Monthly Archives: August 2013

White and Black

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The night was still as the insects hushed their constant chatter, as the wind ceased its stirring, as the trees and the grass and the leaves stopped their rustling. There was only the starlight twinkling off small droplets of water, dripping off limbs and stems, flashing in the gloom. There was only the smell of damp and forest and pine. There was only the night.

“Talk to me.”

Two figures huddled together: one white, one black. They sat beneath the stars and the moon, their bodies resting next to one another on the wooden stairs. Dim light filtered out from a window, casting their faces in a golden glow, catching the glint of tears. Voices murmured to one another, rising and falling by turns, twining with one another in the stillness of the dark.

“Please. Don’t close me out again.”

Alexa turn to look at the woman, noting the glittering eyes, the pale face framed by dark curls, the worried brow. Her eyes drifted outward, toward the woods and the lake, toward the houses still wrapped with fog.

“Alexa, please. Talk to me.”

What was there to say? They had lost him—to darkness, to night. He had disappeared like mist in the morning sun. Alexa exhaled, her breath stirring the pale strands of hair that fell in front of her face. They had failed—she had failed.

You should have killed him when you had the chance.

She turned her face toward the woman next to her once more, twining her own hands together on her lap, “I’m sorry, Rosemary. It’s just that there’s nothing to say. He’s gone now and…” she paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts, wondering how to phrase it. “We’ll have to deal with it.”

Rosemary looked back at her, emotions flickering across her face by turns: concern, sadness, worry, “But how do you feel?”

Alexa looked down at her hands, noting the blood still ingrained beneath her nails. She quickly curled her fingers into fists. One more breath.

Her wide brown eyes stared back at her—accusing, in pain. Tangled hair hung about her face, wild and tousled, “Don’t you understand? I took your place.”

How can I tell her how I feel when there is nothing to say?

Rosemary leaned forward, hands twining with Alexa’s on her lap. They remained silent for the moment, their breath mingling in the night air. Then Alexa spoke, her voice murmuring faintly, “I should be asking you the same question. I wasn’t the only one in there.”

Sharp eyes greeted her own, blue ice hardening beneath the surface, “No, you’re not allowed to do that, we’re talking about you.”

How can I tell her?

Alexa remained motionless for a moment, wondering what words she should utter—wondering what Rosemary expected her to feel. She stared inward and outward, eyes seeing everything and nothing as she felt the rise and fall of her chest, the feel of her breathing. Elizabeth was innocent—blameless and tortured. She had taken her place—their place. And now she was dead.

What can I say when I feel nothing?

“I…” Alexa paused for a moment as Rosemary’s head rose expectantly, waiting for her to continue speaking, waiting for her to say something worthwhile. “…She took our place. She shouldn’t have.”

Rosemary nodded, her eyes fixed on Alexa’s face, “I know. We left her behind, but we didn’t think.”

Alexa remained silent for a moment as Rosemary’s hand reached up to stroke her hair. She felt fingers gently gliding through the strands, combing out the knots. Nails brushed against her scalp. The truth was she felt numb, unable to think of what would happen, unable to think of what they should do. She was trapped and he was loose. You let him escape.

Thoughts took her back to the room, back to the darkness. She closed her eyes, trying to focus on Rosemary’s hand on her head. Instead, words filtered through her mind—words from the grave.

I need you, Rook.

Alexa abruptly opened her eyes, “Rosemary, I do want to talk to you about what she said…about being able to bring back…well, you know that she probably lied, right?”

The fingers stopped their course, the hand falling away quickly. Alexa glanced toward the woman beside her, noting the pained expression on her face, the way her mouth quickly formed into a thin line as she stared toward the lake and the trees. There was silence for a moment–and the feeling of ice before it breaks.

“You don’t know, Alexa. You have no idea what it’s like. I feel…nothing.”

They sat next to one another, emotions filtering past and through her. And yet there was emptiness within her, a hole that could not be filled.

