Welcome to the World

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Today is the heyday of social media. Information has never been faster, or more furious. Never has there been a time before when we could receive instant answers and gratification from our “friends” that live hundreds and thousands of miles away. Never before have we been able to simply “unfriend” a person whose opinions we don’t like.

In the past, we had to socialize and learn to get along in person. We kept ourselves to more secluded friend groups that we saw in person every so often. And that’s the important thing—we saw these individuals in person. We recognized them as fellow humans and while we may not have agreed with their opinions, we were at least forced to be polite. And if we weren’t polite or they weren’t polite, it was between us and them instead of the entire world.

These days, there’s no escaping that world. We wind up complaining about our co-workers and fake friends on social media with filters that reach out to hundreds of others in our social circles. Those individuals aren’t real to us. They aren’t our “real” friends. When something happens that we don’t like, we take to Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites, expecting our hundreds, thousands, of “real friends” on Facebook to say “there, there, it’s okay” and to like, love, react to the posts that we put up.

This has filtered into our real lives. We expect to have instant gratification with answers to our questions. We expect immediacy. The world has sped up, and our needs and wants have sped up with it.

And while the world has sped up, we have sheltered ourselves in our own bubbles. We simply block those we don’t like. We shut out what’s happening in the rest of the world, telling ourselves that we’re too delicate or too nervous or too anxious to learn about the bombings occurring overseas or the starving children in Yemen.

We forget what it feels like to have our opinions challenged.

What happens when we forget what that’s like? We wind up with a president who spouts his opinions on social media. If there’s backlash to anything he says—to anything we say—we all lash out and ardently defend ourselves and our opinions and beliefs. The other person is the villain and we are the hero.

And what does this mean for the world? What does it mean when we forget what it’s like to be respectful, to communicate with others, to not scream our opinions into the ether? What does it mean when we instead decide to record every perceived slight and stew on it for days while others validate our opinions?

I don’t have an answer.

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Unfortunate Events

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forest-1950402_960_720Winter was definitely not Alexa’s favorite time of year. Unfortunately for her, Autumn had apparently decided to retire early, crawling back into the ground with decaying leaves and hibernating creatures. This  meant that Winter had come in full force, bringing with in the first flurries of snow and ice on the ground.

Fuck the cold.

The cold didn’t seem to care what Alexa thought. The bitter air bit into her exposed skin, whistling against her forehead as she adjusted a piece of cloth covering the lower half of her face. The last leaves of autumn swirled down around her like patterned gems, covering the dirt road and causing it to blend in within the surrounding forest. A few strands of her pale hair flew outward from beneath her hat as she glanced behind her toward the small settlement she had just left.

Requiem was one of the only safe locations within the mountains—or at least one of the only warm locations. Its roaring fires and solid buildings were safe havens against the bitter winters, far removed from any other settlements. Add this to its twisting, winding paths, and it was no wonder that Requiem had remained isolated from the outside world for so long.

Unfortunately for Alexa, this meant it was one hell of a trip to the next rest stop where she could spend the night. They forgot to consider me when building their little mountaintop bastion. Rude.

She sighed, her breath pluming in front of her. The sun was already beginning to sink, and the cold would soon be almost unbearable as afternoon plunged into evening and then night. She grumbled to herself grumpily, reaffirming her earlier thoughts, “I hate the cold.”

The wind picked up and the branches of the trees rattled more fiercely against one another, as if they were saying: Yeah? Deal with it.

She wrinkled her nose, staring at the nature around her, “Well fuck you, too.”

Nature didn’t respond.

Alexa snorted and continued down the path, her booted feet crunching on the fallen leaves. She’d been hoping to find Mickey in Requiem—no such luck. It looked like she’d be searching for the man a while longer.

Instead, she’d found a town in the midst of their own politics and problems. She’d watched as the denizens of the place made backroom deals and conducted secret baptisms.  When she asked, no one had seen a man that looked as if he could punch through a brick wall and who had tattoos spiraling up his arms. And so Alexa had decided that after a short stay, it was time to head south—blessed south, where it might actually be warmer. Not that I’m worried about him or anything.

Another gust of wind rattled the trees around her, and she picked up her pace slightly. She really didn’t feel like getting caught on the middle of a mountainside after dark—especially in a territory she didn’t know very well and especially with the fucked up types of undead around the area. I’d like to keep my fingers in tact, thank you very much.

