(Dedicated to Edward De Souza)
The trees were a blur as the girl ran past them, her thick black hair trailing her like a wild wave. Leaves cascaded down gently, encasing her in silky shades of brown & yellow. She was in a hurry. Chasing after something she couldn’t yet see.
Chasing after someone.
It was autumn and the woods around her had a melancholy atmosphere. The colors were soft & muted. Winter would be here soon and the air was already feeling chilly.
The girl ran hard.
Then she stopped.
Just beyond the bush in front of her stood a young boy her age. He had a cheeky smile on his chubby face. He waved at her, then ducked and vanished behind the bush.
She took five quick steps forward and jumped. She dived over the bush, expecting to pounce on her prey – only to find a blank expanse of space!
The girl let out a yelp of alarm as she landed headfirst on the steep incline, then did an involuntary somersault. Before she knew it, she was sliding down the hill - kicking up a shower of leaves & soil as she bounced up and down like a rag-doll - before landing at the bottom.
She sucked in a deep breath, angry but unhurt. The ground had been soft enough to cushion her landing. She lifted her head, shaking the dirt from her hair.
There he was again, kneeling before her with his arms folded and his face showing cheeky amusement.
"Are you okay?"
She rolled her eyes and got herself to a sitting position.
He reached forward to help her up.
"I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to…"
She smiled and lunged at him.
The boy pulled away from her and fell backwards, comically landing on his buttocks. He got up quickly – turned - and ran. She followed in hot pursuit.
"I’m still going to catch you! You just wait…"
The children’s collective laughter echoed through the woods. More leaves fell around them, signaling the subtle warmth of autumn before the absolute frost of winter. So beautiful and innocent…
FIFTEEN YEARS LATER
Winter has come to this broken town of Hystira. The snow sliced down on a virgin white landscape scarred by bloody war.
Destroyed buildings. Human bodies on the streets. Dead animals in the surrounding fields. Bomb craters everywhere.
It was strangely quiet in this frozen hell.
It began three days ago.
A Serbian convoy of tanks rolling across a bridge close to Hystira was struck by the guerilla Kosovo Liberation Army. With frightening speed, the rebels used rockets to attack the tanks at the front & the rear of the armored column, turning them into flaming wrecks. The Serbs were trapped on the bridge, unable to go forward or backward.
Before the tanks’ cannons could be brought to bear on the KLA positions, a loud rumble filled the air. The bridge was split in half by a powerful remote-controlled explosion. Thirty Serb conscripts were sent plunging to their deaths into the raging river below.
Two days later, the Serbian paramilitary retaliated by surrounding nearby Hystira. Heavy mortar & mobile artillery leveled out half the town in under an hour, and then hundreds of men swept in backed by several light tanks & dozens of armored personnel carriers equipped with heavy machine-guns.
‘If you do not come out from your houses, you will be shot!’ screamed the emboldened Serb commander through a loudspeaker.
A few men complied, meekly leaving their houses with their hands raised. Gunshots rang out, and they were cut down on their doorsteps as they tried to surrender. They would die hearing the bitter screams of their wives & children. Soon, even their lives were snuffed out as they were machine-gunned with powerful 50-caliber bullets through the flimsy cinder-block walls of their homes.
Another bombardment of artillery fire was called in – and then it stopped, just like that. The Serbs decided not to waste anymore ammunition. The shock of inhuman brutality was sufficient to traumatize the Albanians into submission.
Coldly methodical, the Serbs rounded up the surviving townspeople and marched them to the nearby fields at gunpoint. They herded them into a vast empty barn and barred the doors shut. Then, as some reloaded their automatic weapons, other Serbs dipped wooden sticks in petrol and set them alight.
The soldiers chambered their rifles and aimed them through the windows. An old man who had survived the Second World War stared at the array of gun-barrels aimed at him and his grandchildren at point-blank-range. It all seemed oddly reminiscent of what he had seen the Nazis do during his youth.
