Interlude – Dong-Yul

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Finally, I’m back home.

Dong-Yul moved into his apartment, or rather, he was carried into it. He couldn’t operate under his own strength.

A whole crew was waiting for him, having gotten there well before he did. Through squinted eyes, Dong-Yul saw how they had shuffled around the furniture to better accommodate the crowd and then some. Chairs and coffee tables and designer pieces were placed into corners above him, and people were walking along the ceiling to get out of his way as he was led through.

Everything had been flipped upside down. No, wait. It was just him.

It was bright, as if it hurt to see. Before letting his eyes close, Dong-Yul tried scanning for a place he could be set down. It was hard, though, considering that everything was reorientated and it just plain hurt to try. His vision swam.

Dong-Yul gave up, letting his eyes drift, closed. He’d let whoever had him take point in that.

He groaned.

It really fucking hurt.

With the way he was being carried, Dong-Yul could tell that they were doing their level best to not make it such a bumpy trip. But, even with the tiniest of movements, a cut would get pressed into, or his clothes would brush against a scrape, or a wound opening a pinch more, he’d flinch at how much it all hurt…

It really fucking hurt.

The pain was enveloping, making his whole body feel like it was throbbing, feel like it was somewhere else. It was so bad that Dong-Yul could almost distance himself from it, a sensation so deep that it dulled the senses, in an abstract way. Like being submerged underwater. Hard to feel wet when the water was everywhere.

Almost, though. Pain had a funny way of giving reminders. But Dong-Yul wasn’t laughing. Couldn’t.

Like being in a dream.

Crossing the living room, Dong-Yul practically floated as he was taken somewhere to rest. He slowed, and people worked with his momentum to slide him into a-

Dong-Yul’s eyes cracked open. Bright. He groaned, loud.

There it was. That reminder.

His back was propped up against soft cushions, but throbbing and stinging made it feel anything but. The aches hammered at his body and mind. Until it consumed his focus.

It took genuine and concentrated effort to get himself out of the headspace, to think of anything else that wasn’t the hurt, that wasn’t the cuts and scrapes and aches and bruises and pangs. Considering how upfront they all were, it was a challenge.

“Sorry, Donnie.”

Dong-Yul recognized that voice.

“No, it’s…”

He wanted to make himself comfortable, but he didn’t have it in him to move. Comfort was too far a shore to reach. Off in the distance, into the horizon.

“It’s shit, Jackie,” Dong-Yul said, hoarse. “I feel like- ow, shit.”

“Yeah.”

Dong-Yul fell back, and the regret was immediate. His back had taken a pretty serious hit, when Styx had flipped him and slammed him down onto the hard surface of a table. Second only to his face. That motherfucker had really gone to town, there. Even now, just an hour or so later, he could still hear the squelching.

How many stitches? How many painkillers did Styx’s men hook him up on? His entire body flared, but a stilling effect would wash over him in occasion. It took the edge off, and while it was only by a margin, it was a godsend compared to tackling the full brunt of it all. He only wished that they had given him more, because the little bit of relief he was desperately clinging onto wouldn’t last forever.

But, for now, he could manage, he could deal. And he was able to communicate without it killing him.

“What’s… up?”

It was a start.

“You’re at your place, in case you weren’t aware. Tried to gather as many of us as I can, but there’s only so much space, and there is a lot of us.”

If Dong-Yul could smile, he would have. But the sentiment was there.

“Army,” he said.

“Just focus on getting some rest right now, Donnie. If we try to discuss anything now you might not remember it in the morning.”

“Just… catch me up then.”

Through the throbbing and faded sensations, Dong-Yul heard Jackie grouse at him. Dong-Yul had known Jackie long enough to decipher the different mumbles and non-words that would come out of him on occasion. Though, it would be more accurate a claim that Jackie knew Dong-Yul for even longer. He was one of Bruce’s best friends.

Was.

Bruce and Jackie went back, way back, to even before they were born. Their respective parents having met when they first moved into the city, the country. Immigrated. The parents had become good friends over the years, and when they had their own children around the same time, it was only natural that those kids would get along well. By the time Donnie had moved up from crawling to walking, Jackie was already like another older brother to him. A brought from another mother tongue.

Now, Jackie was the only family Dong-Yul had left.

In a gang, connections mattered, and real, tangible ones could make all the difference. Life and death. Dong-Yul knew not to put so much strain on this, particular one. It was like walking on a tightrope. A delicate balance, and all it took was a hard enough push to send him down, that connection slipping far and away, then gone.

Dong-Yul could feel that tension now. Wobbly. He was pushing it.

“How’s everyone?” he asked, pushing the words through puffy cheeks. He screwed his eyes open.

Not just Jackie. Other concerned faces stared him down, too.

Making another sound, Jackie took his eyes off Dong-Yul, his gaze going around the room looking at the other faces. Some words were exchanged, Dong-Yul saw Jackie’s mouth move, but the words just missed his hears. The pounding aches overtook the sounds.

The words continued to be exchanged, Jackie nodding and shaking his head, then directing himself back to Dong-Yul.

“We’ve got a lot of people that managed to come up here, but we also got a lot of those who can’t. We got fucked, Donnie, this night didn’t at all go how you, we, planned it.”

It was Dong-Yul’s turn to grouse. Words were hard.

Tonight. They had plans for tonight. And, if there was one thing Dong-Yul hated the most, it was when things didn’t go according to plan.

It should have been easy. In the recent weeks, Dong-Yul had been getting more and more reports about a new gang in town, one that had risen from the ashes of The Chariot, having come back from near death as the Ghosts. They were gaining momentum, fast, with a lot of eyes on them, even international ones. There were rumors that some Eastern European mobs had been meeting with them for… something. No one knew for sure. Possible joint ventures, vying for their territory? Whatever the case, this reborn gang, Los Colmillos, the Fangs, had momentum, and people were wanting to hitch a ride up.

Dong-Yul didn’t want that opportunity slip by. He wanted to ride that wave.

It should have been easy. He knew Lawrence, maybe they weren’t brothers, but they were acquainted well enough. They had met back when they were still nobodies in their respective gangs, and they had bonded over that. Somewhat. A slight connection, but it was enough that the Kung Fools could go to the Ghosts when they were selling goods for cheap. To help out a friend in need, so the favor could be returned later.

Sure.

This world was one of dogs, vicious animals that would tear the other to shreds to stay on top. Donnie was never one of the top dogs, but Dong-Yul would be, in place of his older brother. He had his own fangs to use, in the form of his recent swell of volunteers. He didn’t know what Lawrence’s secret was, but he didn’t have the numbers, not like Dong-Yul.

It should have been easy.

He thought he had them, Los Colmillos, cornered when he led Lawrence and his girl to the club in order to pay back his debt and float the idea of working together. It was all a lie, of course, a trap to capture Lawrence and use him as leverage to take that momentum by force. The girl would have been for more leverage, another way to twist Lawrence’s arm, to force him into complying.

Dong-Yul had no idea that the night would go down like this.

“Some of our… volunteers didn’t make it.”

Dong-Yul might as well have gotten another hit to the face. The same type of pain, but it struck another part of him. Something more raw.

He must have reacted in some noticeable way, because Jackie went right to correcting himself.

“No, no one died, but a lot of them did get fucked up. Some might not be able to stand, ever again. Or breathe properly without some kind of machine. It’s not pretty. Oh, and I’m okay, thanks for asking.”

Dong-Yul wanted to make a quip, that he didn’t look pretty, too. But this wasn’t the time for jokes.

“It got ugly down there, Donnie. We were just sitting there, in the basement lounge, I was waiting for you signal, when the lights were cut without warning. Then, it all went to hell.”

Another metaphorical hit to the face. Through the haze of his drug-addled memory, Dong-Yul could recall his disposition earlier in the night. The confidence, the swag. Having Jess and Yuri at his side, helping him give off the air of the cool gangster. Like Bruce.

A mask.

Then, the fact that, while he was up in the restaurant above the club, acting suave while his boys, his last remaining real connection, were being terrorized below his feet, all without him knowing any better…

More hits to the face.

I should have known something was up when that girl left the table.

“Her…”

It was all Dong-Yul managed to get out. He could sense that the drugs would be wearing out. Not now, and not for a several more hours, but they would. Whatever he had over the counter wouldn’t be enough. Wouldn’t be strong enough.

When those wore off, he would be Donnie again.

Couldn’t have that, didn’t want that.

He needed something to hold on to.

Dong-Yul pushed.

“I saw her, down there. With Lawrence, and Styx. Someone else too, but I can’t remember it very well. I know they were short.”

Jackie was frozen as Dong-Yul spoke, as if he was shocked to hear him go for that long. Maybe he was. It took a bit longer for Jackie to respond.

“That… I know who you’re talking about. And don’t push yourself too much, Donnie. You’ll regret it.”

Not Donnie.

Dong-Yul grumbled the thought.

Jackie picked up on it. He smiled, slight, in a way that made Dong-Yul think he was pitying him. That look.

Her,” Dong-Yul said, stressing the word. “I think it’s her. The Bluemoon.”

The room was already packed with people, anxious in atmosphere. The mere mention of the name screwed everything that much tighter. People huddled closer, more faces looking down on Dong-Yul. Breaths were held.

Dong-Yul released his.

“I mean, she has to be. She, ow, that girl Lawrence brought with her. They had something, agh, planned against us from the start. A counterattack.”

“But it was hectic down there, I couldn’t see shit for a while. But, yeah, I think you’re right.”

As if to punctuate his conviction, Dong-Yul nodded, despite his body. If it weren’t for the drugs, he wouldn’t be able to move at all.

“Then, that woman, I think… I think her name was Wendy, but I don’t remember her last name. She’s the Bluemoon, or V, or whatever that other freak announced itself as. She’s their secret weapon. No… doubt about it.”

Silence came in like an unwanted visitor. And Dong-Yul didn’t want anyone he couldn’t trust in here with him.

He continued.

“Doesn’t anyone here get it? We have that, now. We know. We tried to take them out, they tried to stop us, but Styx got in the way of that, because we were the bigger threat. Over them, her. And now we know their secret weapon and its name. Don’t you see? It’s leverage.”

With his words, Dong-Yul tried to kick silence out the door. But, after a time, it found its way back in.

He closed his eyes, slow, letting himself float there for a moment, before opening them again.

Why?

Jackie answered that thought.

“Not that I don’t believe you, Donnie, but… I want to believe you. But what’s your proof?”

Proof?

“Proof? What else do you need? I saw her, she was right there! She, I…”

Various memories started coming through the haze.

Wendy choking on food, leaving the table, Styx coming up to interrupt the dinner, and his plans. Forced to… hold hands with Lawrence, of all things, and being sent down to the basement lounge to find-

The Bluemoon, V, or whatever she decided to call herself. She was there. In the mask and hood and everything. His men scrambling all over the wet floor, broken and battered and bruised.

She was there. Wendy. V. That had to be her.

But, proof. What else did he have besides a hunch?

“Just trust me,” Dong-Yul said, with confidence than before. Sounding like Donnie.

“That’s a big accusation to throw out there,” Jackie said, matching him in faith. Or lack thereof. “Do you want a witch hunt? Because that’s how you get a witch hunt. Cast that girl to the fire without evidence, and you’re no better than everyone who participated in those riots and attacked those that look-”

“Don’t fucking finish that sentence.”

His whole body had been flaring up, and now he was on fire.

“Don’t put me in with them, I’m not like that. I’m just-”

“Doing the exact same thing? I’m not against the concept of what you’re proposing, Donnie, but you need to think this through. If you’re working on a feeling, and that feeling is compounded by stress and adrenaline and a plethora of painkillers that no one here knows the exact mixture of, then you’re not in the right mind to make any decisions, not for some time, anyway.”

That was a lot of words. Dong-Yul didn’t like the sound of them.

“What are you saying?” he questioned.

Jackie breathed and backed away, his face dipping out of Dong-Yul’s view. The space where he used to be got filled by others.

Dong-Yul tried to gather strength in his body, but couldn’t. Could barely form fists with his hands.

He bit his tongue, pushing himself more. He bit his tongue harder, until it felt as though his teeth would cut through, but he didn’t care. The drugs dulled the feeling, allowing him to push that much more.

Pressing his hands into the leather, Dong-Yul pushed his body up, leaning against the cushions. He didn’t even raise himself by that much, but his head felt light, a wave of nausea coming over him. It took every bit of his concentration to not make more of a mess of himself, in front of everyone.

Searching past the faces, he saw Jess and Yuri. They had that same look. Pity. He used his anger to ignore them. Hard.

He found Jackie, sitting across the living room, in one of the older, more expensive pieces of furniture in the apartment. It was here before Dong-Yul moved in, after Bruce no longer needed the place.