Traveling made up its own sort of rhythm. There was the crackle of her boots on leaves. There was the swish-swish sound of her coat hitting her ragged pants, and there was the gentle clink of her blades rattling together. There was even the small shuffle of items in the pouches at her belt.

But what wasn’t part of the rhythm was the sharp snap of a twig from somewhere down the path in front of her.

Alexa paused, listening closely. A snapping twig could be anything from a passing animal to an undead threat to another traveler on the road. Paranoid? Yes, yes she was. But that’s how you kept alive when traveling alone.

She heard another twig snap, followed by crunching leaves. It was definitely someone or something walking. She listened for a bit longer, seeing if the steps stumbled and shuffled or if they were more precise—the steps of the living rather than that of the dead. They didn’t stumble, and she flipped both of her blades into her hands, staring down the path. They could just be travelers, or they could be thieves—or really, both. This was the path from Requiem. She doubted she was going to find any truly good-hearted people on the road.

It took her all of a split second to decide. She quietly turned and left the path, ducking into the wood-line and sliding behind a fallen log. She slowed her breathing, glancing upward as she continued to listen. The footsteps came closer and then paused.

“Hey, did you hear that?” The voice sounded somewhat high-pitched—but male. A second voice responded, lower and gravelly. Probably a retrograde or someone that smoked enough that the Infection couldn’t keep up.

“Hear what? The fucking squirrel?”

“Nah, sounded bigger,” High Voice responded.

“That’s what she said,” said Smoky.

“Shut the fuck up and listen.”

There was silence. Alexa chewed her lower lip as she considered what would happen if she just popped out of her hiding spot. Would it matter? It could be they were just travelers on the road. Maybe I am being overly paranoid. That’s when she heard a muffled snort, as if someone was trying to speak through a gag.

High voice spoke again, “Shut up, puddle jumper. We’re listening.”

There was another muffled sound and then a faint grunt. Alexa imagined that someone had just gotten punched in the stomach. Smoky spoke this time, “He said shut the fuck up, water rat.”

Alexa decided that now was not the time to pop out and say “Hi, I’m Alexa. I’m a Baywalker. Want to be friends?” There were a few more moments of silence, and then High Voice spoke, “Guess it was nothing. Come on.” Their footsteps began once more—several of them. Alexa waited for a moment, and then very slowly poked her head over the edge of the log.

She saw the retreating backs of four individuals. All were bundled against the cold, but she could see at least three of them wore piece-mail armor and weapons. The fourth had his calloused hands tied behind his back with rough rope. His legs were chained together so he could only take small steps instead of running, and he had been apparently stripped of his weapons. Unfortunately for her, she recognized the prisoner’s broad back and muscled arms—his bearded jawline and brown eyes. Goddamnit, Mickey.

She waited for a moment until they had retreated and then stood, her mind whirling. She could follow them until they made camp after dark. Then she could hopefully free Mickey, grab some supplies for him, and then fuck off back to Requiem before heading back to Hayven in a group. She was so caught up in plans that she almost didn’t hear the person behind her.

Leaves crunched and she had just enough time to duck to the side as a fist whistled through the air where her head had been. She spun around, slashing with one of her blades and her opponent jumped backward.

The person was small in stature, wrapped in cloth and rags with tinted goggles over her eyes—a Lascarian by the looks of her. She held a small knife and looked vaguely perturbed that Alexa had managed to get out of the way in time.

Alexa gritted her teeth, not speaking. If she did, she’d probably alert the travelers on the trail—and that was the last thing she wanted. Assuming this whole thing isn’t a trap, that is. She hoped it wasn’t. If it was, she was fucked twelve ways sideways.

The Lascarian hissed and then lunged again. Alexa flicked the knife out of the way with one blade and then struck forward with the other. The Lascarian somehow ducked beneath it, coming within Alexa’s guard and forcing her to step back again to avoid another stab toward her throat.

Unfortunately, that’s when she heard someone approaching behind her. She turned to the side so that they couldn’t catch her unawares and saw a slim man bundled up against the cold. His hair was slicked back beneath a fur hat, and colorful glass beads had been sewn into his clothes. He looked slimy even at a glance—the sort of person that made you want to take a shower after you interacted with them.

He spoke, and Alexa instantly recognized him as High Voice, “Put down your weapons, little girl. We don’t want you to hurt yourself. Let’s just talk.”

Alexa gritted her teeth, “If we’re talking, then why did your attack dog come at me?”

