CHAPTER ONE

FIRSTBLOOD

I grip the handle of my M4A1 Tactical Carbine tightly, white-knuckled, as I stealthily work my way through the sparse underbrush of briars and weeds and bushes. A wet spot is nagging at my back causing my MARPAT uniform to cling roughly to my flesh, egged on by my perspiration. It is doing such an ineffective job at cooling me. I turn to Christian and see him several meters to my left. He is carrying an HK416 assault rifle and is dressed in woodland BDU's. A tactical vest covers up his blouse.

He looks back, his vivid green eyes staring at me. I hand signal for him to flank around left, where a small hill covered with dense brush and several trees is. To my right is a creek bed that runs front to back. A trickle of water is running through it, but not very much at all. It is usually a substantial flow during a rainstorm or immediately after.

Christian treads slowly up the hill, stopping occasionally to move aside the random thorn brush that impedes his path, while I turn to my right and drop down into the creek bed. It is about a meter deep at this point. I am quite familiar with this ground, having fought here many times before. Quite often, they like to flank on the tall, sloping embankments on either sides of the woods, which are about fifty meters apart at this bottleneck in the woods.

I motion to Christian to keep his eyes trained to the left flank and continue advancing towards the next clearing. Up ahead is a small clearing in the middle of the underbrush. Just beyond that, a ragged, torn-apart fence sections that off from an even thicker portion of the woods. I can see the "waterfall" about seventy-five meters beyond that. The waterfall isn't really much of a waterfall, just where the creek drops off a rock ledge and falls for about six feet, making a pool of water. There is a steep rock ledge about four meters high to the left of the waterfall, and a small plateau-like structure to the right.

I raise my weapon to my shoulder and flip the selector switch to semiautomatic, peering through my Aimpoint COMP M3 scope. Continue creeping along the creek bed draws me level with the hill that Christian has just crested, giving me a firing angle on the blind spot that Christian wouldn't have been able to see coming down the hill. It's a small recess to his left.

Seeing something rustling in the brush, I tap the trigger thrice. Almost instantly, I receive return fire. The rounds rush past my head, making eerie whizzing sounds, kicking up dirt on the walls of the creek bed. I duck down behind the creek's embankment, wait a brief few seconds until there is a break in the torrent of incoming fire, and then pop up again, snapping off several more rounds.

"Move up!" I call to Christian. I look to my right and see my rear guard whose name I cannot recollect toting a P90 and exchanging fire with some unseen enemy up the creek. I raise my weapon and peer in the general direction of his fire and see nothing. He's slightly up the right embankment of the woods, so he has a better firing angle than I do. Regardless, I fire off several rounds in the general direction that he is shooting.

"Cover me, Chris!" I yell to Christian.

"Roger!"

A long burst of automatic fire is heard to my left as I raise up, fire off several more rounds at the first enemy, and take off at a low crouch up the creek bed. It provides substantial cover for me as I push deeper into the enemy controlled territory.

I keep my weapon at shoulder level, scanning left and right. Just up ahead, the creek bed passes underneath some thick brush.

Shit! The brush rustles briefly, and I can barely make out the outline of a man. The muzzle of an M249 light machinegun peeks its way through the brush. A roar of automatic fire rushes just a half-meter to my right as I dive down behind the embankment of the creek.

There is a quick break in the shooting so I rise up. Perfect shot lined up. The machine gunner has occupied himself with my rear guard. Asshole. Tap, tap the trigger and the gunner falls to the ground. I turn back around to see that I am too late. I sigh, seeing my guard lying on the ground, his weapon a half-meter away from him.

Looking the to my left again, I see Christian firing at the original enemy. They are both preoccupied, so I merely pop off two rounds and he falls to the ground.

"Christian," I say into the COM, "there should just be one left."

"Roger. You move up the creek. I'll take the high ground on the left."

"Got it."

I turn back and begin to advance up the creek when there is a dull thump in the distance, shortly followed by a sharp thwack to my left. I see Christian fall to the ground. What the fuck? Where are they shooting at us from?

I raise my M4 to my shoulder and fire off several rounds into the distance, hoping, praying that they'd hit whoever is shooting before they shoot me.

