CHAPTER NINE

This post contains the ninth 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 only to be stopped dead in our tracks 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 frozen in a silent scream of agony. Flames dance inside the burning walls. The squat clusters of huts are engulfed in flame, their thatched roofs throwing waves of glowing sparks into the sky as they’re consumed. 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 between the burning buildings.

Dex and Snow stand with their small cadre of Fighters several feet ahead of me; black silhouettes against the growing inferno that had been their home. Some of the Fighters 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 ruined home and 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 twist, and for a moment I fight the urge to double over and empty its 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 try to keep dark thoughts about the contents of the ash out of my head and my stomach twists and drops again sickeningly, nearly driving me to my knees.

Beside me, Snow is screaming. It is a guttural, primal sound. The sound of an animal in pain, its body trapped and broken in some cruel 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 in front of us. I run after him, nearly 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 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 their leader’s screams over the crackle and roar of the towering inferno. Snow shrugs their hands away, slowing only briefly to shove his way past the last line of cadets between himself and the burning wall.  At the last moment, Dex steps directly 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 that drive 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 speeding an expanse of pale winter ocean. Dex doesn’t say a word, just holds the thin pale boy in place with a sad, heartbroken stare. Tears slice damp grey tracks through the accumulating layer of ash as they slide silently down the stone wall of his dark 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, wrestling visibly with his emotions as he meets the larger boy’s gaze.

“We have to help them!” Snow stutters through the tears that have begun to fall down his smooth, pale face. “We have to get them out of there!”

“There’s nothing we can do, brother.” Dex says quietly as he places a hand on Snow’s trembling shoulder as the thin boy is wracked with silent sobs. “There’s just nothing we can do.”

“You don’t know that!” Snow spits back, fury blazing in his eyes with an intensity matching the inferno around him. “We have to try, Dex. We can’t just leave them to burn!”

“It’s over, brother.” Dex replies heavily. “There’s nothing we can do.” Snow hangs his head and collapses into a fit of violent sobs as Dex pulls the pale boy close to hold him as he weeps.

“What…what do we do now?” says a stocky, muscular Fighter 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 stares at the wall of flame devouring his home. “Dex, what the hell do we do?”

The small group of frightened cadets erupt into a flurry of desperate questions and anguished cries 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, casting its demoniac glow over the entire world.

I huddle close to Dex and Snow and keep my voice low. “What the hell happened here? Was it those…things…the Clockers?” There’s a loud crash as, somewhere inside the walls, another hut collapses as its wooden roof surrenders to the devouring flames. “For god’s sake, we’ve haven’t even been gone 20 minutes!”

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

“No god damn Clocker did this.” Snow’s voice is cold, even colder than his usual icy monotone. His pale eyes are bloodshot and ringed with red. The contrast against his pale skin 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 panicked mob of terrified cadets. If we don’t do something soon, I’m afraid they may 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 panicked, tear-swollen eyes.

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 raging inside the settlement walls. A second figure, and then a third, each identical to the first, dash silently past the open doorway like ghosts across the mouth of an open tomb. I squint against the glare of the blaze, trying to get a better look at these new figures, but a thick haze of smoke clings to the white ground, causing my lungs and eyes to burn, and impeding my view of the intruders.

A pale wave of cold recognition creeps across Snow’s face. I open my mouth to demand he tell me who or what the ghostly pale things in the smoke are, but it’s too late – he’s already in motion and shouting commands at the terrified group of a Fighters. “Everyone, back into the trees. Now! Move!” Then, seeing the pair of discarded duffle bags laying forgotten on the ground, he grabs one and slings it over his shoulder. He heaves the other bag at me and I catch it awkwardly. It’s heavier than it looks. “Whatever happens…don’t lose that bag. Now come one, we need to get out of here, right freaking now.” I sling the thick black shoulder strap around my body and turn my back on towering flames, ready to follow Snow and the rest of the Fighters-turned-refuges towards the relative safety of the woods.

