10. A Slender Figure
"We've lost two people, and now you're going up there too?!" Vanessa said as she watched Corby drag Ora over the ground toward the exit. He forgot to take his bandanna, but had his hooded jacket and white pants on.
"I got them into this," Corby said. "I'll get them back, or die trying." He continued to drag Ora by the rope while holding his weapon with the left hand.
"It was Ora's fault, not yours!"
He glared at Vanessa. "And who ordered Ora to accompany them?"
Vanessa remained silent.
"That's right. I did. She never wanted to go with them. It was clear she was going to screw them over. I should have thrown her into the lava at that moment."
"Corby, she can think for herself. You did what was right. She didn't hold her end of the deal. It's not your fault. Please, don't go up there!"
He still went for the rock ladder to the exit. "Let's not kid ourselves. If I hadn't brought the authorities to the forest, your family would still be safe right now. Maybe you could have found a way to bring the Triumvirate down. But then I showed up ... and brought along this disgusting flying trash!"
Ora compacted herself in reaction to the way he said that last part.
Vanessa frowned. "I know I've said I should have killed you, but the Triumvirate would have expanded into the forests eventually. We'd still have to fight them, and we'd need more people. You and Ora can still do a lot more for us if you'd stay here. Don't be stupid, Corby!"
He gave her one last look. "We're more trouble than we're worth." Then he turned back to face the ladder and climbed to the top, with Ora dangling from the rope.
Because Hilarion and Nargirata had a habit of covering their tracks by kicking snow onto them or stepping over rocks and tree trunks as often as possible, Corby worried that finding the couple would be nearly impossible. He knew which way the iron source was, so he assumed that was the first place to check for them. Maybe there would be minotaur tracks where the capturing had taken place.
Still trying to wriggle her way out of the wrap, Ora said, "Why are you looking for them? We could just go somewhere else."
Corby shot her a nasty look. "You got them in trouble, you must be held responsible. Just like I must take responsibility for allowing them to take you with them. What was I thinking? I knew I couldn't trust you with anything."
"Why couldn't it be just us two? Why must you work with these humans? They're just holding us back! We could have gotten our revenge on the Triumvirate in other ways!"
"Shut up!" he said. "If there's anyone holding me back, it's you! I finally had some allies, a real chance at getting back at those bastards, and you ruined everything! I'm so sick of you, glitch-ridden robot with no sense of right or wrong!"
"I didn't mean to."
"Yeah, yeah, do you also have a bridge to sell to me? You should just go mute right now, or else I'll tear the speaker out of you."
Seeing that there was no way to make Corby change his mind, Ora went silent and continued to be dragged over the snow.
When they could see the red walls of rock in the horizon, they found a depression in the snow before them. It went to the right, accompanied by the unmistakable footprints of the minotaurs.
"I hope this will lead us to them," Corby said. He followed the trail, listening for drone buzzing while having his weapon prepared.
It started to snow, and visibility dropped with each minute that passed. The cold wind announced the possibility of a blizzard arriving, a threat to cover the path.
Corby carefully made his way between the trees, looking up through the branches to see the darkened but starry sky. All he could hear was the whistle of the wind, which meant he would have difficulty noticing the sound of drones. He halted when he saw something dark move among the trees up ahead, illuminated by the faint moonlight. It was a tall, slender figure, humanoid, with long claws. A hat seemed to be atop the silhouette's head. Corby gasped and raised his gun, holding it with both of his hands.
The figure spread its arms out and showed its claws while a bright red light shone from its face.
"Crap," Corby whispered. His body quivered while he wondered if he should pull the trigger. The being before him looked human and seemed to have no guns, but the claws and the light its face emitted made him wonder if it was a robot. He gritted his teeth and took one step forward while still prepared to shoot, should the need arise.
A wall of artificial ground broke through the snow in front of him and blocked his view of the figure. In a fit of panic, Corby pulled the trigger, releasing a bunch of bullets that hit the wall which ended up halting them.
"We should get out of here before they trap us with the walls!" Ora said.
Corby pulled her after him as he took a few steps back, not losing sight of the wall. It was about five meters long and three meters tall, not high enough to surpass the height of the trees. Noticing that it remained still, he decided to extend a few of his glowanade wires toward it. The wall did not resist his control, and within mere seconds he was able to split it open. The slender figure wasn't there anymore. "Where did that humanoid go?"
"It could be hiding. Corby, let's leave. It's too risky to keep going toward the city."
He abruptly pulled Ora by the rope. "I don't care. We got Hil and Nargi in trouble, we're the ones who have to rescue them. Now be quiet!" Something in the horizon behind Ora caught his attention. "What's that?" It was difficult even for his genetically improved eyes to identify the shapes of dark objects in barely lit areas of the forest, but he could tell that something – a lot of something – was moving there. He turned Ora around and pointed at what he saw. "Make yourself useful and tell me what you see over there!"
