085 – Last Laugh

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“Her name’s Alessa, that’s the name of the one who runs the organization. At least, that what I’ve gathered.”

“I’ve heard that name.”

“Yeah. She’ll be who you want. If you can get her hands on her, then that’s like putting the ball in our court. We would be in a much better position to negotiate. Hell, we’d actually gain a position in which we can negotiate.”

“If.”

I gave Isabella a look, for having to point that word out. I had my doubts, but I’d rather focus on the positive and build from there, instead of constantly questioning every single step.

Formulating a plan. More progress. Getting information and applying it towards our goal. It put a light on everything I had run into since I got into this town.

It was sort of ironic, then, that we were hashing out details in near complete darkness.

I wasn’t having any trouble, but Remus was taking it slow, walking through the wide passages of the sewer. There was enough room that we could have walked side to side, but Remus lagged behind, watching his footing. The ground was slippery here, one wrong step and today would go from… well, it was already bad, but it would truly be a tragedy.

I had my phone out, lighting the way, more for Remus and Isabella than for myself. It was a struggle, to want to hurry but still keep the way lit for the others, and not step in any damp spot or puddle or other matter. It made me walk with a sort of tense energy, like I had weights tied to my ankles.

Anxiousness.

“What does she look like?” I asked, “Did you ever get a visual on her?”

Remus answered, “I did. It’s… yeah.”

I glanced back. “Yeah what?”

“She’s got the whole cult thing going on. The hooded robes, the silver and gold ornaments, the markings, the booming, condescending holier-than-thou tone. She’s one more Halloween away from turning into an actual witch.”

“Seriously?”

I heard Remus cough. It echoed.

“What, no, of course not. Like I mentioned, it’s all an act. She just postulates in that way in order to drive home a certain image. Don’t forget that she’s the leader of this particular branch of a cartel. If all that was happening here was just a bunch of cultist nutjobs holding hands in a circle trying to summon the devil, then they wouldn’t have gotten very far with this town. Faith alone won’t put food in people’s stomachs.”

“Hey, maybe they were onto something,” Isabella said, “Because you’ll give them hell to pay. Right, V?”

I would have snorted, hearing that, but I really didn’t want to breathe in anything. The smell could bring tears to my eyes, if I wasn’t already wearing a mask over them.

I did comment, though.

“That is so lame,” I said.

“The theory is sound, they just decided to execute it in that fashion, in that act. Can’t say I’m a fan of what they’ve done here, but it works.”

“I wish it didn’t. I wish we could drive these guys out, completely.”

“Let’s keep our heads on straight, okay? We’re trying to get out of here, sooner rather than later, and we’ve already been here for too long. No need to stick around and do more than what is absolutely necessary. You need to get that cargo back, and get back on the road to El Paso.”

El Paso. It felt so far away and so long ago, that destination. We were supposed to be on track to getting there, but now we had taken a long, winding detour to a rabbit hole that sent us down and then lower. And we were still spiraling down, or at least I felt that I was, with everything that happened and everything I encountered. My head was pounding, my eyes dry but stinging, my nose suffocated by the offending odors that swirled around me. It all compounded to make me feel even more like the hinges were coming off, mentally. Near delirium, if I wasn’t there already. The twists, the turns, the bumps and rough spots, the time wasted, every obstacle that got in my way took a piece of me, affecting me, at the very core of my being. I could feel myself whittling away, and there would be a point of no return. I couldn’t help but wonder… what would happen, then? What was there when every layer was ripped and peeled back? That core. Me? Or… was there someone else, at the very bottom. Something else. Just underneath the skin, the psyche that was supposed to define who I was. The very idea made me go cold, my skin clammy, my breathing short and my eyes-

“V, can’t see.”

Remus spoke, and my head darted up, peering into the dark. Oh. I had lowered my arm, tilting the angle I was holding my phone.

I fixed it, moving the light back up, forward. I checked on Isabella, but she seemed fine. She walked forward with her eyes up, looking ahead, as if she wasn’t worried about where she was stepping. A couple of seconds without any light didn’t seem to faze her, I supposed.

I turned back to address Remus.

“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head, trying to force myself to be more aware, more awake. It was way too easy to slip, especially at this juncture, and especially being down in a sewer passage. I was low enough, I didn’t need to get any lower.

I looked to the light, using it more for myself now. I could see, but the shadows were starting to become more like gaps, with my brain trying to fill them in. I had to walk while trying to avoid eye contact.

“Anything else I need to know?” I asked, talking just to talk. “Like, the layout of the building they’re in. Other than coming in from a generator or boiler room, we don’t have a real angle to attack with. My usual method is that I strike from above, people generally don’t think to look up, at least in my experience. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury this time.”

“People don’t think to look down, either. That’s why landmines are such an effective tool of war. Not only can they decimate a single target when triggered, they can dismantle a community when left alone. The accidents, the victims, the fear. If you can make someone become afraid of their next step, then you have something powerful. It may not be what you’re used to, V, but there is some merit to our approach.”

“I guess you have a point there.”

“And as for the layout, it’s rather simple. Unless something drastic happened and they were forced to move over one hundred people into another facility, they should be in the mess hall on the east side. It’s the only building the fort has that can comfortably fit that many people in one space.”

One space. So it would be a more open area, with not a lot of spaces to hide, probably. With the town and the cartel already on alert for us, for me, it would be that much harder to try and sneak in.

Remus added, “And since we are coming from the underneath the building, we’ll probably be entering through a basement, and moving up from there. I couldn’t tell you the exact floor plan, though.

It wasn’t exact, but, once again, it was something. I had scrounge up whatever I could get.

“And you’re sure that everyone is there, my passengers and this Alessa?” I asked.

“I am as sure as I was the first three times you asked me. Yes, that was where they had taken us when they took over the truck. Once we got there, they started splitting the cargo into groups. While I might not be sure of the specifics, you can probably venture a guess what they had planned.”

I could, but I didn’t want to steer my thoughts into that direction. A path I didn’t want to go down.

I kept talking.

“Any ideas on how to get back into mess hall?”

“Some ideas, it’ll depend on how close we can get through these passageways. My guess is that we can get pretty close, if not directly under it. We’ll just have to keep going. Honestly, I’m not very good at thinking on my feet, so having to do things like this… it does gives me doubts on how well this will go.”

“Then I’ll work hard to pick up the slack. Thinking on my feet is all I know.”

“You balance each other out,” Isabella said.

“But I’m not going to stand here and say it’s done me a lot of good,” I added. “I just get backed into a lot of corners.”

Touché,” Remus said.

I paused for a moment, mulling over his words.

Remus had his doubts, but I couldn’t let his stack on top of mine, as well. I had too many, already, and I didn’t need any more. It was bad enough, oppressive as the dark that surrounded us, only able to cut through with a little bit of light. Nothing more than a simple glimmer. That was all we had to go on.

“Speaking of corners, I am astonished that you managed to get this far.”

Remus spoke, filling the space in the conversation I left behind.

“How so?” I asked.

“I’m just musing out loud, considering everything, and how hostile this place has been, you’ve been lucky to survive for as long as you have. You really have proven to be no pushover.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“I don’t like how he said that,” Isabella commented.

“Not now,” I said.

Remus spoke again. “You’re right, now is not the time for idle thoughts.”

Right. Better to put our thoughts on this, and if I was going to talk, it had to be for something constructive.

I started up again, because I needed to. I fixed my arm to readjust the light.

“In case we get split up, do you have any way I could contact you? Like how you did with the walkie-talkie?”

“I do have a phone, but I’d like to refrain from using it from here on out. Sending that broadcast for that long has drained more battery than I would have liked, so I want to preserve what little I have left.”

“This would be an important time to use every resource we have,” I said. “What’s left of these people’s lives are in my hands, our hands, we have to… pull out all the stops, I guess.”

“Sorry, V, but my phone doesn’t have enough to last another call. It’s only going to cause more complications if we get cut off in the middle of a call. We’ll just have to plan around that. We stay close, or I can stay close to whatever room they have that keeps the power running. Keep tabs on each other that way.”

“That sounds like he just wants to hide somewhere while you do all the work,” Isabella said.

“Yeah,” I said, “That doesn’t give me much confidence to hear that part of the plan involves you keeping your head down, staying out of sight.”

“You don’t trust me?” Remus questioned.

“It’s not really a matter of trust. I don’t get to choose who offers help, especially when they’re capable.”

“Then I don’t see the issue, here. I will tell you that I work better in the background, from the shadows, even. And this is the only thing I can think of, as far as my involvement in this plan is concerned.”

I wanted to sigh, but I couldn’t even do that. Breathing out too hard would mean a stronger intake of air, and the air here was horrid.

The draft of this plan wasn’t dissimilar to what I would do with D, we had even worked out a plan like this while we were up against Dong-Yul’s gang. And that was on the fly, as well.

Dong-Yul, now that felt like an eternity ago.

Was I just questioning Remus because I was questioning everything? Unsure of what I was seeing, hearing, feeling? Thinking? When I didn’t even want to look at the eyes staring back from the dark?

I tried to blink, and I walked several steps before I was able to open them back up. My eyes were so heavy.

“Never mind then,” I said, noting how deflated I sounded. “Forget I said anything.”

“No worries, I do understand.”

We walked for some time without another word exchanged. The light caught something in the distance.

“The path splits from here,” I said. We were coming up to a wall.

“So it does,” Remus said.

“Do you know which way it is?”

“If we’ve only been going straight, which puts us east. If memory serves, the mess hall is more north.”

“So, left?”

“That’s a good guess.”

Left it was, then. I turned, and we continued in that direction.

Being down here, in the dark, where every one of my six senses were being violated in some way, where I traversed a winding path, I was being twisted, in multiple meanings of the word. Even if I got back up to the surface, even if I managed to save everyone, even if I got to El Paso and back to Stephenville and back to a proper bed… I had already been changed by this experience. My form was altered. I had already become warped.

“If.”

I smiled at the humor of that.

More walking, not as much talking. I was ready to find the exit.

“Stop.”

I did as I was told.

Turning to Remus, I saw him by the wall, by a door. There wasn’t any markings on it, and there was no handle to grab for. Just a small hole for a key, which we didn’t have.

I approached him. “What is it?”

Remus gestured. “This is it.”

“Here?”

“If not here, then close enough. We are right beneath the feet of Alessa and the rest of her organization. Right now, we’re a landmine.”

I got closer to the door. Remus stepped out of my way.

I kicked.

The impact crashed down the sewer passages, ringing and echoing. It jolted me awake, and gave me a sharp fear that someone could have heard us.

Dust and silence settled, and we remained still. No one came to investigate.

And we were free to go through the door, and leave this sewer.

Isabella went in first, and Remus followed behind me. A narrow corridor of stairs took us up. Gates of metal fencing were to our left and right, past them were gauges and pipes and other mechanisms. Remus wasn’t lying, after all, we were approaching the underbelly of whatever facility this was. If we were lucky, we were just beneath the mess hall.

We continued up, until we reached the end of the stairs. Another door, but it would much easier to get through, this time.

Isabella shuffled to the side so I could get the door.

The heat greeted us with a wave, hitting me in the face. We stepped into steam and sweat.

“I think we’re here,” I said, as I read one of the signs posted on the top of a metal box. ‘Mess Hall maintenance staff only.’ We were lucky.

“I think you’re right,” Remus said, coughing again.

We spread out into the room, looking for another door. My phone went back into my pocket, now that there was some decent light in here. Remus did have a point about battery life, mine would need a good charge pretty soon.

Isabella and I found the next door out of here, and Remus found what he was looking for in the room. The dials and knobs and metal meant nothing to me.

“This all looks so… breakable,” Remus said. He grinned. “This could work.”

“Good,” I said, grabbing the front of my jacket. I aired myself, to no avail. “I doubt you can last, being holed up in here. You’ll melt.”

“One thing at a time, V. Depending on how much damage I do, I might not be able to hide out in here. I recognize that, now. Maybe another room, in another part of the building.”

“Smells funny in here,” Isabella said.

“Is it supposed to be like this in here?” I asked.

“Maybe, probably not. Could be some sort of leak. They have been here for some time, but that doesn’t mean they have the properly trained people to come take care of everything. There’s a whole town’s worth of stuff, and there’s only so much of them.”

“So what does that mean for us?”

“It means we’re going to really bring that landmine metaphor to life.”

“Risky,” Isabella said.

“You better know what you’re doing,” I said.

“I do, no worries. It’ll be a distraction, not a decimation. This should work out in our favor.”

More doubts, more concerns, but I didn’t have time to voice them. I wanted to scout out the rest of the building, find the rest of the passengers, find Tone and Sarah. Leave.

But there was one key target I had to secure, first. Alessa, a leader of this cartel disguised as a cult.

Fuck me, none of this felt real.

“Then I’ll leave you to it, we have to get this thing rolling already.”

“I’ll do what I can. Go.”

I went for the door, the one that would lead me into the mess hall proper. Cracking it open, I peeked through the steam that rolled out. I saw a hallway, lit bright. Empty. No more eyes on me.

“I’m going,”  I said. “When you set off whatever it is you’re working on, I’ll take out whatever animal… guard that comes by to check it out, and we’ll get some info out of them.”

“No need. Alessa’s location is already confirmed, she shouldn’t have moved. She’s up there in that mess hall. Just get over there, and wait.”

“You better be somewhere I can find you easy, once I’m done here,” I said.

“If we manage to get that far, everything else will fall into place just fine.”

“I’ll need a signal for whenever you make the distraction.”

Remus set his bag down in front of him, opening in. He grinned when he replied.

“Oh, you’ll know, believe me.”

