This post contains the twentieth 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 sit up with a start, suddenly awake and surrounded by the hazy chaos of post-battle Helios. Dex’s laughter echoes hauntingly in my ears as I blink my eyes to bring my surroundings into focus.

            The grand stairway has taken heavy damage, but it still stands. Smoke and dust fill the air, remnants of the devastating cluster of explosions that rocked Helios in the moments after Dex’s forces attacked. A massive semi-circular chunk of the stone stairway, from a section halfway between the cave entrance and the plaza floor below, has been destroyed. It looks like a giant beast has taken a single, jagged bite out of the structure, leaving a thin ribbon of stairway connecting the cave entrance to the brick plaza below.

            There are Bodies strewn everywhere. Through the curtain of debris, I can’t tell the wounded from the dead. As my gaze drifts down the stairway to the plaza below, I count at least 20 bodies, but I can’t make out who they are. Some are so mangled that I can’t tell if they’re dead invaders or fallen defenders. A strangled sob escapes my throat as I attempt to get to my feet and fail. Dex’s words echo through my head like a gunshot – You’re all alone, kid! I stumble forward, but before I pitch face-first onto the plaza floor, a pair of strong arms grab me from behind and steady me on my feet. I turn to see Snow, bloodied but smiling, standing behind me. He thumps my uninjured shoulder as tears well in his ice blue eyes.

            “I thought we’d lost you, brother,” He says, his voice thick with emotion. “We’ve been trying to wake you up for almost an hour.”

            “It’s good to see you too, my friend,” I reply as a tiny spark of hope begins to glow in my chest. If Snow is alive, maybe the rest survived as well. Maybe Dex as lying. “I thought I’d lost you too.”

            “Well, look who’s finally awake,” Hawk sneers as he sidles up next to us, his knife still clutched in one bloody fist. “You planning on napping through the whole war?”

            “Nice to see you too, Hawk,” I send back with a smirk. “I knew you were too crazy to die.”

            “You know it,” He replies with a sly smile. “It’s going to take more than exploding monsters to punch my clock.”

            “How many did we lose?” I say, the spark of hope in my chest flickering into a flame as I manage to pick out each of my four bunkmates on the plaza floor, each attending to wounded Sisters with grim expressions etched onto their young faces. They look exhausted and dirty, but they’re alive. Frog catches me staring and replies with a nod and a sheepish grin before returning to his work. “How many are dead?”

            “30 Sisters. None of our own,” Hawk replies flatly.

            “Nyx?” I say, cutting him off before he can continue.

            “Nah, she’s fine. She’s in that main building of theirs with her commanders. The ones that are still alive, that is,” Hawk replies. “But that’s not the worst of it. We have a new problem.”

            “What do you mean?” I reply.

            “Looks like the explosions were a distraction. During the chaos a couple of those Clocker bastards managed to drag one of the Sisters off before we even knew what was happening,” Hawk explains with a grim scowl. “They tried to take you too, but Snow and I got there before they could get you up the stairs.” Hawk nods at a trio of dead Clockers at the foot of the stairway.

            “What?” I say quickly. “Who did they take?”

            “The redhead,” Snow answers, his voice heavy with concern. “Fira.”

            “The other Slicer,” I say, dread pooling in my stomach like poison as a dark understanding crystalizes in my mind. “I have to talk to Nyx. Now!”

            Without another word, I take off towards the domed main building at a run, not bothering to look over my shoulder to see if my friends are following behind.

            “You’re welcome, by the way,” I hear Hawk yell as I dash across the plaza. “That’s two you owe me, asshole!”

            Nyx and a handful of battle fatigued unit commanders huddle around the large wooden table in the domed main room of the central building. Rayna stands like a sentinel beside an exhausted-looking Nyx, while a young Sister in ill-fitting white armor attempts to bandage a nasty-looking gash on the Rayna’s neck. Nyx and Rayna are arguing loudly about what to do next while pouring over a riot of maps that are spread over the dark surface of the massive table.

