So until “Angel of War” releases on September 12th, I’ve decided to post a few short stories to whet your appetite. This is the first of four. Enjoy.
Blades of grass hissed under Achilla’s black sneakers as she walked through a forest filled with oak, birch, and maple trees that filled the air with the scent of fresh sap and rotting leaves. The sun’s rays leaked through the forest roof like dripping water, and Achilla made sure to look up at the blue sky whenever she stepped into some light. She wasn’t sure of her location, but these woods felt familiar. Perhaps she was in Northern Connecticut somewhere, or one of the wooded areas in Pennsylvania that she passed on her way to a field trip. At this point, it didn’t make a difference. Her photographic memory often took a mind of its own in these situations, and she trusted it like a printed map. That memory guided her around every tree and landmark. She stepped over logs and climbed over stones like she had seen them hundreds of times before. This strange forest full of shade and the occasional pillar of light provided her with all of the clues she needed to follow a path that only her eyes and subconscious mind could see.
Achilla’s legs went on autopilot and broke into a full sprint. She never ran full speed in public. Even in her basketball games, Achilla only gave a quarter-effort so that she could excel without exposing herself. Now she was free to move as she pleased, and she cut through the humid air like a guided missile. Instead of climbing rocks, she leapt over them, and she cut around trees quicker than a frightened deer. A grin grew on her face as she scaled a tree trunk and hopped from branch to branch through the forest. She didn’t remember trying this before, but it felt natural to jump onto tree limbs without any fear of breaking one. Sometimes she leapt from a tree and flew forty feet before landing on a limb that shook under her weight but never broke.
Such freedom made Achilla’s skin tingle, and she smiled as the wind caressed her skin. Her smile disappeared when she reached a clearing and stood on an oak tree limb at its edge. From the edge of that clearing, she scanned the area. There was no sign of anyone, but her pounding heart expected someone to meet her here. Whoever it was, Achilla’s goosebumps told her this would not be a friendly encounter. Achilla somersaulted and landed in the middle of the clearing where the grass stood up to her knees. Everything in the forest remained unchanged, and the clearing was bright enough to highlight every greenish-tan blade of grass that the summer heat allowed to live this long.
Though it took a moment, Achilla realized that something was off. During her entire time in the forest, she never saw one animal. Even now she listened and heard no birds for miles. The suburban South End of Stratford was a hotbed of chatter from blue jays, mockingbirds,sparrows, and those annoying green parrots, but this wooded area was dead silent but for the rattling of the trees from the occasional breeze. Achilla would normally frown at such an observation, but her face remained unchanged. Every cell in her body expected the forest to be so quiet. She knew that animals only evacuated in the face of a serious threat. Achilla remembered how quiet the birds always were when a storm rolled through, and this felt no different. She also knew that she was one of the reasons the forest was so empty. Even nature feared her presence. It also feared whoever agreed to meet her in this clearing.
The air’s scent changed. It was faint, but Achilla’s nose missed nothing. Under the aroma of grass and tree bark, Achilla could smell soap. It was the kind that stores always labelled as “unscented” despite the fact that Achilla could smell it from a mile away. That soap confirmed what her subconscious mind was hiding from her this entire time. Achilla gritted her teeth as the scent grew stronger until she could see a pair of identical green eyes darting around the trees across the clearing. Ailina burst out of the trees and landed in the clearing without a sound. Achilla’s body tensed when their eyes met. Her date had arrived.
Just like Achilla, Ailina wore a forest green t-shirt and camouflaged pants with black shin length boots. She had already tied her hair in a ponytail and her green eyes glowed as gray clouds rolled over the clearing. The temperature dropped and the clouds darkened as thunder rumbled and shook the ground. As a steady wind picked up speed, Achilla faced her opponent and clenched her fists. Now the smell of rain overpowered everything else and small drops tapped her forehead as if to remind her of the purpose for this meeting.
Today was the day. No more waiting in fear. No more staying up late just to make sure her brother was safe or her parents were still sound asleep in their bedroom. Achilla had to eliminate Ailina here and now to save them, and there was no time like the present. Achilla couldn’t remember when they decided to meet here, but this spot felt right. Nobody would see them. No one could get in the way. Only one of them would leave alive, and this was the perfect place to hide the loser’s corpse. Ailina held her hands on her hips without breaking her gaze. Achilla stared back.
“You don’t have to do this, Achilla,” Ailina called out.
“Yes, I do,” Achilla called back. “I can’t allow you near them anymore.”
“We’re supposed to be on the same side,” Ailina replied. “Last chance to do things right. Forget your father and join me.”
