Ice Cold - Part One: The Dark Zone

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: February 27, 2019

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Submitted: February 27, 2019

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One does not navigate through the Appalachian Mountains with ease if he does not belong there, especially in the dead of night. The glow of a single propane lantern is hardly enough to provide sight in the darkness while surrounded by the great cluster of tall trees.

In the immense dark of night, a group of young men slowly made their way through the woods. Two of them were leading the way; one holding a small propane lantern in front of him while the other stood by his side, wielding a rough blacksmith short sword. Following just behind them, a third man was carrying a wounded figure around his shoulders. At the rear of the group a second swordsman was standing guard. They had been hiking throughout the wooded mountain range for a couple of miles, but it was not for their own amusement. The light emitted from the lantern slightly illuminated the holder’s face, revealing a large, dark bruise mark on his temple. Similar marks were shared among the entire group, for only hours before they had been assaulted while resting by unseen intruders. The attackers swooped in so fast and so stealthily that none of them had known what had hit them until long after it was over. They had all been knocked unconscious by blunt objects and some of them awoke to find their old, battered clothes covered in dried blood. But the factor that concerned the man holding the lantern the most was the fact that before the attack there were twelve of them. Now there was only five, and the most unfortunate of them was lying slumped over the shoulders of his comrade.

The man leading the group suddenly stopped and raised his hand to signal the others to be still. He set the lantern down and vigilantly scoped around the dark woods for a brief minute before leaning over toward his blade-wielding compeer.

“Go check it out.” He said, pointing in the forward direction. Without hesitation, the young tyro cautiously walked forth toward the dark-engulfed tree line. As he watched his guard disappear, the man hazily pondered the reason they were even out here in this dreary, wooded desolation, and the events that had led up to their very involvement. Unfortunately, little was known to him about the people above him and their convictions that continued to leave him and his comrades isolated deep in the woods of the mountains for months on end. Despite what he sometimes thought of his leaders, everyone knew they had no choice but to trust them, unless any of them saw more fit to be left for dead in the middle of the cold wilderness.

In the midst of his deep thoughts, the man was disturbed by a sudden, awful moaning sound. Perturbed, he turned around to see his cohort setting the wounded figure on the ground as he writhed slowly and painfully, and constantly letting out a loud, anguished groan. The man leading the group held his lantern over toward his unsettling party. The maimed character continued to moan and gripe in pain.

The man shook his head in annoyance. 

“Would you shut him up?” he growled under his breath.

The one who had been carrying him glared back at him hazily. “What the hell do want me to do, knock him out?” The injured wretch hissed in discomfort, his veins bulged in his hands as he twisted and turned on the ground to blot out the pain.

The rear guard turned his attention to the group and planted his foot lightly on the disturbed figure’s head. He stopped squirming instantly. 

“Keep quiet! They’re still out there.” He whispered loudly. He looked up at the trees and glanced around aimlessly but cautiously. “They could be watching us right now. Waiting. Waiting to swoop down from the trees and deliver the final blow.” Feeling himself slowly begin to panic, he grasped his stone blade with both hands and held it in front of him.

The leader of the group flicked his hand to signal the panicking rear guard to back off of the wounded victim. 

“Calm yourself,” he hissed at his comrade. “If they wanted to kill us they would have done it already.”

The paranoid man lifted his foot off of the poor victim and took a step back. He took a quick glance up into the darkness of the wooded canopy and then turned back to glare at their ringleader with a huff. 

“I’m tired of this.” he growled, pointing his finger. “I’m tired of putting my life and everything I have in the hands of that homeless son of a bitch and sleeping out here night after night, just waiting to be slaughtered, while he lounges around in the safety of his own confines!”

“What do you mean everything you have?” his other companion scoffed. “What kind of living did you think you were making out in the real world?”

The rear sentinel suddenly shifted his attention to his jeerer and clenched his fists. 

“Don’t make me put a steel-toe up your ass. My patience has serious limits right now.”

“Don’t you threaten me! You had nothing and you know it. That’s the way of the world, my friend. That’s the only reason you came out here in the first place: because you’re nothing and you’ll always be nothing!”

