right lay a dozen feet or so of rocks that merged into thick jungle terrain.
Shamus watched as the drums of the Portallline warriors undulated against the tranquil backdrop of waves crashing against the nearby bluff. The pristine waters seemed to breath at a pace that caught every other drumbeat. The caravan gave off a mild hue of bluish green as it concealed the Portallium within.
Portallium was a luxury good in the Adaran Empire. The rich prized it. A haul this size was worth a lot. However, he couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to it than that. Any mercenary could pull off this job. Why hire him unless the Empire couldn’t afford to fail?
Shamus thumped his boot to the sound of the drums. Relaxing, he thought. Memories flooded into his imagination of his own youth in the Capscatian guard. He served the mandatory two year conscription requirement before turning mercenary like most of his friends. The gentle beat twisted to resemble his own national anthem, that he had listened to every day as a young scout. The Elegy of the Stars, he recalled.
“Dumating ang Sarangay…” sang the troop in their native tongue, contrasting the words in Shamus’ mind. Shamus felt the vibration as the melodic rhythm continued on. He’d heard the tune before during his time on the Isles – this was one of their traditional marching songs.
“Sarangay…” Shamus muttered. Where had he heard that before? He remembered. It was the mythical beast he’d been briefed on by the Blackfell Corporation – the company that officially owned this op. The Sarangay was supposed to resemble the legendary Adaran Minotaur, and had incredible strength. It wasn’t real. Just some native story. Still, there was a part of it he couldn’t quite remember.
The troop of twenty Portalline warriors and three civilians were led by a group of carabaos. Carabaos were water buffaloes that easily traveled across the wetlands in the Portalline Isles.
“Silo, take the men and prepare to fire,” Shamus said. “I’m going to circle them in the brush where they can’t see. When I have the drop on them I want you to open fire.”
“Sir, that’s risky,” said Silo.
“I know what I’m doing Si,” said Shamus. He wanted a bit of distance after that conversation and this would be an easy job anyway.
Shamus said, “Let’s not hit the civilians.” The Capscatian Honor Code dictated that civilians not be targeted in combat. Most mercenaries didn’t care for the code but Shamus did, and he demanded the same of his team. He might be old-fashioned but he was a man of order. His attention to detail, especially the rules of engagement, had been paramount to his success as a mercenary. No one in Capscatian history had matched his record of success.
Shamus silently pushed himself into the thick vegetation. Dew from the leaves splashed onto his mud-caked face, providing a small respite from the equatorial heat. He had to take a sip of water from his canteen every few minutes to maintain his lucidity. The long sleeves he wore to protect him from the thorny jungle plants didn’t exactly keep him cool.
Shamus had to push through, and fast. He’d been through enough heists to know that the element of surprise could make or break a job. He moved in an arc, circling through the bush and closer to the troop that traveled along the rocky path. Shamus pushed aside the trees and leaves, ignoring the pain from the thornbushes he passed through.
The caravan slowly rolled along the narrow path that hugged the edge of the bluff. To the right of the caravan, Shamus crawled closer, hidden in the thick vegetation. The jungle lined the side of the road opposite the ocean bluff. The trees and bushes were so thick that Shamus couldn’t actually see the enemy soldiers. He knew from his prior count that there were ten warriors and three civilians.
Shamus could triangulate the position of the caravan from the beat of the drums. Time to get this over with. Shamus crawled right up to the caravan’s position. He only a few feet away now, and was close enough that he could see troop walking by him.
The warriors were bare-skinned and had bandanas made of braided palm leaves. The leaves frayed at the ends and ran over their shoulders. They also wore necklaces made of carved bone spikes that hung over their chests like rays of the sun. In contrast, the civilians were fully clothed in loose long sleeve tunics. They wore light brown conical hats made with the local reeds.
Shamus peered closer at the civilian. Did her eyes glow? Shamus squinted his eyes to sharpen his view but then widened them in surprise. Had he miscalculated? It couldn’t be. This wasn’t a Portalline civilian but an adept. He’d never before come in contact with an adept – a dangerous Portalline who could wield the power of massbinding. Their ability to change mass density made them impervious to conventional weapons. They effectively calcified their bodies to become bulletproof and could do the same for those in close proximity.
Shamus’ heart raced. There wasn’t just one adept but three. He’d have to take them out as quickly as possible but he’d just instructed his crew to only target the warriors. His hand clutching his rifle began to clam up.
