Green ghosts were moving.
I could hear them, creatures that flitted in and out of sight as my consciousness fought to break into the present. Ghosts that had footfalls, ghosts that were running like men.
Transparent green forms metamorphosed into fuller bodies, gaining definition the longer I looked. These were human shapes, uniformed in the attire of soldiers. All around them was darkness which refused to be lifted, and I suspected they were hurrying in the dead of night. They were headed for a place that I didn't know of. But I would know in the next second; my mind was finding the answers relentlessly, gathering knowledge from the atmosphere itself.
The soldiers, all three of them, were always covered with a greenish glowing tint, always part of the night's shadow and incomplete. It was as if I was seeing them all through a screen, one that shook out of synch with their heavy gallops so that they were not always in view.
A deathly quiet was all around. It was an unnatural kind of silence. A black and impenetrable sky watched me from above and I wondered if that realm had ever been graced by the heavens. The ground, little more than a dimly radiant sheet of dirt, didn't seem to be standing still, but juddered in and out of sight. Beneath me a pair of scurrying black boots stomped over it, and I heard the pop of loose pebbles underfoot. Under my feet. I was running with the soldiers.
If only something would make a sound. I hated that quiet; it was too thick, too aware. Too sinister.
But when I looked ahead, it became all too clear.
We were travelling over flat terrain, miles of barren wilderness in which nothing lived. It was forsaken by animals large and small, shunned by even the creatures that slithered within the earth. The atmosphere above it was stained black, and there were no birds brave enough to traverse it. In such a land no one dared reside, because something terrible dwelled there.
A cursed island that knows all oceans and seas. The place which no ship will make its port.
Something terrible lives here. I am in danger. We are in danger.
And we are stranded here. No one can save us.
The desolate island was uninterrupted save for a pair of plain, high walls directly ahead. They were out of place in that wilderness, which caused the heart to shy away at the sight of them. These walls showed their immense height the closer we approached; they were as tall as towers, and seemed to merge with the sky. A narrow space was between them, an entrance of some sort. There was a chill in my head, one that revolved around a pushing force of warning; I didn't like that we were headed toward those walls.
One of the soldiers slackened their pace until I found myself looking into the lens of a pair of night vision goggles. The mouth underneath it was half-hidden behind the wide strap of a worn helmet, but I could hear the words perfectly by aid of the headset attached to my ear. They echoed tinny sounds.
"Are you alright?"
It was a woman. Her breaths could be heard over the concealed mouthpiece.
When I didn't answer she nudged my shoulder roughly. "Get it together, soldier."
On a thought I raised my hand and brought it toward my face. It was gloved, and the sleeve that accompanied it was covered in a soldier's uniform. My alarm doubled when I realized my other hand was being occupied with the task of keeping a heavy carbine aloft. Had the weapon always been there?
"...got to ask." Another woman in front was speaking in low tones to the one at her side. "I don't get why the Gorgon hasn't destroyed them—whatever they are."
A Gorgon lives there, beyond those walls. She has the objects mortals need to escape this island.
"Neither do I," said the fourth soldier.
"She could've destroyed them, Sarge. We could be walking into a trap."
She will not destroy them; she cannot. It is the hope of finding the treasure that brings stranded humans to her. The Gorgon eats humans, and they, if they want to escape, can only enter her home to do so.
"There's no other choice," said the sergeant.
"We're risking our lives on a fairytale. A myth." The soldier's voice was insistent, resentful.
"What isn't a myth, was what came and killed our private last night. If we sit around waiting to be found by passing ships, we're going to die. No ship will ever dare come here to save anyone, and it's because of that thing."
A very profound silence reigned. The quiet was listening.
The soldier at my side spoke. "Swimming to this shore cursed us too, didn't it, Sarge? We would've been better off waiting for the sharks. Because according to those fairytales, only a handful of people have ever made it off the island, and some of them lived only long enough to drown in the sea. Even they chose the sharks."