The elderly Albanian could only reflect on the sickening feeling building in his chest: So this is what the Jews must have felt like in their final moments.
The Serbs opened fire – unleashing hundreds of rounds – turning the insides of the barn into a hellish cauldron of horrified screams & squirming bodies painted by flashes of crimson red.
Moments later, they finished their grisly task by tossing flaming torches into the mass of unmoving bodies.
As the barn went up in flames, the soldiers walked away with a nationalistic song on their lips which they sang with melodious fervor.
‘We are the children of Yugoslavia, the pioneers of our generation. We are on a mission. We know we must go on and on; if we are to cleanse our land…’
For the survivors that escaped the massacre by slipping past the Serbs, the snow-capped hills surrounding Hystira proved to be a refuge from the madness that had shattered their tranquil world.
Huddled in the thick undergrowth, they listened with apprehension as the Serb assault exploded with all its fury in the valley below. The roar of explosions intermingled with the constant crackle of gunfire.
The terrifying sounds lasted for a full three hours before dying down completely.
Still, they were afraid to leave the safety of their hiding-place. They could only shed tears & shake with fear as they considered the fate of their loved ones.
It was only after sundown - when temperatures dropped and darkness bloomed - that they summoned up the courage to cautiously make their way back into town.
The destruction and carnage that greeted their shocked eyes was enough to send the men among them sobbing in outrage.
Weapons of war may have killed Hystira, but it was malice & hatred that had sealed its fate.
News spread of the massacre. A contingent of KLA troops emerged like ghosts from the snowy darkness, much to the indifference of the survivors who were stricken with grief and driven to the point of madness by the grotesque horror that had been inflicted upon them.
There was little the guerillas could do but set up shelters & provide warm food, then put away their weapons to mourn alongside the last living men & women of Hystira.
The Serbs had left behind a chilling message: you launch an attack on us, we wipe out a town of yours.
Vengeance gives birth to vengeance: by daybreak, the Kosovo Liberation Army had thirty willing recruits on its hands.
But the grim business of war had to be put on hold while they performed the sobering task of laying the dead to rest…
At the center of Hystira stood the town’s only hotel, a quaint structure that stood seven-stories high like a tall lonely sentinel amidst the smaller shops & houses. The early rays of the morning sun revealed a multitude of battle-scars from the previous day’s attack.
The walls of the hotel’s exterior were in a sorry state, cruelly raked as they were by scores of shrapnel and bullets. Most of the windows had been blown in, allowing cold wind & freezing snow to intrude within. The entrance to the hotel was a mass of rubble, and the once charming canopy had now collapsed; its beautiful canvas torn to shreds. The façade of the building, once coated by neat white paint, now looked desolate & blackened from a recent fire. The pretty flowering plants in the small garden had been cruelly trampled by Serb military vehicles passing through as they chased down helpless Albanians.
The sides of the hotel bore the brunt of the damage, with sections of the walls on the ground level blasted away by tank shells. What remained were massive jagged holes that hinted at the semi-dark interior within. Peering in, one could see that the furniture in the exposed rooms were strewn about - with many fixtures & accessories missing - the result of looting by the soldiers, obviously looking for trinkets to claim for their own as rewards for a job well done...
It was near this damaged hotel – on the street running alongside it – that a grim procession of people were marching past as they carried their dead friends & relatives on hastily-constructed stretchers covered with thick white sheets. Snowflakes fell fast and the sun shone down with gentle rays. The emotions of grief & sadness permeated the atmosphere of the moment.
They walked with deliberate slowness and shuffled along in silence – heading for the fields at the edge of town – each one trying his or her best to remain dignified in the face of such tragedy.
It was this scene that unfolded to the man crouched behind a window on the sixth floor of the hotel. Wearing dark green fatigues and camouflaged by the darkness, he peered through the telescopic sight of the rifle pressed against his shoulder. He watched the Albanians with morbid curiosity.
He had a pudgy frame, and behind the splotches of black face-paint was a stern expression that outlined unbridled toughness.
