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.
Dex jumps from the platform and onto the ground in a single, athletic motion. “Follow me!” He calls over his shoulder as he dashes after Snow’s small platoon of Fighters before I can say a word, charging into the deepening gloom of the forest beyond the wall as fast as his thick legs will carry him.
“Sure, let’s run into the terrifying death forest.” I mutter to myself. “I love this plan.” I swing down from the wooden platform and drop to the clearing floor, nearly dropping my sword in the process. I ignore Angel’s shouted pleas to stay inside the walls, and I chase after Dex, Snow, and the mysterious box with every ounce of speed my legs can muster. Ahead of me, Snow and his small group of Fighters have already reached the tree line and are disappearing into the darkness of the forest, one by one.
On the horizon, the red disc of the sun has receded to a thin red sliver as night descends slowly over the frozen landscape. I strain my eyes and can barely make out Dex’s dark form against the equally dark maze of trunks that make up the edge of the forest. I charge after the older boy, driven forward by an insatiable need to understand this impossible place – and to find the way out before one of these lunatics kills me. My heart hammers in my ears and the sound of my own breathing eclipses the distant roar of the drone as it slips away into the night sky. I push on, my footsteps muffled by the packed snow that covers the flat ground between the wall and the waiting maw of the forest.
I reach the edge of the trees a few seconds after Dex. I slide to a halt, momentarily disoriented in the inky darkness beneath the dense canopy as my eyes struggle to adjust in the low light. Behind me, the snow reflects the fading light like a cloudy mirror, sketching the labyrinth of trunks and frozen vegetation ahead in the stark, red scale tones of an ancient black and white photo that’s been dipped in blood. A pool of light shimmers ahead of me, further inside the red tinted gloom of the forest – it must be where the crate crashed through the dense forest canopy. I grip the hilt of my sword with anxious fingers and walk slowly towards the strange column of distant light.
The world beneath the canopy is as silent as a grave. Even the ever-present rumble of the falls fails to penetrate the dense tangle of branches above and my footsteps melt quietly into the soft blanket of snow covering the forest floor. I force myself to take shallow breaths, doing everything I can to pick out the sounds of the others among the oppressive silence that seems to swallow me whole. As I creep cautiously forwards, the only sound I can hear is a subtle buzzing in my own ears that makes up the soundtrack of all silent places. I press forward, through the dense maze of trees and towards the beckoning shaft of red light ahead.
The black crate is half buried in the pale snow and black soil of the forest floor. It came to rest at a slight angle and is illuminated only by the fading shaft of late evening sunset that stabs down as a single column from the ragged gash in the forest canopy above. I scan the area for the other cadets – for Dex or Snow – but nothing moves around the odd tableau.
The crate is constructed from some kind of flat black material and an unfamiliar logo – a triangle set in center of three intersecting circles – is emblazoned on one side of the cube in bright red paint. I keep to the shadows beneath the massive wooden trunks, suddenly very aware of how far I am from the relative safety of The Falls. I move slowly from shadow to shadow in a crouch, sword held in front of me as menacingly as I can manage without any clue how to use it effectively. The crate is close now, only yards away. I press my body against a nearby tree and hold my breath as I search the reddish gloom around me for signs of the others. All I hear is silence – the others are nowhere to be found. As I stand up, determined now to step into the dim shaft of light so I can inspect the crate, a pair of strong hands grabs me roughly from behind, pulling me down to the ground in a single motion. Another hand is clapped over my mouth, muffling my attempt to cry out in surprise before the noise can leave my lips.
Dex’s face is inches from my own, his strong features knit into a mask of confusion and fear. Snow lays behind me, his thin pale hand clasped tightly over my mouth. Dex’s eyes are wide. He raises a single finger to his lips, commanding me to stay silent. Reading the danger in his eyes, I nod slowly. Reluctantly, Snow slides his clammy palm away from my face. I stay quiet, my eyes locked on Dex as we lay on our sides on the forest floor, hidden by the shadows on the edge of the ragged clearing. Dex rolls onto his stomach, his eyes flicking back to the strange black cube resting silently on the forest floor. I follow suit, rolling my body as silently as I can until I’m lying flat on my stomach with my eyes facing the half-buried crate. The forest around is deadly silent. Nothing moves in the darkness beyond the red shaft of light that illuminates the mysterious black box. A light snow is falling through the jagged hole in the branches above, dusting the dark edges of the crate with a thin layer of white.