Another shot from off in the distance and a loud crack as the round hits my ballistic goggles.

"Boom headshot!" I hear a bush yell off in the distance at the waterfall… as it stands up?

No, not a brush. It's just James holding his M700 sniper rifle. He raises it over his head, smiling a big, toothy grin. Damn him and his sniping skills. He just took out two of our three team members single handedly. Their team wins… again.

"You know that wasn't a legal kill, right?" I ask.

"I know, but it was so perfect. I couldn't resist."

"True, true." I turn and shout, "Game over!" The dead rise up, murmuring curses about losing, and being killed.

James hops down from beside the waterfall and gradually makes his way to my position, along with the other four players. There are mutters of "Good game" and "Nice kill" passing through the group.

The sun is beginning to set, casting elongated shadows through the trees overhead, and I look up and around, trying to determine if we have enough daylight to play another match. Eyes flitting around, I notice… what is that? What the HELL is that?

"James," I say.

"What?"

"Look." I nod towards the direction I want him to look in.

"Where?"

"Right there!" I point this time.

Tangled in the briars where the creek passes through some dense brush… is a face. A ghastly, gray face, but still a face nonetheless. Upon further investigation, this face is, indeed, attached to a torso with legs.

This- man?- is dressed in ragged clothes. Covering his torso is a blue flannel shirt that is torn and tattered. Framing his face, tangled in the briars, is semi-long, black hair that is all matted and wiry. His skin, the very flesh itself, is pale, almost gray. There is congealed blood around his mouth and… Oh my God, he's LOOKING at me! Those eyes. They scare the shit out of me. They're so soulless, yet hungry.

"What the hell is that?" Christian asks.

"It's a person, moron," James replies.

"Um, I don't know about that," I say.

"What do you mean, you don't know? It's human. It's breathing."

"Maybe we should help him," suggests Christian.

"Yeah, right," replies James.

I sigh. "I'll do it. Let's cut him loose."

"I am not going near that thing," says James.

"I'll come," Christian volunteers.

We slowly make our way up to this man. I withdraw my combat knife from its sheath. We draw within about two meters of the man, when suddenly he bears his teeth and hisses at us. Blood stains coat his teeth and gums. It sends shivers to my core. Just something isn't right about him.

"Dude… I think he's insane. Maybe we should call an ambulance," Christian says.

"James!" I yell, "Call… Someone. The police, an ambulance!" I lower my voice, "A psychiatrist."

Gathering my courage, I say, "Sir, are you alright?"

He glares at me, evilly.

"We're going to help you. We'll get you loose."

Nothing. Just more glares, so I take a step closer. Then another, and another. When I come up to him, I invert the blade, slip it under a bundle of the briars, and make a quick slashing motion. They come free, so I go to cut again.

The man reaches out and grabs hold of my right leg. His fingers are like an iron vice, clenching down on my calf muscles. He jerks me forward and I slip towards him and fall on the hard rock. Another hand grabs my left arm. A groaning fills my ears. Shit! This guy is psycho!

"Let me go!" I shout. "I'm trying to help you!"

"Dude, let him the fuck go!" I hear Christian shout.

I look up to see a set of grimy teeth peering out at me from the gaping black, blood-encrusted hole of a mouth. I writhe about and manage to kick my way free. It isn't until I am about a meter away from this psycho freak that I realize my knife is no longer in my hand.

"Where's my fucking knife?" I say, almost to myself.

"Um… It's in him," Christian says, pointing at the man. I look up from the ground, on my hands and knees, and see the handle of the knife sticking out at an awkward angle from the man's chest.

"Oh, fuck. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck." I am muttering incoherently to myself. I just killed a person. "I just killed a person," I am absentmindedly saying out loud. I bury my face in the palms of my hands.

"Dude, he's not dead."

"What?" I look up at the psycho bastard and see that he is practically unfazed by the eight-inch blade that is quite obviously puncturing his left lung, seeing as it is thrust in to the hilt. What's more, there's no blood. Nothing.

"Oh, fuck." I turn around and yell to James. "James, have you called that ambulance?"

"No."

"Well CALL THEM!"

"Why?"

"He has a fucking knife in him!"