High Voice shrugged, “She thought you were sneaking up on us—honest mistake, as you can imagine. Now how about you go and…”

Alexa heard footsteps and inwardly cursed herself. He’s just buying time. She lunged at High Voice and he stumbled back, raising a knife. She stabbed forward and this time, her blade sunk into a shoulder. He cried out and she jerked the blade backward before sprinting like hell further into the woods. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Adrenaline pumped through her veins and she didn’t bother looking over her shoulder. Her only goal was forward at this point. And that’s exactly when she tripped over—something. She sprawled on the ground, her feet flying out from under her as part of her brain noticed the trip line that had been strung between two trees.

Instantly, two people were on her, slamming her to the ground and forcing ropes around her arms and legs. She screamed, biting one of them in the arm. The tang of metal filled her mouth and the person yelped, jerking their arm back, “Fuck! Did we catch a Lascarian?!”

“Don’t worry. I got ‘er.”

Alexa saw the flash of a knuckled fist heading toward her. There was a sharp pain, and then there was darkness.

New Horizons

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rt54It was a cool autumn day. The sun just peaked over the horizon as light splashed across the waves, reflecting again and again in shades of gold. The tips of the trees on the shore were burnished bronze, the leaves shimmering between shades of crimson and orange and yellow. It was the sort of morning that came only rarely near Old York—the sort of morning that you wished you could capture in your pocket and take out to look at again and again when the usual fog rolled back over the waters and the sky turned from cobalt blue to grey.

Alexa breathed in the morning air, tucking her short blonde hair back beneath the dark hat she was wearing. The small boat rocked beneath her as the man in front of her rowed quietly across the waves. The muscles of his thick arms tensed and relaxed again, moving beneath the tattooed skin. A stubbly beard covered his strong jawline, and his dark eyes focused on something behind her. She knew that he was probably listening for something—but all was quiet in the early morning. Hell, even the birds had finally shut up. Thank fucking saints.

They had flipped a ring to see who got to row. Mickey had lost, so Alexa got to sit while he worked. Normally, she would have teased him. And normally, he would have set down the oars and refused to go any further. And normally, they would have gotten into some kind of contest that would have wound up with at least one of them overboard and soaking wet. But this time, they were quiet.

Alexa raised a hand and, as discussed before they embarked, Mickey very gently placed the oars into the boat, allowing them to glide across the water silently for a few more feet. Water dripped off the wood, puddling in the bottom of the small craft as Alexa’s green eyes remained fixed on the object in front of them.

It was a ship, dark in color with furled sails. It gently bobbed in the water, its anchor weighing it to the bottom. Barnacles coated it near the waterline, and Alexa could see where the engine was likely located on the stern. Mickey put one scarred finger to his lips and then reached out an arm, placing a hand on the port side of the ship to prevent their boat from knocking into it.

The problem with ships was that they were pretty high up from the water line. Fortunately, there was the anchor line. Alexa grabbed the thick chain as Mickey began the climb, curling his legs around it to pull himself upward toward the ship. They had decided he would go first for a few different reasons—mostly that he wouldn’t have to scramble for a weapon when he boarded. He was simply better at punching people than Alexa was—and also more familiar with ship-to-ship combat. That, and Mickey was heavier. Alexa could keep the chain from rattling as he boarded and then follow after.

As Mickey climbed upward and she kept the chain steady, Alexa glanced at the weapons at her belt to make sure that they were secure. Knife? Swords? Drugs? Check, check, and check. She held the chain as Mickey boarded, and then quickly began the climb herself. The metal dug into her palms, scraping against her callouses as she swarmed upward. Her ab muscles strained as she turned herself over when she reached the top, then dragged herself over the side and slid onto the ship.

Mickey was already standing, arms up, brass knuckles glinting hard on his hands. Alexa unsheathed one blade and then the other from her belt, glancing around. It was obviously a cargo ship. Barrels and crates were piled high on deck and likely in the hold below. It was strangely quiet on deck—which wasn’t all that surprising. The two of them had made sure that an extra barrel of hooch “accidentally” wound up in the hands of the crewmembers last night. Most of them would be sleeping in or nursing a headache. (Mickey had said it was overcomplicated, but Alexa was paranoid. And besides, they’d only be out some hooch if they didn’t drink it).

Mickey jerked his head toward the ship cabin and Alexa nodded, moving forward. She eased open the metal door and stepped inside, quietly moving down the stairs. Everything seemed to echo, but she hoped that the noise they made was something that the crew would be used to—or that she was just being hypersensitive. For the moment, no one seemed to give a shit. Whether it was because the crew was hungover or just lazy—it didn’t matter.

