–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…
–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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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-”
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 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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
The heavy piece. A sizable handgun. Alessa wanted me to kill him.
Crystal clear, but I didn’t like picture given to me.
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.