Dex doesn’t move. He stands transfixed by the holocaust unfolding in front him, unable or unwilling to hear Snow’s call to retreat. Snow grabs his shoulder and shakes the larger boy violently. Dex stares through Snow like he’s made of glass.

“Boss, we have to go.” Snow shouts over the roar of the intensifying flames. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“We can’t…” Dex says, struggling to choke each word out as a fit of sobs threatens to overtake him. “We can’t just leave it behind!”

“It’s too late, brother.” Snow replies, his own voice thick with emotion as he tries desperately to break through Dex’s cocoon of shock and grief. “There’s nothing we can do for them. Not here. Not now.” Dex meets Snow’s gaze with eyes as hard and cold as granite.

“We can’t let them take the door, Snow.” Dex says with unhinged intensity. “It’s the only thing that matters. It’s the only way out of this place!”

Snow recoils away from Dex like he’s been struck. Shock and confusion cloud his angular features. His mouth hangs open in disbelief as he struggles to process what his brother-in-arms has said. Before he can speak, Dex cuts him off.

“Don’t you understand? If we lose this place, we lose our only way out of this nightmare – we lose our only way home! We have to stand and fight!” Dex cries desperately, never taking his eyes off the burning husk that had once been The Falls.

“Now is not the time for your mystical voodoo nonsense!” Snow snaps back. “Everyone inside is dead, and if we don’t move right god damn now, the rest of us will right behind them.”

“It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.” Dex says solemnly. His eyes shine with a fanatical gleam that I recognize from our encounter in the cave. A shiver runs down my spine at the memory. “All that matters is maintaining control of the gate. We have to take it back!”

“Have you finally lost your damn mind?” Snow says incredulously. “Look around, Dex. This fight was over before we even got here. Our friends inside – our brothers – are gone. They’re dead! If we don’t get the hell out of here right now, we will be too.”

“Go then.” Dex replies mechanically, drawing his sword with practiced ease. “I’m staying here.”

“That’s suicide.” Snow says, grabbing Dex’s sword hand roughly at the wrist. “I won’t let you do this.” Dex attempts to wrench his hand free and fails. Snow holds it firmly in his vice-like grip. “I need you with me, brother.”

“It’s over, Snow.” Dex sighs heavily. “At least let me go out on my own terms…and maybe take a few of those bastards with me.”

“No!” Snow hisses sharply. “No. Nothing is over! Those were our brothers, you selfish coward.” Dex’s eyes narrow in anger, focusing on Snow for the first time since The Falls began to burn.

“At least I’m willing to stand and fight…to die for our brothers.” Dex says in a voice that sounds like a man teetering on the edge of madness. “To die with our brothers.”

            “Don’t lie to me!” Snow shouts furiously, as if the months of silently humoring his leader’s increasingly bizarre beliefs have finally reached the boiling point. “All you care about is your god damn door!”

            “No!” Dex exclaims, wheeling on Snow abruptly, his face suddenly a contorted mask of anger. “Everything I’ve done was for them – to get us all out of this…place, before it’s too late.” A sudden sadness overtakes Dex’s dark features. His blazing eyes soften, and he places a hand on Snow’s heaving shoulder. “Get the boys to safety. My place is here.” Snow opens his mouth to protest, but Dex silences him with a look. “The door is all that matters, brother. If any of us want to have any hope of getting home, we have to retake The Falls – we have to take back the door.”

“You can’t do this on your own, Dex. If you do this now, it will be meaningless!” Snow replies, his hand still locked around Dex’s thick wrist like steel trap. Dex shakes his head and smiles an exhausted, knowing smile.

            “Death is always meaningless, brother.” Dex says quietly. “Just let me go.”

            “Our brothers deserve better than this.” Snow says through clenched teeth. “These boys look up to you. They need you.” Snow hisses, pointing to the small group of terrified Fighters watching Dex and Snow with anxious eyes. “We can’t do anything for our brothers inside The Falls, but we can save the ones that are left. Help me get them out of here and I swear to you, I’ll do everything I can to help you recapture your damn door.” Dex stares at Snow’s ash-smudged face for a long moment as the crackle and pop of flames dance in the air around us like cruel disembodied laughter. After what feels like an eternity, Dex’s shoulders slump in resignation. He exhales a long heavy sigh.

