Cold. That was all that Scout could think of. Long gone were the beads of sweat on his skin; replaced with tiny ice crystals and his breath hung heavily in front of his face with every shaky exhalation. He army-crawled forward, pushing the pain his body was enduring deep down and calling forth all his tenacity. One elbow in front of the other, one puff of breath after another...
It had become clear that this was no normal household air conditioning duct; not unless it led to some sort of industrial freezer. All Scout knew was that an hour ago, he had escaped a homicidal kangaroo in a chilly room and now it was practically subarctic. The skin on his forearms began to sting upon contact with the frigid metal of the shaft. He shivered uncontrollably and felt sleepiness begin to creep up on him.
C'mon, man. You're from Boston. You should be used to this crap. It snows, like, 20 feet there every year. This ain't nothin'! Move!
His inner pep talk seemed to work for the time being and he shook his head to clear his vision and continued forward. The tunnel grew darker and colder with every foot he gained. Scout dragged his body listlessly like a crippled soldier on the battlefield. He tried to push with his feet, but he lost feeling in his toes long ago. Scout screwed his eyes shut and took in a slow, trembling breath of air. He found himself unconsciously pulling his arms inward towards his body to conserve heat and thought that, for a moment only, he'd close his eyes and rest. But just as his eyelids shut, he heard a voice that made his heart jump into his throat.
"You're being ridiculous. I can handle that little brat just as well as I handle any other," the unmistakable gravely voice of Crowder spoke.
"But, sir, he isn't a child," followed another, younger male's voice.
The full brunt of Scout's alertness slapped him in the face. He opened his eyes, wondering if he was just dreaming the conversation he was hearing. But they carried on, muffled in the cramped vent. Scout looked forward, noticing that there was another grated opening ahead. Using all of his reserves, he dragged himself forward and ignored the tingling pain that enveloped him from the frost accumulating on his body. When he finally reached the grate, he very carefully peered downward and found himself looking into a hallway. The walls and floor were made of stone. Scout turned his head as much as he could to see where the hall led but all he could make out was a door on one end and more hallway on the other. It was dark and damp and by all means, freezing cold. Scout began to shiver again but he wasn't sure if it was from the chill or from his nerves. He continued to hear the voices of an unknown male and Nicolas Crowder but he couldn't see them, until...
Scout nearly jumped out of his skin. Crowder stopped directly below the vent, facing someone who remained out of sight.
"He is no threat Moesby," Crowder continued his conversation. "He's just an irritating little whelp who doesn't know when to mind his own business."
"But his friends, sir. You said there were more. What if they come looking for him?" the younger man named 'Moesby' asked.
Crowder let out a laugh. "Down at the bottom of the world? No one is going to come for that simpleton."
Crowder disappeared out of Scout's view and the sound of a heavy, wooden door moaning open and shut on its hinges was heard. Moesby, however, remained planted where he stood for a moment. Scout listened and listened and finally, the sound of footsteps faded away as Moesby made his retreat down the other end of the hallway.
Scout didn't want to think about the conversation he just heard. Whether or not they were talking about him, he wasn't going to stick around and find out. He decided it was time to get out of the vent before he froze to death.
Scout unglued himself from the frosted passageway and prepared to lower himself into the hallway below. The grate was a little harder to pry open this time around but Scout managed it with little disturbance, miraculously. Ice crystals fluttered to the ground as he braced himself on the edge of the shaft and dropped down into the corridor, falling over onto his side as his legs gave out underneath him.
Scout winced and sat there, rubbing his hands and arms to get the circulation going again and shivering violently. His fingertips were screaming in pain and pins and needles danced across his calves. A profound itchiness began to plague him as the blood flow returned to his skin. But he knew he couldn't stay there in the open like that. Crowder or Moesby could walk down the hall at anytime and he'd be screwed. Somehow, he didn't think he'd have the strength to pull himself back up into the shaft this time. It was time to move.
Grimacing, Scout hauled himself to his feet, using the wall as support. He could still see his breath in the air, but the open corridor seemed significantly warmer than the air duct. Scout held his hands in front of his mouth and huffed into them to heat them with his breath, looking right and left and deciding on the route he would take. In the direction that Crowder disappeared was a massive double door where it seemed that the majority of cold air was creeping from. Scout decided to go the other way. Moesby didn't sound too threatening. If he ran into him, he knew he could take him down.
