Chapter 2

Coldbane was plunged into utter blackness, worse than anything he had ever experienced. Moments ago he had been engulfed in blinding agony and then he had felt nothing at all for a few moments. He couldn't even remember hitting the ground.

All he could feel was fear, cold and pain as he floated through the darkness. His mouth was open in a scream but all was silent as he thrashed and writhed, fighting against the blackness that pressed against him, threatening to swallow him up forever.

It was as if all the good he had ever known had been destroyed and now whatever evil was left was trying to drown him inside of it.

Coldbane suddenly found himself alone on the floor of a dark, damp room, writhing and screaming as the agony and terror slowly faded to be replaced by a sickened horror.

His stomach heaved and Coldbane rolled to the side and retched violently until there was nothing left to bring up.

"Hello?" he croaked, his voice rasping against his throat like sandpaper. "Is anybody there?" There was no reply.

He anxiously fingered the skin on his chest where the bullet had ripped through his heart, killing him, but there was nothing there. Coldbane gulped, wiped his mouth on his sleeve and slowly got to his feet, leaning heavily against the damp wall.

When he pulled his hand away to look at it, Coldbane let out a yell. It was slick with blood.

Coldbane's head was reeling as he stumbled away from the wall, his blue eyes wide with fear. What was this?

Suddenly there was a blood curling scream and Coldbane whipped around to see a man leaping at him with a sword.

"Defend yourself!" the man spat, throwing Coldbane a sword, which he caught clumsily.

"What the he-" Coldbane exclaimed, his voice ending in a scream of pain as the man leaped forwards and slashed at him, cutting his arm deeply.

"I said, defend yourself!" the man snarled, pointing his blood-stained sword at Coldbane, who raised his sword, eyes burning with determination.

The man slashed at Coldbane against but this time he was ready and darted out of the way, managing to cut the man's leg with his sword as he rolled by.

The man barely flinched and laughed, "You'll have to do better then that boy!"

Coldbane grimaced and began slashing furiously at the strange man, driving him slowly back towards the wall.

"Leave me alone!" he yelled, pointing his weapon at the man's chest.

The man laughed, long and cold, "You're just a boy and you will never be anything more then that!" Then he leaped to his feet and thrust his sword deep into Coldbane's stomach.

The teenager looked down in shock at the sword-hilt sticking out of his torso before the pain hit him and he collapsed, his eyes rolling back in his head.

He writhed violently, clawing at the sword, sweat pouring down his brow. The man laughed as he bent down and pulled out the sword, making Coldbane scream with agony as his blood spattered the floor.

Agonizingly slow, Coldbane's vision began darkening at the edges and the pain started to ebb as he lost consciousness.

Once more, Coldbane entered the place of unimaginable pain and darkness. It was as if something was trying to destroy his very soul, ripping it from his chest. He screamed but there was no sound.

It seemed like nearly an eternity later when it finally stopped and he opened his eyes again.

This time Coldbane was running through a forest, his breath coming hard and ragged as he pumped his legs as fast as they could go. He didn't even know what he was running from but he knew that if he stopped, he would die again.

He saw a tree up ahead and thought to himself, I can climb it! I'll escape that way!

Coldbane ran at the tree, jumping and grabbing a low branch but as he began to haul himself up the woods shook with an unearthly roar. He clung to his shaking branch desperately, trying not to scream.

Nothing made sense anymore. Am I going insane? Coldbane thought, Would an insane person know they were insane?

Another roar shook the earth and Coldbane began to think that being insane was the least of his worries at the moment as he yanked himself to a higher branch.

Coldbane was about to pull himself up higher when a massive paw swatted at him, throwing him to the ground. The breath was knocked from him and he felt his ankle bone snap as he landed in a pile of leaves.

Deadly sharp claws sank deep into Coldbane's back and he howled with pain, writhing beneath the creature as if his skin were on fire.

"Help me!" he screamed as he was pawed around to face what had attacked him.

The last thing he saw was the sharp teeth of a grizzly bear as it closed its jaws around his neck.

Coldbane died again.

Coldbane eventually lost track of when one simulation began and the next began as he went through the seemingly endless cycles of death and getting rebooted.

It felt as though he had been in the simulator for weeks by the time he died for the last time and this time opened his eyes to see the inside of his Virtual Reality helmet.

He yanked the confined thing off and ran a trembling hand through his sweaty hair, taking deep breaths to calm himself.

"What the hell..." he muttered, shaking his head slightly to clear it.

"Get up!" a voice spat and Coldbane looked up sharply, earning a wave of dizziness and pain as his head began pounding angrily.

When Coldbane's vision cleared he slowly focused on the guard, Bartholomew Merj, standing over him, an ugly scowl on his face. "Get up!" he yelled again.

Coldbane winced slightly at the noise but managed to get to his feet without heaving what he had eaten for breakfast. He headed for the door and was stopped as Merj grabbed his arm roughly.

"Take off the suit!" the guard snapped and Coldbane realized he was still wearing the Virtual Reality suit. He quickly took it off and stowed it with the helmet in the little locker.

"Better." Merj growled, grabbing Coldbane's arm again and marching him out of the room and through the winding halls to his cell.

He unlocked the door to the cell with a key-lock and at least a 9-digit long code that he shielded from Coldbane's view with a raised hand.

"In." he growled, pushing the teenager into the cell roughly.

"Lay off okay man?" Coldbane snapped, brushing off his sweaty clothes. "I'm human too!"

The guard ignored the comment, "You've got ten minutes before exercise period. Get ready."

Coldbane walked over to his little sink and began to wash his face, wiping the water off with his shirt and slumping down onto his bunk. His face was pale and his hands trembled as he closed his eyes, trying to process what had happened during his simulations.