            “We’ll do it your way.” Dex says in an emotionless monotone. “For now.”

            Snow releases his hold on the larger boy’s wrist and claps him firmly on the shoulder with a grim nod. “Thank you. Now, let’s get the hell out of here while we still can. Come on.”

            The three of us turn and dash towards the waiting darkness of the forest as the entire world burns down behind us.

The black duffle bag weighs heavily against my back and I fight to keep the thick strap from tangling with the thinner strap of my scabbard. Above me, the black bowl of the night sky stretches into infinity, pocked with an impossible number of glittering stars. Dense clouds of black smoke drift from the burning walls, smearing an obscene river of starless black across the middle of the night sky.

Ahead of us, Snow’s small group of Fighters have stopped in their tracks. In the darkness, I almost crash into them, but manage to stop myself in time, nearly losing my footing in the process. I’m about to ask why we’ve stopped when I see them – three white-clad figures standing between us and the safety of tress.

At this distance, it’s obvious 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 which are bound tightly to their torsos and limbs with lengths of pale rope. The white fur of their pelts is matted and filthy. Dark splashes of blood, still fresh and wet and black in the flickering firelight, are smear their arms and chests. Each face is wrapped tightly with black cloth, hiding everything but their eyes –eyes that are unmistakably human. All three are armed with crude swords identical to my own. As the trio of attackers stalk towards us like pack hunters towards cornered prey, Snow’s Fighters backpedal away in a strange jerky unison. Thin metallic whispers ripples through the group as swords are drawn from scabbards.

I turn to face the burning hulk of The Falls as its fiery death throes light up the night sky like a primeval funeral pyre. I search desperately for a way to escape from the enemies at the tree line and the conflagration that, until an hour ago, had been the impenetrable wall protecting The Falls. A flash of motion catches my eye. I curse loudly as another group pale figures emerges from the open main gate, their blood smeared swords shimmering like oil on a flat grey ocean.

This second pack of killers – there are 5 of them, I realize with growing terror – are chasing someone out the burning front gate. My stomach drops when I realize that I recognize the fleeing figures. It’s my bunkmates – Ugly, Bones, Frog, and Stretch – running towards me with every ounce of speed they can muster. Their pursuers are gaining on them, but the small group of Fixers manage to make it to our skirmish line ahead of their pursuers.

“What the hell is going on?” Frog splutters through a face streaked with tears and soot. “How did they…”

“I don’t know!” I say over the roar of the flames and the crash of the distant falls. “Get behind me, we have to try and make it to the woods.” My four terrified bunkmates turn towards the woods and cry out in terror when they realize a second group of white clad attackers is approaching slowly from the tree line.

“Ah hell, they’re freaking everywhere, man!” Stretch whines as he franticly turns his head back and forth between the two advancing groups of enemies. “We’re gonna die here, Crash. What the hell do we do?”

“Are any of you armed? Do you have weapons?” I say quickly, never taking my eyes off the group of enemies approaching from the falls. My bunkmates shake their heads – great, they’re unarmed. “Ok. Stay behind me. Let the Fighters protect you.” I say, trying as hard as I can to sound confident and self-assured. “We’re not dying here. Not today.”

The new group of killers stalk towards us, picking up speed as they jog down the hill towards us. Silhouetted against the roaring inferno at their backs, they look like a pack of hideously animated shadows.  I fumble my own sword out of its scabbard and whirl back towards the forest, searching for Snow or Dex among the small group of Fighters closest to the forest. Dex has his back to me. He’s moved between his Fighters and the slowly advancing attackers at the tree line. Dex holds his blade out flat in front of his body, settling into a fighter’s stance as he faces down the threat from the trees. I realize that he hasn’t seen the second group of attackers charging us from The Falls. “Dex! More behind us!” I yell as loudly as I can manage. The hot, smoke-filled air seems to swallow my desperate cry like a ravenous creature born from ash and suffering and flame.

