Kain looked over to where his friend was, kneeling in the same place where Ace’s body had been. Naturally, the other soldiers had taken Ace’s body away long ago, but Ted seemed to have not noticed. In fact, Ted hadn't noticed anything. He stayed there, kneeling, looking out at the horizon. To be honest, it worried Kain. He wondered briefly if the loss of Ace was something Ted felt responsible for, but how could it have been? Ace and Ted had been ambushed! There was no way Ted could have seen it coming.
Kain wanted to go say something, but his mother had once told him when he was small that when people grieved, they preferred to do it in their own way. The only problem was that Kain had begun to wonder if Ted was grieving, or if he had just lost his marbles.
Kain welcomed the appearance of John, who had clambered out of his uniform for the night. Kain himself had removed the warm clothes in favor of a pair of shorts, which was what he lay in right now. John’s blond hair looked messy, and his blue eyes were sad as they wandered about.
“Where’s Callan and King?” John asked. Kain turned his eyes to gaze at the moon.
“The tracks ran cold. They should be on their way back with the other trackers.” Kain replied. He had picked up on radio transmissions, but had to turn the radio off when it was being broadcast over and over again to various people at Delta that the only casualty was “Atkins, Ace”. Kain could only hear it so much before he furiously turned the radio off and was left to wallow out here in the grass, until John had arrived.
“How is he?” John asked, looking in Ted’s direction. Kain shot a glance and was thoroughly unabashed to see Ted sitting in the same place.
“Not good. He’s been like that for an hour and a half without moving, not even to rub his eyes or scratch an itch.” Kain responded. “He’s near catatonic, I reckon.”
John got up and was going to start over towards Ted, but Kain prevented it.
“It’s no use. I tried talking to him earlier and he kept staring out there. Just wait ‘til Callan gets back. He’ll listen to Callan.” Kain replied. John stopped, as though to determine what to do. He then flopped back down in the grass beside Kain.
The boys eventually headed into camp to sleep, but Ted continued to stare out at the horizon until the trackers came back. Many of them shot him odd looks, but one of them moved over to him.
Callan Alborn let out a sigh. It had been a hard night. The tracks seemed to zigzag wildly through the forest, and they eventually just ran cold near a ravine. It was their guess by the scuffles in the dirt that their target had run and tripped on some of the twisting vines and had fallen in, though near these tracks they encountered an unfamiliar isolated boot print. They headed back to camp, no further from finding the camp than Ted’s squadron had been before they started the mission. The only thing they had going for them was that it was confirmed that there were indeed Kilmjacs out here.
Callan looked over and saw Ted, still kneeling in the grass the same way he had been when Callan had arrived over here to lead the other trackers. He had seen men taking Ace’s body away, but Ted stayed put. While Ace’s death had greatly saddened him, seeing Ted like this just broke his heart. He knew Ted to retreat to a quiet place and be alone for twenty or so minutes before he snapped back to normal. He had never known Ted to stay as still as a statue in the open, not speaking or moving. He heard men other than Kain now, wondering if Ted had gone catatonic, and Callan knew that if anyone could put an end to this, it was he.
Callan strode over to Ted and looked at him. Ted’s eyes seemed distant and unfocused, as though staring at the horizon was enabling him to look at another world entirely.
“Ted, are you okay?” Callan asked, but to his dismay, he received no response. He got down beside his brother.
“You can’t shut it out like this, Ted.” Callan explained. “Remember what Mum always said. The world doesn't wait for anyone.”
At this, Ted stiffened and looked at Callan.
“Cal,” he began slowly, deliberately, “I've almost forgotten what she looks like. I can see her in my head, but she’s kind of blurry.”
“Mum?” Callan asked. Ted nodded fervently.
“I know, Ted. Me too.” Callan said. “It’s been so long, and so much has happened. Don’t you forget sometimes, what it was like? The old life?”
“Yeah.” Ted said. “I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself anymore. I sometimes think, that maybe I’m not the person I used to be, but just someone with the same name.”
“I understand.” Callan said. “But Ted, you can’t close us out.”
Ted turned his head and looked out at the horizon he had stared at for so long.
“Isn't it funny, that this happened when it was dark?” Ted asked.
“What about it is amusing?” Callan asked. “Could have happened at any time of the day.”