Donnie had debated on whether or not he’d get rid of all that stuff. He compromised, getting rid of less important items, like toothbrushes or old clothes, and keeping what at least held some sentimental value. Like the chair that Jackie was in right now.

I should have thrown it out with everything else.

With his eyes back on Jackie, Dong-Yul let him explain himself.

“We’re not in a good position to do anything crazy. Not anymore. And with you needing to rest, I’m…”

“You’re what?”

“I was never good at this leadership thing, that was more Bruce’s talent, and I wasn’t going to get in your way when you stepped up, but, I can take over while you recover, if you want.”

More words. More, did Dong-Yul not like the sounds of them.

“No, I do not want that.”

Jackie frowned.

“It was more of me putting my foot down than a suggestion, really. I don’t want you doing anything rash because you think we have something to prove.”

“We do. Now isn’t the time to lie down and do nothing, or we risk killing any hype we-”

Dong-Yul’s eyes went wide, a pang in his back.

Jackie got a word in before Dong-Yul had a chance to.

“Maybe you missed what Styx told us, but I didn’t. We’re done. This war you want, to pit us against them, you against the world? Styx already put a stop to that.”

Styx.

Dong-Yul recalled something along the lines of that, but he refused to believe it.

“We go deeper into the shadows,” he said, “Where not even Styx can see. People are still coming to us, they won’t stop coming to us and we can-”

“Donnie, no!”

Every face turned from Dong-Yul to Jackie.

Out of the chair, Jackie was standing, now. Dong-Yul was finally able to take him in, full view.

His vision was still blurry, but he knew that man’s outline. Tall, broad shoulders, a physique that Donnie could never match, and Dong-Yul would never get near, despite his efforts.

Wearing half of a uniform, Jackie had his blazer off, hanging on the armrest of the chair, his shirt unbuttoned halfway down. The lights inside were set to low, probably to spare Dong-Yul’s eyes, but he could see how Jackie’s skin glistened. He had been sweating, working to carry Dong-Yul’s limp body up to the apartment, and that was after being thrown into a fight with the Bluemoon herself, the sprinkler system working against him as part of her sabotage.

He was still standing, and Dong-Yul was still Donnie.

“Just, no,” Jackie said. “That’s not what we need right now, that’s not what this city needs. We can’t, shouldn’t, fight fire with fire, that just leaves everyone burned. That includes us.”

“Water,” Dong-Yul said, feeling like he was floating, again.

“What?”

“We flood them out with our numbers. Everyone who’s been antagonizing us since this whole thing started. We’re a growing tide, Jackie, you can’t just plug a hole and hope we go away. It won’t work like this.”

Jackie shook his head.

“Then, it’s going to have to. Until you’ve recovered and you’re in the right mindset, Hóngshuǐ is on ice.”

Dong-Yul cracked.

“Get out.”

No one moved. It was like they didn’t even hear him.

Dong-Yul mustered all the remaining strength he had, and spat it out at them.

“Everyone get the fuck out!”

A long stretch of time passed before it settled that everyone meant everyone.

One by one, Dong-Yul saw the faces as they disappeared, out the door, leaving him alone. Jess and Yuri lagged behind, but they left, taking their pity with them.

Good, he didn’t need it. He didn’t need this.

Dong-Yul looked, and saw that Jackie was still standing there.

“What did I say?” Dong-Yul asked.

Jackie shook his head again.

“What did Bruce say? I promised him I’d look after you. I’m not leaving. Sorry, Donnie.”

Another slap across the face. Dong-Yul fell back down, into the couch. He didn’t care how much it’d hurt.

He blanched.

Regret. It did hurt.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

This wasn’t fair.

Dong-Yul was supposed to be the one to dole out the pain, the hurt. There was a reason why he forced himself to step up after Bruce passed. Forced himself and the gang to change. Donnie was weak, he wouldn’t have been capable of leading. Dong-Yul, though, he would.

That was the image he wanted to project. The mask he wanted to become. The dyed hair, the streetwear, the flexing, the strength.

He looked at Jackie again. He remembered how Jess and Yuri looked at him.

So, why does everyone keeping looking past all that?

Dong-Yul watched as Jackie moved, approaching him. Delicate, Jackie landed a hand on a shoulder. More stings.

Cold, like ice.

Time wasn’t the all-encompassing healer it was advertised to be. If anything, it had made everything worse.

Dong-Yul could stand, now. He had that at least. That still put him at sixty percent of what his ‘normal’ should be, and it would take even longer before he could get to that point.

The stitches made his face a little puffy, the bandages that patched his body together made him feel like a mummy. If he took a moment to rest, he was afraid that he’d drift off to another, far deeper slumber.

No. There was too much to do. He had to make up for lost time.

Dong-Yul looked across the room, and addressed the new recruits.

“Everyone, thank you for being here today, for deciding to-”

Dong-Yul coughed.

“For deciding to finally stand against those who-”

Dong-Yul coughed. His whole body shook.

“Against… against those who have tried to silence us and keep us down. We will-”

Dong-Yul coughed. His whole body shook. He tried to suppress a groan and he couldn’t.

He had wanted to express his frustration, he had written it all down. And he couldn’t even deliver the words with the gravitas they deserved, and he couldn’t even express the frustration he had with himself.

These over the counter knockoffs. These drugs weren’t good enough.

Whatever Styx had given him, he needed more. Couldn’t get through this assembly without them.

He would have to try, though. No other choice.

Dong-Yul tried again, his words coming out in a sputter.

“We will show… agh, show the world that we…”

He had to stop before he started shaking again. Convulsing.

“What Dong-Yul wants to say is, he appreciates you coming to us when you needed help, and we’ll be sure to make you useful.”

Dong-Yul felt hands placing themselves on his shoulder, pressing him down. Jackie.

With little energy to protest, he found the chair in front of him and sat. Falling into it, really.

He grunted as he sat down, as though he was an old man.

Looking across the room again, he gauged the reactions of the new recruits. There weren’t many in here, ten of them, but this was only the first round of the new batch. There were plenty more to go. He had wanted to address them as close to individually as he could, to make a deeper bond, to show that he cared about their struggle. It would take longer, but in turn, they’d fight for him that much harder.

There were looks of concern, worry. Maybe even pity.

No.

Dong-Yul, above anything else, knew that appearances mattered. They could be used as a symbol, to shape how others perceived it when viewed. From hope, to even fear. Dong-Yul, from his name to his face, wanted to be a symbol.

And Styx had taken that away from him.

He did what he could. He dyed his hair another color. He wore a black face mask, which was a decent fashion statement by itself. It covered most of the stitches and the puffiness around the face and cheeks. His full fit, with each individual piece of clothing a grail item to another person’s closet, covered all of the bandages and wrappings that coiled around his body. He didn’t like what he saw in the mirror, a beaten, bruised version of the symbol he had in mind. Even a dent in symbols could mean a huge difference, given the abstract nature of it all. Dong-Yul wondered what the dents meant to the recruits.

“You,” he said, looking at one in particular.

The recruit tensed, Dong-Yul could tell by how his shoulders went up.

“Your name, Justin, was it?”

The recruit, Justin, nodded. A kid, no older than a high school senior, most likely. Vietnamese. Thin, more lanky than he was a soldier.

But, he’d do. He could make it work.

“What brought you here today? To me?”

Dong-Yul had to be careful to not strain himself again. He spoke slow, deliberate.

Justin answered, “Um, everything, really. Figured I had enough. Getting shit from random strangers, threats on me and my family, even my-”

Justin choked, sounding strained at the end.

“Your?” Dong-Yul offered.

Justin looked pained that he had to continue.

“My girl, or she was. Not threats, though, actions. And I’m tired of people getting away with shit.”

There it was. The wound. The thing he needed to press into to turn that hurt into something more.

Dong-Yul pressed.

“What’s her name?”

Justin flinched. He didn’t answer.

“What was your girl’s name?”

He heard Jackie, to his right. A whisper.

“What are you doing?”

Dong-Yul didn’t answer him, he just waited for his own from Justin.

Don’t make me ask again, he willed.

Then, Justin did answer.

“Emily.”

“Emily,” Dong-Yul repeated. Slow, he brought his head down, slight, almost a bow.

He wouldn’t ask for the specifics, but he would request something else.

“You remember Emily, and you hold on to that feeling of losing her. Take that loss, that anger, and you turn it to the rest of the world. Make them feel what they did to you, so they can understand their injustice. Do you understand?”

“Don- Donnie.”

Another whisper. Dong-Yul raised his hand. So sore.

“Do you understand?”

Repeating himself, but every syllable was delivered with care and intent.

He watched the gears spin in Justin’s head.

“I, yeah.”

Satisfied, Dong-Yul turned to the other recruits around him.

“Same goes to you, too. Find your Emily, let that anger fuel you, and direct it to where I point. If you can do that, then we won’t have any problems.”

The recruits, Justin included, all responded in unison.”

“Yes sir!”

“Dismissed.”

They took their leave at that last word, filing out of the door at the corner of the space.

The backroom of a bar and casino, specializing in Chinese cuisine. Jackie’s father once owned the place. Past tense.

The space was well furnished and expensive, in both price and actual appearance. Kept in a low light by paper lanterns, red and orange light reflected into soft hues off the wood and gold that lined corners and edges. A chic, modern twist on something more ceremonial, Jackie’s additions on top of what his family had built before him.

“What are you doing?” Jackie asked, as they watched the last of them leave, the door closing behind them.

Dong-Yul leaned forward, resting his arms on the table in front of him. Green, with a wooden border around it. A table for mahjong.

“You know what I’m doing. You’re just questioning it because you don’t like it.”

“Then, why?”

“I know what I’m doing. You don’t want me to touch the Fangs for now? Fine. But there’s no rule against getting more people to join us. I just won’t make a show of things. Which is why I’m introducing myself to them in this way. It’s not efficient, but it pads out enough time to get another plan going, one Styx won’t be privy to.”

“You’re an idiot if you think Styx won’t know about this. That’s why I-”

“I know ‘that’s why you,’” Dong-Yul said, mocking. “I just don’t want to hear it. I’m the leader of this gang, it’s my decision and it’s final.”

Another grumble from Jackie. And he just said that he didn’t want to hear it.

“Bruce wouldn’t have done this.”

Dong-Yul would have slammed his fists on the table, if he had the strength.

“Yes he would have. He was, before…”

He trailed off, letting the sentence die out. It reminded him of how he saw his brother go.

“Not like this. Not this aggressive.”

Dong-Yul settled for a light tap on the table.

“Bruce isn’t here. I’m just picking up the slack and running with it. Your input is appreciated, bro, but I’d rather not get another word about this from you.”

One more sound from Jackie, this time a breath. Dong-Yul knew the meaning.

For now.

The door opened before either of them could get another word in.

A fat, Vietnamese man entered. With a very visible look of dread on his face.

Dong-Yul frowned, even though he was wearing a mask.

“Sunny, what’s wrong?”

Sunny, the lead security for the bar, was a wide man, so it took until he was completely out of the doorway before Dong-Yul could see who followed him in.

A cold, prickling feeling crept up the back of his neck. Hair standing on ends. The pain of his entire body flaring up in anticipation, in fear.

No, not you. Not again.

Styx.

It was like he hadn’t changed in the week Dong-Yul saw him last. The leather jacket, the skinny jeans, all black. The wild look in his eye, like a feral animal. That anything could happen with a snap.

Dong-Yul did not, under any conceivable circumstance, want that snap.

The contrast between the two men was as wide as Sunny’s build. Where one man was built more like a ball of pure muscle, the other was more lean and cut. One was pale, the other much less so. Though, Sunny had a good reason to have much color in his face, at the moment.

Styx wasted no time in making himself comfortable.

“Man man man, I just can’t keep doing this! Always running around, always so busy!”

He slapped Sunny’s back, and Sunny leapt, yelped. Dong-Yul had never seen him be like this.

Not that he blamed him.

Styx then walked around Sunny, his finger tracing from his back to his shoulder, sliding off as he walked across the room, leaving him there, frozen. Sunny looked like he wanted to crawl out of his skin.

“And you, my friend, suffer from the same ailment.”

A disconcerting quiet lingered, threatening to stick around for more. Did Styx want him to respond?

“And… what is that?” Dong-Yul said, wary.

Styx smiled, baring teeth, and Dong-Yul felt a freeze run through him.

“Stubbornness.”

“Stubbornness?” Jackie repeated. His way of interjecting himself into the conversation. His way of trying to deflect Styx’s attention, his way of protecting Dong-Yul.

Dong-Yul didn’t think he’d need it. Donnie might, though.

Styx kept his eyes forward, at Donnie. Like a hawk.