Upon hearing that final sentiment the man holding the backward guard felt himself lose his cool and lunged toward his comrade. The other reached for the short sword sheathed on his belt but before either of them could make a decisive move their leader had swiftly drawn his own blade and thrust it between their paths. 

“Both of you stay where you are!” he commanded out loud. “Any more incompetence and this pitiful infighting will do those ruthless animals out there a favor.”

The rear guard growled at his comrade and backed away in conformity, as the other relieved his grip on his sheathed sword and exhaled loudly. Though they both knew that their ringleader was right. It had been many months since anyone had heard wind of any news regarding their primary leader. As far as was previously known he had been keeping himself secluded in a small fortress camp he had set up in a valley trough somewhere in the southern territories of these Adirondack mountain ranges. The name of this mysterious inciter, though it was rarely spoken unless necessary, was Ramon Moreno.

Only years before, while he was a young vicenarian, he and his younger brother, Robert, had led an expedition into the heart of the Adirondack mountains; a territory the surrounding locals referred to as the ‘Dark Zone.’ It was a large, enclosed area of tall hills and small valleys completely perimetered by miles of Appalachian mountain ranges. The area received its nickname by the citizens who resided in and near the base of the woods and the mountains for one primary reason: nobody who ventured in ever came out.

Most people simply accepted the territory as dangerous and thought nothing else of it, preferring not to dwell on the vast rumors that emerged from the dark enclave. However, there were others who found the Dark Zone highly interesting and constantly spoke of the rumors and whispers regarding its hazard. Some believed the area to simply be a natural labyrinth of trees and creeks and hills so confounding and difficult to navigate that those who dared to enter its borders would become lost forever. Despite that most popular belief, no one, not even any trained rescue teams, would dare to cross into this perilous, off-the-grid territory. So some others figured that the area was completely populated by untamed wild animals. One of the craziest rumors was that there was some sort of secret government organization somewhere in the center regions of the Dark Zone who did not want anyone stumbling upon what they might be working on.

Whatever the reasons this much was clear; the Dark Zone was literally ‘dark.’ If one searched its coordinates through a satellite its image was intentionally blurred at all times. Commercial airlines and other aircraft always avoided flying too close to its boundaries. Even the domestic animals of the residences nearest to its borders stayed away, for sense that there was something uninviting about it. But as the rumors behind the Dark Zone’s mysteries began to grow and spread, more and more variations started rising as the media unhesitantly took hold of the intriguing story. Some people, very few, but some who lived closest to the shadows of the mountains spoke softly of a mysterious warrior race; some sort of hidden, secret society dwelling in the vast territories of the Dark Zone.

In the early months of 2005, despite any and all warnings and rumors surrounding the mystery of the redoubtable territories, word was spread throughout the Adirondacks of a young vagabond by the name of Ramon Moreno gathering a sizable following and leading them straight into the eastern borders of the Dark Zone. No one ever knew of his exact intentions or what kind of nerve he had managed to muster, but for three watchful years never was there a sign of anybody among the expedition coming out of the Dark Zone. Although with every month that passed more and more forlorn characters were seen traveling into the inscrutable mountains, always never to come back out. And so even to this day the Dark Zone remains ever mysterious and avoided by the citizens who thrived in its innocuous shadow.

The man leading the small, distressed party had heard all of the tales and horror stories about the mountains but little was known even to him about Ramon Moreno’s business in these parts, for they were not a part of the original expedition. They each travelled to the Dark Zone about two years prior to this night when they had heard of Moreno’s vague intentions, but the majority of their involvement was spent performing reconnaissance hikes in the wilderness for weeks, sometimes even months at a time. Who or what it was they were dealing with out here, or even why, remained as much of a question of interest to them as the cloud that surrounded their leader.

As the head of the small group began to withdraw his blade, a sudden rustling in the trees behind them caused him to jerk around quickly. Before he could brace himself for the worst, his comrade whom he had sent to scout ahead only moments earlier emerged from the darkness, much to his relief. He let out a soft exhale and released his grip on his stone sword. Then he looked at his returned partner as if waiting for him to provide news of some sort. Instead, he just nodded and gestured slightly to the dark path behind him.

