They awoke to find themselves a man short. One who went by Pandu, whom had been with their the night before. Upon the discovery, they wandered about, calling his name and yelling for him. Though after a few minutes, it came to a halt.
“We can't keep screaming like this” spoke up Kip, rubbing at his shoulders as he stamped his feet. “It'll get the Shubs attention, if they're still following us”
“We can't just leave someone” muttered Namoor, his voice quiet and his movements slow and lethargic. The lack of food was starting to take its toll, and Abjin couldn't help but look at him and feel guilt at keeping the bone marrow between himself and Saldana. Still, he was starting to feel hunger creep into his near empty stomach.
“We need to if we're going to get over this mountain and get some food” Lt Naveen told them, trudging over with his head bound in bandages. “We have to go now”
“We’re just leaving Pandu?” Yelled one of the others, seemingly one of the missing man’s squad members.
“He's either dead or he's run off” Abjin replied “we can't stop wasting time”
“We wouldn't have either to worry about if we weren't blindly crossing this damned rock”
Ibrahim muttered, slinging his rifle over his back.
The Lt ignored him and turned about, starting the climb over the lip of the valley.
“Fucking idiot” Ibrahim said as he watched him go “First Pandu, it won't be long until the rest of us are dead from that moron”
“Shut up Ibrahim” Abjin sighed, before starting to follow his officer, his legs like leaden pipes as the exhausted band started off again.
The mountains were coated in fresh snow from the previous nights winds, the snowdrifts hiding more rocks and hidden pitfalls for the fleeing soldiers to fall foul upon. Once again the sun was shining weakly, though it gave little warmth to the weary travellers who trudged along.
“When I get back” sighed Kip after a few hours of dreary travel “I'm killing some hot fafel. Sauce dripping out over my fingers” he sighed a rubbed at his gurgling belly.
“I'm heading straight to the waterfront” Namoor nodded, almost dreamily. “Pick myself a curried fried fish. Hot, spicy and fresh off the pan”
“That does sound delicious” Abjin agreed “Though I have to agree with Kip on the fafel”
“What about you lieutenant?” Namoor asked up the line, attracting Naveen’s attention “What are you having when you get home to Ghurkka?”
“Anything hot. Anything that my wife can cook up that's hot and steaming I'll eat” he muttered “I don't care what meal, I'm eating it all”
That garnered a few chuckles and laughs before the monotony of their dreary trudge set back in.
“Can anyone else not feel their toes” spoke up Kip “They've gone dead on me”
“We’ll check for frostbite as soon as we get to a good camp” Naveen muttered, trying to ignore the lack of sensation in his own feet. “Just keep on going”
Ridges gave way to more stony ridges but the monotony allowed for one thing, for Abjin to collect his thoughts.
The lieutenant seemed to be made of stern stuff, but even Abjin could feel the cracks forming. The lack of food was continuing to weaken his hold as the officer, and his own resolve. All they could hope for was the situation improved before Ibrahim could take the advantage.
Ibrahim. The jackal in their scrubland. Any fool could tell he had an issue with authority and pissed that he hadn't gotten his way. But Abjin didn't know what was holding him back. Was the rest of the units allegiance to their officer? Or was he waiting until circumstances changed? Either way, Abjin wasn't good by to let that bastard just walk over them.
Kip, the merchants son. He may be posh but he was smart. And he wanted to get back home just as the others did. Hopefully he could support Naveen enough to keep them all together. His rational explanations could do well to counter Ibrhaim’s irate accusations.
Namoor was just a boy. He seemed to have some closeness to Ibrahim, having saved the boy's life. But he seemed willing to follow the Lt. But he was young, inexperienced. His support might matter little, though all he wanted was to get back home to the love that he spoke of. Abjin would hate to disappoint him.