“Everyone has something they’re stubborn about, a vice they can’t quit. People are… single-minded, like that. Try to tear it out of a man, and they go batshit. And if you do manage to take it away, and cut off all ways to reconnect, you get…”

Styx inhaled, deep, eyes closed, lifting his head so he was facing the ceiling, then Sunny behind him. He kept tilting his head back, until it looked like he was about to fall.

Then, he snapped.

Styx threw his head forward, like an even more hardcore version of a headbang. He exhaled, but it sounded more like a scream.

“Disorder,” Styx said, smiling.

Dong-Yul didn’t know what to make of anything.

He didn’t have any exits, Sunny was supposed to be guarding the only entrance into this room. And if Styx’s Ferrymen were right outside…

Donnie prayed for his life.

Styx tilted his head.

“You look swell,” he said, twisting that smile again.

Dong-Yul’s face throbbed.

“I saw the new boys out there. Good meat, they really hold themselves well in a fight.”

This was the absolute worst time Styx could have showed up.

Styx lifted his hands. A placating gesture.

“Relax, you already know the proper meaning of a beatdown. I’m just here to mediate.”

That didn’t answer what he did to the new recruits, and Dong-Yul was already too afraid to ask.

Dong-Yul lifted an eyebrow, instead.

“Mediate? I didn’t know you were capable of keeping the peace.”

Stupid. Wasn’t thinking.

Last time I questioned this psychopath he nearly killed me.

With his hands still raised, he shrugged.

“I’m capable of anything. I just said goodbye to solace not too long ago. Disorder.”

Styx grinned.

Any possible meaning was lost on Dong-Yul.

Styx put his hands down, looking at Sunny. Dong-Yul gave an order before Styx could force his own command.

“You can leave, Sunny, it’s okay.”

Sunny was a decent friend, a good man. Dong-Yul had never seen him move so fast.

Before he could clear out, though, he was stopped at the door by another person.

A woman.

She was well-dressed, in a suit, her blonde hair tied up into a bun. She looked more in place in a boardroom, meeting with executives, than she was being here, in a den with gangsters. She was as prim as she was proper.

Sunny jumped out of the way, letting her get through, he ran to his escape, the door closing behind him.

The woman started walking as everyone’s eyes fell on her. With an elegance and grace that also contrasted with Styx’s wild, unpredictable nature.

“I hate to be kept waiting,” the woman said, eyeing Styx as she passed him, stopping right at the front of the table.

“Take pity on a grieving old man,” Styx said.

“I’m not here to be concerned about your personal life.”

“It was both, this time. Business and personal.”

“Not my concern, Styx.”

“Ah, but in this case, it is half of it.”

“Excuse me, but who are you?”

The woman directed herself back to Dong-Yul. Adjusting several items she had in her arms, she also adjusted her glasses.

“You can call me Mrs. Carter.”

With that, Mrs. Carter took another step to the table, taking the seat across Dong-Yul. She set her belongings down. A tablet, and a binder full of documents. Styx moved as well, taking the seat to his right.

“May I?” Styx asked.

It wasn’t like he could say no. Dong-Yul nodded.

“Mahjong,” Styx said, settling in. “Been a while since I played, but my Mandarin is rusty.”

“It takes at least three to play, four is ideal,” Jackie said, still standing at Dong-Yul’s side. “And I’m not in the mood for games.”

“Same,” Mrs. Carter said, looking straight at Dong-Yul. She didn’t at all sound or look delighted to be here.

“Another game, then,” Styx offered instead, grinning.

Mrs. Carter breathed, audible for it to have meaning. She fixed her glasses.

“I’d like to start, now.”

Styx gestured. “By all means.”

Dong-Yul turned to Jackie, tilting his head, indicating towards the table.

Reluctant, he could tell, but Jackie complied. He sat.

Dong-Yul turned back to the other two.

“What’s,” he started, flinching at a sudden spike in pain. “What’s this about?”

“A lot of things,” Styx said. “About you, me, the entire city. If we want, we make this to be about the whole world.

What?

Dong-Yul couldn’t help but feel like he was being played for a fool.

“Let’s keep the focus to what’s in this room,” Mrs. Carter said, sounding tired. “And please, Styx, allow me to speak.”

“Go ahead.”

She was treating him like a unruly kid. The fact that someone could even get away with that…

Who is this woman?

Mrs. Carter finally got to speak, but she was tapping at her tablet, swiping, while addressing Dong-Yul.”

“I represent Mister, and I’m here to provide a proposal that was just recently drafted, with my input and… his.”

She glanced at Styx.

This woman represented Mister.

Excitement and fear coursed through Dong-Yul.

“Mister, and Mrs. Carter,” Jackie said, “Am I supposed to ignore a possible connection there?”

“The proposal, as it stands, is a simple one, but I find that it will prove to be a good opportunity for you and the Kung Fools.”

The way she said that name, she sounded disgusted.

Hóngshuǐ, now,” Dong-Yul said. He couldn’t help but correct her. “We’re under new management.”

“Yes. So I’ve heard.”

“So what’s this proposal then?”

Tapping the tablet one more time, Mrs. Carter moved her attention over to the binder, turning it around and sliding it across the table. Dong-Yul caught it.

Opening it, he skimmed through the documents. Plain English, but with the sudden arrival of Styx, this woman, the mention of Mister, and the general amount of pain and stress he was under, it was hard to focus on any particular word and its meaning.

“Explain the general idea,” Dong-Yul said. He lifted his eyes to meet Mrs. Carter’s glasses. A glare had caught the lenses. “Please.”

“Mister is offering to back you in the growth and general operation of your gang, Hóngshuǐ.”

Stunned. Dong-Yul and Jackie exchanged looks.

“Mister?” Dong-Yul repeated.

“In exchange for your resources and capabilities, you will work for him.”

“Congratulations,” Styx said. “You want a sponsor? You can’t ask for a better one.”

Dong-Yul couldn’t believe a word they were saying. Not because he thought they were lying. Styx’s presence, in a way, officiated the offer. He wasn’t sure about Mrs. Carter, but she seemed serious enough.

“Can’t say the offer intrigues me.” Dong-Yul looked from Styx, then back to the papers in the binder. “Though, I wonder how much room I have in this deal. Is there even an option to refuse?”

“You can, though it would make this your second biggest mistake.”

“Second?”

“The first was refusing to listen to me the first time.”

Styx grinned, and Dong-Yul understood. He had no room, unless he wanted to reopen stitches and break more skin.

“Okay,” Dong-Yul said. “What’re the particulars of this… sponsorship?”

Mrs. Carter swiped at her tablet again.

“You have recently been reaping the benefits of the political uproar in the city, the increased violence against Asian Americans have brought many of their youth to you, either for protection or willingness to strike back against those that wronged them through no fault of their own. Your numbers have swelled, and continues to swell, which is always impressive, but it isn’t sustainable.”

“No?”

“It isn’t. How do you expect to pay all your new people, or provide the protection, the reason they joined in the first place? You had a decent sized territory before, but it won’t be enough to properly accommodate everybody. You would need growth in those other departments in order to catch up, but, I suspect you haven’t been growing fast enough?”

She was right. For a time since the first wave of new recruits, Dong-Yul had a worry in the back of his mind, on how he’d take care of everyone that went to him. They hadn’t been hurting before, save for the loss of Bruce, but they had never been making much in the way of waves under his tutelage, and when the tides started to turn and rise, Dong-Yul had to cut some corners where he could, like shaking hands with Lawrence, while hiding a knife behind his back with the other.

But, that wouldn’t be sufficient enough. The logistics weren’t there. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t provide for everyone. People like Justin.

“And you’re saying that Mister will give me that growth in those departments?”

“He is able and willing,” Mrs. Carter said. “Warehouses, equipment, cars. Weapons. We still have plenty thanks to an acquisition made last year, in the fall.”

“The wheels turn and turn,” Styx said.

“Mister will invest in your proper growth,” Mrs. Carter said. “Giving you assets to turn you into a better one.”

Dong-Yul flipped through another page, the words hardly registering to him. What he read, what he heard.

“Why?” he questioned. “Why the sudden interest?”

Too good to be true.

“That’s not for me to say. I wouldn’t delve into the particulars, in that regard. Accept the terms, and let him round out the edges for you.”

“May I meet him, ask him myself?”

“You may not.”

Mrs. Carter answered a touch too quickly.

Dong-Yul closed the book. He looked up at the woman.

“What’s the catch, then?”

He knew there had to be one.

Mrs. Carter took her time in answering.

“It’s spelled out in more detail in that binder, but, in accepting the vested interest of Mister, you will have to put a freeze in any and all movements toward enacting a retaliation against the forces that brought you those swelled numbers in the first place.”

Her wording made Dong-Yul take a moment to parse everything. He didn’t get what she meant at first.

Jackie caught on a second before he could.

“You want us to stop building our army.”

Dong-Yul tapped the table, his body flaring up again. Pain.

“No,” Mrs. Carter said. “The opposite, in fact. As it stands, Hóngshuǐ is an asset, one Mister would like to put in his pocket for the future. He would just like if you didn’t dry yourself up before that time comes.”

There. The catch. Dong-Yul knew there’d be one.

“You want me to sell my revolution?”

It was Mrs. Carter’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Just don’t cause any fires where we don’t need them.”

“Not fires, a tsunami. Because you know that it’s going to flood, hard, and you want to buy as much property as you can so you can claim the insurance.”

The woman smiled. Pity again. If Dong-Yul had the strength, he’d tear her lips off her face.

“I assure you that will not be the case. It’s a simple stipulation.”

Dong-Yul was done.

“Then I refuse Mister’s sponsorship.”

“Donnie-”

“No, no Jackie. These people, they don’t understand why I’m doing this, and I don’t think you even know, now. Every goddamn day, I get stories from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese people telling me all the shit they go through now because of a select few.”

The select few. Harrian Wong. Blank Face, V. Wendy.

Dong-Yul continued, saying, “They’re tired, Mrs. Carter, Styx, there’s a restless undercurrent that’s bubbling, and it won’t be long before things overtake. I’m not sorry Styx, but I’m ready to accept the consequences of my second biggest mistake.”

Styx lifted himself, brief, to adjust his chair to better face Dong-Yul. For a second, his heart leapt, thinking that Styx was about to snap.

He didn’t.

“Hate to break it to you, buddy, but this revolution of yours? It was never going to work. Not really.”

Dong-Yul stared at him, hard.

“You and Bruce, Jackie, Justin. You all have your differences, your different cultures that define you. And they’re very well defined and unique in their own way. And each of you, I know, take pride in that.”

Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese.

“Your point,” Dong-Yul said.

“Maybe you band together on this one thing, the pressure from the other, because they all think you all look the same, that those differences aren’t there. Say you do win, this war of yours goes the way you want. Then what? Do you truly think you’ll stay as one group forever? All of you know you really aren’t, there is no amalgamation. Eventually, those differences become borders, and your sovereign nation becomes split.”

Dong-Yul breathed, measured.

Asian people and cultures weren’t one entity, it didn’t work like that. It was tricky. Dong-Yul knew that, recognized it. But, he didn’t like hearing it being spelled out for him. Having Styx poke holes, enough that it might make the whole plan sink.

“Take it from me,” Styx said, in a tone that Dong-Yul had never heard before. A normal one. “You all still have your identity. For me? This country took away mine when my ancestors were taken here on ships. I never got to learn about my tribe. That’s why I had to go make my own.”

Dong-Yul hesitated to answer, unsure what to make of anything, at this point.

“You’re building something with them, together, and there’s something to be said about that accomplishment. Just keep in mind that you’re not going to last if you get to where you want with this. Take this sponsorship, and you’re in the big leagues, you’re at the table. Your people get taken care of, and you can continue to grow and help them, too. All we’re asking, is to temper things in exchange, throw some water on the fire.”

Then, Styx shrugged.

“And, when the time comes, and it will, I will personally give you oil.”

Dong-Yul started shaking his head.

“It’s not a bad deal, Donnie,” Jackie said.

“Why? What’s Mister planning?” Dong-Yul asked. “Why does he want us?”

“That’s not for me to tell you,” Mrs. Carter answered. “To be honest, I don’t even know myself. But, knowing him for as long as I have, I can guess he’s doing the same thing you should be doing, gathering up resources. People.”

“He wants to use my army,” Dong-Yul said. “Why? Is it because of V?”

The quiet that followed said so much. So did Styx’s grin.

“She was there. At the club. You, ow, remember, right?”

“I do.”

“Why didn’t you do anything then?”

Styx’s grin went wider. Wilder.

“I did, actually, right after I had you removed from the scene. You aren’t the only cog in this machine.”

“What’d you do?”

“I had a laugh.”

Cryptic. Which was normal for the psychopathic biker.

“I know her name.”

Dong-Yul said it like a threat.