Scout sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, feeling his brawn return. He unsheathed the iron bar from his belt and held it at the ready over his shoulders, moving forward cautiously. Each step was taken on the pads of his feet to be as silent as possible. He reached the door at the end of the hallway, pressed his back against the wall, and slowly pushed it open with one arm. The gap in the door revealed no dangers so with one more glance back towards the hall, Scout slipped through the open door and began his search for the way out.
The corridor was quiet and Scout felt horribly vulnerable. He remained as close to the wall as possible, iron weapon held at the ready above his shoulder, and he found himself wishing he was the Spy. At least then he could turn invisible. Hell, he'd do anything just to have his team jeering behind him.
Scout reached the end of the hallway and opened another door. The door creaked on its hinges but Scout squeezed through the small opening he made and closed the door quickly to snuff out the noise. He now found himself in a small, square foyer with two doors; one on the right and one straight ahead. They were all metal and unlabeled.
"Great. Now what?" Scout said dryly. Eenie, meenie, miney...mo!
He chose the door on his right. Not the most diplomatic method but it was all he had, and time was wasting. The doorknob felt warm in his palm and he relished in the relief it brought him before he turned it and peeked his head inside the awaiting room.
Heat blasted the Scout's face. Seeing no one around, he slipped in and found himself in a large area full of furnaces and open pits. A layer of soot coated the ground and stone walls. The furnaces were long dead and cold except for one pot-belly stove burning in the center of the room; coals glowing red and orange in its gaping maw. Fully functioning, the room would have been a hellish environment but now it was nothing more than a depressing, grey abandoned factory. It became clear to Scout, however, just what the room was used for as bins were scattered throughout filled with scraps of swords and other forged weapons. He became lost in his urge to explore.
"Swords? Man, what a dork," Scout snorted, running his fingers along the rusted hilt of a failed dagger.
He shook his head in disbelief and moved further into the room. He wondered how many children were held captive and forced to work in this sweat shop from Hell; forging weapons too heavy for them to even lift on their own. The roar of the furnaces must have been deafening and the heat unbearable. Even with just one stove going, the room was sweltering.
Realizing that the area held no benefit for him, Scout decided to backtrack and return to the hallway. But as he turned around, he heard the creaking of a door. Immediately, he dove behind one of the furnaces and flattened himself against it, iron rod poised in front of him and ready to strike. His heart began to pound and his throat dried up.
Someone entered the room and was walking towards him. The faint jingle of bells could be heard with every quick, shuffling step. Scout licked his lips and readied himself. The footsteps got closer. And closer. And closer still. Until the person was passing by the furnace Scout hid behind.
The unsuspecting intruder fell straight back on his rear, clutching his spasming stomach.
"Jeez, what the hell?" Moesby whined, gasping for air. He looked up and saw the Scout, iron rod at the ready, and his eyes went wide. "Woah, hold on a minute! Stop!"
Scout scowled angrily at Moesby and kept the iron bar raised.
"You must be the new guy," Moesby continued. "You've got one hell of a swing."
Scout couldn't help but stare at the man he hit with a mixture of pity and anger. He was, by all means, Crowder's accomplice but he just looked so...ridiculous. Moesby couldn't have been much older than Scout and he had on green and yellow wrist cuffs adorned with bells, striped stockings, and a stocking cap to compliment his green jacket and pants. And his ears. They were pointed. Like a real elf.
"How'd you get out of the workshop?" a baffled Moesby asked.
"Shut up! Who are you?" Scout demanded to know.
"Well, how am I supposed to answer that question if I'm supposed to shut up?"
Scout raised the iron bar higher into the air and Moesby put his hands up defensively.
"Ok! Ok! My name is M-"
"Moesby. I know. I heard you talkin' ta Crowder in the hall. So, you're with that kidnappin' son of a bitch, are ya?"
Moesby raised his eyebrows and gingerly got to his feet. "In the hall? How...? Nevermind. Look, you'd better get back to the workshop before Crowder finds out you're gone."
"I ain't worried about that prick! You're gonna tell me how ta get outta this joint or I'm gonna stick this piece'a metal up your ass. Got it?"
