Yoko’s pounding footsteps broke the natural balance of the forest, giving the earth below an artificial heartbeat. Had he lost it? Leaves blurred by in a spectrum of color as his pale, wiry frame dodged a path through the foliage on instinct. Not aware of anything except for the singular, vital need to survive. It was an all too familiar state.
White hair streamed behind him in a long flow, dirty and littered with bits of plan. The simple look he wanted to take and be sure that he was no longer being hunted was too great of a risk. If his eyes weren’t forward he could find himself in even more danger.
Ragged breathing hitched when his arm brushed against a spongy tree limb, misjudging his proximity to it when he subconsciously gave a, much more, dangerous plant a wide berth.
The raw and punctured skin on his forearm was the reason he was in this situation. How both Lavien and he missed the little floating Plodo frog before they were practically on top of it, was now just a painful mystery. The ballooned creature had exploded as soon as Yoko disturbed it’s flight, sending it’s small spines into the arm he had raised to shield his face. A highly effective defense mechanism for such a small creature, used to protect the marshy territories they called home from the hordes of other creatures that were larger than them.
They were just lucky there had been only one. Hundreds of the amphibians would converge in the same location, and there was no escaping the destructive cloud those little bodies could produce. But still, the unexpected attack caused far more damage than the single death of a Plodo frog typically would. The pained cry that was forced passed Yoko’s chapped lips was an unnatural sound on the land of only lizards and plants.
It was that sound that led the nearby Archos to them.
The darkened canopy of the forest abruptly ended, and Yoko’s mind snapped back to the current dangers in front of him. His pale arms spread wide in an attempt to keep his balance as his feet stopped all forward momentum. He just barely kept from crossing the line drawn between shade and light. The tan sack around his shoulders bumped against a hip and he reached to steady it. Finding comfort that it was still there and, thankfully, intact. If he lost its contents now… Lavien, his dear friend, could be far scarier than a single Plodo frog.
His lungs struggled to balance the need for air with the importance to remain utterly quiet. A beastly scream overshadowed all sounds in the nearby area, and Yoko flinched as it pierced his ear drums. Even from that far away, the Archos’ cry was painful.
How he had managed to shake the giant lizard off his trail, he was not sure, but the act and a staggeringly high price. He had gotten separated from Lavi. A danger just as great to him as it was to the other. The prospect of a warm blooded meal was enticing to almost everything they encountered while on the land. A simple step too close to a dead-looking vine, and a lone person could be ensnared, helpless without another for aid.
He chanced a couple steps away from the shelter of towering plants, the grass under his calloused feet was plush and tickled up to his ankles. Blue eyes, adjusting to the drastic change in lighting, scanned over the open field he had stumbled upon. It was not overly long but it was narrow. Following its path would continue to take him east, exactly where he needed to go.
The forest behind him continued along the length of the left side. To his right was a tall wall of rock, topped with more brightly colored plants. A few large boulders, in the same rusty-red rested next to the cliff, breaking up the sun-soaked field with an array of midday shadows.
Everything was stationary… There was no movement at all.
Yoko took a deep breath, and held it, feeling the exaggerated the beating of his heart within his chest. Even the natural chatter of the smaller plant dwelling creatures was now absent, no doubt they were in hiding from the largest predator of the land. If one looked at the local food chain, the Archos was on top.
Yoko pushed back the white hair that clung to his sweat-soaked face, not realizing his hand was covered in blood until after the fact. The Plodo spines stuck in his arm were deep enough that the wounds were still weeping slow rivulets of red, a stark contrast against his pale skin.
There was nothing he could do about them now, he didn’t dare take the time to pluck the annoyances out of his skin. Yoko casted a final critical look around his immediate area, before bringing two fingers to his lips. He paused, then sounded a loud whistle to travel in the windless sky. Its pitch lifting an octave before it ended, signaling his location without the need of vocal cords.
He would wait here for the others. They would follow the call and if he was correct, this field was the last obstacle they needed to overcome. His nose could pick up the slightest change in the air now that he was out of the plants.
Taking cautious steps he finally stepped over the line of shadow that the forest cast and into the hot sun. Venturing only as far as he dared into the unguarded field while alone.
He shifted his gaze upwards to the shimmering sky and he caught his breath. In the distance a whistle answered his own, two staccato notes of the same pitch. He could not contain the relieved sigh that pushed past his lips.
Lavi was okay. Knowing that his friend was safe held almost a greater meaning then that of the precious food he carried within the small pack. Though, the one he worried about would scold Yoko if he found him stating it out loud. Their companionship would not ease the hunger that starvation would bring about.
