The two Rorys, Ezra and I bolted up the hall. The creaking turned into a screech and grew louder, a heavy thump struck the roof. At the top of the stairs, Robin charged through our midst, almost bowling me over, before descending the staircase in two great leaps. Rory and his clone followed, and I ran down after them, as more thumps hammered above.
“It’s a trap!” yelled Rory, imitating the voice of Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi.
I witnessed many impressive things that night, but Rory doing Admiral Ackbar in such a perilous situation, well, that may be the most impressive.
A colossal crunch of destruction shook the entire house and cracked the timber beams in the roof. The Rorys turned and ran for the kitchen. The thumping gained tempo. In a panic, I leapt from about the fifth step. As I landed, my ankle twisted, and I toppled onto my back at the bottom of the staircase. My eyes nearly popped from their sockets as I watched what appeared to be the hull of a small ship breaking through the ceiling right above me. It was not a ship, but a gigantic, thick blade, carving through Budgie’s house like it was a roast turkey. It would have squished me like a pea had not Ezra reached the bottom of the stairs just in time, grabbed me by the arms and dragged me out of the way. The giant blade cut the house from top to bottom and lodged in the floor. The top of it stood higher than what was left of the roof. It emitted an unnatural, warped groan.
Ezra dragged me back near the games room. “Come on, get up!” he yelled.
A whoosh and a great slap sounded in front of us, and a scattershot of soft, cold goo speckled the walls. Some of it hit my face. I looked, and there on the floorboards, right near the giant blade, was the exploded carcass of what must have been a thirty-kilogram barramundi. I scraped the fish flesh from my cheek. Another fish, a small whiting this time, shot down through the gaping hole in the roof and clunked at my feet.
“They have a witch,” said Ezra.
I turned and looked at him. Fear was in his eyes.
“I’ve seen it before,” he said. “At Arsuf. Saladin had one. There was another name for them, I can’t remember it. But we called them witches. You can’t defend against a witch.”
The floor trembled as the great blade turned a dark, swirling red. A large flathead slapped down next to the barramundi.
“We have to kill it,” he said. “There’s only one way—dip an arrow in goat’s blood, then shoot for the heart.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
A short, vile scream filled the air, my whole body shuddered and seized from an unseen hit, then everything went black.
I could not have been unconscious more than a few minutes.
A shudder in the ground woke me, though my mind lingered for a while between waking and sleep. I lay near the side door of Budgie’s house, near the laundry. I blinked hard and opened my eyes again, trying to clear my vision. My vision was fine, it was just that I was looking up at the sky—the entire roof of the house was gone. A flash lit up the night for a split-second, and a thunderous crack shook the ground again. I felt it more than heard it. My thoughts swirled just out of grasp. A hazy red light, like a little halo, hovered high above and then zipped away. Silver glinting raindrops darted toward me. A general ache in my body began to surface. I was so thirsty I opened my mouth to catch a falling raindrop, and got one. With a hack and a splutter, I rolled over and spat it out; it whipped its tiny tail then laid there gaping at me, one baby sardine in a downpour of whitebait. The unwelcome taste of fish at the back of my throat shocked my brain back into high alert. However, my body was not yet operational. I tried and failed to sit upright. My eyes darted about, and my heart raced. The walls about me glowed wavy red with nearby fire. A shadow slithered across the wall toward me. I willed myself to get up and run, but my body failed to respond. The shadow grew closer until a dark figure stood over me. It was the man in the black hooded cloak—the one who had earlier thrown a cigarette packet at me from in front of the stage and told me to name the band. Gunfire cracked, the man in the cloak spun around and extended his arm toward the gunshots, agonised screams reverberated through the open-top house.
The man in the cloak turned back to me and crouched down. He examined me from head to toe, pressed my side where there was a gap in the bullet-proof vest, and then grabbed my right hand and folded it into a fist. I threw my head back and howled in pain. It was like a knife was being pushed through my hand and up my arm. And then… then it was wonderful. A wave of liquid loveliness washed through me and filled me with delight. I felt like a dandelion floating on a happy spring breeze. My head wobbled and rolled to the side, and I saw the man in the cloak withdrawing a kind of syringe, not much bigger than a thumbtack, from my hand. I raised my shoulders to try and sit up, but the man shoved me back down with an enormous hairy hand. He pushed back the hood from his head. It was Nils. He was like I had seen him at first, bearded and weathered and scarred along the top of his head. I slurred a greeting at him and tried again to get up, but he pushed me back down. Out of curiosity, I think, I grabbed his beard and pulled it, giggling. He slapped my hand away and said something. I couldn’t hear anything. I laid my head back down.
After about a minute, my sleepy bliss wore off and I sat upright. I felt sensational—bright and strong and ready to go. I checked my right hand. It was a petrified fist, rock hard and immovable, but it didn’t hurt anymore and that was good enough. Around me the house was smashed to ruins, gunshots fired not far away, and hovering in the sky was the gigantic blade.
