This post contains the twenty-first 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.

We make camp on a ridge overlooking the charred remains of The Falls. In the fading light, the fortress below is a black smudge against the snow-covered ground. It is completely dark and, so far, we haven’t seen Dex, the Ghosts, or any sign of life in the skeleton of our old home. Despite what Hawk had told me about our enemies occupying the place, the whole settlement looks as silent and still as a graveyard.

 The Sisters are busy erecting a small cluster of white canvas tents beneath the shadowy canopy of the dense forest that surrounds us and hides us from sight. I don’t know how they have the energy. I’m exhausted. The march from Helios would have been grueling in normal gear, but with the added weight of our borrowed combat armor (provided by Nyx’s armorer), it was downright brutal. I try not to think about why The Sisters had enough extra armor to go around this time as I slide to the ground and lean back against a large stump that squats near the tree line. I exhale heavily and watch the white could of my breath drift into the cold evening air. The stars seem to blaze like a billion tiny fires in the velvet blackness above me. I wonder silently if it’s the last time I’ll see them.

The battle plan is simple. The main force of Nyx’s army – roughly 70 Sisters of Winter – will stage here at the top of the ridge, about a mile from the main gate of The Falls, while a small team makes its way down to the fortress to recon their defenses and probe for a way in. If the main gate is intact, the strike team will slip into the compound, open the gate, and then signal the invasion force to attack.

It all feels a little seat-of-the-pants to me, and I’ve had a pit in my stomach since we passed through the Helios gates and into the forest this morning. I can’t shake the feeling that we’re missing something, and although I’d never admit it, I’m concerned that Rayna may be right.

This sure feels like a trap.

I hear footsteps behind me as someone crunches towards me through the blanket of newly fallen snow. Before I can turn my head to see who it is, Hawk plops down next to me with a grunt. He looks as exhausted as I feel but a conspiratorial smile is plastered across his face and his dark eyes sparkle with excitement.

“Hawk,” I say quietly, still wary what may be lurking in the darkness beyond the tree trunks around us. “Where’s Snow?”

“In the command tent with Nyx and the girls,” Hawk replies. “They’re working on the battle plan for tomorrow morning, I think.” I nod and close my eyes, determined to savor these last moments of calm while I can. Hawk punches my wounded shoulder and, although my armor softens the pain, I still yelp in surprise before punching him back. “No sleeping yet, new guy,” he says, “You and I have shit to do.”

“We do?” I ask while stifling a yawn. “What do you mean?”

“I volunteered us for the super sneaky spy mission.” Hawk says through a beaming smile that looks out of place on his pinched face. “The Falls is our turf, man. Who knows it better than us?”

“Dex does”, I reply grimly as the pit in my stomach becomes a solid knot at the thought of returning to our old home. “He’ll be waiting for us down there, brother.”

“Good,” Hawk says, “I’ve been looking forward to our reunion for a while now.”

“I wouldn’t be in a hurry to see him again, Hawk. He’s not the Dex you remember.” I say as I sweep my eyes across the deserted, blackened walls on the clearing floor below. “He’s…something else now. Something dangerous.”

“All the more reason to pay him a visit,” Hawks sneers as a flash of rage flickers in his dark eyes. “We owe him, brother, and if he’s a dangerous as you say, then Fira’s in a lot of trouble.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” I reply. “I just hope we’re not too late. I have a very bad feeling about all of this.”

Hawk snorts a single laugh and pats me on the shoulder as he gets to his feet. “Shit, man. I don’t remember that last time I had anything other kind.” I meet his gaze and I’m surprised by the warmth and emotion swelling in his eyes. “You and I, we’ve had our scrapes, my friend. I may not know anything about who I am – who I was – outside of The Zone, but I do know one thing. If we have anything at all in this godforsaken place, it’s each other. If I’m walking into a trap down there, I don’t want to do it alone.”

“Time for a super sneaky spy mission?”

“You’re damn right. Come on, brother,” Hawk says as he offers me his armored white hand, “We have work to do. Super sneaky work.” I take his hand and get to my feet.

            We meet Nyx, Snow, and Rayna inside of the white canvas command tent that squats at the center of our makeshift camp. Snow and Nyx are huddled over a crude diagram of The Falls that has been drawn in the snowy ground of the forest floor. Snow greets us with a nod as we approach. Rayna stands with her back against the wall of the tent, glaring at Hawk and me as we enter. Clearly, she’s not a fan of our inclusion in this part of the mission and a mix of anger and concern darken her face as she watches us take a knee next to Nyx and Snow.

            “Crash is on board for the super sec…er…recon mission, boss,” Hawk says quickly, “We’re ready to jump. Just say the word.”

            “Good,” Snow replies with a curt nod. “We’re just going over the plan now. Listen up.”  

            “As you know, there is only one way into The Falls that we can realistically use for this assault,” Nyx says, pointing to the diagram at our feet. “The main gate, here. We anticipate that Dex and his Ghosts have rebuilt the main gate, and from what our spotters on the ridge can discern, the walls appear intact as well. If we’re to have any chance of rescuing Fira and any survivors from The Falls, that gate needs to be open when we attack.”