She stared at the moving mass of black figures. Her sensors were much more sensitive to light than Corby's retinal rod cells, so she could get a better view. On top of that, she zoomed in to see more details. "They're minotaurs. They have spotted your footprints. Some of them are heading this way, the others are heading the opposite way. We must run!"
"Wait a minute," Corby said. "Why are some going the opposite way?"
"It doesn't matter!" she said. "We shouldn't stay here any longer!"
"This isn't good. I forgot to cover my tracks."
"I know! That's why they are going to find us!"
"They're going to find Vanessa, Samuel, and Zoom!"
"Forget about them! We're about to get attacked!"
Corby pulled Ora behind a tree and searched for the knot of the rope. "You're going back to the hideout. Warn everyone there about the enemies! They need to be prepared. You can get there faster than I can."
"But you need me!"
"Ora, I don't give a fuck about my safety anymore. Go there and warn them!" He finished untying her, then threw her in the direction of the hideout. "Fly! Hurry!"
Ora brought her wings out and became airborne. "What do I do if they're already dead?"
Struggling to not outright shout, Corby whispered as loudly as he could, "They're not! Stop wasting time! Go! Go!"
She flew away, zipping from tree to tree with her eyes unlit in an effort to not be seen by the Triumvirate's forces.
Five minotaurs backtracked Corby's footprints and had almost reached the pile of rocks.
Ora had to move quickly. She flew toward the pile, landed on it, and clawed away one of the boulders while hovering in place, making an opening large enough for her to go through. Once inside, she lowered herself into the underground tunnel where the glow thieves illuminated the way.
Drone buzzing echoed from the entrance. The Triumvirate had spotted her. She needed to make a difficult decision: hide somewhere before they caught up to her, or fly forward and warn the remaining villagers. Once she reached the end of the tunnel, she flew to the left.
A drone already came into her view, exiting the tunnel. That was all she needed to decide she was going to hide behind the wall that Corby and the others had worked on.
Two more drones entered to back the first one up. Then a loud thud could be heard coming from the tunnel. Another one followed. And another one. And another one
Ora peeked from behind the wall and saw a line of minotaurs that were marching into the village. It was too late to warn the humans, but she still flew from house to house, avoiding entering the minotaurs' line of sight. She wanted to at least tell Corby about the fate of the humans.
Soon loud blasts shook the cave's walls, receiving a chorus of shot sounds in response. The drones and the minotaurs were firing at Hilarion and Nargirata's house, which meant that Samuel and Vanessa were inside.
Ora went to the house behind theirs and observed how the minotaurs were getting blasted to bits by Vanessa's grenades. All of the drones nearby got torn to metal shreds in the air after colliding with the explosive projectiles. It seemed like the invaders had been defeated, but before Ora could go check on the humans inside, more drones and minotaurs arrived in the tunnel. She decided to stay hidden.
Vanessa held her grenade launcher at the door, the weapon's tip poking through the broken window. It was difficult for her to see from where the enemies were coming, as she had to avoid the bullets.
Samuel successfully snuck out of the house through a back door. He went all the way to the other end of the cave, where he entered another house. Two drones spotted him and flew his way. They were taken by surprise when he shot them both down with a double-barreled shotgun just by peeking from behind the open door of the building.
Three minotaurs were sent his way while five of them remained to deal with Vanessa.
Ora didn't know what to do. She could sneak away right now, but she'd risk meeting the Triumvirate's forces at the surface. Most of the minotaurs seemed to be using the red glowanade, so she could cause a distraction and help the humans escape. But then she'd have to deal with the enemies that had blue glowanade.
Samuel's shotgun almost ran out of ammunition after he had shot down everything that had been sent his way. He only had one bullet, and there were three drones coming for him. He hoped his granddaughter would have better luck fighting off the attackers. His last shot hit one of the drones, destroying it. The other two shot him in the abdomen simultaneously, causing him to fall to the ground.
Ora witnessed this and knew the same fate would await Vanessa. She watched as explosives were being thrown out at the masses of robots each time they came too close to the house.
Some robots had been ordered to break in through the doors of the other rooms, and they succeeded by ramming their metal fists into it together. The doors flew off their hinges, and the minotaurs broke in.
Vanessa ran out of grenades, and she was shocked to see the bulky robots behind her. The drones were waiting for her outside. Instead of accepting defeat, she chose to deliver one last hit to the Triumvirate's forces, throwing her gun at the closest minotaur's head.
The five red-eyed minotaurs shot the flying weapon together, deflecting it with their bullet hail. Then they all focused their arm guns at Vanessa.
She gave them the most fierce look she could, and stood in their way, not backing down. "Go ahead, shoot me! That's all you scumbags can think of doing to anyone who doesn't work like a mindless drone for you!"
