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Chapter 29

When I woke, my world was without sound. Like an ocean without waves.

I looked through blurry eyes without moving, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to and not sure if I could. My body had fallen into an awkward position, and I was covered in a thick layer of dust. With my arm was wedged underneath me, I’d lost feeling to it. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been out, but not long enough for my skin to grow cold.

Debris littered the ground everywhere, including some sort of wooden door that happened to be on top of me. It pressed against my chest, making my breathing hard.

I pushed against the ground with my free arm but the door wouldn’t give—it was too heavy and too thick. I pulled my limp arm out from under me so I could have both to push with, and gave everything ounce of strength I had to do it, practically straining the muscles in my arms. I was barely able to do it. As I crawled out from under the door, I wasn’t able to hear it fall to its side—just my own breathing and heart beat, everything else deadly silent. I propped myself up against a large block of cement and took a deep breath. My limbs were cold and stiff from staying still for so long in the cold night.

Everything around me was abandoned. The woods were dark and the streets were lifeless of people; so different from when I had blacked out, when everything was exploding. The air was heavy with the stench of blood and burnt wood, causing my senses to instinctively cringe. My eyes didn’t linger long on the bodies laying around me, and in the grass near the woods. I was afraid of what I would see. Of who I would see.

I glanced up at the moon and realized it was higher in the sky, basically right over me, so I pushed back my sleeve to look at my watch, and saw that it was past midnight. I had been out for hours. Where was the army? Had they been overrun? All I knew was that I was behind enemy lines, a place I had no desire to be.

But right as I stood, my knee buckled under my weight. I couldn’t help but yell out in pain before I could clamp my mouth shut. I was able to keep myself upright, it just hurt every time I put weight on it. The door must have put too much pressure on it while I was unconscious. But I wasn’t going let that get in my way tonight—nothing was going to.

As I pull my rifle out from under the rubble, my ears started to ring and I hoped it was only a matter of minutes before I was able to hear again. I could only imagine how hard it would be to fight a battle without being able to hear anything, just using your eyes to warn you of incoming danger. My arm was in its high peek of the tingling sensation from trying to wake up again. It felt like thousands of needles prickling into my pores. I shook it until it was finally gone and flexed my fingers, knowing I was in for a long night.

Brushing myself off was a job in its own, and afterwards I checked my weapons to make sure they were loaded and ready. But before I turned to go deeper into the city, I looked over to where Cruz was the last time I had seen him, trying to devour his enemy with his fierce glare. His body was no longer there, but it was easy to make out the drag marks through the rubble. It looked like someone had seen him and dragged him away before we were overrun. I glanced over at the door and pretended to glare at it, like it was its fault for hiding me, letting me go unnoticed. But it was silly to be angry at a door.

I glanced south without thought, wanting to quench that desire to find West. He was out there somewhere, either wounded or unharmed, and I wasn’t going to even think about the other possibility. Not ever.

I started back down the street, heading deeper into the city and towards whatever waited for me there. I wasn’t going to abandon the people I had been fighting with, but I was not going to give up on finding him. Somehow I would try to do both.

The streets seemed eerie without being capable of hearing anything. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, afraid of someone trying to come up behind me unnoticed. My heart was beating as I skirted from shadow to shadow, trying to stay out of the dim light of the moon. I crept along the side of a stone building and stopped at the corner. There were still a few street lamps here and there, splattered discolored light over the wreckage of what happened.

I was finally starting to hear things, but they were vague and undetermined. Finally, after a few minutes of being patient, it came back fully and the world was alive again, but I wasn’t thrilled for long. The sounds of battle were farther away than I thought, and another block of walking I came upon the second layer of the blockades.

More bodies were strewn about, around burning trucks and under piles of rubble. I stood amidst them, being the only living thing in any direction as far as I could see. I moved forward, still limping, making myself continue on. The faces of everyone around me seemed to being staring at me, but I didn’t want to meet them; frightened by finding someone I would recognize.

Another ten minutes passed after crossing more empty streets and unceasing evidence of battle. The sounds of guns and mortars were creeping closer, but not close enough. As I came upon the third layer of our defense, my hope dwindled. Our enemy should never have gotten that far.