"We don't even know what the treasure is, or how it's supposed to help us get off this forsaken island," said the second soldier.
"Everyone shut up." The sergeant's voice was sharp and cold. She knew that the others had been speaking to keep their fears at bay. We were all afraid, though no one would admit it outright. Neither would anyone voice the suspicion that, despite being on the other side of those walls, we knew our words were being heard.
The walls were much closer, as was the entrance, that dark space between them. We were all filled with a sense of foreboding.
"You're very quiet, Private." The sergeant turned her head in my direction. "Are you alright?"
"I need everyone to be alert. If you see anything that isn't human once we enter that labyrinth, shoot it dead. And remember: stick together."
The island was suddenly filled with echoing laughter. It was a horrid, triumphant sound that broke through the silence like an unforgiving blade, piercing our ears and swimming inside our heads. The Gorgon knew we had come for her, and she was amused by this. We must have all considered the absurdity that surrounded the thought of entering the abode of a murderous beast to kill it, for an unknown treasure that would allegedly save our lives.
It isn't good to believe in fairytales. I had heard such words before.
The Gorgon was waiting. And if our fear caused us to turn back and run for the safety of the shore she would follow us there, and do to us what had been done to our fellow soldier the night before.
But what happened the night before? I can't remember it.
"What?" said the woman at my side.
Who was that soldier?
I can't remember that there had been a night before this. And I can't remember how we got to be stranded here.
That mental ball of string was as unbreakable as the strongest rope, yet a single tug was all it required for the truth to be unraveled. It flowed freely, and like an inward light, made clear much of what had been blurred at the back of my mind.
I wasn't awake. I was still sleeping in my bed.
Wake up. You'll die if you don't wake up—
"What?" The sergeant looked at me through her goggles.
But I knew they wouldn't understand any of it. In that world I wouldn't be believed, neither would I be understood on The Other Side.
I shook my head. Nothing, Sarge.
She looked at me a second longer before turning away.
We were standing by the labyrinth's entrance, but none of us was willing to enter it in that instant. The darkness that lay beyond was almost tangible, and our guns were trained on every suggestion of movement beyond it. We didn't want to hear the order that was sure to come.
"Kill that thing on sight," said our leader. "And no one leaves the group."
"Yes, sir," said the others.
We darted inside, our fingers on the triggers, guns aimed in all directions. Only after a swift scope did we move forward on taut legs. There was a slight confusion as to the direction which we would have to take; on either side of the entrance a passage ran into the shadows, pathways that didn't seem to end.
My heart sank. It had been my hope that the creature would have leapt upon us without hesitation so that the bravest of us would succeed in wounding it. But the Gorgon had anticipated it. She would play the game. She would draw us into the labyrinth, and we would follow because we had no other choice.
Our sergeant's signal voiced the order to take the left passage. We hurried down the smooth, solid floor. Our leader alerted us to the first opening in the wall, a smaller entrance just as dark. Beyond it lay another curtain of shadow, as well as other entrances that would lead us deeper and deeper. Already we were being made to choose again.
But the sergeant didn't pause; doing so might have weakened her resolve. She pointed at the space between the walls, and we went forward, my partner and I taking up the rear. The depth of darkness increased. We should have been able to mark our paths somehow so that we wouldn't be lost in the labyrinth, but none of us owned so much as a length of rope.
We passed through another entrance, and stopped suddenly upon realizing our leader had halted.
She sighed. "There's got to be an easier way to do this, or we'll be lost in ten seconds flat. We should go back to the start, then work our way from the outside in—"
"Sarge!" hissed the one at my side.
Immediately we all pointed our guns to the south, expecting to be set upon by the monster. We saw nothing.
"I just saw someone," the soldier said. "The Gorgon is following us."
"Watch out for it," said the sergeant. "And don't lose your cool. Let's go back the way we came."
Our limited vision trembled as we retreated into the second layer, looking left and right for the one we didn't want to see. The darkness was a blanket that we could almost touch, and each of us was suspicious of what lay just beyond the edges.