The frontmost minotaur lowered its head and said, in a very deep, slightly distorted voice, "Leader Kloyd has a message for you" Its voice changed to be less deep, more natural. "This is Kloyd of the Triumvirate speaking. Vanessa Medley, you are under arrest for not upholding your end of the deal to us for giving you life. You and your family are also guilty of allowing Corby Yggdrasil to seek shelter here. Tell us where he is, and we will let you live."
Ora made her way into the house, careful not to attract the attention of the authorities. She overheard what Kloyd said, and she came to the conclusion that Corby was at risk of being found if Vanessa would tell the robots the truth.
Vanessa opened her mouth. "He went after–"
Blue circuit lines covered the room and went straight into the red-eyed minotaurs, draining them. Only two blue-eyed ones remained at the door, outside. They were preparing to break in.
Ora flew into the room and stared at Vanessa, who smiled at her. "Ora! Thank you!"
The two blue-eyed minotaurs kept ramming the door. It was about to give in.
Ora raised her right claw and flew at high speed in the door's direction.
Vanessa said, "We need to get out of here! Don't bother with fighting them!"
But Ora wasn't charging at the door. She was charging at her.
Corby still followed the trail left by the dragged net and the minotaurs. He hoped Hilarion and Nargirata hadn't been loaded into a helicopter or jet plane midway, because then he'd be unable to track them down past that point. It terrified him to think that Vanessa, Samuel, and Zoom were at risk of being captured too, or worse, killed.
A faint buzzing sound caught his attention. It wasn't a drone making it. It was Ora. He was sure her being there so fast wasn't good news.
She landed at his feet, moonlight shining over her through the branches above. Her right claw had something dark on it.
He looked like he had just seen a ghost. "Ora, what happened? What is that?" He pointed at her claw.
She formed a glowing grimace as her eyes lit up. "I killed her, Corby! I had to!"
He gasped. "What?! Whom did you kill? What happened back there?"
She lowered her head. "Vanessa. She was about to tell them where you were going. I couldn't let that happen. They'd come after you. They killed Samuel, so he cannot tell them anything."
Corby dropped the gun and slowly walked up to her. "Ora … come closer."
She dragged herself over the snow to approach him.
He knelt in front of her and opened her wings' cases. The wings fanned out as he held them in his hands. Without making eye contact with her, he snapped half of her wings' lengths off. "Get out of my life." With that, he got up and left, not even bothering to pick up his gun.
She noticed her missing wing tips on the snow and crawled after him. "Corby! Why did you damage my wings? Now I cannot follow you! Come back! Corby!" She saw him disappear into the blizzard ahead while her bloodstained claw reached out in his direction.
Corby gave up on following the trail. He had no idea where he was going, but he was going anyway. If the Triumvirate's forces would show up, he'd just accept his death sentence. He had no more allies, and was guilty of two deaths – or four if his captured friends would be disposed of as soon as the enemy would get information out of them.
The cold cut like knives into his cheeks. The bandanna could have offered him at least a bit of comfort during these times, but it was too late to retrieve it. The village was now taken over by the Triumvirate. Everything in there could have been of use to him, but now that he was completely alone, there was no way to take back what was lost.
Up ahead, something fast leaped between the trees. It was hard to tell what it was, but its figure wasn't bulky, so it couldn't be a minotaur. Whatever it was, he considered it his only reason to stay alive. He had to find out if the aliens were still around. His fate depended on the existence of possible allies.
Two red lights blinked up ahead before disappearing into the distance. That was where he had to go. He couldn't feel his legs anymore; the cold had numbed them. His hands were in his pockets, but they too were starting to hurt due to what could be the beginning of a nasty frostbite. It wasn't time to curl up and wait for the end yet. He had to find out what the robot deer and the slim humanoid figure were all about.
Another red light shone from the distance, but it didn't blink. It was much higher above the ground than the previous two. As he got closer, he could tell it belonged to the head of the tall humanoid. This was it. The moment of truth.
Corby marched on, in spite of the snow swallowing his legs up to the knees. He was no longer terrified of the imposing red light. There was nothing more he could lose except for his life. But if he'd lose it too, he wouldn't care. There was no proof of an afterlife, so chances were he'd not even be aware he had truly lost everything.
Approaching even more, he could tell that the red light actually formed the angry face of a noseless jack-o-lantern. It looked hideous to him, but he wondered if this was the work of a human. What were the odds of aliens knowing and having the exact same expressions humans used? The light was clearly emitted by a screen on the face of the robotic entity. Those long claws were spread out once more, as if to show him that this humanoid posed a threat to him.
Corby didn't care. The small chance that he could make another ally was all he needed as motivation. If he was going to die slashed by those claws, at least he knew he didn't back down.