I noted the look Isabella gave him, it was a look that I could imagine I was wearing, too, underneath my mask. Her brows were furrowed, her lips pressed into a straight line. The lack of any glimmer in her eyes. Genuine apprehension, a sense of foreboding over what was to apparently come. Doubt.

“Hey,” I said, and got Isabella’s attention. I gestured to the hall on the other side of the door. She gave me a nod.

Then, we ran, leaving Remus behind, heading to get back what was taken from us. From me.

We didn’t have an exact layout of the mess hall, but I had thought back to what Remus had said earlier. If I couldn’t find my way out of a basement, then there were much larger issues at hand.

“You good?”

I glanced to my side.

Isabella. She was now pointing that particular look to me.

“Good is such a… nebulous metric, by now,” I said.

“You’re limping.”

Was I? I couldn’t stop to check. I couldn’t feel anything in my legs, or the leg I used to kick the door down. Or maybe that was the problem?

Too late to deal with it now. I kept at it, kept going, kept pushing myself. I’d claw my way out and up, if it ever came to that.

We took a turn to another hall, seeing an exit at the end. I bolted for the door and threw myself at it, into a spiral staircase.

I climbed, leaping over entire flights, scaling the walls and railings instead, only really using the steps to spring back up when gravity pulled me back down. The stairs didn’t go that high up, but I was able to shave precious seconds off my time.

Two sets of doors. One went back into the building, the other was an exit. I opted for the latter.

Open, untainted air. I was back outside.

A quick look around showed that I was alone, save for Isabella, but I might not be for long.

“Around the corner,” I heard Isabella say as she caught up, “Could be a car or truck or something.”

“I hear it, too. How about we move to a better vantage point,” I said. “Never a fan of staying low, anyways.”

“Sure.”

I took Isabella and leapt again, grabbing for holds in the metal that I could use to push myself even higher. Judging from the dimension of just one wall and how high up I had to go, the mess hall seemed to be pretty sizable. I reached the top and got myself over.

No one around, we were still in the clear. This was going almost too smooth

My feet skidded on gravel, and I had to keep running to try and maintain balance. I skidded again, and almost tripped over myself.

“So clumsy,” Isabella commented.

I groaned, but that was probably what she meant by my limping. But I just had to power through it.

At the middle of roof, a skylight. It was exactly what I needed. Remus could be the landmine if he wanted to, but I’d take the other approach.

I went to the skylight. I looked through the glass.

I saw everything and everyone.

So many people down there. With how they were displaced, how several were grouped together, it was easy to figure out who was who. Who I needed to save, and who I needed to hurt.

A large group sat in the middle of the mess hall, or cafeteria, the area where everyone would have gathered to eat. The tiled floor was white, and with only seeing the tops of heads, it looked like a black void, having eaten up the color that was once there.

A hole.

Smaller voids surrounded the larger one, then dots. Remus had mentioned that they were being divided. Were they more passengers, being guarded by people from the Order?

Among them, Alessa had to be there. Somewhere.

I had a mental picture of what she might look like, based on the description that Remus had given me, but I couldn’t pick out anyone who might fit that image. I was too far up.

But, they were there. Remus was right. I’d have them, soon enough.

I looked for a latch to open one of the glass panels.

Finding it, I unlocked with a finger, then using both hands to test it. I managed to lift it.

“Now we just wait for Remus,” Isabella said.

“Yeah. I’m praying this works.”

“Appropriate wording, or not. I’m not sure.”

I wasn’t sure either.

We waited for some time.

“He’s really taking a while,” I said, grumbling.

“Just give it some more time.”

“We don’t have that.”

With every second that passed, until I was sure it had been a minute, it allowed my thoughts to wander, when I didn’t want them to.

“About that Remus guy…” Isabella started.

“What about him?”

“Isn’t he kind of like an odd man out?”

“It’s not like I could pick and choose who would be able to help us.”

“Yeah but, I mean that literally too. Don’t you think it’s weird where you found him, in that room, separated from the rest?”

I turned to Isabella.

“How-”

A low rumble, deep.

And then the whole building started to shake.

Big. In every sense. The sound was loud, the vibrations strong, the reactions from the people below were panicked and frenzied. The voids began to spread out, overtaking the white.

I felt it under my feet, I felt it in my bones.

It really seemed like the building was close to crumbling into dust.

I threw the glass panel open.

“Get out of here!” I yelled.

No thinking, just act.

With the building still reverberating, I descended into the voids.

I didn’t feel the ground as I landed, instead using that numb feeling to bounce back and survey the room. People, cartel members and passengers were struggling to get their bearings, plenty of them on the tile or crouched over, on their knees. The building continued to shake, rumbling, like a giant beast was grumbling as it was awakened. Creaks and echoes and booms and snaps, sounds and noises crashing together until it was deafening. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts, but I wasn’t trying to think, anyways. I had to act. Do something.

Remus had given me a distraction, and now it was my turn.

These guards were wearing masks. Easier to think of them as animals.

I started with the animals that were still standing, with their attention divided, between coordinating with their partners, corralling the passengers back into their groups, and simply trying to remain standing. A simple drop from above took the first of them out, easy. They didn’t know to look up, yet.

These guards weren’t stupid, though. They were members of a cartel, they expected a fight, it pretty much came with the job description. After my third drop, my next jump took me away from the action as the guards got back enough composure to yell and fire.

I had to go by sight to dodge. I didn’t want to land close to or by a group of passengers, but with the general chaos that was consuming the inside of this mess hall, it was like maneuvering through a stampede. No room to stretch or breathe.

“Outside!” I yelled, at the top of my lungs. “Follow the exits!”

No use. It was all drowned out. Me, the yelling, the gunfire. I couldn’t hear myself laugh or scream.

Air again. Had to look for Alessa, or find someone who knew where she was.

I saw a few more sparks in the corners of my vision, guards that were trying to pick me out of the air. They all missed, and I noted that there were less sparks than before, that initial volley. The guards didn’t want to risk shooting their partners or their prisoners.

I could stay in the crowd, then, hide among the other blank faces.

I landed back down, and slipped in between people pushing each other to get through, to get out. I let the flow of the crowd control my movements as I waited for another opportunity to continue my search.

I coughed, hard.

The mess hall was descending deeper and deeper into madness. I had blinked, but the light didn’t come back quite right. The lights had been cut, the only source now was piercing through glass, visible rays coming into the mess hell.

And I was still up, and I was still doing this.

I was barely registering the people here as people, now, passengers and guards alike. They were starting to lose their form, like everything was, melting as the sun beamed above. I was melting, too, feeling myself swimming within the current, being swayed by every wave of movement. Getting in my way, preventing me from moving forward. At this rate, I’d be stuck. At this rate, I’d lose them.

I’d lose them all.

I solidified myself, getting enough of my shape back so I was separate, so I could influence the pool around me. I had went downstream far enough.

I pressed onward, shoving people out of the way. Sounds and noises stacked upon one another, the shouting and the ruckus of things breaking and shattering filled my ears, and echoed, echoed, echoed. It disoriented, threw me off course, whenever my focus slipped.

Alessa the demon worshipper. The witch. I had to burn her.

But I couldn’t find her. I couldn’t find her anywhere.

I stumbled, but I didn’t fall. Many around me did.

The building was rocked a second time.

I didn’t even know what was happening anymore, I wasn’t in on the plan. Remus was doing something else entirely, and I was forced to play catch up with him while still trying to stay on track with my original goal.

Lawrence. I thought of him, it was sudden. What would he say when we got back? If?

If. If.

Ha.

Ha ha ha.

I was grinning ear to ear as I stood above weak, frail animals who were unable to stand under their own power. Crawling, feeble, towards one another for support and balance. My viewpoint shifted slightly as one leg dragged behind me. But I didn’t have anyone to go to for those things. Not here, not now.

I wanted Sarah. I needed to get back Tone. I had to save the rest of those being transported, because I couldn’t bring all of them back anymore. I had already failed. Failed.

I couldn’t do this by myself.

It was getting harder and harder to distinguish faces, just vague, blurry me-shaped things. My head was pounding, so hard that it was like my skull would crack and split open.

I stumbled again. A wolf jabbed into my side. That, I felt. Cold, staying there. Stuck.

Using my remaining ounces of strength, I pulled the cold, lengthy metal out of my stomach, and gave it back to him. By putting it through the wolf’s paw.

He howled, and I disappeared back into the void before any other animal could come and hunt me.

The sheer amount of things began to overtake, just by brute force alone. Everyone was trying to leave the building before it crumbled onto our heads. The screaming, the panic. The line between predator and prey were gone, now, it was just pure survival.

Useless, to try and help anyone now. No one to save if they were under rubble.

I had to change course again.

My shouts joined the rest, the building creaking, with a bass to it like thunder. It really seemed like the building was going to collapse.

No more fighting, just escape.

Push, push. Everyone was pushing to get out. A crush of people.

Not everyone was going to make it.

Being so close, pressed together, it was easy to tell whenever someone had fallen, immediately crushed by the waves of people rushing over them. I couldn’t reach down to pick them up, all I could see was last glints of glimmer get snuffed out like a candle.

I screamed.

More people fell like dominoes, up ahead. Animals crawled over them to reach the exits. The doors were there, open, solid white rectangles. Light.

Like insects, we all scurried to the light.

The mess hall was designed to hold a lot of people, there were various exits and key points throughout the building. I had taken note of them during my initial assault. It wasn’t impossible for the hall to be completely cleared out in good time. It was improbable that every single person would manage to get out.

Cracks in my skull, strain in my heart. Pounding.

Then, I was enveloped in light.

The mass of people broke apart somewhat, giving me space. Feeling constricted, choked by the roots, I fought to get away. I jumped-

I got to the air, but my path wasn’t what I had anticipated. I floundered, only getting about half the distance and height I wanted, gravity pulling me down soon than I wanted.

Crashing, flipping over.

Whisps left my lungs. Finally, I had fallen, and I was too exhausted to work myself to my feet.

Useless, useless, useless.

Even with assistance, I still couldn’t do this. I still failed.

I’m such a mess.

I let my eyes close, slow, ready to go back to dreaming.

I’m no different than her.

“Wendy.”

A gentle, warm whisper tore me from my slumber. I’d get no slumber, it seemed.

I opened my eyes.

A woman. With the sun above her, light dancing along her outline. Radiant.

Only one person…

“Sarah,” I whispered back, my lips and tongue dry.

“Yeah. You got it ma’am,” Sarah said, her intonation rose at the end.

Endearing, but I couldn’t comment or think on it. Too god damn tired.

Sarah crouched by me, raising my head. She took my hand into hers. Wet.

“You smell,” Sarah said. She gave me a smile. Sympathetic.

I returned one of my own, but it was just pathetic.

“You’re bleeding,” I said.

“Just my hand. I clipped myself on the way out, I’m fine.”

“Are you? Is anyone?”

“I am. So is Tone. But-”

Sarah’s voice broke.

“I’m so sorry about-”

Before she could go any further, I stopped her.

“Olivia, her dad. The others we lost. I… know. We’ll just have to make do.”

Sarah just shook her head, looking down.

I looked around. Sarah was telling the truth. I saw Tone, arms crossed, looking like he had been through hell and back. I could relate. Beside him, I saw Isabella, twirling one of her pigtails with a finger. I could relate to the expression on her face, too.

“Can I see your hand?” I asked, turning back to Sarah.

Sarah moved, adjusting her hold on me. She brought her hand closer to my face.

I pressed my fingers where I felt the blood, I heard Sarah sharply inhale.

Slow, I drew the tip of a finger to my lips.

“Oh…”

I couldn’t even feel better about the fact that I felt better. I had gotten myself trapped with everyone else. We were still surrounded by animals, a crumbling building behind us.

“Help me up?” I asked.

Without a word, Sarah helped. I was able to get into a sitting position, and I was able to find the energy to stand if I needed to.

I felt my body become warmer.

My leg. The reason why I had tripped when I tried to jump. Why my limp had worsened. I had gotten shot again without ever feeling it.

Again, I watched my leg force out the foreign object. Tissue and muscle squirming to push the thing out, flicking it out like how a tongue would spit out junk that got stuck in teeth. The bullet fell into dirt beside me.

I pressed into Sarah’s palm again, so she’d wince, facing me.

My leg warmed until it was hot, then cooled off when the bullet was gone. Then I was healed, the wound closed, as if it had never been there.

It was still freaky.

“Ah. You must be the one called V.”

I looked up.

Another woman, but the aura around her was much more grim. A black robe, with blue lining on the sleeves and edge of the hood. Various gold and silver chains that adorned her neck. Symbols were stitched into the fabric, winding and coiling around her outfit like snakes. She stood tall, with horsemen on each side of her.

She moved with grace, walking as if she was floating, instead. She removed the hood off her head in one smooth motion, revealing her face.

Tan, which I didn’t expect. Given previous descriptions, I had thought she would be more pale, maybe even sickly in skin tone. Her features were rounder, softer. Her hair was short, almost shaved, as black as her robes. She looked matured enough to be someone’s mother. But with the outfit, the animals at her side, and the inscriptions tattooed all across her neck until they creeped over to her chin and cheeks… that image was dashed a little.

She raised her arms, gesturing, and more people mobilized. Animals.

They surrounded us, gathering and throwing others in the circle they formed. There were more of them, I knew, but they wanted to contain me. The guns kept me sitting down.

Dark circles around her eyes. She stared me down and I swallowed, firm.

“Or am I wrong?”

No point in hiding it. Even my mask was its own identity. If I didn’t want to be recognized, I would have used something else.

“You’re not,” I answered.