“The sun went down, like it knew.” Ted said.
“Er, Ted...the sun always goes down at that time.” Callan said delicately. “You going to sleep?”
“I’ll be there in a bit.” Ted said. Callan nodded, got up, and slowly walked away. But Ted did not rise to go to bed. He stood and turned in an almost robotic way. The rest of the camp slept peacefully through the nighttime noises of crickets and an owl hooting every few moments. Ted walked slowly and soundlessly over to where his equipment was stashed. He secured his hunting knife to his belt, then looked over his guns. A pair of Witicker handguns and a Stockton-Abrams sniper rifle were there. Some of the best guns out there, real fine. These would do.
Ted then turned to the horizon and squinted. He had been focusing intently on it for a while now, and found his target, a tiny pinprick of light in the distance. This is where he would go, not for salvation, but for retribution for Ace. What happened to Ace would not happen again.
Ted looked around, scanning the tents, but sleep had killed the camp. With a sentry turning to take a bathroom break, Ted broke out in a run towards the trees. He couldn't afford letting anyone see him as he departed from camp. No, this would be his secret mission. He had found the Kilmjacs, and only through intense focus.
Ted only stopped running once he’d run downhill from camp and crossed the broad field. Now that he was in the dense cover of trees, he would not be detected. Ted slipped among the trees, keeping his mental map of where the smoke was, and let his legs lead him mechanically.
Why was he doing this? He wasn't quite sure himself, it was like his primary thought processor in his brain had broken, and his emotions, beliefs, and ethics were gone with it. Something primal had begun to take over his mind, something red as blood and black as night. Whatever it was, it had consumed him completely by this point, but what was it? Sorrow? Despair? Anger? Vengeance? He couldn't quite pinpoint the emotional disturbance, the cause of all this.
At times, he threatened to forget what had even brought him alone into this wood at night, armed. But then the memory of Ace, laying in his arms and bleeding to death resurfaced from the depths of his troubled mind like a swelling wound, and he knew again why. The whole thing felt surreal. Ted knew what he was doing, but was doing it all in a sort of subconscious state.
It was strange, how the animals seemed to ignore his presence, like they knew he too, like so many of their kind, would be a silent predator tonight. He passed by some bears that were only fifteen feet away from him, and if anything, they just regarded the intense young man with nothing more than a passing glance. Meanwhile, Ted’s insides were like the foamy, violent sea, silently raging within him, but it was a strange feeling...mostly because he wasn't exactly feeling it. He knew it was there, recognized the feeling, but it was as though he had been numbed to everything except whatever force it was that drove his legs to the tiny tendril of smoke he had seen before. It was something raw and powerful that needed fulfilling, a need and not just a desire.
Ted almost came out of it during his walk, contemplated trying to force himself back around. He wanted to go back, he wanted Callan, he wanted Kain, he wanted to lay down and go to bed, he wanted to be warm again, he wanted to forget, to sleep, to dream...but his legs seemed to have a mission.
He finally came across it, after what must have been miles and miles of internal turmoil and mental hesitation, but he’d found it. The Kilmjac camp. They had been too northwest the whole time, they should have angled themselves north, or slightly northeast, that was how the Kilmjacs evaded Nebelheim.
The first human Ted sighted must have been a watch guard. He was a big man, burly, wearing merely a cutoff and looking proud, dark arms covered in tattoos. Ted pulled out his trusty Stockton-Abrams, one of the best sniper rifles issued through Nebelheim’s military, and he slipped the sight over his eye. Yes, he could make a swift kill right now. His gun was lined up perfectly for a headshot. He could snuff out a life so easily, and yet unlike those killed in the midst of a battle, he’d get a good, long look at his kill. But this wasn't about making a good kill anymore. He switched the safety off and he pulled the trigger.
The man fell, and the recoil knocked Ted back a little, but he straightened up. This wasn't where it would end. Ted heard voices and immediately swung himself into the lowest branch of the tree, working his way up into a higher cover, a thick overhang of branches that would keep him cloaked from his enemy. He reached this overhang just as some men from the camp showed up, speaking in a different language Ted knew nothing of. They were stationed over the body of the watch guard Ted had shot down, about three of them. They turned and began to run back to camp, but Ted’s gun was ready.
