Chapter III

The sounds of screaming and the smell of death and fire was everywhere. Leon couldn't tell where a safe haven could be in such a chaotic area. Yelling out names of his friends and family, the man plunges into the midst of hell his neighborhood had become. In the distance he could hear gunfire and another booming explosion sends him sprawling onto the broken concrete beneath his feet. Just scraped and bruised, Leon forces himself off the ground and continues his search for familiar faces.

Left and right houses were leveled or burning up from the effects of the more recent nuclear bombings. Though he had learned very well in school about the noxious and potentially fatal effects of nuclear attacks, he still held hope in his heart that his family and friends were alive, well, and somewhere safe.

As he rounded another half-destroyed house, Leon came upon a scene straight out of his worst nightmares. Bodies human and animal alike were strewn carelessly on the street. Many of the bodies were simply burned into the asphalt while others were somewhat intact and a mixture of blood and bile oozed from their wounds. Never in his life did Leon expect to jump into the pages of his history book and experience the horrors of a Hiroshima-like bombing. Though it was only a handful, the sight alone was enough to make the man want to vomit right there and then.

Not wanting to delay himself any further Leon presses on, trying hard not to glance at the corpses surrounding him. Turning into his street, the man's running came to a slow stop not far from his home. He couldn't believe his eyes as he stepped forward in utter shock at the sight before him. His two-story house was completely leveled to the ground; absolutely nothing left to show that there used to be a place where people lived. Of course, it wasn't the missing house that shot a wave of grief into him; it was the sight of his parents' simple remains that left him speechless. Further strewn about were the bodies of whom he recognized as his brothers and sister. However, these weren't in the same condition as his parents. Kneeling down near the remains of his older and eldest brother, Leon could tell that the body had been cut cleanly through, the organs and flesh slightly sliding out from their normal positions.

Leon tried hard not to vomit from the sight and in doing so ended up looking into the wall of flames further down the road. He could just barely make out the form of a woman who looked like she had something in her arms. He could see the woman turn and show that she had the body of a young man in her arms. But what really caught his impaired eyes was the sight of a huge sword hanging on her back. Leon had seen the sword before in a video game he watched his younger cousins play a few years ago. He remembered it being called a Buster Sword, though the thought of someone actually making a real-life replica of the weapon never crossed his mind at all. The sword was almost as long as the woman's height and big enough to cut anything in half.

Something like a human body.

With anger burning in his heart, Leon runs forward towards the woman. He couldn't get close to her at all since the wall of fire separated him from her and was spreading quickly thanks to the wind. The last thing he remembered was her indifferent, apathetic eyes as she gazes at him through the flames and slowly walks away.

"Murderer!"

Leon awoke with a start, nervous sweat coating his body. Thanks to his sudden awakening, his glasses nearly flew off of his face and hung disheveled on his head. Taking a deep breath, he readjusts his glasses and looks around to see that night had fallen and the group he was in was preparing for dinner. He brings a hand up to his head to brush his black brown hair from his face and slowly gets up.

"Evenin' sleepin' beauty!"

The man turns to see a tanned individual with strikingly semi-short brown hair come his way with a smile.

"Name's Joshua," greeted the individual, holding out his hand.

Unsure of what to think of the man, Leon shakes hands with him in return. "Hi. I'm Leon."

"Nice to meet ya," responded Joshua. "So, how long have you been wandering around before you came across our cool lil' gang?"

Leon scratches his head as he tries to think. "I guess since the bombings ended."

"Ah, I see," exclaims Joshua. "Well, you've come to the right group of survivors. We've got the best fighters around with us so you don't have to worry about encountering monsters when you're with us."

"Best fighters?" responds Leon incredulously.

"Well, the best in this area anyhow," chuckles Joshua. "Me and the more 'senior' members of this entourage are Infected with great fighting abilities as well as enhanced physical abilities to boot."

"Infected?"

"Oh, well, that's the word we use for people who are afflicted by the nuclear and atomic bombs. Some of us get stronger and better while others are just cancerous."

"Cancerous?" Leon's face fell white.

"It's just another part of our reality, man," Joshua shrugs apologetically. "But, it's like Rift said, nothing lasts forever and death is just a part of life."

"Who's Rift?" wonders Leon.

"Oh, she's our almighty leader," explains Joshua with a joking tone. "Well, actually, she doesn't like being called a leader, but that's what she is to us. She's probably the strongest out of all of the Infected in our group, but I never really get to see her in action. We usually encounter weak monsters and the other stronger Infected and I usually take care of those on our own."

