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In April, I posted my thousandth post on this blog. To celebrate, I will share here all my short stories. Every couple of weeks, I’ll be posting one story from my celebrated Exciting Destinies series for you to enjoy. With over 30 stories so far, I hope you’ll have lots of fun in the coming months!

This week, it’s You Can’t Fight a Prophecy from You’re In For A Ride.

Click here to read some more free stories.

You Can’t Fight a Prophecy

Prophecy book | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Image: Pixabay

“You can’t fight a prophecy,” the wrinkly shaman says and gives me a toothless grin. The shrug accompanying his words shakes the feathers around his neck, making him look like a frail old bird trying to give flight.

Fight it? I don’t even understand it.

“What’s he say, Doc?” the large boulder of a man standing behind me asks. His camouflaged face and broad shoulders make him look like one of the GI cartoons I used to watch as a kid. Long before the men came in the middle of the night to drag me across half the continent to this forsaken place. For your country, they had said. Then, why do they look like mercenaries instead of regular troops? Still, the money they dangled wasn’t bad. Heck, it was a small fortune. And it’s not like I had something better to do with my life. Not since I opened my drunken, big mouth and told everyone at the Christmas party about the Dean and his secretary. Now, no university would touch me with a ten-foot barge pole.

I let out a mental sigh and draw a crumpled red bandana from my back pocket. I wipe enough sweat from my forehead to fill half a bucket. I haven’t been in the jungle in over twenty years. How I survived that first field trip is beyond me. Then again, I was twenty years younger. Surprisingly enough, I remember the tribe’s language fairly well. A dry chuckle escapes my lips. Much good that’s done me. A failed academic turned unlikely jungle hero.

I swat away a mosquito eager to stab my neck with its straw-like proboscis and notice GI Joe behind me, still waiting for my answer. “Oh, right,” I say. “Sorry. Our chopper has him all worked up. He thinks it’s a sign.”

GI Joe’s gaze measures up the ancient shaman sitting upon a thick layer of leaves. Naked, bony legs protrude under a beige loincloth; the only garment on him. Tattoos and scars cover his skin. Painted red lines cross his wrinkled face. Strange how the various bugs seem to ignore him. Instead, they focus on me, even though I’ve practically showered from head to toe with stinky bug repellant. “A sign?”

I scratch my chin. “Apparently there’s some prophecy. An iron bird’s children will wake an ancient god, who will destroy the world. Or something like that. It’s all very apocalyptic, really.”

The captain’s face darkens. He glances behind us. A dozen men in camouflage have spread around our helicopter, assault rifles at the ready. “Are we in danger?”

I shake my head emphatically. “No, no, the natives don’t care either way. Listen.” I turn my attention back to the old shaman. “Will you help us?” I ask in his language. The tongue-twisting words sound like a typewriter, wrapped in tinfoil, falling down the stairs.

His laugh is throaty and cheerful. He clicks his tongue, as if scolding me for my naivety. “If the gods wish you to find your friend, no one can stop you,” he says in a rapid series of guttural sounds, like the typewriter was just crashed by a steamroller. “If they don’t, no one can help you. Either way, you don’t need me.” I translate for GI Joe behind me and he mumbles something under his breath.

“Does he know where the rebels are keeping him?” he asks.

I repeat the question to the shaman. He cocks his head for a moment as if listening to the wind, then nods. I take out a map and notice the bemused glint in the old man’s eyes. He’s probably never seen paper, I remind myself. Hell, he hadn’t even seen a white man before today. I fold the map away. A thin smile tugs at his lips, followed by a lot of pointing and a burst of words. I hastily draw my pen and scribble down instructions. A forked river. A lake. A snaked wall. Twin mountains. He points behind me. I follow his gaze and see two peaks behind us, barely peeking over the thick canopy of the jungle.

I thank him and unfold the map again. GI Joe looks over my shoulder. I point to an area in the south. “From what I can tell, we need to follow the river farther south. Whenever we come across a fork, we stay on the left. We will end up at a lake. A path leads from its far end to a ridge between those two mountains”—I use my thumb to point behind us—“then we hit something he calls a snaked wall. Or snake wall. Or the wall of snakes?” I scratch my unshaved chin. “It might be a ruined temple. Or some natural phenomenon. I guess we’ll know it when we see it.”