The man wore a dark-red beret on his head. The insignia stitched into it matched the one on his shoulder. It depicted the fearsome image of a wolf baring its teeth, framed by two ancient weapons from the past: a broadsword & a spear, both dripping with blood.
The eerie simplicity of the design reflected the dark mission of the unit of which the man was a member: bloodthirsty hunters making full-use of their fearsome weapons & innate killer-instincts to maliciously hunt down their prey.
They were nothing less but a death squad of snipers – covertly left behind as the bulk of the Serbian paramilitary pulled out yesterday – waiting for the right moment to strike.
The voice that crackled in the man’s earpiece dripped with charismatic authority: "Take the first shot. We will back you up."
The man nodded.
He lined up his sights for a young man at the front of the procession.
He squeezed his trigger.
The loud report of the gunshot filled the air and shattered the silence. The man’s head exploded in a shock of red and his limp body flopped to the ground. The older men behind him stared with shock, their hands still occupied with lifting a stretcher.
It was just what the sniper wanted. They were too shocked to run!
He pulled back on the rifle’s bolt, sending a spent shell whizzing out of the chamber. Quickly he drew a bead and fired again. Another man collapsed.
The crowd was now in full panic, jettisoning the stretchers on the street as they scurried away in every direction.
More bullets were fired.
More Albanians fell.
The Serb sniper stopped to reload his rifle.
He was in no particular hurry. He smiled as his ears picked up several shots echoing through the vast empty confines of the hotel; the sounds of his comrades discharging their weapons. He decided to take a short breather and enjoy the chaotic scene for a while before participating again.
He reached for his binoculars and lifted it to peer out the window - faint traces of a song building on his dry lips – watching the fleeing people as they were gunned down.
‘We are the children of Yugoslavia, the pioneers of our generation. We are on a mission. We know we must go on and on; if we are to cleanse our land…’
His jovial mood didn’t last long, because at that very moment, the dark outline of a shadow appeared out of nowhere to dangle in front of his window. It was the sinister profile of a human being clad in black, hanging upside-down!
The barrel of a pistol was pressed against the right side of his binoculars.
The gloved hand squeezed the trigger.
The bullet blasted through the lens – entering his eyeball and turning his brain to mush – before exploding out the back of his head.
The sniper dropped backwards. He struck the floor hard and his beret slid away. A puddle of blood seeped out to outline his smashed skull. His remaining glassy eye was wide with fear – his face frozen in a last death-stare at the ceiling – even as his mouth stretched wide open in a silent scream.
One moment he had been singing a song. And then nothing…
Ben was tall and slender; handsome with his classic Serbian features of dark hair, light skin and pale blue eyes. His angular face sparkled with ruthless enthusiasm.
He was on the roof of the hotel, sitting cross-legged with his Russian Dragunov perched on the ledge in front of him. The snow beat down with furious intensity from above, helping to conceal his silhouette from human eyes.
Like a king on a high throne, he swept his calculative eyes over the domain below him. He glimpsed a guerilla feebly trying to sneak his way towards the hotel.
The sides of Ben’s mouth twitched into a sneer. His skilled hands swiftly brought his sleek rifle around. His motion was superhumanly quick & certain as his finger tapped the trigger.
The shot tore through the man’s throat - blasting him backwards with its shocking impact – splattering the white snow with ugly red.
It was all over in a heartbeat.
Ben drew his head away from the riflescope. He took a long casual drag on his cigarette and allowed his eyes to linger on the obscene sight.
He fancied himself the lord of his realm – striking down all who dared usurp his palace.
It was then that he heard it: a distinct unmistakable pop.
Over the din of gunfire and screams, it was easy to miss. But Ben’s acute hearing told him it was different from the harder crack of his comrades’ rifles. It was lower-pitched and didn’t send out an echo. It sounded just like a 9mm pistol, possibly a Beretta.
A frown washed over his face when he realized that Nicolae wasn’t firing his weapon anymore. He had gone silent just after the mysterious gunshot.
