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I knew the battle was over as the shelling had been silenced, and the clouds of smoke were no longer being fed and were dissipating and allowing the air to clear. My leg hurt like hell and it made every step a trial. It hadn’t been a bullet, I knew that much. More than likely it was the shrapnel that had blown about when our cover was disturbed by a grenade. The lieutenant had seen it first, and he sung out and we all fled deeper into the trees. He had tripped and a tree root and fell flat on his face, and so the ground, still covered in leaves and some still not melted snow was the last thing he saw. Some of his blood had gotten on my pant leg. We knew from their voices that we were very much outnumbered. We ran at full speed, finally taking cover where there were more trees. We turned to our sides and made ourselves fit behind the trunks. And there we waited, and waited. Every breath and every exploding bomb in the distance brought them closer to us, and when I looked at Fredricks, the man to my left, he was shaking like from hypothermia. His eyes were so wide they may as well have been bare orbs on the ground, knocked from his skull and staring into the black arena of death, with its shrouded form watching and swinging its blade in premature satisfaction for the meal it was about to receive. When he chanced to look from behind the tree, and saw them walking closer, he burst into tears. When Lawrence, to the right, saw him I thought he would knife him, just for the silence it would bring. I just stayed where I was, only chancing the smallest and quietest breaths and with my face pressing so hard against the bark, I thought the design of it would end up a permanent feature of my face. It took two more minutes. When they started firing, Lawrence called out curses and jumped outward, firing. He hit two, and they fell hard, one of them onto a rock which smashed his face. He lay limp and with his face frozen in rage. Lawrence laughed and called them names, but a second later he was down and another second later he was gone. Fredricks screamed, and ran and he was picked off. I breathed heavy. I looked out and saw that a giant with blonde hair was laughing at Fredricks’ corpse, and calling him something filthy in his language. I jumped out, and fired at him but missed. He looked my way, but didn’t fire. From behind, he the voice of their man with the radio who started telling them something drastic. There was discussion. After a minute, they pulled out and the blonde man looked my way with a sneer. I did not hear them anymore, and I peaked out. No on left but me and the dead. I stepped out, and thought about what to do with the others. I actually tried to lift Lawrence on my shoulders but abandoned the idea. I connected the dots. The battle had moved, and I had to get out and help the rest. I ran for the clearing, but realized I did not know the way. I walked, ran even for hours and all the while my sense of dread built. That kind of fear the only enters the mind in battle when all the normal rules of the world and of the greater good are suspended. I thought I had died. I thought one of the bullets, maybe from the laughing blonde giant had pierced me, and now I was wandering through an infinite forest reserved for the violent and the damned. There was no clearing, my mind told me. There was to be no end to the trees and the half-melted snow and the only change would be the the ground would be increasingly covered with blood. I started to wheeze, and I looked around, frantically trying to prove myself wrong. The sun had reached its zenith when I finally got out. I breathed free air, but the feeling didn’t last long. The entire field was full of bodies. Not a single motion except a family of feasting vultures that dug into the former soldiers and covered their white heads in sticking carrion. When they cut, the wounds they ate from filled the cold air with wisps of steam. I kept walking until I came to a pile up. Five, maybe six of the enemy all on top of one another, and I noticed immediately the giant blonde on the top. His face was slashed, with the flesh of his cheek hanging
off by a thread. I inched closer, and as I did I heard something. It was neither the call of a bird nor the sound of a gun or any other kind of weapon. It was breathing. Snoring. When the corpses shifted and then moved, I leveled my gun. One of their hands went upward, and the rest of the body tumbled over and went face first to the ground. From beneath them, a man stood, and wiped blood and other assorted viscera off his arms, and looked to the sky squinting. He exhaled. He was shirtless, and the fresh and bleeding wounds and the old scars on his torso, some long some short and fat, and some twisted and cruel looking could have written a book which described a thousand different wars on a thousand different worlds. His face was severe and his eyes were the eyes of a predator. He held a long and wicked knife in his hand, atop which was clearly a chuck of someone’s flesh. He flicked it off. He looked at me, then spat, then looked at me again, studying. He sheathed his knife. -Next time, let me sleep.