Runner

Standard

The feeling of wind against my face, the pounding of the earth against my feet, the sound of breathing in my ears: all of these things are a part of my existence—my very being.  But what happens when the path is barred? What happens when my ankle finally snaps? It’s only now that I stop to consider what will happen when I can no longer run.

__

It was dark within the earth, cold within the grave, peaceful within the morgue, quiet within the ground. Shadows flickered across the earthen walls, candlelight filtering down the stone stairs from the room above. Alexa leaned against a brick column as she watched the others: the ageless man, the girl who never smiled, the woman who never stopped smiling. All three of them huddled together on one of the benches in the makeshift tomb, their hushed conversation mingling with the silent whispers of those long since passed.

Her eyes scanned over their solemn faces, each in turn. Bowed heads and murmured words seemed to be the norm for this place. Was she intruding? Perhaps—she usually was. For a moment, she wondered if she should take the stone steps back upward—into starlight and moonlight and shadow.

“Alexa, can I ask you a few questions?”

The name made her turn her head toward the girl who spoke. Dark eyes stared out from beneath a black mask and brown hat. The white smile that was permanently etched across her stoic features grinned out at her from the darkness. Alexa shifted her weight, pushing off from the column as she walked toward the group—the better to hear them, “Yes?”

“Would you mind telling me how you died? Your experience in the Gravemind.”

The question caught her off guard, even though it shouldn’t have. She knew that the girl had been collecting stories—information. Alexa remained silent for a moment, her eyes flickering over the others present. The woman in pink was looking at her curiously, wide eyes staring. The other kept his shadowed eyes firmly downcast, refusing to look at her. Something shot through her for a moment, her heart clenching. Guilt, perhaps?

He doesn’t want to hear—not really. Neither does the other one. Do I really owe her this?

It wasn’t personal—wasn’t specific. Alexa was the reflection and the shadow rather than the real thing. It wasn’t her experience—it was everyone’s and no one’s at the same time. She was a conduit.  And perhaps I do owe her. She was there, after all—an apology is necessary, or at least some kind of trade.

Besides, I can’t run from it forever.

Alexa moved forward, taking a seat on one of the benches. The wood creaked beneath her as she leaned forward to look at the girl in the mask. She felt her mind wander back to that place—the one where she never wanted to go again. Then she locked the door—and there was simply nothing. She no longer noticed the way the woman in pink stared at her. She no longer cared that he kept his face carefully averted, eyes unwilling to meet her own. Her voice sounded hollow even to her own ears as she spoke.

“What do you want to know?”

__

Alexa felt her breath catch in her throat, her limbs trembling as she took one more step. Her heart thrummed in her chest, pounding as she realized that only thing keeping her upright was the sheer rush of adrenaline.  Something slick and wet dripped down her arm, coating the inside of the plates strapped to her. Blood. Something in the back of her head told her it should be painful, that she should be stumbling or falling.

Instead, she took another step.

The battle raged around her, screams and cries echoing through the air as gunshot and smoke and the clash of steel against steel rang across the darkened field. The grass was slick underfoot, water and blood and mud mixing together to form a soup that threatened to pull the unwary off their feet. Moonlight cast everything in silver as darkened bodies fell and bled and died.

Alexa adjusted the grip on her blade, her fingers wrapping around the familiar leather as she glanced to her right. A tall man stood next to her with his shield and sword. Strips of flesh hung from his face and arms, blood dripping from his lips. He looked back at her, grinning with rotten teeth—laughing in the face of danger. That’s Stew for you.

Her eyes shifted to take in the red haired man next to him, militaristic armor strapped to his thin frame. His face was serious, unyielding. Alexa felt a smirk tug at the corner of her lips as a thought flitted through her mind. You’d never think he had hollow bird bones.

That’s when the next wave hit.

They came from the woods, dark shapes forming from the shadows. Alexa caught a whiff of them—the smell of salt and sea and wind. The smell of home. They charged, blades gleaming in the faint light. And then Alexa was in the heart of the storm.