“Then it is a pleasure to meet you. You may call me Alessa.”

Alessa. There she was. Except I didn’t find her. She found me.

I spoke, despite the strain in my voice.

“I’ve been looking for you, you know.”

“Oh, I do. I’ve been looking for you, as well. As you may know, we are not kind to visitors, esteemed as they may be. We punish those who trespass, and use them as warning for those on the outside.”

“Except we didn’t trespass. You took the people I was supervising and brought them here.”

“You drew us out, and we acted in turn. An action and equal reaction.”

It was like we were speaking two different languages.

“I didn’t draw you out, I didn’t even know this place existed! You’re fucking insane!”

Alessa lifted her chin, moving her head to the side.

“Insane? No. In fact, things have never been so clear to me now.”

She motioned with her hand, and one of the horsemen moved to throw another into the ring.

Remus.

He collapsed into the dirt about a yard away from me and Sarah. He got up fast, though, turning around, his hands raised when he saw the guns.

“So close,” he said. It was just him, he didn’t have his bag or any other tool, but he didn’t look or sound concerned at all.

“Don’t try to take one of my trucks then.”

“Worked the first time.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, more as an admittance than anything else.

“You will, in time,” Alessa said. She turned to Remus. “I do not appreciate being played, Victor, especially when the move is so sloppy. It’s unbecoming of you, and it insults me.

Remus answered. “Don’t blame me. It was his idea. We only had one opportunity at this, and I’m not great at coming up with something on the fly.”

“Well, you tried for sure. I can’t exactly use my mess hall for some time, now. If it becomes condemned, then it really fucks us over, Vic.”

Remus… Victor, Vic? The man grinned.

“The pleasure has been all mine, Alma.”

“I don’t understand.”

I repeated the words like it hurt, and it did. I didn’t want to admit it a third time.

Alessa turned, looking down at me. I hated that expression. That know-it-all look.

“Looks like you were played, too, V. Or, may I use your previous name? It gets too confusing.”

“Previous name?”

“Yes, Bluemoon.”

The name hit me like a truck.

While I was reeling, Alessa kept pummelling me with information.

“I’m not as au courant with the latest developments in Stephenville, but I do have my connections-”

“Familial,” the man said.

“Silence, Vic, I’m the one with power, here. Excuse me, as I mentioned, I do keep an ear to the outside world. It’s just a good habit to keep. During those days when the Bluemoon name was most active, I recall reading headlines about a particular mastermind that caused quite a bit of trouble for you.”

My eyes widened.

It was right there, right under the surface, even between the cracks, that live connection that was just waiting for a spark. It was as instant as it was horrifying. Recognizing it, realizing it.

I whipped my head to look at the man, feeling a rush. A new light.

The man was looking at me as well, but he was as calm as I was not. He grinned, wider than ever before, as if I had finally caught on to what had been painfully obvious this whole time. Maybe it was, and I was too frayed at the ends, too blind to see it.

Who is he?

I had my answer.

Remus, Victor, Vic… Solace.

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084 – Indigo Thread

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I stared at the man’s face as he caught his breath, making them deep.

Caucasian, with defined lines on his face, but there was still a youthfulness to his features. Pushing his thirties, if not well into them. His hair was short, a buzz cut, with some stubble growing around his mouth and chin. Flecks of blood and dotted the lower half of his face, and with his eyes blinking but only opening halfway, it was clear that he’d been through some shit, too.

Who hasn’t, by this point?

He blinked twice more, before his eyes could move over to me, focus, and realize that there was a ‘me’ to notice to begin with. I saw his expression shift. Squinting through the dim, speaking over the music.

“Who’re you?” he asked, with more energy than I would have expected.

It meant something, that I had to pause and think up a proper answer.

“V,” I said, after a time. “It’s V. I’m here to get you out… well, depending on who you are.”

The man grinned, another thing I didn’t expect.

“You can call me Remus,” he said.

“Remus?”

A strange name, but I had gotten used to strange. And something about him seemed familiar, too, but it was hard to parse.

“A name isn’t going to be enough,” I said. “You’re going to have to tell me where you came from, Remus, and how you got to be in that chair.”

The man paused. Was that supposed to mean something?

The man, Remus, answered.

“I was on a trip, with about a hundred others. We were on our way to El Paso. But, actually, I believe our final destinations would be much more south than that. As for how I got in this chair, that’s just bad luck. And as for why you’re here, I’m guessing you got my message?”

My eyes widened.

Another one of them. Like Olivia, like her father.

The message. The coordinates.

“You’re part of the group that was being transported?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“And you’re the one that sent out those coordinates?”

“That’s what I implied.”

I frowned at him. “I’m just making sure. A lot’s happened lately and I feel like I’m beginning to lose grasp of even the simple things. It’s been a long day, basically, and it’s not even noon yet.”

“That doesn’t sound promising for our chances of escape.”

“I’m trying,” I said, breathy at the end, saying it more so for myself than him. The effect was marginal.

Remus twisted in his seat. His arms were at his back. He tugged, but they weren’t moving.

“If you’re going to try,” he said, “Start by getting me out of this. Hurry.”

Oh, right.

By the way he was moving, he didn’t seem to be too injured. He could move of his own volition.

But, he was still bound, and he’d need my help.

I grabbed him by the shoulders and eased him up, out of the chair. He grunted, but managed. I turned him around and examined his hands.

Zip ties had him bound by the wrist. Tight, enough to made his hands and fingers red, the skin right under the restraints more red and irritated. But, that could have just been from him trying and failing to get out of them.

I checked my pockets, feeling for my knife. I found it, and flicked the blade out.

“I’ve got a knife,” I said. “It’s going to be a bit of a squeeze, though.”

“Do be careful.”

I put the knife up close to the zip ties, between his hands. Part of the blade pressed against both of this palms.

“Pull apart as much as you can,” I told him.

“That’s the best I can do.”

“Then stay still.”

Several hard heartbeats passed.

He couldn’t heal like me. He was breakable.

No more mistakes. Couldn’t afford them.

I bit my tongue until it hurt. I flicked the blade forward.

Ah!”

Remus gasped, harsh. He tripped, and I brought a hand out to catch him.

Getting his balance back, he stretched, putting his hands up in front of his face, rubbing his wrists. He breathing was more measured now, but obvious and noticeable. Deliberate.

“I’ve only ever been in cuffs a few times in my life,” Remus said. “I don’t need to do this, but I almost feel compelled to. You see it in a lot of movies and shows.”

I watched as he settled himself, putting his arms to his sides. He stood straight. He was hunched over before, slumped when in the chair, so I hadn’t realized how tall he was at his full height. Several heads over me. I had to crane my neck up to face him, to address him properly.

He was wearing a grey sweatshirt, the sleeves long enough to cover his lanky arms. And with black jeans and red loafers, he had dressed comfortably for an uncomfortable trip, squeezed in with a hundred other people.

He had some blood on his face, but not his clothes. He didn’t seem to be showing any signs of strain or injury.

I asked, just to make sure.

“Are you hurt? Anything else I need to know about?”

Remus shook his head, and cleared his throat. “No. They got a few good hits in, but I’ve walked away from worse. I’ll deal.”

I lifted an eyebrow.

“Then that’s good, because I’m going to need your help for this next part, if you’re up for it.”

“If it means leaving as soon as possible, then sure, I’m up for it.”

I attempted a smile, but an awkward, high-pitched giggle escaped me. I turned my head and coughed to try and mask it, pretend that it was a lead up to that, instead.

“Thank you, I’m going to need it.”

“No problem, now come on, we should go. I’m not sure how many of those guards you, um, took out on the way in here, but there no point in sticking around.”

Remus walked over to the body in the middle of the living room. The guard that I couldn’t remember taking out. Was I getting so exhausted that I was having momentary, brief gaps in my memory?

Shit, it would be dangerous if I was. Something I’d have to keep in mind.

“There’s a kitchen right there, on the other side of the counter,” Remus said, handling the guard. He removed a gun from the guard’s hip, taking it for himself, tucking it in the waistband of his pants. I didn’t even notice the guard had a gun.

Then, Remus picked the guard up, hooking his hands under the guard’s armpits. He leaned his head to the right of me and the chair.

“In case anyone comes in here, we can delay things having them have to go around to follow this blood trail.”

Blood trail. A line as wide as my foot dragged behind the guard while Remus moved him around, passing me to get to the kitchen. How bad did I get him?

“Is he alive?” I asked, concerned.

“He isn’t dead, but I’m no doctor. Does it really matter?”

It did, in a far but still relevant place in my conscious. I was here to save my crew and my passengers, and find some form of revenge against these people who sent us here, but I wouldn’t need to kill to achieve that. I’d admit that I’d been close, that I’d stood at that particular edge before. But, unless I couldn’t help it, I’d backed away.

“Let’s try to not get anyone killed,” I said.

“That’s your call, and I make no promises.”

Remus popped his head up from the other side of the counter. He grinned.

“I just want to get the fuck out of here.”

Again, I lifted an eyebrow. I was with him on that, but something about his expression rubbed me the wrong way.

“We should go then,” I said, mimicking his words.

He nodded, and went back around to meet me. I moved, too, just to get ahead of him.

“I’ll lead the way out of here,” I said. My thoughts went to Isabella. She was out there, waiting for me. I’d have to get back to her and secure her again. And I’d get back to D after we were all clear, outside.

Remus stepped ahead, even faster, crossing the living room to enter another room. He disappeared behind the door.

“Hey,” I said, but he didn’t respond.

The music cut, and all I could hear was a ringing in my ears. Constant, loud. How long had that been there?

Remus returned to the living room, with a large gym bag around one shoulder, a wire in his hand. Another thing, too. A phone, it looked like.

“Don’t need to keep blaring that, anymore,” Remus said.

“What is that?” I asked.

“My phone. I had a program that broadcasted a message out to any radio that could pick it up within a certain radius. It was set up like an alarm that could only manually be turned off by me. If I was ever away from my phone for too long, it would activate, the music being an indicator for me and a cover for anyone else. It really pissed these guys off, that they couldn’t put a little alarm on snooze. And as for the bag, it’s stuff. Tools that may prove to be of some use to us.”

I pulled out the walkie-talkie I had procured from Tone’s truck. “So that’s what I was hearing this whole time? It was coming from the phone?”

Remus started coiling up the wire around the phone, and putting them both into the bag.

“Yes, it was.” For a third time, he grinned. “Clever, no?”

For a third time, I lifted my eyebrow at him. The gesture was useless each time, considering I had a mask covering the upper half of my face. My eyes, more specifically.

Just who are you, exactly?

I breathed, and shook my head. That was the most in the way of doubt I could raise towards him, for the moment. Didn’t have time to question who this guy really was. I needed help, he was willing to offer that, and he seemed to be resourceful. He was the one who lead me here, after all. He had some tricks up his sleeve.

I would be another gun for Remus, and he could be the one to aim and pull the trigger.

“Very clever,” I said. “So can we go? I have people I need to get to.”

Like Isabella. Again.

“Of course.”

Remus didn’t concede to me as we left the apartment, though. He had gotten ahead of me, and took the lead once we went into the hall. For someone who was just restrained, who had been breathing heavy, slumped in his seat, he was moving pretty fast.

“We’re going this way,” he said, going down one particular direction. Deeper into the apartment complex, away from Isabella.

“Hey, do you even know your way out of here?” I asked. I wasn’t trying to come off as whining or indignant, but with how tired I was, the crackling, scratchy tone that my voice came out with suggested otherwise.

“If I can’t find my way out of an apartment complex, then I have much larger problems on my hands. But I know where I’m going.”

“Where?”

“Straight to the leader of the cartel who runs this town.”

That one sentence. It was like getting hit by a truck. So much information, all at once, when I’d been getting next to nothing… I was floored. If I wasn’t already on the move, I would have dropped at the weight of it.

“Leader? Cartel?” The key words came out of my mouth slurred, as if I couldn’t believe them, myself.

“Yeah. It’s gotten to be quite the shitshow. But, I don’t want to waste the breath on it, not now.”

No please, I need all the breath I can get.

I kept my cravings to myself. My thirst for information, and other things.

My voice and throat were getting scratchy. Dry.

Again?

I could feel the sweat begin to permeate through my mask.

“Where exactly is this leader?”

“There’s a fort. It’s in the heart of the town, on the opposite end of town hall, just past the plaza. It’s what the town used to be named after, back during a time when it wasn’t like this. That’s where everyone is, that’s where they all are.”

Having a destination in mind, it helped. And it helped in a way that was all-encompassing, clearing most of the fog that clouded my judgement, giving me clarity. Using another metaphor, the roots and weeds were chopped away, clearing a path that I could actually take. And just knowing where to go gave me that much more stability.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was something.

“I really, really like the sound of that,” I said.

“Good, because that’s where we’re headed.”

“How far is the fort?”

“Um,” Remus started, as we reached the end of the hall. He didn’t continue until we went around the corner. “I won’t lie, but it is quite the distance. I don’t suppose you have a car with you?”

I shook my head. “No. I don’t even know how to drive.”

“Well that’s good to know. Let’s find a car we can use, then. But it might be tricky.”

“Could be worth it.”

“I don’t disagree.”

I glanced back at the corner we passed, well aware that the more we walked, the more distance I was putting between me and Isabella.

I had to steer this back to her.

“How about I take the lead, I can clear a path for us and scout ahead for anyone else. Just tell me where to go.”

“Splendid idea, V, but do you have any idea what this place is, who runs the operation, here? One false step and you’re done for.”

“I know that much, but I managed to get this far despite taking multiple false steps. On accident. Do you even know who I am?”

