Like the brand on each palm, so should the Doctrine sear itself into your being. These rules have built a foundation for all Finishers to stand upon. Let it be known that no man is deemed worthy to command until they have lived the Doctrine so thoroughly that they may recite it to perfection. To those who accept the challenge of the Finishers, and leave no beast breathing, your contract awaits. Signature: Jake Reto Date: July 14th 1988 ****[REDACTED]****
Chapter 16: The Blood of the Beast
Jake sat shirtless on a bench with his back against the wall. His hands laid at his sides, numb to the cool metal of the bench. The room was pitch black save for the line of light beneath the door.
The smell of copper stewed with the odor of the eroded pipes and floor tiles.
The darkness acted as his only comfort in the bowels of Dust HQ. Yet the feeling of emptiness, for all its hollowing madness, felt familiar. Jake had been here before, the incubation of faith when left with no other cure.
Why my children, Lord? thought Jake. Why is it you find them so desirable that you could not see fit to wait? How could I live any more as your vessel?
The room echoed with the bolt of the lock shifting against metal. The door gave way to the screech of rickety wheels and the smoke of Cubans.
“Don’t let anyone else in,” said Grit. “No matter what.”
The door locked both men inside alone. The room filled a little with smoke after each word.
“I see it’s finally sunk in,” said Grit as he inched closer.
Jake sat in silence, never taking his eyes off the commander.
“You don’t have to speak, Jake, but I do,” said Grit. “Firstly, The Finishers left the premises with little force. I watched some stagger out beyond our gates staring bewildered out into their surroundings. I imagine some will try to convince themselves they don’t need the hunt, while others will convince their families to move to more dangerous regions for the sake of ‘their protection.’ The lies we tell ourselves…”
Grit took another hit from his cigar. The taste appeared too bitter for his liking.
“Second, your request to see your wife and daughter have been denied. I simply can’t subject you to that. We had to resort to dental records to identify everyone found at the scene. I also can’t offer you any condolences from Mr. Allred. His understanding seems to be that ‘every Finisher knows the risks they bring upon themselves and their families’ said the cunt.”
“What can you offer me?” said Jake.
Grit reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. “Do you smoke, Mr. Reto? I find they take the edge off in these situations.”
Jake took the cigar from Grit and bit off the end. Grit leaned in with his three-torch butane lighter as Jake helped the blue flame along. They sat in the dark recess, deriving what little pleasure could still be found in their lives.
“So…here we are,” said Grit. “The absolute bottom. What else is there left to say? Perhaps there’s still time to purge the poison in your brain. Don’t look at me so confused. Call it what you want– whatever’s inside you that led to sacrificing one family for the memory of another.”
Jake removed the cigar from his mouth and rolled it between his fingers. He talks like I don’t have a knife in my boot. “And you expect me to shut my brain off life a good soldier?”
“As I said before, revenge has no place among soldiers. Admittedly, it’s a hard lesson to learn.”
Grit rolled back before locking the brake on his chair. He took another drag and exhaled slowly.
“Eight years ago one of my men kept his infection a secret. I don’t know what he thought to gain. Fear made him stupid and selfish. His platoon was stationed in a Nevada bunker, clearing out the last of the roving gangs. When the full moon rose, he tore through almost every man and woman as they celebrated a job well done. Survivors radioed back to base. They had sealed themselves in a lower chamber. The door would be destroyed in a matter of hours had we not sent help. That’s when I went in alone–brash and berserk. I hunted him down in a maze coated in the entrails of my company. By the time I found him, he had broken his way inside.”
Grit’s hand shook as he brought the cigar to his mouth. After another exhale, he chuckled.
“When I came to, I was in a hospital bed paralyzed from the waist down. His codename was ‘Ash,’ and he was the last wolf I killed with my own two mitts.” Grit held up his gray hands, illuminated by the embers of his cigar.
Jake remembered the story Soot had told him about her late husband and the ring she wears on a chain. Curious detail to leave out, Joe.
