© 2019 David Walker
The Orphan moved swiftly across the darkened desert, timing his steps with the gusts of the gathering dust storm. Libere’s lethal environs had been his mother and master. The planet’s rhythms were his own. He crested a rise and peered down from a crag as the searing wind tore at the ragged cloth of his thoab, whipping it from his bony frame like a banner. Behind him, a thunderhead ruptured. Deep crimson rays flowed from the cloud’s wound and set aglow his target below: a tiny dilapidated spacecraft crouching like a frightened child in the preternatural hues of Libere’s blood-red sun. The vessel sat isolated and vulnerable on the desert floor, a lonely speck in a vast, desolate expanse, its only companions a pair of rusted-out airbikes that knocked against its hull as they tottered under force of air and earth.
The Orphan turned back toward the storm. It was a Yaoguai. A dark billowing tidal wave of dust and death two kilometers high and ten times as wide, pouring down from Ashikule like a horde of demons. There would not be time to find the Bloodstone and get to safety before the storm arrived. He’d have to make his way back through it. That would be bad for him, but worse for anyone fool enough to give chase. The Orphan knew how to survive a Yaoguai in the open desert. The prospector holed up below in that broken-down spacecraft did not.
He plunged down the rise. A dark flurry of sand and gravel delivered him to the ship’s hatch, and he checked the seal. Unlocked. The sky’s wound congealed, and he stepped inside, silent as sin.
The cramped cabin was in disarray. Toppled beer cans lay strewn across the small coffee table like fallen soldiers on a battlefield. Towering above them was a translucent obelisk, half-drained of a golden-tan liquid. Between the table and the minuscule brown couch, a small cutting board sat on the floor, its surface littered with mangled foil wrappers, crumbled crackers, and withered cheese. Next to the board, an arm in a tan mining tunic hung off the couch’s side, swaying to the sound of snores. Its sand-caked fingers dangled just above a pot of beans, white plastic fork jutting out like a flag of surrender.
The Orphan stepped deeper into the cabin. He needed to confirm that this was the man he’d spied earlier that day, slamming away at the hardpan beyond the Bishou: the dead, jagged ravine that split the desert in two, separating the territories of the prospectors from the Realm of Xia.
The man on the couch was folded up in fetal position, face obscured in the dim blue light drifting from the cockpit behind the Orphan. Beyond the couch was a tiny galley, its counter piled high with spent tins. Fish, from the smell of it, long since gone putrid. Still, the Orphan was reminded of his hunger. He ignored it and moved in closer, squinting through the dark at the figure on the couch. It was him. The prospector who had gone where he did not belong and taken what was not his to take. The Orphan would set things right. He scanned the cabin, looking for the treasure he’d watched the man wrest from the sacred sands of the Xia.
A heavy gust rocked the ship and one of the airbikes outside went down. It fell against the ship’s hull with a loud thud. The man shifted position, his hand plunging into the pot as a boozy mutter escaped his lips. The Orphan reached beneath his thoab and brought his kris to the man’s neck. It was a cruel blade, with a black dragon’s tail snaking down its long, waved edge and arching serrated teeth along its back. Light and shadow played on the pommel, a silver dragon’s head. It roared in the cabin’s pale glow as if possessed of some savage magic.
The Orphan caught the glint of metal tucked beneath the man’s arm. He moved the kris closer to the man’s neck, almost pressing blade to flesh. He looked closer. No, not a weapon. It was in the shape of a rectangle. A frame. It held the image of a young boy. The Orphan’s eyes locked on the youth as a surge of anger flushed his face with blood and heat. But the man’s snoring resumed and broke the spell.
The Orphan sheathed his kris, tightening his grip on the handle as his own father’s visage flashed in his mind. The image faded and he withdrew his hand, fingers caressing the dragon pommel like a promise. The storm was getting angrier now. He would need to find the Bloodstone quickly. After that, he would decide what to do with the transgressing prospector.
He turned his attention back to the cabin. In the corner. He made out the faint, pulsing red glow of Bloodstone emanating from a bulky miner’s bag crammed between the couch and wall. Another strong gust hit the ship, pelting it with gravel and sending the beer cans rolling and rattling. His hand returned to his kris, but the prospector didn’t stir. The Orphan glided toward the wall, grabbed hold of the bag, and pulled.
It didn’t budge. He gave another tug, but it was no use. The bag, misshapen and heavy with stone, was wedged in too tight. He’d have to remove the Bloodstones one by one until the bag could be eased out. And he’d have to be fast.