The statement felt like pulling out a gun, a way to escalate. As if he needed leverage to use.

Styx’s expression became more neutral.

“About that,” Mrs. Carter said. “That would be part of the deal we offer. Whatever you think you know, don’t act on it, because it’s the same thing as you going forward with your quote unquote ‘war.’ We don’t need any more trouble, and especially any more with her at the root of it. In summary, you are not to approach V or the Fangs until explicitly ordered by Mister.”

Styx winked at Dong-Yul.

Even though we still have a score to settle.

It was neither a confirmation or denial. Dong-Yul still felt like he was onto something, though.

Again, he exchanged looks with Jackie. His stomach turned.

Almost everything he wanted. Recognition, power, a seat at the table, and a way to prove that he had surpassed his late older brother. But, at the same time, it didn’t feel right, it felt too easy. Cheap. Like he was selling out.

Proof, but not on his terms. A way to ride the wave up, but not his own current.

But, could he really refuse?

“Fine,” Dong-Yul said, “I’ll accept those terms.”

Mrs. Carter smiled. It seemed genuine. “Swell. Then, my work here is done.”

She scooped up her tablet, then got up, fast, and proceeded to cross the room.

“I’ll leave that with you,” Mrs. Carter said, referring to the binder. “I’ll be in touch. Styx or one his Ferrymen will monitor you to make sure you keep your end of the deal.”

“I can do it myself,” Styx said. “Consider it a personal favor.”

“That’s your choice.”

With those words, Mrs. Carter left the room. She was gone.

Styx then rose to stand, but he was slower, more relaxed.

“Ah, finally, I hate meetings. So much busywork.”

Dong-Yul couldn’t find any words. He needed to process this, how he was going to move forward from here. Now that his main goal was officially put on ice.

He heard a crinkling of plastic, and a rattling that fell onto the table.

Looking up, he saw that Styx had tossed a bag. Plastic, transparent.

Bottles atop bottles of pills.

“Consider this a welcoming gift,” Styx said. “Strong shit, I take it you’ll need it as you recover, you’re not quite there yet.”

No thanks to you. Asshole.

“Yeah, sorry about that. I was just feeling it, is all.”

Styx spoke as if he had heard those thoughts. “But there’s plenty more where that came from, if you behave.”

Giving a salute, Styx started to turn, heading out. With his handle on the door, he spoke one more time.

“Bruce would have wet himself, he’d be so proud of you. So don’t screw this up. No need to be stubborn.”

“안녕,” Styx then said, in perfect Hangul, and with a twisted, ugly, cackle, Styx left the room. The sound seemed to echo in Dong-Yul’s head as he stared at the pills. The pain of everything stacked against his body and mind. His spirit.

The pills looked appetizing.

“Hey, Donnie,” Jackie said, after what felt like ten minutes. It probably was. “You okay?”

The question was too easy, the answer obvious.

Donnie was weak, his whole life was spent being protected by the likes of Bruce and Jackie. And the one time Bruce actually needed him, he wasn’t there to protect his older brother. Now, he was gone.

Dong-Yul wasn’t supposed to be weak, he was supposed to be the older brother for everyone else. To look after those that came to him, in these troubled and confusing times. Protect them, teach them to fight for themselves, and hope they’d learn, like how his older brother did before him.

And now, backed into a corner, beaten and bruised and bloodied and scared, he had to take those promises away. He didn’t have the strength to fight back. Not for himself, not for them.

The answer was obvious, the question too easy. No need to say it, hear it out loud.

His eyes were still on the pills.

“Get me some water,” Donnie said.

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086 – Dead End

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This was him. Styx. I was face to face with the man who was connected to the Solace conspiracy, how Benny fit into all of that, and Mister.

He had been active in trying to take Blank Face out, and had a hand in Hleuco’s disappearance. That, I would never be able to forget.

And yet he was also the man who pulled strings to get us into the Lunar Tower, giving us a direct line to Granon in order to stop his group

Styx, Solace, Mister. The girl at the center of it all. Not everything from the list was checked off

How was this possible, how was this happening? How did Benny manage to find me, and find me here, of all places, when I wasn’t able to get to her? Was she doing this as a part of Solace? Another one of those ‘games’ like from before

I thought about what I had in mind. Start by going back to Braham Barn, looking for anything I missed. If I had to tear the thing down, plank by plank, literally, then that was what I had to do. I probably owed Gomez another conversation, even though I intended to retire the Blank Face shtick. See where he stood, what else was left to do in that regard. If Solace had somehow dissolved into a non-issue, I needed to know for sure. If not

I would have agreed, except this whole ordeal wouldn’t just magically fix itself overnight. Even if we got Thomas back, Solace was still a very real threat that still needed to be taken head on. Even this was a distraction, a detour, towards the real goal

I sat in thought, trying to come up with a way to foil Solace’s plan that didn’t involve total anarchy, given how stacked things were against us. Nothing

And what was I, in all of this? The antivirus? Then, what was Solace, a developed resistance

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson

Solace was Benny.

She had to be

I was shaking my head the whole time, my eyes getting wet, my makeup starting to run. My normal life was already ruined, there was no getting out from this unscathed, personal life or just my person. Solace challenged me, and dragged along everyone else in order to do it. Even if Hleuco and I stopped Solace, the ramifications would last, linger. People would hate and fear Blank Face even more, and everything we had done against the gangs would be wasted. Even if Solace’s threats were just empty promises, irreparable damage was already done

Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.

That Solace. He or she came here, threatened my friends, my family, and simultaneously called out both me and Thomas. Blank Face and Hleuco. While I didn’t know how, I was going to make sure they’d regret that. Terribly.

Solace might have won this battle, but the war had just begun.

I blinked away tears, feeling water seep into my mask. Stinging. Hurting.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. But, I really couldn’t believe much of anything, anymore.

This man, Remus, Victor… he was Solace this whole time.

Him. That man over there. Him.

Shaking, trembling, I tried for a motion of my volition and I couldn’t.

Couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe. I was reduced to the very concept of struggling.

So many memories and connections were hitting me, all at once. Moments, flashes and glimpses of another life. Small, brief pieces of a larger picture, but they came at me as surge, overwhelming me. I was losing myself to the sheer amount and intensity of the torrent of emotions, drowning in it. That I was becoming undone, my very self being washed away, with another self being exhumed. Another, older mask.

I am Wendy, I am V. Me. My name is my name. Me. Wendy. I. Me.

It took all I had, all that I had left, to keep myself together.

I fought against the struggling, pushing back, standing my ground. I wouldn’t let myself unravel because of this, I wouldn’t let it be so easy.

I moved my hands, putting them up to my head. It was almost a natural instinct to just start wailing, letting everything out until my body had become a hollow husk. Skin, ready to be worn by another creature.

As if I was bottling up the bubbling, frenzied emotion, my hands clenched into fists, pulling at my hood. My legs drew towards my body, knees close to my chest. My jaw was set, hard, teeth clattering so hard they were cracking and aligning themselves back into place.

Barely restrained words were thrust between my teeth.

“You’re… lying. Shut up. That isn’t him, that isn’t Solace.”

I got an answer before I could steel myself for one.

“Why don’t you ask the man himself?”

Thrown back at me, forced to confront the issue myself. To face my demon that had haunted me… us. He was in the flesh. He was right there.

My hands went to my face, over my eyes. I peeked between the gap between my fingers. Fear was what had me moving in increments, sad, pathetic twitches.

One look was all I needed.

He was had that expression, that grin that now made me sick to my stomach. His lips were curled upward, more towards a sneer, with enough teeth showing to make it all the more biting. His hands were up, over his head, but still managed to come off as relaxed. When he was just as much a captive as I was, or the rest of the passengers, he was sitting, legs crossed, hunched over, next to no tension being displayed in his posture. He was fine.

He was Solace.

“You look like you have your answer right there,” Solace said. His grin grew wider.

It didn’t make me feel any better.

My body started to rock, and it took a while before I realized that it wasn’t me.

Sarah. She was still holding me, tighter than before, wrapping me deeper into her embrace. It was warm, comforting in a way that I couldn’t properly articulate or even understand. But it was useless to even try. Pointless. I didn’t even want to get it.

She shifted her grip, so her hands were resting against mine, fingers interlocking between the gaps I was peeking through. I felt her squeeze, pulling a bit, easing up where there was some resistance. Pulling again when there was more pull to be found. Inch by inch.

It took some doing, but Sarah was able to get me to move my hands away from my face, pulling them down and away, until they were in my placed into my lap. Settling them there, she locked her fingers again with mine, firm. I couldn’t move them unless I applied strength that I couldn’t find, not internally.

It was still bad, and it wasn’t really any better, but I wasn’t worse. I could feel my breathing ease up, and the shaking and trembling not as painful.

I was still in that state of being, just… lesser. Just enough for me to come to grips with everything. Myself.

It was like cold water to the face.

I shifted around, extending my arms and legs, taking back control of my body, as much as I was able, at least. Sarah relented, letting me go.

Leaning forward, I got myself into an upright position, leaning more so I didn’t have to rely on Sarah.

I was sitting, now, in the dirt. Slouching, but I was being supported by my own body. My own power. I was very aware of the others that were around us that had been watching, maybe even judging. Alessa, her animals, my passengers, Sarah, Tone, Isabella… him, but I didn’t really care. Well, a tiny, shriveled up part of me did, but it wasn’t like I had the will to act on it. Not really.

Still bad, not really better, but not worse.

I lifted my head, heavy, and I made eye contact with Solace again. His expression remained. So did mine.

You.

“It… really is you,” I said, sounding hoarse.

“Was it ever going to be anyone else at this point? I wouldn’t say I believe in destiny, but I do think there are reasons for why things come to be. Like this, like now.”

“And what are those reasons?” I asked.

Solace glanced at Alessa.

“Not sure if it’s within my ability to say more, right now. My arms are getting tired, by the way.”

He still had his arms up.

Alessa crossed hers, glaring at Solace.

“Good. Keep them there, I don’t care how tired you get.”

Solace frowned. “Can’t keep them there forever.”

“Then my men will shoot you the second your hands get lower than your head.”

“Harsh.”

This… was all so wrong. Solace was here, the remaining minutes of his life determined by how long he could maintain that pose, but he didn’t appear stressed in the slightest. Alessa even seemed somewhat spirtless in how she was handling this situation, despite her threat of death, and despite the amount of damage Solace and I had brought onto this town-

Oh fuck, fuck me.

Solace and I worked together. He was the one to help me, when I needed it most.

The realization of that was like a punch to the stomach, making it harder to keep bottled emotions down. I was so ready to explode.

Kill him, kill him.

“I…” I started. I noted everyone’s gaze fall back on me.

“I don’t understand, any of this.”

I admitted it for a third time.

But, after hearing myself say it out loud, in three different instances… it was almost liberating. That I was no longer beholden to standards that were constantly being raised and escalated, and that, for this one moment, I didn’t have to keep trying to stay one step ahead of everyone, I didn’t even have to catch up. I was already behind, I had already lost.

Though, I didn’t give up, getting here. I fought, I tried, but I still ended up here. Despite my best efforts, given the circumstances, I had come up short. El Paso was still so far away.

So now, I was done, maybe even done for. What next?

I could laugh.

“If it’s any consolation to you, Bluemoon, I’m a bit lost as well,” Alessa said. “I’m not fond of uninvited guests, especially when they come in and begin to make a mess of things. It’s just rude.”

“Oh yeah? But I prefer being the uninvited guest. Makes things interesting. Especially if I bring gifts.”

Alessa turned back to Solace.

“This place is a home for many, and it’s also a place for prayer. This is sacred ground, Vic.”

Solace scoffed, “Oh, fuck off with the act, Alma. You don’t have to play it up because you have other guests around. It’s me. Cut the crap.”

“It’s my town, my circle, and you are within its influence. You, too, will abide by the rules I have set, or would you like your sacrifice to come early?”

Solace shrugged, grunting as he did so.

“You, agh, haven’t given me much time to abide by those rules, anyway.”

He wagged a finger, hands still above his head.

“Harsh,” he said again.

I caught a passing glance from Alessa. She grinned.

I could vomit.

I threw up something else, instead.

“How do you two know each other?”

The question came out of me like a reflex. Getting info like an addiction, a thirst that needed to be quenched. It couldn’t be helped.

Then, it was Alessa’s and Solace’s turned to share a look, seconds passing, and then some, as if one was waiting for the other to provide the answer. It was such a small moment, but I had never felt so disconnected, so out of the loop, than in those extra seconds. I had never felt so consciously other.

Alessa was the one to speak, because of course. She was the only with any real power, here.