            “Those walls are at least ten feet tall,” I say, “How are we going to get the gate open without getting caught?”

            “There’s a tunnel on the far side of the walls that we can use to get inside,” Hawk says, pointing to the spot where the wall terminates into the sheer cliff face. “I used to use it to get in and out of The Falls without being seen.” Snow raises an eyebrow at this revelation but keeps his questions to himself. I can tell he’s surprised. I don’t blame him. So am I.

            “We can scout the main gate as we make our approach to The Falls,” Hawk says as he traces a route on the diagram with the tip of his dagger, “Then, we can use the tree line to wrap around to where the tunnel is concealed, and slip inside.”

            “Are you sure that Dex doesn’t know about this passageway?” Nyx asks.

            “Nah, he never knew about it,” Hawk replies with a self-satisfied smirk. “I’m pretty damn sneaky.”

“Good,” Snow says, returning his attention to the miniature representation of The Falls on the floor of the tent. “After you’ve sabotaged the gate to make sure we can punch through with the main force, make your way to the outbuilding– the hut we kept you in after Dex showed you the black door, Crash – and use it as cover until sunrise. We’ll send up the signal from there when you’re clear to begin the assault.”

            “Signal?” I say.

            “If you’re successful in neutralizing the main gate, you’ll fire a single flaming arrow straight into the air as soon as the sun starts to rise,” Nyx explains in a dispassionate monotone. “We will begin the assault as soon as we see your signal.”

            “And if we’re not able to put the main gate out of commission?’ I ask, my mind racing with the thousand ways this plan could go wrong. “What then?”

            “Brother, if that gate isn’t open, chances are we’re dead,” Hawk says with a fatalistic chuckle. “Clever signals will be the least of our worries.”

            “If something goes wrong and the defenses are still in place,” Snow interjects, “Fire two arrows.”

            “What’s the plan if you see that second signal – the one that says we failed?” I ask as I look between the grim faces of Nyx and Snow, desperate for some sort of reassurance that will make this all make sense.

            “Then we attack anyway and hope to god there’s more of us than there is of them,” Rayna snaps angrily from the periphery of the command tent. “And we all die in the trap your brother set for us.”

            I look to Nyx and Snow, hoping for another answer – a less insane answer – but their stony expressions send my heart into my boots. Rayna is telling the truth.

            “Got it. Don’t fail,” Hawk says casually. “No problem.”

            “There’s one more thing,” Nyx says as we get to our feet and brush the snow from the knees of our armor, “I’m sending Rayna with you. I want one of my own on the team.”

            “What?!” Hawk sputters, whirling to face Rayna as his skin turns pink with anger and shock. Rayna meets his gaze with a fiery stare as a satisfied smile spreads across her face. Hawk turns to Snow, a pleading look mixing with the anger and surprise on his face. “We don’t need her, boss, and there’s a 50/50 chance she’ll kill us both as soon as we’re out of camp! You know what she thinks of us.”

            “Enough,” Nyx thunders, her silken voice suddenly booming and harsh. “We all want the same thing – to rescue our people. Rayna is my best, and believe it or not, your chances of survival are much higher with her by your side.”

            “But…,” Hawk stammers, his face now closer to purple than pink.

“The matter is closed,” Nyx says flatly. “If you don’t like it, we can send someone in your place.”

            “Thank you,” I say before Hawk can continue to rage at the imposing leader of the Sisters of Winter, “We can use all the help we can get.”

            “Good choice, little slicer,” Rayna sneers. “Meet me at the tree line in 10. Sunrise is in a few hours, and we have much to do.” Rayna storms out of the tent leaving Hawk sputtering angrily and me with a pit in my stomach that gets deeper by the second.

            “I don’t like it, Crash,” Hawk whispers as he watches the imposing female warrior throw open the tent flap and make her exit. “I don’t like it one bit. You just make sure you watch my back, yeah?”

            “And you watch mine, brother,” I reply, “I get the feeling I’m going to need it.”

            We met Rayna by the tree line 10 minutes later. As we approach, I see that the female warrior is wearing a pair of swords on her back, the scabbards making a white X just below the nape of her neck. A single stripe of white warpaint is smeared horizontally from one of her temples to the other like a blindfold, making her eyes seem to blaze out from her face like two black suns.

            “Finally,” She says, “I thought you might have chickened out.”

            “Stuff it,” Hawk snaps back as he tightens a white scabbard on his own armored back. “Let’s get this over with.”

            “Thought you’d never ask,” Rayna fires back as she straps a pair of small daggers to each armored boot. “Keep up, or get left behind, boys. Oh, and if it turns out I’m right about you, slicer, I’ll leave you bleeding in the snow for the Clockers to find. Let’s move.” With that, Rayna jogs into the darkness towards The Falls without another word.

            “Charming,” Hawk mutters as he pads past me. I follow him into the darkness, after Rayna, and towards whatever fate awaits us in the ruins of The Falls.

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