I hear some muttering about "it's not bleeding" and shout back, "I don't know, maybe the knife is holding an artery shut or something. It can happen. Now call!"

"Okay."

He reaches into his pocket and dials nine-one-one as the other two guys on the team come over to have a look at this… maniac, who has taken to looking around frantically and struggling against the briars that are entangled around him. He looks insane.

I hear James saying something into the phone about this crazy person here in the woods who has a knife wound. How am I going to play this off? I groan inwardly. We can make it look like self defense. The guy sure looks insane enough to attack us. I don't know.

"They told me they'd meet us at the Oakview entrance to the woods… or that's where I told them we'd be," says James.

"We have to move him?" Christian says, irately.

"You're telling me we have to drag this guy's crazy ass out of the goddamn woods?"

"Yeah. Pretty much."

"Goddamnit." I bury my face in my hands, and then look around, dropping them to my sides. "Anybody have any tape?"

I receive several questions as to why I would want tape.

"I don't want him taking my damn hand off!" I exclaim.

Duct tape is quickly produced from one of the many of our assault packs, and, with great risk to our fingers, we soon have duct tape around his mouth.

"He doesn't seem to like it too much…" Christian says, his voice trailing off.

"Well, he'll deal. Let's get him out of the briars," I grumble. Hacking away diligently, I have the thorn bushes removed in a matter of several minutes.

"How are we going to do this?" I ask.

"I'll take the feet," says James.

"I'll get the hands." That's Christian.

"I guess I'll take… the torso," I say. We take up our positions around him.

"On three. Not after three, but on three. One, two, three."

We lift.

"Oh my God. What is wrong with his skin?" Christian exclaims. He seems to be having a freak out moment. "Ew. Ew. Ew. Oh my God, put him down."

Christian drops his arms and the guy goes tumbling awkwardly to the ground. Christian turns and wretches, the vomit making a horrendous splattering sound as it hits the ground.

"You pussy," I say.

"No, fucking look!" he exclaims, holding out his hands. There is a look of pure disgust on his face. What's in his hands is worse.

"Oh my God."

"Sick!"

Pieces of flesh are stuck to Christian's hands. Grey, rotten… oh, God, I think I'm going to throw up. He starts shaking his hands violently, sending the flakes of skin flying.

"Aw, sick, dude! You got some on me!" yells James. "You rat bastard!"

"You'd better wash your hands," I say, before turning away. I feel some nausea rolling over me. Turning brings me to see the guy again. He is struggling to his feet, now, but I manage to see his wrists. Oh, God, that's horrible. It looks like the skin has just flaked right off his wrists. Just… slid off, like it wasn't even being held on.

From under the duct tape, I hear some sort of weird, demonic moan that sends shivers down my spine. "Um…" I stutter, taking several steps back.

The man starts stumbling towards me, raising his arms. He walks at an awkward… what could describe it? Not quite a limp. But he staggers…

God, he's coming right towards me! "Get the fuck away!" I squeak, backing away. He makes a swipe at me but misses, catching one of the other guys.

He screams, and tries to bat the guy away.

"Carl!" yells James, running forward, trying to pry the guys grip off of him.

The rest of us stare in horror as Carl shrieks, James screams, and the manic lunges forward, sinking his teeth into Carl's neck. A horrible feeling of dread is lurking in my stomach. Oh, God. Oh, God. Blood begins oozing down Carl's chest, soaking his shirt. Only then do I snap into reality.

I run forward, throwing a haymaker as hard as I can, landing it square in the guy's temple. He looks unfazed as he… is chowing down on my friend. Screaming and shouting and kicking and moaning… it all consumes me. Before I know it, we're in a group running… or rather I'm hobbling along; James and I are supporting Carl. His face is pale, weak, drained. Somewhere behind us, I hear the tortured moans of this demon, staggering after us at a limp.

"Carl?" Christian is saying. "Carl? Talk to me."

He groans. "What?"

"Stay with me, okay?"

"I'm… I'm here." His eyes roll around wide in his sockets. His mouth is hanging open, blood pouring out of it, over his chin, down his neck. He coughs, and flecks of blood spray in all directions.

"Oh, God, I don't think he's going to make it," I say.