“I don’t know Victor, really. It’s more accurate to say that I’m familiar with his work. I used to hold some territory in Stephenville. An expansive section on the south side. But that was years ago, well over a decade by now. Wow, time flies.”

“It does,” Solace said, interjecting. “Inez is still holding things up pretty well. But I’m not surprised about that anymore.”

“As am I. We keep in touch.”

“That’s good to hear.”

Stop it stop it stop it.

More memories and connections were leaking in, drip-fed between cracks in broken pipes. Fuzzy television screens, distorted voices. Proxies, coded language and doublethink. Solace had been built up to be a very specific entity in my head, in her head. Always at distance to taunt, provoke, then slip back into the shadows, staying right out of our grasp. No matter our efforts, we couldn’t catch him. Solace had ceased activities, but only because he chose to stop, it seemed like.

But now, in broad daylight, the man himself was present, sitting there before me, captured as well. Nowhere to run or hide.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

Putting a face to the name, and even a voice, it further distorted the image I had of Solace. Now he was a person, talking with others, having worked with me, he was familiar.

I felt more ill.

Options. Did I have any? Not really. I was down, in every sense, and if I tried to get back up I’d just get shot back down. It wouldn’t even be hard for them. And it wasn’t just me. Sarah, Tone, Isabella, the rest… they were here, too, and they weren’t any better off. The threat wasn’t implicit, I knew what would happen if I, or anyone, tried anything. There was no clean way of getting out of this. I had failed in my end of the deal, in saving them.

Nothing I could do now.

“How would you have known that he was Solace?”

I asked another question. Grasping for straws, gasping for air.

“For a captive, you are awfully chatty,” Alessa said. “Like I mentioned, I’ve kept an ear to the streets in Stephenville, and I’m familiar with this man’s work. Well, his work and Styx’s. Build up a framework, and then use it as a playground. Like the web of a spider, feasting on whoever gets trapped in its bindings. And it seems like you were but another bug, Bluemoon.”

“Please, Alma, you’re more than familiar, you’ve practically lifted my framework wholesale for this place. I will say that I’m impressed by the implementation, not so much the… execution, to put a word to it.”

“I thought Mister was supposed to be the metaphorical spider,” I said. I thought back to how Benny explained things to me. Another memory, but at least that one was mine.

Solace faced me. “It’s the general idea she was going for. Metaphors can be tricky like that.”

My eye caught a twitch in the corner of his lip, and I could guess what direction it would curl. I blinked, timing it so I wouldn’t have to see that expression again. I kept my eyes closed for an extra second, just to be sure.

“If we want to make it trickier, you could say that I’m in the business of selling webs to spiders.”

I blinked again.

It wasn’t exactly a secret that Styx had a hand in how Stephenville’s underground developed. Styx’s gang was one of the oldest, able to take advantage of the groups and cartels that started coming in after the failed manufacturing boom left behind a gutted industry and plenty of empty factories, warehouses, and the accompanying equipment, having a say in who got what and where they’d set up shop, setting in the place the systems that would shape the city into what it was today. At least, that was the story Hleuco, D, and Benny gave me, the commonly known beginnings of Mister’s criminal empire.

What was kept secret, then, was that he had help. Or at least, he was working from someone else’s notes.

And Alessa used those same notes to make Fuckington.

I was beginning to understand, but I didn’t like what was coming together.

“But that doesn’t-” I started.

“Enough.”

All eyes were back on Alessa.

“This might be the time, but this isn’t the place for questioning. I’ve got people to move and buildings to inspect. Can’t sit out here forever.”

She gestured, and the animals moved, the circle breaking a bit to prod us along, as if we were the cattle.

I sensed movement, watching as the people around me were forced into smaller, tighter groups. I saw Sarah pass, pushed into a separate group from Tone, Isabella separated from everyone else. I heard the panicked and hushed whispers, glimmers going out one by one as people realized they were being shuffled around again. Going through the same song and dance, their lives in the hands of others. Another gamble.

I was still on the ground, so was Solace. They hadn’t touched us yet.

Please,” I said, pleading, noticing just how frail I sounded, “Leave these people alone, let them leave. You can take him… me, if you really want to, but they need to go to-”

Alessa cut me off.

“El Paso, right? You don’t think I haven’t caught on to that? It’s all anyone wants to say to me. El Paso this, El Paso that, ‘please let us go I want to see my family again.’ Are you transporting people or broken records?”

Solace let out a dry laugh. My emotions bubbled again.

Alessa looked over the animals at her side. The horsemen. She tilted her head, and they got moving. To us.

“Don’t you worry. I have something planned you, him. Everyone. It might even work in your favor.”

A horseman went around me, to my back, and I felt hands on the back of my jacket. He pulled up, and I got to my feet. I could have thrown him off like getting dust off my shoulder, but it wasn’t just my life at stake, here. There were up to a hundred others, the real headcount just shy of that number, probably.

I thought of Olivia and her family.

Another horseman went over to Solace, grabbing him.

“Tie his hands together,” Alessa instructed, “His arms stay over his head.”

Solace grinned, and I saw it, but I noticed some strain in his expression.

“Harsh as ever,” he said.

The horsemen pushed us forward, so we were right in front of Alessa. She gave us hard, threatening looks before turning around and walking.

One more push, and we had to follow. People were being sent in direction differents, and it didn’t take long more me to notice that we were being led away from everyone else.

“What is this, where are you taking us?”

Alessa answered. “I can’t exactly have this proceeding go on like this, out in the open, we’ll have to move this to a more appropriate forum.”

“I don’t… What do you mean?”

Alessa raised her head, half-turning to look at me. She… grinned.

“We will gather a congregation, and we will gather at the facts as they are presented, and from there, we will lay out a sentence. Long, or short. Today is judgement day.”

The sun pierced through broken windows, visible rays coming down onto the rotunda

I was still up. I was still doing this.

I could hardly recall that last few minutes leading up to being here. Stuffed into vehicles, the sunlight being cut by the roof over my head, and then I went dark. It wasn’t until natural light broke past my eyelids, and heavy hands shoved without care or cautious, stirring me awake and alert.

I had shaken myself up, scatterbrained and rattled at the sudden movements. I could recall jitters and twitches, but that was from me, and I was still exhibiting them now.

It was cold.

Taking a quick look around, it looked like I had been taken into the middle of an arena, at the bottom of a pit with others watching from above. From humans to horses to pigs to wolves and vultures. There were several levels to it, rings of eyes staring down at me.

I looked away.

More eyes here, too, on the ground level. But, I wasn’t exactly in a position to avoid these gazes.

Alessa was facing us, a distance away, with her usual horsemen by her side. She stood, robes flowing, hood raised, imposing in her presence, not so much watching as she was overseeing. It seemed like she had modes, going from a cartel leader she really was, to the cult leader she was trying to come off as.

She was in the latter mode, for this part.

Alessa spread her arms, wide, addressing everyone here, in this expansive space.

“Wise ones, I have gathered you all today to the town hall for this congregation, because, in our presence, we have two transgressors who have tried to lay waste to our bountiful and holy land. Their breach into our borders has caused near irreparable damage to our property, and more egregiously, has harmed others from our congregation. This cannot stand.”

The gathered congregation cheered, the voices amplified by the acoustics of the room, bouncing and making it stack and echo. The noise was ringing in my ear, disorienting me even more.

I wanted to throw my own voice into the mix, to scream that it was because of them, that we were here. But, my throat was burning, my will was weak, and my hands were tied. I was well aware of the heavy piece that pressed against my lower back. Enough to tear me to shreds.

Maybe I could push him off and make a run for it, but what good would that do? I was surrounded, and stuck in the middle of a foreign, almost alien town. There was nothing holy about this place. I wouldn’t make it three steps before I’d find myself in a worse position than this, or dead. And even if I survived to make the fourth step, I might not make it, anyways. Not me, not V.

I stayed still.

Alessa raised her arms higher, hands open, then closed, and silence took over. The last bit of sound echoed out, before fading away.

“Bring the sinners forward,” she commanded.

The gun dug into the small of my back, jabbing me. I winced, but I took a step, then another as the force from behind kept pushing.

I saw something come up from my right, the corner of my vision. I turned to look, letting whoever was handling me guide me forward.

It was Solace.

Being guided by animals as well, shoved to get closer to Alessa. His hands were also tied, but they were resting on the top of his head, still forced to maintain that position. He was staggering, and he would have fallen over if there wasn’t three wolves making sure that he didn’t. I’d imagine the same amount of security was placed on me, or more, most likely.

One of the wolves reached out and grabbed Solace’s shoulder, firm, stopping him in place. After another jab from behind, I was in step with him, too.

Another wolf had a gun to his head. It was just a pistol. I could sense that they had something much heavier for me.

Ha. Being pinned by a canine. The imagery wasn’t lost on me.

When we were in place, Alessa dropped her arms to her side, and looked at us directly. When she spoke, she spoke for us.

“This proceeding will be a simple one. I will ask the questions, and you will answer with the truth as you know it. From there, I will determine your sentence, whether it be a long or short one. My congregates above may provide their own input, but my word is final. I’ll try to make this quick, since I have other business to attend to, no thanks to you two.”

“It was my pleasure,” Solace said.

“Yes,” Alessa said. She held onto that last word for so long it somehow rang out as menacing. “It would be in your favor to abide by these standards, do you understand?”

“Of course,” Solace said. I blinked and looked at Alessa.

“I do,” I said, meaning it. For this one moment, I understood completely.

I was fucked.

If the previous conversation between Alessa and Solace was anything to go by, they were already familiar with each other. Alessa would have little reason to throw Solace under the bus in exchange for me, the only active person with powers on the planet. If anything, they’d conspire to take me out. It was Solace’s plan from the beginning, why wouldn’t he jump at another chance to accomplish that?

The chance that I would leave this town alive… they weren’t in my favor at all.

I understood that, now.

Alessa spoke, having taken in our responses. “Smart. Now, oh, before I begin, I’m not sure about you, Bluemoon, but I won’t take any chances with him around.”

“It’s not like I can do much now,” Solace said. “You got me with my pants down, fair and square. I’m completely vulnerable.”

“And thank you for that mental image,” Alessa replied. “But, no. As much as I’d like for this to conclude already, I won’t let myself slip up. Right now I’m wired up, on a call with others of my group with the rest of yours.”

Alessa pointed to me, then continued her explanation. “With just one word, or if our line to each other gets disconnected, they open fire, and the proceeding ends, just like that.”

She snapped her fingers at that last word, punctuating them.

“And we will go see what remains of them, together.”

Dry vocal cords scraped against each other. It hurt.

I nodded, slow.

Alessa took her time with her next move. She drew out the moment, and the anticipation pushed me closer to the edge than her animals ever did.

“Again,” Alessa said, the one word sounding like a warning. “I’d rather not play this safe. Just to make sure you understand my words.”

She lifted a hand, and snapped her fingers again. More movement.

They came around from behind her. A wide corridor on the other side.

Horses, pigs, and goats. It was like a reverse herd. The animals leading the people.

Sarah and Tone… and Isabella.

They were being sent into the rotunda, the courtroom, but they instructed to stand at the sidelines. Not at the center like me or Solace. They were being made to witness.

“This is how you’ll know I’m serious, Bluemoon. It didn’t take me long to figure out that these two are a core part of your team, and this operation. Let me make this incredibly clear. You try anything, and I get more dolls to hang outside for the rain.”

My gaze was stuck them the whole time Alessa talked, her voice in the distance. Sarah. I hadn’t noticed how disheveled her appearance was before, her clothes dirty and wrinkled, having been pushed around for the better part of the day. Her hair was a mess, parts of it covering her face, making it hard for me to see her whole face, but I didn’t miss that scowl. So bad, did I want to run over to her and fix her hair, be close to her. Tone, from a glance, had gone through a worse hell, with the nicks and cuts, and one going from the forehead to the the temple, dried blood caked and smeared down his face. His hands were placed in front of him, his expression stoic. I couldn’t gauge it from where I was, but it looked as if one eye could be swollen, too. Would he even be able to drive?

Isabella, though, hadn’t been touched. That was a relief to see. Staring daggers at Alessa and Solace, playing with her hair.

Tone, Sarah, and Isabella. Their lives were being dangled in front of me, yet again.

“Don’t… touch them,” I said, through gritted teeth.

“Don’t give me a reason to.”

Fuck this, and fuck Alessa. She had effectively gutted me, then pulled me at my arms and legs until I was split, torn down the middle. Here, in this moment, I was powerless.

Fuck me.

Then, Alessa brought her arms up and together, clasping them. The sleeves of her robes flowed with the motions.

“Now, let us begin,” she said. Above, the animals roared again.

Fucking finally, I thought. I didn’t know that I’d be so ready for the end to come. And now, it was near.

As easy as it was for them to get riled up, Alessa was able to cut them off with another motion, her arms spread.