But something about the scene was distinctly different from the previous two. There were far less bodies and indication of battle then there normally would be. Almost as if they had skipped over this layer all together, and reinforced all their forces at the last layer of barricades.

I could now barely hear people yelling over the sounds firing guns. As I got closer, I needed to remind myself to by even more carful. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight to be caught at a time as this. I stopped at a large intersection, probably a few blocks away from the real skirmish. All the street lamps were again blown out, but even so, I couldn’t make out any movement.

I jogged across the intersection, and I was midway when something stopped me in my tracks.

The small group of soldiers seemed to appear out of nowhere on the street directly to my right. But the man who was standing before them was the one that made my hands shake. It was like he’d been watching me this whole time. Waiting.

West had told me to run in the other direction if I ever saw him again, and I wasn’t about to forget that piece of advice. Dersa was the most dangerous person in my mind right now.

Not giving them any warning, I spun around and ran down the street, not caring that my knee was exploding with every drop of my foot. I was unable to hear their pursuit over the guns firing a few blocks over but I knew they were right on my heels. I didn’t have to look back to know that.

But when I took a corner too fast, my knee gave away, buckling from the odd angle and weight. I hit the ground hard. I tried to scrabble to my feet but I fell again, my legs shaking too much from my adrenaline. My palms scraped on the cement as I tried to push myself back from the advancing men, but it was already too late. They were in no hurry now—they had won.

As I was straightening into a stand, the man nearest me grabbed my rifle from the ground and I didn’t even bother reaching for my other two. I was outnumbered. I wouldn’t be able to move a finger before they shot me.

“So, we meet again, Reese,” Dersa said as he stepped around his men, coming face to face with me. “Still having problems with that knee, I see.”

“And I see that you’re still having problems accepting that your breath smells bad. Those mints aren’t helping, maybe you should stop eating your own dung.”

He laughed, trying to keep his anger in check in front of his men. “Why is it that I always find you first? Even though it’s him I want more.”

I had no answer since he was right.

“How is West these days? Still under-minding his superiors and cheating his way through to the top?”

His jaw was like a wall when I punched him, but his head still whipped around from the unexpected blow. That was just enough to satisfy me. The man beside me made a grab for my arm, but Dersa was already composed and motioned him away. I stood my ground as he wiped the blood from his mouth, his eyes becoming hard. I braced for the punch that was sure to come.

But instead he didn’t something worse.

Dersa moved as fast as the snake he’d always been, and before I could blink I was thrown up against a building door with his hand pressing against my throat. But he stepped away, smiling, loving that fact he could play with me. Dersa stepped away and another soldier came to pin me against the door.

“I love our little talks, Reese. They’re so . . . refreshing.” He threw back his shoulders and grinned. But not a good grin; the kind that sent my heart pounding painfully.

I couldn’t help but realize that my hand was hanging next to my pistol. Just one quick move and he would be gone forever. But my finger twitched in anticipation and it gave me away. Dersa’s eyes followed the movement, and I didn’t think it was possible, but his smile got even wider. The glint of steel was followed by a knife coming from somewhere I couldn’t see behind his back.

“I’ll just pick up where I left off,” he said. “Starting with that quick hand of yours.”

When he stepped forward, I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. He was just a quick as before when he curled his fingers around my wrist, bringing my hand up against the door. I closed my eyes just as a flash of pain rolled through my hand, like white hot metal. Sweat broke across my forehead and my lungs were no longer getting air. I cried out before I could stop myself.

I cracked my eyes open, only to see my hand pinned to the door by his knife. Blood rolled down my wrist and then to my elbow, dripping to the ground. Dersa watched, for what seemed forever, as I clenched my teeth together, staring straight back. I couldn’t let him see me weak.

After he was satisfied, he reached up and pulled his knife out. It was almost just as bad as when it had gone in. The man holding me let go, but I stayed leaning against the door, holding my wrist with my other hand, now slick with blood.

Dersa just sighed and threw a rag at my feet. “Wrap it up and follow me,” he said. “I have something to show you.”

Did I have a choice? I wrapped the cloth tightly around the middle of my hand and gritted against the discomfort it brought. Searing pain still rolled through my body, impossible to ignore.

Dersa turned his back, and the guy behind me shoved me forward, just as impatient as this leader.

So I followed behind, having a weird feeling of deja vu.

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