Alexa looked back at her, “I know.”

Rosemary shook her head, her voice quivering slightly, “You don’t. You don’t even want a child. How can you know? I would do anything to bring my baby back…anything. Do you understand? Anything.”

“That’s what worries me. You can’t do ‘anything’. I know it’s been…hard, but you have to move forward.”

“I can’t. I can’t give up hope. If there is any way to bring her back…” Rosemary’s voice broke, her eyes glittering. Alexa leaned forward, placing one hand around her shoulders.

The woman in white leaned forward, tears coursing down her cheeks as she hugged the woman in black. They remained there, figures on the stairs—unable to move forward, unable to move back. Their voices rose and fell in the darkness, murmurs that were hushed only by the interspersed quiet sobs.

We cannot know when we will die. We cannot know what trials we will face. The one thing we do know is that the light cannot exist without the dark, and death cannot exist without life. We need one another: that is what we know.

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Survivors

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Shadows from overhead branches shifted in the gloom, cloaking her form in darkness as she leaned against the tree. Rough bark dug into her back, brushing her skin through cloth. She could smell the dampness of the leaves and bushes around her, the earthy scent of forest and new growth. A faint wind brushed her cheek, tickling the hair on the back of her neck as she stared upward toward the twinkling stars.

There was a flash, the hint of light as one star suddenly streaked across the sky. It sped past its fellows, a brilliant fire before it burned out, fading into the night itself. Alexa watched for a moment, allowing her eyes to settle on the place it disappeared, the place where the light vanished. Then she turned her gaze back down to the earth and the trees. She did what she had to in order to survive. She did what she had to in order to live another day.

But could she live with herself?

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People milled about her, the clink of weapons and armor echoing through the room. Floorboards creaked as the group shuffled and organized, forming a half-ready mob of people. Alexa looked them over, eyeing each face in turn; there were some new ones and there were some old ones. They would have to serve.

“Meet me outside when you’re ready! Quickly, please. We don’t have a lot of time.” Alexa gestured for them to step through the front doors of the building, watching each pass her by in turn. There was a man with a sword and shield, another one with a blunt club. A third had several guns strapped along his body. She hoped that they would be enough, hoped that they weren’t walking to their deaths.

That’s when she noticed the pale dress of a woman outside through one of the grimy windows; dark curls spilled across her shoulders, pearls strung across her white throat. Her head turned, blue eyes meeting Alexa’s green ones across the space. Alexa reached for the blade at her side, grip tightening on the hilt. No, she wouldn’t let her die; there was no choice, no other option—they had to survive.

Alexa turned to see if anyone else was coming, hoping beyond hope that some had been roused from sleep. A pale face suddenly came into her line of vision, a hat shadowing the dark circles beneath his eyes. Before she could move, before she could say anything, he was next to her. There was the smooth feel of something hooking over her wrist and Alexa had the brief chance to register it was an umbrella. Then the man’s lilting voice interrupted her before she could speak, “Keep this safe for me if I don’t come back.” She turned and he was gone, out the door and into the crowd.

Alexa stared at the umbrella, bemused for a moment. Almost involuntarily, a faint smile crossed her lips; then she walked after him. After all, that’s what Rosemary had hired her for—to fight, to kill, to live.

After all, someone had to keep him safe.

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“Alexa! You’re no fun, Alexa.”

“I get that a lot!”

“Why are you running?”

“Wouldn’t you? It’s the smart thing to do!”

Alexa darted across the field, damp grass clinging to her boots as she flanked the figure in her line of sight. He…it—whatever the creature was—slowly walked toward her. Eyes glinted in the moonlight as it drew its lips past sharpened teeth, “Why don’t you stop running, Alexa?”