I died, that's what happened. He thought with a shudder. They killed me in those simulations.

He got to his feet, resting his forehead against the cool, hard wall of his cell as he struggled to think straight. How do I know this isn't another simulation?

He barely had time to complete the thought as a wave of panic threatened to overcome him, drowning out the little voice of reason that struggled to speak through the screaming voice of fear.

Coldbane probably would have started screaming and clawing at the walls of his cell right then and there had a kindly, if not quite sane, voice not yanked him from his panic-driven moment. "Hey, boy, how was your first day in the simulations?"

Coldbane looked up sharply to see the man across from his cell looking at him in a curious way that made him want to back away slowly. "I died." he stammered, not able to think of anything better to say.

The man laughed, long and cold, "Of course you died kid! That's the point!" he jeered. He finally got control of himself and cocked his head slightly, "You seem to have spunk. What's your name kid?"

"Coldbane. Coldbane Traks. What about you? Who're you?"

"Halmar." the man replied in a gruff voice.

"How long have you been here?" Coldbane breathed.

"Years." Halmar grunted, "Dunno how many. You loose track after a few months go by."

"How long was your sentence for?"

"Dunno that either. Wouldn't tell me when I asked." Halmar replied gruffly. "Still won't tell me now."

Both were silent for a few moments and Coldbane finally asked, "What did you do?"

Halmar looked up, his wild eyes and shaggy hair making him look even more insane than he had to be as he replied, "I killed my brother."

Coldbane resisted the urge to take a step back. He had seen death before and he had seen pain during his time in the gangs. Mostly while he had been in 'Rogue Conquest.' He subconsciously rubbed the tattoo of two swords crossed atop miniature earth on the side of his neck. It had been a brand all gang members wore after acceptance and Coldbane winced as he remembered the pain it had caused as it was burned into his skin so even if the ink ever faded a scar would remain in its place.

Suddenly there was a loud kerfuffle near the entrance to the cell-block and Coldbane heard a surprisingly familiar voice.

"Hey let go man!" the voice exclaimed and Coldbane heard the one of the guards growl something menacingly, stopping the words instantly.

"Sandor?" Coldbane asked, pressing his face to the bars of his cell to see his friend being pushed into the cell next to his. "Sandor!"

"Coldbane? Dude is that you?" Sandor's voice asked and was quickly cut off by a pained grunt and a guard's satisfied chuckle.

"Hey! Leave him alone!" Coldbane yelled angrily, lashing out through the bars and managing to sink a punch into the guard's ribcage.

The guard grunted and turned, hitting Coldbane's arm with a sharp crack. The teenager let out a sharp yell of pain and brought his arm to his chest, cradling the already bruising skin.

"Lay off loser!" Coldbane spat at the guard, moving far enough back in his cell so that the man couldn't hit him.

The man glared at the teenager, his eyes cold. "Shut up prisoner." he snapped. "Someone will be around in about a minute to collect you for your exercises. Got it?"

"Loud and clear." Coldbane growled, still holding his arm to his chest.

The guard harrumphed and stalked away and Coldbane ran back to the bars of his cell, "Sandor?" he called softly, "Sandor are you okay?"

There was a grunt and a shuffling noise before the teenager replied quietly, "Yeah, I'm fine."

Coldbane felt a slight smile play across his lips at the sound of his friend's voice. "Sandor how did you get here?" he asked, fighting the urge to laugh aloud.

A cold silence came from Sandor's cell and Coldbane began to wonder whether his friend really had been hurt by the guard when Sandor finally replied, "I killed someone."

Before Coldbane could even feel the shock of what his friend said Sandor snapped fiercely, "It was self-defense! He had a gun and went for Joey. I had to help Lil' Jo! The guy was gonna rip him apart for the kid saying he was an ugly brute!"

Coldbane suppressed an angry growl. "Joey that idiot! What was he doing insulting some guy bigger than him? Didn't he learn from last time? Man that dude pretty much flayed him alive!"

Sandor laughed mirthlessly, "Yeah, you think he'd learn but he just keeps doing it. You know, little guy needs to prove he's tough and stuff."

Coldbane shook his head, "And you killed the guy to protect Lil Jo then?"

Sandor was silent for a few moments before replying in a quiet voice, "I didn't even mean to hurt him that badly. Just rough him up and get him to leave my friend alone you know? Something anyone would do. But I guess I was drunk or something and... went too far."

Coldbane longed to be able to put a hand on his friend's shoulder to reassure him but simply sighed, "You did it to protect your friends Sandor. Accident or not, they're safe because of you right?"

"That or they're in jail because of me." Sandor muttered.

Coldbane was about to reply when a voice yelled, "Exercise time cupcakes! On your feet you worthless maggots!"

A rather fat guard with a thick beard and beady eyes walked by the cells, rapping the bars with his baton as he went. The clanging racket filled the air and Coldbane resisted the urge to cover his ears.

"Come on you lot, backs against the wall, hands over your heads!" the guard yelled with a slight British accent that made Coldbane smile. He had always liked people with British accents. He wasn't sure why, the accents were just cool. Either way, he obeyed swiftly, pressing his back to the wall of his cell, his arms over his head as a different guard entered, putting strange wristbands on the prisoner's arms.

"Hey, what's this for-" Coldbane's question was cut short and he let out a gasp of pain as a sharp shock channeled through the metal bands into his wrists, making him stiffen and spasm as the electricity passed through his body.

"Electro-shock." the guard grunted briskly as he adjusted the power levels, pressing a few buttons on a pad before exiting again. He turned slightly to glanced back at Coldbane, his eyes gleaming as he replied, "You step out of line, you turn into Criminal char. Get it?"

Coldbane nodded, too shocked-literally- to speak. What had he gotten himself into?