"How to get out of here? Do you even know where you are? Believe me when I tell you that the most help I can do for you is to show you the way back to the workshop. If you're caught out here or if Crowder sees me talking to you, we're both dead."
"You're gonna be dead if you don't tell me what I wanna know!"
"My God, you just don't get it do you?" Moesby's voice was beginning to crack as his nervousness took hold.
Suddenly, there was the groaning of a door opening out in the main foyer and Crowder's sandpaper-like voice bellowed Moesby's name. Whatever gusto Scout had a moment ago was now vanquished. Every fiber in his being was telling him to run away and hide. He was surprised to see Moesby's face etched with the same kind of wariness. The small man licked his lips and stuttered his response with a raised voice.
"C-c-coming b-boss!" Moesby turned back to Scout. "Please. I'm trying to save your life. Do as I say and I'll explain everything later. I promise. Go back to the workshop!"
"I can't!" Scout exclaimed in a raised whisper. "I got out through the vent!"
Moesby blinked. "Hide then. Go! The furnace!"
"I ain't gettin' in a freakin' furnace! Are you crazy?! How do I know you won't just turn it on?"
"If Crowder walks in here and finds you, he'll shove you in there for sure! You have to trust me! Go!"
Conflicted, Scout looked quickly from Moesby to the furnace to the door and back to the furnace again. Everything in him was telling him not to hide inside a giant death trap of fire but he really had nowhere else to go. The only way out was the door in which he came and the man on the other side was someone Scout did not want to face. Not yet, at least. Moesby was right. His chances were better if he hid. With a disgruntled growl, Scout ran and crawled into one of the large oven pits, pulling the lid closed over his head. As he crouched in the confined space, he began to sweat profusely and trembled. Scout wasn't claustrophobic, but the idea of being cooked alive was highly uncomfortable. The pit was filthy with grime and soot and Scout couldn't help but cough; a plume of black dust floating up in the air every time he exhaled. He suppressed his breathing for fear that it would give away his position should Crowder enter the room. But all he heard was the sound of a door closing and nothing more.
The RED team reconvened at the military base just 4 hours south of Teufort; the Sniper offering them a ride in his camper van. They were wordless as a foreboding cloud hovered over them for the duration of the bumpy ride. When they arrived at the base in the middle of the desert, they poured out of the van with their weapons in hand as dry air engulfed them. Dirt kicked up like moon dust with every step they took. The military base itself looked nearly deserted and its defenses were laughable. Only a small brick wall with rusted barbed wire wrapped around the top kept any intruders out. The mercenaries were all thinking the same thing: they didn't need Australium to bribe a pilot. They could have barged right in and stolen the plane for free.
Miss Pauling led the eight mercs to the front gate where they were greeted by a less-than-stern looking man in military uniform. He gave Miss Pauling a small salute which she returned hastily. Soldier also returned the salute with great fervor.
"A pleasure, as always, Miss Pauling," he said.
"Thank you, Commander. Sorry to ask so much of you on such short notice," Miss Pauling replied, brushing a strand of hair from her glasses and tucking it behind her ear.
The dusty wind picked up and shrouded everyone in a beige haze.
"It's not a problem at all. Your...generous donation is greatly appreciated," said the man, looking at the Engineer and nodding graciously.
Engineer returned the nod but his face remained stoic. "And our provisions?"
"Already onboard. Forgive me but I can't allow your entire team onto the premises. Your aircraft is waiting in the hangar at the back of the complex. I hope you'll understand," the commander said as politely as he could, folding his hands behind him.
"Of course," Miss Pauling replied.
She stole a glance over her shoulders, silently beckoning the mercenaries to follow her as she led them around the large complex to a towering hangar full of WWII era planes. Medic raised an eyebrow as he scanned over the visible crafts, not finding one that would get them to Antarctica in one piece.
The commander leading them spotted the man he was looking for and nodded at him enthusiastically. "Ah! Captain! There you are. Your top operatives have arrived."
The man being addressed was a young, surly gentleman with a squared chin and pearly white teeth. He looked like he had stepped straight off a movie set; brown bomber jacket and all. The mercs instantly hated him. He was smiling and wiping his hands with a rag.