Dex doesn’t turn around. I don’t think he heard me. His focus is locked on the group of 3 attackers nearest the woods; the enemies blocking our escape. Snow stands by Dex’s side, brandishing his own sword as the trio of white-clad killers advance. Snow turns his head quickly in my direction, and as if on cue, the pale figures attack.

A razor-sharp blade slices through the air towards Snow’s head. The pale boy twists away gracefully, the blade narrowly missing his neck. Dex flashes forward, catching the owner of the blade in the throat before he can recover from his swing. Bright red arterial blood erupts from the assailants’ neck, soaking the white fur of his chest covering and splashing on the ground to form a gruesome Rorschach blot of red and white around the dying man’s feet. The bloody figure crumples to the ground, gloved hands grasping franticly at his throat in a vain attempt to stem the crimson tide pouring through his fingers as he thrashes. Snow lunges at the nearest white figure, slashing downwards with his sword towards the enemy’s broad shoulder. The figure brings his own blade up in a graceful arc. Sparks fly as the enemy’s blade collides with Snow’s, halting the blow mere inches from the white figure’s obscured face.

The sound of heavy footfalls yanks my attention away from the battle. I spin towards the second group of attackers, who are now only a handful of yards away – and closing the distance quickly. “Snow? Dex? I could use some assistance here!” I call over my shoulder, never taking my eyes off the rapidly approaching group of attackers. I hear the whine and tang of steel on steel from behind me. A strangled cry escapes an unseen throat, and I wince unconsciously as I hear the unmistakable sound of a body collapsing on the ground with a sickening wet thump. I hope desperately that it’s not one of ours, but I can’t spare the second it would take to look back and find out.

Three of Snow’s Fighters disengage from the battle at the edge of the woods, turning to face the oncoming attackers rushing towards us from direction of the The Falls. Out of the corner of my eye I see the stocky cadet with the shaved head, and two Fighters I haven’t met, running towards us. One is younger than me with blonde hair and a muscular build. He grips his sword confidently and glares daggers at the oncoming group of attackers. The other looks to be around my age with black hair and bright blue eyes that shine radiantly out from the delicate features of his handsome face. Unlike the stern-faced pair of muscular cadets running beside him, he looks as terrified as I am. He clutches his sword with trembling, white-knuckled hands and looks like he’s on the verge of tears. The tip of his blade shakes slightly in the air as he watches the group of white-clad warriors close the last few yards toward us.

The trio of Fighters take up positions next to me, weapons raised. The stocky Fighter with the shaved head greets me with a curt military nod. I return the greeting in kind. My terrified bunkmates cower behind us like children hiding under their mother’s skirt. No one says a word.

The clatter and din of the battle raging behind us fades away to nothing as the world contracts into a single moment. The whole universe seems to go dark around us, and all that’s left is this single patch of snowy ground between the oncoming enemy and our small group of defenders. We hold our ground with swords raised. My heart thunders in my ears. I tighten my hands around the hilt of my blade and brace for the oncoming explosion of violence. Fear runs wild in my chest as the inevitable ticks closer and closer with every second.

I wait anxiously, hoping desperately that the strange tingling sensation from my fistfight at The Falls will kick in before the white killers reach us. In my head, I beg Ghoul to help me again, to take over my body and help me make it through this fight – but nothing happens. I guess I’m on my own this time. Terror perforates my calm like flechette rounds through wet paper and I’m suddenly very aware of the heavy, unfamiliar sword clutched in my untrained hands.

Oh god, I think I’m about to die.