Ben’s hand swiftly thumbed the radio festooned to his belt. He spoke into his headset, "Nicolae?"
"Nicolae? Are you there?"
He switched over to another frequency. "Radovan, do you read?"
"Nicolae isn’t responding. Head to his room. I’ll meet you there."
"On my way."
Ben took another hasty puff on his cigarette, then tossed it over the edge of the rooftop. It flipped end-on-end through the air before being swallowed up by the thickness of the snow.
Ben slung his rifle across his chest. He reached into his backpack for black nylon rope which he swiftly whipped around the circumference of a nearby chimney. His fingers worked fast to secure it with a few expert knots before clipping it to his harness.
Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he plunged over the edge of the rooftop. His skilled hands worked the rope brilliantly, allowing him to abseil down the side of the hotel with phenomenal speed. The breeze rushed up from below to flap his coat furiously, making him look like a descending bird-of-prey.
Suddenly, he jerked his body forward – and hurtled through an open window. He nimbly landed on a creaky table, in a crouched posture with his weapon up and sweeping the room from side-to-side.
He held his breath as he took in the grisly scene.
The expression on Nicolae’s clammy face was that of a terrified man struck down before he had a chance to scream. Ben noticed the binoculars on the floor with one of its lens shattered. Nicolae – despite being an elite member of the feared Wolf Brigade - had never stood a chance. His unknown assailant had taken him down with superb speed and incredible timing.
Ben could only stare in silence.
Who could have done something like this?
The door to the room opened suddenly. Radovan peered in with his pistol up.
"It’s okay, I’m here," Ben said softly.
Radovan lowered his weapon, then glanced down with widening eyes at Nicolae’s inert body.
He took a step forward and pushed the door wider – and the both of them heard a sharp clicking sound.
Ben shot Radovan a shocked look. A flash of understanding washed over their faces: the door had been booby-trapped with a tripwire attached to a grenade!
Radovan turned and ran back out the doorway – while Ben dived through the window.
As soon as he passed through the window’s opening, Ben gripped his rope hard and swung himself sideways. With dizzying speed, he slammed against the wall alongside the window.
The explosion came a split-second later – shattering everything in the room with thundering force – and sent splinters of debris and shrapnel blasting out of the window in a billowing surge of smoke and flame!
The powerful blast ripped the door off its hinges and sent it cart-wheeling into the narrow hallway just beyond the hotel room.
Radovan dived away as it flew past and smashed into the wall behind him. It stood upright for moment before crashing to the floor, sending smoldering ambers flickering through the air as dirty fumes poured out of the destroyed room.
Lying on the hard wooden floor, Radovan glimpsed the dark silhouette of a person standing at the other end of the hallway.
He froze as he watched the figure melt into the semi-darkness.
It was the one who had killed Nicolae.
Ben’s voice crackled on his radio, jarring him back to his senses: "Radovan, do you hear me? What’s going on?"
It was then that the adrenaline seared his veins and sent his heart racing.
"The bastard is down the hallway! I’m going after him!"
Radovan sprung to his feet, whipping his AK-47 around to fire from the hip. The Kalashnikov exploded with all its fury, covering the whole corridor in a sweeping arc of gunfire.
Breathing hard, Radovan reached the end of the corridor and rounded the corner – only to find himself looking at a wall!
"Do not pursue him yourself! It’s a trap, damn it!"
It was at that moment that a loop of rope came down from above and deftly slipped around his neck. The assassin dropped down from the ceiling and landed behind him.
The assassin’s gloved hands were gripping a rope which led to a special pulley mounted on the ceiling. The pulley, in turn, was attached to the noose around Radovan’s neck!
The assailant gave the rope a hard pull. The pulley creaked – and Radovan shot upwards.
"Radovan, did you hear what I just said?"
The AK-47 clattered to the floor as his frantic hands tried to relieve the pressure on his throat. His legs wriggled desperately and his eyes bulged with fear. He was choking so bad that the bile literally exploded from his mouth as he made awful retching noises.