"Will I meet her?" asks Leon.

"Eh, don't know," sighs Joshua with a shrug. "The thing with Rift is she likes to be alone a lot of the time so we only see her occasionally. All we know is that she's always watching from afar, making sure we don't get killed on purpose."

Leon raises an eyebrow at the man's response. "How do you know for sure she doesn't just abandon you guys?"

Joshua simply shrugs in return. "She always comes around to check on us once in a while, but when she disappears, we just know she's still with us. After all, this group did begin with her."

"What makes her so special?"

"Don't know, really," replies Joshua, putting his hands behind his head. "All I know is that she carries around this huge weapon that she never uses around us. Seeing how strong-hearted she is, I bet she's totally crazy in a fight."

A huge weapon? thought Leon. "What is her weapon?"

"Don't know," answers Joshua. "She always has it on her back and she's always wearing this cloak cape thing so it's always covered up." He wraps an arm around Leon's shoulder and puts his other hand up against his face to whisper. "To tell you the truth, no one really knows all that much about Rift."

"Then how do you know you can trust her?"

"Just a feeling, man," replies Joshua, pulling himself away from Leon. "You'll see when you meet her. She has this vibe that just makes you feel like everything will be all right. It's like she has this peaceful aura around her or something, ya know?"

Joshua interlocks his fingers behind his head once again and grins at his new comrade. "But don't get any weird ideas when you meet her or you'll get on Drake's bad side."

"Drake?"

"He's what you would call our second-in-command guy. He's the leader when Rift's not around, which is pretty much almost all the time."

"Oh." Suddenly Leon's stomach began growling loudly.

Joshua laughs at the sound of the man's body function. "Well, it's almost dinnertime so just follow me and I'll show ya around."

As the two men walk through the makeshift campsite, a boy and a girl suddenly ran between them laughing and giggling all the way. Leon nearly trips over himself getting out of the way of the two children.

"That's Alice and Peter. They're Infected and most likely just cancerous. Poor things are just orphans now, no family at all."

Joshua and Leon watch as the kids disappear behind a pile of rubble before moving on.

"Out of the way, you fuckin' brown-skin!"

A man in his sixties with graying brown hair pushes through the two men rather carelessly and rudely. Leon is completely perplexed by the old man's actions as Joshua shrugs it off.

"That friendly fellow there is Nemmo," explains Joshua with a hint of sarcasm. "Or as I prefer to call him, Hitler-clone. He's our group pessimist. Always the racist with his little insults towards everyone who's not a 'real' American."

"But the American population is made up of all races with people of different backgrounds," exclaims Leon.

"You try explaining that to him," responded Joshua. "I guarantee that all you're going to get are earfuls and earfuls of how Americans were originally white and how other races who live in the U.S. don't deserve to be called Americans because they're not white or they're Jewish or whatever. Blah, blah, blah. If you haven't noticed, not everyone in the U.S. wants to live in harmony with others. Nemmo's a prime example of one of those people."

"But if he hates so many of the people here, why does he stay with you guys?" wonders Leon.

"Humans can't exist on their own," replies Joshua. Then he does a double-take and crosses his arms in thought. "Well, except for hermits like Rift. For the most part, people deep down desire the company of others, even if they're prejudice against them."

Confusion blankets Leon's face. "How does that work?"

"That's just the way things have always been," said Joshua. "People either don't notice it or just don't care." He leans towards Leon with a devilish look in his eyes. "Frankly, I don't mind having Nemmo with us since sooner or later he's going to annoy the hell out of Rift and we'll finally have a look at her weapon and fighting abilities."

A frown forms instantly on Leon's face upon hearing that from the man. "You're morbid, you know that?"

"Eh, old news," Joshua exclaims humorously in response as he turns and continues his way with Leon now following a little cautiously behind him.

The group was gathered around a roaring fire started by Drake. A chill ran down Leon's spine upon seeing a familiar face sitting across from him.

That girl.

"Oh yeah, just to let you know, that's Drake," Joshua's voice suddenly interrupts Leon's thoughts. The man points to the brown-haired military-suited man sitting across from them. "And the girl sitting next to him is Rift. I don't think I've ever seen her without her huge weapon and cloak. Makes you wonder how she sleeps, huh?"

Leon didn't say anything as flashbacks of that horrible day keeps surfacing in his mind.

As plates of cooked leftover meat from an amazingly healthy bison killed the other day was passed around, the blonde-haired Samuel began striking up a conversation.

"Look, I know this is a sensitive subject," he began. "But it's already been a year and I want to know if anyone ever thought to wonder how World War Three began?"

