The room was dark in the candlelight. Shapes and shadows flickered along the walls, twisting and turning as they changed the rickety beds and broken chairs into monstrous figures. A man lay in one of them, his soft snores blending with gentle sounds of leaves rustling outside and the branches scratching against the sides of the windows. Warm, damp air hung in the space, muffling sound like a blanket, pressing in on the people there.
Alexa took a deep breath, her eyes flickering to the others sitting around her. They were silent, motionless. Their stoic faces were covered by cloth or hats or masks. Worry. Interest. Distrust. Their eyes watched her warily in return.
“Are you ready?”
Alexa turned her focus back toward the red haired man in front of her. His eyes seemed to gleam in the dim light, casting a glow of their own. A fleeting thought crossed her mind, a thought that involved blood and screams. She shifted uncomfortably on the stone floor, resting her blade across her legs as she pushed the thought aside. The cool metal felt almost comforting as she nodded, “Yes, I suppose.”
“Then let’s begin.”
The buildings formed shadowy silhouettes in the darkness, dim light peeping out through windows from hastily lit candles. A few people stood outside, hushed voices kept low to avoid unwanted attention. Alexa remained near the side of one of the dingy structures, her eyes travelling over the others present. She marked out the exposed back of the dark-haired doctor, the waiting side of one next to him. Her fingers twitched for a moment as the back of her neck began to itch.
The worst part was the itching. The sensation of skin bubbling outward over time as the pressure built in the back of her neck. She could feel the soreness of it, the pain as it spread in small jolts down her spine. It was uncomfortable after ten minutes, sore after thirty, aching after an hour. Then the pain began to fade, slowly disappearing. That’s what scared her the most—the possibility of forgetting it was there.
His voice brought her back to herself, floating over the others in lilting tones. Concern. “Are you all right, Alexa?”
She turned her head away from the others and toward him, marking out the pale face, the bruising around his dark eyes. He kept still as she watched him, the motions of a man who didn’t want to frighten a deer. Alexa nodded, “Yes, I was just treated.”
He nodded in return as they fell into an easy silence. Lights blinked on and off in the nearby trees, crickets chirping to each other in the warm night. A breeze stirred the nearby leaves, bringing with it the scents of smoke and forest and blood. Alexa allowed her eyes to close for a moment, trying to block out the feeling of disquiet before she spoke, “You’re not very loud. I appreciate that. Thank you.” She glanced toward him again, noting the way he was watching her. Worry.
“Well I try not to be. You’re welcome.” He gave her a sideways glance, but didn’t press further. That’s what she liked about him—the less questions the better.
There was a pause in the murmur of conversation across from them. The others suddenly broke apart and walked toward them. Curiosity. Their feet crunched against the ground. Wary. Distrust. She marked out the long coat of the masked girl, the way it hid her bony frame, wondering how thick the material was. Her eyes shifted to the other man, black clothes covering him in darkness. He stared back at her, challenging her.
Alexa looked away from him first, flexing her hands as they talked. The voices murmured around her, speaking without meaning anything. She tried to concentrate for a moment before the words slipped away from her again. Feelings trickled through her like a stream, flooding her as she focused on her breathing. In and out. Keep control. One more breath.
Cold fingers were suddenly on her hand, startling her back to the present. Alexa glanced up at the pale face in front of hers, shadowed by the hat he wore. There was a tug around her arm as something smooth slid across it. She looked down, noting the splash of scarlet cloth now tied around her wrist.
“Now…when you wake up tomorrow, just look at that and remember who you are. I’ve washed most of the blood out, so it should be fine.” The man offered her a faint smile, teeth glinting.
Alexa stared at the red scarf, registering exactly what it was. Her heart squeezed as that place within her became temporarily silent. She smiled back at him, “Thank you.”
“Then let’s begin.”
For a moment, there was silence. It settled over the room with the thick air, cloaking bodies and breath and word. It crept through the cracks of the walls and soothed the wind outside, taking away the sounds of voices and steps. For a moment, there was only calm—the glassy surface of a lake before the plunge.
Then there was pain.