They went straight toward the captain’s cabin. Mickey had gone over the general layout of the ship with her beforehand. Useful that he was a ship’s engineer. They checked the door and then swung it open.

The room was small and cramped, but relatively clean. A bottle was set on a small table on one side of the room. A few pictures hung along the walls—papers clearly drawn by a child’s hand. He probably had a son or daughter waiting at home. A tiny bed was shoved against one corner. It clearly belonged to a captain who wasn’t the richest man in the world, but made do.

The captain himself had just begun to sit up in bed. He was about thirty or so with a dark, scruffy beard and bleary eyes. He was heavier set—obviously a Yorker with his broader face, “What the f…”

Before he could say anything more, Alexa surged forward, punching him once in the wind pipe with the hilt of her blade. The man made a strangled, choking noise, one hand scrambling toward his pillow. Mickey followed after and simply grabbed the man’s arm, pinning it to one side.

“None of that now,” Mickey reached beneath the pillow and pulled out a gun, throwing it across the room casually. The captain’s eyes followed it before staring toward Mickey. The eyes then narrowed as recognition flickered across his features.

Alexa grinned. She knew her grin unsettled people—something about the eyes, apparently. Either way, it was useful, “So we tried to pay you to get passage on your ship…you remember us, right? The two from Hayven? You stopped in our port briefly.”

The man grimaced and looked like he was about to talk, but Mickey raised one hand and he fell silent. Alexa continued, “So we offered to pay more. And when that didn’t work and you called us…what was it, Mickey?”

“Oh, I think it was ‘filthy pocket fuckers.’”

“Yeah, that. And you said you wouldn’t let us on your ship for any price. Now, we’re a smart bunch. Normally we’d just get another ship. Unfortunately, you’re the last ship that was going anywhere near Hayven, so we had to improvise.”

Mickey leaned forward, “So this is what’re yer gonna do, Rust Monkey. Yer gonna get tied up here and we’re gonna have yer crew sail the ship. Anyone who says otherwise gets killed real quick. If you don’t do as we ask? We kill you. If you tell your crew to rebel, we kill you and them. And if you try anything stupid. We kill you. Understand?”

The captain stared at them for a moment and then croaked, “But this is my ship.”

Alexa grinned widely as Mickey spoke, “You mean our ship.”

~

Alexa glanced out onto the waves as the sun faded from the sky. The plan was to stick around the coast and then eventually come into the port once everyone returned to Hayven from Devil’s Den. The Yorkers would be a few weeks late on their shipping—but that was about it. And after they’d killed the first crewmember, the rest had pretty much fallen in line. No one wanted to come out of Hayven’s morgue right now.

She heard footsteps behind her and her hand quickly went to the hilt of her blade. She glanced behind only to see Mickey, who cautiously stepped beside her and looked toward the shore with her. He was wearing his armor, thick black plates shifting over one another. His kilt was a dark green in the fading light. He didn’t look at her, but instead stared at the shore.

Their relationship was far from romantic. Shit. She was pretty sure that one of them will kill the other one day. And love was pretty much off the table. You needed to love yourself before you could love someone else—at least that’s what most people told her. And Alexa was pretty sure they both hated themselves equally. But they worked well together—so it was a relationship of convenience if nothing else.

Mickey spoke, his voice soft, “It’s glowing.”

Alexa turned to look back at the shore. From here, they could barely see where Hayven was—the wooden structures mostly covered by trees. She squinted for a moment before her green eyes widened and she responded, “No…it’s burning.”

Acceptance

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Dark Room

It was almost silent in the tent. All you could hear were the pained gasps coming from the prone man in the middle of the floor, breath wheezing as the knife carved into him again and again. There was a faint groan, a sigh, and then a menacing voice.

“Where is he? How long have you been here?”

There was more silence, and then a faint chuckle escaped the man’s lips, burbling with the blood that coated his teeth. He shifted slightly, his legs twisting unnaturally as a broken bone popped out of the skin, “You…will never find him…” His breath wheezed again as he tried to keep from showing weakness. “You will never…”

Suddenly, there was the sound of something metal slamming down onto the ground, and something popping painfully. The man screamed and writhed as Alexa watched the torture. It’s necessary. They took Remmy. They took him, and they’ve infiltrated our ranks. Besides, he deserves it.