“Not we, Doc,” the gruff man says. “You’re staying here.”

I almost let out a relieved sigh, then my face drops. “I’d love to. But what if you get lost? Or if you hit a snag? Maybe you meet some other tribe and you need to communicate.” I shake my head. “I’m as good a guide as anyone you can find around here. You need me.”

He purses his lips, then nods. “Very well. But at the first sign of trouble, you hide.”

I chortle. “Don’t need to tell me twice.”

He turns to his men. “Prepare the dinghies,” he barks and two dozen men scramble to their feet.

Within seconds, they are busy loading a pair of huge dinghies with more ammo and supplies than I thought any boat made of rubber could ever hold.

“Why don’t we take the chopper?” I ask.

“No place to land for miles,” GI Joe explains. “The forest is too thick in the south. Besides, they’ll hear us coming. We can’t risk them killing the… asset.”

Asset. The brief pause and the way he spoke the word suggests a strange affection—even reverence—for the man we’ve come to rescue. Is he the one the prophecy refers to? Unless, of course, the shaman meant me. Am I destined to raise some sort of god? My mouth twitches in frustration. How can I fight a prophecy I don’t even understand?

Despite the stifling heat, the academic in me is intrigued. All sorts of information gathered during my studies bubble to my head. I open my mouth to further question the ancient shaman, but GI Joe yanks me to my feet.

“Are you coming, or what?” he growls.

His men have already loaded up the dinghies and are finding their places inside. I follow GI Joe and he shoves me into the nearest boat. I find myself squeezed between a tall man made of granite and a stubby one made of ebony, with a face scarred by fire. They grunt in response to my greeting. GI Joe pushes our dinghy into the river. Ebony’s hand finds the engine and jolts it to life. The boat bounces forward and seesaws into the river for a moment, then its movement becomes smooth and we stroll along its course.

Every now and then, a Caiman fixes his reptilian eye on us, watching us go by. A distinctive coughing sound alerts me to an arapaima fish emerging for air. This one is half as long as our dinghy. I make sure that all my limbs are safely inside.

“What’s so important about this guy, anyway?” I ask Ebony.

“We’d give our lives for him,” he whispers. His scarred face burns with a devotion I’ve never seen before.

“Why?” I blurt out.

Granite scowls at Ebony, who presses his thick lips together. No answer comes.

We ride in awkward silence until we reach a fork in the river. A fallen tree cuts off the left branch. As the two dinghies lumber around it, movement in a limb catches my eye. When I find myself staring into the eyes of an anaconda, I swallow. Its spotty skin makes it almost invisible among the thick leaves, but it must be around twenty feet long and thicker than Granite’s thigh. Granite follows my gaze and his whole body jerks. He reaches for his sidearm, but GI Joe shoots him a warning glare and shakes his head. Reluctantly, Granite draws a long breath. His eyes never leave the limb until we’re far enough for him to relax his grip on his gun.

“Snakes,” he mutters under his breath. “I hate snakes.”

“Well, we are in a jungle.” My words sound more cheerful than I intended. I am rewarded with a poisonous side glance.

I shrug it off and lower my sweaty hat to my eyes. The engine’s murmur and the soft bobbing of the boat make me drowsy. My eyes grow heavy, and I drift into an uneasy sleep.

A shove jerks me awake. “We’re here,” someone whispers in my ear.

I blink to clear cobwebs from my eyes. Granite is towering over me. Behind him, the sun is setting fast, as if anxious to get home after a busy day. I glance around. We have arrived at the edge of a large lake. Slivers of orange-hued sunlight slice through the green canopy overhead and leave its warm glow here and there. The men secure the dinghies and start pulling the crates out. I yawn and stretch. My limbs feel creaky and sore.

“We walk the rest of the way,” Granite says and throws a backpack to me.

I catch it with an audible oomph that earns me a contemptuous smirk. I ignore him and sling the backpack around my shoulder before jumping out. With a loud squelch, my legs sink almost to the knees in sludge. I cringe and yank one leg from the mud’s greedy pull. “Pretty soon, it’ll be too dark to see anything,” I say as I flick away thirsty leeches from my pants. “We should make camp here and leave in the morning.”