Silence echoed throughout the group and Samuel begins wondering if it was even a good time to bring up that particular subject.

"Didn't it all started when the United States launched a single nuclear missile at Russia?" spoke up Jen, an ex-mother of three.

"All of ya fucking assholes are always blaming us Americans for everything!" exclaims Nemmo quite loudly.

"SHUT UP, NEMMO!" was the unanimous response he got in return.

"Fuckin' hardasses," mumbled the old man as he picks up his dinner and saunters off elsewhere.

As soon as he was out of sight, Jen spoke up again.

"I didn't mean to single anyone or any group out," the strawberry-blonde apologizes. "I was just stating what I heard."

"I read an article online where someone claimed that something big was going to happen on December 22, 2012, the last day of the Aztec calendar," spoke up Rent, a dark-haired teenager who had a big interest in conspiracy theories and the like.

"Didn't things start happening around that month?" wondered Tobias, a young man in his early twenties with an albino mutation that left his skin and hair pure white and eyes deep red. "Like the rumors about a Generic group."

"I think it was called the Genesis Order," corrected Patch, brushing his long brown hair out of his eyes. "There was also another group; think it was called the Defiance Faction."

"Yeah, I heard about those two groups when the Internet was still around," responded Rent eagerly. "The Genesis Order was trying to destroy the world to create a new one while the Defiance Faction was trying to stop them. Guess the Defiance Faction failed, huh?"

"We can't be sure that it was indeed the Genesis Order that caused World War Three," spoke up Samuel, fidgeting with a deck of playing cards. "I heard that some crazy hacker got into the U.S. military's computers and programmed a nuclear missile to get launched at Russia."

"Well, it could be that the hacker is a member of the Genesis Order," Rent points out. "Maybe he was working for them or something."

"I just thought of something," spoke up Patch as he crosses his arms and hangs his head in thought. "Wasn't there a string of shootings shortly before New Year of 2013?"

"I heard about that on the news," asserted Jen. "One of those shootings took place near a parking lot close to my neighborhood. I was so scared for my kids." At the mentioning of her children, Jen suddenly began crying after recalling memories of her deceased family. Nearby, Patch sympathetically hugs the woman, thinking about his own parents who were killed by an atomic bomb in France during the vacation trip he paid for as an anniversary present for them.

"Uh, maybe we should stop talking about this," thought Samuel, rubbing the back of his short blond hair uncomfortably.

"No, we all need to know why our loved ones were killed," asserted Rent firmly. "I can't stand not knowing anything about the war and how it started. I need to know… So I can understand why I'm all alone now."

Samuel looks at the boy sympathetically. Rent was one of the lucky few and his life has been getting harder and harder, even though the Infected of the group went well out of their way to purify and clean any food and water they found for him and the other lucky ones. It was hard on everyone in the group to know that they were the only ones of their family and friends to survive.

"Destroying the world," Joshua says slowly, intervening into the conversation. He crosses his arms and musters an uneasy grin. "What is this? Some sort of children's television show?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought when I first heard about the rumors," responds Patch. "Why would someone really want to destroy the world and make a new one?"

"Because, the world as it was before was a cruel place."

Everyone turns to look at the albino Tobias, who was sitting with his hands on his knees and his head hanging over them.

"Look at me," he continues as he straightens himself out. "How did you think I feel when I was a child? Having to endure the sights and sounds of other kids avoiding me and talking about me just because I was different; my mom kept telling me that those kids were jealous because I was special, not because I looked different." He looks up and stares at the others with hurtful red eyes. "But look at me! How can being an albino make me special? I'm nothing but a freak show!"

"You are who you choose to be."

Rift stands up and looks down at the sitting Tobias. "We may not be able to change the way we look, but we can change the way we look at things. Life is as you choose it to be. You're in charge of your own life, no one else. Be the person you want to be, and forget about the way you look."

She began walking away from the little circle but stops when she neared the outer rim. "The world has fallen into darkness. Looks don't matter when you're in the dark."

With that said, she leaves the group and walks out of sight. Drake remained silent as he watched her disappear into the night. Tobias fell quiet upon hearing the woman's words and looks down at the ground in contemplation.

"Well, that's Rift for ya," Joshua exclaims to break the deafening silence that befell the group. "Never leaves a place without leaving ya thinkin'."

Leon was thinking, allright. But it wasn't Rift's words that were on his mind.

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That night, as everyone prepared for bed, Joshua hops up beside Leon as the man was spreading out his jacket as a makeshift bed.