Good question. She didn’t respond this time. Instead, she circled around the creature, darting into the crowd of other fighters briefly. As soon as she lost its attention, she sprinted toward it again, taking it from behind. Her sword lashed out, metal cutting into flesh as blood spattered across her hands and arms. She spun, gaining momentum as her blade sliced into the creature’s back again. The monster stumbled, limbs flailing as it fell to the ground. For a moment, it struggled to stand. Then Alexa plunged her sword through its neck. There was the feel of something snapping, and then it fell limp.

Alexa turned, her eyes scanning the rest of the crowd. It was chaos, each man fighting for his life. She watched as one of the creatures lashed out with claws, watched as a man smashed in someone’s skull, watched as a monster screamed in rage, blood spattering the ground. There was work to be done.

She sprinted across the expanse, darting in between individuals as she sliced and stabbed, twirling and moving, never staying still long enough for retaliation. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a woman in a white dress kneeling next to a device, saw a man with a pale face attempting to save someone, saw a woman in braids trying to survive.

Then the tide of battle slowed; the enemies slowly sank into the ground or faded into the darkness. Alexa stopped, trying to catch her breath as figures emerged from the tree line. She tensed for a moment, watching them closely; then she relaxed. They weren’t enemies.

They had won.

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Sunlight made the lake glitter, the green waves sparkling as they lapped against the shore. There was the flash of scales as fish darted beneath the water, silvery bodies flickering near the surface before disappearing into the depths. Wind brought the scents of weed and damp and mud as it hushed the surrounding trees with their still-green leaves, stirring the sand and brushing the hair back from Alexa’s face. It was a beautiful day with the water and the wind and the waves—or at least it was for a few moments.

Quincy stood a few feet away from her, light hair tucked beneath his hat as he knelt next to the water. Alexa watched the trail to the lake as he checked on the fish; her eyes darted across the rocky slope and the surrounding tree line as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. The lake was never a good place to linger, never a good place to stay. They should have left already.

That’s when she heard them, the sound of men yelling. Alexa felt a sudden rush of adrenaline as Quincy jerked to his feet, his blue eyes wide.

“Run.”

She caught a glimpse of four figures speeding down the slope toward them, blunt clubs and knives and blades in gnarled hands. Then she was off, darting after Quincy next to the lake. Wind whipped at her hair, pulling it back from her face as she pumped her arms. Her heart slammed in her chest as panic threatened to choke her. Faster. Quincy’s back came up too quickly and she had to slow.

The sound of something cracking came first, reverberating through her entire body. Then there was pain. It throbbed through her leg as she stumbled and cried out, twisting her back and hips slightly to avoid injuring herself further as she slammed into the ground. A rock bit into her arm, drawing a line of blood. She caught a glimpse of Quincy’s back still retreating up the path.

That’s when she realized what had happened. One of the men had caught up to her, a rusted saw in one hand. She caught a glimpse of yellowed, bloody teeth before he slammed a booted foot against her other leg, crushing it into the earth.

There was another, sharp snapping noise, then more pain.

The sound of a scream filled the air—but it couldn’t have been hers. After all, she would never be so stupid to be here in the first place, never be so foolish as to allow rusted blades to cut into her legs—to allow her blood to soak into the ground. There was no way that she’d lie there, crying in pain as they continued to take pieces of her away, their harsh voices laughing and snarling. There was no way she would allow them to crush her bones again and again and again and again as she lay there, helpless. It just wasn’t possible.

She wasn’t sure when they left, only that they did. The agony was still there, though, throbbing through her as her fingers dug into the dirt, grinding it under her fingernails. Sound didn’t make sense; bird song and yells and waves and wind intermingled equally, forming a buzzing noise in her ears. She felt blood pumping from her arteries, making her lightheaded as she slowly turned her gaze to look through the leaves, staring at the sky as her eyelids flickered. It could be worse. It could be the treatment.

That’s when she noticed someone was crouching next to her, a hand suddenly on her shoulder. Slowly, painfully, she turned her head, bringing the figure into focus. A worried face stared back at her, his mouth twisted into a line. Quincy.