“I’ll never join you,” Achilla said with a raised chin. “I came here to kill you. If you want to do things right, you can break your own neck and save me the trouble.”
“Tough talk,” replied Ailina as she cracked her knuckles. “Remember what I told you about talking shit you can’t back up?”
“Oh, I’ll back it up,” Achilla stated. “All of it.”
“Why protect them?” Ailina chuckled. “They’re ants compared to us; insignificant beings who couldn’t possibly amount to anything but the small world they’ve manufactured. You’re superior just like me-”
“No!” Achilla snapped and pointed her finger. “Not like you! I’m nothing like you!”
“Oh, you’re just like me,” Ailina replied with a grin growing on her lips as she crouched and spread her arms. “You’ll realize that soon enough. Prepare yourself.”
Ailina had barely finished her sentence when she charged forward. Achilla steadied herself in a fighting stance. She knew her opponent well, and it would only take Ailina two seconds to cross the hundred yards of distance. Achilla took that time to replay what she knew. Ailina was right-handed and preferred to punches over kicks. Still, her kicks were powerful enough to break bones. She telegraphed none of her attacks and anticipated most counters. Achilla could not afford to waste any energy. Every movement must bring her closer to Ailina’s death.
Just before she reached striking distance, Achilla pulled knife out of the sheath on her hip and threw it at Ailina’s head. Ailina ducked and rolled to the left, and Achilla exploded from her position to swing at her head. Ailina hopped back just in time for Achilla to punch a hole in the ground. When she turned her back and sprinted into the trees, Achilla pursued until she was deep in the woods again; standing in a pillar of light. She searched the forest as the scent of rain and sap filled her nose. In here, the forest overpowered Ailina’s scent. She was virtually undetectable now. Achilla clenched her jaw as she scanned the trees and bushes. She had already walked into a trap, but it was too late to back out. She would just have to turn the tables.
If she couldn’t see or smell her opponent, Achilla would just have to listen. She closed her eyes and froze her body as she listened to the rain pitter-pattering against the leaves and forest floor. No other sound came. No steps. No tree limbs. Nothing. Achilla frowned as she listened harder. If Ailina planned on killing her, she had to come to her at some point. Achilla just had to remain calm, steady her breathing and-
Achilla heard a t-shirt ruffle behind her and turned around just in time to see Ailina swinging an overhead right at her temple. Achilla blocked and ducked down to trip her at the shins. Ailina replied with a short jump and cracked Achilla’s nose with a knee that sent her sliding across the dirt and grass. Achilla leapt to her feet as blood trickled from her nose like a leaking pipe. When she blinked, Ailina was gone again. No sound. No scent. Back to square one.
This was her strategy. Ailina planned on wearing her down by picking her apart blow-by-blow instead of an all-out confrontation. Considering how easily she beat her last time, it was an oddly cautious plan of attack. Still, Achilla had no choice but to sit still and wait for her next move. She held her fighting stance as she waited and listened.
Achilla was ready when she heard Ailina charging from the right side. She turned and swung a backfist at her temple. Ailina ducked, and Achilla pivoted into a knee that smashed Ailina’s cheekbone before she dropped an elbow into the top of Ailina’s head. Ailina fell face first into the dirt, and Achilla punched the back of her head into a crater before raising her foot. This was it. One more hit, and she was dead.
Ailina rolled away just in time to avoid her heel, and Achilla stomped the ground, shaking the surrounding trees. Achilla watched Ailina leap back ten feet as the leaves swayed to the ground. She frowned at her own strength. Perhaps she had underestimated herself, but she never imagined that her raw strength would match Ailina’s. Now she stood with a bloody nose and Ailina a dent in her cheek; standing as equals. Achilla smirked as she tensed her legs. This time, she would initiate and turn the tables in her favor.
The air whipped tears out of her eyes as Achilla sprinted at top speed towards her opponent. She threw a leading right hand, but Ailina slipped to the right and punched Achilla’s gut before left hooking Achilla’s temple. When she threw a right, Achilla caught her fist and the blow stung her hand before she gripped Ailina’s knuckles. Achilla then pulled her off-balance and swung her around in a circle overheard before grunting and throwing her across the forest. Ailina flew thirty feet until she crashed through a tree trunk. Achilla jumped to the side as the tree fell to the forest floor with a boom that vibrated her feet.