The sound of screams filled the room, reverberating along the walls. They sliced through the air and shattered the silence, falling in shards that ripped and tore through the calm night. Make it stop! They continued on and on and on and on as Alexa suddenly realized that she was the one making the sound—she was the one that was screaming. Please! Make it stop!
The pain stabbed through her eyes and nose and mouth, hot needles burning their way through her from the inside and threatening to break her. Stop it! I can’t do this! They pulsed liked water, seared like fire, racing along her body as she slammed herself into the ground, trying to stop it, trying to feel something else. But all she felt was agony. Please!
She grabbed her blade, her hands gripping the hilt. Her breath came in gasps as the torture continued. It was a wave, it was a storm, it was the howling wind that shrieked through the night. It was glass and jagged metal. Stop it! It was impossible and there.
Alexa lunged, her blade coming down against the man’s arm. Bright blood suddenly spattered the ground, falling in fat, red drops. From far off, she heard a clatter, the sound of metal falling to the floor.
She was suddenly on the ground herself. Blood pooled around her, trailing out from her broken body—her blood, not his. The pain was back, sharper than before. Rosie! Stop them! It dug into her, claws tearing at her flesh and pushing through her eyes and tongue as she screamed. Don’t make me say it! Don’t make me!
They crouched in the woods, their bodies remaining motionless as they peered through the green foliage. One pair of green eyes, one pair of red; they tracked the movements of the creature in front of them as it sniffed and paused, then sniffed again. Its ears twitched once as it nibbled on some grass, its lean body creeping forward. A warm wind blew toward the two figures, ruffling the pale fur on the animal’s back.
Without warning, one of the figures darted forward. His body moved in one, fluid motion—the attack of a predator with the certainty of success. He leapt, diving through the air, arms outstretched. There was a muffled sound, the impact of a larger body against a smaller one. The man rolled and then crouched, a small, furred thing wriggling in his hands.
Alexa straightened from her hunched position in the woods, her hand on the hilt of her blade. Hunger. She walked forward, her eyes focused on the man’s back as there was a sharp, cracking noise. She could see the furred creature suddenly fall limp, its body swaying in his hands. Then there was the sound of ripping, tearing. She sniffed and the sharp, metallic scent of blood filled her nostrils. There was the faint, plop of something wet falling onto leaves. Then there were the noises of something being eaten.
She tightened her grip on her sword, still watching his back. A steady patter of blood was now falling to the ground, slicking the leaves around him. She stared for a moment longer before she carefully let go of the hilt of her blade, instead placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. He glanced up at her, red eyes watching her—the look that a wolf gives a fox as it waits for a turn. Blood ran scarlet down his face, coating his hands up to the wrists. What was left of the carcass lay torn and mangled in his one hand.
“We should probably keep moving, Sloan.”
He smiled at her—a smile with no warmth, a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He slowly stood, looming over her as he wiped his mouth off with the back of his bloodied hand. Alexa tensed, the back of her neck itching faintly. They stared at one another for a moment before he finally spoke in a hoarse rasp, “Yes, keep moving. She’ll come out to play soon.”
Alexa gritted her teeth, but didn’t respond; instead, she deliberately turned her back on him, walking through the trees. She ignored the instinct to turn, to draw her sword. She tried to focus on the light dappling her skin and armor as it cast shadows on the ground. Tried to focus on the way the insects hummed steadily in the trees. Tried to focus on the bit of red cloth tied around her wrist. There was a moment’s pause, and then she heard the crunch of leaves behind her as he followed.
“You know it’s true.”
She wanted to shut him out, to keep moving, to keep walking. But as her feet stepped over branches and leaves, as she wound her way through trees and brambles, she knew that she couldn’t run.
It was inside her.
Faces swam in front of her. A pale face and a black face, a flushed face and a dead one. Her eyes were suddenly on the ceiling and then on the wall. They died! I ran! Her fingers scratched at her face, clawing as she screamed and screamed and screamed. I don’t know! I always run!
The flash of a pearl necklace, the strong grip of a woman. She cried and writhed, crushing her fingers into the ground, nails scrabbling across the surface. Anything would be better than this. Anything at all.