“Miles, give me a hand,” said an urgent voice.
I turned and saw Nils beyond the open door, attending to someone outside on the ground. I ran out and saw Robin was also there, pacing with her head down, whimpering. It was Ezra.
“Here,” said Nils. “Hold this for me.”
I knelt beside Ezra. A footlong, two-inch wide piece of metal, like a jagged spearhead, protruded from above his collar bone, almost at his neck. Nils had his hands pressed at the wound, where blood streamed.
“Put your hands here, quick,” he said.
I obeyed. Ezra was slipping in and out of consciousness. Nils took a golf ball-sized vial and squeezed a thick layer of yellow gel over the wound. A twenty-centimetre whiting whizzed down and smacked the ground near us.
“Keep your hands there,” he said. “He’s lost a lot of blood. That gel has to set.”
Two men in black combat gear stormed around the side of the house toward us. Robin snarled and charged them. Nils threw his cloak around us. The men opened fire and I cowered in anticipation of being shot to pieces. Bullets thumped into Nils’s cloak, but none pierced it.
“The wound!” yelled Nils. “Keep your hands there!”
Still uncertain of what was happening, I pressed my hands back around Ezra’s wound. The gunfire stopped, and Nils spun around, whipping his cloak wide like a superhero’s cape, and extended his arm toward the gunmen, or rather gunman—Robin had dragged the other one down near the mango tree and was mauling him to death. A long, squiggly length of bright string shot from a square contraption on Ezra’s wrist. It whistled through the air and wrapped itself around the gunman. He fell to the ground and thrashed about, shrieking and kicking for a few seconds, before he suddenly stopped and became a twitching, paralysed heap.
“Those weren’t Jimmy O’Shea’s goons,” I said. Warm blood seeped through my fingers. My right hand wasn’t doing much good, frozen in a fist. “What’s going on?”
“Those were mercenaries,” said Nils. He took out another thumb tack-syringe and stuck it in Ezra’s neck. “Ex-special forces by the look of them.” He withdrew the syringe. “While you were out cold, they dropped in from a chopper. Two more choppers flew in, but Young Nils took them out. Good thing too. We would have been overrun.”
I nodded, despite not fully comprehending what he said.
“Stay here and keep pressure on that wound,” he said. “I gotta go help Rory. I’ll be back.”
He stood and ran off around the back of the house. Gunshots rang out, followed by hideous shrieks.
An awful, wailing groan, as abrasive as a thousand fingernails down a chalkboard, sounded in the sky. I turned to see the gigantic blade drop and smash down on the front of the house, sending a fiery blast of shrapnel into the air. A trembling finger and thumb pinched my ear, and I turned back and looked at Ezra. He poked my eye.
“Ow, stop it,” I said, turning my head.
He lowered his hand, and then winced as I pressed down around the wound at his shoulder.
“Hey Miles,” he said, tiredly.
“Hey Ez,” I said, watching the blood trickle up around the metal shard.
“Hey,” he said, lifting his head. His face was pale, his eyes searched mine. “Is this… Is this real?”
What do you say in that situation? I figured he’d want me to shoot straight with him.
“Yeah, Ez… It’s real.”
He laid his head back on the ground. A sardine bounced off his forehead. After staring to the heavens for a few seconds, a wondrous smile peeked out from his caveman beard.
“Then I’m not crazy,” he said.
I smiled. “No mate, you’re not crazy… At least not tonight.”
He smiled wider and chuckled. I did too, and small fish struck the back of my head. Ezra roared with a belly laugh, then coughed and spluttered up some blood. A little bit got me on the cheek.
“Oh shit, sorry Miles,” he said trying to wipe it away. His was now too weak to reach his hand to my face.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “There’s no decorum on the front lines, right?”
“Ha, yeah,” he said, laying his head back and closing his eyes. He coughed again. “Hey Miles, I did it this time. For real.”
“Yeah Ez,” I said. “You saved my life.”
He took a long, strained breath. Robin came up beside him, her snout glistening red, and nuzzled his hair. Gunshots rang out on the far side of the house.
“Good girl,” he said, barely above a whisper. “The piggy’s colour.” (It wasn’t really “the piggy’s colour,” but it sounded like that. I asked the Greek lady at my local bakery, and she thinks maybe it was τα πήγες καλά—you did good. I reckon that’s what he said.)
His chest rose as he wheezed a short breath, and then sank.
And that was it.
I held my hands at his bloody shoulder a while longer, then checked for a pulse. There was none. I leaned close to his face. “Ezra?” He was so still. The skin beneath his eyes was almost black. He was drenched in blood. I knelt upright. Two tears rolled down and off my nose. A small bream rained down and slapped Ezra in the mouth.
“F**k off!” I yelled, grabbing the fish and hurling it down the hill. My head dropped and I wept. “F**kin’ fish,” I cursed through streaming tears.
Robin came and stood beside me and rested her massive head on my shoulder. Any other time that would have scared me senseless. This time it didn’t.
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