Movement in his peripheral vision had the young man spinning nimbly on the ball of his foot. A black cylinder was a comfort in the hand that he held between his person and the shuffle that he had seen in the forest. It was a small and plain looking object, something that no normal person would ever find safety in possessing. It was just barely bigger than the hand that gripped it with whitening knuckles.
But it was all he had.
Yoko stood painfully still, once again holding his breath. He just needed a second to catch sight of whatever it was and decide of if it was a battle would he could win or lose, though the scales tended to tip towards the latter. There was no humility in running and, personally, he was much keener on living to see another day.
A splash of red was the first thing that emerged from behind a bulbous plant with monstrous yellow leaves. The figure’s natural curling hair stuck to the foliage as he made to leave its shade, but instead stumbled and landed on his, already beaten up, hands and knees. Rei’s tan face screwed up in annoyance and he shot a look to the root that he has tripped over.
Yoko’s lips tipped upwards at the sight a friend, and he relaxed his arm, letting it and the weapon he held, fall back to his side.
A second figure ducked under the umbrella-like leaves, skin equally as tan as his companions, from many days in the sun. Dark, slanted eyes gave Rei a single observant look, making sure the other man had not hurt himself, before ignoring the red head’s dilemma and stepping passed him. Shin.
That brought their number to three.
The two newest had heard something crashing through the forest at full tilt and hid behind the giant yellow plant. Knowing it gave off an odor that would mask their own scent to any predator who relied on its nose to hunt. When it came to a stop, neither Shin nor Rei were willing to look to see what manner of creature was so close to their hiding location. It was the familiar whistle breaking through stagnant air that flooded relief into their bodies and allowed them to come out from the forest.
Those same observant eyes trained themselves on Yoko as Shin walked towards him, no doubt cataloging any visible injuries on the pale man’s body. Given their present situation anything that could potentially slow the group down was important to note or take care of his they had the time.
Yoko didn’t even bother to try and hide his injured arm. The blood dripping off his fingertips was an obvious of a sign of the trouble he had run across that day. Same with the red smear that was painted on his right temple, though he was unaware of that glowing fact.
Yoko ducked his head in a nod, conveying to the dark haired man that he was well enough or at least as much as could be expected. The spot on his dominate arm was raw, blistered, and punctured by small spikes. It was painful, but it was not life threatening. He ignored the uprising in Shin’s eyebrow, obviously not fully believing that Yoko would be truthful on such matters in a life or death situation.
You couldn’t blame him really, Yoko had been lectured for the bad habit more than once. For this reason he was not surprised when Shin crouched at his side and took a moment to at least look at the injury and make sure there was nothing more serious there. Yoko was just relieved he didn’t actually touch it.
Rei joined them, not taking the lack of help personally. He instead dug the butt-end of his own black cylinder in his hair, using it to dislodge a vine that wiggled through curls. He watched it fall to the ground nonchalantly and continued its mindless movements for a second more, then savagely speared it with a blade of pure energy that extended from the cylinder.
He smirked, tilting his head to the side, watching the knife’s glow wash the vine and surrounding grass blue, highlighting the end of the foliage’s life as it seized and stopped moving altogether. For good measure, he poked his foot at the closest end of the vine before retrieving and deactivating his weapon.
Just one more…
They would give Lavien a little bit more time. As much as they could afford to while staying in one location. If their last companion did not show up soon, Yoko would send the other two, with all three packs, ahead, then double back towards the direction Lavi’s answering whistle had come from.
The supplies were important. None of them would survive very long without the contents in each of those packs. But that included the final one he knew Lavi carried. It was filled with tall tubular stalks, sectioned into water filled compartments. It was their only source of drinkable water, and also the most dangerous of the supplies to gather. It was impertinent that Yoko return with that final bag, and hopefully with the bags owner as well.
As it turned out, Yoko’s plan was unnecessary.
Small red rocks tumbled to the ground as a human figure suddenly landed on top of a large boulder to their right. The three sets of eyes on the ground swung up towards the movement and widened.
Lavien’s knees buckled under the force of the hard landing, bringing him face to face with the rock’s surface. Given he had just jumped off the ledge of the cliff, it was not surprising. Brown hair impeded the quick look he threw over his shoulder, back where he had come from. His hindered sense of sight not the only thing that registered he was still being pursued. His ears picked up the thundering movement through the plants above and the rocks under his fingers quivered.