The pain continued, a tide that kept coming in with no boat to ride it, with no way to stop it. It choked her and left her gasping, taking away thought and word. I don’t want to be her! There was no Rook. There was no Alexa. There was only the relentless, unstoppable, indescribable torment. It poured through her insides, twisting, ripping, tearing.
Then there was anger. There was rage. There was hate. There was hunger. I will rip out your throat! She flung herself against the floor again and again, trying to push it away, trying to keep in control—but it was still there. Dead men tell no tales. It was all around. It was them and it was her and it was their feelings and her own. You have no idea. No idea at all.
The sounds of screams filled the air, growls and snarls following the sharp, crack of gunshots and the deep thud of metal hitting bodies. Alexa ran past the individual battles, each group enacting their own type of personal drama. One man stabbed another through the gut. A woman fired a shot through a masked person’s skull, causing him to crumple to the ground. Blood, hot bright and red, oozed from beneath the crudely-made armor.
Alexa skidded to a halt on the packed dirt, whirling to the side to avoid the brutal swing of a club. She caught the brief glimpse of a white mask, feral eyes behind it as she leapt backward to keep away from another blow. Then she darted forward, her blade sliding beneath his ribs before she spun away again. The man—if you could call him a man—snarled as he swung again. Alexa felt something wet on her hands, slicking her grip as she knocked his weapon aside, her own blade slicing toward his neck.
There was the feeling of metal connecting with flesh, a sharp tug and then release. The creature stared at her for a moment, scarlet trailing down his throat in a bib before he collapsed to the ground; blank eyes stared upward at the pale sky.
The battles were slowly winding down. Throats were being slit and hearts stabbed as bodies slid into the earth. Alexa allowed herself to relax for a moment, taking a few deep breaths to calm herself. That’s when she heard the snarling.
Her head jerked upward, grip tightening on her blade as she walked down the packed road, following the noise. There was a cry of pain and then growling—Alexa picked up her pace, jogging past the wooden and stone structure of the main building. She pounded the ground with her feet before stopping.
The girl was crouched over one of the creatures that had attacked, her arms elbow deep in his insides. Blood smeared her mouth, dripping down her chin and onto her blouse. She buried her face in the man’s arm, sharp teeth ripping and tearing at the flesh. Curled, brown hair fell in front of her dead eyes, hiding her expression. A strand of gristle hung from her mouth before she slurped it up.
Alexa stared, adrenaline pumping through her for a moment as she remembered how it felt to strip muscle from bone, the way soft fat gave way to harder meat between teeth. She quickly pushed the thought away, taking a few breaths to keep calm. She closed her eyes, allowing nothing to fill her.
She held out one hand, holding onto that feeling like a lifeline—as if it were the only thing there. “Ellie, when was the last time you were treated?”
She was greeted with a snarl as the girl spat at her. Blood fell to the earth and she licked her lips, red tongue flicking up the droplets. She barred her stained teeth at Alexa, fangs standing out amidst the others.
Alexa watched her blue eyes, keeping her hand extended, “It’s okay. You know me.” She took a step forward, “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.” Another step. Calm. Emotionless.
For a moment, Alexa thought the girl was going to run—dart off into the woods. For a moment, she thought that she was going to lose herself entirely. Then Ellie slowly stood, her clawed fingers flexing as droplets fell from her nails. Another step. Alexa placed a hand on the girl’s small shoulders, steering her away from the corpse. “This way. It’s okay.”
It pinned her to the ground as she snarled and writhed. The enemies were all around her, watching, waiting. She would kill them. She would destroy them. She would drink their blood and rip out their eyes and feast on their innards. She would wash her hands with them and in them. She would crunch their bones between her teeth. She screamed.
It slipped through her mind, between what was left of the cracks. It pulled and tugged as she growled and clawed at the person suddenly pinning her to the ground. There was the flash of a gold ring, a crown and a heart. She hissed and spat, body twisting and writhing, trying to escape. She would murder. She would kill. She would slaughter. They would die. They would die. They would die. She screamed.
She felt her body breaking, muscles failing as her eyes blurred. There was only anger and hate and rage left—only the will to survive. She struggled against it as her body contorted. She fought against it as someone said something from far away. Her limbs trembled, her hands shook, her vision faded.