Nyx silences Rayna and her commanders with a raised hand as I burst into the domed chamber, Snow and Hawk trailing close behind. Nyx’s face is a granite wall – unreadable. As I meet her gaze, I can tell from the redness ringing her green eyes and the tear tracks through the grime on her face that the fearsome warrior has been crying.

“I think I know why they took Fira,” I say breathlessly before Nyx and her retinue can react to my dramatic entrance. “And I think I know where they’re taking her.”

Rayna glowers at me across the table, clearly irritated by our presence in their war room. “How convenient,” She says with a sneer. “It wasn’t enough to bring those monsters down on us? Now you want to walk us into a trap so they can finish us off as well?” The accusation catches me off guard, and for a moment, I’m at a loss for words. Rayna turns to Nyx, her gaze pleading and intense. “Don’t listen to him, Nyx. All of this is his fault. These fools brought this death to our doorstep. We should get rid of them before they bring Helios crashing down around our heads.”

“Death has always been at our doorstep, my sister,” Nyx replies calmly. “You know that as well as I do.” Rayna shakes her head furiously holds her tongue as she regards the three of us with a smoldering, accusatory stare. Even with Ghouls help, I doubt I’d survive Rayna’s rage if Nyx ever let her off her leash. “Speak, Slicer,” Nyx says calmly, refocusing her attention on my companions and I. “Tell us what you know.”

I recount the details of my latest dream and tell them about my chilling conversation with the corrupted dream version of Dex. Nyx and her warriors listen intently, their faces as unreadable as the stone walls that surround us. Only Rayna makes her disbelief clear as she scoffs and huffs at every word that comes out of my mouth.

“So, you think your friend…Dex intends to use Fira to escape The Zone?” Nyx replies, an edge of doubt seeping through her even, measured tone.

“Yes,” I say emphatically, “I think he…whatever he is now…is trapped in The Zone, same as us. He thinks that Fira and I have some power that may help him escape.”

“Then why did he take Fira and leave you behind?” Rayna interjects hotly before Nyx can reply.

“He tried to take Crash too, sweetheart,” Hawk spits back as he pushes past me to stand toe-to-toe with Nyx’s imposing lieutenant. “But those creepy bastards underestimated how badass the boys from The Falls are in a fight. Don’t go making the same mistake, little girl.” Rayna snarls at Hawk and reaches for the hilt of her sword. Nyx grabs Rayna’s wrist harshly and yanks it away before it can reach the weapon slung on her armored back.

“Enough! Both of you!” Nyx thunders as the pair glare daggers at each other. “Time is short, and I won’t waste another minute of it on this nonsense.” Hawk backs away, a snide grimace of faux apology on his sharp features. “But, make no mistake. If you disrespect Rayna again, the Clockers will be the least of your worries, little boy.”

“Crash, I don’t understand,” Snow interjects with genuine confusion, “how can you know where he’s taken the Fira?”

“I don’t know how, but I think Dex wanted to use us – use our connection to the dream – to open the black door,” I say.

“Then he’s taking her…oh shit,” Hawk says.

“Yeah. He’s taking her home. He’s taking her to The Falls.”

“Then our task is clear,” Nyx says matter-of-factly, “We have to get to Fira before it’s too late.” Nyx draws her ornate golden sword and holds it over her head. “We bring our Sister home, or we fall in the attempt. Tonight, we march on The Falls!”

Cheers erupt all around the domed chamber as The Sisters of Winter raise armored fists and bloodied blades towards the ceiling in support of their grim-faced commander.

“We fight as one,” Rayna bellows over the cheers.

“We fall as one,” a chorus of female voices answer in a cacophonous call and response that becomes a chant – battle cry – that fills the circular space with echoing cheers.

Nyx and I lock eyes as she draws close, close enough that I can smell the sweat and blood wafting from her battered white armor. “Will you stand with us, men of The Falls?” Nyx says as she offers me her open, armored hand. “Will you stand with The Sisters of Winter?”

I grasp her armored hand without hesitation. “We fight as one,” I say, my gaze locking onto hers. “We fall as one.”

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