Saldana seemed to throw her own support behind Naveen, but her position as the only woman for miles around worried him. He remembered the fireside talk, the longing for female company that the brash, boisterous members of their company had spoken, before their camp was destroyed. What he feared was that sentiment festering here. But then there had been the previous night, when they had shared that little bit of food together. She seemed to trust him. He hoped he could protect her, for what he was worth.
That left the others. Six the night before, but now five. Jayesh. Kiaan. Advik. Ojas and Shray. All your standard Ghurkkan soldiers. Some bigger than others, some stronger than others. They were the possible issue. If Ibrahim was to try anything it would be done with them on his side. If Naveen was to crack, they would be the the ones he would lose.
And he was coming close. The terrain was unforgiving and harsh, the weather freezing with the winds coming in over the hills and most of all, the lack of food and firewood. As far as he knew, only he and Saldana had eaten, having selfishly hoarded all the bone marrow they had dug out of old animal bones. The rest were running on near empty.
Not to mention the cold. He could feel his lips starting to blister, the chill damaging his skin. The nails of his fingers felt… loose. Like they were ready to come out. Something kept dribbling out of the nail bed of his right little finger, and when he could manage a glance, the nail started to look darker.
“Ahead!” Yelled Naveen “Forests ahead!” He stood atop a slope, waving his arms as the other surged forwards. Abjin felt his heart soar and he charged ahead, stumbling over himself, the others following behind him as they scrambled to the top.
Before them was a vista of yet more hills and low mountains, but a thick field of green pined carpeting the ground.
“Thank fuck” sighed one of the others, wiping at his frozen brow. “Some proper shelter”
“The second anyone sees something edible you shoot the hell out of it” growled Ibrahim “I'm close to ripping my boots off and eating the fuckers”
“The boots would probably taste better” chuckled another of the soldiers.
“You're willing to try” Ibrahim grunted back.
They started off downhill, taking their time navigating over boulders and crevasses that ran through the ground. Their bones felt brittle, while their still sodden clothes continued to sap at what little body heat that remained.
“I can't wait to sleep in some actual cover for once” muttered Namoor, swinging his gangly legs over a boulder, dislodging by snow as he slipped downwards.
“It won't be much of an improvement” Kip chuckled, helping the boy down. “Still be pretty cold”
The ground started to level outwards and they were left consolidating themselves at the base of the slope, exhausted from the hike, their backsides and thighs rubbed raw.
“I'm never going hiking ever again” moaned Ojas. “I'm sticking to the Great Sand Sea from now on”
Their revelry was suddenly interrupted as a loud, bloodthirsty howl, one that bounced off the slopes and shook the trees. Abjin felt the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly prick as a deep, primal fear filled him.
What. The. Fuck.
Slowly they turned about, most already fumbling for their rifles. Each pair of terrified eyes scanned over the terrain, until they alighted on something, to their left, a few hundred meters away.
And it was huge.
The monster was a horse sized shadow wrought into the shape of a dog. It's body rippling with primeval muscle, hunched over into a quadruped pose.
“What in the name of hell is that thing?” Trembled Namoor, his eyes as wide as they could physically go.
“It's one big fucking dog” snapped one of the others. “It's damn huge!”
The monster started to slowly slink forth. At the distance it was from them, the details were hard to make our, but Abjin someone knew that it's eyes where locked right onto their weary band.
“I think it's one of the great wolves” stammered Kip, his own rifle rattling in his shaking hands “From further north in Karelia… but they're not supposed to hunt humans”
“Fuck that” yelled Ibrahim “Just shoot it!”
They levelled their rifles at the slowly prowling beast and let loose. Shot after shot filled the frigid air as each man loosened off a round or two. The beast didn't even flinch. It kept prowling forwards. Then it's shoulders tensed and it started to run.
With the monster now bounding towards them, the group opened fire once again. They blasted and blasted, their crude clip-up sights fixed on the beast as it ploughed towards them. A few shots sunk harmlessly into its flanks, but it kept coming.
There was a sudden *click* and Kip looked down at his gun. “It's jammed!” He yelled, before trying to pull at the freezing cold bolt, his fingers too numb to be if any use.