We wait in silence for several tense moments. Dex and Snow scan the dense wooden columns of the forest beyond the crate, eyes wide with anticipation. Every cell in my body is tensed, coiled and taught like a compressed spring, expecting the inhuman Clocker scream to shred the silence at any moment; expecting lances of blinding red light to vivisect the night as the screams of dying men invade the silence – but nothing happens.
Silence reigns on the forest floor.
Several minutes later, Snow abruptly jumps to his feet and strides confidently towards the clearing and the fallen crate. As he crosses the line between shadow and light, my stomach knots in anticipation.
“Snow, wait!” Dex hisses as he reaches out to grab the pale boy before he can cross the threshold between the forest and red lit clearing. He misses Snow’s back by mere inches as the wiry leader of the Fighters strides out of reach towards and into the shaft of red light.
I hold my breath in nervous anticipation. Dex curses under his breath and scrambles to his feet to follow his second in command. Snow enters the clearing without incident, unnoticed and unharmed. He kicks away a carpet of snapped and broken branches as he paces around the black crate in a slow, methodical circle, scanning every inch of the cube with his cold blue eyes. I hold my breath, still expecting the unseen blow to land, for screaming death to explode out of the darkness like blood red lightning. Snow stops, his inspection apparently complete, and gazes in our direction with a satisfied smile. “All clear, boss.”
“It doesn’t make any sense. Where are they?” Dex mutters to himself in the darkness beside me. The older boy extends a strong brown hand in my direction almost as an afterthought. I take the offered hand and let Dex pull me to my feet with a single muscular arm. “Let’s get this done and get back home.” Dex says to the shadows under the trees, his voice confident and clear in the stillness of the steadily darkening forest. “We’re not out of the woods yet, team.” There is a subtle rustling all around me as dark shapes appear in the shadowy gloom surrounding the red lit clearing. The shapes step into the dim red light, revealing themselves to be Snow’s small band of Fighters. A light dusting of snow falls from the shoulders and hair of each cadet as they leave their hiding places, the flakes reflecting the crimson glow above so they look like drops of blood falling in slow motion.
Snow drives the pointed edge of this sword into the seam at the top of the black crate with a jarring crack that seems to echo forever between the black tree trunks. He twists the blade violently and forces the box open. The wood creaks loudly at the intrusion and separates with a dull pop. A barely audible hiss, like oxygen escaping the worn seals of an ancient airlock, drifts through the air as the pale cadet wrenches the top of the crate away in a single, fierce motion and tosses it onto the ground. I sheath my sword and walk into the clearing to get a closer look at the contents of the mysterious crate, which now stands open like the mouth of a cube-shaped cave.
The interior of the crate is insulated with thick crimson padding, clearly designed to protect its contents from impact. A mass of what appear to be white bricks, each a uniform rectangular shape about 3 feet long and 1 foot wide, are packed tightly inside the cavity of the crate like the pale blocks of some sand-weathered citadel wall. I reach my hand inside the mouth of the crate, intending to remove one of the pale packages, and a strong pale hand grabs my arm at the wrist and yanks me backwards and away from the mysterious delivery.
“Hands off, kid. You’re not one of us yet.” Snow say menacingly. His breath is hot against my skin and his pale eyes flash with rage as they bore into mine. I yank my arm free and take a step backwards and away from furious Fighter commander. His body vibrates with anger, the rage drifting off his skeletal frame in waves as he scorches me with his piercing blue stare. I continue backing away, stopping only when I reach the edge of the circular clearing. Branches snap and crack under my feet as I retreat. In the stillness of the crimson twilight beneath the canopy, each snapping branch is as loud as a gunshot, causing my heart to jump into my throat with each dry crack.
The small group of Fighters surround the crate like ants swarming over some discarded piece of black meat. One group tosses white bricks out of the flat black cube and onto the forest floor to form a small disorganized pile. The packages are small at first, then larger white bricks are removed from the black box as well. Another group of Fighters huddle around the growing pile of white packages, shoving the white bricks into a pair of large black duffle bags at a frantic pace. Snow barks commands, driving the small squad to work faster as he paces nervously around the clearing.
Dex hasn’t moved. He stands silently, just outside the fading circle of red light, as he scans the darkness that surrounds us with cold eyes, like hunter searching for prey – or a sentinel watching the wilderness beyond his walls. His brows are knit together, pinching his face into a mask of worry.
Something isn’t right.
I step out of the red light of the clearing and into the darkness. I join Dex, planting myself next to the silent boy as he continues to nervously scan the forest floor with bloodshot eyes. Around the half-buried crate, the small group of Fighters whoop and holler in excitement as they claim their loot from the fallen cube, their voices steadily increasing in volume as their task nears completion. I realize that it’s the sound of relief. Whatever these boys expected to happen, I’m reasonably confident that this wasn’t it.