Quietly, carefully, the Orphan pulled the rocks from the bag and placed them on the stained, threadbare flooring. Their undulating red glow sent waves of shadow rippling through the cabin as the decrepit ship swayed, creaking and shuddering in the quickening storm. When the miner’s bag was half empty, the Orphan coaxed it from its hiding place and refilled it. Cinching the heavy drawstrings and standing erect, he gazed down at the man. He was twisted into himself like a sickly child, alone on this dark deadly planet with nothing to shield his vulnerability but this claustrophobic alloy hole, a vessel so abused and neglected it was good for nothing but the trash heap.
The glow from the Bloodstones washed over the man’s gaunt, weathered face, revealing a web of creases etched in grime. The Orphan almost felt pity for him. When he’d spied the man beyond the Bishou, the Orphan had been taken aback by the sight. A wild-eyed prospector, hacking away like a banshee at fumarole after fumarole, throwing himself into their blistering poison clouds, skin laid bare to the diseased rays of Libere’s scarlet star. Looking at the man now, at the dismal state of his spacecraft and the picture held to his chest, was like reading a story.
The Orphan knew it well. It was the Prospector’s Tale, a tragedy of rejects and outlaws, brigands invading another’s home in search of salvation and glory. Like so many prospectors, the fool had probably gambled everything to come to Libere, convincing himself that its merciless blood fields would countenance his daring, would relent from their murderous indifference and reward his determination with their precious bounty: Bloodstone. No doubt, the stones in this very bag had convinced the prospector his faith was vindicated.
The Xia had a word for such fools. Dharma Men. Though really they weren’t men at all. Just overgrown children, clinging to the fairy tale of a Universal Order. The Orphan’s own father had been such a man. The Universe hadn’t spared him. So neither would the Orphan spare this man. He would suffer the fate he had by his own recklessness brought upon himself, upon the innocent, lonely child in the picture.
This pathetic Dharma Man, who had trespassed on sacred ground, his ground, would get nothing in return for his faith but death. And Death Alone. The Orphan could see its inky tendrils snaking in from the Yaoguai, covering the man like a blanket, smothering him. Death Alone, in the piercing embrace of Libere’s fiery talons. Death Alone, as his corpse rotted and ruptured in the sweltering darkness, as the black winds of Libere buried his befouled cadaver in earth, pulling him down into the teeming muck of the planet’s bowels, where the worms would feast on his fetid flesh, consuming him, excreting him, imprisoning him forever in the soil of a land not his own.
The wind hurled a rock against the ship. It reverberated through the hull and roused the Orphan from his vision. The storm was coming in giant waves now, rocking the ship to and fro on its feeble haunches like a boat on a violent ocean. He threw a hand out for balance and heaved the bulky mining bag onto his back. He looked on the prospector again, knew that the kris would not be necessary. The bag on his back carried the last shred of hope this sorry man had left. The desert would take care of the rest.
The ship settled and the Orphan took a step toward the hatch. He lifted his foot to take a second when a surge pounded like a hammer from hell, raining massive chunks of desert as the ship listed to port. The Orphan shifted his weight back but the storm slammed from the other side and the world lurched starboard. The bag’s weight sent the Orphan reeling backward. He turned his body, trying to gain purchase on the rolling floor, but his feet caught the table legs. The mining bag came loose and swooped across the table, toppling the tower of golden-tan. The bottle exploded against the table top with a deafening crash as the Orphan went down hard onto the couch. The Dharma Man opened his eyes.
Cronin Pahl awoke with a start. The world was pitching and rolling, and something in his belly felt like curdled poison. But he was used to that. What got his attention was the thing wriggling on his chest. It was all wrapped in white and had glowing azure eyes. Before he could rouse himself to throw the thing off, it moved. The eyes floated upward, swimming disembodied in the darkness. Then, a glint of pale blue light snaking down at him. A thunderous boom sent the blue glint flying sideways as the ship convulsed and tilted. The thing cried out. Then it threw itself off his chest.
A rush of adrenaline jerked Cronin to his feet. He stood on the couch, struggling for balance as his ship shuddered and lurched in the battering wind. The cabin was spinning, the alcohol warping his vision and curdling his stomach. He blinked and shook his head, trying to focus. To his right he saw a pulsing red glow moving away from him, toward the ship’s hatch. The sound of a thousand rockets firing in unison and a short blast of hot wind as the hatch opened. Then the red glow disappeared.