The last thing the dying Serb saw was the lithe profile of a female killer with thick pony-tailed hair trailing behind her as she disappeared out a nearby window.
The assassin climbed out onto the windowsill – just as Ben came fast-roping through the snowy mist; from the extreme end of the wall to her left.
He catapulted towards her with his face contorted in rage and his right hand gripping a compact Skorpion machine-pistol.
Already harnessed, the assassin jumped forward and slid down her rope - just as a spray of bullets punctured the wall beside her.
The swift whirl of Ben’s weapon was quickly challenged by the hard rumble of the assassin’s Enfield assault rifle.
Both of them abseiled straight down the side of the building, exchanging a barrage of wild shots as they plunged at breakneck speed.
Then, just when it seemed that Ben was gaining on her, the assassin eluded him by ending her descent to smash through a room window. She landed hard on a squeaky bed.
She quickly disengaged her harness, then hurried out of the room into the corridor. The assassin was now on the third floor of the hotel.
She was quickly confronted by the fully-shaven soldier named Jovica as he suddenly emerged from the staircase further down the corridor.
He raised his pump-action shotgun and fired – forcing her to dive back into the room.
Jovica didn’t bother coming any closer. He just used a quick toss to send two grenades whistling down the hallway before ducking back into the safety of the stairwell.
The assassin saw them coming.
She lashed out with her foot, swinging the room door shut with one desperate kick. She heard the dull thuds of the grenades bouncing off the wood – before they exploded ferociously, shaking the walls and kicking up a thick dust-cloud.
Jovica’s movements were slow and deliberate as he zigzagged down the corridor, being sure to keep himself close to the walls. Dust swirled through the air and he couldn’t see anything.
He gripped his shotgun tighter and took another step forward.
A hand came down on his shoulder.
He almost jumped.
"It’s me…" whispered Ben’s tense voice.
Jovica relaxed as he turned to face his commander. His mouth opened to say something – but he was cut off by the sound of footsteps rushing down the corridor ahead of them. Before either of them could do anything, a black wraith burst out of the dusty fog, catching them both by surprise.
It was a rush-attack: The assassin had a Beretta in one hand and a double-barreled shotgun in the other!
Jovica was killed instantly as pistol rounds drilled him in the stomach & the chest.
Ben gave up trying to fight back. He dropped his heavy Dragunov and ran in the opposite direction. He got out his Skorpion and fired wildly behind him as he fled.
He had barely reached the staircase when the boom of the assassin’s shotgun filled his ears. The wall behind him was blown apart in a shower of wood. The explosion blasted him off his feet and sent him tumbling down the flight of stairs.
Ben landed at the bottom in a disheveled heap. He sucked in a panicked breath and blinked with surprise. The assassin was using a special shotgun shell screwed to a brass tube filled with explosive.
She was out to finish him off by any means necessary!
Pure fear forced him to his feet as he glimpsed his pursuer’s shadow closing in on him. He pounced down the remainder of the stairs, taking two steps at a time.
He had almost reached the ground floor when a door sprung open – revealing two KLA guerillas who were just as surprised to see him as he was to see them.
Ben reacted first, sliding down the banister as he opened fire with his Skorpion. The two men fell. He snatched up an AK-47 and kept on running. He made his way across the lobby of the hotel, then burst through the swiveling door that led to the kitchen.
The door swung back and forth on its hinges as he desperately looked for another way out of the kitchen. Pots and pans around him; big refrigerators here and there; ovens and stoves everywhere; but no escape!
He was breathing heavily, pacing back and forth through the narrow aisles. His eyes were wild as they darted back and forth with apprehension.
Nowhere to run! He was trapped!
It was then that the assassin kicked the door open. She jumped upwards and did a full-legged split, using the soles of her boots to press against either side of the doorframe! Suspended in mid-air with the door wide open, she pressed her British-made Enfield against her shoulder and stared down the barrel.
Ben quickly ducked behind a sturdy looking refrigerator – just as the assassin jammed her finger down on the trigger and sent bullets ricocheting all over the kitchen in screeching showers of sparks.