Achilla frowned and looked at her hands. Since when could she do that? She regained her focus and rushed towards the felled tree only to find Ailina gone again. Achilla searched the forest until the clouds grew so dark that she could barely see her hand in front of her face. As the thunder clapped, the clouds rolled so close to the trees that Achilla thought she could jump and touch them. She had never seen a storm so dark and powerful before. The thunder roared so loud that she thought the ground would crack underneath her boots. With clouds so dark, rain so pungent, and thunder so loud, Achilla was a sitting duck. Her heart raced as she scrambled for ideas but came up with nothing. Her only solace was that Ailina was most likely in the same position as her. They would both stumble in the dark until this storm passed.
She didn’t see Ailina until the lightning flashed, and by then she was on top of her before she could put up her guard. Stars burst into Achilla’s eyes when she felt a blow to the face that sent her flying back and bouncing off of a rock. She then gasped when she felt another blow to her spine that smacked her forward until her face crashed into a tree trunk. The stench of sap overpowered the rain as Achilla felt the sticky liquid flow over her head and down her back until she pulled her head out of the tree. By the time she breathed some fresh air, another blow to the gut knocked all of it out of her lungs. As Achilla fell to her knees, one question flew around inside her head.
How was she doing this? It was pitch black out now, minus the flashes of lightning. The wind howled like a wolf pack in mourning. The rain smelled so strong that it practically filled Achilla’s nose before she got a face full of tree bark and sap. Ailina should have been blind. The playing field should have been even, but it clearly wasn’t. What did Achilla miss? She rose to her feet and struggled to catch her breath. As soon as she figured out what Ailina was doing, she was going to pay her back tenfold. Achilla had to protect her family, she refused to lose here; especially like this.
A ripping sensation tore through Achilla’s back and chest, and she screeched. Her insides felt like they were mashed against her armpits by a telephone pole, and Achilla hollered until her throat felt dry. The thunder and wind overpowered her screams as rain poured over her like a lukewarm shower, but she continued to wail as her body burned and her feet left the ground. Despite the burning and throbbing sensation rocking her entire torso, Achilla had the presence of mind to know what just happened.
Ailina had impaled her; and most likely with her bare arm.
Achilla cursed Ailina, knowing that she had won again, but this time she won for keeps. No normal blow felt this bad. This was fatal. Achilla failed and her family was as good as dead. There was nothing more to say, but Achilla’s mouth moved on its own. She couldn’t hear her own words until the thunder and wind died down. It was as if the black, rolling clouds had finally decided to give Achilla the silence she wanted just in time to hear her last words. Tears rolled down Achilla’s cheeks as she looked up at the sky.
“What do you want from me?” Achilla sobbed. “Why won’t you just leave me alone?”
“You know exactly what I want,” Ailina snarled from behind. “And now I’ve got it! Look down.”
Achilla stared at the black clouds that turned a hint of green as the wind bent the trees nearly sideways. A gust whistled through the tree branches and sent Achilla’s ponytail flapping around until her hair tie turned loose, and her black hair spread out and waved like a ship’s sail as she opened her mouth and cried out. Despite the rain’s coolness in comparison, the burning in her chest persisted as the downpour increased to a waterfall. Still, Achilla heard Ailina’s command.
“I said look down, dammit!” Ailina barked over the wind.
She refused to look down. She refused to give her what she wanted. Still, her neck moved on autopilot and bent down, forcing her look at the source of the burning sensation in her chest. Achilla gasped when a flash of lightning exposed Ailina’s hand protruding out of her chest. Another flash of lightning showed Ailina’s hand holding an object the size of Achilla’s fist.
It was Achilla’s heart. As the clouds lightened up and visibility returned, Achilla could see her heart pumping in Ailina’s hand. The clouds rolled away and sunlight peeked through the forest cover again as she heard her heart thumping as if it had never left her body. She watched it pulsate as it covered Ailina’s hand with blackish-red blood. It pumped, and pumped, and pumped as Achilla just stared with wide eyes.
“This is what I want,” Ailina whispered in Achilla’s ear. “And I won’t stop until I have it.”
Achilla cried out when Ailina retracted her arm out of her back, and she fell to the ground as Ailina stepped away. She should’ve been dead, but instead Achilla writhed on the ground from the exploding vibration in her chest. She croaked and coughed and rolled on the forest floor as Ailina’s cackle rang throughout the trees. Tears jerked from Achilla’s eyes as she wracked her brain for answers. Why wasn’t she dead? How long could she stay alive? Could she stop Ailina within that time? With jelly for legs and a chest that felt like it could collapse at any moment, Achilla doubted that she could succeed, but she had to think of something. She clenched her jaw as she rose to her knees, but her legs would move no further. Achilla coughed again until blood launched from her throat and filled her mouth with the taste of iron.
“Now that I have this, this fight is over,” Ailina said as she held Achilla’s heart in both hands. “But my job is not done yet. There’s still one more thing to do.”
