CHAPTER ONE: DARKEST SNOW
The news is bewildering. Such a shock could only make everyone wondered what had truly transpired. Or it could cause everyone to be determined in the end. Nothing like this has ever happened before. So why now? Decades upon decades of human history and not one occurrence could vouch for this. Then again, this wasn’t exactly a matter dealing with meager humans. Will everything and everyone be saved? Or will the past keep repeating itself to make life even more excruciating?
Bata was baking and depressing. It had been this way for days upon days and it was hardly into summer yet. Half of Spring had been as merciless as well. The sun bore down again out of a brassy sky, covering almost half of it. Not one cloud brought any kind of relief, and that made walking on the baked earth agonizing. The villagers all hoped for an early Autumn, but the likelihood of that all drained down to lost hope.
The heat and humidity made hunting difficult and exhausting. And the elders, particularly, struggled. No one had heard the ancient legends from their lips for months. It had not always been like this. Once the land had been fertile, and the people had not struggled to live. A great misfortune had befallen the world. But no one knew what. War, plague, something else? The ancient tales never said. They only spoke about how it had been better ... and that it would be better again – one day. But for today...it was just misery.
Legends were not on the minds of Cai and Jae that morning as they made their way to the river to do the family laundry.
Cai clumsily dropped all of the laundry onto the ground. Laundry...it was a ritual that the girls carried out several times a week. No one did the laundry as much as these girls, largely because it gave them a chance to cool down in the muddy river. But it also gave them the opportunity to talk ... or bicker, as only best friends do.
Cai’s feet were sliding through the thick mud as she stumbled forward, the bucket wobbling beneath her. Before she knew it, all of the clothes fell onto the muddy ground. The mud was dry and crusty, but that did not help her feel instantaneous panic when she saw the clothes splat to the ground. She looked over to see that the river ran only a few feet away. She sighed in relief. They had not washed the clothes yet, so dropping them in the mud seemed redundant. She squinted up at the blazing sun with her hands shielding her eyes. But the rays of the sun forbid her to continue to do so. She did not enjoy looking up at the sky anyway. The sky made her feel as if she were falling into an endless blue abyss. Good riddance.
“Jae,” Cai called out, sitting down on a nearby bucket to take a rest, “Did you get the water yet?” She wiped her forehead with her apron. It just keeps getting hotter out here. “We have to hurry and finish the laundry.” And fast, or we might get heat stroke...or worse.
“I’m right here!” Jae screeched, hobbling as she carried the rather large bucket of sudsy water towards her friend from the river. It’s not like you’re carrying this damn heavy bucket, she thought. Cai turned to glance at their village. It was peaceful as always, though always the same - never changing.
“Thanks for the help anyway!” Jae wheezed, struggling to hold up the bucket as she continued to stagger over.
Cai slowly stood up as she rolled her eyes. “I was trying to get the clothes ready,” she replied.
Jae also rolled her eyes. Yeah right. If only I could believe that. "And such a great help you are,” she stated, motioning to the laundry that now sank into the red, dried clay.
“Okay.” Cai placed her fisted hands on her hips with a grunt. “Then you try to carry a load of laundry out here in this heat!” She shrieked at her friend in agony, rubbing her achy back and arms.
“And you try carrying this damn heavy bucket!” Jae grumbled as she continued to strenuously carry the bucket towards her friend.
“Why don’t we call it even, okay?” Cai asked, wiping her forehead, yet again, with her apron. She let out a deep breath. “It’s too hot to fight.”
“No, the heat’s helping me win,” Jae puffed. “Why can’t you just admit I’m right and you’re wrong!” She had meant to let the heat guide her to victory, but she soon groaned as the bucket’s handle kept digging into her palms.
“I will do no such thing!” Cai retorted, crossing her arms over her chest.
“You’re so damn stubborn! Can’t you meet me halfway and help! My arms are about to give out!” Jae nearly yelled in agony.