The angry barrage was deafening, bouncing off the walls of the kitchen with fierce intensity. It enveloped Ben’s senses like a wailing banshee, forcing him to cup his ears in despair.
Then, it was over.
Ben waited for a full minute.
Slowly, very slowly, he peered out from his hiding place. All he saw was the kitchen door swiveling back and forth.
He swallowed the lump in his throat, then sank back down behind his hiding place. Somewhere in the dark kitchen, she was waiting for him; waiting to kill him just like she had killed the others.
It was then that the unseen assassin’s voice came from close by, surprisingly soft-spoken with an articulate female charm: "How does it feel to be a hunted animal, Ben?"
His heart almost dropped at the mention of his name. His lips quivered as he released the clip on his AK-47 and checked it. It had a full load. Good. He was going to need it. He slapped the magazine back into the weapon.
"I’m going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, Prince Lazar Of Serbia stood on the fields of Kosovo at the eve of a great battle. He had assembled around him the mightiest of the Balkan military. He had Bosnian warriors, Albanian knights & Hungarian horsemen; the cream of the crop. Still, the prince found himself deeply troubled. For his enemy was no ordinary one. They were the Turks, a mighty juggernaut force that had crushed the Serbs a few years earlier. The prince doubted himself. Had his people come so far only to face humiliating defeat yet again? Perhaps he should just retreat? It was at that very moment that Saint Ilija visited him in the form of a falcon. He offered Prince Lazar the choice between a kingdom on earth and a kingdom in heaven. Do you know what happened next?"
Ben took a deep breath and exhaled before answering softly: "Prince Lazar chose honor. He wisely chose heaven, and rode out to meet his death in glorious battle at the hands of the Turks."
"You know what they say. They say that this Battle of Kosovo Polje was the first time a Serb leader chose death over slavery. They also say that the guiding philosophy of Serbian history was established on that day. I’m not a Serb, so I wouldn’t know. But perhaps you could tell me?"
Ben shook his head and smiled weakly. "Only unity saves the Serbs."
"Unity at any cost, isn’t that right?"
Ben just laughed in exasperation. "Are you trying to mock me to death? Who the hell are you?"
The assassin was standing with her back pressed against a marble-lined pillar. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes as she lifted her head to stare at the ceiling. "It’s your childhood friend Andrea. Don’t you remember me? Don’t you remember the games we used to play during autumn time?"
Ben could only frown as he cradled the Kalashnikov on his lap. Memories flooded his consciousness. He closed his eyes as scenes from his childhood flashed in his mind: the leaves, the woods and the laughter. He opened his eyes and they disappeared instantly. They all seemed like images from another lifetime.
"So, it’s true, then? The stories I’ve heard about the female angel of death. The shadow that hunts down Serbian soldiers in retribution for what we’ve done. It was you!" He snorted in disgust before continuing, "Andrea, I never dreamt we would be playing our childhood game of catch again. Chasing each other for real. And now, you’ve killed my men in cold blood. Are you going to do that to me too? Is that what you want?"
"Not before you tell me why you took up a gun to kill Albanians."
"Why? Why? Isn’t it obvious why? When I went off to college in Sebrenica, I learnt a lot of things! A lot of the history that I never knew before. A lot of lessons that opened my eyes. For the first time in my life, I realized what it means to be a Serb! I realized what it means to have Serbian pride run in my blood. It is something to be upheld and cherished! It’s worth much more than a birthright, it’s a destiny in itself. For me, everything has changed!"
"What about our friendship?"
"What about it, Andrea? Take a look around you. Things have changed. Hell, even you’ve changed. Why else would you be taking up a gun?"
"I never liked guns, you know. I’d rather be studying about computers," she replied in jest. "But the war changed everything. I found out that you had come back to Kosovo. But you did not come back as the Ben I knew. You returned… only to lead a bloodthirsty group of sharpshooters. That’s when I decided to come after you."