"Very good, sir!" he said with bravado.
"This is Captain Jake Paige," the commander gestured to the pilot in front of him. "He's one of my best fighter pilots and he's agreed to be your escort for this mission. Captain, this is Miss Pauling and her crew."
Jake took a good long gander at the mercs scowling at him. He threw the rag down on a nearby work table and clasped his hands in front of him.
"Ok, great. Well, let's not waste any time. Shall we?"
He gestured for his nine passengers to follow him to a large plane out back behind the hangar, parked on the runway. From the outside, it looked like any normal retired bomber from the war and Medic and Soldier weren't the only ones to notice.
"Zhis is vhat ve are flying?" Medic asked skeptically. "Zhis vill not be enough to get us to zhe South Pole, I'm afraid."
"Now, now," Jake tutted, shaking his index finger at the doctor. "Don't judge a book by its cover. All aboard!"
"We are going to die," Spy whispered to Miss Pauling.
She sighed. "Please...just trust me."
The mercs still weren't comforted. Their puzzled glances bounced between Miss Pauling's timid face to the massive turboprop before them. It looked like just a normal Lockheed P-3 Orion. A heavy, clunky one at that.
"I'll explain everything on the way. I promise," Miss Pauling assured.
"You're goin' with us?" Engineer asked worriedly.
"Of course I am. I'm practically already fired for letting you do this. The Administrator's probably already on her way here to kill all of us. I can't show my face back in her office unless I have the Scout and a really good reason for encouraging this mission."
Jake, who had already climbed the air stairs into the plane, poked his glossy head out and hollered to his passengers. "Time's a-tickin', folks!"
The mercenaries all scowled at him. Miss Pauling looked at them reassuringly. They exchanged no more words; only shook their heads hopelessly as they boarded the aircraft one-by-one. The inside was exactly what they expected from a military war plane. It was spacious, empty, and lacking in any of the sort of aesthetically pleasing attributes a passenger plane would have. And the only seating available were two rows of benches, one on each side of the cabin, with harnesses attached to the metal wall behind them. Behind a mesh curtain secured to the ceiling and floor with metal rings, provisions could be seen sitting in wooden crates stuffed with straw, as well as several boxes of survival gear and winter apparel. The mercs found empty spaces amongst the barracks to stash their weapons for the long haul, though Heavy opted to leave his precious "Sasha" at home. And amidst all of this were the tools and supplies Engineer needed to build their teleporter home.
Jake had disappeared within the cockpit and the plane suddenly sputtered to life with a loud hum. The propellors choked slightly before spinning gracefully into a set of blurred spheres. Miss Pauling closed the hatch as the last of the mercenaries piled unwillingly into the cabin. Jake's voice burst forth over the P.A. system with a crackle.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Along the length of the cabin, you will find two benches. Please secure yourselves into a harness and prepare for takeoff. For your safety, do not remove harnesses until instructed to do so. Keep your arms and hands inside the ride at all times – hehe – only kidding, of course. I'll have you to Antarctica in a jiffy!"
"If by 'Antarctica' he means 'the afterlife'," Demoman grumbled.
The aircraft began to taxi along the small runway. Jake turned to peer outside the cockpit into the cabin and once he saw that his passengers were buckled up, he gave the thumbs up. Miss Pauling was the only one to nervously return the gesture.
The propellers roared. Spy reached into his suit coat and pulled out a picture of the BLU Scout's mom, running a finger over it affectionately. He silently said his goodbyes as the plane lurched forward at great speeds and, before long, lifted into the air.
Scout couldn't take it anymore. The grit in the air inside the fire pit made it too hard to breathe. He felt like he had been curled up inside there for hours. The taste of soot and ash was overwhelmingly dry and bitter on his tongue. But then, the lid of the pit slid off and blinding white light and cool air rushed in to greet him.
Scout didn't care who was on the other end of that light. He bolted upright so quickly and heaved a giant gulp of air, coughing several times and sending black soot flying everywhere. He let his eyes adjust to the light of the room before finally seeing Moesby standing next to the pit with a worried look on his face.
"Sorry that took so long," he said softly, handing Scout a rag.