Cai rolled her eyes yet again. “And you’re over-exaggerating like you always do,” she snapped back, even though she did start moving towards her friend to help her out. Suddenly, as she reached for the bucket, a terrifying scream rang out from the village. Jae dropped the bucket, icy chills running up her spine as the two girls looked at each other fearfully.
“Did you hear something?” She asked, not sure if she had imagined the scream, but a second later another scream, this time more frightening, penetrated the air. They immediately ran towards the village in pure horror. Something was indeed wrong. Screams accompanied their every step as they raced to the source. As they neared the back entrance, Cai heard low masculine voices approaching, so she grabbed her friend’s hand and dragged her to the nearest narrow alley. They knew the alleys of the village like the backs of their hands, since they had played there all of their lives. They took a sharp left turn, and then a right and arrived right in front of their house. The door was wide-open. Jae pulled on her friend’s hand to stop her.
Cai looked to Jae, who dropped and held her hands over her mouth, shaking her head as tears rolled down her cheeks. She anticipated the worst. Cai softly put her hand on her shoulder to reassure her that everything would be all right, but Cai could make no such promise. She began to tread slowly toward the front door, but Jae called out to her.
“Cai,” she cried. “No,” but Cai did not listen. She took a deep breath and stepped through the front door. As she took another step, she felt her head being taken over by her heart, only being able to hear the thump-thump accelerate with her fear. Right as her heart began to relax a little, she walked into the living room to find a trail of blood. The smell of death was thick in the air. She quickly began following the trail that ran through the house, hurrying into the kitchen only to find her foster-mother’s mangled, bloody body on the floor. The blood almost seemed to look unreal, but she knew deep down that this was no dream.
At first, she just stood, shaking tremulously. But a moment later, she heard her friend scream. She spun around to hide Jae’s eyes from the horrific scene, but it had been too late. Jae would only see her mother as a corpse forevermore, broken and mangled on their kitchen floor. Now all happy memorizes, that she would want to recall during momentous times in her life, evaporated in that instant. “No!” she screamed in fury, running towards her mother, but Cai blocked her path before she could reach the remains, flinging herself in her friend’s arms. Jae was sobbing and throwing punches against Cai’s abdomen. “Mom!” she howled into her friend’s chest. She did not want to leave her mother, lying dead on the floor.
“I’m so sorry,” Cai whispered as she rubbed her best friend’s back for comfort.
“Not like this!” She shrieked, looking up at Cai. “How could this happen?” Cai only found herself shaking her head as a few tears slid down her cheeks. She could not even begin to ordain how or why something this horrific would happen. The girls then grew very quiet, aware that a strange sound was growing louder and louder by the second. They then looked to each other in fear.
“Not my house!” Jae screeched in anger. Fire. Someone had lit their thatched roof on fire. Cai tried to stop her, but it was too late. She instinctively ran outside to save her house from burning down to the ground, but her luck proved to be worse than a dead mother and a ruined home.
Five men were leering right outside of their house. All were covered in dirt, but none looked completely filthy. They looked as though they would not get dirty, even if they tried rolling around in the mud; like dirt was repelled by them. She stopped at once, barely five feet in front of them - a little too close for comfort. Cai trailed behind her, but froze once she saw the men waiting ever-so-patiently.
“Why look what we have here. Two survivors.” A sinister man was standing at the forefront of the group. “Now what would the master think of a situation such as this?” The man had long hair that was as red as the pits of hell. And for some odd reason, he wore a black mask that hid most of his face. It was not a joyous mask to say the least. The expression was dull and void of any semblance of an emotion. Cai looked closer and gasped as she saw his eyes, which were as red as his hair. She had never seen anyone with such colorful hair and eyes. She had never seen anyone with that much evil in their spirit either. All the men chuckled together. One of the men began to advance towards the girls, who both reflexively took a step back as the man continued to advance towards them.