Right on time, another of the soldier’s weapons made the same noise.
*Thunk* Abjin glanced down to see his own weapon double feed, two bullets becoming jammed in the chamber.
All that snow and ice...it had to happen….but why now?
“Oh fuck this” yelled the other soldier and he started to run as fast as his malnourished legs could carry him, off towards the cover of the trees. The others watched him go, before Kip slung his own jammed rifle and started to run after him.
“Wait! No! Hold together!” Lt Naveen tried to tell after them, only for another of the soldiers to stop firing and sprint on past him, gasping and panting for breath.
Ibrahim fired off a few more shots, but then he too started to the run for the trees, followed by Saldana.
Abjin squinted down the sights of his rifle and he saw it clearly. Long snout, its lips peeling back to show fangs, eyes glinting in the weak sunlight.
“Fuck it” he started to turn and run, followed by Lt Naveen.
His legs burned, malnutrition and the punishing hike over the rocky hills having sapped almost all his energy. Yet fear kept him going. That image of the beast loping towards him, mouth gaping like some hideous demon.
A few token gunshots echoed behind him, but for all he knew everyone had began to sprint for the trees ahead.
Two hundred meters.
His legs dragged through the snow, the muscles starting to burn. The rifle bounced against his chest, painfully bashing against his ribs but he forced himself to ignore it and run onwards.
One hundred and fifty.
His feet kicked up a spray of snow, the laces on his boots coming undone and flipping against his feet.
Those fangs, the dead eyes and slavering jaws.
There it was. The rasping, feral breath as it bounded towards them, faster than any could hope to run.
In desperation, he tried to pick up the pace, his furs flapping about him. He could see Kiaan, one of the other soldiers running ahead of him, while being dimly aware of Lt Naveen running along on his right.
He had to run. Ignore the pain that was lacing up through his calves and ankles, or the burning in his chest.
One hundred meters.
Up ahead, one of the others looked behind them and gave a scream, before running even faster. Abjin had no clue how close the monster was, but above his own heavy footfalls and laboured breathing he could hear another sound. A rhythmic tattoo of four clawed feet, pounding into the snow, growing louder and louder. A deep panting, interspersed with rumbling snarls.
It sounded closer and closer with every second. He could imagine hooked claws reaching out to snatch him, a mouth stretching wide to devour him in a single snap…
The pain only grew, his body begging for respite, despite the copious amounts of adrenaline racing through his veins.
Just a bit more, keep on going until he could reach the trees. He could hide...climb… start a fire. He just had to make the last stretch.
“Come on” he wheezed, tears starting to drip from his eyes as sheer exhaustion started to set in. His legs were shot, and he could feel everything start to slow down. Every breath he took felt like fire in his lungs.
Something gave way under his foot. For a horrifying split second he tottered, before crashing into his side, collapsing into the snow. His legs still pumped weakly, kicking into the air as he tried to crawl forwards with his frozen fingers. But he could hear it now, right atop him.
Gasping in pain he rolled over, half heartedly trying to reach for his rifle.
He could see it clearly now. Less than fifteen meters behind him.
It was canine in appearance, but huge. Massive and bulging with tightly coiled muscle. It's skin was coated in dirty grey fur though it was matted, with large patches missing along its flanks and spine. From his glance, Abjin could see masses of fresh scar tissue, clotted blood and reknitting flesh from what could have been horrific wounds, healed over.
He also saw something between them. A single stumbling figure. His face locked in an expression of terror as he tried to make that final stretch to the cover of the trees.
It was Ojas, his face locked in a mask of terror, arms failing in a shambling run. Between his ragged lungfuls of air, he seemed to be screaming for help. Begging and pleading for the others to assist him.