The attackers smash into us like a flight of comets crashing into the surface of the earth. Steel devours steel with the sharp, ringing symphony of metal on metal. I deflect an attacker’s opening slash and spin away from the large white form as his momentum carries him past me. I try to spin after him to take advantage of his momentary loss of footing, but the heavy duffle bag on my back makes me sluggish and slow. By the time I turn to face my attacker, he’s fully recovered. He lunges forward with his blade in a short stabbing strike towards my exposed gut. I step to the left in time to avoid the killing strike, but the point of the blade burrows into the flesh of my midsection like a plow through soil. Blood sprays from the long shallow gash, soaking my uniform. The wound burns like fusion fire, spreading hot tendrils of agony through the cold skin of my right side.

The white killer’s attack may have opened a gash in my side, but it also brought him close enough for me to counterstrike. Seeing my opening, I slash down towards the top of his head with every ounce of strength I can muster. He anticipates the attack and easily avoids the clumsy arc of my blade. My sword slices through empty air, lodging itself in the frozen ground with a painful shudder that vibrates my arm like tuning fork. My momentum carries me forward, off-balance from my wild swing and the weight on my back, and I nearly trip over my own sword as the ground refuses to relinquish my blade. My weapon is torn from my grip as I stumble clumsily forward. 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 wounded side. Pain explodes through my body in a blinding white wave. My attacker raises his sword over his head for the killing blow.

Someone slams into my attacker’s midsection. 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 duffel bag holds me down. My assailant and the black-haired boy with the bright blue eyes struggle desperately on the ground several feet away, kicking and flailing wildly in a confusing blur of limbs and exposed flesh, neither able to gain the upper hand long enough to subdue the other. I fight desperately against the unwieldy object strapped to my back, cursing Snow for forcing the burden on me, as I struggle with the tangled strap. Finally, I slip the shoulder strap over my head and scramble to my feet. I lunge towards my sword. It stands upright, silent and gray like as a thin headstone, several feet from where I’d gone down.

The pale assailant slams his head forward, catching my rescuer square in the nose. I hear a sickening crunch as the young Fighter’s nose shatters. A thick gout of blood erupts from with side of his handsome face as his head lolls back limply, his brilliant blue eyes suddenly dim and far away. I wrench the sword out of the ground and dash towards the unconscious Fighter. The bulky white figure gets to his feet slowly, snatching up his blade with a white gloved hand.

I scream.

The sound is primal and involuntary. I charge towards the rearmed attacker, desperate to reach him before he can kill the boy with the black hair. He pauses for a moment, head cocked to one side like he’s contemplating some trivial, meaningless question. Then, without warning, he swings his blade in a low lazy arc across the ground in front of him. The razor-sharp blade rips a jagged crimson grin across the pale expanse of the black-haired boy’s exposed throat. In the instant before we collide, the white-clad killer meets my gaze with defiant, laughing eyes.

I slam into my enemy 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, clatters from his hand and slides out of reach.

Sobbing, I leap onto the prone man’s chest, landing as hard as I can with both of my knees. There’s a satisfying crunch as multiple ribs shatter and crack from the impact. Enraged, I pin his sword hand to the ground with a single savage thrust of my own blade. He doesn’t make a sound as the blade pierces bone and flesh and earth, but his eyes go wide with a wild, unhinged look as I pin his other arm to the ground with my free hand. I lower my face towards his until my we’re only inches apart. Sweat and blood drip down my nose to fall onto the black cloth covering his face. Our breath escapes in great white clouds, mingling together in the cold night air before drifting away in the dark.

“Who the hell are you?” I scream into the masked man’s face. I’m met with silence and the ragged hiss of my own labored breathing. I’m vaguely aware of screams and the clash of metal somewhere in the distance. The battle seems so far away; the sounds muffled and strange. The wound in my side throbs in time with my hammering heart, like a river of dull fire. Blood soaks the fabric of my uniform, oozing from the ragged, screaming gash in my side. “Why?” I spit through clenched teeth. “Why are you doing this? Why are you killing us?” He gazes back at me with glassy fanatic’s eyes, eyes that laugh silently up at me from the pale patch of exposed flesh beneath his black cloth mask.