“Now, now ladies, do not be afraid. We will not hurt you,” the red-headed man cooed. Both girls began to feel trapped as their backs pressed up against the wall of the house. They did not believe him for a second. Jae trembled in shock as the idea of escape disappeared. But Cai, without delay, grabbed her best friend’s hand and ran for it. She hit one of the men as she weaved through the weakest point of the group, but she did manage to get past them. She ran as hard as she could, closer to the other dust-covered buildings, and a moment later, she suddenly stopped. She could no longer feel her friend’s hand in hers. She hurriedly whirled around to see Jae being held hostage against the leading man, facing her direction. The leader was ever so bluntly showing off the blade, that lied ever so slightly on her best friend’s throat. He was threatening to end her life right then and there.
“Now if you please, dear, come and save your friend...if you can.” He terrorized Cai as his lips slowly transformed into a carnivorous smirk. He tightened his grip on Jae, causing the blade to draw blood, which slowly dribbled down her neck.
“No,” she pleaded as she reached out to Jae. “Please! Don’t do this!”
“You would do well to listen to my orders and come over here right now,” he commanded. She hesitated, but Jae gasped again as his grip tightened more. More blood trickled down her throat. She reluctantly began walking back towards the dangerous group of men.
“Cai, don’t! Just run!” Jae exclaimed as fresh tears streamed down her face. All of a sudden, the man took the hilt of his dagger and slammed it into Jae’s stomach. She gasped for air and doubled over in pain, unable to catch her breath. The man kicked her to the ground in contempt.
“No! You bastard!” She screamed, running to her friend’s aide. Jae moaned in pain as she lightly picked her up. She knew, without even looking his way, that the man’s sneer grew even more. She refused to look up at him. She could only imagine his throat being snapped. But that wish had an impossible occurrence. She was thoroughly weak compared to any of the vastly sturdy men.
“Good girl,” he uttered. She then glared at him through the slits of her eyes.
“Why have you ruined so many beautiful things?” she asked, thinking back to Jae’s mother’s corpse on the kitchen floor. Of course, they would never even get to bury her because all that remained of the house was now just brick and ash.
“Beauty is extinct in this world of lies and deceit. Do not think of me as a murderer, think of me as a savior, cleansing this world of all its filth.” He took a step towards them, his voice holding a sort of calm hysteria that also hinted at insanity.
“The only filth I see right now is you,” she retorted through clenched teeth, tightening her fists to keep her anger controlled.
The man scowled at her from behind the menacing mask. He stepped away from them and shook his head. “And here I was going to spare you and let you live as my personal servants.” He was acting as though everything he had done was as innocent as taking a piece of cake from a baby. By that point, he acted as if there were no boundaries of distance between them. She was fully aware that he stood less than five feet in front.
“We’d rather…die,” Jae whispered with great difficulty, her stomach still reeling after the hit.
“That can be quite easily arranged, my dear, but first…” he said as his eyes became wild with a cruelty unknown to the girls, “I have not allowed my men any great pleasure in such a long amount of time.” He then said something in a language that they could not understand.
Cai’s eyes then grew wide in fear as the countless number of men crowded closer around them. One of them snatched Jae’s battered body away from her, throwing the girl limply to the ground. “No! Leave her alone, please!” She cried pleadingly. The disgusting tyrant merely smirked at her in response and climbed on top of her friend.
She hid her face, unable to bring herself to watch the horrific scene. She waited for the disturbing sounds of her best friend's body being violated to abuse her ears.
“When you have finished with them, make sure you dispose of them,” she heard the monster say, “But make it slow. I want them to suffer.” She held back her tears. She would not give the monster the satisfaction of seeing her cry. Instead, she looked up to the sky as ashes fell all around her.
Funny, she mused in her mind, the first snow of the year and it is the darkest snow the world has ever seen. She had never seen snow, but a few books that she read described it to be much more ethereal than the moment she was experiencing. She lowered her head as a huge man approached her. She had accepted her fate and knew that the end was inevitable.