“Victor,” Alessa said, turning to the person in question. “Or Solace, as better known to the opposing party. I know of you, but the congregation does not. Please explain your position and the accompanying duties.”

Solace tried to straighten himself, but the awkward position he was forced into, and the heavy hand that held him made that attempt futile. He settled for a slouch.

“Well, if you want to be accurate, I don’t have much of a position now. I’m retired. Though, I suppose creatives can’t keep themselves out of the game for long.”

He made a face like he thought what he said was funny.

“Okay. Second question. Why-”

“That’s it?”

Hundreds of pairs of eyes fell on me.

If I could move, I would have kicked myself for interrupting. But I knew that this was a game of sorts, and I’d have to play in order to win. Alessa didn’t say this was against the rules, though.

Silence for several more seconds. Was Alessa letting it be my turn?

I had to take it.

“He didn’t even answer the question properly,” I said, explaining myself.

“I will get the final say in what is ‘proper,’” Alessa answered. “I gave my question, he chose to answer it in that way. That is how he decided to represent himself in this proceeding. Unless he would like to elaborate?”

“I’m quite satisfied by my answer,” Solace said.

“There. That was two questions, so I’d like to direct things to you, Bluemoon.”

From bubbling up to boiling. My blood burned.

Dammit. Solace was treating this as a game, too. He knew I couldn’t help but get any details out of him, now that we were physically in the same room. Playing it so I wouldn’t pick up anything. And with how Alessa was conducting this hearing, it didn’t leave me with much of an advantage. It was probably intentional. To screw me over.

Even now, when he was right there, he still found a way to stay out of my reach.

Fuck this, fuck Alessa, and fuck Solace, now, too.

Teeth clattered and cracked.

“The first question will be of a similar vein. Please provide me and the congregation a better picture of who you are, and your position.”

No choice. Had to play this one straight.

I answered.

“I am V, publically known as the Bluemoon, but at that time, I was actually operating under the name Blank Face.”

It sucked, that I had to attach those names as being a part of me, in order to properly answer the question. It wasn’t exactly the truth as I knew it.

I continued.

“Now, though, I’m a leader of Los Colmillos, or the Fangs, a reformed splinter group of El Carruaje. The Chariot. If it wasn’t obvious by now, we’re based in Stephenville.”

I felt that there was more I could have delved into, elaborated on, but anyone could just read a recent headline for that. It was the other stuff, the specifics on what I was, that I was still in the dark on. Information I didn’t have…

Information I was putting off.

A distraction.

I bit my tongue.

“Second question. Why have you come here?”

“I wasn’t my intention to come here. I was on another job, overseeing a transport to El Paso. One hundred and three people. Due to a… complication, earlier in the day, I had gotten split up from the transport. I… tracked a signal, and it lead us here. And then you and your cult attacked us. And here we are. If it was up to me, I would have never known about this town and its stupid name.”

Alessa visibly reacted, like I had slapped her in the face. If I really did, her head would be sent clean off its body.

She directed herself back to Solace, instead.

“Third question, which was originally going to be my second. I think I can venture a guess, but I would like to hear it from your mouth. Why did Styx send you here?”

Styx. He did have a hand in this.

At least it was a question I would have asked, myself. The real question was if Solace was going to answer it properly.

“Bringing him into this? Alright, I’ll play ball. I was getting ready to leave Stephenville, it’s easier to keep your head down in a country where the authorities aren’t actively hunting for you, after all. I was commissioned, did my job to the best of my ability, achieved satisfactory results, and it was time for me leave. But, before I would leave the country, Styx asked me one last favor. To pay you a visit. Oh, and he did say hi, by the way. Before I forget for good.”

“Elaborate.”

Not a question, but a command.

“Styx has been keeping an eye on you and your commune for some time. You may be a separate element, but things have a funny way of spiraling out of control, sometimes. A new paradigm shift is coming to Stephenville, and Styx wanted to see to it that you aren’t a part of that, remaining separate.”

Alessa glared.

“And apparently, that involved attempting to crush me and my people under my own building. You would have been better off leaving me alone. Now I’m tempted to retaliate in some way.”

Solace’s arms were raised over his head, but he shrugged.

“The plan was admittedly slapped together, suggested on a whim. Styx finally found a way to send me off with a bang. He always wanted to.”

I didn’t like how Solace looked at me as he said that.

“Two birds, one bomb and a malfunctioning boiler room. I had all the pieces, all I needed was a way to put it together. Program a application that sends out a rather enticing signal, lure you out to my location, and have your congregation take back the truck you find at those coordinates.”

Solace grinned. I winced.

He was trying to get me killed too, to die under the crumbling mess hall, except the building didn’t quite fall apart, and people managed to evacuate, save some who got injured or shot during my assault.

But, that was why Remus was so vague on the details of the plan, why he wanted me out of the boiling room and into that fire. He was trying to cast me into it. Because he was Solace, and that was his goal ever since he introduced himself at that party, all those months ago. It hadn’t changed.

And I helped him in that.

More and more boil.

Alessa spoke to that.

“You failed, Victor. Now I’m tempted to go back to Stephenville for more than just to visit family. My next, and then my final question. What’s happening in the city that Styx doesn’t want me to be a part of? And why did you do such a terrible job in trying to kill me? It’s not fair to me, nor is it fair to Styx.”

Solace did that half-shrug again, and with how silent he was in the minute that followed, I was afraid that would be all that he’d offer.

Then, he grinned and offered more.

“Styx asked me to play it loose, to be free for one, final time. He’d work with whatever the outcome was, here. If it all went well, or if it all went wrong. He was ready to push.”

“You didn’t answer the other question,” I said.

“I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough,” Solace said. “You won’t need me to answer that.”

Damn him.

I tried to speak, but I coughed instead. “So, this all was just a big joke?”

“Setup for the punchline,” Solace said.

That must have pissed off the congregation, too, because they erupted again. Howling and squealing. Clamoring for his death. On the inside, I was right there with them.

“Enough!”

Back to silence. Like flipping a switch.

Alessa took back control of the room.

“I’ve heard enough. V, you asked a question of your own, so I will count that as you forfeiting your turn. The proceeding has concluded.”

What.

No, no way.

“Hey,” I started. I felt resistance, someone holding me back. “That’s not fair, you can’t just change the rules and-”

Alessa threw her hand up to my face, her middle finger and thumbs touching. Ready to snap.

I didn’t say another word.

Alessa brought her hand back down, relaxing. She pulled back.

“It’s now time for the sentencing hearing. I’ve heard everything, and taking circumstances into consideration. There are only two possible sentences. Long, or short. Exile, or death.”

The congregation cheered again. But they knew to stop before Alessa spoke again. They were already intune with her timing.

This was it, the verdict. Alessa and Solace were both playing this game against me, cutting off questions and accepting half-answers. I was never going to be able to explain myself, or argue to let us go. They were out to kill me from the start.

Alessa opened her mouth, and I was sweating through my mask. I realized that I still had it on.

Her voice echoed throughout the rotunda.

“For the Bluemoon, the sentence is exile. And for Solace, the sentence is death.”

People moved, animals cheered, and I was somewhere else entirely. My headspace.

Sounds and images faded and murky shapes swam over my eyes, distorted voices stuffed my ears, until I was in a daze, confused. So… so tired.

Stunned.

When those sounds and images crystallized again, my brain catching back up, I saw myself standing over a man. Solace, down on his knees, hands tied together over his head. As for my hands, they were untied, but a heavy piece sat in my palms.

Still in the rotunda, still in town hall, the ‘courtroom.’

Still up, still doing this. Still alive.

So dizzy.

“Do you understand?”

“I… don’t,” I admitted.

Minutes passed, and it was quiet yet again.

Alma repeated herself, the sound crystal clear.

“Your sentence is to be exiled, to leave this place and never come back again. His is death, by execution. I have decided to offer you and everyone you are responsible for a guaranteed, safe passage out of my town, on the account that you play the role as the executioner.”

“Creatives do love to talk about their process,” the man said. Solace.

“We do.”

The heavy piece. A sizable handgun. Alessa wanted me to kill him.

Crystal clear, but I didn’t like picture given to me.

“I…”

I didn’t know what to say, was there anything I could say?

“What’s wrong, Blueballs? You’ve caused so much destruction and pain to so many people, but you hesitate to take a life?”

Solace was on his knees, sentenced to die, and he was taunting me.

“I didn’t know a monster like you operated on the morality of humans.”

I breathed.

“No… it’s not like that. It’s not…”

“Like what? What?”

The question repeated in my head. Like what? It was through terrible and ugly circumstances, but one of the things I wanted for so long, was to have Solace in my grasp, to have the chance to get back at him for everything he had done. It was because of Solace, that her life was sent into further turmoil, it was because of Solace that Thomas died. It was because of Solace, using Benny and her resources to push her so far back into a corner, that she’d snap and attack a school.

It was because of Solace that I was here, today. V. Wendy.

Strained connections, broken promises. Lies and painful memories. So many of them were caused by the man before me, his hands tied, unable to escape. Completely vulnerable.

“You’re human,” I said, hardly above a whisper. “You’re still a person.”

“Is that supposed to make me see you in a different light? I thought you dropped the hero act already. A monster glows in the moonlight, becomes beautiful, and you’ve been basking in it for some time now. I meant it when I said that I was impressed by how you’ve grown. I might have had my doubts in the beginning, but I’ve been watching your progression even after that town hall incident. I’m so proud of you, Voss. I’m glad things worked out the way it did, Styx putting us together. You made me truly happy.”

“Shut up, shut… up.”

“There’s only one way to do that,” Victor said.

I lifted the gun, the metal pieces clacking from how much I was shaking. Seconds felt like minutes, and minutes felt like decades.

This wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“Hey!”

My head snapped up. Sarah jumped at how sudden I stared at her, as if she wasn’t expecting it. My eyes moved a little to the right.

Isabella.

“Why are you shaking? Isn’t he responsible for all of this? Think of all the shit he put you through, he didn’t lose a damn thing! That’s the enemy, your enemy, and he’s here on his knees!”

Her voice didn’t ring out throughout the rotunda, instead ramming into me, like a blunt force. Aware of the rings of eyes, hounding at us, desperate to see blood. Blood that I had to spill.

“But…”

“I’m growing impatient,” Alessa said. “Waste any more of my time, and I will sentence you and everyone you came here with to death. Do not make me change my mind.”

I was sweating bullets.

My gun shaking harder, I turned to Solace.

“There was so much I wanted to ask you, why you did what you did in Stephenville, how, or anything else I could think of. I would have wanted to put time in that. This… this is just laughable.”

Solace smiled, and, on some level, I took comfort in that.

I took in a deep breath. Shaky. My finger went around the trigger. I had never fired a gun before. I had never intentionally killed another person before.

A flicker in my eye. I shut both.

The gun nearly flew out of my hand from the recoil, and I had to see to catch it again.

I missed.

“No!” I yelled, for different reasons. Denial, confusion, that I had to look the enemy in the eye when I killed him.

I threw the gun back into place, squeezing the trigger again.

Not a clean shot. The man fell with juice pouring out his abdomen.

I panicked and fired again.

No!”

I threw the gun down when I knew it was empty. I didn’t hear it clatter against the marble floor, the animals having went back to wailing and gnashing.

Then I dropped, too, my knees becoming soaked in juice as it continued to spill forth.

Everything torn away from me, forced by my own hand. As if the universe itself didn’t want me to hold onto anything for very long. Satisfaction was a fleeting feeling, peace was an impossible goal.

Bubbling, to boiled, to eruption.

I looked up, light in my eyes, blinding me, like I was cast into fire. I opened my mouth, and joined in on the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Previous                                                                                               Next

085 – Last Laugh

Previous                                                                                               Next

“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.

Previous                                                                                               Next

084 – Indigo Thread

Previous                                                                                               Next

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.

Previous                                                                                               Next

081 – Ghost Town

Previous                                                                                               Next

We had arrived at our destination.

Our speed was glacial as we approached… whatever this place was. An hour to get here, sixty long minutes to prepare and plan and hope, and my expectations were still circumvented.

An abandoned amusement park.

The entrance was dilapidated and decrepit. Rusted. Whatever color that had given this place life had been drained away and diseased with something more sickly. Shades of a dark red and orange scraped through the bright mascots and characters and childish imagery to warp and twist them into monsters and creatures. This was no place for a child.

Statues that were supposed to be welcoming us had deteriorated to the point where they were doing the complete opposite, now. In their current condition, with chunk of arms and legs and tentacles and trunks and eyes and ears missing or broken off, it seemed more like a warning.

