Chapter 1- Riley

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The ball rolls ever so slowly towards a bush on the other side of the field. Exploring every bump along the way, it gently rolls towards a seemingly endless maze of twigs and fragile leaves. Without a care in the world, it rests in the rough embrace of twig-like arms stretching outward protectively. Far behind, ratty sneakers follow.

A figure not that different from a scarecrow approaches, leaving a trail of musty straw behind with every step. Wearing an old scratchy flannel and ragged jeans to match, she wanders closer to the ball in the bush. Shoelaces dragging reluctantly, they sigh with relief as she bends down and picks the ball up. Brushing the dirt off of it gently as a mother might caress her child's face, she begins to turn around and walk back to the field where the others wait patiently.

However, she stops just short of her destination. Screams echo and bounce off of the once peaceful fields nearby. The ball falls from her hands and appears to shatter on the hard earth. Men in black pour out of the cracks in this seemingly perfect day, an image on their shoulders burning a hole in the peaceful afternoon. Gunfire rings through the air as one man turns towards her.

He begins to walk closer, not even bothering to run. Just like he's taking a leisurely stroll, he knows there's no need to rush. One calculated move and it'll be over. Just when he's about to reach toward her body that's frozen with fear, a yell breaks the air from behind the man, "Hey! Over here, you ass! Run, Riley!"

It's her father. The outstretched hand pauses for a moment, just long enough for her to turn and escape. Sprinting towards the cluster of buildings she calls home, she watches as her mom slams the door closed and runs to the back of the house. Riley reaches the front porch as the door swings open again. Her mother holds a book with a simple leather cover and black hand-stitched border. A memory of their messy library floats to the surface, this simple book lying on the shelf, forbidden to be touched. It is thrown to the side as her mother bends down, delicately placing it in Riley's shaking hands.

"Take this," she mutters into Riley's ear, "and go."

Her mother hugs her briefly, the smell of her hair and the warmth of her touch sticking in her mind. She turns to leave and buy Riley time. Riley stands still, watching her mother walk away. The sun burns her eyes and forces her to look away, the moment passing as the distance between them increases.

Riley runs through many alleys in the town as fast as her legs can go until she is cornered in an old abandoned alley, far from the protection of her mother and the safety of home. She races past the town store, where the owner is being held at gunpoint. She can see the faces of other children, her friends, looking at her through the store window. They scream as a bang rings through the air, the owner falling to the ground lifeless. Men step over his body as they enter the store, gunfire stabbing her ears. She stands helplessly as her friends join the fallen. Finally, she forces herself to tear her eyes away from the scene before her and keep running. She sprints past the home of her best friend, the image of her lifeless face flashing in her mind.

"I'm sorry," She whispers, pausing for a moment.

A tear traces her cheek as the turns her back on the house and keeps going. She keeps running until there is nowhere else to go. She passes the town hall, bodies lining the stone steps. She goes by the mechanic's shop where her father works and by the church where she met her best friend. Flames lick at the church's wooden structure as a cross falls into the fire, sending sparks shooting through the air. She keeps running through town, memories racing through her mind. Stumbling on a rock, she falls near the end of an alley. Standing up, she stops to catch her breath when she looks up.

Whimpering, she cowers as a shadow soldier approaches. His gait is slow, merciless. His clothes are such a dark black that light seems to drown in pools. Glasses cover his eyes, the skin of his face barely showing. It's almost like he is not human, but something else entirely. As if he's made his choice, he reaches his weapon without hesitation.

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