They had found a plant—someone who had taken Remmy’s face and had been spying on the town. He had managed to take down an entire room of gang leaders—or at least tried. Though if he really wished to succeed, why didn’t he wait until we were all alone? Why didn’t he pick us off one by one? Unless they expected other plants in that room. Unless they thought that other gang leaders would have died and been present…

Alexa pushed a pale strand of hair away from her face, feeling her features lock into the stony façade she was becoming so used to. I’m so tired of not knowing the truth. I’m so tired of this bullshit. Her eyes drifted toward the two others in the tent beside the plant: Sparrow and Smiles.

Sparrow’s face was locked into something vicious; his warped features twisted by peeling skin and exposed muscle. His dark coat made him all but invisible in the night as he reached for another tool—another way to torture. Smiles sat quietly nearby, her knife raised in case the plant tried to escape. The faint glint of glasses hidden behind her black mask flashed in the gloom as her small form shifted slightly.

Alexa gritted her teeth slightly, jerking her head into the night behind her, “The others want to talk to him. Finish what you’re going to finish, and let the others take him.”

Sparrow glanced toward Alexa briefly, his voice rumbling low, “You might want to be careful with that.” He reached toward the man on the ground, his fingers twisting in something. The plant gasped, crying out briefly. Sparrow spoke again, his voice quieter this time, “Very careful.”

Alexa watched for a moment, eyes scanning what she could see of Sparrow’s face, “I know.”

Sparrow shoved the man toward the entrance of the tent—a ragged sack of meat and bones and bloody cloth that fell into Alexa’s arms. She dragged him out, turning as dark figures approached across the open field surrounded by trees.

“Give him to me.” The voice was stern and rough, belonging to a Yorker with hunched shoulders, grey beard and hair, scars, and a ratty shirt. Alexa watched the old man for a moment before pushing the plant toward him. Chuck will get what’s needed.

Chuck grabbed the man hard, his mouth snarling as he shoved his hand into an open wound in the man’s back. The man screamed, jerking spasmodically as Chuck shouted, “Where is he?!”

“You’ll…”

“Where is he?!”

“He’s….with…”

“Where is he?!”

The man screamed again and then let out a low whimper, body still jerking, “He’s…Shambletown. He’s near…”

Chuck stared at the man for a moment and then shoved him to the ground in disgust. He glanced to the others with him, jerking his head toward one end of the field, “Let’s move.”

Alexa merely stood as the others walked away, her eyes fixed on the body before her. The man was shaking slightly, trying his best to crawl away despite his wounds—despite the fact that he was tied up. Alexa grabbed his arm and roughly jerked him to his feet, eyes flickering over his bloodied, mangled features. I wonder how long he’s been here. She set her mouth into a thin line. You could have made allies with the enemy rather than with a friend, Alexa.

Stars silvered the field in front of her, turning darkness into faint light. A cool wind blew through the branches of the surrounding trees as she started dragging him, following the others. He needed to be put somewhere safe for the time being.

His voice rasped out at her, hoarse from screaming, “Alexa, you’ve become what you…always hated, you know.”

She ignored him, continuing to drag him forward. Still as stone. Don’t listen. He just wanted to get a rise out of her anyway—probably wanted her to kill him.

“You’ve become what they trained you to be. Puppet of House. Puppet of Dantes. Puppet of Barnes. Puppet of…”

Still as stone. Alexa waited for that twist in her gut—that moment where she felt sick to think of what she’d done. Her brow furrowed as she continued forward. I do hate being a puppet—he has that right.

“You have become the perfect killer—just like they wanted.”

Alexa paused for a moment, glancing to the man she was dragging. A faint smile was on his face; he knew how to push the right buttons. He knew she would react. And shouldn’t I? She waited for that feeling—that tugging bit of conscience. She waited for the guilt. She waited for any type of feeling at all.

And then she slowly realized that it wasn’t going to come.

She looked down at him and murmured three words, “I don’t care.”

~

“Sometimes you have to embrace what you are. And I think I have finally found peace with myself—for good or ill.”

End Game

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Photo: Flickr/Cristian Bodnar

Photo: Flickr/Cristian Bodnar

“You gotta figure out why it is you do this.”

“Well why do you do it?”

“Well at first it was the fucked up need to make things better. And then it was to protect someone I loved. ‘Course, that didn’t work out too good—as y’all know.”

“Yeah, I was there for that show.”

“So what’s your reason?”

“…I guess it’s the need to help.”

“Why?”

“Because if it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t care about the reasons or the repercussions. I’d just do it. But I do actually care what happens.

