Anyplace Else(8)

By: Kim Fielding

A reasonable man would have assumed the faint light in front of him came from the other side of the rain forest. Parking lot lamps, perhaps, or the windows of some night owl’s bungalow. But Grant knew better, and when he stumbled into the space under the branches of the oak, he wasn’t at all surprised to discover everything suffused by a soft glow, like the last rays of a setting sun. He was surprised, however, when he saw the glow came from a human form.

The man was naked, his skin almost white except where it was covered with blood. He had long straight hair of palest yellow. He was an old man, painfully thin, and his sticklike arm shook as he held a battle-ax aloft. But despite the change in appearance, Grant recognized the man’s blue-green eyes. They were Perun’s.

Perun—no, Hors—didn’t see Grant. His attention was focused on a powerful man with jet-black hair and whiskers, wearing what appeared to be a bearskin. Chernobog, of course, and he wielded an iron sword that looked as if it weighed more than Grant.

Hors was badly wounded. Vicious slices were cut deeply into his torso and limbs, leaving his left arm hanging uselessly. He kept shaking his head to clear blood from his eyes, splattering nearby leaves with tiny droplets. But he gripped his ax and showed no indication he would back down.

As Grant stood, rooted with shock, Hors yelled what sounded like a challenge at Chernobog. Chernobog roared back and swung his sword. He nearly connected with Hors’s neck—a move that would surely have decapitated him—but Hors ducked and turned, taking the blow on the shoulder of his good arm instead. His axe fell to the ground with a muted thud, and Hors staggered back until he leaned against the oak’s massive trunk.

Chernobog strode forward, sword raised.

“No!” Grant screamed.

Chernobog froze with his arms in the air, and he and Hors both gaped at Grant.

“Please!” Grant cried. “Don’t kill him.”

Hors shook his head and allowed the tree to bear his weight. “He must,” he said to Grant. A small bubble of blood appeared on his lips as he spoke, then burst to trickle down his chin. “I must die tonight so the sun can be reborn tomorrow.”

Grant felt sick. “I don’t want you to die.”

Hors flashed a bloody smile. “Thank you. I am so glad to have met you.” Then he turned to look at Chernobog again. “Finish it!” Hors yelled, leaping forward.

Even as Grant cried out, Chernobog swung his weapon down and gutted Hors, who crumpled to the ground with a soft groan.

Grant let out a scream and surged toward them, coming to a skidding halt when Chernobog swung around and pointed the sword at him. “It is done,” Chernobog thundered. “As it must be done every year.”

Too horrified to be frightened, Grant shouted back. “Murderer!”

“Yes. Is my job.” Then something softened in Chernobog’s face, his dark eyes growing warm and sympathetic. “My job to kill, his to die. No beginnings without endings. But tomorrow we begin again.” He nodded. “Is good, even with pain.”

Then Chernobog wiped his blade on an oversized leaf, slid the sword into its scabbard, and strode away. The darkness swallowed him at once.

Finally able to move again, Grant rushed to Hors’s side. He was relieved to find his eyes open, his chest still moving with uneven breaths. But Hors had been split open, and the ground eagerly drank his flowing blood. Grant would never be able to summon help in time—and he was certain that even if every ER doctor on the island magically appeared, they would be no match for the fatal wounds.

Not knowing what else to do, Grant sat beside Hors and repositioned the dying god so his head was in Grant’s lap. Hors gazed up at him.

“What was your name?” Grant asked. “When you were human.”

After a long pause, Hors croaked, “Predimir.”

Grant ran his fingers through the long hair and watched the glow of Hors’s skin subside. “I’m here with you now, Predimir. You won’t die alone.”

Tears washed some of the blood from Predimir’s face, but he smiled. “I would so have liked the chance to know you better.” For a moment his light flared, and instead of an old man, Grant cradled a youth with soft brown hair and eyes the color of a clear sea. “Good beginnings to you,” Predimir whispered.

Then the light extinguished, and Grant was alone in the dark forest.

GRANT AWOKE in the comfortable bed in his luxurious little bungalow, his hands and clothing crusted with dried blood. The windows remained open, but the dark sky showed no signs of dawn.

He shuffled into the bathroom, where he shed his clothing and shoved it into the trash can. Hoping to avoid traumatizing the housecleaning staff, he covered the discarded clothes with a layer of the previous day’s New York Times. Then he put on the resort-supplied flip-flops and walked into the stone-walled enclosure that contained the shower. He stood under the warm spray for a long time, scrubbing until all the blood was gone.