Ailina tossed the heart between her hands as Achilla sobbed and coughed up blood again. She looked up in time to watch Ailina drop the heart into one hand and toss it up and down. She then smacked it between her palms. Blood splattered all over Ailina’s t-shirt like a water balloon as Achilla watched what remained of her heart drip from her fingers to the forest floor. Ailina clapped her hands to discard of excess blood before wiping the rest on her pants.
“Ok,” Ailina said with a grin. “Wait for it…”
Achilla jolted as a shockwave shook her body. Her legs spasmed. Her arms went numb. Even the tears running down her cheeks dried up. Achilla seized and fell to the forest floor, unable to breathe. This was it. She was dying. Though she couldn’t save them, at least she tried. Achilla only wished she could properly tell them goodbye instead of writhing in the middle of a dark forest. She felt her eyes roll into her head as the seizing and trembling increased, and she could still hear Ailina’s laughter echoing throughout the silent woods.
The seizure stopped. The pain her chest and back was gone. Achilla’s eyes returned to normal as she lay on her side, staring at Ailina’s boots. She felt nothing. No pain. No tears. Not even anger. She just lay on the ground with a blank expression until she stood up. As she ran her hand across the hole in her chest, she noticed that it was especially numb. Instead of elation at her recovery, Achilla still felt nothing.
But she sensed everything. Achilla blinked and saw dust particles flying through the air, even in the shade. She could hear birds calling miles into the sky; particularly a red-tailed hawk that flew over the storm. The slightest tremor in the ground was not lost on her, even when leaves landed on the forest floor. Never in her life had she seen the world so clearly, but none of it mattered to her. Her newfound power felt like nothing more than business as usual.
That was until she laid her eyes on Ailina. Achilla’s muscles tensed tighter than she had ever felt them before and her face turned hot. After their eyes met, Achilla’s hands trembled and her knees buckled. But then all of that stopped. Achilla’s whole body relaxed as her eyes set on her target and refused to move. The trees, the leaves, the sunlight, all of it faded away as Achilla’s entire being zeroed in on her opponent. All of her senses observed her from the split ends in her ponytail, to her cracked cheek bone, to the way she shifted her weight to one side ever so slightly. Ailina shifted her weight back as if she noticed Achilla was watching her. She then did something that Achilla had never seen her do before.
Ailina smiled. She didn’t grin. She didn’t cackle. Her green eyes glowed, but it wasn’t the same shark-like intensity from before. They glowed with…glee?
That’s what it was. Ailina was happy. She smiled from ear to ear as she shone with sheer joy. Ailina let out a mixture of a laugh and a sob as she sniffed and smiled some more. A tear leaked out of her left eye, and she wiped it away just before it reached her smile.
“That’s the look that I’ve been waiting my whole life to see,” Ailina said with a crack in her voice. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited to see that look on your face. I can die happy now.”
Achilla made no reply. She stepped forward as she sized Ailina up, searching for the right moment. All she needed, all she cared about, was finishing her opponent. If an opening didn’t come, she would create one. All she cared about was killing Ailina. She had to kill her. There was nothing else; nothing else but the kill.
“Yes, that’s right,” Ailina said as she spread her bloody hands wide. “Do whatever you want.”
That was the opening. A roar rose in Achilla’s throat before she charged towards her target. She still felt nothing. No pain. No anger. Only the desire to kill drove this charge, and it was sending her straight for Ailina. Ailina closed her eyes and mouthed Achilla’s name as she drew closer.
She mouthed it again, barely above a whisper.
Ailina hissed her name this time.
Achilla reached for Ailina’s throat with a leading fist that she knew would crush her windpipe and force her to suffer the slow painful death of suffocation, but Achilla wouldn’t wait that long. As soon as she hit her throat with one hand, she would puncture her intestines with the other and pull them out like a fire hose. Disembowelment was the order of the day, and Achilla planned on serving it.
“Achilla!” Ailina snapped when her eyes opened just before Achilla’s hand could punch a hole through her neck, but it was too late. Her fist was almost there. Her victory had almost arrived. Death was coming soon, and only by her suitable hands. Nothing could stop her now. No one could stop her now. Achilla was invicible, and Ailina was in the way. Achilla’s eyes lit up when she felt her fist make the hard impact with Ailina’s neck with a smack. Next up, the intestines.