He points to something like binoculars hanging around his neck, then reaches into a crate and pulls out a similar set. He throws them at me. I catch them just before they land in the muddy waters. Can’t this guy ever pass something like a normal human being? I imagine him at a dinner table, throwing saltshakers and bottles of wine to his guests, and almost chuckle.

“Nice catch,” he says, his voice thick with irony.

The first thing crossing my mind is something about his mother and her marital status at the time of his conception. One look at his bulging muscles has me swallow my words. Instead, I finally manage to free both my legs from their muddy prison and shuffle over to harder ground. “What are these, night goggles?” I ask.

“See for yourself,” he says and points at a switch at their top.

I place the goggles in front of my eyes and he flips the switch. The dusky forest turns an eerie green. He pushes a lever back and forth. The image zooms in and out in rapid succession, until my stomach feels queasy.

“It’s not that dark,” GI Joe sniggers as he passes us.

Granite’s laugh burns my ears. Jerks.

I push Granite’s fingers away and tear the goggles from my eyes. It takes a minute or two for my nausea to subside. In the meantime, the soldiers have emptied the dinghies.

We make our way into the forest and clear a path. Soon, I find myself in the middle of a long column, a dozen guys before me, and another behind. Before long, I’m panting, too tired to look at anything but Ebony’s boots right ahead. Their rise and fall is hypnotic. Up, down. Up, down. I thank my lucky stars for the nap I had earlier.

Half an hour later, my whole chest burns with every breath. Every muscle aches. Thick sweat covers every inch of my body. The rough terrain is harder to traverse than I remembered. I sigh with relief when Ebony stops. He motions for me to put my goggles on. Like before, I need a moment before I get used to my eerie green surroundings.

Granite runs down the column to fetch me. He motions for me to follow him and leads me to a vine-covered stone wall. It’s so ancient, the ground has swallowed most of it. Whatever’s left barely reaches to my waist. From the old man’s words, I expect it to snake through the jungle. Instead, it runs in a straight line, cutting us off. Etched snakes, almost erased by time, meander through its surface. Granite notices them and draws a sharp breath. I almost smile.

“Now what?” GI Joe asks me.

“Umm…” I scratch my chin. The old man was not exactly a fan of specifics. “I think we’re meant to go around it. He warned against crossing it. The whole area here is taboo.”

“What about the rebels?” Granite asks. “Where are they?”

“Right past this area. If we keep climbing, we’ll reach the top. The camp should be below us.”

The two men exchange a loaded glance. Granite nods and disappears into the night to inform the others.

“You wait here,” GI Joe says.

“Again, that’d be fine with me,” I say. “But what if the old man has it wrong? The camp may be an hour or a day away. Or even a week, for all we know.”

His cold stare gives me the creeps. “Very well,” he says after a while. He turns to Granite, who has just reappeared behind us, and points his chin at me. “You, watch him.”

“Yes, boss,” Granite says and motions for me to fall behind him.

We keep the wall to our left and continue our ascent. The jungle is alive with sound even at night—except for the area surrounded by the wall. No birds, no frogs, no crickets. Just a chill that sends cold shivers down my back, despite the still simmering heat. Granite must have felt it too, because he takes a few steps away from the wall and into the jungle. I’m more than happy to follow him.

It doesn’t take long to circumvent the wall. It continues in what appears to be a perfect rectangle. We clear a path parallel to it until we leave that whole area behind us. Not a moment too soon, either.

After about an hour, we reach the brow of the ridge. True to the old man’s word, we spot lights below. Through the goggles, they burn like stars in a cloudless night. My limbs feel numb by now and my hands shake. On the other hand, only a fine sheen of sweat on Granite’s face shows any effort on his part.

GI Joe motions us to lie low. I drop to all fours and use the goggles to zoom in. Below us lies some kind of encampment, surrounded by wooden walls. For some reason, crosses stand on each corner. They look constructed in a hurry, out of fallen tree trunks. Words and symbols I can’t make out are etched on the peeling barks.

I tilt the goggles to study the wall. A single entrance leads in and out. Two soldiers guard it. Another four patrol the perimeter. There is a makeshift tower with a searchlight at one corner, with a bored-looking soldier manning a machinegun. Yet another cross rises over him.

I make out four—no, five—buildings including the toilets at the camp’s corner. The smallest building sits smack in the middle of the clearing. Six men guard it; one at each corner, and another two at its entrance. I assume that’s the jail where they keep the prisoner. More crosses line the walls, hastily nailed to each of the walls and on the door.