The prone figure raises his head off the ground shakily, his eyes like glowing coals. They are the eyes of the true believer in the instant before he drops a lit match onto gasoline-soaked robes. When he speaks, his voice is a hushed whisper. As he speaks, his gaze drifts above my shoulder to focus on some faraway thing that only he can see. “The wheel…I can see the wheel.” His eyes suddenly snap onto mine. The intensity of his stare sends a shiver down my spine despite the heat of the nearby inferno. “Can’t you see it, Crash? Can’t you see? He’s coming…coming for you. Cerberus must rise. Cerberus must rise!” His voice collapses into a fit of wet, diseased laughter that sprays flecks of red foam and bloody spittle 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 I’ve endured in this place ignites in my chest like a dense ball of white-hot phosphorus. Liquid tendrils of fire scream through my veins and slam into my skull with the spitting crackle of a downed powerline sputtering sparks against my nerves. “How the hell do you know my name?” I scream, spittle flying from my quivering lips and into my captive’s blood smeared face. Cold eyes 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 forgotten worlds. The dying fanatic smiles and then continues to laugh his wet, hacking laugh.

I slam my fist into his face as hard as I can. There’s a nauseating wet crunch as the blow shatters the man’s concealed nose. Blood and mucus ooze through the cloth mask that covers his face. The wide, fanatic eyes never waver from mine. They shine with a vertigo-inducing madness that seems to bubble up from some dark place deep within. He doesn’t make a sound as I scream again and continue slamming my fists into what’s left of the cackling madman’s face. Hot tears stream down my face. Thick mucus bubbles from my flaring nostrils. I pour every molecule of fear and rage inside me into the masked face with one savage blow after another. The flat slap of each vicious punch races up my arms like dull aftershocks from a distant earthquake.

A pair of strong hands grab me from behind. I barely notice through the maelstrom of rage coursing through me. I slam my fist into the white figure’s face again, realizing distantly that the body beneath me has gone limp, the eyes staring blankly at nothing at all.

“We have to get out of here, Crash!” Snow is screaming in my ear as he attempts to drag me away from the gore-smeared rag doll pinned to the ground beneath me. I ignore him, jerking myself away from his grasp to throw another savage blow at my prone enemy. The sound of the blow landing is like a hammer striking a side of beef. “Now, god damnit!” Snow 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 he’s fighting hard to keep his tone even and his volume in check. “If we don’t leave right this damn second…. We are dead. Understand?” I can barely hear him over the storm of rage raging inside my head. His voice seems far away, like a garbled transmission from a distant moon, the message warped and distorted by the shearing waves of bloodlust radiating from my balled fists like the gravity from a collapsing star. “Crash! Snap the hell out of it, man! We have to go!” Snow slaps me across the face hard enough that I see stars.

I fight a sudden wave of nausea as I finally see the gruesome state of my hands. A thick coat of blood and gore have painted my fists a crimson so deep that it’s nearly black. The light from the still-burning wall dances and flickers in the reflective sheen of blood clinging to my hands. A small red puddle is accumulating on the snow directly below each of my aching hands. A larger pool is spreading silently around the dead man’s deformed and motionless head like a bloody halo against a pure white sky.

I don’t know – I can’t know, I realize darkly – if this is the first life I’ve ever taken, but the churning sea of sickness sloshing around in my guts makes a pretty strong argument that it probably is. Somewhere inside my chest, a final tidal surge of rage slams against some cold internal shore and then races away towards a bruised and brooding horizon, leaving only a dull ache as it recedes. Missing memory or not, I can’t shake the feeling that a I’ve crossed some invisible line, and from now on, I’ll be doomed to see my life as two distinct species – the time before I took another human life, and the time after.

Snow shoves the discarded duffle bag into my chest without another word, then turns and jogs away towards the forest over a battlefield littered with the bodies of friends and foes alike. I sling the bag into place on my back, wipe away as much of the dead man’s blood as I can on my filthy legs of my tattered uniform, and then pull my sword from its place in the dead man’s palm. The blade makes a wet sucking sound as it slides free. 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, then I hurry to follow Snow towards the darkness of the forest, my sword clutched tightly in my bloody right hand.

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