"Ya tryin' t'suffocate me?" Scout rasped, spitting up ash and whipping the cloth out of Moesby's hand to clean soot from his face.
Moesby extended Scout his hand to help him up. Scout, of course, ignored him and pushed himself to his feet on his own, brushing off the grime from his clothes.
"What's your name? Your real name?" asked Moesby.
"None of your damn business. Now show me the way outta here!"
Moesby sighed heavily. "Ok, Scout...then? Scout. Do you have any idea what's going on?"
Feeling his temperature rise, Scout initially ignored Moesby's inquiry and searched the room for his iron bar, finally finding it by the furnace he was hiding behind before and sheathed it in his belt. He did his best to continue brushing ash off of his skin.
"I'm being serious," Moesby continued. "You seem to be under the impression that you're being held hostage in some warehouse outside a city. That's not the case, my friend."
Scout spun around swiftly and glared at Moesby, jabbing a finger at him. "I ain't your friend. If you wanna live, you'll show me the way outta here before my teammates get here!"
"And if you want to live, you'll listen to me before you end up like me!"
"...What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"Crowder is dangerous, Scout."
"I ain't afraid a'him!"
"You should be!" Moesby raised his voice so suddenly that Scout was taken slightly back. Moesby regained his composure and continued, lowering his tone. "You should be. The man has the ability to completely destroy you. The kids he abducts; they only have a year here, but if they don't get their act together, he...keeps them."
"Every minute you're here, you are bound to him. It's like an invisible contract. And the longer you stay, the longer it takes to break that contract."
Scout still looked skeptical. "So if this moron is stashin' kids, where the hell are they all?"
Moesby glared at Scout. "There's only been one kid who was bad enough to stay."
Scout opened his mouth to say something when he caught the desperate look in Moesby's eyes. There was a sort of sorrow and yearning behind them and it didn't take long for Scout to interpret it.
"Who?...You?! But you ain't a kid! You look like you're as old as me!"
"I never said you didn't age while you're in here. It's been seventeen years. I was actually a lot like you when I first got here. Stubborn, reckless, arrogant...And by the time I finally got my act together, it was too late." Moesby rubbed one of his pointed ear tips without realizing he was doing it. "I was only six years old. I can't save myself anymore, but I can help the kids Crowder brings here to avoid my fate. That's why I'm begging you to return to the workshop. Just do what Crowder says and in one year, if you've behaved yourself-"
"Woah, ho, ho!" Scout said, putting up his hands defensively. "I ain't stayin' here for a freakin' year! I got a job to do back home!"
"Then make sure you're free to return to it in 365 days! Or else you're gonna grow a pair of these!" Moesby pointed to his pointed ears. "Ever see Pinocchio? Welcome to Pleasure Island...minus the pleasure."
Scout suddenly found himself stunned and mortified. He didn't want to believe Moesby, but the sincerity behind his voice and the desperation etched across his face spoke volumes.
"You're lyin'," he insisted.
Moesby shook his head in disbelief. "I wish I was. Haven't you already been on the receiving end of Crowder's little aurora trick? Go back to the workshop, Scout, before it's too late and-"
Suddenly, a bone jarring alarm sounded off. Scout crouched slightly as he stared wildly around the room. His hand instinctively patted his belt where the iron bar was neatly tucked. He saw the look of horror on Moesby's face and knew that whatever was happening was not good. Not good at all.
"What is that?!" Scout yelled over the piercing alarm.
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" Moesby responded. "He must have gone to the workshop and saw that you weren't there!"
Without wasting another second, Scout limped towards the door of the forging room as fast as his feet would carry him.
"It's no use!" Moesby shouted after him. "You can't leave the complex! It's either die in here or die out there!"
"I'll take my chances," replied Scout as he whipped the door open.
"No, you don't understand!"
But Moesby's pleas went ignored. Scout found himself inside the small foyer area once again; this time flooded with a swirling red light that was like a lighthouse leading Crowder to him in the dark. For a moment, he spun on his feet in a panic as he tried to figure out his next course. It was then that the door that led back to the workshop area slammed open and Crowder stood fuming in the doorway like a bull.