I couldn’t believe that I had to pull that card, but I needed to reconvene with Isabella. Sooner, rather than never.

Remus stopped and turned. I stopped too.

“I do know who you are, V. I knew it the second I laid eyes on you. The mask, the blood. It doesn’t take that many braincells to put the two and two together. Why do you think I just went right into working towards our getting out of here? Because I don’t need to waste time to clarify myself on things I’m already aware of.”

I blinked. I hadn’t even caught on to the fact that he didn’t question me or my being here, or how I managed to get this far into the town and to him despite sheer amount of opposition that blocked my way. I couldn’t even catch that I was being slow on the uptake.

How much of a help was I actually going to be? Or would I hold us back in a critical moment? Everything, and everyone, brought to ruin by my fatigue.

It was a very real possibility, and I hated that it was.

“Okay, fine,” I said, backing down. I’d just have to reach Isabella some other way-

Before that other way could come to mind, my ears caught a noise. Faint, but it reverberated throughout the halls.

I grabbed Remus by the arm and ran, pulling him along. I must have put more force than was needed, because he recoiled, letting out a sharp gasp of air.

“What?” he questioned, struggling to not trip over his own feet.

In here,” I whispered, but I pushed the words out with conviction that I didn’t have before. With that same strength, that I pushed him towards a door, another apartment. It was cracked open, but a glint of light reflected off a chain in the gap. I moved us around so I could get at the door first.

Leaning into the door, I pushed it with my shoulder, hard. The door broke free with a snap.

“They know you’re free, we have to get out of here, now.”

“There aren’t any stairs in here!”

“Funny, you think that’s a problem.”

It was funny, because I had to stop myself from breaking into a hard fit of laughter.

I lead us through the apartment, and I was running too fast to properly process what I was seeing in here. Too blurry, unfocused.

Candles. There was a whole collection of them, some were lit, more were not. Placed all over floor, clumped together in groups, obstructed our path through the apartment, and I had to be careful while still trying to hurry out of here. I didn’t want to knock any over and set the whole building on fire.

Or… maybe I did? Either way, it wasn’t part of my plan.

Other details clashed together to create a disturbing, harrowing image. Crosses were scrawled all over the walls and floor of the apartment, scratched into the wood, coated in what I hoped was red paint. Wreaths of branches and leaves circled certain clusters of candles. The room was thick with the smell of wax and incense.

The hell?

A ceremony or a rite or something. For what, though? A cult? It went with the grim scene I’d come across at the park, and it went against what Remus had told me, earlier. What was this place?

But, there was no time to stop for answers, I had to keep it moving.

I rushed us into the bedroom, to the balcony on the other side. There were more ‘decorations’ in here, too. A skull, resting on a pillow atop the bed, goat heads, mouths yawning wider between the gaps in the room. Or was my eye flickering again?

Brief, I let go of Remus to slide the balcony door open, and turned to gesture for him to come outside. I noted how gripped the door, his feet planted on the other side of the sliding door.

“You’re crazy if you think I’m making that jump.”

“We don’t have much of a choice,” I told him. “I heard some of them, back there. They know you’re out, and they’ll be looking for you. You wanted to get out of here? This is the fastest way.”

“You really are crazy.”

I shrugged. “It’s still our best route out of here.”

I heard some of them again, this time much louder. They were coming this way.

Remus heard them too.

“Dammit!”

With caution, he put one foot forward, onto the balcony, moving like a newborn fawn testing his legs.

Ugh.

We didn’t have the luxury for this.

I snatched him by the arm and swung, throwing him off the balcony. I used so much force that he didn’t even get the chance to scream. All I heard was a soft, hushed breath leave his lips as he passed me.

I laughed, he sounded funny.

I followed right behind him.

It was a stunt to pull off, but nothing I couldn’t handle. As we moved through the air, I put my arms forward, catching him. I put one arm around his legs, and the other on his back for support. We dropped several stories, but he was more than secure by the time I hit ground.

Bracing myself of impact, I aimed for a patch of grass, wanting to land of soil rather than cement. My knees bent at the force, and I moved into a crouch, keeping still for a second longer than usual. I felt like I had shaken Olivia too much when I had her in my arms, so I needed to exercise some restraint with Remus. Not everyone could handle the amount of force and pressure exerted whenever I jumped or soared on top of roofs. I’d have to be more aware of that.

Taking a second, I set Remus down, letting him get back to his feet. But he needed a second more, it seemed.

Remus ran his fingers through his scalp, fixing his bag over his shoulder.

“Never…” he breathed, “Do that again.”

“Get over it, we need to keep moving.”

I kept moving, heading around the side of the building. I’d given him more than enough time to catch his breath, regain his composure.

Now he was following me. If only I could get back to Isabella from here, but it wasn’t like I was familiar with the area. In all of the destruction and dilapidation, everything looked the same.

I rummaged for my phone as I ran, taking it out. I saw that my call with D was still going. I set it to mute, then swiped at the screen to write out a message, keeping an eye up front.

I sent a text out to Sarah’s phone.

I had already experienced some short blackouts, but my memory hadn’t completely failed me. When Isabella had called me about the ambush on the RV, it was using Sarah’s phone. She’d have to have it on her when we met up again at the trailer.

We’d be screwed, otherwise.

I shoved the phone back into my pocket, slowing down enough for Remus to catch up. Being in a hurry, it would have been easy to leave him in the dust.

“We have to get a car,” I said.

“If there’s people around, there’s a way of getting around.”

“Cars have a way of making noise or leaving a trail. Being out here, in the middle of nowhere, it’ll be easier for us to stick out.”

“I thought you said you’d clear a path for us?”

I couldn’t help but smile at that, all of my teeth showing.

“Okay. I will, then.”

I turned to run again, going ahead to search for options, make progress. As I moved away from the cover of the apartment out into the parking lot, a few immediately became available.

Cars, parked close to the front of this particular building, grouped together, taking up several parking spots. This town really was fucked.

There. A pickup truck, nothing in the back. It would have to do.

“There!” I said, pointing it out to Remus. We both went straight for it.

I arrived before he did. I slid over the hood of the truck, to get to the driver’s side. The window was down, but it would take too long for Remus to crawl his way in.

I put my hands on the door.

Before Remus could catch up, I tore the door out from the side of the truck.

“Christ!”

Remus ran around the truck to meet me.

I struck a somewhat awkward pose, having to balance on one foot while holding a sizable, oddly shaped metal door. But I managed, and kicked at a compartment right underneath the steering wheel. Not enough to destroy the mechanism, but enough to get the plastic covering loose.

It got loose, and it yawned open, wires of different colors spilling out of the opening.

“Please tell me you know how to hotwire a truck,” I said.

Remus answered without missing a beat, getting into the truck while working the wires.

“I do, but it’ll take me some time! You use a key for a reason!”

“Then make it fast!”

Taking the metal door with me, I hopped into the back of the truck. I set the door down and crouched, peeking over the roof of the truck to keep an eye on the apartment’s entrance.

No one, not yet. But Remus had to be faster.

Isabella, too.

As if a response to that particular thought, I heard banging on the side of the truck bed, like someone was trying to get on.

I looked, and that someone was Isabella.

She climbed up, getting in with me. When she had settled, she looked back at me, and gave me a curt nod, and a thumbs-up.

I returned the gesture. It was good to see her again.

I went back to looking out for others.

“How is it?” I yelled.

Remus answered.

“Almost! Shit, I’m not good at improvising!”

Good thing I am, then.

“They’re coming,” Isabella said, flat. It was a warning all the same.

“Hurry!” I yelled.

Remus answered, not with a word, but with a hum. The truck came to life.

Then, the truck lurched, stuttering back. Remus had pulled away from the other cars before setting himself straight, able to go forward.

“They’re here.”

I saw them, spilling out of the entrance of the building, realizing what was going on. Dogs and horses. They were the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ type. Because they did exactly that.

They shot at us as we made our escape.

Bullets ricocheted off the truck, some flying past my head. I heard glass break.

More cracks.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care, or that I wasn’t worried. I was, but the constant stress, the escalation, the never ending fighting for my life or others, the stakes kept getting pushed so much that it was funny.

I couldn’t not find the humor in that, and I broke into a fit of laughter. The sort of laughter that paid no mind to social conventions, whether or not there were other people around. There was no suppression. It was freeing, it was wild.

It was good.

The truck managed to get out of the lot, despite the barrage of gunfire. From the proximity of them, I could hear that Remus was shooting back, as well.

“Up ahead.”

My eyes followed Isabella’s warning.

Two cars, coming right at us, going fast. They’d tear us off the road and surround us if they got any closer.

I got up, bringing the metal door with me.

I didn’t much thought into what I was doing. Just what felt right, necessary.

Much like my shield from before, I spun, then threw the door, aiming for one of the cars.

The door spun like a disc, even curving through the air a little. It hit a target, cutting and slicing through the front engine of the car on my right.

It swerved, getting off the road. The other car even jolted out of the way. They gave us an opening that we immediately took at advantage of.

I heard Remus yell something, but the wind was too strong. Isabella was much clearer.

“Nice hit.”

She smiled at me, but I was already showing teeth.

Getting the affirmation wasn’t bad, though. Hearing it helped me feel it. That we were doing okay, that we had a chance.

And that chance was all I needed to keep it together.

Getting out of range of the gunfire, taking multiple corners, using buildings for cover, Remus drove to our destination. And I was grinning the whole ride there.

What happened next would be no laughing matter.

We had abandoned the truck several blocks down, right before we got to the plaza. We’d get spotted if we attempted to get any closer using a vehicle, sticking out with people in the back and a whole door missing. Going on foot wasn’t too bad, though. It wasn’t that far, and it had given us some much needed time to get some much needed information, and using that to plan.

The info I was getting… so much sweeter than blood.

“It may look like a mess, and while that’s because it is, there’s also a method to it. This was all by design and intention.”

“It was?” I questioned.

“Yes. The town was already doomed from the start, when the local economy started to stagnate. Then, as it declined, that gave room for seedier groups to come in and take root. An underground market developed, until it grew large enough to subsume the whole town without little opposition, thanks to the right corrupt politician in the right office, the right officer keeping tabs on the right things, and the right kind of reports being sent out, as to keep the outside world from looking too closely.”

“Sounds like a lot of work,” Isabella ventured.

“How do you even manage to get that far in a project like that?” I asked.

“Helps when you’re coordinated and have enough manpower to work with. Connections, too. Only a cartel would be able to pull this off. Either that, or the government. But I’m not up to discuss conspiracy theories.”

“Sure,” I said. “But that doesn’t explain all the fucked up shit we saw on the way here. The stuff I saw. The bodies, the masks, the cult stuff. None of it really adds up.”

“It does, in that it doesn’t. It’s all a front, a way to scare off anyone who tries to come here, or anyone who was unfortunate enough to come here by accident.”

“A front? But there were bodies, people were killed here. If a cartel wanted to scare people off, they wouldn’t need to go that far.”

“Image is everything, you’d know that, wouldn’t you? You wear a mask after all. In their eyes, it’s a necessary sacrifice, in order to properly sell that. Is it a cartel, or a cult? Is anyone really here, or is it just a myth? By keeping this sort of thing vague and inconsistent to the rest of the world, it scares off anyone who would normally be curious. Fuckington’s reputation acts like it’s own giant barrier.”

Remus breathed, slow, before adding, “Honestly, it’s pretty genius, this whole setup.”

The day was getting longer, the sun higher, the hour brighter, and my thoughts were too scattered to parse any of this properly.

“It’s more ‘mad’ than ‘genius,’” Isabella offered.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” I said.

“You think so too?” Remus asked. “Splendid.”

“What are they called now? Does this cartel or cult even have a name?”

“They do. The Organization of Order.”

Weird name, not that I’m in any position to judge.

It almost made me laugh. Almost.

But, I did consider his answer.

“How do you even know all of this stuff, anyways?”

A noticeable lull in the conversation.

“You pick up a lot whenever you’re bound for a long stretch of time,” Remus answered.

“Fair enough,” Isabella said.

We were getting around the plaza, now, approaching the fort. The buildings around here were as small, if not smaller than the other town, with a larger stretches of soil and grass between them. It was getting harder and harder to stick close to the buildings, using them to hide behind. There were longer stretches of time and distance of us being out in the open, and when the whole point was to sneak up to the fort as much as possible, being visible was what we had to avoid.

“This way,” Remus said, turning onto another street, away from the largest open field we’d encountered yet. He picked up the pace.

I could see it from here. It was more like a facility than anything fortified, several buildings in the distance, normal in appearance. Old-fashioned, maybe even antiquated. I could see some vehicles, jeeps and trucks that were blockier and more sturdy. They reminded me of the trucks the border patrol had.

That felt so long ago, already.

I blinked, feeling my eyes stinging. So tired.

I could feel myself melting away in the sun.

There were some people in the distance. Too far to make out, and it didn’t seem like they noticed us. For the moment, we were still in the clear.

Didn’t look like they were my people. I wished I could get some visual on them.

According to Remus, they were right there. We were so close.

We walked, and my view of the fort was interrupted by another building. A general store.

Remus went off the sidewalk, to the middle of the street. He stopped right there.

“Why are we stopping?” I asked.

“We’re not. We’re just going another way.”

I tilted my head.

Remus noticed my reaction, and pointed down. We were standing around a manhole cover.

I looked back up. “Really?”

“Yes really. These older towns don’t exactly have the best kind of sewer system, but they are expansive and connected. We should be able to get right under the fort from here.”

“Should?”