The wolf bowled him to the floor, knocking him sideways with a smash of its powerful head. Ojas hit the snow and tried to scramble upwards, only for his arm to be gripped in the embrace of a huge set of jaws. The monster panted and snorted, spraying the prone man with its foetid breath before it yanked upwards. There was sickening crunch of bone and the tearing of flesh and tendons as the entire arm came away.
Blood soaked into the snow as Ojas screamed and cried like an infant, the beast wolfing his arm down before it gripped him in his jaws, plucking him off the floor and started to lope away.
Abjin could only watch in stunned horror, his whole body quivering like a leaf in the wind. He could faintly hear shots, an attempt from the others behind him to get some measure of revenge, but the huge shape of the beast quickly headed away, leaving a trail of blood and gore in its wake.
“The fuck was that?”
They all crouched about a fire, trying to warm their wet bodies and frozen fingers in the radiating heat. Abjin had found the will to take off his boots and rest his socked feet by the fire, steam rising off the soaked material, dark stains of blood visible around his toes. He prayed he wouldn't get trench foot.
“I told you” replied Kip, rubbing his hands together. “It's one of those Karelian wolves. Dire wolves I think”
“So those things live in Karelia? And you didn't think you'd let the rest of us know about this, posh boy?” Snapped Ibrahim, who was in the process of boiling pine needles into tea.
“I didn't know they lived this far down!” He yelled back. “And they're not supposed to bother people anyway?”
“Tell that to Ojas!”
“Shut it” snapped Abjin. He glanced over at the Lt who merely sat, looking into the fire with a mute expression.
“It doesn't matter if they usually attack people or not. It attacked us. Those things on its side. It looked like it had been attacked. Scarred. I think it's angry”
“You mean… it's looking for revenge?” Asked Namoor, shivering with fright.
“I don't know” Abjin admitted “It's just my guess”
“Then we need to get out of here” the lieutenant spoke up in his shaky voice. “Get out of its territory or something, so it won't bother us”
“Do these things have territory?” Muttered Kiaan, one of the others.
“Hell if I know” Kip shook his head. “The point is, if it comes back we need to be ready. Make sure all the weapons work. Keep fire close by to scare it off”
“Fire? That thing is going to be stopped by fire?”
“It's an animal” Kip replied “All animals are afraid of fire”
They ate for the first time in days a few hours later. Small furry animals would run along the branches of trees, easy to spot with their bushy tails. A single shot was enough to dispatch each of them and they ate them, roasted over the fire, picking the bones clean.
Travel started once again, and they continued their trek through the woods and snow. Up through valleys that were now marked by trees and shrubs, allowing for some level of warmth to be trapped amongst the branches.
Abjin however, could feel himself start to decline. His feet refused to regain all its sensitivity, and no matter how much he massaged and attempted to dry them by firelight, he began to fear the onset of trench foot. Nails continued to blacken and drop off, while the leftmost two fingers on his right hand were starting to swell and tinge blue. It was like his was being eaten away by the cold, swarmed like a corpse being gobbled by maggots.
Not only was his exterior breaking up but he could feel his insides falling apart. With little fruit or vegetables around in the desolate forests, there wasn't much that could be done to try and stave off the effects. Kip had told them to boil down pine needles to try and get some of the vitamins within, but even then, it was starting to rot them from within. With each breath, Abjin’s teeth felt loose within his jaws, rattling about. He could feel sores starting to form about his armpits and chest. But there was little he could do. The others all felt the same. Kip and Lt Naveen had began to loose teeth, while a few of the others staggered on feet laced with frostbite.
Days of non stop walking continued. Punctured by pauses to eat and rest, to try and dry out the clothes that were seemingly soaked permanently, the wetness creeping into all the seams and folds of their bodies to brew misery and suck the heat from their figures.
“We need to keep going” Naveen urged as they sat around the fire, the vague shapes of their triangular shelters dimly lit around them.”Were heading in the right direction, we’ll run into the front soon enough and then we can slip over back into our lines”
The others wordlessly looked amongst each other, picking from the bodies of rat-like creatures that they had roasted upon skewers.