“I bought what only revenge could buy,” said Grit. “From the moment I met you I knew you were dealing in the same currency. I never understood your detainment of Jessup Murrel until now. It wasn’t because of some doctrine or code. It was in service of killing some kid who had nothing to do with your daughter’s death.”
“You’re taking an awful risk speaking to me like this,” said Jake.
“I’m not here to judge your crimes, you’ll do a finer job of that yourself. I want someone to get through to you before it’s too late. Maybe even live in something resembling peace.”
“So what now?” said Jake as he flicked half his cigar onto the tiles. “Am I your prisoner?”
“Your time here is voluntary,” said Grit. “When you leave and where you go is your business. The Dust still have a job to do in the meantime.”
“You’re going after Murrel?”
“We’re going after Fettel,” said Grit. “Allred still wants him captured alive, and he’s offering the largest sum yet. Fettel’s trail does seem to line up with Murrel’s–straight into the mouth of Leek Denaa.”
“Then I’m going with your team.”
Grit sighed. “You’re in no shape to–.”
Jake seized Grit by the sleeve of his jacket. “I need to do this.”
“Take your hand–!”
The blood ran warm over Jake’s fingers. It oozed between them down to the handle of his boot knife–the point slid deep into Grit’s skull from below his chin. His gray face smiled back at Jake through the darkness as black blood seeped from his teeth. “I’m the third man you’ve killed this month,” said Grit as he gargled. “How quickly your lies catch up with you.”
Jake snapped back to reality–his boot knife sheathed cleanly against his right calf.
“Did you hear me, Jake?” said Grit. “It’s not happening.”
“He has my sons, Joe!!” said Jake. “You know I can track him. You know I can get them out of there. Grant me this last request. Please–they’re all I have left.”
Jake’s grip began to loosen on Grit’s sleeve. Before his hand could fall away, Grit reached for him. “This is the last one,” whispered Grit. “Your final mission. Get your boys out of there and move on with your life. Promise me this.”
“I swear on any God that will have me–.”
“God ain’t good enough,” said Grit. “Swear on Samantha. Swear on Nicole and tara that you will end this.”
Jake stared into the old veteran’s eyes. He looked like a future version of himself. Is this what waits for me down my path? thought Jake. He shook hands with the future.
Three choppers would deliver three squads into Alaska. Alpha Squad took the lead, headed by Soot. Beta Squad took point, while Jake filled up Omega Squad. He was outfitted in the same kit he was given during the Bedlam attack, with the addition of an arctic camouflage parka and snow goggles. He slid the goggles on his forehead as he searched for a second pair of gloves. He scanned the payload of the transport. They too struggled with the temperature, bouncing their knees to build heat.
Jake gazed out the side of the chopper. The majesty of the frozen tundra reached for miles, breathtaking even under a sunless sky. He wished desperately to have been able to share the view with Nicole and Tara. Instead, he locked them away, along with thoughts of Sammy and his captive sons, of Terry and Jessup. Now was the time to execute without hindrance of emotion or doubt.
Jake focused on the arctic air flowing in and out his nose. The droning of the chopper blades reminded him of the factory and his morning ritual with Terry. It soothed him in a way he did not understand, and soon he found himself living in the present. He decided he would be victorious, as he did before every hunt.
The quiet was broken by a whirring sound in his headset.
“Reto?…Reto do you read?” said Soot.
“I read you,” said Jake.
“We’ll be making our descent over the LZ soon–do you remember where to rendezvous?”
“Did Joseph tell you about Ash?” said Soot.
“He spoke of him briefly.”
“His real name was Yves.”
“Is this channel secure?”
“Are you wearing his ring?”
“I am,” said Soot. “Between me and Joe you still only know half the story. Did you know Yves kept his infection a secret from me? I found out my husband was infected the night the distress call came from inside the bunker. Had Yves survived the night he would have been court-martialed, put through the system, most likely imprisoned, but in that moment I just wanted him dead. I lied to Joseph about survivors hiding below so he’d be forced to ‘take action’ as it were. I didn’t know he’d go alone.”
“Did you ever tell him?”