“We will. We know what direction the fort is. It’s just a matter of navigating through the passages and into whatever room they have that’s connected. There’s going to be a boiler room or a generator room we can come in from. Better still that we find that on the way. If we can get a hold of their power, cut it off or sabotage it in some way…”

“That’s another way you can get an edge in,” Isabella said, finishing the thought.

“This better work,” I said.

“It will. It’s not like we can just walk right in and ask to take everyone back. You wanted help? This is how you’re going to get it.”

It was the most we could work with, it felt like. But, we had to make the most of it.

I moved without having to be asked. I bent down to pick up the manhole cover, tossing it away.

Remus commented as I worked.

“Honestly, I have to say I’m impressed. You’re actually much more of a terrifying figure than I initially thought. Despite being hit back harder, you’ve managed to return that favor tenfold. Truly impressive.”

“Thanks,” I said, absentminded, as the manhole cover fell back to the ground. The hole in the ground seemed to stretch wider.

There wasn’t a hole, before. It’s here now.

Remus gave me a look.

“You all ready?” he asked.

Isabella and I nodded.

“Then I’ll let you lead the way, clear the path once more, V. Let’s save what we can of the transport.”

Yes. I liked the sound of that. I really, really liked it. I was going to save Sarah, save Tone, and take Isabella and Olivia and everyone else to safety.

Serious business, but the prospect of success made me smile.

Leading the way, I went down first, moving in silence, dropping into the darkness once more.

Previous                                                                                               Next

083 – Haunt

Previous                                                                                               Next

D had picked up the phone in an instant. I was thankful for that. It saved me the ache of waiting too long.

Yes?

I never felt so relieved to hear such a cold, mechanical sound.

“D!”

I yelled out even though I knew that I had to keep it down. The tensions had been high, and they were only getting higher.

That’s a lot of pep. Something good must have happened.

“It’s the complete opposite, actually. We got ambushed and the RV was taken.”

D hesitated and stuttered. I could have sworn that she swore herself.

Sh- shoot. That is the complete opposite of good. Did you find the truck?

It was my turn to hesitate.

“I did, but none of our passengers were in there. Neither was Tone. I’m hurrying to find them.”

There’s a lot you have to catch me up on. I thought I told you to keep me updated.

“I’m doing that right now.”

I kept moving, pacing myself so I didn’t lose my breath as I explained what I knew to D. It didn’t amount to much, though.

“Okay, here’s the deal. I left the RV so I could go around this town and find Tone and the truck, myself. Before I found the truck, though, I did manage to find some of… I’ve been avoiding using the word ‘cargo,’ but yeah. I happened upon some of them.”

I paused.

And? Where are they now? Did you put them somewhere safe?

Questions I didn’t want to answer.

“One didn’t make it,” I said. “And I’m trying my damnedest to make sure the other one does.”

I expected a pause on D’s part, another hesitation, but she responded immediately.

So we’re already fricked.

“You could say it again, but I’d rather not hear it again. It’s freaky out here, D. I’m at the town’s amusement park, and it looks like it came straight out of a horror show. They’ve killed people and decorated the bodies, putting them on display. I couldn’t tell if some of them are our people or not. Didn’t exactly get the chance to check.”

Sounds like quite the party.

“D,” I intoned, “Not now.”

From the phone, I heard D clear her throat.

Then let’s not jump straight to conclusions and assume the worst, Vivi, but let’s not delude ourselves, either.

The knot in my stomach twisted, tighter.

“I’m just trying to pick up whatever pieces I can find,” I said, “And I need your help.”

Always,” D said.

I spun, changing my posture, so my shoes slid across the pavement, letting me ease into a full stop.

I put the walkie-talkie closer to the phone.

“Not sure if you can hear it, but I found the walkie-talkie from the truck. It was Tone’s.”

And Tone is still nowhere to be found. Shoot. Is something coming out it? I’m picking up some stuff, but it’s too muddied.

“Too many degrees of separation, right. They’re coordinates.”

Coordinates?

“I don’t know where it leads to, or who’s broadcasting it, but it could be our only lead. Right now it is our only lead.”

It could also be a trap.

“Like that didn’t dawn on me. But what else do we have?”

Did you try… talking to it?

“It’s been on, I’ve been pressing the button, no one’s responding. It’s just looping those coordinates. I don’t think it’s receiving any inputs.”

Sketchy for sure. You want me to punch them in for you?

“Could you?”

Anything, anytime. Just give them to me and I’ve got you.

It was a cumbersome process, hearing the mechanical, looped coordinates, and repeating them back to D. It had looped so many times that I was worried that I’d gotten them out of order. So many numbers and degrees. But, I managed to get it right, and D replied accordingly.

It’s loading… and there. Where are you, exactly?

I fumbled with my phone. “I can look it up real quick.”

I pressed the buttons, cursing the slow service. We were far away from any semblance of society or even reality. Precious time wasted due to the failings of a small rectangular piece of plastic.

I told D my exact position.

Thank you, ma’am. Okay, so that puts you… About half a mile north of where you are.

Half a mile. I didn’t have a map of the park, I didn’t know how big this place was. No way was this park so big that it could cover more than a mile of land. Wherever this broadcast was coming from, I’d have to leave the park to get there.

“North,” I said, “Got it. You wouldn’t happen to know where or what that leads to, do you?”

I don’t. The app isn’t giving me very clear readings in that area. It’s like that whole area doesn’t exist.

“Well, it does exist, and it’s a god damn fucking nightmare. I want to get out of here already.”

Fastest way to do that is to head to where those coordinates lead, then.

Exactly.

“North, right? I’m on way.”

I’ll try and help in guiding you as you get closer, so keep me on the line. I’ll stay close to my phone so if you need me just talk.

“Sure. I’m putting you in my pocket for now.”

Hope it’s not too tight a squeeze.

“You’ll just have to get used to it,” I said, shoving my phone into my pocket, robbing D of a chance to retort. No more time to stand around and chat. I switched off the walkie-talkie, too, I had got what I needed out of it.

I looked to Isabella.

Despite my ability to run faster than any top athlete without really trying, she’d managed to keep up with me. She was standing there, waiting, her fingers intertwined. Clearly nervous.

That tug, again.

I spoke, “I got you back, didn’t I? I’ll do the same for the rest. It’s only a matter of time.”

Isabella nodded, slow, her eyes not meeting me.

If only I had time to sit down and sort through this whole situation, figure out the details and make a proper plan. But it was one crisis after another. I could never seem to catch my breath.

“Come on,” I said, turning to start running. Winding. “Let’s get a move on.”

Isabella gestured, and I took that as a confirmation that she was up for it. And then we got a move on.

We were still in the back lot of the amusement park, and, while it was less of a maze to get through than the park itself, I still second-guessed myself with every corner and long pathway I took. I had been in this Death For Amusement Park for at least a half hour, and in Fuckington for a full sixty minutes, and every new thing I came across only made me disoriented and confused. It was as if I was running through a maze in my own head. I’d get lost if I wasn’t careful, wasn’t always diligent.

No distractions. Couldn’t afford them.

I found myself by the side of some buildings, smaller installments away from the rides and the park itself. Portable structures that used to be offices or staff headquarters, probably. They actually weren’t in a similar state to every other building I’d seen previous, in the park and in the surrounding town. No broken windows, no streaks of dirt, no sign of any damage of debris anywhere. The buildings themselves looked to be in the same style of architecture as the rest of the park, so they weren’t new constructions. These had been kept up, taken care of.

“People have to be coming through here.”

Isabella voiced my thoughts.

Hearing them out loud forced me to take action. I retraced my steps somewhat, going back around a corner I had passed, crouching. In case anyone was there, I had to stay hidden.

Isabella followed, sticking close, staying right at my back. She continued to bring up good points.

“We’re in the staff section of the park. There’s probably a lot emergency exits close by. We could just take the nearest one and be done with being here. It’ll make getting to those coordinates way faster. Less stuff getting in the way.”

All good points.

“There might be some clues inside those buildings,” I mentioned. “As to what this town and park even are.”

“Do we even need to know? You said it yourself, you want to get out of here already. We have to get the others back, everything else is secondary.”

I took a peek from around the corner, checking for anyone. No one. For now.

“I get that, obviously,” I said. “But information is one of the best secret weapons you can have. It’s not enough to just get… almost one hundred people back from a whole freakshow mob of people. The truck is still back there, stuck in the park. Either we drive the truck out of here, or we bring that many people back here, to the truck. Both options are pretty much impossible. If we can learn more about, about Fuckington, we can actually make a plan on how to get out of here. Fuck, I wish I had some time to think.”

“You have some right now, and you have to make a decision. Check those buildings, or go straight to the coordinates.”

Isabella wasn’t going to be making anything easier for me, was she?

Fair enough, though, she was right. I wasn’t graced with a lot of time to think this out and consider every little thing. I was pressed for time in every sense of the phrase. Not enough to think everything through, and Isabella was right up against my back, as if to urge me to take an action, any action. It just had to be immediate.

And I was right there with her, it was just that the slow-drip realization that there was so much to consider that it weighed on me and pressed me down, making the simple act of moving again that much harder.

What was I supposed to do what was I supposed to

“Behind you!”

Isabella hissed the words, but I sensed the urgency.

I’d heard it, too. Footsteps.

Forced into take an action. Of course.

I ran.

Heading towards the direction of the buildings, I went around them, to the back. I moved fast to get behind cover as soon as possible. Isabella was right behind me.

I checked where the sound had come from.

People.

They went around the corner, coming close to the office buildings, but not to us, specifically. They hadn’t noticed our presence.

But they were aware of it.

“Anything from the others?”

“Nothing.”

“Fuck, I wasn’t expecting this.”

“I doubt anyone was, sir. They just came out of nowhere.”

“Now they’re a problem. I don’t like problems. They make things complicated.”

“They already took out a handful of our guys. Some of them probably can’t walk no more.”

“We have to stomp them out now, before it gets too out of hand. We only have so many on the medical staff. Does anyone have anything new? Where we saw it last?”

“We don’t. Last known position was it going through the air, like it was flying. Our best guess was that it was heading toward the roller coasters. But it could have went on foot from there.”

“So they could be anywhere by now. Fucking shit.”

“Could it really be her? The Bluemoon?”

“It doesn’t really matter whether it is or not. Either answer has its own implications, none of them being any good to us.”

“Truly a problem, then.”

“No shit. So get cracking. I want her skull split open and her eyes gouged out before dinner.”

The rest of the group answered in unison.

“Yes, sir!”

Seven of them in total. No bikes or vehicles. They were all on foot. Moving in a group, in haste, searching for us. Hunting.

The voices had been muffled, somewhat, and I could see why. They were all wearing masks. Not like mine, though. Much more macabre.

Animal masks. Pigs, dogs, goats, one was even a frog or maybe even a toad. The muted colors and rough textures put a grotesque feel over the designs and look of the group.

Blood, or whatever it was that evoked the image of blood, smeared across the masks, pieces ripped out at the bottoms to resemble strips of torn flesh, dangling and loose. The eyes were filled in, black, from corner to corner. With all the added, disgusting detail, they really went the extra mile to make the masks look realistic. The pointed ears almost made me take extra caution, that they’d actually pick up my breath or my heartbeat as they became more elevated.

If the intention was to intimidate or freak me out, then congratulations, it worked.

They continued speaking, but they had lapsed into another language. I couldn’t understand them.

I whispered to Isabella. “Are you catching any of that? Do you know what they’re saying?”

“I can’t.”

“Too far, then.” I peeked around to corner to check on them again. They had spread out, moving to inspect the area, some closing in on the offices. “But they’re coming this way.”

“We have to move, Wendy,” Isabella said. Shaky.

“I know,” I murmured back. I considered my options.

Another mob was here, now, looking for us like how we were looking for Tone and the others, except their intentions were probably not as… good. These guys seemed to know something about Fuckington and the park, if not directly involved with what was going on, here. Between the clean office buildings and this group, it was like a goldmine of information had fallen right into my lap.

If there was ever a chance to get some context, it was right now.

“I have to,” I said, talking to Isabella, but mostly reaffirming my decision to myself. “It won’t do any good for us to find Tone and Sarah the others and not have a plan prepared afterwards. I have to get some info out of these guys.”

“It’s up to you,” Isabella said. “Just know that any wasted time is going to harm them more that it harms you.”

I drew in a breath, and was slow to draw it out. She wasn’t helping in the slightest.

Fine. It was a harsh dose of reality, but she was right. This was important, and there were very good reasons to do this, but it did take time, time I might not really have. People’s lives were on the line, and sacrificing time to better help them might end with those same people getting sacrificed instead, in a sick and ironic fashion.

Flashes of those shrouds and stuffed animals flickered through my mind. I couldn’t let any one of them become that. I got Isabella back, I managed that much, but there was still so much more I needed to get done, so many more people I needed to save.

Looped notions, the same constant thoughts, over and over. I was repeating myself. Ad nauseam.

I was tired.

I had gotten some blood in, but it was like being at the end of my rope, and then setting it on fire. I was already running on fumes. Pushing it would mean pushing myself, and I could only go so far, now. Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. Only so much left to give.

But I had to keep going. I had to do this.

“Okay,” Isabella said, as if she knew what I was thinking. “If you believe it’s worth it, then I’m with you.”

Now she was helping. But, it did make me feel a little better about this, though the seeds of doubt would always be there, by this point. I’d just have to learn to work around them, push through those weeds, anyways.

I pushed through them.

The masked mob began to cover more ground, and I moved in accordance. I stayed low, crouched, and I slinked away from the corner I was hiding behind to sidle along the back wall, sneaking around the mob. Keep out of sight, and wait for the right opportunity. Avoid getting into another fight, if at all possible.