“…Conscience is a bitch, ain’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

~

There are nights when it is quiet in the town of Hayven. All you can hear is the whisper of leaves scuttling against the ground, the creak of branches and the chirp of insects. Your footsteps sound loudly in your ears as you walk down dirt roads; your only companions are the silver light of the stars and moon.

Alexa enjoyed those nights—the ones when she traveled alone in the darkness. Her heart would beat rapidly in her chest—not from fear, never from fear—but from the sheer exhilaration of relying on and caring for herself and no one else.

Tonight, though, was definitely not one of those nights.

Cries and shouts echoed through the darkness as Alexa walked down road. She kept the wrapped hilt of each of her thin blades gripped firmly in either hand, the worn leather rubbing against her palms. She was hunting—hunting for those that had gone through the grave and hadn’t come out quite right. She was hunting for those that could ruin the efforts of the town by killing. Unfortunately, she was sure she didn’t have the complete list of names. Just means you need to be more careful. Always be on your guard, Alexa.

Moonlight silvered the buildings and roads, creating an alien world as bulky shapes loomed in the darkness. A cool wind twisted her pale hair in front of her face, catching it before tossing it aside as she moved through the night. Quick. Quiet. She jogged down the side of the main road, turning off into the woods as she leapt over logs and branches. Green eyes darted around her as she looked for anyone hiding in the dark. Nothing.

As she exited the woods toward one of the smaller buildings, she saw him. He was a giant of a man with sword and shield at the ready. His stance seemed at once aggressive and unsure, as if he were afraid. Alexa glanced briefly toward the building—the Kennel—and then slowly took one step toward him, calling out quietly, “Stew?”

He cringed in response, his voice rumbling low and almost desperate, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Go away, Alexa. Please.”

Alexa frowned faintly, watching him and remaining still as if afraid of startling a timid animal. I thought there was something wrong at the morgue but…

She took another step toward him and he flinched, backing away. Alexa paused again and slowly placed her swords away. You should have questioned him when you saw him last. You should have stayed with him instead of letting him drive you away.

Briefly, his words echoed in her head as she remembered the way his hard eyes glittered in the dark. Go away, Alexa. You can’t help me.

She swallowed and then spoke calmly, “Stew, what’s wrong? Talk to me.” She watched as his back straightened, muscles shifting beneath his armor—tensing. His face remained shadowed in the night as he lowered it. As if he wants to hide it.

“I shouldn’t have…I shouldn’t have said what I did. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” his voice faded to a whisper as he turned away. “Don’t lower your guard around me, Alexa…please.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly, feeling her chest tighten. Still trying to be the protector—even after what I said to him. She took a slow step forward, holding up one hand, “It’s okay, Stew.” She took another step toward him as he crouched to the ground, clutching his head between his hands. He rocked slightly and she could hear him whispering over and over, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Alexa grimaced and then crouched down next to him, holding one hand out, “What are you sorry about?”

“You were right. I don’t deserve you. You don’t love me—how could you? You…Don’t look at me, Alexa.”

She forced herself to keep her eyes trained on his face, hiding what she was feeling. You stabbed him in the back—deeper than any other before him. Selfish? Yes. Harsh? Entirely. But you knew that about yourself already. You’re afraid—and that’s what ultimately controls you.

Her voice dropped slightly as she responded, “Just because I’m not with you doesn’t mean I don’t love you, Stew. I always will. I just won’t be with you.” She reached forward and grabbed his hand, gently holding it for a moment. “Come talk with someone, please. You’re not alone. And you deserve so, so much better. You always do what’s right. You always stand up against the wrongs. You’re a good person. Do you know how rare that is?”

He shook his head slightly, lowering it further, “I’m not.”

“You are. Will you at least come with me to talk with someone? Please?”

He was silent for a moment and then looked up at her, eyes glittering faintly in the darkness, “All right.”

~

The woman’s face was shadowed in the dark. Her long brown hair fell wild around her shoulders, partially concealing a face with markings etched on it. It was the kind of face that reminded you of water—smooth and calm until the storm hit. And then it could transform into something ugly—something horrific and terrible.

Alexa stared at her, unblinking—not quite believing who she was seeing. The woman’s voice sounded out in the darkness as they stood on the dirt road concealed by the ever-present trees that whispered in the night, “Do you remember who I am?”

Quite frankly, she didn’t—not really. She had a few guesses, but they were far from anything close to being accurate. This woman—whoever she was—could be anyone. There was only one fact Alexa was certain of: she was a killer.

