085 – Last Laugh

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

“I’ve heard that name.”

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

“If.”

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiousness.

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

Remus answered, “I did. It’s… yeah.”

I glanced back. “Yeah what?”

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

“Seriously?”

I heard Remus cough. It echoed.

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

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

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

I did comment, though.

“That is so lame,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“V, can’t see.”

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

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

I turned back to address Remus.

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

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

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

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

“I guess you have a point there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kept talking.

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

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

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

“You balance each other out,” Isabella said.

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

Touché,” Remus said.

I paused for a moment, mulling over his words.

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

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

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

“How so?” I asked.

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

“Thanks, I guess.”

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

“Not now,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No worries, I do understand.”

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

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

“So it does,” Remus said.

“Do you know which way it is?”

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

“So, left?”

“That’s a good guess.”

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

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

“If.”

I smiled at the humor of that.

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

“Stop.”

I did as I was told.

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

I approached him. “What is it?”

Remus gestured. “This is it.”

“Here?”

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

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

I kicked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smells funny in here,” Isabella said.

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

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

“So what does that mean for us?”

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

“Risky,” Isabella said.

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

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

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

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

Fuck me, none of this felt real.

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

“I’ll do what I can. Go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you’ll know, believe me.”

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

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

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

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

“You good?”

I glanced to my side.

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

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

“You’re limping.”

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

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

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

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

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

Open, untainted air. I was back outside.

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“So clumsy,” Isabella commented.

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

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

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

I saw everything and everyone.

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

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

A hole.

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

Among them, Alessa had to be there. Somewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I’m praying this works.”

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

I wasn’t sure either.

We waited for some time.

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

“Just give it some more time.”

“We don’t have that.”

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

“About that Remus guy…” Isabella started.

“What about him?”

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

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

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

I turned to Isabella.

“How-”

A low rumble, deep.

And then the whole building started to shake.

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

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

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

I threw the glass panel open.

“Get out of here!” I yelled.

No thinking, just act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I coughed, hard.

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

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

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

I’d lose them all.

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

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

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

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

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

The building was rocked a second time.

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

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

If. If.

Ha.

Ha ha ha.

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

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

I couldn’t do this by myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to change course again.

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

No more fighting, just escape.

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

Not everyone was going to make it.

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

I screamed.

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

Like insects, we all scurried to the light.

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

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

Then, I was enveloped in light.

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

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

Crashing, flipping over.

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

Useless, useless, useless.

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

I’m such a mess.

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

I’m no different than her.

“Wendy.”

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

I opened my eyes.

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

Only one person…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re bleeding,” I said.

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

“Are you? Is anyone?”

“I am. So is Tone. But-”

Sarah’s voice broke.

“I’m so sorry about-”

Before she could go any further, I stopped her.

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

Sarah just shook her head, looking down.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh…”

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

“Help me up?” I asked.

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

I felt my body become warmer.

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

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

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

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

It was still freaky.

“Ah. You must be the one called V.”

I looked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or am I wrong?”

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

“You’re not,” I answered.

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

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

I spoke, despite the strain in my voice.

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

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

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

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

It was like we were speaking two different languages.

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

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

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

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

Remus.

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

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

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

“Worked the first time.”

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

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

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

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

Remus… Victor, Vic? The man grinned.

“The pleasure has been all mine, Alma.”

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

“Previous name?”

“Yes, Bluemoon.”

The name hit me like a truck.

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

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

“Familial,” the man said.

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

My eyes widened.

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

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

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

Who is he?

I had my answer.

Remus, Victor, Vic… Solace.

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084 – Indigo Thread

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

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

Who hasn’t, by this point?

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

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

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

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

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

“You can call me Remus,” he said.

“Remus?”

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

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

The man paused. Was that supposed to mean something?

The man, Remus, answered.

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

My eyes widened.

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

The message. The coordinates.

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

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

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

“That’s what I implied.”

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do be careful.”

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

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

“That’s the best I can do.”

“Then stay still.”

Several hard heartbeats passed.

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

No more mistakes. Couldn’t afford them.

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

Ah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked, just to make sure.

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

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

I lifted an eyebrow.

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

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

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

“Thank you, I’m going to need it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he alive?” I asked, concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” I said, but he didn’t respond.

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

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

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

“What is that?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Just who are you, exactly?

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

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

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

Like Isabella. Again.

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

My voice and throat were getting scratchy. Dry.

Again?

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

“Where exactly is this leader?”

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

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

It wasn’t perfect, but it was something.

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

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

“How far is the fort?”

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

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

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

“Could be worth it.”

“I don’t disagree.”

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

I had to steer this back to her.

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

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

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

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

Remus stopped and turned. I stopped too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There aren’t any stairs in here!”

“Funny, you think that’s a problem.”

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

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

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

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

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

The hell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You really are crazy.”

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

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

Remus heard them too.

“Dammit!”

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

Ugh.

We didn’t have the luxury for this.

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

I laughed, he sounded funny.

I followed right behind him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sent a text out to Sarah’s phone.

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

We’d be screwed, otherwise.

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

“We have to get a car,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Okay. I will, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

I put my hands on the door.

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

“Christ!”

Remus ran around the truck to meet me.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then make it fast!”

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

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

Isabella, too.

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

I looked, and that someone was Isabella.

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

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

I went back to looking out for others.

“How is it?” I yelled.

Remus answered.

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

Good thing I am, then.

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

“Hurry!” I yelled.

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

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

“They’re here.”

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

They shot at us as we made our escape.

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

More cracks.

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

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

It was good.

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

“Up ahead.”

My eyes followed Isabella’s warning.

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

I got up, bringing the metal door with me.

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice hit.”

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

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

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

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

What happened next would be no laughing matter.

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

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

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

“It was?” I questioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They do. The Organization of Order.”

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

It almost made me laugh. Almost.

But, I did consider his answer.

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

A noticeable lull in the conversation.

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

“Fair enough,” Isabella said.

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

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

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

That felt so long ago, already.

I blinked, feeling my eyes stinging. So tired.

I could feel myself melting away in the sun.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are we stopping?” I asked.

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

I tilted my head.

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

I looked back up. “Really?”

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

“Should?”

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

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

“This better work,” I said.

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

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

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

Remus commented as I worked.

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

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

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

Remus gave me a look.

“You all ready?” he asked.

Isabella and I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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