The Earth roared.
The ground beneath Vaan and his brother cracked open, as if a creature were hatching from its celestial egg. Golden light beamed from the crevasses, blazing like sun rays flooding through a cracked shutter as the hopeless planet slowly devoured itself from the inside out.
Vaan glanced upward. The sky was a darkened haze of smoke and ash, but through the falling trees he could still see that harrowing moon. He felt as if it watched him; a heinous, crimson eye peering into his soul.
The disturbing sound of the Damned emanated from every direction. Their abhorrent screeches bounced off the trees as they toppled; their mighty trunks plummeting into the cracks of the shattered earth.
The plague had already corrupted most of humanity, reconstructing men into abominate, savage creations. Only a few fortunate remained—or rather unfortunate, Vaan thought—but he knew not for much longer; their luck, much like his, was coming to an unsettling end. If the remaining weren't devoured by the Damned, they'd all change soon enough.
"Pick it up, Blaine!" Vaan gestured for his brother to hurry.
The Earth again ruptured with deep, rumbling vibrations, their magnitude resounding through his bones. He shot his brother a look; undoubtedly, both of them could still hear the humming tumult of the Umbra reverberating through their minds. Vaan and Blaine sprinted, maneuvering through the maze of tangled briars, brambles, and foliage of the dying forest.
"We're almost to the clearing. Don't let him get to you."
Blaine shook his head violently and continued to run. The Glade had to be less than a quarter-mile away now, but the Umbra steadily beckoned with its enticing, wicked chime. A sound that played with the minds of all who could hear. It sought possession and most inevitably gave in.
Another quake hit, loud and violent, like an explosion from within the planet itself. The ground dislodged and ripped its way through the forest ahead. Vaan choked back a growl. They had no other option but to jump.
A thunderous crack rent the air. Vaan shifted his gaze in time to catch a grim glimpse of the falling wooden giant: a massive sequoia plunging toward him. "Blaine, look out!" He snapped his head around to his brother, trailing a couple yards behind. "Stop! You'll never make it!" He saw the look in his brother's eyes, a look that told him that Blaine knew it was suicidal; he knew they didn't have time to stop.
But they had no choice.
Vaan kept on running, sprinting as fast as he could. It was too late to turn around now. Now or never, he thought. They were going to either fall into the abyss or be crushed by a tree. Somewhere, deep down, away from the bedlam, he found humor in that. After all the things he and Blaine had been through, after all they'd done; death by tree. He shook the thought from his head.
His heart hammered against his chest. Vaan was no longer in control of his limbs; pure adrenaline fueled his exhausted body. He cried out as his feet left the ground, taking a leap of faith. There was nothing quite like the overwhelming flood of relief as they touched back down again. He landed on his shoulder, rolling before he spun around, wearing something of a half-smile that was quickly ripped away.
Blaine had made the jump a mere second before the sequoia crashed down. But, unlike his brother, his feet failed to touch back down. His had fallen short, slamming against the wall of the fissure. With abrupt force Blaine's head smashed against the crumbling forest floor. Disoriented, he clawed frantically at the ground, seeking any measure of grip. His nails sank into the coarse soil, but the weight of his exhausted body dragged him closer to the edge.
"Blaine!" Vaan screamed, desperate to save his brother.
With no time to react Vaan watched as despair etched its way across Blaine's face in his final moments before his fingers slipped off the edge.
In that moment, the world came to a halt.
A gut-wrenching sickness ripped through Vaan's chest, as if he were nothing more than thin fabric. His eyes flooded with tears as he screamed; his shrill voice bathed in anguish and horror. Vaan collapsed to his knees, light-headed and trembling, calling his brother's name. His mind flashed over the events of the past few years. They had come so far, but now he had lost the one thing he had sworn to protect: his twin brother.
Vaan's grief turned into overriding anger. He cried, pounding his fist into the dirt and ash, cursing the gods one by one in his enraged lament. As far as he and Blaine had come, for it to all end this way. "Why?" The words rang resentful from an ill tongue.
A voice replied, but it wasn't the gods'—nor his brother's. A Damned vaulted from a nearby tree to land on the opposite end of the crevasse. Vaan's sword began to vibrate and emanate a soft-white glow.
The beast's twitchy head cocked sideways. It eyed Vaan warily, snarling like a rabid dog. Beams of vivid light pouring from the crevasse reflected off its glassy, jet-black eyes like a pair of obsidian mirrors.