The Bloodstone! Thief!
Cronin lunged toward the hatch but his foot caught the table leg and he went down, slamming his head against the table as he fell. A dull, throbbing pain branched out from the point of impact as he groped to get back up. Outside, he heard the high-pitched peal of an airbike coming to life, floating over the din of the storm like the distant screams of a child.
Cronin staggered out of the hatch. The hot desert wind hit him like a battering ram, stinging his bare skin with sand. He tried to push down the gangway, but a heavy gust had other ideas and his ass reached for the ground. He grabbed hold of the ramp’s steely rails and pulled himself back up.
To his left, the airbike hissed and whined, stirring up its own swarm of dust as it lifted a meter above the ground. Cronin’s face felt cold and clammy. The nausea churned in his stomach.
“No! Please! My…my son!”
The wind muted his cry and filled his mouth with foul grit. He careened down the gangplank, eyes fixed on the bag of Bloodstone the thief had slung on his back, drawstrings looped around his neck. Another gust slammed the airbike back to the ground. Cronin lunged for the treasure, but he stumbled. His fingers raked down the heavy cloth of the mining bag as the thief gunned the thrusters and disappeared into a giant cloud of dust.
Cronin fell face-down on the desert floor. The storm showered him with earth, covering him like a blanket. Beneath him, the desert floor felt soft as a pillow.
No chance of catching up with the bastard. None. Not in the blinding madness of a sand storm, drunk off my ass.
Cronin beat the desert floor with his fists and screamed into the sand. “The Bloodstone…my son’s ransom…gone!” He lifted his head up, dizzy and disoriented from the overdose of booze, and shouted after the thief. “It was for my son, you bastard!”
Cronin heard himself cursing the thief, cursing his fate, but he knew it was his fault. He had been reckless, throwing himself a victory party for striking it rich after being kicked in the balls by the heartless Libere desert for the past year.
He rolled over and lay on his back, the storm swirling above him. His head ached where he’d bashed it against the table. The rot in his belly washed over him in sickening waves. He thought of his son, Oliver. His mind reeled as he traveled back in time, back to Earth.
In the distance, he saw a tram station. He was walking. Oliver was next to him, scurrying, holding his hand. A few days before, they’d celebrated his 6th birthday. The tram pulled up to the platform. Oliver pointed and squealed with glee. But Cronin’s heart sank. The tram was early, they were late, and the distance to the platform was too great. They’d never make it, and Oliver would miss his chance to see the ocean before being shipped off to the hellish urban wasteland that the corrupt prelates in the Order of Misrah had deemed would be his new home. Then Oliver was tugging at him, imploring him to run, naive confidence lighting up his face.
Run, daddy, run!
It was too far. Cronin knew that. They’d never make it. Still, he found himself running.
Halfway across the lot, the tram doors slammed shut and the horn sounded. Still, Oliver urged him on. Then, magically, as if the machinery of the universe had bent itself to Oliver’s unflinching belief, the doors slid open again. Now he and Oliver were across the lot and running up the escalator, the tram still on the platform. Warning bells sounded and the lights above the doors blinked. But the doors stayed open, the tram unmoving.
Run, daddy! Run!
And so he had, his strides lengthening, emboldened by the dangerous naivete of faith, feet pummeling the escalator steps, a challenge to their cold certainty, their soulless cadence.
The doors began to close. They reached the platform, dashed across it. The doors slid shut. But it was too late. They were already inside, heaving and gasping and cheering. Cronin had been so sure. And yet there they were, together on the tram, moving toward the ocean.
The wind kicked a pile of sand in Cronin’s face, bringing him back to the present. He picked himself up, head erupting in agony. He squinted through the churning eddies of dust and found the remaining airbike, already half buried in sand. He took a step toward it but the wind hit him hard from behind and his legs buckled. He pulled himself up again, spit out a mouthful of sand, staggered to the bike, and wrestled it upright. His heart raced, every beat an explosion in his skull. He found the ignition and pushed it. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. The wail from the other airbike was a feeble whisper now, its direction undetectable in the raging winds. Cronin groped the console’s underside, found the flush and pushed. He hit the ignition once more. The airbike screamed to life. He jumped on and hit the jets, keeping it low. Then he sped off into the dark.
Run, daddy! Run!