He tightened the grip he had on the extended energy blade. Its blue hue, was intensely bright, even in the midday sun. As much as he would love to use it to fight. He knew they stood no chance.
Bare toes dug into the rock and Lavien forced his burning muscles to move once again, dashing to the edge of the boulder. His eyes caught those of the three men on the ground, just before launching himself, again, into the air, aiming for the softer grass below.
Their lifesaving silence was shattered with a single panicked word.
The plants growing at the top of the cliff shook then exploded outwards as two black beasts, known as Archos, came thundering out and onto the edge of the cliff.
Lizard bodies tipped forward on two legs, all balanced by a long arrow tipped tail. Their overly large heads swung side to side allowing small, blood-red eyes to search for the fresh meat they had been chasing. Saliva dripped off razor sharp teeth and pooled on the ground. The beasts were as tall as one and a half full grown men. Meaning the new grand total of four human beings would be a wonderful snack for the pair of carnivores.
There had only been one before, Yoko thought as he, and the others obeyed Lavi’s order. A single Archos was difficult enough to bring down even with all four of them working together. With the appearance of two leathery beasts, the humans had no choice but to run for their lives. The brunette hit the ground from his jump, and was forcefully pulled to his feet as the other three ran by.
Rocks crumbled under the weight of curved claws. The black lizards, once again spotting their prey, used their weight against each other, fighting to be the first down the quickest way to the food. The smaller of the two, being knocked aside gave a tremendous scream.
Yoko stumbled, teeth clenching… He was not the only one.
The pain experienced with the lizard’s cry was physically disorienting. Yoko’s hands automatically pressed over his ears in an attempt to keep his skull from splitting in two and he had to will his feet to continue moving eastward.
It was not the first time they experienced the Archos’ scream at such a close range. But the number of times never seemed to improve the reaction caused when one of them opened their leathery snout. By the time Yoko’s vision stopped wavering the ground beneath their feet was shaking, the heavier creature’s lumbering run was quickly closing the distance that had only been gained by a head start.
The earth’s artificial heartbeat was now horribly distorted.
“Are we… going the right way?” Lavien questioned roughly through labored breaths, now running without assistance. There was no longer a reason to continue their self-enforced vow of silence.
Yoko nodded his head once, forcing himself into a burst of speed so he could take the lead in their flight. He trusted the others to follow closely behind him. They just needed to keep running east and they would reach their destination. He could ‘feel’ that they were so close now.
The clear path ahead of them was not overly long. Maybe a hundred feet of grass and then it ended in another line of leafy foliage. While the Archos were physically taller, at that distance Yoko knew they would have a chance of reaching the trees before the lizards caught up with his party. It was only a small amount of reassurance, however. If either creature decided to issue another deadly scream… they would be in real trouble. It was a good thing the Archos weren’t very smart.
Four daggers lit the ground rushing beneath them in blue.
No more than a quarter of the distance remained when a third Archos vaulted from the forest on their left, effectively putting itself between the humans and their end goal. Dirt filled the air in clumps as the giant lizard landed. Its large jaws partially opened, ready for the meal laid out before it.
Unfortunately for the Archos, the ability to turn quickly was a weak point in their physical makeup. The creature’s large head was overly disproportional to its much smaller body. The head was where all of the lizard’s vital organs were located. An Archos could even regrow its entire body as long as the armored head remained undamaged. But the size and weight of it also made the beast’s delicate balance ‘iffy’ in such situations.
The long tail did overtime to keep them upright and moving in a straight line, but the Archos now blocking the human’s escape would never be able to quickly go from that sideways jump, turn in the right direction, and move towards its prey just a few feet away.
Small known facts like that saved their lives more than once.
“Yoko, down!” Rei yelled to the closest victim. The rest of them having enough time to scatter.
White hair floated for a second as Yoko heeded the warning and dove head first, just barely under the small but deadly arms of the off-balance Archos. His hands touched the ground for a split second before he landed roughly on a shoulder. He tucked into a practiced roll and using the same momentum to regain his footing, with knees bent the glowing blade was now held up between himself and the hungry predator.
Blue eyes darted briefly to Rei as the redhead used his knife-throwing skills to pierce a purple blob that was half hidden by a rock on the edge of the clearing. The sound of air hissing was predecessor to a mass of goo shooting out of the newly created hole and at the nearby Archos, hitting it full-mass on the side of its face. There was enough force in the blow to knock the large lizard on its side.
Yoko did not wait to see the outcome of ‘plant versus monster’. He knew far too well what that particular plant could do with its acid spewing mass. Metal dissolved in seconds under the same scenario.