“Do you have anything on you to help?”

Alexa stared at him for a moment before she croaked out a few words, “Snake oil. In my bag.”

He didn’t wait for further instructions. The bottle was already in his hands, the cork flung aside as he shoved it to her mouth. For a moment, she resisted, her mind flashing back to another time on the beach as liquid was forced through her lips. Then she drank, gulping down the bitter concoction with a cringe.

She finished and then caught her breath, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Quincy continued to kneel next to her, his eyes pointedly looking toward her legs as he said without much hope, “Can you stand?”

Alexa winced, forcing herself into a sitting position. More pain sparked across her body and she gritted her teeth, biting back sound. Slowly, she glanced at her legs. They twisted awkwardly under her, large gashes still oozing blood. She didn’t want to see more. She quickly looked away.

“No, I don’t think so.”

Quincy nodded, “I’ll carry you.”

He unslung a bag from his back, filled with wooden staves tipped with metal. Gently, he placed it over Alexa’s shoulders, adjusting it to fit snugly. Then he grabbed her by the waist, slinging her onto his back. Alexa grabbed tightly onto his shoulders, biting back another cry of pain as she felt a bone shift in one of her legs.

Then they were moving down the lake trail. Alexa leaned against him, chin resting against his shoulder as the sounds of yelling drifted further behind them. They moved quietly, trees flashing by on either side of them as Quincy’s footsteps whispered over dirt and leaves. His voice suddenly murmured over the silence, bringing Alexa back to reality.

“I don’t know what I would have done if you’d died.”

Alexa remained silent for a moment, eyes flickering over her own shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed. Then she replied, “It wouldn’t have been your fault. I was stupid

She felt his shoulders tense beneath her, his head slumping forward slightly, “No, it would have.”

“Well you’re carrying me now, so no worries.”

“Fair.”

Leaves rustled as Quincy walked up a slope, his feet digging into the loose earth. There was the burbling sound of a stream behind them, the faint cry from a crow. Alexa remained quiet, fingers grasping onto Quincy’s shirt. She couldn’t tell him what was really on her mind—that he shouldn’t blame himself, that he couldn’t blame himself. After all, he’d come back for her.

But should he have?

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Alexa watched the girl cry. Tears streamed down her face, making her eyes red and puffy as she sobbed. Her hands were twisted behind her, kept secure by frayed rope and knots. Her lower lip trembled as she sniffled, “Are you going to hurt me?”

The woman in green next to her responded, her voice quick and to the point in her foreign lilt, “No, we’re not going to hurt you.”

Alexa allowed her eyes to scan the surroundings as Sydney dealt with the girl. They had taken her to the edges of town—to the woods. Dead leaves rustled against the ground, boughs creaking against one another. Alexa tightened her grip on her sword, noting that no birds called out, no insects buzzed; this was hunter territory—and it wouldn’t do to be caught here after dark. Then again, she’d be here as long as it took—as long as Sydney ordered it.

The girl’s high pitched voice suddenly cut through Alexa’s thoughts, “But I don’t want to go alone. How can I find my way back?”

Alexa glanced toward her, trying to ignore her feeling of disquiet, “Do like I told you and follow the footprints, okay? And if you hear anything, jump into the bushes and lie down in them and be quiet—flat on the ground. Most things will pass you by.”

Sydney moved to the girl’s back and lifted her blade. Then, she cut through the ropes binding her wrists. There was a small snapping noise as the frayed ends gave way, then Sydney stepped back. “There you go.”

The girl stood there, her lower lip still quivering. Alexa saw something pass over Sydney’s face. Pity—maybe. Her hand fished in her bag for a moment before she took out a small wheel of cheese, handing it to the girl, “Don’t eat it all at once.” The girl nodded in response, biting back more tears.