The sound of the other airbike was was gone now, lost beneath the howls of the storm and his own bike’s steady whine. But the thief wore a tunic. That meant he was a desert dweller, a Xia. Cronin glanced at his instrument panel and brought the bike west, toward the Xia badlands. The desert was mostly flat in that direction. Mostly. Here and there, the broad sheet of hardpan was punctuated by what the Xia called Gushan: rock formations that sprang out of nowhere and shot straight up as high as 30 meters. Gushan were similar to the buttes on Earth, except their edges seemed to be made of rusty razor blades instead of stone.
The hot wind tore through Cronin, grit caking his lips and stinging his eyes. He kept a pair of goggles in the compartment beneath the seat, but there was no time to stop for that now. The headlamp was useless, an amorphous dull glow bouncing back at him off the brown fog. He turned it off. For all he could tell, he was headed straight for a Gushan. If he was, the bike’s radar might warn him in time to swerve out of the way. But in this bitch of a storm, probably not.
Run, daddy! Run!
Cronin looked down and squinted, trying to make out the odometer. His eyes were on fire, the world still spinning. The whiskey in his belly sloshed and curdled, his insides a cauldron of bubbling poison. He was five kilometers out from his kayak. Even if he didn’t end up face-planting into a crystalline razor, the desert floor was about to open its jaws and swallow him. He was approaching the Bishou, the yawning ravine that separated the territories of the prospectors and the Xia.
Near that dividing line, the perpetual twilight of the prospectors’ world dissolved in the light of Libere’s sweltering sun, a brutal red dwarf that kept the Xia’s side of the tidally locked planet awash in a perpetual bloodwine glare. The only time night visited the Xia badlands was when it was brought by a dust storm like this one. Then, until the storm passed, it was a night as black as death. Cronin’s only hope was that he’d come out the storm’s other side before sailing over the Bishou’s sheer edge and being impaled on the crags below. It was an insane risk. Idiotic. But he was already an idiot for losing the bloodstones. And if he didn’t get them back, he was a dead man anyway.
Run, daddy! Run!
Disorienting clouds of sand swirled around the airbike. The patterns shifted, a swarm of locusts in an endless, fluid series of half-shapes and grotesqueries. Blistering wind struck the bike from all sides, knocking it off course, every blow a hammer claw in Cronin’s skull. He couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight. Twice as he rode, the pain and wooziness nearly overtook him. Run, daddy! Run! He shook his head and looked away from the shrieking hallucinations in the air, stared down at his instrument panel, willing the storm to break before the Bishou sucked him down and chewed him up.
It seemed to work. Two kilometers more and the storm appeared to be calming, the thick churning dust columns thinning and slowing. Another minute, and Cronin knew he wasn’t imagining it. The familiar red glow began to soak the air, and he could make out the shadowy lines of landscape through the haze. He slowed to scan the horizon. There. At three o’clock. A murky glimmer of blue-white. The thief’s taillight. Cronin’s airbike yawed right and he gunned it, engine screeching like a bird of prey as he leaned forward into the blistering wind, sand-choked eyes locked on his target.
An alarm squawked from the speaker on the instrument panel and the engine’s whine became a death rattle. It choked and sputtered, chain stoking, threatening to give up the ghost. Chig-chigur. Chig-chug-chigurr. Cronin cursed and reached down, groping for the air filter. The white-hot engine blistered his bare left hand. He yanked it back and cursed again. He spit on his left hand, leaned over, and reached around with his right. It found the filter. Signal, but no pain. The fingers wrapped around it. Now if he could just get the damn things to work like they were supposed to. Cronin focused. He wrenched as hard as he could. The filter snapped free, and he started scooping the sand out. A few seconds later, the alarm switched off and the engine settled down. But it was exposed now. It would die soon. Cronin needed to catch the thief before that happened.
Cronin looked back up in time to see him disappear into the Bishou. He spat out another curse. It would be nearly impossible for him to track the bastard down in the ravine’s serpentine crevices.
He slowed the bike as it approached the ridge. It was fifty meters straight down, seventy in some spots. There was no sign of the thief. No sound, either. He followed the ridge west, scanning for an entry point. A gust of wind rushed out from the tail of the storm and shoved the bike, nearly sending him over the side. He gunned the thrusters to pull away from the edge, hot air hammering the ground, sending a spray of pebbles and stones tumbling down the ravine and disappearing in its bowels, their eventual impact with the ground too distant to hear.
Cronin steadied the bike and continued along the edge. He followed it to the tip of an outcrop, the apex of a hairpin turn in the long dead riverbed below. Here, the wall of the ravine angled outward and down in a graduated slope all the way to the bottom. Far too steep, but it would have to do. He eased the bike over the edge and moved toward the Bishou’s shadowy depths.
