The decision to leave is an easy one. The moment Clarke is back at the gates of what used to be her home in space, now in pieces on the ground, she balks. She can’t look at her people without remembering why they’re alive. And so she seizes the opportunity to walk away, from everything and everyone. To carry the souls of a thousand on her own.
Plans on what to do next blur like spools of film spinning too fast. She thinks fleetingly of the drop ship or the bunker, but Bellamy won’t be able to keep news of her abandonment from the others for long. She could use supplies, but she must take whatever head start she can before her friends try and follow or her mother sends out a search party. Just a few more moments of practicality, of calm, then she’ll be away. Alone. Finally.
As she takes the first steps in retreat, Bellamy’s gaze raising the fine hairs at the back of her neck, tears burn like acid. Realization plunges through her insides like a knife, tearing through soul and ravaging what little of herself is left. The hole gapes so widely she thinks she’d see a real tear through her abdomen if she looked down.
There’s no going back from this. Just as there was no going back from the drop ship, or Finn, or the spotter, or the mountain.
The Ark falls further behind and she doesn’t ever look back.
“What did you do?”
“What I had to.”
And just like that she thinks of Lexa. Lexa who gave her hope for sustained peace. Hope for an end to the bloodshed, the Reapers, and the fighting. Freedom from a shared enemy. And instead only ripped that hope away, leaving only death in its place. The anger flares inside her like a rabid monster, clawing across her chest and squeezing around her throat, suffocating. She swallows the scream that threatens to burst free, instead sucking a hard breath in through her nose. There is no place for screaming in these woods if she wants to live. The anger crashes like a great blood-red wave, dousing her nerves in water and shooting them full of electricity. The words come so easily at the thought of the Commander, one sentence looped over and over. Jus drein, jus daun, Lexa. Her fists clench, the nails digging nearly through the skin, squeezing as if they were clutched around something, or someone, else.
But as she takes more steps into the forest, the rage retreats just as quickly as it came, a cold dousing the energy, the fire, and the light inside. All that remains is swallowing darkness, gaping empty space. She takes a deep breath, her chest shaking as if the air can’t quite displace the pain that’s taken sudden hold of her lungs. Like pouring water into an already full glass, the excess spilling over the rim and seeping across a tabletop.
Once she’s finally out of sight from the Ark, she breaks into a run, moving off the well-worn path out of camp and deeper into the forest. With no real idea where to go next, she channels all her energy towards getting away. She longs for unfamiliarity, a forest barren of memories. Somewhere that doesn’t remind her of what’s come before, somewhere her ghosts won’t follow. The thin worn trail she follows through the trees runs eastward, the break the in the brush made by Trikru or animals who have come before. Decaying leaves crunch under each footfall, branches snapping in her wake, but the distance is worth more than the racket she’s making tearing through the wood. It’s unwise to make so much noise and drawing attention to herself, but she can’t stop. Not yet.
And so she runs.
She runs until every tree looks the same, infinite shades of greens and oranges and browns blurring in her periphery. She runs until her mind thinks of nothing else but movement. Not of ashen grounders or radiated children, not of the weight of a pistol or the kickback when the trigger is pulled, not about the give of a blade when it breaks through skin. Instead she focuses on the strike of each foot against the forest floor, the force radiating up each leg and jarring the memories loose, one by one, until they’re all cast in her wake. She relishes the stitch of a cramp in her side and pushes faster, running until every muscle is screaming with fatigue. She runs for nearly an hour, trying to outpace her demons.
She eventually missteps miles deep into sector seven, right foot tangling in a twisted root that pitches her face-first into the forest floor. The momentum slams her left shoulder into hard ground and forces what little air was present in her lungs out upon impact. She skids a foot or two through the underbrush before stilling, her crumpled body feeling completely disconnected from her mind as she drags in wheezing breaths.
The ground feels so cold pressed against her face.
Although she tries to stop them, the tears flow hard and wet, dampening dirt into mud that smudges and cakes onto her cheeks. She tries to convince herself it’s the shock and pain of the fall that’s brought them forth, but they’re only a ripple across the surface of a deep ocean. There’s a whole mess stretching far below into vast darkness. Her whole body feels broken and torn through, both the inside and the out.
She does a quick triage, moving each limb enough to realize what hurts and what doesn’t. Wiping the back of her hand across her face comes back blackish red, blood smearing with dirt, but the wound is only an old one reopened across her brow. Nothing serious. At least this is the type of wound that her body can heal. As long as she can find some water to clean it, it won’t fester. She can’t say the same for those unseen.