“It's tough I know” continued the officer. “But we’ve gotten this far”
“Oh spare us the shit and just let us eat in peace” snapped Ibrahim, his overgrown beard giving him the appearance of some kind of wild-man. “I'd be fine with all the walking if I didn't have to hear you”
Naveen stopped and went to reply, but found his words not coming out his throat. He looked from each of the tired gazes that were fixed upon him, each pair of heavy lidded eyes looking upon him with contempt.
“Oh fuck this” moaned Kip, rising from the fire and rubbing his shoulders as he staggered off “I'm not in the mood for any of this. I’m going to bed”
His feet crunched as he headed off to his crudely constructed shelter, before Namoor got into his feet and followed after him. Lt Naveen followed soon after, the officer keeping his head tipped downwards at his feet, trying the avoid the contempt filed gazes of the others. Ibrahim watched him go with a sneer before throwing some more branches onto the fire.
“I thought that pussy wouldn't leave” he snorted “finally some time without his yammering”
Abjin had also had enough. He didn't want to spend his evening listening to Ibrahim’s rubbish. Silently he tossed the animal bones into the fire and headed off to his own shelter. Behind him, the others watched, harrowing their eyes as they watched him get inside.
“Greedy prick” grunted
It was a rough pyramid of branches and foliage draped over thin tree trunks and sturdier branches, with an opening in the centre. Grunting as he bent his tired legs, Abjin slowly pulled himself inside, feeling the foliage scrape at his back as he tried to arrange his furs about himself, before laying down on the mattress of leaves.
Something moved beside him and he looked up to see a face, bound in fabric to keep the chill out.
“It's bloody freezing in here” Saldana said, softly.
“Yeah” he chuckled “I suppose so”
She rubbed at her face veil before tentatively moving in, closer. Abjin let her move up against him, their damp bodies pressed together in the cramped space as they tried to conserve body heat. He found himself alongside her, his arm slowly moving around her waist, pulling her in close. Her head wrappings slipped and he saw her face, her lips marred with cold sores and her cheeks drawn and pale.
“Do you think we’ll make it out of here?” She whispered softly.
“I…. I can't tell” he told her, his voice starting to crack. “It's been so long, but I don't know how long we have to go. Or what it's going to be like. I don't know what's out there” the Ghurkkan rubbed his eyes and gave a pained sigh. “But this has to end, one way or another. This cold hell cant go on forever”
“Of course” she nodded, her matted, overgrown hair starting to fall free of its scarf. “Our soliders are probably advancing right now. Tanks and Ghurkkans as far as the eye can see. They'll come for us. We’ll head right into them”
“I wish I could share your enthusiasm” he sighed.
She placed a hand on his chest and gently rubbed across his bony ribs.
“I would call it more determination than enthusiasm” she muttered. “I just don't want to die in this freezing hellhole”
“That's an admirable goal to say the least” he chuckled.
“Thank you. I hope it's not too unrealistic” she smiled and the two pressed closer, trying to summon some heat between them.
“I never suggested that” He reached up and felt her hair, the sensation numbed by his cold fingers. It was long and coarse, overgrown and matted from the long weeks. Gently he pushed forwards, easing her facial veil downwards as frozen lips touched.
They pressed together, holding on as the chill of winter tried to break through their hastily constructed shelter. Hands fumbled on furs, easing them downwards as the snow started to fall outside.
The dead of night was broken only by the gentle cooing of the nocturnal birds and the soft crunch of snow. Followed by a deep intake of breath, sucked through wet nostrils. Paws as large as dinner plates punched into the crisp ice as the immense figure stalked through the woods.
It growled, lips pulling back from conical teeth.
These ones, the odd smelling ones. It was the old smelling ones that had killed. Killed its mate. It's omega.
These ones smelled different. But they didn't smell like the ones it was used to. The ones who would leave him alone. They were strange and foreign.
And they were killers.
And now it would follow.