Right on cue, the door gives up a wide yawn and a broad-shouldered young man leans into the gap. Two guards raise nervous rifles to stop him from stepping outside. I expect him to go straight back, but he just stands there, a mocking grin dividing his handsome, angular face. He’s the prisoner? I expected a roughed up, terrified, white-haired man. Instead, I see an athletic man in his early thirties, wearing an impeccable silk suit that has to be tailor-made. His every move carries an unmistakable air of authority, as if the guards were, in fact, the prisoners here.

Thick beads of sweat rush down my back, thanks to the humid heat. My hair clings to my head under my soggy hat. My clothes are muddy and torn. But the prisoner—he looks like he’s been having drinks at an air-conditioned, five-star hotel bar. Not a hair on his perfect head is out of place. He tugs at a gold, serpent-shaped cufflink and straightens the snow-white sleeve of his shirt. As if feeling my gaze on him, he lifts his chin and stares right at me, a smug smile on his face. Then, he winks.

I let out an audible gasp. “Who is this guy?” I ask Granite.

“Not your concern,” he growls as he fixes an earpiece to his ear. He taps it a couple of times, then screws a silencer on the barrel of his rifle in a fluid, methodical motion. A laser scope the size of my arm goes at its top. He fishes an upturned cross from his khaki T-shirt and kisses it.

I watch, mesmerized, the silver amulet as he shoves it back down on his hairy chest. The cross’s horizontal bar is so low, it almost looks like an upside-down T. “That’s the wrong side up,” I blurt out, and immediately scold myself. Nice, oh master of the obvious. Argue with the guy with the rifle.

“Just the way it should be,” he says absentmindedly as he removes his goggles. He fixes his eye at the scope’s end and points the rifle at the guards. “Check,” he murmurs. I realize he’s responding to some inaudible command, and wish I, too, could hear what was going on.

“How can you be sure you’ll hit the guards from so far away?” There is no way they can hear us, but I still find myself whispering.

“These are special bullets,” he says. “They have a microchip, like a tiny computer. All you need to do is fix them on the target. The chip takes care of the rest.”

These are more words than I’ve heard him utter during the entire journey. His face beams with so much pride, I wonder if he designed the weapon himself. There is warmth in his voice, as if talking about a loved one. His fingers stroke the barrel of the rifle with genuine affection. I don’t need to be a career guide to know this is a man in love with his job.

He raises a finger to stop any further questions. “Check,” he repeats, and squeezes the trigger.

I expect a bright flash and pop, like in the movies. But there’s not even a flicker or a glow, and instead of the pop, I hear a low thud, like a hammer hitting the ground. The noise is displaced, coming from all around us. A puff of smoke rises from the thick silencer. I turn my attention back to the camp. All the guards surrounding the jail are dead. So are the two soldiers guarding the entrance. A stunned expression mars their faces, as if some vengeful deity had snuffed all life out of them with a simple snap of his fingers.

A thin line of men approach the camp from the outside. One of them scales the wall and disappears. Moments later, the gate opens and the rest of them sneak inside.

Before they have a chance to reach the jail, the door to the toilets opens and a lone soldier breaks the threshold, still zipping up. Spotting his dead companions, he lets out a piercing shriek. He pulls a pistol from a waist holster and fires at the men crossing the courtyard as his trousers pool around his ankles. A bullet sends him crashing back into the toilet, but the damage is done. An alarm blares. With so many crosses around, I half-expect it to blare Gregorian chants, but no, this is an old-fashioned high-pitched alarm. The searchlight catches our men. They scurry to take cover behind anything they can find—crates and barrels mostly. GI Joe and Ebony hide behind a dilapidated truck.

An endless stream of guards rushes out of all four buildings. Rapid gunfire breaks the stillness of the jungle night. Pained screams send chills down my spine until the machinegun’s dry ack-ack-ack drowns out all other noises.

A bright light blinds me momentarily. I duck for cover as an explosion rocks the ground. Debris lands on my head. Granite lets out a curse and drops his rifle. Blood seeps out of his massive chest. He clenches his jaw in pain and moans.