Pick them off, one at a time. Get as much information and details as possible.

It was the best I could do, given the circumstances.

I kept an ear out, trying to map them out in my head as they walked and talked. Using my hearing to learn their locations. The results weren’t great, I wasn’t a bat, nor did my powers extend to that particular sense. Just more guesswork.

I noted a specific pair of steps come around from the back of us. They were definitely being thorough, deciding to search here. We’d get caught once they went around that corner. A cement wall that acted as a barrier between the park and the town was quite a distance away, and attempting to cross the gap to use the other office building as cover might expose Isabella and I, in the doing.

Nowhere else to go but up.

I held my hand out for Isabella, and I went up.

The roof was corrugated metal, and it made a bit of noise as I landed down, putting myself flat on my stomach. Not enough to attract their attention, though, I hauled us up rather than jumped, muffling any sound. Isabella was surprisingly light, too, helping her up and over was like moving a feather.

“You heard that?”

I pressed my tongue against the back of my teeth, hard. I held my breath. I was listening in on them from above.

“Heard what?”

“Up there, I think it came from the roof.”

“Must have missed it, then.”

“Whatever. Come on, we have more ground to cover.”

“Sure.”

I exhaled, hard, feeling lightheaded.

So many close calls. Too many, really. A lot of them could be counted in the holes and tears that riddled my clothes, my jacket.

I couldn’t chance any more. Even with my healing.

I listened.

They had sprawled out, searching everywhere, someone even went into the office building I was hiding out on top of, judging by the sound of a nearby door opening and closing, then opening and closing again. The office space inside must have been small or sparse with stuff, because they didn’t take very long to look around. They left and returned to the others.

“Nothing in there.”

“Same with the other storage, too.”

So they aren’t offices, I thought. At least I got something concrete.

“The whole search is turning into a bust, at least for this section.”

The conversation shifted into another language for a moment. Everything they said was lost on me, and Isabella wasn’t offering to translate.

One of them returned to English, saying, “Let’s just get a move on, Richie, check somewhere else. We have to round back to the base eventually, everyone’s going to want to get together and talk about this. Coordinate.”

Ah. Coordinate. That word had begun to stick out to me.

Another responded. But I didn’t have eyes on who.

“Soon, Leon, I just want to be thorough. The thing could be right under our noses and we’d have no idea.”

Or right above you, I thought.

“And then what? You saw what that thing did, no? Not even a whole spray of bullets could stop it.”

“It’s alive, Leon, and that means it’s capable of dying. And we will be the ones to kill it, skin it, and string it up for all to see, and then no one will ever try coming here to fuck with us again. Forever.”

“You make it sound so friggin’ easy.”

“Death isn’t a very far trip, and there’s plenty of ways to get there fast. Short cuts. We’ll find something for it. Put the devil back where it belongs.”

“Christ…”

Another voice spoke up. “Not just them, too, there’s still him.”

“I know. This has become a thing, now. Which is why I want this dealt with as soon as possible.”

“If it’s after the meat from the truck, we could just use them as leverage. Have it come to us.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” another replied.

The first guy, Richie, spoke.

“We only have so many to use. We need to budget them or we lost that as a potential bargaining chip. But… I am not against that idea.”

“So we should get back to the assembly already? Things have been getting way too messy, lately, and now there’s this, it, him, and if this gets out and we can’t control it then-”

“We’ll have it under control, Leon, we have it under control. We have the upper hand, and it holds the best bargaining chip we could ask for. This can be contained.”

“Then let’s get back to the assembly and get something prepared. Being split up and wasting time looking around isn’t going to help.”

There was a small round of discourse, at that. Another language.

“Then we’ll go,” Richie said. “Call Alessa, tell her that we’re heading back.”

“On it.”

I listened as their collective footsteps continued onward, away from what I knew now were the storage buildings, and away from me and Isabella. I crawled on my stomach, peeking from the lip of the roof, and I watched as the masked mob disappeared underneath a tent, the man in the toad mask closed a tarp behind them. It led back to the park proper, from what I could gather from their path and the direction they were headed.

And then they were gone. And I was free to move.

I dropped down from the roof, to the front of the office. It wasn’t a large drop, with the building being less than a story in height, if that.

Isabella managed to get down by herself, landing right next to me, a second after I touched ground.

“Close call,” I said.

“Like I needed any more,” Isabella said.

“Right,” I said. “Anyways. There is the option to follow those masked guys, they might lead us directly to the others.”

“Or they’re going somewhere completely different. Stop trying to get off track, Wendy.”

“I’m not, there’s just so many ways we can go about this. But you’re right, let’s just stay on the current course.”

Isabella did have a point, though, there was no guarantee that following those masked guys would lead us to Tone and Sarah and the others, and the looped transmission from the walkie-talkie was the only thing that was directly connected to the end goal. If we were going to make any progress in getting them back, it would be by going there.

I looked ahead, finally getting a decent look at the face of the buildings. Clean, maintained, unlike the park or anything else I’d seen in this forsaken place.

“Current course does have me doing a quick check through here,” I said, thinking out loud. “Sorry. Just give me a couple seconds, here, maybe a minute, or several.”

I looked at Isabella. She shrugged.

“It’s not my peace to make.”

I grimaced. First D, now Isabella. Everyone was giving me attitude today, it seemed.

But, that was fine, for right now. I could imagine Isabella being shaken up about what had happened, especially considering that it went down so fast. If she needed a way to vent, air out frustrations, and if she needed a punching bag to do that, then I’d be willing to take the hits.

“A couple seconds it is, then,” I said, before moving up to the first office, pushing the door open.

In stark contrast to the bloodied, mangled imagery of the shrouds and bodies, the interior was sterile, clean of any flecks or dirt or dust. Cold, even, but it was the closest thing to normal, to the point of mundanity, that happening upon it felt like a warm embrace.

I began to survey the area. A couple of seconds. Aside from that contrast, here wasn’t much to take in.

A single, tiny space in a temporary structure. It was never meant to hold much.

Boxes upon boxes. Cardboard and wood. The stacks of crates varied in length, some managed to reach the ceiling, but most were either as tall as me or a box or two short. There were two of these buildings, after all, it wasn’t like anyone would need to conserve space.

But, it was just that, in here. Boxes. Crates. Cardboard and wood.

I walked more inside, the door closing on its own. My finger traced the edge of one of the boxes. Wood. It smelled of lavender.

Not that one.

I went to another stack, instead, a cardboard box that reached up to my nose in height. I brushed away dust and cobwebs – a pair of gloves – kicking up a stale, musty scent. It wasn’t sweet, though. Closest thing to a jackpot I’d ever get.

Setting my breath in a firm line, holding my breath, I tore the box open. I coughed anyways.

Then, getting on the tips of my toes, I peeked inside.

Masks.

Curious, I grabbed the box and set it down at my feet. I dug through that box and the next.

More and more masks. Similar in fashion to the ones the group that had passed just before. There were different animals in here, different kinds of birds. Ravens, crows, blue jays and cardinals. All of them ripped and damaged to achieve that specific, gross aesthetic.

The next box had props, some of these I had yet to see being used, others… had tried to leave their mark. Varied, but they all sharing a theme. Ugly and wrong.

Claws and toy swords were next to handguns. Lanterns and miniature figures of ghouls were piled next to magazines. I must have shaken the box a bit when I set it down, because a pistol was lodged into the open mouth of a skull, stuck. The blank, empty sockets stared at me, wide and seemingly growing wider.

With the strange mixture between a fantastical sort of horror and the very real, it gave me a chill down my spine. For a split second, I considered the possibility that the skull was real.

A hint of honey began to waft-

I shut the box and kicked it away. I heard the contents shift around, inside.

I put my hand to my mouth. I felt the contents shift around, inside.

It was as if I had opened Pandora’s box. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking up terrible, horrifying ends to everyone I was responsible. What if I couldn’t save them? What if more of them died because of me? What if I never made it out of this town?

Tone. Sarah.

I thought about Sarah.

My knees started to shake, my shoulders shivering. Those were all very real possibilities, weren’t they? They could all come to be?

Death was amusement, here. This was how these monsters treated it.

The seeds weren’t roots, anymore. They had bloomed, to their fullest growth and effect.

It didn’t take long for the vines to wrap and constrict my mind.

One surreal visual after another, one surreal visual after another.

Everything was an assault on my grasp of reality. I could feel it slipping away with every second I didn’t get to sit down and rest.

“Wendy.”

It was so difficult, why did this have to be so difficult? Everything, always?

“Hey.”

I just wanted to shut myself away and lock-

“The door!”

I snapped, already moving to the door as it was pushed open again. Throwing my hands forward, catching onto cloth and skin.

I found myself back outside, back in the dead air and blinding sun.

I clawed for more purchase until I hit the ground, my fingers coiling around someone’s neck.

Someone.

It was the guy in the toad mask.

I saw his eyes from behind the mask, they were wide. I wasn’t as shocked, my ears were perked, twitchy, for any sound. With Isabella and my own growing paranoia, I had learned to constantly check my surroundings, now. Especially my back.

Even in my haze, I was still able to keep that in mind.

The toad masked man gurgled, struggling to speak.

“You- achk!”

I tightened my grip, squeezing.

“I thought you cleared out of here, already,” I said, even though I knew he wouldn’t be able to answer.

“Those gloves could be his,” Isabella offered, “Maybe he came back for them? Or maybe he was sent back to stock up on something else?”

Forcing myself to relax my fingers, I loosened my hold, bit by bit. Enough so that he could breathe.

I let him take raspy, harsh intakes of air.

“It doesn’t matter why he’s here, what matter is that I have you.”

I looked right into his eyes, the whites of mine probably wider than his.

I gave him my terms.

“You have a second to agree to answer my questions before I tear your mask and head off. A single second. Nod if you agree.”

The toad nodded.

Finally, information. Context. Something I could use to gain some understanding about what this fucking town was supposed to fucking be.

I opened my mouth to ask my first question, but Isabella interrupted.

“Heads up.”

My head went up.

I snarled.

Two more animals had come crawling back, perhaps to check on their squealing, disgusting friend. A pig and a goat.

But who would want to save such trash?

They hadn’t sniffed me out yet, but they would soon.

From skin, back to cloth and skin. I grabbed the toad.

Dragging him, I hobbled to my feet and, with my second step forward, turned at an angle to spin.

After a second revolution, I released the toad. The pig and the goat finally took notice of something being amiss, but it had come at them too fast.

The toad crashed into them both, crumpling them into the ground. The rest would come, surely, soon enough. The rest of those filthy creatures.

Too many complications.

Had to leave.

I motioned for Isabella and we took off, going over the storage building to put it between us and them. We ran for the short wall to jump over that as well, to finally leave this park and put it behind us.

Going through the air, I put my hands on my head, as if I needed to physically keep in place, or else I’d lose it for sure.

I was lost until D gave me a clear way to go.

Probably best to start in those apartment buildings, then.

I was holding the phone, D hadn’t gotten off the call. I went north, gauging the distance until I had to pull my phone out and ask D for help as I closed in.

Wandering, out of place and lacking any sense of direction. I was desperate for a guiding hand by this point.

“Yeah, that’s all I see, here. It’s going to be my best bet.”

Agreed.

The stretch of town from the park went back to being abandoned again, how it seemed to be when we first arrived. I knew that it was a veil, now, a front for something much more perverse. What that was, exactly, still escaped me, and it bothered me that I still didn’t know. ‘Bothered’ being a gross understatement.

But, I hadn’t run into anyone else on the way, no men or animals or monsters. They were around, somewhere, but not here. Did that mean that they had different bases they would congregate to and operate from? The group from before mentioned meeting back up with an ‘assembly,’ but what was that supposed to entail? As far as bases went, the park was probably one of them, but the rest of the town would be too wide an area for them to cover, I supposed.

If I knew how they operated, how they would make their rounds, I’d have a much easier time. Yet, at the same time, I wished I never knew Fuckington existed.

Like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.

Fumes. No amount of blood could supplement the beauty of sleep. Maybe if this had happened back when the sun was still down, I’d have a much better grip on things. Now? Reality and sanity both seemed to be slipping away at a rapid pace.

Hurry hurry hurry hurry.

I hurried.

The gate into the apartment complex was closed, but a car had crashed at the base of it, leaving a big enough opening to walk through. We walked through it.

Deserted, left to break apart, lifeless. A slight wind had picked up, and I could almost hear a low hum resonate through the broken windows and opened doors of the apartments.

Imagining smells, now sounds? Or was the town so far gone that any stimuli, no matter how minute, no matter how real, seemed to be a trick of the mind?

Fuck.

Something on a deeper level than just being abandoned. It had been made hollow. And it was a sort of emptiness that could claw out other things, making them blank, too. I could feel it happening to me.

I hurried.

A flicker in my eye.

“Two at two.”

Not from the phone, at my side.

I looked slightly to the right.

At the front of one of the apartment buildings, two animals stood, guarding the entrance. Two horses. I ducked behind a nearby set of dead shrubs before they could notice us. We were far enough, and if we stayed low, we could remain out of sight.

“Thanks, Isabella,” I whispered.

“Don’t mention it.”

My gaze stayed on them, studying them. They were relaxed, which blew my mind, and they were chatting amongst themselves, not focusing on the actual job of keeping guard.

Could they be in there? Tone and Sarah and the rest?

I clenched my fists, feeling my phone in one hand.

“D,” I said, “You’re going back in my pocket.”

I’ve got a snack and game with me, so I’m good.

I put the phone away.

“If you rush in, you might attraction more attention,” Isabella said, warning me.

