Chapter 2

"Get down!"

Blaze dove behind an upturned slab of cement just as thousands of tiny shards of shrapnel exploded through the air. His shoulder hit the pavement, the impact jolting through his arm painfully. Through the high-pitched ringing in his ears he could hear the panicked screams as some of his slower companions were thrown into the air. He didn't stop to mourn them.

A long, low whistle sounded - a form of communication he and Splint had developed over years of raiding together.

He blew a sharp whistle in response, pressing his body closer to the ground as an onslaught of bullets whizzed by just inches above his head. "I need some cover fire!"

Splint needed no encouragement, already taking out the barely visible snipers hiding far beyond the other side of the road. Even in the heat of the moment, Blaze couldn't help but take a second to admire his shooting. The man had skill. A few more single shots and the firing from the other side had finally trickled down to frenzied, erratic shots.

"You coming, or are you just gonna lie there all day?" A voice hollered from the stretch of trees behind him.

Blaze grabbed his gun and dashed for the woods, easily evading a few stray bullets that tore up the earth around his feet. He only stopped when his body was tucked safely behind a blackened tree trunk. Panting, he turned to Splint, who had his rifle poised in an unwavering grip. "I ever tell you what good timing you have?"

"Are you going to tell me how much you love me next?" He turned around and fired a few more shots, not even in his casual haste wasting a single bullet.

Blaze scoffed as he took aim at an approaching figure. "Would you be hurt if I didn't?" The bullet shattered his skull with a crack. Blood splattered the ground in heavy gushes, the body crumpling to the ground with a dull thud.

"Devastated." Splint chuckled, mumbling some crude jab of a sexual nature at him as he effortlessly took out two more attackers.

Anguished shrieks and screams sounded from somewhere in the distance.

"Hey, hear that? Did the others get that far ahead?" Blaze shouted out.

"How about we focus on us first, then worry about those bastards?"

"Fine by me."

He took a deep breath, then whipped around, shoulder flat against the side of the tree to steady his aim. A few more men emerged from the tree line, guns raised and firing in precise bursts. Blaze dodged to the side as a few shots passed a little too close for comfort. He waited until the firing came to a brief pause before ducking back out on the opposite side of the trunk. Before he could take aim, a single shot square in the chest felled a distant figure. Two more went down in quick succession with clean shots to the head.

"Damn show-off," he mumbled under his breath.

"Alright with that rifle, Blaze? Need any help?" Splint spoke through a smirk.

Ignoring the remark, Blaze scanned the rest of the field. "Is that it? I could've sworn there were more."

Splint straightened and cracked the stiffness out of his neck. "I think someone's been having some trouble keeping up with my kill count."

He scoffed. "Alright, now you're just getting annoying. Let's go catch up with the others."

The last licks of fire burned feebly on the cracked concrete, shards of glass and quickly evaporating alcohol littering its surface. Splint kicked a severed arm out of the way as they made their way down the crimson-coloured road.

Blaze crouched over a charred corpse, inspecting it roughly as he flipped it on its back and shoved his hand in the remnants of its pockets.

"What're you looking for?" Splint asked. "They're all burnt to a crisp."

Blaze grinned as his hand closed around a small rectangular box. He pulled it out and raised it in the air triumphantly. Bits of singed cardboard crumbled off in the wind.

"Of course. Why do I even ask?"

He carefully opened the top to examine its contents. "A little worse for wear, but still intact." After pocketing the few useable cigarettes left, he tossed the rest to the side and righted himself.

As they made their way to the other side of the road, something out of place flashed in the corner of his eye. Before he could shout out a warning, a woman came hurtling toward Splint with a knife clutched blade-side down in hand. Blaze immediately rushed the figure, ramming his shoulder into her abdomen just as the tip of the blade swept across the side of Splint's head.

"Shit!" Splint cried out.

Blaze grunted as he hit the ground. He immediately grasped for the pistol in his holster and pressed the cold barrel of the gun to the woman's forehead. She stared up at him with a venomous glare before reluctantly raising her empty hands in surrender. He pushed himself up slowly, gaze and gun locked on the dirt-smeared face below.

"Hey, you alright?" He called out over his shoulder. A string of profanity came in response. "Glad to hear it."

When he looked down, the woman's demeanour had completely changed. Gone was the steely defiance and hatred, replaced by wide-eyed fear and vulnerability. Like this, she looked younger than he had thought her to be. With an exasperated sigh, Blaze let his arm fall. She was younger than he had thought.

The girl's eyes shone with a flicker of hope as she saw the gun drop to his side. She looked up at him with a silent plea, tentatively inching backwards as she lifted her torso off the ground.

"She's just a kid. We have to regroup with the others anyway. Let's just -"

A small shriek pierced the air. Blaze stilled, unable to tear his eyes from the girl as her head snapped back, the force of the bullet slamming her body into the ground. A stream of blood trickled down her forehead and leaked into her cropped hair. Though her open eyes were still with death, her fingers twitched sporadically before coming to a rest.

"Come on, let's go." Splint walked past without a glance, a thin cloud of smoke still trailing from his rifle.

"What… What the hell, Splint?"

Finally broken from his trance, Blaze stormed ahead. "What the hell? You didn't need to do that. You didn't need to fucking kill her."

Splint gave no indication of having heard him. He continued on without a word.

"Hey, did you hear me? You didn't need to -"

Suddenly, Splint whipped around and slammed his arm into Blaze's chest. He shoved him against a tree, keeping a firm grasp when he tried to fight back.

"Yes, I did. Just think it through, Blaze. What do you think'd be the first thing she'd do once she got back to Mom and Dad - who, if they weren't already a part of this shitshow, would probably be the next round of attackers pelting us with bullets and grenades. Or, better yet, say she's from a group with bigger guns and bigger numbers who could wipe us out in a heartbeat. What do you think that would mean for us? For our lives?"

Though his face was contorted with anger and frustration, there was a frantic look in his eyes that betrayed the fear they both felt, the fear that everyone who lived felt no matter how much they tried to hide it. It was a fear that connected them all, and yet inexorably tore them apart.

He loosened his grip on Blaze's shirt, then lifted the pressure from his chest. "We have to think about ourselves. That's just the way it is. It's the way it has to be, unless you want to end up with your guts and brains splattered across the pavement to rot under the sun like them." He gestured towards the corpses lining the street behind them.

Blaze exhaled sharply, rubbing the pain from his battered chest. He stared straight at Splint, unable to voice the barrage of thoughts running through his head. He wanted to tell him that there was another way to live. That taking the chance of letting an innocent kid go was worth the risk if the alternative meant ending her life on the spot. That killing wasn't the only option. But those thoughts were quashed before they could reach his mouth.

"And you know what? I think you know that too. I've seen you kill. So don't get up on your high horse and lecture me about morals and compassion. Compassion…" He laughed, the word contorting his mouth like it was foreign, unfamiliar, or at least long forgotten. "Compassion is archaic. It's dead - and for good reason. It gives all the power to the enemy. It ends with a knife in the back, a bullet to the head. It always…" He lowered his gaze to the dead foliage rotting the ground. A regressive darkness cast a shadow in his eyes.

The two stood motionless, neither one able to speak or move over the looming silence. Somewhere from the mass of branches above, a lone bird trilled softly, as if oblivious to the world around it.

Blaze swung his rifle over his shoulder by the strap, then took a step forward. He made as if to clasp a hand over Splint's shoulder, but paused and with a deep breath continued forward.

"Your head's bleeding," was all he said.