Blind with rage Vaan gnashed his teeth with force enough to crush stone. "Come on, then!" The creature snarled again, revealing monstrous fangs and rolling its crooked fingers to emphasize the savage claws which grew grotesquely from each tip.
Vaan wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword, drawing it from the scabbard. "You ugly sack of shit!"
The creature roared and used its powerful limbs to lunge forward. Clearing the crevasse in a near thirty-foot leap it dove, swooping like a fervent hawk locked onto its prey. The Damned's lethal claws collided with cold steel. Vaan countered with a kick, knocking it down.
Another screech rang out from behind. He glanced around to catch sight of another mutant walking out from the veil of smog, growling and snarling and every bit as hideous as the one that lay before him.
The first Damned scrambled to its feet and charged toward Vaan, swinging its mighty claws. Vaan dodged with a side-step and returned with a swift, diagonal heave of his sword, splitting the creature in half.
It collapsed to the ground, spewing black, vile liquid from its gaping wound. Vaan bellowed and drove his blade into the beast's skull; a bit barbaric even against something as vile as the Damned. But his fury receded almost instantly. Not from the satisfaction of the kill, or from what little honor he found in his vengeance, but from something that struck harder than any steel could.
The world again seemed to stop. Vaan's eyes widened and his heart leapt into his throat. He whirled around to see only barren forest and the crevasse that split it in two.
Blaine? he thought. "Blaine, is that you?"
Distracted, Vaan didn't notice the second mutant's approach until it slashed at him from behind. The beast's gnarly claws shredded cloak and flesh, leaving three long ragged gashes along his back. Vaan yelped and spun, striking the creature in the right side of its face with the pommel of his sword. He then reared back and thrust the blade between the thing's ribs, satisfied with how the sword slid through the creature's body with the ease; the sound like that of piercing a rotten melon. Vaan shoved his blade upwards, rending the creature in half and spilling its organs. He sprinted to the crevasse, peering over its edge. Chills flushed his body; his breath left him. He tried to yell for Blaine but his voice came out as more of a gasp, if anything at all.
Blaine is alive.
He had fallen and snagged one of the many rocks that jutted from the side of the crevasse, and was standing on a narrow section of stone some ways below the surface.
"One moment," Vaan returned. "Just a moment." He jumped up and tried to calm himself, attempted to focus as he surveyed the land. A ringing chime probed his mind, piercing his thoughts louder than ever. Vaan winced at the sound as the Umbra taunted him, drawing closer by the second.
You have failed, boy. Eden and Earth are lost . . . let go
"Get out of my head!" Vaan clenched his teeth.
If I can't have you, they will . . .
Six more of the Damned appeared out of the haze: four on foot and two leaping from tree to tree, sinking their claws into the decayed bark.
Taste his flesh. Feast on his carcass.
A creature from the trees came first, vaulting toward Vaan. He gripped his sword in both hands, muttering under his breath as he braced for attack. "You know, you have a sick notion of fair play."
The beast quickly closed in.
"But the only thing they will taste"—Vaan drew back the blade, and looked the beast directly in its sinful eyes—"is death."
The Damned's outlandish face met with forged steel, which completely severed its head from its thick, veiny neck. A streak of blood cut across Vaan's face in a morbid smear of blackened ooze.
Vaan glanced toward the other Damned, now keeping their distance. He wiped his face with the end of his sleeve, deciding to taunt them. "What's the matter?"
The creatures glanced between themselves, hesitant.
"I'll kill every last one of you!" Vaan's voice pierced the smoky air. "And after that, I'll kill you too! You hear me? I'll slit your fucking throat!"
Vaan sensed the Umbra's tone change, now sprinkled with anger and impatience. On command, all five of the remaining Damned stormed forward.
Again the earth rumbled. One of Blaine's heels slipped from the rock. His heart thumped as he regained balance. He could hear screams of agony from the creatures at the surface, and the sound of Vaan's sword as it struck their limbs one by one, severing flesh and bone. "Vaan, are you— Shit!" One of the creatures soared by, flailing its grody arms through the air. It fell until it struck the magma below.
"I'm fine!" Vaan's sword danced like a cyclone of steel. Blocking, parrying, slicing, stabbing, hacking, and slashing until every last one of the Damned lay before him, slain in a gruesome pool of blood and guts. The sword's glow ceased, and Vaan took a moment to reassess the situation before he ran back to the edge of the crevasse. "Blaine? You okay?"