That’s when something caught Alexa’s attention, the sound of shifting metal and footsteps. She turned, her eyes settling on the figure behind her. Dark, metal plates were strapped onto his body; knives bristled from his sides and back. Guns and swords were slung over her shoulder and belted at his waist. Crow.

The man jerked his head toward the girl, “I need to take her.”

Sydney stepped forward, eyes narrowing as she watched the man in front of her, “We were told to release her beyond town borders.”

“Well then the laws of town no longer apply. I have my orders.”

Alexa glanced to Sydney, noticing how her mouth hardened, how her eyes became steely. She turned away from Crow, walking back toward the sniffling girl, “I need you to listen to me carefully. I need you to run, understand?”

The girl nodded, eyes wide.

“Now run!”

The girl stumbled into the woods, arms flailing as she fled down the path, sobs escaping her. Alexa watched her retreating back, something sour bubbling up to the back of her throat as she heard Crow’s words.

“I’ll give her a head start.”

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Alexa shifted in the darkness, easing her legs beneath her as she moved to stand. She rested one hand on the rough bark of the tree next to her, fingers finding the grooves within it. She could hear insects chirring in the nearby bushes, their songs calling to one another in the night. She could smell the scent of smoke and fire and trash from the nearby buildings. But the stars were gone, covered by the dawn that threatened to lighten the sky.

Hiding was no longer an option. Sitting was no longer an option. Alexa dug her nails into the bark of the tree, her eyes glancing toward the darkened structures around her. She knew that they slept quietly, their gentle breaths stifled by walls and blankets—the town was at ease, at rest.

Alexa closed her eyes, trying not to think. She was done with running, done with doing nothing, done with watching things happen.

It was time to fight.

It was time to live.

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Are you really any better than he is?

Checkmate

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Clouds fluttered across the sky, the stars winking in and out of existence by turns. A wind whispered through the branches of nearby trees, rustling twigs and leaves and grass as voices floated from nearby buildings. There was a shout, the sound of laughter, a loud bang; light flooded outside before abruptly being cut off by a closing door. Besides that, there was silence—the un-whispered secret.

They stood in front of one of the buildings, faint forms in the gloom, a cluster amidst the others that walked around them. Alexa traced the outline of the woman in front of her, noting the white clothing, the tangled hair, the dark eyes. She wasn’t dressed well, no—but that was to be expected.

Alexa placed a hand on the hilt of her sword, eyes flickering toward the other two with her: the girl armed in fur and the man dressed in metal. They stood there, seething, barely contained rage simmering beneath the surface. Amie. Sloan. Alexa turned her focus back to the more immediate problem at hand, taking a deep breath as she tried to control her voice.

“What do you want, Miss Elizabeth?”

The woman widened her eyes, hands and fingers twining around one another as she spoke, never still, “I want our family back. I know you can help him.” She jerked her head to look at the girl in furs, “I know…you can help him. Where’s…what do I call her? Miss Banks? We need her. We need Hadrian. Where’s Hadrian? He was just here.”

Alexa felt her grip tighten on the hilt before she released it once more. Keep calm. She nodded politely to the woman, “I’m not sure where she is. And I’m sure Hadrian will be along shortly.” Don’t let her catch on.

Elizabeth jerked her head around to stare at Alexa again, brown eyes widening further, “We need them now.

“I’m sure they’ll be here eventually. It’s hard to…”

The woman interrupted her, fingers continuing to twist and turn, “No…no, no, no…we’ll go now. We can’t wait.” She turned abruptly, feet carrying her down the trail and into the darkness. Alexa watched her back recede for a moment, a white figure fading into the gloom. She let out the breath she hadn’t known she had been holding. She was leaving; that was enough.

Then the girl in fur began to follow her.

Alexa stared. For a moment, she didn’t understand what was happening, didn’t realize why Amie would trail the woman. Alexa took a step forward to stop her—there was no reason to follow.

Then Alexa was walking, as well.