“I know that,” I said. “But-”

I stopped.

My natural inclination was to suggest taking them both out at once, from an angle, but no. No.

I doubted myself too much, now. Couldn’t do it my way.

“I’ll just go around them, avoid getting into a fight.”

There was a pause.

The suggestion was left to hang, but I had a feeling that Isabella approved of the idea.

She didn’t offer a rebuttal, this time. I’d take it.

Staying low, I went around them, to the side of the apartment. The horses kept chatting.

The apartment building was several stories, but that was the least of my issues.

Easy enough.

With a jump, I scaled the side of the apartment, feeling how noticeably heavy my legs were getting.

Hurry.

I stalked over the roof, running. Too high up for them to hear me and register my footsteps.

I found a dip in the roof, a balcony poking out from the top floor. I directed myself over there.

A small drop, and I was right above the two horses.

It would have been so easy to take them out, to drop on top of the first and cripple the other. It was an urge that begged to be satiated. To get back at anyone who could be responsible. Revenge.

But, my needs didn’t come first. It was Tone’s, it was Sarah’s. Olivia’s, even, before my own.

I clenched my fists and ran into the apartment.

I was, however, prepared to defend myself if someone was unlucky enough to turn a corner and see me.

Dark, and damp. The carpeted floor muffled my footsteps as I continued to investigate the place. I could see, but the lack of light to give anything definition gave my brain the freedom to fill in the blanks, and I was so tired, that my vision began to swim. Blotches of grime on the walls looked like faces, and strips of peeled painted looked like mouths, tongues hanging open, as if it was savoring the stale taste in the air.

Some skin peeled away to reveal the bones underneath. Skulls.

The hallway twisted as I began my descent.

I cracked a smile. A faint giggle escaped my lips.

I covered my mouth, breathing through only my nose. I was fighting myself, now, my own body and mind to move forward.

Feels wonderful.

So so real. So surreal.

Then, music.

Music?

Sounds, pleasant. Soothing.

It guided.

Was I imagining things again?

Did I care?

I followed it.

It was coming from one of the rooms. My feet carried me inside.

Someone.

I moved my hands and then they went to sleep. Asleep. Sleep.

As though my sense of awareness was lagging behind, I was snapped back to the now.

I looked at my hands. My fingers were coated in fresh blood, a sweet taste in my mouth, a body at my feet. Breathing, but slow.

Did I blank out for a moment?

Oh well.

I shook my head and looked up.

Another someone.

In the dim, in the back of the hollowed living room, someone sat in a lounge chair. He was slumped over, his face covered, but with how it moved, I could tell he was breathing, too. His hands were tied behind him. A soft light broke past some blinds to his left, illuminating him. Light jazz music came from somewhere.

I walked over in a daze.

The music and his breathing filled my ears, and everything moved like I was in slow motion. Lagging, listless. Like I wasn’t pressed for time.

Then I got to him.

I pulled off the covering from his face. I saw his face.

Finally, I had him. I got him. I got you.

Another snap to the now.

Wait.

Who is he?

Previous                                                                                               Next

082 – Kids See Ghosts

Previous                                                                                               Next

It was one surreal visual after another.

The rust and decay had infected the amusement park, too. Streaks of red and orange crept up against the metal construction of the rides and attractions, eating at them, then growing to consume more. It had taken over like a parasite. There was nothing amusing to be found, here.

But, it wasn’t just that, it wasn’t just the rust. At least that was natural, an expected outcome after years of neglect and abandonment. There was the unnatural, as well. The uncanny. Rust and decay made it a husk, but that only gave room for something else to be filled in.

Shrouds, hanging from different parts of the main path of the park, lined up in even intervals, like elaborate decorations. Mostly white, but blots of red and black seeped through the material, giving them a soddened look. A slight sway in the light breeze, dangled by rope tied around one end.

Bundles of blankets. And by how they rested or fell into place, they looked like bodies.

Just the smell alone was enough to confirm it. Stale, but sweet.

They’re literally stringing people up.

There was more here, too, more ugliness, but I wasn’t exactly given the luxury to take my time and peruse around.

I was immediately shot at when I stepped into the amusement park.

I dove.

Bullets whizzed past my head as I went to find cover. I only managed to get a quick scan of my surroundings before I had to move, taking in as much detail as possible. So striking, it burned deep into my mind’s eyes from just a small look. I didn’t see the RV, though. It had gone elsewhere, probably deeper into the park.

I pushed my shoulder into the side of a ticket booth, staying low, using it for cover. The shots kept coming.

Breathing was hard.

Running and jumping, the loud sounds and the fact I was being shot at, it all added to make me want to feel rattled and shaken. Taken aback. It was hard to keep that feeling at bay and keep myself in check. I hated it all, really. Being here, having to do this, grabbing all the pieces I could while everything started to fall apart. Because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get all of those pieces back. I wouldn’t be able to save everyone.

But I had priorities. And I could not lose that. Them.

I had to save Sarah and Isabella. Tone. And as many of the other people in that trailer as possible.

It fucking killed me that I wouldn’t be able to save them all. Olivia and her father.

The shots kept coming, and my hands were shaking.

I wanted to call D. I couldn’t do this by myself. I could feel myself being tugged in so many different directions, threatening to tear me apart.

The seeds of doubt were only digging deeper roots.

And even just catching a glimpse of the spiraling, surreal visuals drove the point deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper-

A bullet bounced by a corner of the booth, by my head, and I screamed. Like I was admitting it to the world.

I was doing so well before. Why was I starting to fall apart now?

Couldn’t stay here, I couldn’t stay down. I’d have to get on the offensive, or move myself into a position where I could. The queen, who was able to take any square and maneuver in any way they pleased, no matter who was in their way. I had to emulate that, I had to be that.

I was that.

The shots began to peter off, then they stopped entirely. Were they out of ammo? Or were they just assessing the damage, wondering if they had gotten me at all.

I don’t even know who these people are.

Didn’t matter. They were in my way, and I needed to take them out. No matter what.

It was my turn to move.

Jumping to my feet, I ran across my side of the ticket booth, going around so I was heading in the direction of the nearest ride, instead of going straight, towards all the people with the guns. I didn’t let the silence stretch, I’d take my turn, my chance, and see if I could wrestle an advantage out of this.

Some shots tried to follow me, but they missed. It was easier to keep myself calm, in check, when I was running, forcing my mind and body to move. A distraction, in a way, though I was just really trying to stay diligent.

I ducked underneath a tent. It was small, the ride itself being small. Being so close to the entrance, it was probably designed for younger kids, something that wouldn’t make the longest of lines while being an option for those who couldn’t handle the more intense rides that were probably deeper in the park. I hopped over velvet rope that guided the lines, and hopped out of the way of ropes that came down from the underside of the tent, tide. More bodies.

They couldn’t have done these to all of my people. Not enough time.

These bodies had been here.

I ignored the ugly realization and pressed forward. Pushed it out of my mind.

I made it past all the ropes, then ducking and diving under and over the coiling metal that made up the kiddie ride. It wasn’t the most elaborate of constructions, and I made it out of the tangle and was back out in the open, but I was alone this time. I was out of sight of the mob I had pushed back into the park.

I could hear the rumble of the engines, the nondescript shoutings. They were pulling back even more into the park, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything good. I remembered the other half of the mob. They had retreated enough to regroup and get their bearings again, because I knew for a fact that they weren’t expecting me when I ambushed their ambush. For them, their whole plan had been thrown out the window.

But, they wouldn’t be gone forever. I’d have to deal with them, too. Worst case scenario, they’d come up from behind and I’d end up being sandwiched between two hostile groups.

I breathed, heavy. I ran harder.

Thinking about that second group made me think about Olivia, too. For whatever reason, assuming the worst gave me a wound that cut deep. Harder to heal from stuff like that than anything physical.

I ran even harder. Diligence.

A small path had been formed between booths and attractions. It was safe to move straight down, here. I kept an ear out for those up ahead and anyone who might be coming up from the back, and I used that to gauge where I should position myself.

The path began to wind, and I had to take a turn to go around another tent.

I had a moment’s pause. I hesitated.

More obstacles. People, but not anyone alive.

Rotting or had rotted under the sun. It wasn’t summer, it wasn’t even spring, but bodies exposed for a long enough time outside would eventually look all the same. Open sores, bloated stomachs, slumped postures, gaping holes and missing things. The ones here weren’t shrouded up, but I wished they were.

The idea that anyone from the trailer could meet that fate. Sarah… Isabella…

Had to force myself to take another step and keep moving. I stepped over the bodies and limbs. Blood had seeped into the tents and dirt, adding to the rust and decay of everything. Meat festered and juice had been caked and dried. Flies zipped between the different bodies, occasionally buzzing in my ear and making my skin crawl.

The scene was so sour, but the smell was so sweet. The contrast disgusted me, that I both needed to get moving and pretend that the gore wasn’t there, and that I wanted to stop and smell the roses. I was getting tired, sleepy even, and taking even the smallest of breaks felt like the furthest of dreams, now.

Keep moving, keep moving.

I had to keep moving.

Another turn, and another turn, and the path finally opened up. I saw the front of booths, for concession stands and games. Every one of them had been emptied out, though, no food to be seen, and any prizes left behind had been propped up to create a new, ugly scene.

Huge stuffed animals were standing inside some of the booths, posed as if they were waiting to help a customer. Arms splayed, leaned over, inviting, but the bloodstained, matted fur would have kept anyone away.

What the hell was this place? It really was a fucking nightmare.

Heavy drops of sweat rolled down my neck as I continued, sprinting. Running helped, it had helped, but the constant, escalating barrage of freakish sights drilled into my head, seemingly chipping my sanity away. The realization made my heart drop, that I wouldn’t be able to hold up forever. I was getting more tired, more exhausted, drained, thirsty. I couldn’t keep this up for much longer.

Faster faster faster faster faster

An engine roared as the path began to snake around, and I could sense that it would be coming right for me.

I jumped.

I landed on the top of a booth, crouched over, inching forward on my hands and feet. I had a glimpse on the scene.

Either the mob was smaller than I had thought, or it had split up again and I was only seeing just a fourth of them. There was one biker, riding on a dirt bike, speeding ahead as the rest of the group followed on foot. Not all of them were armed with guns, but they all had something in hand. One person had a bat with barbed wire around it – because of course – and another had a crowbar. Along with the biker, the third person on foot was holding a gun. A pistol and rifle, respectively.

Four people in total.

The surreal and morbidly real. Death being the common theme that seemed to connect everything here.

I stood, above everything.

I dropped.

I had to time it so the biker was the first to hit the ground. My feet crashed into the side of his helmet, and he was down, just like that.

The remaining three were farther away, giving them time to react to my presence. The two with blunt weapons ran off on either side of the path, into some more booths, leaving me alone with the last remaining gunman.

He immediately fired.

I lifted my shield, another ping off the metal. It left a dent. My shield could only take so much, it wasn’t even really a shield to begin with. It was starting to become more like a cheese grater than anything else. A few more shots would render it completely useless.

Moving my shield away, I-

A burst of heat surged through my body. Like I had been set on fire.

Parts of my shield were chipped away, but those tiny chips of metal were being sent flying away from me, from the front of my body.

I collapsed. I fell forward.

Bullets through my body. Passing from my back through the front. I felt one pass between ribs. A shallow, weak exhale passed between my lips before it tasted dirt.

I had been shot from behind.

Shot. Again. Oh god.

Not again.

I felt my mind being scrambled and my heart pounding so hard it would end up tearing itself apart. My entire body convulsed. Shaken, shaking.

Loud, ringing, singing. Louder and louder until I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I couldn’t focus on anything else. It was just a blank, white noise that buzzed and made my vision fuzzy.

No. I could feel the ground melt away and turn cold.

No. Turning into cold tile.

No. The ringing echoing until it distorted itself until it sounded more human.

No. Screaming.

No.

No no no no no no no

Do my best to keep it together.

For her for her for him for them-

I could feel my body mending itself together. Skin to muscle to bone to muscle to skin again. I was healing.

Every inch of my body was screaming with pain, stinging and burning with an intensity like acid. I had no way of knowing how many bullets tore through me, exactly. Even with the soothing warmth that became more pronounced throughout different parts of my upper and lower back, chest and stomach, I still wouldn’t have been able to gather an accurate count. Still rattled, still shaken.

I was just grateful that a bullet hadn’t passed through my skull.

A more solid, deeper exhale. My body was reconstituting itself, and my mind could finally start to do the same.

Testing myself, I clenched my fist, and found that I could.

Then, I pushed myself, in every meaning of the phrase.

On my feet, focusing on what was behind me. Who had shot me.

The biker.

Still in the dirt, but he had crawled over to grab for his rifle. He was fumbling with it, reaching around him, his fingers digging into soil and rock, frantic.

Looking for another clip?

I wasn’t too familiar with gun types or models… but did he empty out a full clip, or whatever he had left? The latter still meant a lot of bullets. Under any other circumstances, if I had been anyone else, the biker would have struck home and taken out someone forever… never to get up again.

I got up anyways.

I leapt again, my feet slamming into the front part of the biker’s helmet. His head snapped back, and his shoulders were driving into the dirt. Moving with momentum, I picked up his bike and set it on top of him, kicking the rifle away for good measure.

Now he was officially out of the picture.

I really need to pay attention to my rear.

I turned back to the other gunman in the distance.

He was aiming right at me, and I had my shield raised right before he fired.

It pierced through, but it hit my leg, right in the upper thigh. I buckled. Down on one knee.

This wasn’t going to work.

I slipped my arm out of the handles, only keeping one hand on the door itself. I half-turned, that arm extended all the way out.