That was all the man needed to know that a safe haven of some kind was just ahead of them. He turned to his other compatriots. 

“Let’s move,” he ordered, then pointed down at the wounded slump still lying on the ground. “Grab him. Let’s get out of here.”

Without hesitation, the one who had been carrying the half-conscious unfortunate picked him back up and slung him over his shoulders. The rear guard produced his sword again and resumed his position, while the leader of the party grabbed the old lantern sitting on the ground and adjusted the rusty vents on it to enlarge the small flame. Once they all recovered their positions for their seemingly perilous hike through the dark of the night, they continued forward through the dense woods. They moved with more haste now, anxious to get to safety and away from the eyes and ears and claws of what was deemed to be the enemy territory.

Fortunately for the uneasy group, as was hoped, the second part of their night journey was much shorter than the first. In only a few minutes of winding through the trees a faint light could be seen in the near distance. As they approached it, the dark outline of human figures emerged slowly and prepared to greet them. The man of the pack raised his lantern and one of the aphotic figures stepped forward into the light. He was not much different from all of the other individuals there; he was dressed in clothes dirty, torn and battered due to countless nights at a time stuck in the wilderness. Not far behind him, in a clearing amongst the trees, was a small cluster of shabby tents pitched roughly in a circle. The light they had followed came from a weak fire which had a much larger group of people crowded around it, all dressed and armed similarly. The party stopped in their tracks and the man sent to recognize them only glared curiously at the one leading them.

The two of them exchanged looks of contempt for a moment until at last the man from the disgraceful campsite spoke. 

“What are you doing back here?” he asked bluntly. He looked around at his poor company.

The man holding the lantern instantly grew impatient and angry. 

“I’m not talking to you.” he replied, raising his finger at his confronter. “You tell that idiot Ramirez to stop hiding behind his tent flap and come out here and face the truth for himself.”

His greeter opened his mouth to respond but he was suddenly interrupted by a hard, stern voice behind him. 

“Face the truth for myself?” With that comment, the man from the crummy safe haven lowered his head slightly and stepped to the side. Just behind him, another figure stood up from the crowd surrounding the fire and ambled toward them. He was significantly taller and older than most of them, but no better dressed. Unlike anyone else, he was displaying a slight but rather arrogant smile as he approached the entourage. “Morales, my young acquaintance, I don’t believe we’re expecting your group back for another two days.” he stated, outstretching his arms carelessly. “If everyone under my lead were just as sad and pitiful as you then how do you think that would reflect on my position?”

Feeling enraged, the man leading the group, called Morales, released his hold on the lantern and let it drop to the ground with a loud clang. 

“This is bull crap! How many more of us have to die out there before Moreno sees reason?” he spat at the one called Ramirez.

“Do not speak like that about Ramon Moreno!” the man who first greeted them interjected angrily.

Instantly, Ramirez put his hand out to silence his companion. 

“It’s alright, let him speak his mind. You spend as much time out in such a desolation as him and you’d likely also feel the delirium begin to take over, don’t you think?” The man nodded his head and stepped back.

Morales was still feeling the heat of his outrage fill him up. 

“You listen to me now, and you listen well; twelve of us you sent out there last week, Ramirez, twelve!” He rounded his arm in front of the rest of his party. “Five of us came back this time. We cannot keep performing these senseless patrols blindly through the mountains like this, it’s madness!”

Before he even finished speaking Ramirez raised his hand and rolled his eyes. 

“You know what, Morales? It’s the same thing every time from you: I send you out on typical recon like I do all of the others, but you’re the only one who comes back with nothing but excuses. ‘Someone attacked us on the paths’,” he mocked. “‘They don’t want us out here anymore, Ramirez’. I certainly don’t hear any of these justifications from anyone else.”

“You don’t send any of the other groups out into the heart of those animals’ territory!” Morales fired back. “And in case you failed to notice, once again, we are missing more than half of our entire recon party! Care to explain that?”