I rush to his side and check his wound. Shrapnel has hit him, but his body armor has absorbed most of it. He has multiple small cuts that don’t worry me, and a deep wound on his shoulder that does. “You’ll be fine,” I say as I empty a can of blood-stopping foam on the wound. Like magic, the crimson flow slows from a river to a trickle. The painkillers in the foam must be working, because his face relaxes.

“Thanks, Doc,” he says and groans.

“Don’t mention it,” I say and turn my attention back to the camp.

The tower lies in ruins, but several of our men are lying dead. Under heavy fire, GI Joe and Ebony zigzag between the buildings until they reach the jail. They tear down the door and throw it to the side. The prisoner casually tugs his other cufflink before following them back to the camp entrance. His stride is confident. When Ebony throws his hands in the air and drops to the ground, the prisoner frowns and wipes blood droplets from his jacket. GI Joe shoves him through the gate and turns around to return fire. Bullets rip through his chest. They must be armor-piercing, because he drops to the ground like a lead mannequin. He never gets up.

I search for the prisoner, but he’s disappeared. I take cover as another series of explosions covers me with branches and mud. My ears ring, which is probably why I don’t hear the young man approach.

“Good evening, gentlemen.”

I jump out of my skin. His voice is deep and poised. For some reason, he sounds… amused? The guy hasn’t even broken a sweat.

“We should get out of here, sir,” Granite says and bows his head with respect.

The freed prisoner nods. I place an arm around Granite to help him to his feet. We hurry back down the slope. Behind us, sporadic gunfire and booming explosions suggest the remnants of our force are covering our getaway. We descend as fast as we can until we reach the wall. Keeping it to my right, I start the detour around it.

“What are you doing?” the young man asks. “It’s just a knee wall. Surely you can scale it?”

“It’s taboo,” I say, then notice Granite’s scolding face. “What?”

“Forgive him, sir,” he says. “He doesn’t understand.”

The young man brushes him off with a dismissive flick of his wrist. “That’s fine.” A carefree smile parts his lips. “When I’m with you, you needn’t worry about a thing.”

Try telling that to GI Joe, I think, but decide it’s best if I keep my mouth shut.

“Besides,” he continues, “this would make a splendid headquarters. Feels right, doesn’t it?”

The place gives me the creeps, but I can take a hint. “Whatever,” I mumble under my breath and help Granite over the wall. We head straight to the middle of the enclosed area. The ground is moist and muddy, like marshland. Broken pillars jut out of the water like the fossilized bones of prehistoric monsters. I can see no trees within the compound. It’s almost like this area doesn’t belong to the jungle at all. Above us, the low rumble of thunder echoes. A frown etches my brow. It was clear a moment ago.

All my hairs stand on end as we approach a raised stone platform. Some sort of crumbling altar sits at its center. I can’t shake the feeling we’re being watched.

Granite lets out a sudden yelp and slips right through my hands and into a hole in the ground.

“Granite!” I cry out.

The former prisoner cocks an eyebrow. “That’s not his name.”

I ignore him and lean over the hole. I hear moans. “We’re coming,” I shout.

“We are?” the young man asks in surprise.

I glare at him. “We are.” I consider jumping after Granite, but have no idea how deep this hole is. Were I with someone else, I might ask them to lower me with a rope. But I have no rope. And I’m sure this guy would just leave me there to rot, anyway. My gaze darts frantically around. I spot stairs right before the altar. They seem to lead down below.

I run to the platform and jump down a stone stairway. The uneven steps are slippery with mud, as I realize when my foot does a funky dance and ends up in front of my face. Letting out a curse, I land flat on my face in stinking stale waters. It takes me a moment to regain my composure. When I do, I notice an impatient hand waiting for me.

I take it and the young man lifts me to my feet as if I were made of straw. There’s not a speck on his fine suit. Even Ebony’s blood has disappeared. Who the hell is this guy? The patron saint of drycleaners?

“Thanks,” I mumble and scrunch my nose at my own stench. He stares at me, an amused twinkle in his onyx eyes.

We are standing at the end of a crumbling corridor. Gunshots echo all around us. My head jerks left and right, trying to identify its origins. Long bursts. Then, the curt pow-pow-pow of a sidearm.

“This way,” he says and marches down the corridor as if he owns the place.