Scout froze. "Oh fu-"
The Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft was well over the Pacific coast of Mexico when Jake finally peered around the flight deck and gave the OK for seat belts to be removed. It had been an hour into their journey and aside from a few moments of turbulence over Roswell, the plane was sailing smoothly through the skies. The mercenaries were silent, hands folded in their laps as they sat along the benches and gently rocked with the motions of the airplane. The propellors, once deafening, were now nothing more than distant white noise. There were no lights inside the plane but the afternoon sun pouring through the round windows spaced out along the length of the cabin provided more than enough to see by.
Miss Pauling sat squeezed between the Engineer and Spy and somehow, that made her feel slightly more at ease. Her face, however, said otherwise. Her brows were furrowed worriedly and she stared at the floor as the predicament she was in became overwhelming.
"What am I doing here?" she whispered, not expecting anyone to hear her.
"I have been asking myself that same question for an hour now," Spy sighed, puffing his cigarette.
"I'm so fired."
"Aren't we all?"
"Part of me wants to turn this plane around and just...forget about everything. It makes me feel horrible."
Spy grunted. "Perfectly normal. Nine of us risking our lives for one imbecile seems extreme. But you must look at the bigger picture."
"I'm not sure yet. I'll let you know when I figure it out."
Miss Pauling couldn't help but laugh just then. The Spy was a calculated and ruthless killer but he could be charming when he wanted to be. A smug smirk tugged at his lips; cigarette smoldering between them. The two of them let their eyes drift around the cabin, taking in the sites of their comrades. Sixty minutes into the flight and everyone looked just as tense as the moment of takeoff. Those who weren't staring pensively out the port hole windows were idly playing with their hands folded in their laps. Words were not exchanged but everyone was thinking the same thing.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking," came the chipper voice of Jake over the p.a. The mercenaries looked up eagerly from their nervous stupor, leaning forward on their benches to better listen. Jake continued, "We've arrived at our cruising altitude of 36,000 feet. Once we're over international waters, it'll be about two hours until touchdown at the South Pole."
"Two hours?" Sniper exclaimed, looking at Miss Pauling with a baffled expression. "That's an 8500 mile trip! There's no way we'll make it in two hours!"
Miss Pauling cleared her throat. "Remember when I told you that there are some Mann Co. technologies you guys didn't know about? This is what I meant."
Engineer looked at her in disbelief. "What is this? What are we flyin' in?"
"Ok, folks! We're at our first checkpoint!" Jake's voice flooded the p.a. again. "Harnesses on!"
Again, everyone looked at Miss Pauling for reassurance. She only stared back guiltily and wiggled her arms into the shoulder straps behind her. The others reluctantly followed suit.
"The only reason we're even on this aircraft is because Engineer's Australium was enough of a bribe to bend the rules," she said. "The knowledge of this technology stays in this cabin. If you tell anyone about this, consider your careers with Mann Co. over. And then say hello to your new homes in the Teufort Military Penitentiary."
"Vhy hasn't Mann Co. revealed zhis technology vith us before? Ve are zheir employees, are ve not?" Medic questioned, buckling his harness over his chest.
"Just because you're Mann Co. employees, doesn't mean you're entitled to know everything."
"Considering our lives are at stake, I would say knowing 'everything' isn't asking too much," Spy said dryly.
Miss Pauling cast him an apologetic glance. "Please. Just...trust me."
Meanwhile, the Heavy was the only one to chance a look out the window and his mouth fell open at what he saw. One by one, the propellors of the P-3 Orion stopped spinning; the blades folding back and forming a four-pronged tube. Heavy watched as a mechanical process took place that he couldn't quite comprehend. Flaps opened on the wings and out ejected large, hallowed cones, filling the void between the four-pronged tubes. They sputtered to life with a faint orange glow that grew brighter and brighter with each passing second.
Captain Jake's voice boomed over the loudspeaker again, "Ok, reaching Mach 11 in 3...2..."
"Did he just say 'Mach 11'?" Engineer asked.
Suddenly, the plane lurched forward. A chorus of protests rang out through the cabin as Miss Pauling and the mercenaries held onto their harnesses. The entire craft began to rumble violently. The four cones along the wings of the plane had become jet engines and they spewed out a fury of explosive, hot fuel that burned blue and white. Their plane had become a rocket.
