CHAPTER FOURTEEN

This post contains the fourteenth 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’ve been wandering in the woods for hours. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I’m kicking myself at every step for the petulant rashness of my flight from Helios – and for leaving my sword behind.

Every inch of this goddamn forest looks the same. All alone and quite literally out in the cold, I’m having a hard time remembering why I thought running away was the right call. All I do know is that I had to get out of that place. I had to get away from – from what? A rational, cautious voice in my head argues with conviction that I ran for the only reason that matters – to stay alive.

You had to get away from those nutcases and their insane delusions, says the reasonable, cautious voice, you would just be another sacrifice to their lost cause if you had stayed, and you know it.

Bullshit, says another voice, this one is more confident, but the words drip with acid and contempt. You ran because you’re a coward. A selfish, frightened, coward.

As I trudge through the snow, the word is like a jagged grain of sand stuck between my teeth. Coward. It grinds, scrapes, and squeaks painfully against my thoughts until a single pearl of realization bubbles through the justifications and the excuses, shoving its way roughly into the front of my mind.

            You’re not afraid of those girls, the second voice continues bitterly. Shit, you’re not even afraid of the monsters and killers that own this place. You’re afraid of YOU. You know that, in the end, all you care about is yourself…your own survival. Admit it – given half a chance, you’d let each and every one of those strangers die if it meant saving your own ass. Remember old blue eyes back at The Falls? What did fighting by your side get him?

My feet are numb, even in my heavy boots. They feel like blocks of ice at the end of my equally frozen legs as I stumble through the trees, trying in vain to shake the sound of my own voice from my aching head. I trudge through the snow and the trees and the twilight like a restless spirit lost in fog.

The forest is as quiet as vacuum and nearly as dark. In the dim light beneath the canopy, shadows and shapes play tricks on my exhausted eyes. I scan the trunks ahead for movement, but I can’t see shit in this anemic half-light. Every oddly shaped branch and half occluded stump sets my heart hammering in my chest and turns my guts to quicksand as my mind manufactures monsters at the edges of my blurry vision. I force myself to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, and the phantoms dissolve and twist away like flurries of snow in the winter wind.

“Ghoul, if you’re really out there,” I mutter through chattering teeth, “I could really use a hand right about now.”

The only reply is the sound of my own footsteps and the sinister whisper of the wind through the trees.

A an idea forms in my mind, born more from desperation than hope. Still, it just might work. If Ghoul can contact me, then maybe there’s a chance that I can somehow get to her.

Your plan is to use telepathy to call your imaginary friend for help? Says the sneering, bitter voice in the back of my head. Jesus, you’re farther gone than I thought.

“Shut up.” I snap back. Crap. I’m not just talking to myself; I’ve actually progressed to arguing with myself. Out loud. Shit…maybe I am crazy after all.

I brush the thought away and stand completely still, screwing my eyes closed as tightly as I can. I stretch out with my thoughts and visualize the empty warehouse of my mind, picturing row upon row of bare wooden shelves where my memories should be kept. Dim yellow lamps hang from an unseen ceiling high above, casting small circles of golden light on the dust caked ground at regular intervals down the endless rows of shelves.

The shelves are empty. The long aisles between the tall wooden racks are empty. Every inch of the huge interior space is empty. Empty, just like me. Ghoul, if she even exists, is nowhere to be found. A pang of intense loneliness congeals in my chest like a lump of cooling magma. It throbs with a dull, warm ache as it settles around my heart like a stone carapace.

Somewhere up ahead, the sharp pop of a snapping twig punches through the thin membrane separating my imaginary refuge from the world outside. My eyes snap open and the warehouse disappears, replaced by the monochrome chaos of snow and shadow. The twilit forest stretches out in front of me like the crooked limbs of an exsanguinated corpse.

The whisper of rustling underbrush behind me spins me around. I ball my hands into tight fists, cursing myself again for leaving my sword behind. I search the darkness between the trunks with frantic eyes as the sound grows louder. It seem to come from all around me like an invisible noose being drawn tight around my neck. My heart hammers in my chest. My face and neck are slick with sweat and I shiver uncontrollably as a cold breeze slithers around my body like a snake with frozen scales.

            Closer. Closer. Closer.

I spin towards each new sound, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever is stalking its way through forest towards me, but in the dimly lit cathedral of towering black trees, the shadows are ravenous and impenetrable – they devour all but the tiniest bit of light grudgingly allowed in through dense canopy above.  

            I can’t see a god damn thing…and the sounds are getting closer.

            I grab a thick branch laying near my feet and brandish it as menacingly as I can. The crunching and snapping inches closer still to the spot where I’m standing. If my heart beats any louder, I’m afraid it might hammer its way out of my chest to plop onto the snow-covered ground in front of me. Fear like I’ve never felt courses through my veins like a powerful stimulant, cranking my senses into overdrive and pushing my heartbeat higher and louder until it thunders so loudly in my ears that I can barely make out the sounds anymore as whatever it is stalks towards me through the gloom.

            “What are you waiting for?!” I scream, gripping the makeshift club so tightly that my bone-white knuckles crack. “I’m right here! Come and get me you cowards! Get it over with!”

            Silence. The only sound is my ragged breathing and the steady thump of my heart in my ears. The sounds have stopped. The forest is as still as a ship that has been opened to vacuum. What the hell are they waiting for? Did I scare them away? I dismiss the thought as it pops into my head. As frightening as a half-starved, mostly frozen teenager must look, I doubt my temper tantrum struck fear into my unseen pursuer’s hearts. Hell, whoever- or whatever – is out there is probably snickering at me from the bushes right now.

