Lisenrush had scrambled to her command post, with Ana trailing behind her, slower because of her lack of shoes, the pain in the wound that was still just barely held shut by thick black thread, and the fact that frankly, the Ranger-Captain was in far better shape than she was.
The faceless man had not followed them. As far as Ana could tell, it would not need to follow them to be where they were. She had seen it appear in many places, but it always seemed to just be there and then not.
The path from the building in which she had been held to the command post was paved – a sort of sidewalk without a road that ran down the length of Far Watch. It was nearly covered with snow, except for a few spots where salt had been spread to keep the snow from building up. Whoever had had the job to spread the salt had done a terrible job, though. Ana felt herself slipping on more than one patch of black ice – the biting cold sending spikes of pain up her legs.
Just as she was running up the ramp that led to the command post’s door, Ana heard Lisenrush’s voice over the PA. “Alert, alert. This is the Captain. We have an intruder. Hostile code Torem. Repeat, Hostile code Torem. All personnel, report to…” and then there was a screech of feedback and the sound cut out.
Ana ran through the door. The interior of the command center was not that different from the enforcement station in town, but she realized then that she had no idea where in the building Lisenrush might be.
She ran down the relatively wide hallway that the door opened into and found herself in a large room – what appeared to be the mess, with tables and benches and a kitchen in the back.
“Captain?” she called. No response. Ana’s stomach groaned. It was a very odd thought to come at this moment, but she was suddenly aware again of how hungry she had become. Ana ran toward the kitchen – a few slices of white bread would be perfect, and if she could find some cold meat in the iceboxes, all the better.
Is this the time for that? thought her more rational side. Yet as her stomach churned and groaned again, she shut out such thoughts and went into the kitchen.
It was so cold inside. The whole building seemed to have had the heat turned off, and the tile floors were almost as bad as the ice outside. Ana flung the door of the largest icebox open. Indeed, there was a lot of meat – sausages, jerky, sliced roast beef. She pulled out a package and stuffed several slices into her mouth.
Ok, now you move.
It was enough – she would use the energy to continue her flight. It occurred to her that in the long run, this might have been a far better idea than just fleeing into the woods right away.
And that was when she saw the dead men on the ground.
There were three of them. One had been shot in the head. An other had been slashed viciously across the shoulder and throat. The last, lying facedown on top of the other two, seemed to have been beaten with some blunt object.
The food nearly came all the way back out. Ana leapt backward, smashing her back into the door of the icebox. She winced in pain, but then turned to run back out through the dining area of the mess.
She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw that there was someone standing there. It was one of the militia, a corporal, Ana thought. He stared at her with a blank expression.
“Where’s Lisenrush?” asked Ana.
The man just looked back at her, his mouth half-open, his eyes unmoving. He was pale – ghostly pale, with snow-white skin and jet-black hair.
He was dripping something that had formed almost a pool around him. There was a strange, sharp smell to it. It took her only a moment for her to realize that it was the coffee from those strange dreams.
As if her recognition was all that was needed, the man opened his mouth and the coffee began to flow freely from it, as if he were a fountain. The liquid filled his eyes, and soon he was covered in inky blackness.
He would be able to intercept her either way she ran, and as far as she knew, the kitchen had no back exit. The man groaned loudly – a pained and whistling sound.
Ana’s eyes shot around, hoping to find a butcher’s knife or a rolling pin or anything she might use, but she was relatively isolated on that side of the kitchen. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw movement among the pile of bodies.
The dripping man lurched forward, faster than she had ever seen someone do so. She tried to slide to the left to dodge him, but he was too fast. The man took hold of her hand and gripped it hard, the slick liquid that was now oozing from every orifice doing nothing to mitigate his vice-like grip.
She pulled back, hoping to break his balance, desperately trying to remember any of the unarmed combat skills she had learned in basic training years ago. She kicked up at his crotch, but even when she connected, the man did not flinch.
He opened his mouth wide now – wider than a human mouth should be able to open. His teeth had transformed into something like a metal beak. There was nothing fleshy inside the mouth – it was as if the human shape she had seen was a mere disguise – a shell over something utterly non-human.
The man’s head rocked to the side as a bullet ripped through it, nearly a quarter of it showering outward across the room. There was no true gore – simply more of that dark liquid Ana instantly decided to no longer refer to as coffee, and some shards of what looked like dark metal.
The man still held his grip, the beak of teeth gnashing as she pulled away from it.
Another shot, this time lower, removing the head altogether. Finally, the claw released, and Ana ran all the way to the other side of the mess.
“Are you ok?” asked Lisenrush, as she chambered another round in her bolt-action rifle.