The sky darkens quickly, the sun just setting over the distant mountains and casting long shadows over the entire valley. She’ll have enough twilight to find shelter, but just now her body is a glutton for rest. Instead of moving she remains face-down in the brush and closes her eyes, tears continuing to flow.
Her thoughts migrate to clouded memories from school up on the Ark. Of history lessons and massacres. Of humanity’s darkest moments marked by mass destruction. Of murder. She remembers how horrified she was reading the textbook and seeing the images for the first time. How she worried herself sick over dinner, enough to chase away her appetite. How her father’s eyes were clouded with grief yet quiet determination across the table as he tried to explain, tried to comfort. How his shoulders drooped, resigned, at her grief. “ Sometimes people do bad things, Clarke. Unspeakable things. And sometimes there’s no explaining these things. Humans do bad things for all kinds of reasons. But the important thing is we learn from what’s come before. We learn and we try to be better.”
But she hasn’t learned. She hasn’t become better. She is, in fact, the very monster she once loathed. She’s the bad guy needing to be written into the history books. The longer she walks this earth, the more die by her hand. She tries to count the number of bodies, the number of lives she’s ended, but the number isn’t exact. Three hundred here, a sniper there, a boy she loved once here, an entire mountain society there. She is drenched in their blood. Owed the pain of nearly a thousand deaths.
Something rustles just past her feet and she’s startled from her thoughts, acute fear seizing her muscles as adrenaline releases like opened flood gates. She draws her gun and rolls, pointing the barrel outward with both hands, her grip somehow tremor-free. A moment later a single squirrel emerges from a nearby bush and darts across the pressed earth, its cheeks stuffed full with nuts. Her finger twitches against the trigger but doesn’t depress it, instead watching the animal scurry up the thick trunk of a nearby tree. Best not waste the few bullets she has left on a small target she’s bound to miss. The metal of the gun is cold and heavy against her palm as she releases the clip and empties the chamber, counting eight bullets left. She twists one between her forefingers, the cylinder golden and smooth. So simple and small. So deadly.
A firing shot pierces her consciousness and she flinches, her world rearranging. The bullet hits Dante and he recoils on impact, keeling over abruptly. The blood bursts from the wound like splatter paint, peppering the floor between. It seeps across the fabric of his shirt in a growing bloom of scarlet. His gaze is haunting, pleading across the distance, shocked that it’s ending this way. A hand presses over the hole as he falls, the ground quaking as his body hits the floor.
She chokes out a sob and drops the gun into the leaves, the heels of both hands pressing hard against her eye sockets. It’s not real, she tells herself, even as she sees his breaths slow and cease and all the the color drains from his face, ghostly white. It’s not real .
When she finally opens her eyes, she’s alone. The memory settles like a sickness, destroying like poison.
She finally pushes herself off the forest floor, movement the only thing that seems to keep the dead at bay. Although she thinks fleetingly of abandoning the gun, she holsters it instead, the weight familiar but unwelcome on her hip.
The nighttime sounds of the forest swell in earnest as the last of the daylight disappears. Thousands of invisible bugs click and chirp a wild orchestra through crisp air as she trudges through the dark looking for shelter. She eventually settles on a small outcropping of rock that can provide enough cover where she drags fallen branches of pine trees to lay between. The earth is hard and cold, even through a layer of boughs, but the chill is a welcome distraction.
The night moves around her, bustling and alive , but she doesn’t even feel present. Emotions fill her like toxins, burning her away from the inside like the radiation that took down Mount Weather. They pass through her body and corrode everything inside, rusting all that once shined.
If her father could only see her now, the shell of his baby, unrecognizable on the ground.
She wishes she was dead. That she was never even sent down to Earth. Life here has only been cursed from the very beginning, filled with misery and death. Her time on the ground has stolen everything she once was. Who even was that fresh-faced girl stepping off the hard steel of the drop ship for the first time and onto packed earth? What has she become? Each passing month only adds to her age and her body count, the corpses surrounding her in hordes of phantom shadows, ever present. There are grounders, warriors with charred skin that falls away like bark peeling from scorched trees. There are mountain dwellers consumed with angry red radiation burns that bloom like fiery moss, the whites of their eyes an angry bloodshot red. And then there’s the handsome boy with long dark hair falling in his face, a single knife wound between the ribs, shirt soaking in blood as his head finds her shoulder. She can feel the weight there, heavy and growing cold.