Lamp posts were knocked down, bulbs were broken. Shattered glass and torn up pieces of cement prevented a proper path forward. There were only a few cars as we pulled up more into the parking lot, but, much like everything else, they weren’t in any condition to be used for its intended purpose.

Not a person in sight. And even if there was, I could only imagine how damaged they’d have to be to end up wandering into this place. Because no one should have to come here unless they had a very good reason to, and I would have liked to think that we had some decent justification.

But, the deeper we continued, the thinner that justification seemed to become. Seemed.

The whole damn town seemed like it had been forgotten by time and neglected by people. Though, in essence, it was like that exactly.

Brief, I thought back to the buildings we passed as we arrived here. Even they stuck with me.

Broken and barren. Par for the course, I knew now. Windows had been shattered, holes torn through bricks, houses and stores gutted of their belongings and wares. Graffiti had been streaked and marked across every available surface. More reds and oranges. More rust. Words, symbols, more warnings. I wasn’t able to make out the original name of the town as we entered, covered up too much by all the tagging. A fitting metaphor.

I was, however, able to catch the new name. Fuckington.

Alright then.

It was just another strange addition to an already strange town. Nothing seemed right, here. It was just… wrong. Twisted, even perverted. Things were stripped down and then built on top. Corrugated metal roofs covered wooden constructs that resembled shacks or huts, lined in certain spots down the different streets. Haphazardly put together and assembled with little care to overall aesthetics or designs. Squatters? People who took advantage of their surroundings for temporary housing? Didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. Despite all the ‘work’ that had been done, I still hadn’t seen another person around. And I almost wished I wouldn’t. Almost.

Our trip from Stephenville to El Paso had taken us out farther west. And things have only gotten crazier and more wild.

Thinking backwards, from the park to the town to even the streets that led us in here. The dips and cracked cement, the potholes and snapped pipes. I was already thinking of ways to get out of here.

But there was still much more of the town that needed to be explored. We couldn’t turn back now.

Not good.

My focus snapped back to the present.

Sarah put the RV in park, turning the engine off.

“We’re… here.”

Sarah was just as unsure about this as I was.

I was standing between the two seats at the front of the RV, my elbows resting against a headrest on either side. Sarah was seated on the left, Isabella to my right.

Sarah took the keys out of the ignition. She held them, tight, the keys and kitty charm hidden by the firm fist she formed. Isabella was frozen, waiting for either Sarah of me to make a move.

Not me or Sarah.

Hello?

“Oh, D,” I said. D was still on the phone, situated on the dashboard.

You there or no?

“We are. I’m just trying to take this all in.”

Sarah chimed in. “You can include me in that, too.”

“Yeah,” Isabella said.

Where are you?

“I…” I started, but words escaped me. Even being in the RV, in relative safety, gave me a heavy oppressed feeling. Foreboding. Like a weight on my chest.

“We’re in Fuckington,” Isabella said.

What-”

“That’s what the sign read as we got here, don’t blame me.”

Alright then.

“That’s exactly what I thought,” I said. “You know anything about this place? From what I saw, it’s even smaller than the other town we passed through earlier, but it’s seen… a lot of shit.”

It was the best way I could describe it, out loud. The place looked like shit.

I wouldn’t know anything about that location, exactly, but I’ve heard of the concept.

“Concept?”

Whenever really small or obscure towns get even smaller or more obscure, because of a declining industry or other opportunities elsewhere. That gives outside groups, like homeless people or wandering hitchhikers or even gangs to come in and overpower whoever stuck around. Give it a few decades of people coming in, getting what they want, getting out, with some relative silence in between, and everyone kind of just forgets to care. And then you get this.

It seemed like it was a microcosm of what happened to Stephenville. A similar idea. Gangs coming into city that didn’t have the proper infrastructure to fight back, instead being corrupted by it. Similar, but not exact, because a small foundation had been set up for them when those gangs arrived. A parasitic underbelly that was ready to consume the seediness and nourish from it.

Mister.

But, here, it was like this town’s ‘Mister’ had left long ago. A corpse of a place. I couldn’t even consider it Hell, since we still hadn’t seen a soul around. And the more I stayed in the RV, the more I didn’t want to go outside and look for any, much less one hundred and three people.

But I knew I had to.

“What the hell is Tone even doing here?” I questioned. The second most pressing question regarding this situation. The first being where.

It’s what I got when I checked.

“Do you have a more accurate read? We didn’t see the truck coming in, and we’re getting deeper without having seen much else outside of decay.”

I can’t pinpoint it since you’re so far out, and with what I’m working with right now, which isn’t a lot, it’s the best I can do. I told you it wouldn’t be great.

“It’s good enough,” I said, second-guessing it all. The seeds had sprouted, the roots digging. “We can take it from here.”

Good luck, stay safe, yadda yadda. Keep me updated.

“Always.”

Sarah hung up the phone for me. WIth her other hand still balled up, she had to twist around and back in order to return it to me.

“How you want to do this?” I asked. “I can take a look around while you two stay in here. Work my way back, going by rooftops? Gives me a better vantage point that way, and it’ll be faster.”

Sarah nodded. “That’s not a bad idea. You could probably cover a lot more ground that way, and it’ll be easier for me to come to where you are when you find them.”

She looked at Isabella, “And it makes it easier for me to keep an eye on her.”

Isabella returned a look back at Sarah. I couldn’t see what expression she had, but it did prompt Sarah to add, “Not that you need it.”

I added my voice to Sarah’s.

“I can’t exactly have you wandering around on your own, Isabella. I’ll feel better and I’ll be able to work faster if I know you’re here with Sarah, relatively safe.”

Isabella turned in her seat so she had her legs folder under her, facing me properly.

“I know. I’ll take your suggestion and I’ll choose to stay behind.”

I found the humor in that. She’d try to find and scrounge up any agency she could and use it to make her feel better. Admirable and adorable.

“Good choice,” I said.

Isabella hugged the teddy bear she had with her. Tighter. As if she was choking the poor thing.

“This place seriously creeps me out. Just be fast so we don’t have to be here long and I won’t lose my head waiting for you.”

The admittance was admirable. Adorable, too. I really wouldn’t have minded if she decided to stay with us.

I spoke.

“Okay. Looks like I’m off. I’ll try to be quick.”

“You have a gun?” Sarah asked.

“I’ve got my knife, and my mask.”

I gestured, raising my arms to strike a pose. Flexing.

“Even without all that, I’m more than enough.”

Then, I dropped my arms. It didn’t work as well as it used to.

I had to work with what I got, though. And all I had to rely on was myself.

It sucked, but I wasn’t in a good position.

I starting gathering what I needed. I talked as I worked.

“Lock the doors, close the curtains on the side windows but don’t be afraid to check your surroundings every now and then. I’ll keep my phone with me so call if, knock on wood, trouble finds you guys. I don’t care if I’m in the middle of something or if it’s somehow inconvenient. If you’re in trouble, call. I want to know.”

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

It was endearing, but I couldn’t comment or think on it.

I stood, ready, at the door of the RV. In the reshuffling of all the stuff I had packed, I couldn’t find everything in time. I had a new hoodie on, a temporary black padded jacket, and my mask. My knife and phone were close at hand, too.

I gave Sarah and Isabella a quick look to let them know I was ready. And to also tell myself that.

I’m tired.

“Heading out,” I said, holding back a yawn. I really hadn’t slept in some time.

Isabella was staring, with a certain intensity. Her mouth was hanging open. Easy to notice.

I heard her whisper, “La luna azul.”

“It’s V, now.”

“But still, it’s like the same thing.”

No it’s not.

I flipped the hood up.

“You look like a ninja,” Isabella added. “Or some shit.”

“I have to go,” I said. “Tone’s out there, somewhere, and I’m the only one who can find him. Can’t waste any time.”

I put my hand on the handle, cracking the door open.

“You can start by backtracking, checking any turns or corners we skipped on the main road to get here,” Sarah said. “If you can’t find them, then… just come back and I’ll make my way around the amusement park.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t have to come to that.”

“Right. Let’s.”

I left the RV and took my first step outside.

Already, I wanted to turn and go back inside.

The smell

Even the very air was tepid and lifeless, and the collective odors of trash and rot and shit was allowed to sit and stew into this thick, atmospheric attack on the senses. It was almost like a vapor, or a fog, that made my eyes get watery, and they were covered.

I gasped, dreading the inevitable inhale that followed. A sour taste that was hard to swallow.

I pushed forward into the fog.

I didn’t see the truck as we arrived into the parking lot, so I crossed the street, leaving it behind. The RV. Sarah and Isabella. I dreaded the idea of leaving them more than the idea of maneuvering through this fog. This miasma.

Without much thought or consideration, my feet touched down on a rooftop. Some steps and a small push to reach another. The buildings weren’t tall at all. I was putting as much effort into crossing gaps and streets as a normal kid would playing hopscotch.

Every time I was in the air, I looked. Every clearance or open space I came across, I searched. Every corner or back alley or dead end, I investigated.

Nothing nothing nothing.

We hadn’t entered a very dense part of… of Fuckington, there were only so many places for me to check before I started going in circles, seeing the same things over and over. The same streetlights and corners, the same broken cars and storefront windows. Some trucks, but none of them with eighteen wheels.

Nowhere, did I see a large truck with a larger trailer.

I landed back down, this time on the street proper. I froze for a moment.

There was stillness, here, that sat above everything and kept it all down. It was so many things. Restlessness, unease, static… the feeling like I was being watched. I couldn’t shake any of it off. It was a paranoia of an almost unreal kind.

The farther I left Stephenville, the further I was going in the deep, it seemed.

I blinked, my eyes stinging.

I have to find them soon.

I couldn’t find the truck. Did they move somewhere else? Leave the trailer?

No way.

I could try looking in some of the buildings, find some other clues. If I were to run into anyone… would they be of any help? No, they’d probably be more trouble than it was worth. I still had yet to run into anyone else. Was there a chance that the town had been abandoned completely?

Maybe, probably. Hopefully.

I went on the move again, walking this time.

There were still some spots I hadn’t checked, yet. It was just that more locations were starting to become more familiar, which wasn’t exactly the coolest thing. I’d rather have this place behind me and out of my head, already.

But, no, I still had over one hundred people to find, and every second that they weren’t accounted for tugged at my mind and added to that paranoia.

I continued searching.

I checked off the spots I already visited in my head, a mental map I made of this one section of Fuckington. Only a few left, a storage warehouse at one end and what looked like a junkyard at the other. I had caught sight of them while I was in the air, looking for more places to search.

The junkyard was closer, actually, so I’d check there first.

In what felt like a few blinks, and fewer steps, I made it to the warehouse. I had to land into a roll onto a patch of grass because I had come in too high and too fast. I had to fix my hood as I got myself straight again.

I turned my nose up at the smell again.

It was even worse, here, foul in a way that gave form to the rot and decay I’d seen all over the town. A whole other dimension.

Another parking lot, then a chained fence with piles of junk and other trash. The ‘entrance’ was just a large missing chunk of the fence itself, and by that was a large sign, faded, posted up way above everything else. It gave me the impression that this area wasn’t original set up to be a junkyard, rather that it ended up being one after whatever used to be here… was no longer here. Maybe a restaurant or even another warehouse.

Either way, it was one more fitting metaphor for fucking Fuckington.

There was enough trash to obscure my view of everything, and the missing gap in the fence was wide enough to drive a truck through. I couldn’t jump across the piles and stacks of shit, with it being haphazard in its construction and too loose, I’d slip if I tried.

No choice but to walk.

The ‘aroma’ got even ‘sweeter,’ getting closer, and it made my steps lighter and eyes dart faster. I paced faster, checking the huge space, internally begging to find them… not soon, but now.

I had to watch my step, though. There were more jagged edges than there were flat surfaces to walk across. Broken glass, needles, bits of wood and plastic. Everything here had degraded in a way that I could only guess what they used to be. It was a graveyard for stuff, really.

Checking what I could see of the ground as I walked, my feet kicking and sifting through junk and detritus like they were dead leaves, I noted that none of it looked flattened or squished, as though a heavy set of wheels had drove through and crushed it. It all looked settled and untouched. Like they just fell into place and stayed there since.

So, no. Nothing here too.

I was losing time. Darn.

I could try one loop around the junkyard, just in case, but it didn’t seem like-

I turned.

A sound, like the rustling of leaves.

Then something more alive.

“He- help!”

I ran in the direction of the cry.

“Is someone there? Please!”

I ran faster.

I rounded the side of one particular pile of trash. Whoever was yelling got louder as they heard me approach.

And the smell.

It was getting stronger as I got closer. An actual aroma. It was actually sweet.

“Right here, I’m right here! Oh fuck, hurry!”

I hurried.

Then I stopped.

It took some time to process what I was looking at.

Or who.

Two, three… four people. Varied in height and age. All on the ground, lined up next to one another, slumped over.

