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.

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085 – Last Laugh

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

“I’ve heard that name.”

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

“If.”

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiousness.

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

Remus answered, “I did. It’s… yeah.”

I glanced back. “Yeah what?”

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

“Seriously?”

I heard Remus cough. It echoed.

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

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

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

I did comment, though.

“That is so lame,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“V, can’t see.”

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

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

I turned back to address Remus.

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

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

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

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

“I guess you have a point there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kept talking.

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

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

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

“You balance each other out,” Isabella said.

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

Touché,” Remus said.

I paused for a moment, mulling over his words.

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

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

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

“How so?” I asked.

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

“Thanks, I guess.”

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

“Not now,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No worries, I do understand.”

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

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

“So it does,” Remus said.

“Do you know which way it is?”

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

“So, left?”

“That’s a good guess.”

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

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

“If.”

I smiled at the humor of that.

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

“Stop.”

I did as I was told.

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

I approached him. “What is it?”

Remus gestured. “This is it.”

“Here?”

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

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

I kicked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smells funny in here,” Isabella said.

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

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

“So what does that mean for us?”

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

“Risky,” Isabella said.

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

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

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

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

Fuck me, none of this felt real.

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

“I’ll do what I can. Go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you’ll know, believe me.”

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

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

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

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

“You good?”

I glanced to my side.

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

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

“You’re limping.”

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

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

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

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

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

Open, untainted air. I was back outside.

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“So clumsy,” Isabella commented.

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

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

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

I saw everything and everyone.

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

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

A hole.

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

Among them, Alessa had to be there. Somewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I’m praying this works.”

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

I wasn’t sure either.

We waited for some time.

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

“Just give it some more time.”

“We don’t have that.”

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

“About that Remus guy…” Isabella started.

“What about him?”

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

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

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

I turned to Isabella.

“How-”

A low rumble, deep.

And then the whole building started to shake.

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

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

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

I threw the glass panel open.

“Get out of here!” I yelled.

No thinking, just act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I coughed, hard.

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

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

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

I’d lose them all.

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

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

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

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

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

The building was rocked a second time.

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

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

If. If.

Ha.

Ha ha ha.

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

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

I couldn’t do this by myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to change course again.

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

No more fighting, just escape.

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

Not everyone was going to make it.

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

I screamed.

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

Like insects, we all scurried to the light.

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

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

Then, I was enveloped in light.

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

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

Crashing, flipping over.

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

Useless, useless, useless.

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

I’m such a mess.

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

I’m no different than her.

“Wendy.”

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

I opened my eyes.

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

Only one person…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re bleeding,” I said.

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

“Are you? Is anyone?”

“I am. So is Tone. But-”

Sarah’s voice broke.

“I’m so sorry about-”

Before she could go any further, I stopped her.

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

Sarah just shook her head, looking down.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh…”

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

“Help me up?” I asked.

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

I felt my body become warmer.

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

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

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

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

It was still freaky.

“Ah. You must be the one called V.”

I looked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or am I wrong?”

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

“You’re not,” I answered.

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

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

I spoke, despite the strain in my voice.

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

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

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

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

It was like we were speaking two different languages.

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

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

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

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

Remus.

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

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

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

“Worked the first time.”

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

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

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

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

Remus… Victor, Vic? The man grinned.

“The pleasure has been all mine, Alma.”

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

“Previous name?”

“Yes, Bluemoon.”

The name hit me like a truck.

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

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

“Familial,” the man said.

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

My eyes widened.

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

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

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

Who is he?

I had my answer.

Remus, Victor, Vic… Solace.

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