The longer she lies there, their faces appearing and disappearing one after the other against closed lids, she decides she’d prefer floating out in endless space like her father to this hell.
But there is no escaping her reality. That death is a shroud she cannot shake.
Sleep comes mercifully, but never without dreams.
“ I’m sorry, Clarke. ”
She can’t look away from the Commander’s face, her stare wide-eyed, piercing, unblinking. She studies the blood dried against her cheeks and forehead, how the red smears into black, some of it flecking off like cracking paint peeling from a canvas. She remembers the tiniest quiver in the Commander’s lip, the bobbing movement of her throat as she swallows, how her eyes speak one thing and her body language something entirely the opposite. Pliant versus rigid. Heart versus head. A living, breathing contradiction. She stares as the Commander turns, braids and sash cutting through the air between their bodies like whipping swords. How even in dreams she feels each retreating step acutely in her chest, a stab with each footfall.
The dream bleeds from the the foot of the mountain and into the man made fortress of the control room, this time her hand alone on the lever, the metal icy beneath her bare palm.
“ Clarke ,” her voice calls, distant as if spoken underwater. “ Clarke . I’m sorry. ”
She startles awake at the sound, ghostly across her memory. So close yet so far.
Disorientation explodes into rage in an instant, tearing her open at the thought of the all-mighty Commander. Fury at her betrayal, at her abandonment, at her everything . That Lexa is the reason she’s in this position at all. Anger like this would have scared her before, but now it’s the fuel that powers her onward, that will keep her alive. She doesn’t even feel the bite of winter when it's engulfing her.
After a few forced breaths pulled hard and fast through flared nostrils, she pushes up from the ground, needing to move and warm up. The horizon is just beginning to lighten from blackness as she spins in a slow circle among the trees, a heavy fog blanketing the valley thickly. Her first priority after squatting in the brush to relieve herself is to find a water source. The river runs somewhere south of here, and she’ll have to stay close to it to avoid dying of dehydration. She can’t die yet.
Dawn breaks fully as she continues onward. The army of dead is invisible for now but she feels them still, relentlessly trailing at her heels.
By mid-morning, the sun rises fully over the jagged ridge of the mountains. It cuts through the haze still gathered between the trees in thick beams that illuminate the underbrush in misshapen spotlights. She pauses after miles upon miles of walking and squats into a stretch, tipping her neck from shoulder to shoulder to loosen the muscles there. She eventually squints into the horizon, using the sun as an eastern reference point and spins a rough quarter-turn to the right, hoping the direction she’s facing is indeed south. By dumb luck it’s nearly the same way she’d been traveling all morning, a small miracle.
Although her boots are plenty broken in, burst blisters sting on her heels and ankles from so much walking. She welcomes the pain as raw skin chafes against hard leather, a grateful distraction from her own thoughts.
It’s odd, being completely alone. Aside from her stint in solitary confinement up on the Ark, she’s never been truly by herself for any significant portion of time. Not up on the Ark in such close quarters and not at the drop ship or even Camp Jaha, where fear for the open woods kept them together. Those close to her have always been that. Close. But not anymore. Not out here. Although there’s a remote chance she’s being followed now by someone unseen, there’s been no sign of such a person so far. The loneliness is absolute amid this vast landscape.
As much as she welcomes it, however, the solitude leaves her mind her only companion. And how it tortures her, incessant and powerful in it’s darkness. How many times will she have to re-live the siege on Mount Weather? How many times will she hear the crack of the gun echoing against her eardrums, feel the weight of the lever against her palm as she watches herself pull it, the smell of burned flesh putrid in her nostrils as she examines the carnage.
If Lexa had only stayed. Fought with her. She would have charted a completely different course in this life. It’s so easy to imagine Lexa with sword drawn, shoulder to shoulder facing their shared enemy. Lexa’s hand over hers on the lever, Lexa’s strength at her side. Lexa shouldering this burden, too.
She swallows the bile that burns up her throat. It does no good to dwell on what will never be.
All morning she trudges through the brush, failing miserably at furtiveness. Branches whip against her limbs, briars snagging in her clothing and ripping roots from earth. She scoffs at the irony. Even simply walking breeds destruction. Her clunky movements echo through the forest like warning beacons, scaring away any and all potential breakfast. Even after the many months on the ground, she hasn’t come close to mastering moving without making a racket. At least the birds haven’t abandoned her, their songs the terrestrial soundtrack to her melancholy.