"There it is!" cried my partner.
Our goggles gave light to a creature standing to the west of us. For a fraction of a second no one moved. What we were gazing at wasn't human, but a thing that had more limbs than body. The greenish figure's arms and legs were sinewy, and each boasted the length of a man. What should have been fingers were long, needle-like claws that flexed slowly, threateningly. Its torso was the smallest part, and was hidden in tattered rags.
But it was the face that caused us all to fire in a frenzy. She possessed a multitude of eyes at the top of her head that were black as ink, save for the sharp lights that were suspended in each of them. The mouth was far too wide, enough to swallow a human whole, and the rows of teeth were long and pointed. The explosion of light caused by our speeding bullets lit the passageway. The Gorgon's body jerked. She was rabid, that monster, and the bullets that struck her did not bring her down, but made her furious.
It shouldn't have been real. I'd believed that I'd escaped that part of my childhood in which monsters were as real as humans and lurked everywhere, creatures that were more frightening with every nightmare. I'd told myself they didn't exist, therefore I was safe. Yet this one, this Gorgon, seemed far too real, and was sprinting over the ground with thumping footfalls thinking that it would grab one of us in the next second.
I couldn't tell myself that the monster wasn't real, because I believed that it was. I knew that it was. And I was deathly afraid.
We were being forced deeper into the labyrinth, and our pace was too slow, whereas the legs of the Gorgon were covering several feet with each stride. I tried to scream, even as I took aim and fired recklessly, but couldn't.
To our surprise she stopped. The monster braced herself on bastion legs, and the bellow of fury was transformed into a wide laugh.
She unslung a strap from her chest, and brought forward what had been hidden from our sight. A huge bow of pale human bones was in her left hand, one that was taller than any of us. The Gorgon's right hand reached into the top of her spine. She began to pull out a thick length of bone from the flesh of her back. The sucking sound shook us from our stupor. It was an arrow.
The soldier at my side cursed loudly. She grabbed my arm.
"Come on! It can see us in the dark! Run!"
There was a whooshing sound, as well as that of cracking stone, and the entrance which we had passed a moment before was pierced with the head of an arrow five feet long.
I kept my sight trained on the fleeing sergeant, and followed her steps. We turned corners and entered random openings. Passageways were no more than shaking green lines to our sight. She was running without a plan, as were the rest of us. Our only purpose was to get away from that monster, yet our recklessness was sure to lead us right to it.
The sergeant halted without warning; she was out of breath, and couldn't speak while running. She bent over, refusing to push her gun aside, and looked left and right. We didn't know where we were, only that we'd gone much deeper than wisdom would have allowed. The walls all looked the same. The pathways looked different. Some of the walls were curved, while others were cut off at sharp angles. And there were entrances everywhere, leading here, going there. The labyrinth was quickly driving us insane.
"We need to keep running," said one.
"Keep your voice down!" our leader hissed. "That thing can hear us better than we can hear it. Listen: we need a new plan. We have to kill the Gorgon first before we can think of finding that treasure."
My soldier at my side was baffled. "You mean you want us to hunt for that? We can't!"
I agree, I thought. If we try to tackle it, we'll die. We should run.
"It isn't the cowards who survive, Private," said the sergeant.
The cowards do survive. Our guns won't stand up to the Gorgon. You saw how the bullets didn't slow her down. Our best bet is to find the treasure before she finds us and get off this island.
The sergeant paused for breath. The tension in the atmosphere was thick.
Something caught my eye, and the words were loud in my head. The Gorgon!
Though the eight-foot tall creature was a lumbering thing, she'd come upon us quietly on flat feet, having moved past the entrance to the west of our hiding place. Now she cowered slightly some yards away, under the deafening hail of bullets that were being fired at her. A wide hand was raised to protect her crown of eyes, eyes that we could not look at for very long.
We were spending far too many bullets. Soon we would be out.
Stop! I reached for the arm of the nearest soldier. We're wasting ammo. Sarge, stop!
