“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.
I smiled at the humor of that.
More walking, not as much talking. I was ready to find the exit.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.