Her feet drew her toward the woman, marching inexorably into the night. She tried to dig her heels in, to stop, to do anything—but she couldn’t. There was a blind moment of panic as her heart raced, as her breath caught in her throat, “Miss Elizabeth, please. This isn’t necessary.”

“Oh, I think it is. He’ll be waiting.”

He’ll be waiting. Alexa grit her teeth, struggling as her body moved without her command, as she continued forward. Amie was crying out in frustration next to her, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except…

He’ll be waiting. She was suddenly back there—in the dark, in the basement. Water dripped from the ceiling as the sounds of screams filled the air, echoing off of the stone walls.

Suddenly, there was a flash out of the corner of her eye. Someone raced forward, planting himself in front of her and the other girl. Sloan. He leaned back, using his body to try to stop them. Alexa noted as his muscles strained against them, as his feet dug into the ground. But there was only movement, the feel of her boots crunching gravel and then grass, blades parting before her as they ventured into the dark. He couldn’t stop them—no one could.

He’ll be waiting. Blood spattered the floor, oozing toward the drain in the center. There was the gleam of a knife, then more screams.

They walked past the other houses, looming shapes in the starlight. The sounds of voices and conversation and laughter drifted further and further away as they continued forward—ever forward. The panic rose, threatening to strangle her as they paused in front of one of the buildings. Dim, red light glowed out from stained, cracked windows, covered in years of dust.

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder, a smile lighting up her face as it flashed in the night, “Here we are!” She walked up the stairs, steps thudding against wood as she opened the door. Alexa stifled the need to scream, to cry out, to sob. Instead, she followed the woman—like every obedient dog should.

He’ll be waiting.

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Tendrils of fog whirled about her as she entered the room, twining about her ankles, wrapping around her throat. Alexa suddenly stumbled, her limbs back in her control as the door slammed behind her. There was a faint click of a lock and then silence.

Alexa’s eyes darted around the room as she took in the patched couches, the elegant table, the shabby bed.  There was a figure there, limbs bound tightly as his chest slowly rose and fell. She could see the faint glint of red-brown hair, the fashionable clothes, the outline of his face.

He’ll be waiting.

She backed toward the door, not glancing at Amie, not glancing at Sloan. Her fingers scrabbled against the handle, jerking and tugging as she tried to escape. He was there. He was waiting. He…

A huddled body lay crumpled in the corner, bloodied hands resting in her lap. The tortured woman lifted her head, staring upward with wide, tear-filled, brown eyes, “Please.”

She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t. And yet, she had to.

Alexa felt her breath catch in her throat as she slowly let go of the handle, as she regained control of her thoughts. She turned to face Elizabeth who was rocking on the balls of her heels, a faint smile on her vacant face. Calm.

“Miss Elizabeth, why did you bring us here?”

The woman twisted her fingers through her tangled hair, “Well I just want my family back. Just…want…my family…back. You can help him, you know.”

Alexa kept her eyes away from the bed as she continued to watch the woman, “I’m not sure we…”

That was when the door burst inward. The sound of worried voices suddenly filled the room, footsteps shuffling in the night. Then there was silence again as the door closed, shutting out the others outside. Alexa jerked her head toward the new figures in the room: Fernaldo, Hadrian, Bastion. Someone else stepped in behind them, her elegant dress sweeping the floor, dark curls pinned back. Her white face peered at the bed; it was a mixture of beauty, pride, elegance and fear.

“Rosemary!” Elizabeth practically bounded up to the woman in white, beaming as she grasped her hands, “I knew you’d come. Come see—we can make him better.”

Rosemary took a step back, eyes darting toward the man on the bed, “What do you mean? Make who better?”

Alexa tuned out as the murmur of voices continued, washing over her. Something twisted inside her, a bitterness that clenched at her gut. She turned her head away from the others and back toward the bed, wondering why she had come here, wondering why she had been so stupid, wondering why she had thought she would find herself in this place, in the darkness.

