The next month was hell.
Under the direction of Colonel Ripper, Jack, the Blue Nasties, and the Lonely Hearts were pushed to their utmost limits so that they could work up enough adrenaline to enter the Zone.
Jack was made to feed the hyenas at the Grand San Antonio Zoo while naked and lathered in salted butter.
Puck was brought to Dinosaur Valley State Park and chased around by an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex.
Mezu was strapped to the front cart of the El Temblor roller coaster at Seven Flags Over Texas.
As for Sam, she suffered the strangest fate of all.
Sam screamed at the top her lungs and hid behind a pillow. A killer clown was zapping a hapless farmer with a ray gun on the TV.
Puck pointed to where Sam was sitting on the recreation area couch. ‘Why do we have to try to outdo Evel Knievel while she gets to sit on her bum and watch Killer Clowns from Mars?!’
Colonel Ripper crossed his arms. ‘Jacinto doesn’t need to go to the lengths everyone else does to get her adrenaline up because…well, she’s a coward. Her adrenaline’s always up because she’s always scared. I’ve actually never seen anything quite like it. She’s the most yellow-bellied, lily-livered, namby-pamby scaredy-cat I’ve ever met, yet if you put a projectile weapon in her hand and give her nowhere to run, she can eat a Green Beret for breakfast. If she were to enter the Zone, she could well become the most dangerous slasher hunter the world has ever seen. I’m having our military scientists study her. If we can figure out what makes her tick, we might be able to use her as the prototype for a super soldier program.’
Images of a bloody surgery flashed through Jack’s mind. He held his aching head.
‘Jack?’ said Puck.
Colonel Ripper glared at him. ‘Get your act together, Schretcher.’
Jack straightened up. ‘Sorry, Colonel.’
Colonel Ripper placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘All veterans get shellshock, boy. You just have to muscle through it. People will tell you that you should go to therapy, but that’s liberal bull. I never went to no quack, and I’m the very model of sanity.’
A bespectacled Army recruit walked past reading Russian For Idiots. Colonel Ripper quickly picked up a pool que off the pool table, snapped the tip off, and speared the recruit through the back.
Sam screamed as the man collapsed to the floor.
Colonel Ripper wiped the sweat off his forehead. ‘Phew! That was a close one!’
On the final day of the combat training, everyone was summoned back to the wooden training course in the forest. Along with the usual suspects, Colonel Ripper’s slasher gang the Patriots were also in attendance. These were the hundred soldiers they’d seen doing push ups in front of the Quadrangle’s clock tower. Like Colonel Ripper, they all wore skull masks; unlike his mask, however, which had the American flag painted on it, theirs were painted with the flags of the states they were from. In charge of the Patriots were Colonel Ripper’s Captains: Mammoth, Biker, and Girl Scout.
Mammoth was a boulder of a man, bigger in height and width than even Colonel Ripper. He wore a woolly mammoth mask that looked like it was made out of real woolly mammoth and wielded a spear the length of a lamp post. According to The Slasher Times, he was the sole survivor of an Inuit tribe from Kodiak Island that had resisted annexation by the Canadian government right up until 1982. When his people had thrown down their spears upon seeing the tanks of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade roll onto the island, Mammoth had slaughtered them all and destroyed half of the armoured brigade using nothing but his spear. Colonel Ripper had approached him in prison and offered him a war worthy of his talents.
Biker was a jerk! He wore the full-face motorbike helmet and leather jacket of a Hell’s Angel—which were really cool—and he rode a cruiser motorbike with chainsaw wheels—which was really really cool—but he wouldn’t let Jack try on his clothes or ride his bike! Standoffish jerk!
Girl Scout was a thirteen-year-old enfant terrible. Word in the cafeteria was her grandfather had served under Colonel Ripper in the Vietnam War and had died along with the rest of his regiment during the Tet Offensive. Her father had joined the CIA to follow in his father’s footsteps and help fight the communists, but he’d been killed aiding the Mujahadeen in ousting the USSR from Afghanistan. Girl Scout’s art teacher had given her some line about her gramps and pops being imperialists who got what they deserved, so she’d stabbed him to death with a fountain pen. Colonel Ripper had taken her in, and now she went out at night in her grandfather’s green beret and her old girl scout uniform and used a set of throwing knives to hunt down Reds. By all accounts, she was even more fanatical than Colonel Ripper. She also made a mean batch of hazelnut cookies.
What were the Captains and the Patriots doing here on the final day of the combat training?
Jack had a bad feeling about this.
‘Listen up, maggots!’ said Colonel Ripper. ‘Today’s the final hurdle! If you don’t manage to enter the Zone now, you never will! You will be participating in a trial known as the Wild Hunt! You will hunt down a group of prisoners within the forest, exit the forest, and then engage in your final battle with me! Whoever manages to cut me using the Zone during our battle will pass the combat training!’ He cleared his throat. ‘I’d just like to say it’s been…an experience teaching you, ladies and gentlemen.’
That doesn’t make sense! thought Jack. How is hunting down some run-of-the-mill prisoners going to help us enter the Zone? And why is he being so melodramatic about this?
He looked over his shoulder at the Captains and the Patriots behind him, who stared right back.
Oh, he had a baaad feeling about this.