"No!" cried the sergeant. "Waste that thing! Kill it!"
The Gorgon turned her back until her body was bent unnaturally and the skin of her trunk was taut. The clawed hand reached into an opening within her flesh at the base of her neck. Her body jerked where the bullets struck, but she wasn't knocked off her feet, neither did the Gorgon scream from pain. She felt no pain. The monster began to pull out another long bone. Another arrow.
The soldier and I, who were now farther away from the Gorgon than the other two, stepped back before breaking into a run.
Get out of the way! Move!
We were fleeing at breakneck speed, with our guns pressed close to our sides. Our boots barely touched the earth, and I could hear the breaths of the soldier next to me. But I couldn't hear my own, because in that place I wasn't human. I could hear the footfalls of the ones behind me, and the seconds that elapsed were being stretched into lifetimes. But what I couldn't hear was the sound of the Gorgon loping after us. I didn't want to look over my shoulder and confirm my fears; that she was standing still to take aim at one of us with her lethal bow and arrow. Once she released that missile, one of us would be taken down. I was sure of it.
Then I heard it; the song of the powerful string that sent the arrow flying. Another moment of labored breaths, then a thud, a scraping sound and a gut-wrenching scream. I looked back, in time to avoid the soldier's body as it was dragged over the ground. The arrow had found its target in the woman's thigh and without losing momentum had pushed her further down the passage until she had almost overtaken me.
The sergeant got to her before I did, and tried to lift her onto her feet. My goggles were clear enough to show that most of the woman's leg was swinging, hanging on by ropes of flesh. Her cry was guttural. She'd lost her mind from the pain, and was flailing wildly. The arrow was weighing on the leg, but had not been lodged into it. Therefore the sergeant pushed it onto the ground so that its bloody shaft clattered on the surface, and fought to restrain the woman's arms. When she was slung over our leader's shoulder her screams intensified.
The third soldier fired at the monster in the hope of stalling her approach. But the Gorgon wouldn't be kept back. We fled. We needed to place greater distance between us and our hunter.
I could hear the soldiers on my heels as I entered several openings and turned a number of corners, hoping that my unplanned choices would cause the monster to be thrown off our trail. But only a minute passed before I realized that I couldn't hear the others as clearly as before. They were falling behind from labored lungs and burning legs, yet I hadn't grown tired. I gripped my head; the screams of the wounded soldier were like wails of a siren. Because of her, we couldn't hide.
"Stop," wheezed the third soldier. "Hey, stop! We can't run anymore. We need to catch our breaths." She leaned on the wall.
My pace slowed. I was indecisive; I didn't want to be stationary when something was chasing us. The soldiers were like weights around my ankles. I fought with the thought of abandoning them, but was won over by the fact that the chance of survival was greater if we remained together.
The sergeant fairly collapsed into the stone floor, and the screaming soldier fell with her. She was quickly set upright. For a time we gazed at the torn leg and watched her thrash on the ground. Our thoughts were travelling down the same path.
"She's losing too much blood," said one of the wheezing women.
"I don't want to die," said the wounded soldier, "not like this. Not like this." She shook her head from side to side.
Shhh, I urged. Please be quiet. You'll bring it down on us.
But the woman had continued her cries of agony, which lost their volume only after I'd clapped a hand over her mouth.
"What are you doing?" the sergeant demanded.
She's alerting the Gorgon to our location, I thought.
"You can't do that."
If we can't keep her quiet, we're as good as dead.
This incited the woman to launch into a fit of muffled screams.
I pressed my hand harder over her mouth and pointed the gun at her head. Be quiet, or I'll have to silence you.
"You're threatening her?" said the third soldier. "She's in pain!"
Then what should I do? What should we do? We want to live, don't we?
The woman gave no reply.
What should we do? I persisted.
She remained silent.
I looked at the sergeant. What should we do, Sergeant? The Gorgon's coming.
But she only shook her head helplessly.