He snaps his fingers and a torch on the stone walls bursts to flames as we pass, blinding me for a moment, and almost giving me a heart attack. “What the…”

Then another torch lights up. And another. I remove my goggles and rub my eyes. We reach a cavernous circular room. Yawning pathways lead away to corridors like the one we just came from, like spokes on a wheel. At its center lies Granite.

“Snakes,” he hisses as I dash toward him. “I hate snakes.” He turns his handgun at his temple and squeezes the trigger.

My eyes widen. “No!” I vault at him but am too late.

Click.

He stares with dismay at the empty weapon and throws it away. His gaze focuses on something behind me and terror fills his eyes. He lets out an inhuman shriek.

I spin around and my jaw drops. A hulking, growling beast, covered in a crustacean shell is slithering toward us. Four sets of powerful claws snap at us. The lower part of the creature’s body is anaconda-like, and over thirty feet in length. Four insectoid eyes glare at us. Twin bat wings unfurl from its back. The whole thing looks designed by a drunken mad geneticist. On acid.

It opens its mouth and a foul stench makes me cover my face with my shirt. The creature raises a claw to strike.

“Not so fast,” the young man says and casually steps between us and the beast. “They are with me.”

The beast cocks its head, making the writhing tentacles that cover its neck sway sickeningly. It lets out a long snarl.

“Normally, I’d agree with you,” the young man says condescendingly, “but, like I said,”—he raises his chin and reveals perfect teeth in a threatening grin—“they’re with me. You don’t want to mess with another man’s property now, do you?”

Property?

The creature growls something back.

“Great Old One, huh?” the young man says, smiling with mock pleasure. “Nice to meet you. They call me the Beast.”

“I’m Benny,” I mumble, “but everyone calls me Doc.” Did I just say that?

They both stare at me for a moment, then the monster puts two claws on its waist and snarls something.

“I don’t care about no stinkin’ prophecy,” Beast says, glaring at it, “or how ancient you really are. This is my world to destroy.”             He offers a lopsided grin, like the two sides of his face can’t agree on any one particular expression. “You ever heard of the Apocalypse, ol’ timer? Woe to you, Oh Earth and Sea, for the devil sends the Beast with wrath and all that?” He takes a mock bow. “At your service.”

I take a step back, my jaw hanging. Wait, what? I’m trying to figure out if he’s deluded or worse. Much, much worse. The upturned cross on Granite’s chest, the crosses at the encampment—everything makes perfect sense. Despite the suffocating heat, cold sweat breaks out and covers my shivering body.

The creature roars and stomps its claws against its chest. The whole room quakes. Dirt rains on us from the crumbling ceiling.

Beast sighs theatrically and swats away dust from his shoulders. “Fine. Have it your way.” He removes his jacket, folds it neatly, and hands it to me. “Hold this, will you, Doc? This won’t take but a moment.”

I nod and shuffle away, unable to tear my eyes off of them.

The monster charges at him with a combined attack from all its four claws. Beast cowers and a shimmering light covers him in a crackling red sphere. Sparks fly around him as the shield absorbs the brunt of the attack. For a split second, I swear the young man transforms into a muscular, red-skinned, horned demon, pointy tail and all. A bright red circle with three spokes shines on his forehead, forming three sixes. His eyes burn like amber coals. I blink, and it’s a perfect young guy cowering within the red sphere again.

The monster recoils and the shield disappears.

Beast dusts off his lapels with the back of his slim hand. “My turn.” He raises his arms, as if pushing against the creature. Flames burst from his palms, encasing the monster. In a split second, it rolls to its side in one swift motion, covering itself within its armored shell. The fire disperses safely around it.

The creature lets out an angry roar and swivels its monstrous tail at us. Beast and I roll safely away, but Granite isn’t so lucky. The tail catches him as he’s on all fours, trying to get to his feet. He crashes against the far wall with a sickening crunch.

I rush to his side.

The light leaves his eyes. “Snakes,” he says and spits blood. “I hate…” With a sigh, his body slumps, lifeless, to the ground.

Oh, crap!

“I could take you with one hand,” Beast boasts and raises his right arm. This time, a volley of missile-like lightning shoots from his palm. The beast jumps to the ceiling. Two missiles bounce against the thick armor, but most of them miss their mark and end up blowing up part of the far wall. Again, the room quakes and debris rains from above.