She oscillates between extremes. One moment the rage consumes like an inferno, her thoughts the gasoline that fuel the flames. Fuck Lexa for betraying her, fuck Cage and Dante for exploiting her people, fuck Finn for gunning down a whole village for her. Fuck Jaha and Kane and her mother for sending her down here in the first place. Fuck her father for dying and leaving her. Fuck whoever dropped the bombs that destroyed the world in the first place, sending her people to the sky.
But no matter how much she tries to hold onto it, the anger never sustains itself for very long. It tends to climax then taper suddenly, as if she’s summited a high cliff and swan dives off the precipice, plunging quickly into anguish. She wonders when she became so ruthless, so hardened. So seasoned at pulling triggers or wielding knives. So quick to end life when she spent her whole life up until this point learning how to save it. She’d trailed her mother like a duckling in the medical wing as long as she could remember, learning to save, to help. But what kind of doctor murders nearly a thousand people? She’s no healer. She’s a murderer.
The day crawls forward without food or sight of water. Although she’s been moving for hours, the terrain never seems to change, the mountains never any closer in the distance, the moss-covered trees surrounding her just as unrecognizable as those she’s past miles back. Although she’s relatively confident she’s been tracking south through the forest, she has no concrete way of knowing, or that she’s even right at all to be moving south to find the river.
Not to mention she’s thirsty . And the more she thinks about the lack of fluid in her system, how long it’s now been without a stitch of water, the more prevalent that thirst grows.
Multiple times throughout the afternoon she hesitates, pausing in an open field or barren patch of forest to rethink her hasty plan. She figures on making it two days at this rate, three at the most, before dehydration kills her. The symptoms are already manifesting after just over a day of walking. Her mouth is chalky with dirt and bone dry, lips chapping and peeling from sunburn, and the first throbbings of a headache began a few minutes ago at the apex just behind her eyes. She stops again as the sun continues its westward descent, finding a great felled tree to rest upon and pinches hard at the bridge of her nose, an attempt to stem the pain growing there. Alarm pushes insistently at her subconsciousness, the pressure increasing with each hour. She needs to find water, and quickly.
She thinks back to Earth skills. Wracks her memory about the direction moss grows on tree trunks to help with direction, of how to collect water from plants, to aim for areas downhill where water will flow, anything that could help. But there hasn’t been rain in these woods for a week and the sun has dried up most of the latent moisture, returning it to the clouds. None of the leaves bear a single drop, no matter how she searches.
She has no other option but to continue to purposely push forward, continuing on into the unknown depths of the forest and hoping her instincts and sense of direction don’t end up killing her.
The forest is hauntingly empty as the sun falls once again, silhouetting the barbed mountain peaks against the horizon and casting colossal shadows across the earth.
Twice she draws the gun and whips it towards vague figures lurking in the trees, but when her eyes focus, there’s nothing to shoot but forest.
The third time she draws the weapon, there’s a woman. One she recognizes from the mountain. A body prostrate across the floor of the mess hall, her face withered in blisters and angry radiation burns. But here the woman is upright, pristine clothing out of place in the wild. Her head cocks slightly to one side, her eyes a piercing green that burn as they stare, penetrating and cold.
They’re not real, an ethereal voice whispers. She freezes, the gun nearly slipping from her hand. Eyes open, it orders, stern but tinged with concern. Soft and hard wrapped up together. Stay focused. Listen. The dangers are many in the wild, but these are not among them. A chill radiates down her spine, the words acting as a balm that soothes her increasingly fraying nerves. Although Lexa has never spoken the words in real life, they are conjured from memory easily, the timber and articulation perfect. As if the Commander were right there at her shoulder.
“FUCK!” She screams loud enough to to scare even the birds, her desert throat hoarse and tattered. Her eyes sting as they launch from the trees and off into blue sky. Remember what she did to you, she orders her subconscious, remember how she left you to die. That she is the reason these ghosts are haunting you. She is the reason. But no matter how much hatred she musters, the imaginary Commander continues to guide her through the wilderness, just another ghost among her army of dead.
Just before nightfall in the middle of collecting branches and twigs with hopes of starting a fire, a deer appears, as if conjured by sheer will power. Human and animal notice each other simultaneously, a charged standoff as they stare. She blinks, but the animal doesn’t disappear. It’s real.
And although the lack of water has been lingering in her thoughts all day, her hunger awakens at the sight of the fawn, pushing itself to the forefront as her stomach constricts painfully.