The two remaining creatures didn’t slow down, splitting around their fallen kin, and continuing their one track path to a meal of fresh blood.
While they might hunt in small packs, it was every beast for themselves once the chase was completed. They would even turn on their own kind in that moment of hunger, much like the larger of the two had done to gain a lead when they first caught sight of the pair. A feast was privileged for the strongest only.
The four humans crashed through the forest line at a full run, positions staggered as they were forced to find their own path through the thick plant under growth, attempting to still keep close enough to not to lose sight of each other.
It was all very dangerous. The black lizards were not the only carnivores the men had to worry about. The expanse plants, both small and large, surrounding them was another. A single touch could awaken any of them from thier dormant state and force an immediate feeding period.
Their safety required them to get off the land completely. Really, the men gambled their lives no matter where they ended up, but the land was by far the biggest risk on that level.
The destruction caused by the Archos entering the foliage was both heard and felt, springing many more dangers to awareness in their wake. The four humans kept their eyes forward. If their speed slacked even the slightest…
Hundreds of bright shafts filtered through the area in front of them, a great wall of light expanding the farther they ran through the carnivore forest’s territory. Surely that light meant they had finally found the sanctuary they desperately needed.
“Jump!” Yoko yelled as his forward foot hit a rock warmed by the hot sun. He was the first one to break through the line of tree and realize the situation they had managed to get themselves in.
The ground under their feet was gone, left behind on the edge of cliff they were rapidly falling from. The thin ledge of clear ground gave Yoko just enough time to warn the others. Whether it was enough of a warning of not… He was already plummeting through the sky by the time he questioned it.
The warm air rushing past his body smelled of salt and decaying vegetation. A relieved smile spread on Yoko’s face even as gravity pulled them all downwards at a rapid pace.
Water! A large expanse of bluish-green water accompanied the opening of the sky before them, spreading east from the cliff. It was their saving grace. Of all the animals on the land, minus a few amphibians such as the Plodo frogs, none had the ability to swim.
Save, of course, the four out of place human beings.
With the fast approaching surface of the water, Yoko cast a final look over his shoulder, judging the situation. Their contact with the liquids surface was not going to be pleasant. The area they had jumped from was quite high.
He was not the only one to come to this conclusion. Eyes to each of his companions showed concentration, judging the safest way to enter the water, how not to impede each other, and how to guarantee their packs also made it to the surface once they found it again.
Blackness tumbled over the cliff and Yoko’s eyes widened fully in the realization that it was the pair of Archos following them in their tumble to the deep waters below. The large, leathery creatures either had too much momentum to stop themselves, or not enough foresight to realize their territory ended into a deadly fall. It was a fall that would put the beasts directly on top of Yoko and his companions.
And there was nothing they could do about it.
A reverberated splash echoed off the rocky cliff wall, one for each of the people hitting the water, feet first to break the surface tension before anything more vital followed suit.
Pain jolted on first contact, numbing Yoko’s feet and ankles, shooting bolts up and into each calf. The large expanse of salt water was never cold due to the constant high temperatures of the area. But now, in comparison to the muggy air and the heat his body had created while running for his life, the drastic temperature drop was a shock to his system. It took a moment before his arms and legs would cooperate and propelled him to the surface and air he needed.
The sound of the beasts hitting the water was deafening. A vast amount of liquid displaced, pushing them away from the Archos at first, but th
en sucked them back towards the cliff to fill the void the large bodies created.
The lizards flailed, no longer caring about the food they had been chasing after. Their bodies were not designed to accomplish the simple act of swimming. Razor sharp claws kicked and pulled, grabbing for anything that would give the creatures leverage to stop sinking.
The turbulence of their frantic movements had large amounts of water capsizing over Yoko’s white head. He sputtered as his lungs inhaled salt water instead of air. He was not the only one. His companion’s voices mingled with the futile cries of the drowning Archos.
A pointed tail hooked onto his shirt and threw him sideways before pulling him under the broken surface. Eventually the material buckled under the abuse and ripped. He kicked hard, knowing he needed to put more distance between himself and the present danger. Opening his eyes under the water, he could see their continued struggle even though they were now fully submersed.
Turning his head away, Yoko had no sympathy for the ending of two cold blooded lives. If it was a choice between them and his friends, the answer was obvious.
His head broke the surface nose first, milky strands of hair pushed out of his eyes. The large breath of air he took was stale, but wonderful at the same time. Passing the back of his hand over his eyes his vision cleared well enough to look around for the others. “Rei…” he coughed. “Shin… Lavi?”