BANG! Another keeled over in the grass, and one of the remaining men pulled out a handgun, looking for the attacker. BANG! The other man running fell, and the man with the gun fired, missing Ted by a few feet. BANG! All three were dead, and Ted now slid carefully down from his tree. He didn't expect this to be all of them. No, by the look of the tents, there were maybe twenty at most. As he looked at the camp, another man came running from it, saw Ted, and cupped his hands over his mouth to shout to the others, but before he could utter a word, Ted had shot him down. Five down, fifteen or less to go.
This was easy, but then again, Ted used the element of surprise here to his advantage. He had climbed into a tree with a better vantage point just as more men came running out, and he took down three this way before the others noticed the bullets had rained down from above, and Ted slid down, knowing they were not foolish enough to mistake a high-up gunner for some kind of god punishing them...no, it was he, Ted, who was punishing them. Ted hid behind a tree, and a few of them had seen him drop and shot in his direction. The tree was thick, and wasn't exactly one tree, but two that were nearly fused together, offering a lot of protection. Ted shot, taking two down, but as he moved slightly right, he felt a burst against his leg, and was jarred. It was almost as though a truck had slammed into him, but the focal point of the pain was his leg which had been hit, and if he hadn't been in such a semiconscious state of being, he would have noticed it, would have felt the pain and cried out, but something had numbed the pain to a dull throb, and he kept on shooting until this wave was dead.
He entered the camp after shooting two more near the large central tent, and he limped to each of the tents, peeking in with his gun and only an eye first, noticing all of them were empty but one. He limped into that tent then, and there were a two young men inside, younger than him. Both looked up, surprised, and he shot the one that looked more around his age, pointing his gun at the other, and noticed he had run out of ammo. As he was going to pull out one of the other guns, the young man suddenly flew at him.
The two of them knocked over a table, pushing over a bottle of wine which shattered on the ground, the cards some of the men had been playing with coming to rest in the spilled wine. Ted found the young man reaching for a long and wicked-looking machete, and reacted quickly, pulling out his hunting knife and embedding it in the chest of his foe.
The young man shuddered, and Ted knocked him off. Ted could not help it, fatigue overwhelmed him, and he blacked out for a few moments. When he got up, the sky was no lighter, but the young man had already died. Ted dragged himself over to the young man, using all of his strength to pull his hunting knife out. There was no time to clean the hunting knife. Ted needed to leave, and preferably in as quick a manner as he could. He got out of the tent, limping badly, and then he noticed a propane tank. He set it gently in front of the tent, and then rummaged through a tent. He found a 50 caliber Arkoski rifle containing an incendiary round and decided this would do, and he moved away from tent and fired
Ted had always heard about the resulting explosion, and for the first time, he saw it. It was as though a jet of fire had come from an invisible dragon flying low overhead, and the tent had begun burning brilliantly. The sudden wave of heat from it reached Ted, and Ted wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He turned and limped the direction he came, but presently heard a whinnying noise.
There were three horses tied to a tree near one of the tents. Ted, who had always been compassionate towards animals, decided not to leave them. He untied them. One was brown, one white, and the third was black. The brown and black horse moved further from the fire, but the white horse seemed reluctant to leave Ted.
"Go on." Ted said, but the white horse nudged him. trying to place his neck under Ted's arms. Ted, knowing it would hurt, barely managed to climb atop the white horse, muffling his own cries of pain as it shot through him, raw and heavy. The white horse then trotted ahead, whinnying to its companions, who followed. The three horses began to trot, and though pain shot through Ted from the movement, at least he was going somewhere. He had too little strength to attempt to see where they were going, and what strength he had left was devoted to holding on to the white horse.
While holding on, he blacked out into a dream. He wore all white, and was standing in the wood, by the camp, and he moved towards it. He saw Hilbert, also wearing all white, standing at the front of the big tent, looking at him reproachfully. Ted cried out to the young boy, who turned and walked inside. Ted followed, and there, he noticed something hunched over a pile of something. As Ted moved closer, he was horrified, for the pile was a pile of bodies of his friends...he could see King, Ivan, Lane, Kozen, John, Kain, and Callan laying there, listless. Standing over them was a faceless, nameless kind of beast, a mere shadow if anything with a red eye on its back that gazed at Ted. But the thing suddenly became a silhouette about Ted's height, and it held a knife that was embedded in Ace's chest. Hilbert looked at Ted with that same reproachful look again, and when Ted looked at the silhouette, he was shocked to see himself in the silhouette's place. Ted yelled out suddenly, a painful sound, and he backed up, and just then he was knocked off his feet, for Hilbert shot a propane tank with Ted's rifle. But as Ted fell, he never hit the floor of the tent and fell into darkness.