“Awfully cold out today” one of the Portalline warriors said sarcastically. Virtually every day was a hot day in the Portalline Isles, a large set of equatorial islands in the heart of the Arcatic Ocean. As the civilian opened his mouth to respond to the comment, the warrior’s head exploded in a medley of blood and brains. The warrior adjacent to him screamed with eyes wide at his companion’s condition before himself combusting in a mix of body parts. Half the troop were killed off within a few breaths. None of the adepts were targeted.
“Alalay’s Ghost!” yelled an adept as he dove for cover underneath the caravan.
The three adepts began to glow. Not just their eyes but their entire bodies. Their light was blue, green, orange and red, like the colors of a coral reef. The light extended and moved like the tentacles of an anemone and covered their entire contingent. Because Shamus was nearby, he saw his own body take on the same cyan hue.
They are probably adding ‘heaviness’ to the full troop. This would be a difficult task given the size of the troop and the caravan. But if the contents of the caravan were Portallium crystals as Shamus was taken to believe, then the adepts would have an almost unlimited supply of power on which to draw.
A second barrage came from his crew – five warriors fell. The crew’s aim was impeccable. Not a single adept had been hit. Unfortunately for Shamus, he now had three adepts to kill. He needed to act fast before they could use their abilities.
Shamus leaped from his hiding place, and drew his sword. He slashed the nearest adept, delivering a mortal blow to the torso. The troop gasped in surprise. Shamus pivoted his body, positioning himself to close in on the second adept three paces away.
The other two adepts accelerated their own ‘heaviness,’ protecting themselves against the oncoming volley.
Shamus lunged forward with his sword moving to spear the second adept through the chest. Reacting to this attack, a warrior body-slammed the adept to move her out of Shamus’ way. Shamus’ sword instead plunged into the warriors exposed back, puncturing a lung. The soldier’s back arched backward as he screamed.
Shamus removed his sword and made for the escaped adept. As he did, a cyan glow gushed forth from her body, covering the entire group in a blue fog. This was the ‘heaviness’ binding Shamus had feared.
Four warriors remained with the two adepts. They had no upper body clothing, only tattoos, but with the ‘heaviness’ binding they did not need any. So long as the two binding adepts lived, they would be invincible to anything the crew could throw at them. With the mother load of Portallium in the nearby caravan, they also had a virtually unlimited supply of power upon which to draw.
Before Shamus could complete his next attack, a third volley of fire erupted from the Capscatian’s position. This time the entire group of Portallines shrugged off the shots. The bullets fell off their bodies like pebbles on a beach.
Something wasn’t right. Shamus sank a half inch in the dirt. He looked down, and the ground had a deep indentation from his boots. Too deep. Could it be? When the adept bound the troop, she must have included Shamus. Was this an accident? She was rushing to complete the binding after all.
Shamus reached out and touched a nearby thornbush. It didn’t penetrate his skin as he clasped it. The thorns gushed like berries under his grip. This was quite unlike anything he’d experienced before.
The hot sun beat down, directly overhead. Shamus raised his sword. It was long and thin, made of the finest Adaran steel. f he could take out both adepts the rest of the job would be easy.
He lunged forward slashing his sword. The gleam of the sun reflected from his blade as he sliced. The cut was clean. The adept’s head rolled off and thumped as it hit the ground. The adept’s lifeless body toppled over and blood flowed profusely. Her eyes blinked twice before closing shut.
“Protect Palawa” screamed one of the warriors. “She’s the only one left.”
Finishing his swipe, Shamus jabbed his sword into the screaming warrior’s gut. A second warrior with a large snake tattoo across his face was thrusting his spear toward Shamus’ torso. Shamus withdrew his sword and cut the spear clean in two. He caught the front half of the spear in his hand before it hit the ground and threw it into Snake Face’s leg. Snake Face yelled and backed away.
The remaining two warriors approached Shamus with their weapons raised. Their eyes tensed and their hands clutched their spears. They closed in on Shamus. Two on one still wasn’t a fair fight – for the warriors.
The last adept emerged from her hiding place underneath the caravan to see what was happening, staying well-behind the warriors. This was it. If he killed the adept, the binding would be finished and his men could pick apart the rest of the troop.
Shamus raised his right arm toward the adept. The extension of his arm revealed a small, hidden revolver in his sleeve. He pulled the trigger. The gun fired a bullet directly into the adept’s chest. Nothing happened. It hadn’t even penetrated her tunic. The adept’s mouth curled upward and she straightened her back, her head downcast. She withdrew the bullet from her clothing.
Shamus’ eyes widened as he stared. He took a step back. Something was wrong. The ground didn’t shift underneath him. The adept had withdrawn the ‘binding’ from Shamus. Either that or killing her colleague had done the job. Whatever the case, he had run out of options.
The warriors stepped forward with their spears. The ground underneath them left deep footprints in the ground.