It was a bumpy ride. After a final precipitous plunge, the bike slammed down on the lifeless river bed, engine chugging and wheezing again. Cronin turned back in the direction he’d come, toward where the blue-white light had disappeared. It was quiet down here, and dark. But the ravine’s steep walls shielded him from what was left of that pestilent storm, and his headlights stretched almost far enough so that he could react to the winding narrow walls before he crashed into them.
He heard a screech echoing in the narrow canyon. He slowed to quiet his engine, and listened. It sounded like another airbike, hauling ass at full throttle. Cronin threw open his own bike’s throttle and leaned forward. Maybe he could catch the bastard after all.
Chig-chug-chigurr. Then again, maybe not.
The screeching whine of the other bike grew louder as Cronin rounded a hairpin turn. He rounded another and it grew louder still. Then it happened. His engine locked up.
Chig. Chig. Chigu … Ch
Cronin shouted a curse as the bike sank to the ground. He let it drop against a boulder. He kicked a few times, but it kept on sputtering. He stepped away and sat hard on the ground. The nausea rose up again. He dropped his head between his knees.
He’d done his best, but now it truly was impossible. No way a man on foot could catch up with an airbike. Not any man. Certainly not a man already half hungover and still half drunk, lost in the belly of a dark ravine. It was over.
Run, daddy! Run!
The words kicked him in the gut. Daddy failed, baby. Surprise, surprise. He lowered his head deeper between his knees and tried to wretch, but all that came out was a sandy belch. He cursed again and spit at the bike. Then he heard the sound. The same sound he’d been hearing since he got down here. Exactly the same. It wasn’t getting quieter. It isn’t moving.
Cronin stood up, blood boiling, coursing through his head like molten lava. His airbike’s engine was still twitching and chugging. He walked over and kicked it again, but it refused to give up the ghost. He ran.
Jagged rocks knifed his feet and bent his ankles in all directions. He couldn’t see. He missed a turn and bashed his face where the gorge narrowed to a slit. The collision knocked him on his ass. He picked himself up and started running again, face wet with perspiration and blood. He listened over the sound of his own gasping, waiting for the sound of the other airbike to start growing more distant. But it didn’t. In fact, it was getting louder. He ran faster.
Dead ahead. Something twinkling. A blue-white light. Damned if it wasn’t the other airbike, sprawled and wailing against the far wall of the dry river bed, a bald spot where the throttled engine had blown clean the sand and rubble.
Cronin ran to the bike. He shut it down and tuned his ears to the Bishou’s west wall. A few meters south, a downpour of dirt and pebbles gave away the thief’s position. Cronin moved toward the sound. Another shower of stones, this time closer. Cronin closed in, scanning the cliff. Less than halfway up, he made out the thief’s shape. He was hunched over, carefully dragging himself up a skinny gouge in the face, heavy mining bag balanced on his back like a millstone.
Daddy’s coming for you, motherfucker.
Cronin found the foot of the path hidden behind two sandstone boulders. The trail was crumbling and too narrow, hardly wider than his two feet. He started up, head reeling in pain, mouth parched, lips caked with dust. By the time he made it halfway, the thief was almost at the top.
The thief stopped. He turned toward Cronin and threw an arm up. It was too dark for Cronin to see the dirt clod coming, but he heard the thud as it plowed into the trail two meters in front of him. A second volley whizzed past his left ear and struck the sheer rock wall behind him, then disintegrated on the ravine floor below.
The third one hit its mark. The left side of Cronin’s head exploded in pain, and he went reeling backward. His right foot slipped off the trail, the razor edge skinning his shin to the knee before he caught himself. His bloody leg scrambled and scraped against the smooth face of the cliff, but got no traction. Cronin hooked his elbows into the stony trail and pulled himself back up. He felt the blood oozing from his scalp, down the side of his face, felt it pool in the corner of his mouth. He licked his lips, tasted dirt and copper. He looked up and flashed a bloody smile, but the thief was already climbing again. Cronin resumed the chase, keeping himself low until he saw the thief crest the wall and disappear into the Xia badlands beyond.
By the time Cronin arrived at the top, the thief was 50 meters out, running south toward an enormous dune field, his pace slowed by the thickening sand and the heavy, awkward bag. The wind was still blowing hard enough to cover his tracks. If he could clear his first ridge far enough ahead of Cronin, he’d be able to cross the trough and disappear behind another ridge before Cronin got there. Cronin would have no way of knowing which way the thief went.