“Not even remotely, but I’m intact,” said Ana.
Lisenrush looked over the dead man – or really, the dead thing. Ana was not even sure if what had attacked her had ever been a man.
“Jorgensen,” said Lisenrush.
“That was Jorgensen. Decent soldier. He seemed fine an hour ago.”
Ana looked to the kitchen. “There’s more in there,” she said, pointing.
Lisenrush walked in. She fired three times, apparently one into each body, but thankfully Ana could not see, her view blocked by the kitchen counter.
“This scare you, Sweeney?” she said. Ana realized she was shivering, though it felt more like the effects of adrenaline and the cold than fear. Fear was making her stomach feel like a ball of lead. “The draugr’s the one who’s scared. Right,” she said as she put another magazine into the rifle.
“We need to get back to town. We need to warn everyone.”
“And tell them what? What is happening to my men?”
“How should I know?”
“They’re coming back as draugar, but Jorgensen wasn’t even dead. I didn’t think the Icelord could turn living people.”
“Captain, I don’t think these are draugar.”
“What do you mean?”
Ana tried to point to Jorgensen, but without a head, he would not prove her point. “Their eyes. They aren’t blue.”
“The Icelord’s draugar have glowing blue eyes. The thing that attacked me didn’t.”
“You don’t have glowing blue eyes,” said Lisenrush.
Ana sighed. “Exactly.”
Lisenrush looked around, checking the doors. “So what are we dealing with, then? That was one of my men, but if he’s not a draugr, then…”
There was a loud sparking sound, and then an explosive blast outside. The lights went out. The room was suddenly dark, except for the blue light reflected off the snow outside and in through the windows.
“They got the generator,” said Lisenrush. “We need to get moving. Get outside and make for the trees. Head east until you hit the road, then follow it south to town.”
“Right,” she said, trying not to imagine the hours of hiking through snowy woods with no shoes. “Where are you going to be?”
“Best case scenario, right next to you,” she said. “But just in case I’m not, I want you going that way.”
They quickly made their way back to the door Ana had entered the building through. Lisenrush gestured for Ana to take cover by the side of the door. Ana did so, and Lisenrush kicked it open.
Only minutes had passed, but the scene that met them was utterly unlike the base that Ana had run through.
The ground was flat, almost like sandstone but grey and colorless. The air was exactly room temperature, and the only sound was the patter of a light rain – one that smelled dirty, somehow, as if it had caught foul chemicals on the way from the clouds to the ground.
Rising up on either side of this central road were immense buildings – perfectly rectangular, with evenly spaced dark windows. Beyond, she could see the wintery forest, but it stopped suddenly, as if someone had painted over the reality of Far Watch with this new, strange fragment of a city, leaving a seam along the edge where the world she had known ended and this new one began.
And the faceless man was standing in the center of the road.
“Give me the rifle,” said Sweeney.
Lisenrush shot her a skeptical look. “Absolutely not. I’m not arming…”
“GIVE IT TO ME NOW!” roared Ana, and rather than waiting she pried the rifle out of the Ranger-Captain’s hands. She had no time to process how easily she had removed the gun from the other woman’s grip, and instead aimed and fired.
The faceless man simply ceased to be there, and she even heard the bullet ricochet off the ground.
“Sweeney,” said Lisenrush, reaching for the rifle. Ana hushed her with a gesture. She scanned the road, trying to see if the faceless man had simply moved too fast. She poked her head out of the door, checking both sides. Satisfied that she did not see anything to threaten them, she stepped out.
“Sweeney, give me the rifle back now,” said Lisenrush. But Ana ignored her. It was silent. The rain was falling, but she could not hear it as it touched the ground. “I’m warning you, Sweeney…”
She turned back to Lisenrush, who had stepped out of the command center. “You can’t see them. Not consistently at least. The rifle’s useless for you. Now… Oh fuck me,” she said, as she looked at the skyscraper that now stood where the command center had been literally seconds earlier, not two feet from where they were standing.
Every single window, stretching up the dozens of stories that the building rose to, every single one had a faceless man standing there.
Lisenrush followed Ana’s gaze up at the building. “How the hell…?”
“Run, now!” yelled Ana, and the two of them did. They sprinted out toward the trees, the ground suddenly growing soft and textured as they leapt over the seam between where they had been and the real world.
After they had been running for nearly fifteen minutes, Ana risked a look back. They had gone too far to see the buildings, and now all she could see were trees, snow, and rocks. But she knew Far Watch was gone – eradicated. Lisenrush slowed her pace and turned. “Sweeney, keep moving, or I’ll leave you behind.”
“Yes, sir,” she responded, and they made their way farther into the forest.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)