She whirled and ducked, watching out of the corner of her eye as Stew and Yossarian battled alongside her. Her breathing sounded harsh in her ears as she knocked away a blade aimed for her throat, instead plunging her own sword into the person’s chest. She caught a glimpse of sea green eyes before the man stumbled and fell.

The battle continued. Her breathing became harder as she rounded back toward Stew, her legs slowing. She couldn’t keep this up forever—couldn’t run forever. Her eyes flickered over the others around her, watching as they worked and fought and battled against the tide.

And yet there was no time to pause. Alexa darted through the crowd of people, moving behind the enemy—they didn’t even seem to see her. They rarely do. She threw herself out of the way of a club, her blade turning and flashing as she plunged it into someone else’s back. There was resistance—the feel of cutting through meat—and then she was free again. There was no thinking involved, no worries. There was only the will to survive—the will to live.

__

Moonlight silvered the branches of the trees, coloring the leaves grey as the night sky opened up above them. Thousands of twinkling stars winked amidst their velvet cushion, shining in the biting autumn air. A chill wind caught clothing and hair, twisting and turning it as the figures walked across the path. Their footsteps padded silently across the gravel, barely heard within the cover of night.

Alexa remained silent as she listened to their conversation, her eyes glancing first to one, then the other. It was odd company: the Emperor, the Scholar, the Yorker. And yet somehow they worked together—seemed to blend and mold to the darkness. She felt as if she was the odd one out, the one that didn’t belong.

Is that really surprising?

Their feet turned to move across grass, the blades catching at their ankles as they walked through the night. Alexa allowed herself to take a deep breath of the cold air, filling her lungs with the smells of smoke and wood and spice and earth. A voice interrupted her thoughts, quiet and serious.

“I believe that the financial issues should be solved with the Banks’s and the VanBurens. I don’t like it when outside forces meddle in certain affairs.”

Alexa glanced at the speaker out of the corner of her eye. His hat was set at a jaunty angle on his head; his clothing was fashionable—if a bit worn. Yet his face remained impassive, his eyes hard and glinting in the dark.

Alexa nodded faintly, keeping her own voice to a low murmur, “I’m sure they’ll appreciate that. Thank you.”

There was a pause and then he spoke again. Alexa didn’t lift her eyes to look at him, didn’t bother to turn her head. But she could feel his eyes on her, making the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. It pinned her, keeping her from walking—from running.

“I heard something about a Toy Box.”

Careful. Alexa cleared her throat slightly, eyes shifting to look at the tree line—anywhere but at his face, “That is an issue that I’m planning on dealing with. Don’t worry, it will be handled.” He shouldn’t have to worry about it—it’s not his problem, after all.

She was met with silence. Alexa cast a quick look toward him again, noting how his mouth hardened, how his eyes became steely. She wondered, for a brief moment, if she had offended him in some way—if she should apologize. But why would he care? I’m not important, overall. I’m a tool. Her mind flipped through the possibilities, wondering what the answer was. Does he want me to ask for help?  To thank him? She did go over his head—did tell the woman in Ripton. Irritated by insubordination? That was the most likely. Tread carefully.

He abruptly turned his gaze away; the moment was over. Alexa gave a quiet sigh as his step quickened, as he moved away. Perhaps he really was insulted. After all, there should be information for information.

But this is something I’m not willing to share—especially not in front of an audience.

Their steps faded into the distance, the conversation continuing where it left off. All that was left of their passing were a few bent stalks of grass, the remnants of a shadow.

__

The woman was looking at her—staring at her. Grey-green eyes that reminded her of waves and sea and wind peered past and through her. Alexa felt a chill run through her as she stared back in kind, keeping her face expressionless. The woman’s lips were moving, half-formed words barely heard above the voices around her.

“You can no longer run, Alexa. You can no longer run.”

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