I cursed. Why isn't anyone doing anything? I clamped my hand harder on the soldier's mouth. I said be qu—
But I'd been interrupted by a reptilian voice. Like a living thing, it floating over our heads and surrounded us on every side.
"Come out, come out. I will find you."
The voice pushed itself off the walls. It danced over the floor.
"That thing can talk." Horrified, the sergeant aimed her gun at the unknown. "Where is it? Where is it?"
The wounded soldier moaned against my glove. "It's going to kill us."
I knew this was a dream. I was, at least, sure that it should have been just a dream. But what the Gorgon did to that soldier didn't seem to be a hallucination. The screams weren't a hallucination. I was going out of my mind, terrified at the sight of it let alone what it intended to do to all of us. What it could do to me. Telling myself that I couldn't be killed in this world was not working, not anymore.
It would be on us any second.
The words were stuttering their way out of my head. The treasure is at the center of the labyrinth, right, Sarge?
She looked at me and nodded. "That's what the story says."
Then that's where we have to go.
"No!" said the other soldier. "There's no way we're going there. We won't get out."
If we find the treasure, we will.
"That's a big if. It might all be nothing more than a fabrication. There might be nothing there and we'll be worse off than we are now."
Those words were like blocks of ice to my heart. I knew our predicament, and it was causing that old paralysis to freeze my limbs once more. I bowed my head, tormented by the hundreds of warnings that shrieked within it.
And I saw something that I hadn't taken notice of before. A pair of grenades was attached to the front of my vest.
"Come out," crooned the Gorgon. "Let me see your horrified faces."
We have no other option.
The soldier hefted her gun, thought better about what she had been about to say, and paused before speaking again. "How would we get there?"
By using these. I removed the grenades, and handed my gun to her. Your ammo is almost spent. Use my gun.
"Won't you need it?"
I'm going to need you to cover me while I blow these walls down, do you understand?
The woman nodded uncertainly. "Yes, I'll cover you."
After reaching to pluck her own grenades from her vest, I turned to the others. Sarge, you're going to have to carry her again. Don't fall behind.
The sergeant nodded, and proceeded to pick up the wounded woman. The onset of her screams was the cue that would set everything in motion, and I relied on it to push me forward to do what had to be done. Her cries made sure that there was no turning back, because the Gorgon was sure to know where we were.
My thumb pulled the pin of a grenade, and I hurled it at the base of another wall beyond the nearest entrance. The blast came when it should, and we were all rocked off our feet. Rubble and a vicious green cloud of dust blocked our vision, but I was already running through the hole that had been formed in the first wall and two others ahead of it. The soldiers were close behind, sprinting blindly.
No sooner had I passed through the first one than my hand sent another grenade forward. The loud explosion threw us all on the ground, with broken stone arcing over our heads.
Get up! Get up! I cried. Keep running!
My hand was already in the motion of throwing another bomb when I heard the blast of gunfire coming from behind. The Gorgon had found us.
By the effect of the grenade the walls were blown apart, and I ran through after taking little cover from the rippling explosion; the monster was too close for me to be off my feet for long.
After passing through a number of broken walls I was hit with a wave of confusion. I'd expected to be barred by more slabs of stone. Instead I'd entered a wide and uninterrupted circular space. The true size of the area couldn't be determined because of the darkness. The sounds of gunfire the screams of our pursuer echoed in the empty spaces until they were a spectral chorus.
We had found the center of the labyrinth.
I ran forward, looking everywhere at once. The gloom wouldn't easily reveal what I searched for. Blindly, I reached out with both hands. The treasure might have been a large flying craft. Or it could have been another unnatural creature. My mind went cold at the thought that it could have been another Gorgon.
The toe of my boot stepped on something soft.
I stopped, uncertain, but bent to touch it. There was a sinking sensation inside my chest.
The sergeant and the wounded soldier were still miraculously on my heels.
"Did you find something?" the sergeant panted.
A...sack. It was limp, and there didn't seem to be anything inside.