"So, watcha think of Rift and everyone?" he wonders.

"Everyone's… nice," replied Leon rather hesitantly.

Joshua didn't notice anything as he presented the newcomer with a shiny bladed weapon. The other man looks down at the sword with perplexity in his eyes and then turns his attention back to Joshua as if to ask why.

"Well, there are monsters that come out at night so I thought you should be prepared in case we get attacked," explained the brown-haired man. "We ran across a ruined weapon shop a while back and Drake thought it'd be a good idea to carry a stock of extras with us."

Leon's eyes went back down to the archaic weapon in the other man's hands. "But a sword? Don't you guys have guns and better stuff like that?"

"I think everyone here has had enough of guns and the like to last a lifetime," Joshua chuckles uneasily. "Plus, back before Peter and Alice joined the group, we saw a guy try to take down an Infected grizzly with a fully loaded semi-automatic. It wasn't pretty."

Leon's eyes went wide upon hearing that account and the man reluctantly takes the sword.

"You know how to use it?" wonders Joshua.

"I think I can manage," answers Leon.

"Hope so," asserts Joshua. "'Cause if we get attacked, it's pretty much every man for himself."

"I'll keep that in mind," responds Leon.

With that said and done, Joshua gives the man a two-finger salute goodbye and saunters off to his own makeshift sleeping spot. Leon felt the weight of the sword in his hands and tries it out by giving it a few swings. The weapon was heavy, but the man figures that he'll get used to it. He has to.

Looking up at the full moon overhead, Leon could discern a figure standing atop a very large and wide platform of concrete rubble somewhat far from him. Judging by the shape of the figure, the man learns that it was Rift. Feeling his hatred burning in his heart, Leon grips the handle of the sword tightly with his right hand as he slowly makes his way towards the woman.

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Rift was still as she gazes up at the moon overhead. Ever since she was little, she always stared up at the bright pale sphere everyday, believing that the shadow casted on its surface was that of a mighty dragon. She had even hoped that the dragon would emerge from the moon's light and take her away to some far-off place of wonder and fantasy. Rift chuckles softly to herself, seeing that her powers of imagination had never left her. It gave her a sense of peace to still be able to think and imagine things others have never thought nor dreamed of before. She had always been a kid at heart and believed it kept her personality young. Perhaps too young.

"T.K…"

The woman hears footsteps behind her and turns around to have a sharp bladed weapon plunged deep into her stomach. She could hear a loud clang as the tip of the sword smacked right into her hidden weapon strapped right behind her. With eyes wide with surprise, Rift looks down to see the form of a man with his head hanging down.

"You…"

"Who are you?" she demanded as blood began oozing out of her fresh wound.

"You killed my friends… my family…"

The man looks up and Rift is surprised to see the face of the newcomer, Leon.

"I want them back!" exclaimed Leon as he rips the sword out of the woman's stomach.

With a groan, Rift falls to one knee while a hand clutched her bleeding stomach.

"You… monster!" the man roared as he gripped the sword's handle tightly. He raises the weapon and prepares to strike the final blow. "I'll never forgive you!"

Before Leon could bring the blade down upon her head, Rift instantly stands up and grabs hold of the man's armed hand with her left hand to hold his attack back. Before he could blink, she throws her fisted right hand into his face, knocking him back onto the ground hard. He gets up but is soon back down on the ground thanks to an upward heel kick to his chin. He could feel his back crack on the rough terrain beneath him. He looks up to see the woman standing over him. Leon couldn't fathom how strong she was even with such an injuring wound.

Rift exhales a big breath of air as she stood, her wound bleeding more so now thanks to the fight. However, she didn't feel angry or hateful towards the man. Her expression remained as it always was: nonchalant.

"I didn't kill your friends or family," she asserts firmly with a slight pant in her throat. "The only family I killed… was my own."

Leon's eyes grew wide upon hearing that from the woman. She killed her own family?!

Just then, Drake came along and upon seeing the sight before him, his heart went into an angry frenzy.

"What the hell?" he growls at Leon, wrapping his hands around the handle of the sword now strapped to his back. "We take you in and this is how you repay us?"

"Drake, stop it!"

The man looks up at the injured woman, who was glaring quite angrily at him.

"I don't need you to protect me," asserted Rift. "I don't need anyone."

Trying as hard as she could to walk, Rift limps on by Leon and Drake quietly. Drake offers to help when she nearly trips near him, but she simply pushes him away and continues on.

"Rift…" exclaims Drake.

"Just leave me alone," was the cold reply he got from her.