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.

__

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?

__

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.

__

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.

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