            I’m about to turn and run when a new sound tears the silence in half and turns the blood in my veins into ice.

            Four inhuman screams tear out of the forest around me. The sound is like reality being torn open to expose a howling void filled with nightmares. Beans of bright red light lance out of the trees towards me, spearing me in four crimson beams that paint the world a murderous shade of red.

            The first Clocker bursts from the trees behind me like a projectile from the muzzle of a railgun. I whirl around as quickly as I can, swinging my makeshift club blindly towards the blur of red light and pale flesh hurtling towards me. The branch connects with a sallow, elongated neck making a sickening crack. The monster crumples to the ground at my feet and emits a wet gurgle as thick black fluid bubbles out of a jaw packed with razor-sharp teeth. Muscular legs kick and spasm wildly for a moment before the creature’s vaguely canine body goes limp.

            Another scream tears at my eardrums and a second Clocker explodes out of the forest directly towards me. I jump out of the way, my shoulder narrowly avoiding a jaw full of knife-teeth as the beast’s deformed head passes inches from my body. I spin to face the Clocker, but the creature is impossibly fast. Before I can turn to face it, it leaps forward again, crashing into me with the full weight of its pale, muscular body. I fall backwards, crashing to the ground hard. My vision explodes in blurry stars. The Clocker’s nightmare of a face is inches from my own, and the half-mechanical monstrosity is a study in horror. The top half of the thing’s head is metallic and three blazing red lights are set into a flat metallic face where eyes should be. The lower half is all meaty jaws and thick sinews where it connects to a thick neck of mottled greyish flesh.

            Razor sharp teeth snap and gnash inches from my face as I strain with every ounce of strength in my shaking arms to push the against the slick, glistening flesh of the monster’s neck with my improvised club. The Clocker’s powerful legs dig and pump against the ground near my feet, driving the full weight of its body against the brittle branch separating it from its kill. The branch creaks and bows against the onslaught, threatening to snap with each new thrust. The trio of red lights set into its face bore into my eyes, blinding me in a haze of blood red light that turns my whole world to blood.

            I kick the monster’s underbelly with everything I have left, hoping to find a weak point. It’s like kicking the side of an armored dropship. Pain shoots up my leg like a crimson streak of fire. The branch pops and splinters, threatening to snap as the powerful jaws get closer.

There’s no way out of this one – I’m going to die here.

            The feeling is suffocating, like being chained underwater, inches from the surface. I thrash against the immovable weight of the monster on top of me. The branch creaks loudly. The wood bows even further towards my face. Hot tears of pure rage stream from my eyes.

I’m not ready. This can’t be how it ends.

I open my mouth and scream, pouring every ounce of rage and fear and pain directly into the creature’s slavering, snapping jaws. If I’m going to die here, I’m sure as hell not going to do it quietly. This bastard will have to work for this kill. The monster screams back, and the sound is so impossibly loud that I’m afraid my eardrums might burst under the sonic onslaught.

The Clocker rears back, intent on bringing its armored head down in a final killing blow. I steel myself for what’s coming and lock my eyes on the red triple-eye in the thing’s face. If death is coming, I’m going to look it the eyes as it comes.

“Give me all you’ve got, you pale motherfucker.” I scream at the monster. “I’m ready!”

Suddenly, a silver object sails through the air and smacks into the Clocker’s exposed neck with a wet slap. The Clocker’s body jerks to the right as a gout of thick black blood erupts from the spot where the object connected. I twist my body as hard as I can, throwing the twitching mass of dying monster off me as it claws at the object sticking out of its neck – which I can now see is a knife.

I jump to my feet as two more Clockers stalk out of the gloom towards me. I lunge forward and grab the knife from the twitching monster’s neck. I yank as hard as I can, kicking the creature in the chest at the same time. The blade comes free in my hand, throwing an arc of black blood into the air as the body of the Clocker crumples to the ground next to its dead companion.

A second knife sails out of the forest behind me towards the pair of Clockers. The monster on the right catches the thrown blade with a single snap of its menacing metallic teeth. The blade shatters and falls to the forest floor as tiny jagged fragments.

“Shit,” says a familiar voice from behind me. “that was my favorite blade.”

Hawk steps out of the trees, his eyes never leaving the pair of Clockers in front of us. His face is bruised and bloody, his uniform tattered and scorched in too many places to count. I can barely believe my eyes – I was sure Hawk had died in the flames when we lost The Falls. He’s the last person I expected to come to my rescue.

There is a whisper of steel as Hawk draws his sword from the scabbard on his back. Hawk plants himself next to me and stares down the pair of circling horrors with blazing eyes. A wild surge of gratitude washes over me as I stare at the grim-faced boy next to me in disbelief. There’s still a damn good chance that these bastards kill me and leave my broken body in the snow, but at least I’m not going out alone. I resist a powerful urge to hug my newfound brother in arms, and instead give him a single nod of gratitude before turning to face the slowly advancing pair of Clockers.

“Ready when you are,” I say, never taking my eyes off the gurgling, clicking horrors in front of us.

“No time like the present.” Hawk replies with a smirk. “Living forever is for suckers anyway.”

We charge the Clockers, screaming at the top of our lungs.

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