"So, sweet Andrea seeks me out after so many years – but only so she can take me down. Isn’t that ironic?"
"I’m still wondering how things came to be this way," Andrea mused. "If you could, would you change the bad things that’s happened? Would you turn your back on this mad world of death & destruction? Would you rather have things the way they were when we were innocent children?"
"What we had a long time ago was a beautiful autumn. It always comes before winter. And just like Prince Lazar at the crossroad of his life, what would I choose? I would choose to fight my battle, just like he fought his."
"And you kill the people you grew up with?"
"I’m not sorry that I have blood on my hands. Are you?"
Ben swung out of his hiding-place, just as Andrea leaped away from the pillar – only to find themselves separated by a broad shelf. Both of them brought their guns up at the exact same moment. Like nimble dancers, they sidestepped across the floor on either side of the shelf, the muzzle flashes of their assault rifles lighting up the kitchen’s dark atmosphere as they sent bullets smashing through rows of plates, cups and utensils – before ducking out of sight again.
"Do you value life, Ben?" Andrea asked as she got out her Beretta and pulled back on the slide to chamber a round.
"I value Serbian life."
"But I value Albanian life."
"That makes us enemies then, doesn’t it?"
"Or just friends with an argument to settle."
Andrea emerged with her Beretta gripped in both hands, blasting the row of pots and pans suspended above Ben’s head. He dived away as they came raining down on him. He slid behind a table, firing his Kalashnikov from underneath it.
Andrea jumped backwards as the bullets raked the floor inches away from her feet. She landed on top of an oven with her shotgun ready.
Out of bullets, Ben ran for the swiveling kitchen door.
Andrea squeezed the trigger, and felt the powerful burst of the recoil in her hand as it discharged a round.
He dived forward through the door as the shell punched a hole through a pillar behind him, sending pieces of marble catapulting in all directions.
In a flash, Ben ran past the foyer and charged up the stairs with his feet pounding the wooden steps – with Andrea in dogged pursuit behind him.
Round and round the stairwell they flew as they ascended the steps like fast-moving blurs.
Ben had only reached the fourth floor – when Andrea closed in behind him with a bolo in her hand, a special rope that split into three-sides with a weight on each end.
She swung it forward, twirling it tightly around Ben’s legs. Then, she pulled hard, causing Ben’s legs to fly out from under him. He was sent rolling forward into the corridor.
Ben gritted his teeth. His hand went for the knife sheathed on his thigh as he spun around – only to receive a crash-tackle that sent him blasting out of the window behind him!
For a brief second, Ben felt himself plunging headfirst down the side of the building, before a sudden tug on his feet stopped his heart-stopping free-fall. He sucked in a deep breath, then craned his neck to look up. His feet were still bound by the bolo, with the rope leading up into Andrea’s hands as she stood at the window. He watched with raised eyebrows as she secured the rope to a firm metal bar on the side of the window’s frame.
Then, she leaned out of the window and looked down at him. She whipped out her pistol and aimed it for his head, cocking its hammer with an ominous metallic click.
Hanging upside-down and swinging from side-to-side, Ben stared first at the gun, then at Andrea. He saw tears in her eyes.
Below them, a crowd of angry Albanians was gathering. Vengeance burned in their eyes.
"What are you going to do? Kill me like you killed my men? Execute me in front of a crowd?!?"
Andrea shook her head sadly, her hair billowing in the wind. "No. I’m not going to kill you."
"Then what are you going to do?"
"I’m going to let them decide what they want to do to you. Goodbye, Ben."
With that, Andrea pressed her Beretta against the rope and fired. The bullet sliced through it, snapping it instantly.
Ben fell all the way to the bottom and slammed into a thick outcrop of snow. The enraged mob quickly closed in around him in a tight circle.
The snow came slicing down with renewed intensity over the broken city of Hystira – and Andrea blinked away her tears, turning away just as a man’s terrified scream filled the air…
John Ling is 20 years old and lives in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. He will soon be a full time university student majoring in economics.
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