Shamus turned, running towards the brush. At least he could outpace them. He raised his hand into the air, palm inward. “Fire,” he shouted, echoing his hand signal. He hoped the distraction would buy him time.
The mercenaries opened fire. Their bullets slammed into the Portalline warriors.
The warriors jerked their heads to look at where Shamus’ squad lay ahead. They laughed aloud. With the adept casting ‘heaviness’ over them, they were impervious to the attack.
Shamus clenched his teeth. This ruse only gained him a moment of time. His eyebrows furrowed. Perhaps the carabaos didn’t have the ‘binding?’ Shamus grabbed his sword and rammed it into one of the carabao’s rear ends. The sword easily embedded itself into the animal’s large buttocks. The beast let out a deep, raspy bellow and ran. The team of animals discomboulated in a display of panic and confusion. Shamus clasped his sword, repeating his strikes to drive the animals closer to the edge of the bluff.
The carabos bellowed loudly in disarray. The animals’ deep guttural yelps resounded through the jungle. Their tangled reins kept them from running, spreading them out as they edged closer to the cliff.
Intuning Shamus’ intentions, the warriors darted forward to stop him.
Cow tipping. A favorite Capscatian pastime. Shamus’ eyes widened and he smiled as he remembered sneaking onto his neighbors’ farms at night and tipping over sleeping cows. They would wake up in a daze after hitting the ground with a thud. Shamus sprinted toward the lead carabao, slamming his shoulder into the beast, which straddled dangerously near the edge.
The animal toppled over the bluff, bellowing as it fell. Shamus could hear its yelps as it hung in mid-air. Its reins kept it from falling to the bottom. The weight of its pull was too much for the already confused group of carabaos. They soon followed their companion over the edge, and they took with them the caravan full of Portallium.
The cyan glow instantly disappeared from the warriors and the adept. The adept’s binding was useless without Portallium. The calcified bodies of the Portalline troop returned to normal. Their ‘heaviness’ was gone. Conventional weaponry would work again. Shamus had just turned the battle back in his favor.
Still, Shamus had a pit in his stomach. Without the Portallium, he wasn’t sure his mission would be counted as complete. Would the Adarans still honor their agreement?
The warriors were yelling in their native language. They looked, eyes aghast, at the edge of the bluff. Anger seared through their eyes as they approached Shamus. Their faces red hot. They drew their swords to finish him off.
One of the warriors had a large two-sided sword, which he swung in circular motions to his left and his right. The warrior was the largest of the team and had sharks tattooed across his body. He was truly a beast of a man. Shamus whinced. He wasn’t sure he could defeat such a man in a sword fight.
Shamus drew his hidden revolver and fired.
The warrior gasped and clutched his neck, blood streaming between his hands. He topped over, writhing on the ground. Without the Portallium, this group of warriors was nothing special.
Shamus drew sword and prepared to finish off the two remaining warriors, but only one stood to face him. The other, Snake Face, had he fled? Shamus flitted his head from side to side. Snake Face had escaped.
The remaining warrior lunged at Shamus with a spear but Shamus dodged and slammed his sword into the man’s gut. The warrior yelled in pain. Shamus removed his sword and advanced toward the adept.
Shamus hated executions but this adept would destroy him and his crew if he let her live. A feeling of regret entered his mind. She wasn’t exactly innocent and had nearly cost him his life. In the corner of his eye, Shamus saw Silo closing in on his position. The rest of his men wouldn’t be far behind.
Shamus walked slowly toward the adept, locking his eyes onto hers. She was the only one left. The others were all dead except for the one who had fled.
Her eyes were oriental in shape like the natives but dark green like Shamus’ own. She had a flat nose and jet black hair that flowed in the wind. The likeness to his daughter was compelling but it wasn’t Leilani. The girl’s mouth was wrong and her skin was darker.
It was enough to make him wonder. A shiver ran down his spine. His heart skipped as a beat as recognition flooded into his mind. Impossible. It couldn’t be her, could it? Shamus froze in place.
“Leilani?” he said.
Her eyes widened as if recognizing the name. “No,” she said. The girl cast her eyes downard.
“You knew her?” he said.
“Where is she?”
The adept blinked and stared at him as if unsure of how to respond. “Leilani has submerged.”
His daughter was half Portalline and this woman had her features, especially her eyes. What could she have meant by submerged? If she meant drowned, why didn’t she say so?
They were green eyes, like his.
“Tell me what you mean?” he said. “I must find her.”
As he stood facing her, she stood at the edge of the bluff, her dark hair flowing in the wind. Shamus’ sword was an inch from her neck but he couldn’t finish her. It wasn’t right. She moved backward, looking at the steep drop behind her.