"He'll be fine," says Christian, glaring daggers at me. "You'll be fine," he says to Carl. "The paramedics are on their way."

We trip and stumble through the woods, following the path of the creek until it meets a clearing at the end of the woods. The main road, Oakview, runs past here. In the middle of this grassy clearing, we set Carl down. He begins to lie down.

"No, no. Stay sitting up." I turn to James. "Keep his head above his heart. He'll loose less blood." I look around aimlessly. "Where's that duct tape?"

It is shoved into my hand. I reach into my pocket and grab my kill rag, which is just a red bandana, wad it up, and pull off a long stretch of tape. I press it to Carl's neck and tape it in position. "Fuck!" he exclaims, dully.

"Stay awake," I say.

Sirens are heard in the distance. "Thank God. I think that's record time. What's their response time? Eight minutes?"

"I dunno," says James.

Christian is bent double, talking to Carl, keeping him talking back.

Soon, an ambulance pulls up and double-parks along the side of the street. They turn off the siren but keep the lights running as two paramedics step out of the back, carrying a stretcher.

"Where is he?" one of them asks.

"Help him first," I say to them, pointing at Carl.

"Two people are injured?"

"Yes. But Carl is more hurt." They rush over to Carl and set down the stretcher.

Getting on either end of him, they say, "One, two, three, lift," and transfer him onto the stretcher. One of the paramedics takes to peeling off the duct tape while the other shines a light in Carl's eyes and takes his pulse.

"His pulse is extremely elevated."

A fresh gush of blood pours out of the wound once the tape is removed.

"We need to get him to the hospital. He's going to bleed out if we don't take care of this. It looks like the jugular vein is severed."

The paramedic who was checking Carl for consciousness presses the transmit button on his radio. "Control, this is two-three, we need another unit."

"Roger. Backup is on the way."

Carl is quickly lifted into the back of the ambulance. One of the paramedics comes back out. "Where is the other casualty?"

Um… We all look around at each other.

"He's in there," says James, pointing to the woods.

"How come you didn't bring him too?"

"He was biting us," says Christian.

"That's why… Carl… yeah." I don't have the energy to finish the rest of my sentence.

The paramedic shakes his head. "I'll go take a look at him." He heads off into the woods and the ambulance takes off to the hospital.

"I guess he's staying behind," I say.

Nobody replies. An eerie silence falls over our dismal group as we wait. Wait for what? Who knows. I don't know. Nobody does.

We watch as cars drive past. Birds hoot, bedding down for the night. Squirrels scurry around.

"Well, goddamnit," exclaims James, tossing down his sniper rifle.

"What?"

"Fucking Carl."

"Dude, he's going to be alright," I say.

"He's in good hands," suggests Christian, halfheartedly.

"Did you see the wound? He took a hunk of flesh that big out of his neck!" He holds up a hand, measuring with his index and thumb. "Did you hear what the paramedic said? Jugular vein? Do you know how long it takes you to bleed out from that? Three minutes. How long is the ride to the hospital?"

Nobody says anything.

"They can treat him in the ambulance," says the other guy. Derek. That's his name. He's been surprisingly quiet this whole time.

"They can't give him blood," says James.

"But they have IV's," I say.

"That's not the same. The only thing that will do until is thin his blood until it's water."

"Dude, he'll be fine. Calm down. I promise."

James groans and sits down. "Fuck… it… all." He starts aimlessly playing with his sniper rifle.

"Aaah!"

We all turn and look into the woods. The sadistic irony is so beautiful, isn't it? The poor paramedic must have met his dismal fate to the maniac. The scream slowly turns to a sloppy gurgling sound, and then fades away.

We all look at each other.

"I don't want to be here," says Christian.

"Fuck this. I'm going home," mutters James. He picks up his rifle, gets to his feet, and starts walking.

"Where are you going?"

"Home!" he shouts. Dumb question.

"Well, I'm not staying here," says Derek.

"Me neither."

"James," says Christian. "Stick with us. I… don't think we should be alone."

"Yeah, right. I'm going home and going to sleep. This is all fucked up." He doesn't even bother to turn to say that as his silhouette gets smaller and smaller down the road.

"Wanna come over to my house?" I offer.

"Sure."