"I'm fine," Blaine returned.
Blaine glanced at the molten flames below. "Hurry!"
Vaan's eyes skimmed the remaining trees. He spotted a liana root hanging down from one of the towering branches and cut a long section to function as a rope. Dashing back to the crevasse he dropped the vine over the edge. "Blaine, take this!" Using all his might to drive the sword as far into the ground as it would go, Vaan wrapped the other end around the hilt. Vaan sat down, wrapped the vine around his hands, and braced his boots against the wide end of his blade. "Come on!"
He felt the vine tug as Blaine took hold, beginning his ascent.
Vaan heaved and grunted against his brother's weight, clenching his teeth at the agonizing twinges of pain that surged around the gashes in his back. His sword again began to glow, emitting a soft-white hue along its keen edges. "Not, no—not now!" Glimpsing behind Vaan saw one of the Damned remained alive. Split at the waist it crawled toward him, unleashing one of its rattled screeches.
"Blaine, let's go! I have company." He tugged at the vine, helping Blaine as best he could as the creature crept closer, snapping its wicked jaws.
His felt his brother near – another two good pulls from the surface.
The creature screeched, an arm's reach away from Vaan. "Blaine!"
Blaine's fingers reappeared at the edge of the crevasse.
Blaine's head surfaced. "Go!"
Without hesitation Vaan released vine and sprang to his feet, only to have his elbow grazed by one of the damned's razor-like claws. Using all his force which remained, he jumped into the air and came down hard. Both feet plowed into its skull, sinking into the mutant's head, discharging a putrid stench.
He stomped vigorously at its crushed face, screaming with each blow.
"This. Time. Stay. The. Fuck. Down . . ."
He stomped until there was nothing left but chunks of brain and a puddle of black, repulsive muck. The air reeked of sulfur, ash, and death.
Blaine laid a hand on his brother's shoulder.
Vaan turned and seized him. Clinging as if to not let go. Tears again streamed down his face. "I thought you were gone."
"Oh, please. You damned milksop."
Vaan chuckled, looking up to see the wet gleam masking his brother's eyes. Blaine—even in this chaos—always tried to act tough, but deep down Vaan knew Blaine's heart was as big as his own. He had caught his brother crying, and if they somehow made out of this alive, he knew he wouldn't let Blaine live it down. "Come on," he said, "if that portal is destroyed, we're finished."
Blaine nodded as Vaan retrieved his blade. They pressed on.
For about five minutes they stumbled brashly through a dim-lit wood of deceptive shadows and ill footing. The uneven path was underlain with knotted roots, making each step one step closer to injury—and one injury meant one step closer to death. Their breath fell heavy. The thick scent of smoke provided no favor. Adrenaline was out of the question. It had depleted. Their bodies ran on fear and the Umbra steadily pursued, humming its sinister chime.
Vaan noticed something ahead and stopped. "Blaine, I think that's it! The Glade, do you see it?" It was, and no more than a skip away.
Blaine only nodded; silence had become him.
"What's wrong with you? We're here, Blaine. We made it!"
Within a moment they emerged out of the dense thicket and into the Glade, a small clearing at the heart of the wood.
Vaan remembered how he and Blaine used to come here and lay on their backs, staring mesmerized at the stars sprinkled so brilliantly across the night sky. He recalled how they used to find constellations out of the little luminous specks of light, replicating them with dots drawn in the dirt with a stick. Then they would connect the dots, showing each other what the other had seen. As Vaan looked up now all he could see was a swirling foggy haze and that damned crimson eye of a moon, bathing the world in eerie, red light.
There was a little, ruined wood cottage sitting dead center of the meadow. The cedar logs were decayed, and most of the cottage's roof had fallen in. The door hung diagonally on one hinge.
"Let's get back to Eden," Vaan said, "Blaine, are you—" His words cut short. Agony exploded through his lower back as he met the ground's unforgiving embrace. What little breath he still held fled forcefully from the blow. He managed to roll over, gasping for air as Blaine's hands clasped around his throat. Fighting for breath he gazed into Blaine's eyes; they were like black marbles in their sockets. The Umbra had taken him.
"S-snap out of it, Blaine." But he managed only a croak. He clawed at Blaine's hands, trying to break free, but that proved useless. The more he struggled, the more disoriented he became. His lungs burned for air. His vision faded and his hearing muffled. Soulless, jet-black eyes drilled into his. Those eyes would be the last thing he ever saw.