Another lurch and the plane burst through the sky at supersonic speeds. A vapor trail exploded behind them and a sonic boom echoed through the atmosphere. Where the Orion was once peacefully flying through the air, it now shot away like a bullet from a gun.
"-ck!" Scout exclaimed.
The alarms died. Without even thinking, Scout reached for his iron shrapnel and unsheathed it from his belt, holding it like his mighty baseball bat and preparing to strike. He took a swing at Crowder's torso but the old man's hands came up with a deadly quickness and blocked the assault. He held onto the other end and thrust it backwards, whipping the Scout forward. Scout stumbled and nearly collided into Crowder's barreled chest but he was sent soaring, instead, by the force of an abrupt backhand to his face. He shattered through the door behind him, landing in a shower of wooden splinters and debris.
"Ow! Shit!" he winced and gingerly propped himself up on his elbows.
Scout found himself in another long hallway. It occurred to him, then, that he now had a possible means of escape. Stealing a glance at Crowder, who was descending on him with the iron shrapnel in his grasp and his jaw clenched in fury, Scout scrambled to his feet and took off down the long hallway. Crowder growled as he clawed at the air, his fingertips barely brushing Scout's fleeting shirt.
"I knew you were going to be more trouble than you're worth!" Crowder shouted, spittle flying from his cracked lips. "You're never going to leave this place now! I'm going to make you beg for death!"
His threats fell on deaf ears. Scout focused simply on running. But the corridor, though long, was coming quickly to an end and he had no time to hatch an escape plan. At the end of the hall, a sharp corner was visible to the right. Scout whipped around it and disappeared from Crowder's sight. Still, he could hear his enemy's long, gaping steps growing closer with each passing second. Every fiber of his being wanted to fight; wanted to break that old man's hip and crack his skull with a bat. But he had nothing but his fists and some wit, and somehow he knew that wouldn't be enough. Not yet, anyway.
There were three doors in the hallway; two on each side of Scout and one at the end. He tried his luck with the ones to his left and right and failed. A string of curses filled the air and he continued to run down to the end of the hall.
"You have nowhere to go!" Crowder yelled as he tossed the iron bar to the side.
Scout reached the end of the hall and desperately rammed his shoulder into the door that greeted him. There was no handle or doorknob, only metal decorated in arcs of bolts and rivets. He tried pushing but the door wouldn't give. Panicking, he dug the tips of his fingers into the seam between the door and the wall and attempted to pry it in any direction but it was hopeless. Whatever was on the other side of that door, it wouldn't grant Scout freedom.
He spun around and frantically scanned the hall. Side to side, then up. Nothing. No ventilation shafts, no hatches, no doors. Nothing. But Scout refused to admit defeat. He stood up straight at the end of the hallway, his eyes flashing dangerously as he wordlessly challenged his enemy to approach him if he dared.
"Do you know what happens to children like you; what happens when they cause trouble?" Crowder threatened.
"Hey, newsflash, buddy. I ain't a child. So go screw yourself."
Crowder clenched his fists at his side. Baring his teeth like a wild animal, he marched forward towards his cornered captive. Scout pressed himself into the door behind him, feeling his blood begin to amp up. Every muscle and nerve in his body was preparing to fire.
"You know you can't fight," Crowder said. "So just hold still and make this quick for the both of us."
Scout only glared at him, watching him approach with a mixture of hate and fear. One end of Crowder's lip twitched into a sickening, sadistic smile. He outstretched his hand, fingers splayed as he moved to grab the Scout's throat and drain the life from him. But just as his grip was inches away from his target, Scout suddenly dropped to the floor. Crowder's face fell.
Scout somersaulted through his enemy's skeletal legs and was on his feet and running before Crowder could even comprehend what had happened. He couldn't quite hear the string of curses that erupted from Crowder's mouth over the thundering pulse in his ears. However, it was impossible to ignore the loud bangs and clinks of bullets striking the walls around him.
Crowder had unsheathed a pistol from his belt and began to spray the corridor with gunfire. A few shots came too close to Scout's head for his own comfort and he ducked as he sprinted down the long corridor, hugging the corner and heading for the splintered door at the end. Reaching it, he vaulted himself over the debris and found himself in the foyer. Scout knew the door to his left was the forging room so he decided to head back out into the hall that he had eavesdropped on Moesby from. And there was the little man himself, standing wide eyed in the corridor and watching Scout run at him like a charging rhino.