I swung.

The door flew out of my hand, spinning until it was a blurry, flat line, perpendicular to the ground.

The guy tried diving out of the way, but he didn’t have my strength, or my reaction speed. The end result was partial.

The door passed through him, but it wasn’t a clean cut. It collided with his hip, intercepting him and his path. The man himself spun in the air, and he crashed down, awkward, with the door still in him.

He howled in pain. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

I would have bisected him if the door didn’t get stuck in him like that.

Well, he wasn’t getting back up, at least. And I had technically done far worse to bad guys, whenever I stabbed limbs or other non-lethal parts of the body in order to keep them down and out. This was just that, though, a little more unconventional, which raised the shock factor up by just a little bit.

He’d live.

But I had to put my attention on other things. Sarah and Isabella. The others. The guy with the bat and the guy with the crowbar.

They had ran off in different directions, but I had the feeling that they wouldn’t be any trouble, at least for the time being. If they were, they would have shown themselves by now, make a move. But I was able to catch my breath for some considerable amount of time without anything else happening to me.

A very brief moment for some respite.

I felt better, now, but it went back to that metaphor from earlier. I had caught most of the pieces, but some slipped through my fingers, the cracks. I wasn’t able to save all of it. I managed to regain some composure, but I could feel the exhaustion, the wear and tear, start to affect me. Mentally and physically.

Eyes darting, scared that I might see someone in the corner of my eye, scared that I kept thinking that a mote of dust was someone. Body sore, warm from all the healing, my throat drier than it had ever been in a long time.

And not getting Sarah and Isabella back yet seemed to compound that feeling even more.

My leg heated up, enough so that I cringed, and I looked down.

Where I’d most recently been shot.

I watched my leg as it healed itself, the muscles and meat moving back and forth, as if it was massaging itself, the hole the bullet had made getting less noticeable with time. Right before the hole was about to close completely, the warmth in my leg spiked, and I saw the bullet get spit out of me.

The way the reddened and irritated skin and muscle formed in order to push out the bullet, it really did look like that. Like a mouth spitting out an unwanted piece of junk. Even a tiny, thin layer of tissue flicked out like a tongue to push away the fabric of my pants and guide the bullet out.

Then, the wound closed, and it was like I’d never been shot at all.

I’d never seen my healing work up close like that, spitting out a foreign object, my body seemingly moving and acting of its own accord.

It was… freaky.

There were so many particulars of my powers that I had no awareness of. What, exactly, made me tick? I felt as if I knew the more important parts, but I’d been thrown for so many loops in recent times that I wasn’t sure what to make of anything, anymore. Nothing seemed concrete.

And considering that I always wanted to be in the loop, it was getting harder and harder to try and justify ignoring certain details. Even if they hadn’t been pertinent, even if they hadn’t always been relevant, they were still important.

When I get back to Stephenville, I’m going to that barn with D.

But thinking that far ahead would be dangerous if it meant losing sight on the now. I still hadn’t gotten any progress towards finding Sarah, Isabella, or the rest from the trailer. Every second that passed without me seeing them gave me a certain anxiety that wracked my head and made it pound.

I staggered forward. I didn’t hear anything from behind, so the biker wasn’t up for any questioning, in a very literal sense. So was the other man up in front, but he was still howling and shrieking away.

My feet dragged along the dirt. I wasn’t trying to be metaphorical in the doing, but being forced into healing from so much damage at once had taken a lot out of me. As if I had completed an entire marathon, sprinting.

So tired.

Needed something to pick me up.

That first.

Okay.

Sounds good.

Yes.

I stumbled my way over, letting myself fall onto my knees, right beside the man with a door lodged deep into his hip. His screaming was lessening in volume and intensity, but it was still so desperate, so sad, so pathetic. He was on his back, but with how the door had hit him and with the door’s size, he was raised one way, leaning into the dirt at a weird angle. Not comfortable in the slightest.

Blood had seeped through his jeans, dripping along the edge of the cold metal door, and into the soil. It wasn’t a fatal amount of blood, but it would be, if he didn’t get some attention soon, and he’d died for sure if I were to pull the door out of him now. Right now, the best thing I could do for him was nothing.

I put one hand on a dry corner of the door, and lifted.

He’d been howling, tapering off to whimpering, and now he was shrieking again.

More blood flowed down that particular side of the door.

I positioned the door so it leaned against my shoulder, leaving my hands free to cup them together, collecting the blood that dripped. It took a minute for me to get anything usable, but I managed to get a decent amount. With care, I brought my hands up and sipped it out of my makeshift cup. Slightly metallic, but saccharine. I rolled my eyes and head back, greedy, trying to catch every drop of juice.

Oh… oh god.

I’d never get used to how fucking good this tasted.

I really, truly, could lose myself in the flavor. Swimming in the sensations, synapses firing to create color, vibrant and bright in their intensity. Floating, in every direction, all at once. A true and pure and real experience.

I opened my eyes.

Checking my hands, they were smeared and streaked with red, and I felt some dripping down one cheek, mixed with a bit of saliva.

Got carried away, there.

I checked on the man again. His skin was pale, clammy. I checked his pulse. It was there, at least. Weak, but stable. He’d live, but he’d really need some legitimate attention soon, and I hadn’t the faintest clue as to where the nearest, functional hospital was, because I knew for a fact that Fuckington didn’t have one.

Where were his friends? I hadn’t seen them since they split off in different directions. Were they actually planning to head somewhere else instead of attempting to get the drop on me? I had let myself be out in the open, staying still as I fed. Anyone could have gotten me good, if they saw me. But nothing happened.

No one around.

A revving engine.

I had thought too soon.

I checked the man one last time. His eyes were drooped, low, his breathing shallow. It was only a matter of time, now. He didn’t look like he was able to speak, much less utter a letter. Couldn’t get answers out of him.

Standing up, I went back on the move. With how the pathways of the amusement park were situated, the man would be found by whoever was coming this way. The engine was getting louder. The other half of the mob from before?

I wasn’t about to waste my time with them. The RV was somewhere in the park, and I’d have to scour the whole place to find them. I could go and take out the rest of the mob, but I’d rather avoid the risk of slipping up and catching a bullet that I couldn’t come back from, or I’d take too long and alert more of the mob to come to my position, delaying me even more.

For now, I’d have to sneak around.

I took myself off the path, towards another, leading to a long stretch of the larger rides. Legit roller coasters.

I was running like I had gotten a second wind, because I did. It was only a small, improvised cup of juice, but it really did wonders. I was still feeling the lack of any real rest, but I was perceptive, again, my brain firing off as if I had taken a shot of espresso.

The roller coasters were huge, hulking beasts of machinery, metal rails and tight angles and high peaks and low dips that made me think that it was a shame that I’d never get to ride these during their heyday. With the rest of the Death For Amusement Park and Fuckington, these magnificent, constructed creatures were but mere corpses now, parts of the track and railroad having been rotted away, missing. More rust, more decay, mold even. Trash and litter drifted in the light breeze, a piece of plastic catching on my foot, and I had to stop to shake it off before I could keep going. There was so much that it stacked, and I’d have to hop over longer and longer distances in order to get anywhere.

No one around, which was both good and bad. The good was that there were no shrouds or bikers or gunman or creepy stuffed animals here. But, aside from the occasional engine revving in the distance, with a twinge of an echo, the silence here was eerie. It had been like this when I was out searching the rest of Fuckington. No sounds of anyone or anything. No people, cars, not even a bird for ambient noise. Just a vast emptiness that seemed to amplify anything that would dare make a sound and make it loud.

So fucking loud. Every flap of my hood against my ears or the crunch on loose paper or soil under my feet was as worrying as a blast from a gun. That everyone could hear me from just my heartbeat. Every sound or noise scooped my ears and filled it. Like I had an entire sense compromised. I wasn’t deaf, but rather the extreme opposite. Any sound kicked all tension in my body up to a clipping red.

Where were they, and how hard was it to find one RV?

Another sound shot through and it felt as though my head was splitting.

I spun around.

It had come from somewhere, but it wasn’t far. Not in the direction of the booths, though. Another direction.

From the back of one of the roller coasters.

I didn’t like what I had heard. A shrill, high-pitched scream. It sounded like a girl, it sounded like it came from someone young.

It sounded like-

No. There was no way.

But I had to check. No stone unturned.

I changed course.

I found the ride, a roller coaster with what looked like the biggest drop of the whole park. It was so tall that I had to crane my neck and then some to take in the entire height.

No one in line, of course, it was easy to get to the front. There was a line of cars on the coaster’s track, but they were empty, broken, disconnected from one another. Some even looked like they had mold on them.

A small hop took me over to the side side, where park employees had access to the back parts of the place, like maintenance or other facilities that were usually off-limits to regular people.

A lock on a door tried to keep me out from that area. A kick made its efforts in vain. The lock banged against the perforated metal door, clanging more as it hit concrete.

Fuck, but some haste was necessary for the only potential lead I had. I pushed the door open and ran out to the back part of the amusement park.

Something here.

I almost stopped, I almost didn’t believe what I saw. That it was here.

The truck.

The one Tone had been driving. It was here. Facing me, parked. We were in an open lot in the back of the park, wide and expansive for carts to drive around to offload workers and supplies. There were some of those carts here, but the amount they had degraded was to be expected, by this point. They wouldn’t work now.

I ran even faster, panting, straining.

My foot kicked against something, and I did stop this time. I wouldn’t have if I didn’t recognize what it was.

A teddy bear.

It was on the ground, flat, on its side. I’d seen the other stuffed animals here, and this was in a debatably better condition, but I still froze and felt a chilling fear creep through me and had me seized up.

The head was removed, the stuffing having spilled out at the base of the neck, the head not that much farther away.

A teddy bear. Isabella’s teddy bear.

It had to be hers. I recognized the fur, the size of it, and it simply looked too new compared to everything else I’d seen at the park, especially the other stuffed animals. There was no one else it could have belonged to.

I picked both pieces up, fitting as much of the stuffing as I could. No blood, or any other sign of violence around where I’d found the bear. Nothing smelled sweet.

I hoped that was a good sign.

I moved again, to the truck, around to the door on the driver’s side. It had been opened.

Tone wasn’t in the driver’s seat. No one was in the driver’s seat. It was empty, nothing but his walkie-talkie. I grabbed it. It was still on.

Something tickled my nose, and my stomach did a flip. I looked in the direction of the trailer.

Please, no.

I followed the trail, my nose leading the way.

Please no, god, please.

The walk was agonizing, slow, painful with every step taken.

Please no please no please no please no please no please no please no please no

I got to the back of the trailer. The door was open.

Who opened it?

No time to guess.

I hopped inside and looked.

I swallowed.

I saw Isabella.

She had her backpack with her. She was standing. Her back was to me, her face staring at me head on-

“Isabella?”

It was the first word out of my mouth in a very long time.

Isabella turned and faced me. The look of relief on her face… I wanted to fall and cry, too.

“Wendy?” she asked.

“It’s me,” I said, stepping forward. “I’m getting us out of here.”

Isabella didn’t hesitate to move. She picked up her backpack, and met me at the opening of the trailer.

Her hands were holding on to the straps of her backpack. I thought she’d want to hug me after seeing me, or something, but if she needed some space right now, I wouldn’t deny her that.

Isabella did say, though, “Thank god you’re here, I was so scared.”

“What happened? Who the fuck did this?”

She shook her head. “They came so suddenly, it was an ambush. They forced us into the amusement park, and Sarah tried to drive through to see if she could find an exit. We ended up having to ditch the RV and escape on foot. We got split up, and I got lost, so I kept going around until I found the trailer. There wasn’t anyone inside, so I used it as a hiding place until you came by.”

I was so relieved to see Isabella, and to see that she was okay, but it was only half of a feeling. I still needed to get Tone and Sarah and over ninety others.

“So you don’t know where the rest are?” I asked.

Again, Isabella shook her head. I wouldn’t blame or berate her for not knowing. She was as rattled as I had been.

“We’ll find them,” I said, saying it like it was a matter of fact. Easier to believe, that way. “Here’s your bear, by the way.”

I handed it to Isabella, but she dropped it back down, at her feet.

“It’s broken, now,” she said. “Useless.”

I frowned, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that. I didn’t have a way to fix it, and if she didn’t want it, then she didn’t want it.

I spoke, “Then let’s go and start-”

A buzz from a device.

Two- gree- est. -outh.

It was a distorted, almost robotic voice, but it was a voice. Not Isabella’s, though.

Too faint and fuzzed out to properly discern the meaning.

I checked the walkie-talkie.

It continued to buzz. Isabella stared too.

“You hear that?” I questioned, just to make sure. Just so I wasn’t hearing things.

“Yeah.”

The walkie-talkie continued to spout out the broken message, until it had continued long enough that I realized that the message was being repeated. Parts of it faded in and out, some parts were missing in one loop but present in the next, so it took a few more listens to get everything pieced together.

Isabella and I came to the same conclusion.

“Coordinates,” I said.

Sudden and weird, to be getting coordinates now, from an unknown source, my suspicions raised. My concerns were, too, because I hadn’t heard anything from Tone or Sarah.

The timing wasn’t bad, but it didn’t make me feel very good.

“Let’s keep moving,” I said, “I’ll call D, get her up to speed, and have her check whatever these coordinates mean.”

Isabella nodded, her hands still holding tight at her backpack straps. Knuckles white.

I wished I had gotten here sooner, so she wouldn’t be like this, but I had her now. And that was all that really mattered.

Tone and Sarah, and all of you. You’re all up next.

I left the trailer and crossed the lot, and Isabella followed.

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