Alexa shook her head briefly, glancing to the tall man standing beside her—Stew. He had his shield and weapon, his eyes trained on the surrounding trees. His muscles tensed as he tightened his grip, teeth barred slightly. Hunting. She recognized the look from him—the look of a predator. He’s deciding whether or not the woman is prey. He’ll soon realize she’s not.

They’d been walking in the woods for about half an hour. Though “walking” was used in the loosest sense of the word. It was more than Alexa had been chasing after Stew, making sure he didn’t kill anyone offhand while “hunting.” Fucking Gravemind. Messing with people’s heads. She’d kept him in check so far, but she didn’t want to test her luck. There’s only so much I can do to control a killer.

Stew’s voice rumbled from the darkness as his eyes continued to train on the woman, “What do you think, Alexa?”

Alexa didn’t bother looking at him. Instead, she pushed a few pale strands of hair away from her green eyes, “Predator. I wouldn’t bother.”

Stew snorted in response, his eyes drifting elsewhere. Still hunting. Alexa prevented herself from cringing. Never show weakness around a predator. Ever. That was one of the rules—eat or be eaten.

The woman tilted her head to one side slightly, long hair brushing the side of her face as she considered the tall man in front of her. A faint smile quirked the corner of her mouth, “I like this one.”

Great. Love among murderers. Alexa tilted her head toward the woods, “Why are you here, anyway?”

The woman turned once more, training her eyes on Alexa—eyes that considered her and went through her, “Walk with me.”

~

“You need to stop playing these fucking games. Just do the work.”

“I’ve learned my lesson. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m going to do.”

“Good.”

Resurrection

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Photo by: Flickr/Kathy

Photo by: Flickr/Kathy

The morgue was cold at this time of night. The darkness had leached away any sort of warmth the winter sun had given it that day, chilling the bones of the earth and frosting the ground with ice. Heavy beams crisscrossed overhead, the dark wood sturdy and unyielding. The cracked bar could be seen as a dark shape in one corner of the room, empty bottles stacked on its surface.

Alexa shivered, wrapping her arms around herself as she tucked her head more firmly into the scarf wrapped around her face. She had come to this place to do something that was either insanely stupid or simply practical—she hadn’t decided which. What she had decided, though, was that she would survive it.

Her green eyes flickered to the others around her. Aladdin was standing with House, clearly nervous as he shifted his weight from side to side. Dark hair hung in front of his angular face, eyes shifting from one location to another. His colorful scarves were muted by the gloom, reds and pinks turning into browns. Bastion stood nearby, her short hair covered by a hood as her impossibly blue eyes stared seriously forward. She had left her shield and weapon behind; apparently, she didn’t think she needed them. Alexa bit her lower lip, placing a hand on the hilts of her sheathed blades.

House moved forward, a wide hood obscuring most of her face as she spoke in her calm, monotone voice, “Are you ready? Anything else you wish to say?

Alexa glanced to the others. They remained silent, and then she nodded, “Ready as I’ll ever be. We’re going to make it out. We’re going to be fine.” It felt like a bird was fluttering in her chest, making her lightheaded as she watched House’s solemn expression, set with eyes the color of the ocean. The Graverobber nodded once to her words in response and then turned toward the stone steps that led further into the morgue—further into death.

~

Dying is uncomfortable; not painful—uncomfortable. It’s the feeling of your body going cold as your nerve endings die—like when your leg falls asleep. Everything feels heavier. Everything is harder to move.

You suddenly realize you’re not breathing. You remind yourself to take another breath and suck in another lungful of air.  That’s when you notice that the sounds around you have become softer—fuzzier. People say things and you can’t understand them. You’re not breathing again—it’s too hard. The edges of your vision go dark. All you can see is what’s in front of you—and then it’s suddenly too hard to keep your eyes open.

Everything goes dark.

And then your heart stops.

Why can’t they see?

There was nothing in the ground—just darkness. Voices floated. Voices murmured. Voices said everything and nothing. Alexa opened her mouth—no, that wasn’t right. She didn’t have a mouth, did she? Was she thinking the words she spoke? Did it matter?

“Bastion? Aladdin?”

Why can’t they see?

There was no response. Panic gripped her momentarily and then she heard Bastion’s voice. Voice? Or thoughts? Which is it when you’re in the Gravemind?

“I’m here.”

Why can’t they see?

“Aladdin? Are you there? Aladdin? Aladdin, respond…please.”

His response came slowly, reluctantly, “…Here.”