"There's nowhere to go!" Moesby insisted.
"You never told me the old man was packin'!"
"He has slaves make weapons for him! Of course he has guns!"
Crowder's angry bellows were heard drawing closer. Scout blanched and looked at the ceiling. The ventilation shaft was his only option for now.
Moesby seemed to know exactly what Scout was thinking. "It's useless, Scout."
"You're useless! Get outta my way!"
And with that, Scout roughly shoved Moesby aside. The smaller man collided with the wall next to him and fell to the ground. Scout jumped straight into the air, barely finding purchase on the edge of the ventilation shaft with his finger tips. His muscles were sore and tired and they screamed in protest as he pulled his entire body up into the vent; the pain evident on his face. He elbowed his upper body in and kicked his legs to gain some inertia when, suddenly, he felt a vice-like grip around his ankle.
Scout immediately knew what it was. The pain hit him violently like waves of hot pokers slashing him across his entire body. He kicked his feet frantically in an attempt to throw Crowder off of him. The same white-hot electric agony he had experienced in the workshop was now enveloping him ten fold. All he could do was scream and continue to kick, more out of reflex than defense.
Crowder pulled at Scout's ankle as he allowed his unseen torture to continue. But the young man was holding tight to the sides of the vent; effectively creating a clamp with his arms. Crowder's eyes were wild with fury; teeth grit and spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. He panted out of his nostrils like an angry bull. But then, just as abruptly as Crowder had latched onto the Scout's leg, he found himself reeling back and clutching his face. He caught the last glimpse of Scout's shoe retreating into the vent, the tread mark on the bottom matching the one now imprinted on Crowder's face. He clutched his cheek and glared up at the ceiling, raising his pistol once again.
"Sir! Don't!" Moesby pleaded. But it fell on deaf ears. He winced as Crowder fired several rounds into the ceiling.
Scout never army-crawled so fast in his life. The pain inflicted upon him by Crowder's hand was wearing off faster than he expected and he pushed with his toes to aid in his escape, slithering along the metal shaft. He vaguely heard Moesby cry out before a bullet whizzed right by his left ear.
"Shit!" Scout yelped, flinching.
The second and third round missed their mark, as well, but only by a hair, and imbedded themselves in the metal around him with a spark and a loud 'pang!'. The fourth, however, struck him in his left hip. Scout let out a strangled cry. Every fiber of his being told him to keep moving, though. He wasn't going to die inside a ventilation shaft. Not here, not today.
Warm blood engulfed his pants and the pain was like a hammer hitting him over and over again. He'd been shot before; he knew he could handle it. But somehow, his situation made it all the worse. Another bullet lodged itself sharply into the wall of the vent and grazed his right bicep but he finally managed to crawl far enough out of the corridor where he knew he'd be safe for a short time.
In the hall, Crowder fired the last shot into the ceiling. Crumbles of plaster and stone trickled to the ground. Moesby was standing behind Crowder looking mortified. There was no way Scout survived that. No possible way...
"Sir," he said meekly. But before he could finish, he was greeted by a severe backhand. Crowder turned around and leered at him before storming off through the large double doors ahead of him leading to his chamber. He would flush that rat out of his pipes if it was the last thing he ever did.
Meanwhile, Scout welcomed blessed silence. The pain in his hip was intensifying with every passing second and he bowed his head and closed his eyes to compose himself. He maneuvered his hand down and let his fingers brush over the wound, feeling warm, sticky blood coat his fingers. With great trepidation, he wondered if he'd respawn back in Teufort if he should succumb to his injuries.
"Shit," he whispered to himself. "C'mon. Don't wuss out."
Taking a deep breath, Scout knew he had to keep moving if he was going to survive. But his strength was fleeting quickly and when he tried to push himself forward with his feet, he found the pain in his hip to be unbearable. He let out a small, strangled cry and grit his teeth; riding out the agony like a wave.
Ok, maybe just a little break, he reassured himself. With a deep sigh, he rested his perspiring forehead on his arms and closed his eyes, welcoming the involuntary oblivion that consumed him seconds later.