Achilla stopped when the forest disappeared. Instead, Brendan stood in front of her wearing his black and red Fairfield University t-shirt and matching basketball shorts. He wore the same white du rag that he always wore to bed, but the wide-eyed expression on his face jarred her. So did her fist crammed into the cement wall two inches from his head. Brendan crouched under her arm and ducked away from her, and Achilla frowned when she noticed that her hand was stuck. She thought she had a good gauge on her strength, but everything about today surprised her. She looked around and saw no forest, no clouds, no Ailina; just her basement where she trained every night before bed. The floor was cracked and the wall had a few holes in it. Achilla looked over her left shoulder and noticed that her punching bag was trembling as well. Was she down here the entire time? Just five seconds ago she was inches away from killing Ailina.
“Achilla, what the hell is wrong with you?” Brendan asked as he crossed his arms and glared at her.
“Where am I?” Achilla asked. “Am I…at home?”
“Yes!” Brendan snapped. “You mind explaining why the hell you almost killed me?”
“I…don’t know, Dad,” Achilla said with a grunt as she pulled her hand out of the wall. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Brendan replied. “Luckily you saved me for last after you destroyed my basement. What came over you?”
“I wish I could answer that,” Achilla said as she looked around the now potholed basement. “What about Mom or Samuel?”
“Asleep,” Brendan sighed as he rose to his feet. “Lord knows how. I could hear you crashing around from the bedroom.”
Achilla crossed her arms as she paced the basement and examined the damage. There were two potholes and four holes in the wall. As she suspected, she was dreaming, and taking her nightmare out on her own home. Achilla sighed when she did the math in her head. She calculated that it cost at least a thousand dollars to fix her mess.
“I apologize,” Achilla said. “I’ve cost you a lot of money. To answer your question, I had a bad dream. I think I sleep walked down here.”
“All of this from walking?” Brendan demanded. “From a bad dream?”
“Yeah,” Achilla replied. “Pretty much.”
“About what, Achilla?” Brendan asked. “The devil?”
“Ailina,” Achilla muttered. “So I guess that’s close enough. We had a fight to the death. I was about to win before you woke me up. Considering I almost punched your head off, I’m not complaining about that.”
“Well,” Brendan snorted. “I’m glad you won the fight, Achilla. Next time, can you have a bad dream outside?”
“I said I was sorry,” Achilla replied with a downward expression. “I didn’t know what I was doing, ok? What do you want me to say?”
“Achilla, you’re helping me pay for this,” Brendan stated. “You’re helping me fix anything else you broke too Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Achilla groaned as she leaned against the wall on sat on the floor. If they split the costs, that would come up to at least five hundred bucks. Achilla was trying to save up, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. Why did she always manage to break everything? Achilla covered her face with her shirt when she felt the tears rising, but stopped when her father knelt in front of her.
“Aside from that,” Brendan sighed. “Have you been having a lot of these dreams lately?”
“No,” Achilla replied with a frown as she sniffed. “That was the first time since I moved in.”
“Good,” Brendan replied. “Let’s hope you don’t have any more.”
“So I won’t damage anymore of your property?” Achilla asked with a shaking voice. “I promise I won’t.”
“Damn the property,” Brendan said. “And don’t worry about paying for it. We’ll get started on repairs together. I just want to make sure you’re sleeping all right.”
“I’m ok,” Achilla replied with a weak smile. “Thanks, but I think this was an anomaly.”
“Well, I’ll just have to trust you ,” Brendan yawned. “It’s four a.m. I’m going to bed. Try not to kill me in my sleep, all right? I have work in the morning.”
Achilla pouted when Brendan walked to the basement steps. There were few things she hated in life than her father’s disapproval of her. It didn’t come often, but when it did, her heart always sank. Achilla let one tear fall when she stood up and held her hands on her hips, staring at the pothole between her feet. She would make this up to him somehow. Earning back her father’s smile just became one of her top priorities.
She sat on the concrete floor and crossed her arms as she mulled over what just happened. Sam always told her that dreams tended to have a special meaning; whether they predicted the future or exposed some deep desire of which you are only subconsciously aware. Her desire to protect her family was obvious. So what exactly did this nightmare mean? Did she have some hidden urge to lose her heart via impalement? No, that had to be figurative. It was what happened after she lost her heart that Achilla wanted. Deep down, she wanted to be a cold-blooded killer. She knew that the only way to stop Ailina was to become just like her.
Achilla shook that thought out of her head as she approached her heavy bag and steadied it before assuming a fighting stance. Achilla exhaled as she delivered a side kick; her first of five thousand. Yes, she would fix this basement, and she would cook her father’s breakfast for good measure, but it was four in the morning. That meant it was time to train. Achilla planned on fighting Ailina in real life again, and she had to be ready.
Heartless or not, Achilla refused to lose.
I hope you enjoyed it. Part 2 goes up next Saturday.
Never lose your heart, my friends.