Breathing in dust.
The fighters are long gone. Ellis is long gone.
Still lying in the road, curled up in a ball. Stomach churning, legs and arms aching. Head pounding. Throat dry, lungs scorched. Warm wind gusting. Swirling sky black above me. Light's fading. Stench of burning meat is everywhere. Been here for hours, facedown on the asphalt.
Someone standing next to me. A soldier? Stay still. Don't move.
"Found one," he shouts, face hidden, voice muffled by a gas mask.
"Worth taking?" someone shouts back.
He kicks me in the gut to see if he gets a reaction, forcing air out. I look up but don't move. I feel the Hate rising.
"Well, has it still got two arms and two legs?"
"And is it breathing?"
"Then chuck it on the truck."
He bends down, grabs hold of my shoulder, and picks me up. He hauls me across the road, feet dragging in the dust.
Have to try to fight. It's all I've got left. Everything else is lost.
With what feels like my last breath, I straighten my legs, stand tall, and wrestle myself free. Unarmed and uncaring, I shove the soldier away with all the force I can manage. Caught off guard, he slams face first into a wreck. I spin him around and rip off his face mask. I need this fucker to know how much I hate him when I kill him.
He throws me back. Much stronger than me. I fall, my injured knee giving way. I wait for him to attack, but he picks me up again.
Is this how it ends? Is he going to kill me now?
Wait. He's like me. One of us.
"Easy, tiger," he grunts, pushing me forward again. "Save it for the Unchanged."
Too tired to protest. Filled with relief, anger, and pain.
He leads me through the highway chaos, then picks me up and puts me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes when my legs buckle again. Can't fight. Can't react.
I open my eyes and lift my head. Hard to see anything. More soldiers wearing gas masks, all of them dragging or carrying people over this way. We reach a flatbed truck, and he pushes me up. Grabbing hands reach down and help me. I scramble up, then fall back against the side of the truck, struggling to breathe. Dust and dirt grind into my cuts and burns, but I'm too tired to care. Too tired to feel the pain.
For half a second I try to look for Ellis, but I know she's long gone. I look around at the faces of the people crammed into the back of this truck. They're all like me. They're all fighters. No longer people, just fighters. All of us conscripted into what remains of Ankin's army or another force like it.
I was stupid to believe I could sidestep this war, that I could escape from it with Ellis. What's left of the world is now entirely governed by the Hate, and I have to be ready to fight and to kill until the last trace of the Unchanged is wiped from the face of the planet. Only then will the situation change.
My daughter is gone, lost long before I found her. Now all I have left is the Hate.
Exhausted, I close my eyes and let the darkness swallow me up.
Need to rest and recover and be ready for what's still to come. No choice. No option. The hardest battles loom large on the horizon.
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