A family?

Two of them were flat on their stomachs, faces buried in the bundle of cardboard and newspapers. One was on their side, eyes staring but not focused, jaw open, slack.

The last was in his back, yelling.

“You, please, I-”

He stopped as he saw me, his mouth snapping shut. Was it my appearance, with the mask and hood? I probably looked like the exact opposite of what he wanted to see, right now.

I approached anyways.

I got down on one knee, digging into dirt and debris, feeling something sharp poking against my leg. Not enough to break skin, though.

I took the man and helped him up the best I could, but his sudden pained expression gave me the impression that he was no longer able. Supporting him by the lower back and shoulders, I tried to him make as comfortable as possible.

“I’ve got you,” I said. “What happened? Who did this?”

He had been screaming his lungs out, before, but his voice had been brought down to a whisper when he had to explain this.

“They… got us… came in so fast. Truck got stopped, then it got so bright, couldn’t see. Loud, bright, hot. Couldn’t fight back.”

The man was only giving me pieces, there were too many gaps to put together everything and form a clearer picture.

But I got the broad strokes. And it added up to the worst case scenario I could think of.

“Who got you?” I asked. “How did the truck get stopped, and why here? How’d you get here?”

And where’s Tone?

I held back on that question for the time being. I doubted that this man would know anything in that regard. He was barely coherent about his own situation.

The man only whispered, tears now streaming down his cheeks. There had been dirt, there, but now I realized it was smeared streaks of blood.

“I got my… my kids, and ran…”

The tears continued, and he choked up.

It’s okay, I thought to say, but it was all too clear that it was not. Whatever he tried running from, he didn’t manage to get very far.

“Can you move?” I asked. Experimentally, I moved him some more, but the sudden scream made me stop.

The man shook his head hard, various fluids flung from his face.

“Too late for me,” he breathed. He sounded haggard. “Please… just help my kids.”

He gestured, or at least he attempted to, shifting his arm over to the next to him, one of two that were on their stomachs. Both weren’t moving.

It pained me to have to say that I couldn’t.

I froze up again, unsure of what to say, then, how to approach that topic. How to break it to him.

“I-”

A small wheeze.

The person on their side.

It was so small that I hadn’t noticed it at first. Barely imperceptible. A subtle rise and fall of their chest. A slow, drawn out blink, their eyes refocusing.

On me.

A girl. A girl like D and Isabella. She was still alive?

She looked worse off than her father. Her hair was mangled, clothes ripped and dirty, her lower lip swollen and red. I could imagine, and I didn’t even want to.

“Can she move?” I asked.

The father only grunted, now. I could see the life slowly leave him. He shifted again, his fingers reaching for his children, and I saw tiny black dots lining his arms, his veins.

The needles.

It really was too late for him.

Slow, with consideration, I set the man down, doing what I could to make him comfortable, despite the circumstance. He seemed to relax, because he let his eyes close, and drifted off…

All tension left his body, and I got up to leave his body be.

I stepped around to reach the girl.

I raised her by the shoulders, helping her get a better position.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi…”

She was able to speak. It wasn’t as lively as the screaming from her father before, but it was clearer and more pronounced that his whispers. There was life to it.

All from one word.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Olivia,” she said.

Olivia was probably the oldest of the three kids, judging by her height and build. That put her around the same range as D and Isabella. Her hair was short, really short for a girl. I could have mistaken her for a boy if her features didn’t tell me the opposite. Her clothes were stained and smudged with grime, wet in some parts, disturbingly sticky in others.

“I’m going to help you up,” I said. “Can you move on your own?”

Olivia nodded.

“I can.”

“Okay, that’s good. How about your… siblings?”

Olivia’s response was more muted, that time. A whisper that I could forgive.

“No.”

“Okay,” I said.

I started helping her, getting her up so she could move more on her own. I did everything I could to not panic, and let that show in my body language or the lower half of my face.

Everyone in that trailer, everyone that I was responsible for, had been scattered, and some had even been picked off. I saw them, I’d seen their faces. The glimmering, the lack of hope, with their last chance at any peace was to go back to the way they came, back into the chaos and stress. Fathers, mothers… kids. Kids who were embarking on this trip by themselves.

Over one hundred people were supposed to make it to El Paso. Now, there was high probability that I’d lost an entire digit.

Even if we made it to El Paso now, I had already failed.

It was getting harder and harder to keep that panic in.

Olivia was up, now, her steps too small for any meaningful progress, and I needed to hurry. I took her arm around my shoulder for more support, and to get her to move faster.

I had to call Sarah, make sure they were still alright. Isabella.

I leaned one way, to better support Olivia while I used my other arm to reach for my phone and-

The phone started ringing.

I picked up.

“Sarah?”

It was Isabella that answered.

Uh, Wendy, I think there’s trouble.

The panic began to bubble.

“You think?”

There are some people standing around the RV. In the distance.

I started hurrying, walking faster. Olivia tripped over her feet, and we stalled.

Please tell me that you’re just joking,” I said.

Um… no?

Holy fucking shit, no.

“Where’s Sarah? Tell her to start getting the heck out of there.”

Fuck, we can’t. There’s cars, now, some motorcycles. They’re blocking the way out.

Motorcycles. I immediately thought of Styx’s Gang. Could they be out here?

No, that wouldn’t make sense.

I picked up the pace, Olivia whining and lagging behind. I’d drag her if I had to.

“Tell Sarah I’m on my way,” I said. “I’m-”

I heard it both in the distance and right in my ear.

Several shots rang out.

“Isabella!” I yelled.

She was yelling too, but it wasn’t directed at me.

Sarah, we have to-”

Her voice faded away, but I didn’t get another tone. The call was still ongoing.

“Isabella!”

Shrieks from the phone, shots from much farther away.

I had to be there, now.

I grabbed Olivia with hardly an explanation. I shoved my phone back into my pocket, and swooped Olivia up into my arms. She yelped as I took to the air, leaving the junkyard after a single bound.

I sprinted back onto the streets, finding myself back across the rooftops in no time. If she was shocked or scared, Olivia didn’t have to breath to say so.

Moving faster than I ever had before, crossing greater distances, pushing myself more and more. My muscles aching, the itch in the back of my throat getting itchier.

Have to be alert, have to be ready, I have to be there.

I tore through the air. So did the continued gunfire.

I was forced to land a block away, my feet hitting the ground, firm. From where I was, I had a decent vantage point of the chaos above.

Groups of people, a mob really. Cars revving engines and motorcycles circling. From the build of the bikes and the dress of the bikers themselves, they didn’t look like they belonged to Styx. The just looked normal.

Though, normal still wasn’t good.

Where did these guys come from? Where were they hiding? I’d probably never know, but it almost didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were here, now, and they were going after Sarah and Isabella.

The RV.

Through the continued firing and closing in of the mob, the RV was forced to move, being herded towards the direction of the amusement park. The entrance into the park was wide open, like the junkyard, it was able to go through the gap with little issue.

Still not a good thing.

It was too easy for them.

I moved again.

I took Olivia and ran into the nearest building, a souvenir shop that was no longer useful for much else besides providing cover. The mob didn’t seem to have noticed us, which meant I could still get the drop on them. Scatter them, break them apart so I could get to the RV, and hopefully, the truck.

There was a corner behind the counter of the store, I hopped and slid across it, setting Olivia down in one quick motion.

“Stay here,” I ordered. “Hide. I’ll have to do something about those guys, and I’ll come back for you. I promise.”

I pulled back to stand, but her hands were gripping my sleeves, tight. She wasn’t letting go.

“You can’t leave me here, please. They’ll find me. Please don’t leave me alone.”

“I’m not leaving you,” I said, putting extra effort to sound and stay calm while shots were firing right behind me. “I’m coming back for you as soon as I’m finished.”

She only held me tighter. She looked so scared.

I felt for her, I really did, but having her around would be like having a metal ball tied to my ankle. Especially with her being so weak. I wouldn’t be able to move or fight properly if I had something tying me down. I couldn’t afford that, not when time and other lives were on the line. I had to hurry.

I closed my eyes, brief. The desire to keep them closed got stronger.

I snapped them open, and snapped my arms back, breaking Olivia’s hold on me.

“Sorry,” I said. “I promise I’ll be back.”

Olivia whimpered and sobbed as I left the store, going back the way I came.

I’d work better if I ignored it for now. For her sake, even.

Back outside, into the chaos and madness. I managed to sort through it pretty easily.

I scaled the side of the shop to reach the roof. Like every other building here, it wasn’t tall.

A better view of the situation.

The RV was gone, now, blocked by the coiling metal structuring of the various rides and attractions. The mob was getting closer to the entrance, blocking it off with the different cars and bikes they brought with them.

They were coordinated.

Hurrying, panicking, I looked around for anything I could use. A knife wasn’t going to cut it, here.

A huge metal box. An air conditioning unit or something. It had broken down, now, the rust obvious and bright. A small door was hanging open, exposing some metal compartments inside. Some metal pipes were jutting out of its innards. I yanked one free, taking the door off its hinges as well. It was small, but could still cover my head and torso if I held it up.

I slipped my arm into the handles that were on the inside of the door, parallel to each other. I fixed my grip on the metal pipe, so the sharper was pointing away from me.

It had longer reach than my knife, at least.

No more time to waste. I had to move.

I moved.

Taking to the air, crossing the distance with just one jump. I was swinging before I even hit the ground, among the mob before they even realized what was happening.

I pushed with my shield-door, getting as many to fall over as possible, before striking any limbs or joints I could find. Swinging, and swinging hard.

I took a step back to reassess the situation. The mob was beginning to catch on, mobilizing, and I got some more shots in before I had to move.

Not everyone had guns, mostly a few in the mob. Some of the bikers had some, but being up close now, I saw that they had pitchforks.

This really was an angry mob. But what the fuck were people doing here with them? What the hell kind of place was this?

Figure it out later. Now you have to act.

Right.

Crowd control, and disarming the more dangerous individuals. If I could take out those who were armed first, I could power through the rest, easy. I didn’t have D with me, but I knew how to work a crowd.

I pushed through another section of the mob again, pushing them down, striking and stabbing where I could. The mob was sizable, but I could move fast and hit hard, with finality. And with the brief advantage of having gotten the drop on them, I was actually making some decent progress.

A shot was fired.

I lifted the shield over my head.

A sharp pang hit the metal, and it vibrated, shaking my arm. It nearly threw me off balance, from both the impact and the sheer volume of the shot.

Someone tried to take that as an opportunity, shoving me on the side with a shoulder. I shoved back, and they were back on the ground.

I jumped to get some air and distance.

More shots rang out, but they all missed. These guys weren’t used to hitting moving targets, much less ones who were soaring through the air with the sun behind them.

I was back down and moving, rushing those who had a weapon on them. More gunfire, some missing, some piercing through the shield. It wouldn’t hold up for much longer.

I was getting through the mob, picking them off, but I was starting to waste too much time focusing on just them. I had to actually get into the amusement park, follow the RV and find Sarah and Isabella.

Needed a move, a big move. One that would scare them enough and get them to break apart and away.

Ahead, a biker. He wasn’t far, but I’d have to jump to reach him fast. I jumped, throwing the sharp metal pipe at the same time.

It struck, impaling him in the right shoulder. He folded, wincing and crying, then collapsed on the ground.

I got to the bike before it fell over as well. I held it up with both hands.

Didn’t know how to ride one, but that wasn’t what I had in mind.

I gripped it, until I felt metal bend, and I turned. And turned again.

I spun until both wheels had left the ground.

I could hear the shouts, people yelling to get out of the way.

They wouldn’t get an ample enough warning. I let go of the motorcycle, and it cut the air as it flew.

The bike crashed, slamming into a ride past the entrance of the amusement park. I overshot it on purpose.

I still achieved the effect I needed. The mob got the message, and started to scatter away in various directions. Across the parking lot, back onto the street, the majority fleeing into the amusement park.

I’d have to follow them in there. This still wasn’t over.

Pressing on, I headed to the entrance, checking around to see if-

When fleeing, there had to be somewhere to flee to.

I watched as one half of the mob regrouped by the souvenir shop, some even going inside.

Olivia.

I looked back to the amusement park entrance.

Sarah and Isabella.

My eyes and throat burned. I wanted to cry and scream myself raw.

I had my priorities.

A split second decision.

I sprinted into the amusement park.

I told Olivia to hide. I had to trust that she found a good spot.

Shield across one arm, my knife in my other hand. It was all I had to bring in with me as I came in. If I could be fast, I could get back to Olivia in time.

I told myself that.

I had caught the name of the park as I went in. Like the sign as we entered Fuckington, the name had been spray-painted over and renamed.

Death For Amusement Park. A very cruel joke.

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