“You can’t have her,” she said.
“You don’t under-”
She took one more step back and fell before he could finish his question.
Shamus lurched forward to the edge and peered. There was a ripple in the water below from where the adept landed. Could she have survived?
Shamus breathed out. It felt like he lost her all over again. Even though this woman meant nothing to him, it was her likeness to his own daughter and the clue she held. The way she died in the water, just like his daughter was said to have gone. A vice took hold of his chest. Pain and anguish flooded through his veins as memories of his lost one retraced themselves in his mind. He couldn’t handle the raw, visceral emotion. Shamus dropped down to his knees and placed his face in his hands and groaned.
He sat there for several minutes. Just like that, on his knees. The emotions poured through him. He couldn’t take it.
A hand gently set itself on his shoulder. It was Silo. He and the others had caught up.
A rush of wind blew past him and an eerie green light poured through Shamus’ hands. He looked up, and saw. They all saw.
The adept was alive, and she floated in the air before Shamus and his crew. She appeared to have grown in size. Her light grew vibrant. It twisted and churned like bright sunlight breaking through water. The light hardened into hundreds of blue, green and orange tentacles flowing from her like a sea creature. Her head grew twisted horns of light like a carabao.
That’s what he couldn’t remember. There was a legend that an adept pushed to the brink may become a Sarangay, but no one had ever actually seen it happen, at least in recent memory.
Shamus’ emotions flew out of his mind and he shot up, alertness returning to him.
“Run,” Shamus said. Silo and the other mercenaries began to retreat.
“Aren’t you coming with us?” Silo asked.
“I got us into this. I’ll see this through.”
“If you stay, I stay.”
Shamus “That’s an order Silo.”
Silo frowned but obeyed. He tuned to the men.
Shamus said, “Besides, they’ll need you to lead them. He locked eyes with the Sarangay. He raised his rifle and fired. He couldn’t fire. It was the eyes. It had his daughter’s eyes.
The Sarangay approached. It moved its legs as if walking but this seemed to be more of an imitation of walking. The beast’s movements were more of a glide as it crossed the terrain closing in on Shamus.
Shamus turned to run.
Shamus made for his old position. His mind was awash in a mixture of grief and adrenaline. His instincts took over and he ran passing by his old weapons cache and swept up his rifle without stopping.
A hundred meters beyond he turned, he turned to face the oncoming Sarangay, raising his rifle and peering down its sighs. The creature passed over the weapons cache. He had a clean shot. There was enough ammunition in the cache to sink a sloop. Again, he couldn’t fire.
Silo fired from behind Shamus, and the cache erupted in fire. The roar was deafening. From a hundred meters beyond, Shamus’ skin was scorched from the heat. The Sarangay was engulfed in fire and smoke. Ash permeated the air. Shamus’ ears rang with a high-pitched scream that blocked out all other noise. He could no longer make out the crashing of the waves or the shouts in the distance. Nor could he see through the smoke.
Shamus could do nothing but wait. He coughed, barely able to breathe. In the gray fog, two green eyes started back at him. Advancing. As they neared, the form became clear – the Sarangay approached. It looked like the Minotaur of ancient Adaran legend, except for the light. The light looked straight out of a coral reef.
“You’ve won,” he said to the creature. “Finish it.”
This was a good way to die.
Shamus locked eyes with the Sarangay – his daughter’s eyes, his eyes. He would be witness to his own execution. He himself had witnessed the execution of countless others, mostly by his own hand.
Shamus admitted to himself that he was afraid to die. He lived a life of adventure that anyone in the world would envy. He had seen fantastic success, especially for a poor boy from Capscatia. Yet he felt a hollowness within himself – a deep sorrow. He had failed to protect the people he loved the most life. His wife Clotilda, a slavewoman from Portallis, had died in childbirth. His daughter, Leilani, had adored her father. He loved her beyond anything in this world, but he couldn’t protect her from wanting to be exactly like him.
She grew up to be a mercenary just like her father. She was an excellent soldier but she also had a depth of emotion and caring that came from her mother. For a mercenary this was weakness, even death. If she lived, he had lost his chance to find her. This was what he was afraid of at the end of it all.
The Sarangay raised its hand and a tendril of light shot out, forming into an axe. The creature raised the weapon over its shoulder, blade facing Shamus.
Oddly, the Sarangay began to flicker. Like candlelight.
Shamus’ skin chilled as the creature swung. The blade came within a half inch of his neck when the beast vanished into mist.
Shamus stared incredulously with his mouth ajar. “What just happened?”
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