Cronin sprinted toward the dunes. But the closer he got, the thicker the sand became. By the time the thief hit the windward side of the slope, Cronin felt like his legs weighed 50 kilos. Two thirds up the rise, the thief’s left leg sank thigh-deep in a soft patch of sand.
Cronin pushed, his legs and lower back screaming and losing strength. He hit the base of the dune, but the thief had already freed himself and was climbing again. He disappeared over the top.
Cronin’s legs burned in anguish. He didn’t care. All he could think of was Oliver, lost to the corrupt ministers of the Order of Misrah, abandoned by his own father, haunted and hounded forever by the question of why. That is not happening. The evil bastards had stolen his son from him once. They weren’t going to do it again. Not tonight.
Cronin leaned into the pain, embraced it, basked in it. He heard himself laughing, saw himself accelerate, launch over the crest of the dune and into the air. He tumbled onto the sand halfway down the other side. The thief was just 2 meters away now, scrambling down the steep leeward slope like a frightened rabbit. Cronin let out a primal roar and threw himself in the air again. He slammed into the thief, grabbing hold of his waist as they went down.
The thief felt like a loose bag of twigs in Cronin’s arms. He was pleasantly surprised by the small, wispy frame hidden beneath the billowing tunic. They tumbled for a moment, but the thief was weak and weighed down by the bag of Bloodstone planted in the sand next to him, its cords still wrapped around his scrawny neck. Cronin ended up on his back. He grabbed the thief’s head by the hair, shouting, mashing his face into the dune. The thief writhed and flailed, his cries muffled by the sand. He was suffocating. Cronin howled in the bloodwine light, his face ashen and caked with dirt, twisted up like a gargoyle’s. He leaned forward, using the weight of his body to push the thief’s face deeper and deeper into the warm, soft earth. The thief bucked and flapped his arms, a pathetic, crippled bird plummeting to its death. He reached back, found Cronin’s hands, and dug his fingernails deep into his knuckles. The pain took Cronin by surprise and his grip loosened. It was only a moment, but it was enough for the thief to get his head turned. He gasped, sucking in sand and air. Cronin froze.
He was just a boy. But the boy sensed Cronin’s hesitation. He pulled the cinch strings over his head and wriggled away like a snake. He rolled three meters down the slope and stood and drew his kris, then scurried back up the side of the dune to Cronin’s left. He stopped when he had the elevation advantage, then started creeping back in, crouched wide like a cobra. His kris sliced the air in front of him, its long sinuous edge alive with crimson light. The entire sequence had been one fluid motion, a slithering eel gliding through the sand as easily as if it had been an ocean. Cronin blinked and got himself upright, footing uncertain on the shifting sand.
Just a kid. No older than 12. Something in his eyes reminded Cronin of Oliver. In the year since he’d been taken, it seemed every boy reminded him of Oliver. Cronin saw something else in the boy’s eyes: hunger. The boy’s raggedy thoab hung loose off his gaunt frame, his cheeks sunken beneath his glowing blue eyes. He had a strength about him despite his wretched condition, or perhaps because of it. This is someone’s child. Somewhere out there is a father, waiting for his son to come home.
The boy moved in, kris slashing the air with a menacing whipping sound. Cronin reached down to the mining bag, eyes locked on the boy. He loosened the cinch and pulled out a jagged Bloodstone. The boy moved closer. Cronin transferred the stone to his other hand, then pulled out another. The boy took another step and Cronin hurled the first stone at him. The boy dodged and Cronin turned and lumbered down the slope, trying for the even ground of the trough. The boy came after him.
Cronin hit the trough and spun around. Too late. The boy was already on him. The kris sank into Cronin’s upper right arm. The boy smiled, watching for the blood to seep through his shirt as he yanked the knife out. The rock fell from Cronin’s hand and he staggered back. But the blood didn’t come. Cronin smiled.
The boy held the knife in his right hand. He stared at Cronin’s right arm with a bewildered expression. He lunged again, but this time Cronin was ready. He dodged left, taking the boy’s wrist with his left hand and gouging his eyes with his right. The injured arm jerked and spasmed but was still mostly functional. The boy went down hard on his back. Cronin’s knee crushed the boy’s wrist against the ground and the kris came loose. Cronin had the boy pinned. He took the kris in his left hand, raised it high above the boy’s head, and brought it down with all of his might.