“He doesn’t know the truth, or maybe he does, or maybe he thinks it’s some kind of perverse appreciation. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I gave my body to Joe as penance for sacrificing his. I’ll pay for that choice for the rest of my life.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Revenge is a beast, Jake, and guilt is its blood. Years from now, when you’re safe with your sons, I hope you will learn to forgive yourself.”
“I’ll try, Soot.”
“Rebecca…my real name is Rebecca.”
The chopper touched down southeast of Chetlana Lake below the shadow of Denali. Jake and Omega Squad hopped from the transport. Their goggles activated to display the local topography of the forest bed and mountainous regions. Rebecca’s voice came in over each soldier’s headset.
“We’re beginning leg one of the operation,” said Rebecca as an image of Jessup appeared on the right side of the display. “Jessup Murrel is still loose in the area with two hostages–Luke and Ronald Reto. Approach Jessup with extreme caution. Proceed to the rendezvous and await further instruction.”
Omega Squad’s captain came over the headset, ordering everyone to march along the lake. Their trek to the rendezvous spot was interrupted by the a nearby eruption. The ground shook with the impact. Jake scanned the horizon for activity. The shapes of small animals scurried across the frozen lake.
“Was that lighting? Thought Jake. The other soldiers questioned if the blast came from Leek Denaa, but the impact felt too close to be from the crater town.
Rebecca’s voice came over the headset once again. “We’ve lost contact with Beta Squad. I’m placing the coordinates of its LZ now. Make contact with them and assess the damage to their communications equipment before proceeding with the operation.”
Jake followed his squad through frost and snow-covered branches. The image of Luke and Ron remained on his display as they closed the distance on Beta Squad. Soon the smell of smoke carried in the wind. Fire swept up the trees surrounding the blackened husk of the Chopper. The squad captain reported no survivors to Rebecca, and they were ordered to continue to the rendezvous point as planned.
Alpha and Omega Squad combined forces. Rebecca remained calm while being bombarded with questions. “We can’t confirm what happened,” said Rebecca. “It may have been a malfunction.”
“Or a fucking anti-air missile!” said the Omega Squad captain.
“Our intel shows Leek Denaa doesn’t have the means to acquire or maintain that kind of weaponry. We’re talking bows and spears with these people. Besides, of the three transports, we were the closest to Leek Denaa. If they were going to fire upon anyone it would have been us.” Jake heard more than a few people mumble their displeasure into their mics before continuing the march.
Together, The Dust arrived at the base of the crater. The area appeared inhabited, with tracks in the snow and a recently doused campfire. “Switch to heat vision and keep Dust Bombs at the ready,” said Rebecca. The Dust stepped lightly and traveled in teams of two.
“I can sense him,” whispered Jake on Rebecca’s private channel.
“Then stay focused, Reto. Your sons won’t be far behind.”
One of the privates called out that they had found something. The others gathered around to find an unfurled picnic blanket with a knife stabbed in the middle. The handle of the knife had a note attached with a piece of string fashioned in the shape of a bow.
“Don’t even think about touching that,” said Jake. As The Dust backed away from the knife, a beast swung down from the trees, knocking two soldiers onto the blanket. The edges gave way and both soldiers were swallowed by a hidden pit, its walls and floor adorned with the sharpened ribs of an animal.
Their dying breaths came in over the headsets as The Dust readied their rifles at the treetops.
Jake examined the object that had descended from the trees–the severed head of a moose with its antlers shattered. The rest of the carcass was tossed into the middle of the circle of soldiers. The thud was loud enough to spook one private into opening fire, killing another soldier across the way.
“I ONLY WANT JAKE RETO!!!” shouted a voice in the sky. “SURRENDER HIM AND WALK AWAY!!!”
“Show yourself, Murrel!” said Rebecca. “Where’s Ron and Luke!?”
A hail of gunfire shredded the ground. Some returned fire before crumpling into the snow. Bullets snapped branches and ricocheted off the cliff side, echoing the screams of The Dust throughout the valley below.