Kain woke up early the next morning when it was still dark, and rubbed his eyes tiredly. He noticed Ted's empty cot and sighed. He walked outside, expecting to see Ted crouching in the same spot he'd been last night, but was surprised to see that he wasn't there at all. Hilbert however was, looking for something.
"Oi, Hilbert!" Kain yelled, and the boy spun around. Kain the noticed the boy was puffy-eyed and looking extraordinarily tired overall.
"Where's Ted at?" Kain asked.
"You mean he isn't back yet?" Hilbert cried, looking alarmed.
"Back? What do you mean?" Kain questioned, even more alarmed than Hilbert was. Hilbert shot a glance across the broad field that opened up before them.
"Well, Ted went out there last night...I dozed off, but he's...he's not come back?" Hilbert asked.
"No not at all! His bed's empty." Kain replied. Just then Hilbert gasped and the two of them faced the other direction. A particularly thick and ugly cloud of black smoke made itself known, due to three horses that galloped towards the camp. Kain leaped into action at once, just as Callan emerged from his tent, alerting some troops. By the time Callan had run over, Kain had stopped the horses and tons of soldiers entered assault vehicles that were driving quickly out to meet the problem. But Kain stood there, still as a statue. Callan soon saw why. Kain was holding something, a Nebelheim military jacket that had gotten caught on the white horse's saddle. Lost for words, Kain handed it to Callan. Callan turned the jacket over in his hands, then found the name tag on it.
Before anyone could say anything, Kain was running out to the field with guns, and he saw the LT, Jeff, Lane, Jonathan, Arlen, King, and the others following suit, and Callan watched his scattering friends as the sun peered over the horizon and coated them in a deeply consoling layer of warmth.
At this very moment, Damien Alborn tiptoed from his bed, trying to cross the bed that had been occupied by Ted and Callan without looking at it. It was the closet door that he directed himself to through the dark, though a tiny ray of sunlight crept in the window. He pushed open the door to the closet and moved the boxes of toys, toys that he now spent most of his time playing with. They had all been his twin brothers' toys, and was fixated on anything involving them, spending long hours with their toys and listening to the radio.
He opened a box that had his father's helmet inside and leaned his forehead against the place where his father's forehead would have been, and he felt a terrible clawing pang of loneliness that threatened to consume him, and the terrible emptiness he felt now, without a father and without brothers. He slid to the floor, laying with his cheek against the carpet, trying to keep in his tears and be strong. Though young Damien Alborn could not remember his father well, he needed a father so badly in his young life. Bernard was certainly no father. At best, Damien could describe his relationship with Bernard as "being able to live in the same place, albeit with any interaction". For Bernard had stayed over a few times. Damien was glad that Callan's old radio still worked, for he turned it on and shut himself in the closet on nights when he heard strange noises from mother's bedroom. This had only ever happened once when Ted and Callan were still at home, and Ted had peered out the hallway, took careful aim, and lobbed a shoe at the door. That made it stop, and Damien had laughed and Callan even broke out in a smile when he tried to shoot a reproachful look Ted's way.
It hurt to remember the twins. They were Damien's support, his reason for coming home every day. Mother spent a lot of time with Bernard, and Damien knew that while she still loved him, Damien didn't like Bernard so much. Bernard wasn't mean, but Ted didn't like him, so maybe he wasn't very nice either.
Just then, Damien straightened up. He'd heard them say his brother's name. He listened intently, hoping it would be repeated.
"Repeat, Operation: Nightlock Ridge, led by Ted Alborn has had one casualty, that casualty being Atkins, Ace." the man said, and he started rattling on about other groups, but Damien's heart swelled with pride. Ted was leading a squadron, and he had survived! And that meant Callan must still be alive too! Damien jumped up to tell Mother, but then he recalled that Bernard was at their home tonight, and he sat back down, dismayed. The small boy then ran to the window instead, and looked out, seeing a rising sun barely peeking back at him, and he smiled at it.