Ramirez looked at the men standing behind his subject and hissed quietly as he tried to sum up the situation. 

“You claim it’s ‘them’ who keep assaulting your men and stalking you in the middle of the night but tell me, dear friend, have you ever seen them? Ever caught them in the act?”

Morales’ eyes widened. He was taken aback by the question. Sure it was true he had never properly seen who or what it was that kept disturbing them on their routine mission in the darkness of the mountain woods, but he simply could not understand what more he needed to say to convince Ramirez and everyone else that something needed to be done immediately. 

“How can you still be so ignorant?” he said, frustrated. “Why can you not face the facts!?”

“Because, boy,” his superior replied sternly. “This is hostile territory, you should know that. This is what you signed up for and God only knows what kind of animals are out there or how many there might be. Your predicaments, as far as I’m concerned, are nothing more than nighttime animal raids due to your clearly inept ability to take proper precautions when performing a simple scouting routine through the God-forsaken mountains!”

At the sound of his loud sentiment, the slumped figure hanging over Morales’ comrade’s shoulders began to groan and writhe again in discomfort. Feeling weary of lugging him around, the man carrying him set him down on the ground in front of him, where he continued to squirm.

Ramirez glanced past his secondary at the unfortunate wretch. 

“What’s wrong with him?” he asked, gesturing toward the fifth member of the disgruntled party.

At this point, Morales was not exactly sure what to think about this guy anymore. He stepped over to stand by the side of Ramirez and spoke softly into his ear. 

“They left us a message.” He whispered. Ramirez’s eyebrow raised in curiosity as Morales then turned and signaled for his comrade to show him what he was referring to. The man settling their derelict peer sighed as he repositioned him so that he was sitting with his back facing the two of them. Then he reached over and brought the lantern closer as he pulled his smudged top up to reveal the flesh of his back.

Upon seeing the revolting horror underneath Ramirez gasped out loud and the crowd behind him at the camp fire began murmuring anxiously amongst themselves. Even his seemingly iron willed companion beside him winced in trepid disgust at the sight that marred the man’s flesh. Gathering his nerves, Ramirez kneeled down to get a closer look at the major wound. In the faint light of the propane lantern it was shown in his eyes that he was beginning to feel fear for Moreno’s imprecise cause. Of all of the uncertainties that were hanging over their heads lately, one thing was clear to him now; these were no animals.

“Certainly a sight to behold, isn’t it?” Morales interrupted his disturbed thoughts.

Ramirez stood back up and turned toward him. “What does it mean?”

Morales laughed. 

“You’re asking me? I’m not the superior hand-chosen by Moreno himself, my friend,” he scoffed. Then, turning serious, he continued, “Alright look, this is the only clue we have. Either we were out cold in sleep or knocked out, I don’t know, but when we woke up the others were gone, taken, and we found this one hanging unconscious by his overshirt on a low tree branch. It wasn’t long until we discovered the surprise they left for us.”

Ramirez only looked down at the terrifying sight in dread. His mind was racing as he tried to sort out the situation at hand. Whatever would he tell his own superiors who reported directly to Moreno? That after three years his own worst fears were suddenly coming into fruition? Maybe Morales was right. Maybe it was time something be done about whatever mindless savages were out there, watching their every move.

“Ramirez,” his comrade stepped forward impatiently. “What do we do? Should we send out a warning to Moreno’s camp?”

Ramirez pondered all of his few options for a moment. He let out a rough sigh of compliance and then turned to his companion. 

“No,” he responded, placing his hand lightly on his shoulder. “Not yet. Inform Caine at the Iron Furnace that our enemies might still be out there. We need to know our next best option. He’ll know how to handle this. Go, quickly.” His comrade nodded in approval and darted off into the startled crowd behind them. “At least I hope so, or we might be in big trouble.” Ramirez reached up and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he stared one more time down at the large, chirographed lacerations carved into the wounded man’s back which read in bloody, roughly cut writing:

 

“Ravenna will be avenged!”


© Copyright 2019 Taylor Caley. All rights reserved.

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