The encounter ended with only a handful of soldiers standing. Jake watched as Jessup emerged from the forest wearing only bandoliers and blood. He held an assault rifle with one hand and gripped Luke like a shield with the other. Luke’s hands were bound with rope while his mouth was sealed with duct tape. Jessup cleared his throat before spitting to his side.
“Fellow hunters!” said Jessup. “You are trespassing on Furies territory! We are willing to forgive this insult if you yield Jake Reto within the next ten seconds!!” Jessup bent his arm to rest his rifle atop his shoulder. He angled it down and shot a soldier that was attempting to flank him. “You now have five seconds!”
The Omega Squad captain was the first to break. “He’s over here!” called the captain, grabbing Jake from behind.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Mister?”
“Captain Harold Rocksit.”
“Captain Rocksit, I’m goin’ to have to ask you back away a few steps. This could get messy.”
The captain did as he was told.
Jessup winced in displeasure and shook his head. “I’m a need you to take one more step back.”
The captain stepped back onto a hidden landmine. The explosion rocked the earth– flinging Jake forward onto his hands and knees and killing three more soldiers. The fire from the captain’s corpse lit the dark sky. Shadows danced across Jessup and Luke as Jessup leveled his weapon at Jake.
“Let me see those pretty eyes of yours, Jake,” said Jessup. “And toss your rifle down, too.”
Jake removed his goggles and tossed them with his gun into the snow.
“So it really is you,” said Jessup as he hung Luke onto the tree branch behind him. “Did you see me on the TV? I was lookin’ real sharp.” Jessup pretended to adjust the collar of a shirt. “The boys were with me too.”
“I have bad news about Ronald. I don’t think he’s Finisher material. He can’t even guard one wolf.”
“Tell me where he is, god dammit!!”
“He’s around. But before we go see him, were you goin’ to introduce me to wife number four?”
Rebecca fired in short spurts. Jessup leapt into the trees and came down on Rebecca at full speed with both fists clenched, driving her skull into the ground. Jessup disappeared again before Jake could get eyes on him. He drew the knife from his boot and readied it for a strike. His eyes darted from branch to branch, but Jessup remained hidden.
Jake made his way toward Luke only to have his legs swept from under him.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, Reto!” screamed Jessup as he brought his foot down. Jake rolled out of the way and rushed back to his feet.
“I just want my sons back, Jessup. We can still walk away from this!”
Jessup bared his teeth and swung furiously at Jake. Every attack was followed by a guttural bark. Jake ducked and dodged each strike knowing any blow would end him. Jessup charged at Jake with a clothesline attack. Jake weaved to his side and dragged his blade through Jessup’s armpit.
Jessup began to run out of breath as his hulking body leaned against the tree that held Luke. He turned around with his hand cupping the wound. “Finally, signs of fuckin’ life.”
“I don’t want to fight you,” said Jake. He felt his boot graze the butt of his rifle buried in the snow.
“How many people need to die before you do!?” said Jessup. “How about one more?” Jessup kicked the tree behind him, sending it careening over the edge.
“LUKE!!” screamed Jake as Jessup ran through a clearing to escape. Jake wanted to pick his rifle and take his shot, but the tree was losing balance. He had one chance to decide. Jake dug his boots into the snow and raced to the tree, leaping to grab it by the roots. Luke dangled helplessly over a frozen river sixty feet below.
The weight was too much to counter. Jake’s palms began to split open, and soon, the tree would be lost.
Jake felt the weight of the tree grow lighter. He turned to find Rebecca with her arms wrapped around the trunk. Jake copied her technique and leaned back until the tree slid back onto land. When Luke came close to the cliff, Jake reached out and pulled him onto safer ground. Both father and son were out of breath, gasping for lungfuls of cool morning air.
Luke looked up at Jake with tears in his eyes as Jake cut the rope from his wrists and ripped the tape from his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” wheezed Luke. “I couldn’t stop him.”
Jake buried Luke’s face into his chest, kissing the top of his head. All he could do was repeat, “it’s okay.”
Jake scanned the area for any survivors, but all he found were slumped over bodies–Rebecca chief among them.