"A sack? Well, what's in it? It could be—it could be a clue, or a map to the treasure, right?"
The Gorgon was coming; the soldier bringing in the rear couldn't hold it off for much longer.
My hand disappeared past the mouth of the sack. When I drew it out, I gazed at it in incredulous wonder.
White feathers were what occupied that sack. Their smooth shafts were long and slender, and the hairs were thick. But they were just feathers, and the shock of what had proven to be the result of our bravery was only just sinking in.
My hands had grown stiff. Everything fell silently onto the floor, save the large feather in the palm of my hand.
"No," said the sergeant. Despair strangled her voice. She looked at me. "We are going to die, aren't we?
This has to mean something—
"And we held out for so long, just so it could kill us in the end."
The woman with the torn leg had already passed into a state of unconsciousness, and the sergeant unhooked her from her shoulders to place her on the floor. She seemed lifeless.
"It would be a small mercy if I put a bullet in her now. It's over."
Sarge, wait! Something's happening.
I'd thought I was seeing things. But the longer I stared the more real it was proving itself to be. Feathers were sprouting along the flesh of my arms. Like shoots they rose, tiny white flames that were rapidly gaining height and thickness. They were breaking through the gloves and sleeves. There was no pain, only a tickling sensation in my mind.
We had found the treasure.
"What is happening to you? There are feathers coming out of your body! Do something. Throw it away!"
No, it's our way out of here. Hold this.
I handed her another feather from the fallen pile, and watched her take it gingerly. But the feather was doing its work; similar white things began to sprout along her arms.
Don't drop it. It won't harm you.
They were growing larger.
I could sense a pair of bone-like shafts emerging from my back to break through the dark. I turned in alarm, but couldn't easily see the protrusions. However I could see what was happening to the sergeant; two long bones were coming out from her shoulder blades, and more feathers were growing along them.
"What's happening? There's something coming out of my back!"
I retrieved a pair of feathers. One was placed in the hand of the wounded soldier. I ran toward the opening, where the other woman was still being delayed in her attempt to kill the Gorgon, and took the gun from her.
"What is it? A feather?"
Just get inside. I'll hold her off.
She took the feather and ran.
I knew I wouldn't be able to keep the monster back. We only needed a few seconds; I could sense it. I was standing much closer to the Gorgon than I ever had. Her grotesqueness and the sheer size of her chilled my heart so that I fired at her head without looking at her face. The snarls were making my fingers wooden so that it was difficult to pull the trigger.
If it comes any closer it will tear me apart...
Out of the corner of my vision I could see the others. They were all dusted in a light, feathery glow. Moreover, they had wide, large wings attached to their backs, limbs that fanned the air like the wings of birds poised for flight. The wounded one had woken, and was hovering over the ground as her wings kept her buoyed. I could hear, between the sounds of the monster, how powerfully they beat the air.
The soldiers were shouting to me, telling me to join them. We had to hurry.
The world shifted.
Darkness became suddenly light with the glow of morning, and where the walls and the raging Gorgon had been were the moving curtains and harmless windows of my bedroom. In that moment I could feel again. I could breathe. A ray of sunlight pierced my eye. I inhaled.
I was standing before the Gorgon once more.
Fly! I cried to the soldiers. I'm coming!
With swift bounds, they shot upward like bolts of dim lightning, beyond the roofless labyrinth and into the starless sky. The labyrinth was, in the next moment, only a memory. The Gorgon's scream intensified. She knew what I intended to do, and leaped on the broken wall so that she towered above me then. Already she was propelling herself from the surface, her long arms reaching to snatch me from the grip of freedom.
But my wings knew my urgency, and with a loud stroke upon the air I flew across the floor much too fast for the Gorgon to follow. I fired at it briefly, and sensed my body spiral upward with dizzying speed. Then the walls of the labyrinth were so far below that they were only vanishing lines. I was in the air, away from the Gorgon, away from danger, rising higher with sweet relief.