“We aren’t good people, Alexa. