CHAPTER EIGHT

This post contains the eighth chapter of my as-of-yet untitled sci-fi novel. I present this first draft now, in a raw, unedited format (be kind, hopefully-soon-to-be-constant reader). Feedback is encouraged! You can find the rest of the published chapters here.

I can see the glow before we reach the edge of the forest. Red light spills between the backlit trunks like blood splashed across white linen. Snow looks back at me over his shoulder as we run, and I see the angular edges of his face painted in stark reds and blacks by the roaring fire beyond the trees. His eyes are wild and spittle flies from his open mouth as he gulps air into his lungs. Together, we burst out of the forest at a full run and are stopped dead by the horror unfolding in front of our eyes.

            The wall is burning.

Tall columns of flame engulf entire sections of the tall wooden structure and thick black clouds of smoke slither into the sky like enormous mutated snakes that twist and undulate in rapturous excitement as they devour the protective barrier around the settlement beyond. A hot wind gusts towards us, carrying embers and the smell of burning wood and charred flesh down the snow-covered hillside. At the base of the wall, at least a dozen blackened bodies lay motionless and smoking, their barely recognizable limbs contorted and warped into horrifying shapes on the ground.

The main gate is open wide as if in a frozen scream, and I can see more flames dancing inside the walls. The clusters of huts are engulfed in flame, their thatched roofs throwing waves of glowing sparks into the sky as they burn. As I watch, a hut near the wall collapses in on itself, belching sparks and thick black smoke into the night air. More blackened, heat-shrunken bodies are strewn among the burning buildings.

Dex and the small cadre of cadets Snow lead into the woods stand several feet ahead of me; black silhouettes against the growing inferno that had been their home. Some cadets stand like statues, frozen in place, others have been driven to their knees by the horror unfolding in front of their eyes. Still others are all on fours, vomiting loudly and wailing at the sight of their dead, still smoldering friends.

The smell is like a breath exhaled from the gates of hell. The sickly-sweet smell of burning flesh contorts and wraps itself around the oddly comforting smell of burning wood. I feel my own stomach lurch and contort, and for a moment I fight the urge to double over and empty its meager contents onto the ground.  I draw a hand across my face to wipe away the stinging sweat from my eyes and my hand comes away smeared with ash. I’m try to keep dark thoughts about about the contents of the ash out of my head when my stomach twists and drops again sickeningly, nearly driving me to my knees.

Beside me, Snow is screaming. It’s a guttural, primal sound. The sound of an animal in pain, its body trapped and broken in some unseen hunter’s trap. He charges forward, still screaming, knocking stunned boys to either side as he crashes through the small crowd of cadets on a collision course with the burning town that looms in front of us. I run after him, tripping over the sprawled bodies in his wake. He’s too fast, I’ll never catch him before he reaches the flame encircled maw of the open main gate. I scream at the pale boy’s back, begging him to stop before he joins the smoking corpses littering the foot of the burning wall. Snow forces his way through the crowd, deaf to my cries and to the shouts of his men as they seem to stutter back to life, shocked back to reality by the sound of my voice over the crackle and roar of the towering inferno. Snow shrugs off their hands, slowing only briefly to shove his way past the last line of cadets between himself and the ruined settlement beyond.  At the last moment, Dex steps into Snow’s path, blocking his way with the full bulk of his broad, muscular frame. For a moment, I’m sure that Snow is going to charge right through the older boy, unable to shake the twin lashes of agony and grief driving him towards the waiting flames, but to my surprise, he halts abruptly, his face inches away from Dex. For a moment, fury rages across Snow’s features like a rogue wave across an expanse of pale, empty ocean. Dex doesn’t say a word, just holds the thin pale boy in place with a sad, heartbroken gaze. Tears slice damp grey tracks in ash as they slide silently down the stone wall of his expressionless face. The tide of fury breaks on Snow’s pale face and recedes, leaving in its wake a taught mask of pain as tears fill his icy blue eyes. Snow blinks the tears away, visibly wrestling his emotions into submission as he meets the larger boy’s gaze.

“What do we do now?” says a stocky, muscular boy with a shaved head. Panic churns in his wide brown eyes like a pot dangerously close to boiling over. He runs a blunt, meaty hand over the dark stubble on his scalp and he stares at the wall of flame devouring what had been his home less than an hour before. “Dex, what the hell do we do?”

The small group of frightened cadets erupt into a flurry of desperate questions and anguished cries almost in unison, their stunned silence giving way to panic as the reality of the situation penetrates the wave of initial shock. Some of the cadets want to run, others want to storm the burning walls to look for survivors, still others want to make a break for the caves deep inside the forest behind us. Beyond the walls, the settlement burns, unconcerned with the plans of frightened boys.

I huddle close to Dex and Snow, keeping my voice low. “What the hell happened here? Was it those…things…the Clockers?” There is a loud crash as, somewhere inside the walls, another hut collapses, its wooden roof surrendering to the devouring flames. “For god’s sake, we’ve haven’t even been gone an hour!”

“I don’t know. It’s possible.” Dex replies. “But they’ve never hit us like this before. Never attacked the walls. They’re more like scavengers, prowling the deep woods around the far boundary of the forest. Hell, we’ve only seen them a handful of times after the massacre on the first day.”

“That was more than enough for me.” Snow’s voice is cold, even colder than it had been hours before when he welcomed me to The Falls. His pale eyes are bloodshot and ringed with red. The contrast against his pale coloring is striking. “This is something else, Dex, and we both know it.”

Dex grunts in response and nods gravely. The three of us stand between the burning walls and the increasingly panicked knot of terrified cadets. If we don’t do something soon, I’m afraid they may start to take matters into their own, terrified hands. “What the hell does that mean?” I hiss, looking between the two leaders of this strange tribe, my face pinched with exhausted frustration. Dex and Snow say nothing, causing the blood to heat up in my veins, turning my face a furious red. “Damn it, just tell me what the hell is going on!” I yell, the rising panic in my chest ratcheting my voice up louder than I’d intended, causing the small group of cadets to stare in my direction with concerned looks.

Before Dex or Snow can respond, a flash of movement catches my eye. A white shape darts past the mouth of the shattered main gate, its vaguely man-shaped silhouette in stark contrast against the inferno inside the settlement walls. A second and third figure, each identical to the first, dash silently past the open doorway like ghosts across the mouth of an open tomb. I squint against the blaze, trying to get a better look, but a thick haze of smoke clings to the white ground, causing my lungs and eyes to burn, and impeding a better look at the intruders.

A pale wave of cold recognition creeps across Dex’s dark face and seems to jump like an exhaled breath as I see the same drawn, taught expression mirrored on Snow’s pale features. I open my mouth to shout a question at the older boy, to demand he tell me who or what the ghostly pale things in the smoke are, but he’s already in motion and shouting commands at the suddenly silent group of a cadets. “Everyone, back into the forest. Now! Move!” Then, seeing the pair of discarded duffel bags laying forgotten on the ground, he grabs one and slings it over his shoulder quickly. He heaves the other bag at me and I catch it awkwardly. It’s heavier than it looks. “Whatever happens…don’t lose it. Now come one, we have to get out of here, right fucking now.” I sling the thick black shoulder strap around my body and turn to follow Dex, Snow, and the rest of the refugees towards the dark expanse of woods and away from the burning ruins of The Falls.

“Who are they?” The question hangs unanswered in the smoke-filled air as Dex and Snow prod and threaten the terrified knot of cadets towards the woods. The black duffel sags heavily against my back and I fight to keep the thick strap from tangling with the thinner strap of my sword and scabbard. Above me, the black bowl of the night sky stretches into infinity, pocked with an impossible number of stars. Dense clouds of black smoke drift from the burning fort and paint a single winding river of starless black across the center of the sky.

Ahead of me, the group of cadets have stopped running. In the darkness, I almost crash into the mass of tightly-packed bodies, but I manage to stop myself several feet away, nearly losing my footing in the process. I’m about to call out to Dex to ask why we’ve stopped running when I see them – three white-clad figures standing between the terrified pack of cadets and the pitch-black forest floor.

At this distance, I can clearly see that the intruders aren’t Clockers. If I had to guess, I’d say the trio of figures are human. Each is wrapped from head to toe in filthy white pelts, bound tightly to their torso and limbs with what looks like strands of pale rope. The white fur of their pelts is matted and filthy, and dark splashes of blood, still fresh and wet and black in the flickering firelight, are smeared on the matted fur of their arms and chests. Each face is wrapped tightly with black cloth, hiding everything but their eyes – and the eyes are unmistakably human, and burning with rage. All three are armed with crude swords identical to my own. As the trio of attackers stalk forward slowly, like pack hunters towards cornered prey, the entire group of cadets from The Falls backpedal away in a strange uncoordinated unison. A thin metallic whisper ripples through the group as swords are drawn from scabbards.

I spin until I’m face to face with the burning hulk of the settlement as its fiery death throes light up the night sky. I search desperately to find some avenue of escape between the enemies at my back and the conflagration in front of me, and curse loudly as I see another group of five pale figures emerging from the open main gate, their blood smeared swords shimmering like burning oil on a flat grey sea.

They move towards us quickly. I fumble my own sword out of its scabbard and whirl back towards the forest, searching for Dex among the small group of trapped cadets. He has his back to me, and he’s moved in between his boys and the slowly advancing attackers. Dex holds his blade out flat in front of his body and then crouches into a fighting stance as he faces down the oncoming threat. He hasn’t seen the second group of attackers on our rear flank yet. “Dex! More behind us!” I yell as loudly as I can manage. The hot, smoke-filled air seems to swallow my words like a ravenous creature of ash and suffering and flame.

Dex doesn’t turn around. He keeps his focus on the attackers from the woods, feet planted firmly on the snowy ground. Snow has taken up a position directly to Dex’s right and is brandishing his own sword at the trio of white-clad threats. Snow turns his head quickly in my direction, and as if on cue, the pale figures between us and the woods attack. An attacker’s blade slices through the air towards Snow’s head. The pale boy twists away, the blade narrowly missing his exposed neck. Dex flashes forward, catching the owner of the blade in the throat before he can recover from his swing. Bright red blood erupts from assailants’ neck, soaking the white fur on his chest and splashing on the white ground to paint a gruesome Rorschach test of red and white around the combatant’s feet. The bloody figured crumples to the ground, fur covered hands grasping ineffectually at his throat, trying in vain to stem the crimson tide that pours through his fingers as the thrashes. Snow lunges at the nearest white figure, slashing downwards with his crude sword towards the enemy’s shoulder. The figure brings his own blade up in single motion and sparks fly as the enemy blade collides with Snow’s, halting the blow mere inches the white figure’s cloth obscured face.

The sound of heavy footfalls against the snow spins me back towards the second group of attackers, who are now only seconds from crashing into us from the opposite side. “I could use some help here!” I call over my shoulder towards the group of cadets, never taking my eyes of the rapidly approaching group of ghostly attackers. I can hear the clash of steel behind me. A strangled cry escapes an unseen throat, and I wince unconsciously as I hear the unmistakable sound of a body thumping to ground.

Three cadets break from the battle at the edge of the woods, turning to face the oncoming five attackers by my side. Out of the corner of my eyes I see that it’s the short, thick cadet from the clearing, and two boys I haven’t met. One is younger than me with blonde hair and a muscular build. He holds his sword confidently and glares daggers at the oncoming group of attackers. The other looks to be around my age. He has black hair and bright blue eyes that seem to radiate out of the delicate features of his face. Unlike the pair of muscular cadets, he looks as terrified as I am and clutches his sword with both hands, the tip shaking in the air as he watches the group of white-clad warriors close the last few yards of distance toward us. Behind us, the battle seems to fade away, the world contracting to this single moment, to this single square of white ground between the oncoming force and the small group of us standing our ground with swords raised. The sound of my own heartbeat thunders in my ears. Time seems to stretch out for an agonizing eternity. I tighten both of my hands around the hilt of my blade, and brace for impact.

Our attackers smash into us. Steel bites steel with the sharp tang of metal on metal. I deflect the initial blow and spin away from my attacker as his momentum carries him a step past me towards the battle at the edge of the woods. I try and spin after him to take advantage of his momentary stumble, but the heavy duffel bag on my back slows my movements. By the time I turn my body to face my attacker, he’s recovered and is already bringing his blade up in a short stabbing strike towards my gut. I step to the left just in time and the sharp point of his blade grazes my side, drawing blood from a single shallow cut that burns like fire against the cold skin on my right side. Seeing an opening as the thrust brings my attacker in close, I slash down towards the top of his head with every ounce of strength I can muster. He anticipates my attack and dodges to left, away from the arc of my blade, which slices through empty air and lodges itself in the ground. I stumble forward, off-balance from my wild swing and the weight on my back, and nearly trip over my sword as the ground seems to grab it and pull it roughly out of my hand. The white-clad figure lurches forward and kicks my legs out from under me in a single swift motion. I crash to the ground, landing hard on my side as the awkward weight of the duffel bag, still strapped to my back like a bloated anchor, drags me down. My attacker raises his sword over his head for the killing blow.

A body slams into my attacker’s midsection and both shapes tumble to the ground in a black and white spray of snow and disturbed soil. I try and scramble to my feet, but the weight of the bag pulls me down again. My assailant and the black-haired boy with the bright blue eyes struggle desperately on the ground, both kicking and flailing limbs wildly in a confusing blur of limbs and exposed flesh, neither able to gain enough of an upper hand to subdue the other for more than a second or two. I fight desperately against the unwieldy object strapped to my back, finally slipping the shoulder strap over my head so I can scramble to my feet. I lunge towards my sword. It’s stands upright, silent and grey like an ancient headstone, several feet from where I’d fallen.

The pale assailant slams his head forward, catching my rescuer square in the nose with a sickening crunch. A mass of black hair and a spray of blood snap backwards as his head lolls back limply, blue eyes half-lidded and gazing far away. I wrench the sword out of the ground and try and close the distance between myself and my unconscious rescuer.  The bulky white figure rolls to his feet, snatching up his blade in a fluid motion. I scream, the sound primal and involuntary, as I charge towards the rearmed attacker. He seems to pause for a moment, to calculate how much time before I crash into him, then swings the cutting edge of his blade in a lazy low arc in front of him, the tip ripping a crimson grin across the exposed pale skin of black-haired boy’s throat. I slam into the white mass a second later, driving my shoulder into his chest and knocking him backwards off his feet. His sword, still soaked in the black-haired boy’s blood, drops from his hand and slides out of reach.

With a cry somewhere between a scream and a sob, I leap onto the attacker’s chest, landing hard with both of my knees and pinning his sword hand to the ground with a single downward thrust of my own blade. He doesn’t make a sound as the blade slices through bone and flesh and earth, but his eyes go wide with a panicked, wild look as I pin his other arm to the ground with my free hand so I can shove my face inches from his own. Sweat drips down my nose and onto the black cloth covering his face. Our breath escapes in great white clouds, mingling together in the cold night air.

“Who are you?” I scream into the obscured face below my own. I’m met only with silence and the ragged hiss of my own labored breath. I’m vaguely aware of screams and the clash of metal behind me. The battle seems very far away, the sounds are muffled and strange. The wound in my side throbs like a fist of dull fire and I can feel blood soaking my uniform as it oozes out of the ragged, screaming gash. “Why?” I spit through clenched teeth. “Why are you doing this? Why did you kill that boy?” He gazes back at me with glassy fanatic’s eyes, eyes that laugh silently up at me from the single pale patch of exposed flesh on the masked killers face.

The prone figure raises his hooded head off the ground slightly, his eyes like burning round black coals. They are the eyes of the true believer in the instant before he drops a lit match into his gasoline-soaked clothes. When he speaks, his voice is hushed and reverent. H eyes glaze over as he mumbles, drifting above my shoulder to focus on some faraway thing only he can see. “I can see it…I can see the wheel.” His eyes suddenly snap directly onto my own and the intensity of his stare sends a shiver down my spine despite the heat of the growing inferno that had once been the wall surrounding The Falls. “Can you see it, Crash? It’s coming…coming for you too.” His voice collapses into a fit of wet, diseased laughter that sprays flecks of bloody spittle and foam into my face.

In an instant, I am rage. I’m a fusion reaction breaking free of my magnetic shackles. I’m the god damn sun. The total sum of all the madness and terror of the past 24 hours ignites in my chest like a ball of white-hot phosphorus. Liquid tendrils of fire scream through my veins and slam into my head with the manic crackle of a downed power line sputtering sparks against my nerves. “Why did you call me that? What the hell does that mean?” I scream, spittle flying from my quivering lips and into my captive’s face. The cold, wide eyes just stare back at me with a mocking, icy gaze. His eyes are vacant and wide. They are the eyes of the self-righteous, of a soulless automaton manning the ovens of a thousand nameless death camps on a hundred war torn worlds. The injured fanatic continues to laugh his wet, hacking laugh.

I slam my fist into his face as hard as I can and feel a nauseating crunch as the blow shatters the man’s concealed nose. Blood and mucus ooze from the cloth still covering the ruin that had been a face. The wide, fanatic eyes never break from my own, they just continue to shine with vertigo inducing madness that seems to bubble up from dark places deep within. He doesn’t make a sound as I scream again and  continue slamming my fist into the cackling madman’s face. Hot tears stream down my face and thick mucus bubbles from my own flaring nostrils as I pour out the fetid maelstrom inside of me into the masked face as savage blows, the fleshy slap of each flat impact racing up my arms like aftershocks from the earthquake of rage rumbling in my heaving chest.

A pair of strong hands grab me from behind. I barely register the contact through the mushroom cloud of my own naked rage. I slam my fist into the white figure’s face again and again, realizing distantly that the body beneath me has gone limp, the eyes now staring blankly at nothing at all.

“We are fucking leaving!” Dex is screaming in my ear as he tries to drag me away from the gore-smeared rag doll pinned to the ground underneath me. I ignore him, jerking myself away from his grasp to throw another savage blow at the inert form of my prone enemy. The sound of the blow landing is like a hammer striking a side of beef. “Now, god dammit!” Dex grabs a fistful of my uniform and drags me to my feet, spinning me around until his face is only inches from mine. His voice has a strained, forced quality to it, like his fighting hard to keep his tone even and his volume in check. “If we don’t leave right this damn second…. We are dead.” I can barely hear him over the storm raging inside my head. His voice seems far away, a garbled transmission from a distant moon, the message warped and distorted by the shearing waves of blood lust and rage radiating from my balled fists like the gravity from a collapsing star .

I fight a sudden wave of shame and nausea I finally look down at my hands. A smeared coating of blood and gore has turned my fist a crimson so deep that it’s nearly black. The light of the flames dances and flickers in the reflective sheen. A small red puddle is accumulating on the snow directly below my aching right hand.

I don’t know – can’t know – if this is the first time I’ve taken a life, but the churning sea of sickness rapidly filling my guts makes a pretty strong argument that it probably is. Somewhere inside my chest, a final tidal surge of rage slams against a nameless internal shore and then races away towards the bruised and brooding horizon, leaving only a dull ache as it goes. Missing memory or not, I can’t shake the feeling that a personal Rubicon has been crossed, and that, from now on, I’ll view my life as coming before and after this moment – the moment I ended another human life.

Dex shoves the discarded duffel bag into my chest without another word, then turns and jogs away towards the forest over a battlefield littered with friends and foes alike. I sling the bag into place on my back, wipe as much blood as I can on my filthy pant leg, and then pull my sword from its place in the dead man’s palm. The blade makes a sickening wet sucking sound as it slides free, and the corpse hand appears to give a single, stiff wave as it rises slightly with the blade and then flops back to the ground. I tear my eyes away from the sight as my stomach makes another sickening lurch from one side of my guts to the other, then I hurry to follow Dex, and what’s left Snow’s boys, back towards the darkness of the forest, my sword clutched tight in my bloody right hand.

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