I turn to Dex, intent on pestering him again for an explanation, but he silences me with a sharply raised hand as he continues to stare out into the deepening darkness of the forest. I follow his gaze beyond the dimly lit clearing but can only barely make out the first few rows of black tree trunks before the inky black expanse of the woods dissolves each trunk into black on black shadows against the total darkness of the forest beyond.
“Something isn’t right.” Dex repeats to no one in particular. His voice is barely audible over the racket coming from the boys unloading the crate, but each syllable is shot through with fear like glittering cold veins of gold in a solid granite wall.
“What do you mean?” I keep my voice low to match the older boy’s whispered tone. “What were you expecting?” Dex ignores me. He closes his eyes and cocks his head, as if straining to isolate some unknown sound out from the static of jubilant chatter bubbling out from the knot of boys working around the rapidly emptying crate. Dex whirls around suddenly to face back the way we came, eyes screwed tightly shut and head cocked even further to one side in the unmistakable pose of a man listening with all his might. I follow his lead, turning to search the darkness between the woods and the walls for any stray movement in the crimson gloom. Nothing moves. There is only stillness and the steadily descending cloak of night as the sun continues to sink below the horizon, painting the ragged oval of sky above the clearing a deep bloody red.
“Everyone shut up.” Dex mutters absently, almost as if he’s talking to himself. The noise in the clearing behind us continues unabated, laughter drifting out of the red shaft of light and into the darkness above like the songs from of a flock of drunken birds. Dex’s brown eyes snap open abruptly, wide and panicked by some terrible realization. “I said, shut the hell up!” This time his booming voice echoes through the forest like an explosion, freezing Snow and his small band where they stand, instantly creating a strange tableau in the deepening red light of the fading sunset above. The last echoes of adolescent excitement are swallowed by the oppressive weight of silence that crashes down around us in the wake of Dex’s bellowed demand. In the sudden stillness, my breath sounds impossibly loud in my own ears as I tense every fiber of my body. I reach out with my senses to probe the darkness that’s steadily descending around us like a blanket of muffling black snow.
Snow stalks out of the clearing to plant himself next to Dex, his footsteps barely audible thanks to the thick white carpet on the forest floor. “What is it?” He hisses to the older boy. Snow’s sword is drawn, and, in the silence, I can hear the subtle creak of his hilt’s leather wrappings as his hand works the grip of his blade in an unconscious physical expression of anxious anticipation.
Dex puts his meaty hand on Snow’s thin shoulder, and the smaller boy falls silent immediately, appearing to defer the Dex’s leadership on an unconscious level. In the distance, a mournful droning sound wafts through the trees like the bleating of an injured animal.
“Oh Jesus, is that the horn?” Snow exclaims in a breathless whisper, his eyes going wide as his body stiffens. Dex draws his sword in a single swift motion and meets Snow’s terrified gaze with his own. He nods solemnly and the pale boy’s skin turns an even paler shade of white, which I would have sworn was impossible a moment before. Dex’s brown eyes spark against the night, all fear evaporating into an unbreakable mixture of determination and fury as the older boy visibly steels himself against the sound rising from somewhere beyond the woods.
The horn blares again, louder and in a string of long bleating tones. Dex spins to face the terrified looking Fighters, each frozen in place around the half-emptied crate. From the stricken looks on each face, I can tell that these boys know exactly what the new sound means. “Back to The Falls!” Dex bellows, his deep voice booming through forest like the sound of a falling tree. All at once, the petrified cadets burst into action. “Take what you can. Leave the rest.” Dex calls to the assembled Fighters. “Our home is under attack.”
In the distance, the long tone of the horn stops abruptly, cut off in the middle of another long bleating blast with a pitiful, strangled sound. The boys closest to the crate grab the half-filled duffle bags and bolt out of the clearing. The rest of the cadets follow close behind, swords drawn. Dex turns to me, the features of this broad face contorted into a mask of determination and barely restrained fury. “Keep up,” He says grimly, “and fight like your life depends on it…because it does. Let’s go.”
“Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” I say, as Fighters bolt past me, running as fast as they can towards the edge of the forest – towards The Falls. Dex ignores me and rushes to lead the group of armed boys as they dash into the darkness towards their home.
“Come on, kid.” Snow grabs my collar and drags me into a stumbling, awkward run. “Looks like you’ll get your initiation after all.” I find my footing and follow the pale boy into the darkness, running as fast as I can and cursing darkly as I go.