Her heart beat multiplies as she glacially reaches for the gun, eyes still locked on the animal at least fifty yards away. It’s well within range of the weapon, the question is whether or not her aim is good enough. Once she feels the weight transfer from hip to hand, she pauses for a slow and deep breath, calculating. She’ll have one shot at this, maybe a half-second to aim and shoot before the deer is startled into motion by her movements.
She clicks off the safety and pulls in another slow breath. Calm . She curses at Lexa’s voice once again piercing through her consciousness, rolling her shoulders as if she could shake it off, but the words bore even further under her skin.
Time slows to a crawl as she raises the weapon, takes aim, and fires all in a singular motion. The bullet explodes from the barrel of the gun and slices through the air, but the deer is too quick and her aim too poor. The doe launches into a sprint, disappearing into the distance. The bullet misses wide right, shattering the trunk of a tree and spraying bark into the air.
“FUCK!” she screams again, as loud as her voice will go. It cracks halfway through, the second syllable disappearing soundlessly into the air. The third time she curses, the word comes out a pathetic whine.
Now she’s without food and down a bullet. That leaves seven in the magazine.
She keeps watch until darkness fully falls, holding out hope for another animal sighting, but there are nothing but birds moving about the treetops and squirrels darting across the forest floor. Although she failed to kill the deer, the presence of the animal is a small comfort. Where there are animals, there’s likely to be a water source nearby. She’s close.
The headache worsens as she bends over the small pile of fine feathers and twigs she’s collected for kindling, blood rushing to her forehead as she kneels over the pile that pulses painfully behind her eyes with each pump of her heart. She tries to swallow the groan that bursts forth, but her mouth and throat are so dry she coughs instead, another agonizing pain hammering at her skull. She clamps her eyes shut, willing the pain away, but it only throbs with greater force, incessant. Sighing, she lowers the sharp end of a stick into the center of the small pile and presses the shaft between her palms. It’s all set up just like she’d learned in Earth skills, but considering the aversion of fire in space, she’d never actually gotten to practice the technique of fire-starting. Sending up a silent prayer, she starts rubbing her hands together, working the stick back and forth rapidly and hoping the friction will be enough to create enough heat to smoke, spark, and ignite the kindling to a glowing ash she can coax into fire.
But no matter how long, how fast and how hard the stick rubs against the flattened strip of bark, she generates no smoke, no spark, and no hope.
She doesn’t stop until the skin of her palms is worn nearly raw, the burning this time entirely real as she flexes her fingers. Pushing to her feet, she heaves the stick as far as she can before kicking hard at the whole set up, scattering the pile across the forest floor. Her eyes burn but the tears never come. Her body can’t spare the water.
The night is colder than before, a deep enveloping chill that seeps through her clothes to rattle bones. She’s wasting precious energy trying to stay warm, her whole body shaking, and even more valuable time trying to rest. But there’s no point in her going forth into the pitch darkness with no sense of direction and no way to see danger. Not to mention moving would only accelerate the depletion of her already dwindling energy stores.
She shuts her eyes, curled into herself in a shallow hole she dug into the dirt, blanketed by fallen leaves and boughs of pine. Desperation grows slowly but surely as she hugs her knees to her chest, holding herself together. But she feels it biting, breaking at her skin.
And as she finally drifts to sleep, her last fleeting thought is whether she’ll make it to morning.
The shadows manifest themselves slowly. They begin as murky black silhouettes thrown into relief against the vibrant green of a familiar moss-covered forest, a thousand of them of all different shapes and size amassing into a thick circle with her in the center.
She looks for an escape, but finds herself strung up on a stake, her hands bound. She fights against the ropes, but they hold fast and iron-clad. The bodies materialize further, solidifying into skin and bone before her very eyes. Painted warriors all in black, their faces pulled back into snarls wielding blood-covered swords stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside pale-skinned strangers from the mountain. Children clutch at the legs of their parents and stare up at her. The figures are in sharp contrast to one another, legendary mortal enemies now standing as one, united by the deadness in their eyes and in their calls for her life.
Jus drein, jus daun , jus drein, jus daun, they chant, voices growing louder with each repeated verse. The words echo inside her, foreign yet so familiar and filling the empty vessel of her soul. They weigh her down and pull her under, stealing the very breath from her chest, their hands closing around her throat. She thrashes but the dead are relentless in their hold. She feels the world fading away as she begins to blackout, spots of darkness appearing in her line of sight.
That’s when she sees him. Her father. On the ground.
His palm finds her cheek as she slips into unconsciousness. “Let go, kid,” he whispers, his breath against her ear.
And she does.