Screw this. I’m outta here. I steal one last glance at Granite’s dead body and dash off in the direction of the lit torches. Behind me, occasional booms echo, like faraway thunder. I climb the stairs two at a time and burst out and into the night. I drink the air in hungry gulps. Even the stale air of the marshland enclosure feels refreshing after the stench underground.

I place the goggles over my eyes and make my way toward the dinghies. It’s downhill on the way back, so I make great time. My only worry is that the remnants of our team will have arrived before me and taken off.

When I finally reach my destination and spot the boats, I let out a cry of relief. My lungs are on fire, but I don’t care. I push one of the dinghies into the water and jump inside. I turn the engine on, just as the first rays of the sun make a tentative appearance, sending bands of pink to blend into the dark purple of the horizon. I’ve made it.

In the distance, thunder echoes. Half a dozen toucans take flight as I check the clear sky. No, not thunder. Definitely not thunder.

Short stories divider | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

The roar of a helicopter landing interrupts my slumber. I grab the box from under the bed before stepping outside. The sun is barely up as yet another group of mercenaries meets me. Their helicopter has landed among the rest of the choppers, making the tiny village resemble a bustling airport.

That’s the good thing about Satanists: they’re very persistent, I think as I rub my eyes. “Gentlemen,” I say and stifle a yawn.

Yet another version of GI Joe approaches me. This one’s even younger than the rest and blond but, apart from that, has the same athletic build and square jaw. “You’re Doc?”

“Indeed I am.” I raise my hand to avoid a handshake, as they all have an annoying tendency to crush my fingers in their grip. “Welcome. Let me save you some time. As I told your predecessors, you will find what you seek if you head south on the river, take the left branch whenever you find a fork, and continue until you reach a lake. You can land at its far side, where, presumably, you will find an awful lot of dinghies similar to yours.” I chuckle. “Forgive me, it’s been a few months since I was last there, so I’ve lost track of just how many they might be. The place probably resembles a busy port by now.”

GI Junior shoots me a venomous glare. “Just tell us where to find him.”

A distant thunder booms as my friend, the shaman, reaches us. “Judging by the sound,” I say, “he’s still in the underground temple where I last saw him. Just follow the path from the lake to the brow of the ridge until you meet a snake wall.”

“A what?”

“A knee-high wall marked with snake images,” I patiently explain, showing with my palm just how tall the wall is. “You’ll know when you see it. Besides, the path must be pretty well-trodden by now.”

He whips around to leave.

“Wait,” I shout. “Two things before you go.”

He stops and crosses his big arms before his muscular chest as he faces me.

“First of all, if you go there, you’ll die.” I speak slowly to make sure he understands. “I’m giving you fair warning, because I don’t want your blood on my hands.”

He dismisses me with a scoff. “And the second thing?”

I give him my sweetest smile. “My friend and I”—I point to the shaman, who responds with his trademark toothless grin—“have a wager going on. His god against yours. Care to join us?”

“What, his ancient relic of a god?” GI Junior asks and laughs. “I’m in. What’s the pot?”

“Last time we checked, it was some fifty grand.”

He pulls crumpled banknotes from his pocket and counts them. “Five hundred says we’re back within the day.”

“Ask your men if they want in on the action.”

His lips spread in a cocky grin. “I will. I’ll even give your friend his god’s head on a pike. As a souvenir.”

I take the money with a fake laugh and watch him leave. He spins his finger in the air to gather his men.

“Poor sap. Easiest money ever,” I say and open the box. Banknotes fly out. The shaman and I grab them and shove them back inside. “We need a bigger box, buddy,” I say in my friend’s language. “Maybe we can find one in one of them choppers while GI Junior gets our money.” I push the last notes in with my palm and snap the lid shut. “Let me get this back to my hut first.” That’s the beauty of this place. Banknotes mean to the natives about as much as dead leaves do. I could leave a central bank’s worth of cash lying around, and no one would even consider stealing it.

The shaman nods, a sheepish smile on his lips.

The ground shakes under our feet. I lean against the hut’s wall. “Whoa. That was a big one. Wonder what those two are up to.”

The shaman follows me inside my hut. “How long will they fight?” he asks.

“These guys? Decades. Centuries. Millennia,” I say and tuck the box back under my bed. “See, buddy, you were wrong. You can fight a prophecy. All you need is another one.”