Burn, Baby, Burn

A long time ago, I've heard someone say that war is worse than hell. That in hell, there are no innocent bystanders, or something equally meaningless. But they were wrong. Tonight, here, this is hell. And I deserve every single moment of it.

There is a horrible scar running through reality, where I sit. A terrible, burning pit, filled with dead bodies still lying to themselves they can get out here alive. Those corpses squirm in their little uniforms and hold their little guns, telling each other that it will be alright as long as they hold their position. They gulp heavily, their panicked eyes looking for any sort of confirmation for that obvious lie; when they find none, they close their eyes, and start to recite a litany to whichever god out there is willing to listen.

As the sound of an artillery shell breaking the ground in the distance shatters the sky, I involuntarily shiver. I look down at my trembling hands, still clinging to my own weapon. My eyes are too blurry to even focus on its rough and cold shape, but I can still feel the blood it brought upon my hands. I try to tell myself it's from my wounded leg, but deep down, I know perfectly well where it came from. Unable to accept said truth, I just lean back against the chilling dirt of my trench, and I take a deep breath.

With the movement of a trained dog, I load up the gun and — for a split second — leave the only barrier between life and death I have. Not even willing to aim, I take a shot into the distance. If it wasn't for hell breaking my eardrums with every single shot fired, men screaming, and forest burning, I could perhaps even tell if the bullet reached someone. But as I lay down and load another round, I find myself unable to really even care.

As I sit back I hear something, just behind my ears. With a movement as slow as entropy I turn to see what it is, and I notice another corpse slowly making its way toward me. It crawls, looking into my dead eyes with its own equally unliving irises, and within them, I can see tears forming. The corpse's name is Tom, I vaguely remember. He is mumbling something — something I cannot quite make out — but the only thing I can focus on right now is just how dirty his face is. A mixture of blood and dirty covers every part of him; even his scruffy dark hair is now unrecognizable from the ground.

With a quick movement, he takes off his helmet. I cannot really tell why. When I look down to see his hands, though, I realize the reason. He too deserves to be trapped here. He too is a murderer. And he knows it just as much as I do.

I try to focus on his words, but they refuse to turn into anything but nonsense. I just sit there and watch as my co-prisoner of eternity stands before me, a mixture of pure panic, fear, and resignation visible upon that dirty face. He raises his hands as a drilling sound fills my ears, and still continues his illogical mantra. His words aren't those of prayer, though — they are of nothing but fear. He points towards the other end of the world, where another burning scar in reality sits — and suddenly shouts something.

In just a moment, my world goes dark.

When I open my eyes again, reality is red. Tom no longer sits before me, because there is no longer any Tom to speak of. Not unless the bleeding, squirming thing with a gaping void where its heart used to be that took his place can be called Tom.

I can feel my stomach rise up to my throat as hyperventilation gets to me. Now, I too am covered in blood. This time, however, I can tell whose it is. Impulsively, I touch my weapon. The moment my fingers crease its handle, I immediately know what I have to do.

I have to get away from here.

Without a single further thought I stand up, and begin to run. Through the roars of canons and explosions and thunder-splitting guns, I run. I run and I run and I run, through the wasteland, the awful, awful wound that unravels before me. If I wasn't already in hell, I would say that the splitting pain in my leg is the closest thing to it I can imagine. But I carry on through it, a trail of ichor dripping down behind my path across a bombed desert.

Somewhere behind me, my gun awkwardly flaps on its leather belt. With one step after another it hits my back, sending another shiver of pain down my spine. But I do not care. I cannot care. I have to continue. As a bullet hits my second foot, briefly, I remember the story about Orpheus. Just like him, I cannot turn back. As I fall to the ground and feel the blood-ridden dirt make its way up my mouth, I aim to be just like the Greek hero. Now on my belly, my stomach recognizes vomit trying to exit my body. But I push through it and continue to crawl, hoping to reach my own Euridice somewhere behind the horizon.

It takes a lifetime for me to get to the trees.

The first thought that comes to me isn't the fact that I've made it or the ever-present smoke of the charred remains of the grove, but the realization of how quiet is it here. No longer do I feel the air-splitting guns or the screams of death, no. It's almost dead silent, the only thing breaking that stillness being the almost nonexistent sobbing of someone in the distance. Logic nonexistent in my mind, I decide to do the only thing I really can: to see to whom it belongs.

The rough burnt bark and sharp needles laying everywhere I can see make the journey almost impossible. But I do not give up. I cannot give up.

In time, I reach my destination. It's a small soldier, just like myself, sitting on a wooden bridge hanging above some river. Next to him, there is a boat, just big enough to fit his body. It takes him a second to notice me, and he looks up, immediately realizing I'm wearing the uniform of his enemy. Within a moment, his eyes go wide, and he starts to untie the rope separating his vessel from freedom. He too wants to meet his Euridice beyond the horizon of hell.

I cannot allow him to do that.

Slowly, I stand up, ignoring the unimaginable pain shooting down my leg. With an unfocused movement, I grab the weapon hanging up on my back, and aim it at the man — no, the thing — that dares to refuse my right to escape from here.

He's just a kid. His clothes do not fit him at all; his sleeves are too long, his jacket is too loose, and his helmet is too large. Within his terrified eyes, that spark of youth still hasn't gone out. I can see it, even as he starts to row with his own bleeding hands, trying whatever it takes to get away from me, the murderer that stands before him.

As I load my gun, I do not hesitate for a second. It's either kill or be killed, and I am everything but prey. I touch the trigger, and I fire.

I am a murderer stuck in hell, and I deserve no other fate.

As I take his place in that barely-coherent raft, I lay back, letting the boat be taken by the running stream. I put down my arm, and stare into the horizon, my mind entirely empty. I just look at the charred forest as more gunshots ring in the distance, and I find no words to comment. I just look there, fully expecting someone to walk out from between them to judge my actions, and slightly open my dried-up lips, feeling the first drops of rain fall down from the sky.

Soon, my expectations are met.

From within the slow fog, the Devil emerges. He is three meters tall and rides the back of Death, his long claws scraping the ground below him. Where his eyes and nose should be, dark voids sit, the essence of pure darkness seeping from within them. Despite this, I can still see him observing me. He knows me. He knows what I've done.

As he stares at me from the shores of freedom, I slowly raise my gun. I know it's no use, but I still aim it directly at the Devil's mockery of a head. My eyelid twitching, I pull the trigger, but no sound comes. I pull it again and again and again and again, but each time, the weapon refuses to fire. It takes me two seconds to realize that it is empty. Without anything else to do, I let my hands lose their grip, and with a loud splash it falls into the dark water beneath me.

As the droplets turn into full-on rain, the Devil still stands there, unmoving. I'm on my knees, now, praying to the only god that there is down here in hell. I scream as tears start to go down my face, but both of them die out in the chaos of war and rain respectively. And as I shout out my soul at the final servant of judgment before me, the Devil simply smiles. He smiles, twisting the muscles of his awful face, and picks up the boy's body, throwing it on his back.

Without as much as another word, the Devil disappears between the trees, heading his steed towards the battlefield.

With each droplet that falls upon my face, one layer of dirt and dried-up blood falls away from it towards the wet boat below. In time, it will clear me — but the cleansing will be only external. For even now, even after escaping, even after leaving hell in search of a better place somewhere down the river, I am still a murderer stuck in hell.

And I deserve no other fate.

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