Why can’t they see, Graverobber? Why can’t they see?

What was there to see? The truth? I’ve been wearing the mask for so long…no. Treat it like a puzzle, Alexa. Treat it like a problem that needs to be solved—and solve it.

Why can’t you see?

~

“Miss Rook….”

“I’m a monster.”

“Killer. Manipulator.”

“I’ve always run away. Mickey was right. I always run.”

“…Murderer.”

“I’m…”

Silence.

~

The first breath she took made her feel giddy. Air rushed into her lungs and if she had had breath enough, she would have laughed. She looked out into darkness, feeling her heart beat, feeling blood rush through her veins, feeling alive. She blinked back tears and glanced nervously upward toward the entrance of the morgue. Dim light filtered downward. The other two had already made it out; she was the only one left—but she was alive.

Alexa took another breath and walked slowly out of the morgue, stumbling. She had seen what lay beneath the mask. She had seen the truth; she had lifted the blindfold and saw what she had been running from all this time. In the end, it was nothing to run from at all. Alexa smiled.

It was time to stop being afraid.

~

“Are you done running?”

“Yes.”

What she didn’t tell him was that she had finally found a reason to stay.

Frozen

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Photo By: Flickr/LadyDragonflyCC

Photo By: Flickr/LadyDragonflyCC

“I know that it’s not much, but I wanted to apologize again.”

“Sure.”

“I treated you like an asshole. I know.”

“Yeah, you did. You made it perfectly clear at X-Mas that you didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

“I was giving you a way out.”

“A way out? Fuck you. You weren’t giving me a way out. You were giving yourself a way out. You wanted to put this on me instead of you—fuck you. You were doing what you always do—run.”

“…Well I’m not running now.”

“Yeah, we’ll see about that.”

~

Alexa stood outside the building, staring at nothing in particular as snow whirled around her. It caught on her clothing, speckling her dark coat with white flakes and blending with her pale hair. She scanned the small, huddled buildings across from her and then glanced down a snowy slope to where men and women played some sort of game. Their laughter and shouts filtered toward her—she looked, but she didn’t see.

Everyone makes a big deal about fire—but it’s ice they should worry about. Ice can burn if it’s cold enough. And ice can lock away secrets in a vault harder than steel when the temperatures drop.

She felt sick to her stomach, her gut twisting as she swallowed hard. It was her fault, she knew. She pushed people away. She always had—maybe always would. But when I finally realized I didn’t want that…well, it’s a pity it’s too late. Her fingers clenched as more laughter sounded up from down the hill. His words echoed in her mind, a reverberation that sounded over and over and over again like some sort of sick mantra: You died for Barnes. You fucking throw your life away, and all I ever wanted was not for you to die for me—but to live with me.

Alexa turned to look away from the people playing in the snow, her breath shaky as she slowly felt her fingers and toes become numb. In a few moments, her arms and legs would follow, and then it would turn from numbness to pain. She closed her eyes briefly, fighting back the urge to scream. Stew left. Mickey doesn’t want anything to do with you. You’re used like a tool by everyone else. And you were stupid enough to not wake up to it until now. You allowed it to happen.

You’re an idiot, Alexa. A fucking idiot.

She opened her eyes again, watching her breath puff in front of her face—white in a white world. She wasn’t sure why she’d even come here to the Grove—to the small town north of Hayven. Perhaps she was seeking some kind of solace before going into the Grave. Perhaps she was trying to find answers. Who knew.

Her eyes blurred slightly and she glanced downward, blinking rapidly. He was the one that always had my back. He was the one that helped—and I was too ignorant to see. Quickly, she passed the back of her hand in front of her eyes. She took a steadying breath before breathing out two words to herself, “Fuck him.”

She didn’t need Mickey. She didn’t need Stew. She didn’t need D.O.C. or Barnes. She didn’t need their approval.

“Fuck them.”

She gritted her teeth slightly, her lips hardening into a thin line. She was done being a tool—done being a knife and a sword. She was done molding herself to others’ expectations. She was done with it all.

If they hate me, that’s fine. I’m done seeking fucking approval for what I do. I’m done being a fucking implement. I’m a fucking person—and I’m going to live on my fucking terms. I’ll take what’s mine. And lord help whoever or whatever stands in my way. It’s my turn.

The snow continued to swirl around her as she walked down the slope, her boots making small footprints behind her. She didn’t feel the cold now; she was used to it.

~

I never lied to you. And now? My only regret is that I didn’t wake up until you were long gone.