“Here.” More coughing, this time from another source, Shin and the brunette were together a bit of distance away, about double his own from the wall. Each trying to get the unwanted water out of their lungs.
Rei was the last to break the surface, next to Yoko, who grabbed his arm and allowed him time to catch his breath. “Everyone okay?” The red head asked as soon as he could form words without hacking.
Lavien hissed. “I think one of those things got my leg with a claw.” He treaded water with just his arms when kicking proved to be too painful. The water was tinged red near him.
The other three swam over to help steady him and assess the damage. A deep gouge ran diagonally across his left shin. Luckily not too deep but it was bleeding quite a bit. It would also slow their journey home down.
“We can’t stay in one place long with blood in the water” Shin mentioned matter-o-factly. His black tail of hair was as sleek out of the water as it was in. “Once we get back to the nest I can properly treat his leg.” He moved to take a hold of the injured boy’s arm, allowing him extra support so he could swim with the use of only one leg. “Rei, stay close in case he gets tired.”
Salt-encrusted crimson hair flopped as the other man took position close by, keeping his glowing blade handy for the unseen situation, you could never be too careful.
Yoko waited until the rest were situated before offering his part. “I’ll keep an eye on your undersides until we get back. Swim as fast as you can.” Taking a second to clear his lungs the pale man took a larger than normal breath before ducking under the water to keep an eye out for dangers from below.
Given the length of time it took to swim back to the nest, he was the best one for the below surface watch duty. He could hold his breath longer than the rest, about thirty minutes at a time.
Like the other three, Yoko possessed a unique ability no mere human ever should have.
The hard fact was that this was not a life they chose for themselves. None of them were from this world. They were not meant to survive on this world, and in the end they were nothing but experiments.
None of them had memories prior of where they had come from, if they had families, or even friends. Their story began when each awoke alone, and in a strange place. Knowing only a name, or at least a name they soon adopted as their own. A lonely black cylinder was all that had kept them company while they slumbered.
The lesson of survival started immediately and was a hard taught lesson when you were on your own.
The world they were dropped into was but a sampling of the whole picture, a large shimmering dome cut their world off from the rest. But without it they would be dead, where ever they were.
The rest of the planet was ash and the atmosphere was deadly to breath. They couldn’t leave the dome even if they wanted to, and technically, they could. There was a door, monitored by a camera, on the south side of the water.
This… was another hard lesson to bear. The door was always unlocked, and never guarded by whom ever had transported them there. Mocking their captivity with a freedom only in death.
Instead, the land underneath the encasing had become their home. It housed several species of cold blooded animals, all meat eaters, all extremely dangerous. Most of them took the form of some sort of lizard which roamed the land to the northwest and western areas of the shimmering circle.
The rest of the land was all in liquid form. A massive salt-filled lake took up almost half of the domed area and held its own variety of razor toothed sea life, though more rare. Even the plant life of both major areas was a constant threat, almost everything enjoyed a meal of meat at some point in its diet or when the opportunity was presented.
And then there were the powers. A few too many unnerving clues that made them aware of the fact that they were nothing but experiments.
The ability to hold ones breath for thirty minutes or produce a super intense heat from your hands were, both, not normal… at least without an outside force. Another hint was the metal ledges near the door to the outside world, and a couple hidden doors made of a material that could not be burnt through. And, of course the drones that watched them….
Giving a shake of his white head, Yoko cleared his brain of its unhappy musing. He had to focus on the task at hand or he would be putting himself and his friends in danger. The creatures in the water were not seen too often near the surface during the day, instead enjoying the cooler and darker deep areas of the salty lake. But that didn’t mean their group had never encountered them before. And the fifteen minute swim from their location to the area of their nest, a giant water encircled tree, was a long period of time.
With Lavien injured, the trip would probably be extended, and the smell of blood in the water traveled a longer distance then he would have liked. Yoko only hoped the struggling of the large lizards would serve as a distraction to anything looking for a meaty midday snack.
A powerful stroke took him a little deeper into the blue, keeping himself under and slightly little behind his companions. It gave him the best prospective in all directions. The view would fade darker the further they swam away from the edge of the land area.
They took the days one at a time, never really knowing how many days had passed since they awoke and were eventually saved when located by the other. It was the determination to survive that pushed them all forward, working together to solve the mystery of the experiments that were being conducted. And why it was their lives that had to be the center of it.
Every day they juggled the clues and pieced together different combinations, hoping that they, one day, would find the answer to all of their questions.