“Rook.”

Alexa jerked her head to the side, her eyes scanning the room. There was no one near her, no one who could have spoken. Her eyes flickered back to the others as she tried to concentrate on their conversation once more.

“Rook.”

She turned this time, hand on her blade. Her words hissed under her breath, “Who are you?”

“I need you, Rook.”

She gritted her teeth, trying to ignore the voice and failing. The others didn’t seem to be able to hear it—or perhaps they didn’t care, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”

“I need you.”

Alexa moved toward the others, determined to listen to them and not to the voice. It wasn’t there, it couldn’t be there. It didn’t even sound like anyone she knew; it was a voice in the darkness, something that should be ignored. And she wasn’t Rook—not anymore.

Or are you?

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Alexa crouched down next to the bed, her eyes scanning over the man in front of her. A bruise marred his face, thin and pale in the darkness. Blue eyes stared back at her green ones, narrowing slightly as a faint smirk curled his lips, “Hello, Rook.”

She pushed down the wave that threatened to engulf her, that clenched her heart and made her want to run. Instead, she stared back at him, “Hello, James.”

She remained silent for a moment, wondering what she should do, what she should say. Her fingers twitched, inching toward the sword at her side. It would be so easy—to slit his throat, to stab him through the heart, to cut through his bowels and leave him there, stinking and screaming in the dark.

Instead, she closed her eyes for a moment, her hand dropping to her knee. It wouldn’t solve the immediate issue. She looked at him again—confidence, arrogance, deceit. Even tied up he was in control—and he knew it.

Alexa leaned forward murmuring in the dark, “What would happen if I killed you now?” Her breath stirred the hair on his forehead, moving it gently as she watched him.

James raised an eyebrow, the smirk fading from his face briefly, “I’d imagine we’d all die in here.”

Alexa nodded slightly, her eyes sliding away from his face, “All right.” That was all the answer she needed. She stood up quietly, moving away from the bed. Her nails dug into the palms of her hands as she kept her face expressionless. Feel nothing.

After all, that’s what she was trained to do.

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They were leaving. Their steps echoed across the wooden floorboards as they filed out, one by one. Alexa glanced back at the woman behind them, the same placid smile etched on her face, “We’ll have to do this again some time.” She waved with one hand, a gesture that seemed half-forced, half-automatic. It was the wave of a woman that wasn’t quite sure what she was doing there, who was simply going through the motions.

Alexa looked away, unable to meet her eyes. Words echoed in her mind, whispering through the crevices of her thoughts as they twisted and wound through her, tugging and tearing at her conscience. I took your place. She turned toward the open door, walking down the stairs, unwilling to think exactly what that meant. I took your place. I could have been different. It could have been different. You left me.

Then she was outside. The wind sighed through the grass, caressing her skin as it tousled her hair. The scent of water and weed floated through the air from the lake, glimmering faintly in the distance. Alexa glanced around, her eyes finding each form in turn.

That’s when she felt her heart plummet. It was the feeling of nausea, of her stomach turning as everything came into sharp focus. He wasn’t there.

Alexa turned to the nearest person, her voice harsh as she spoke, “Where did James go?”

The other shrugged, gesturing, “He went toward the lake.”

She was off. Her feet pounded against the ground as she leapt over rocks and fallen branches. Her breath hissed through her teeth as she unsheathed her sword, the metal gleaming in the starlight and moonlight. She was air, the wind itself. Her hair streamed back from her face as she darted around a tree, rushing forward—ever forward.

The lake stopped her. It was black in the night, stars reflecting on its dark surface. Alexa jerked her head around, eyes scanning the nearby tree line. She paced forward and then back again, her heart sinking further before everything boiled to the surface—the pain, the rage, the anguish, the frustration—everything that she had kept quiet, everything she had kept concealed.

Her scream echoed across the lake.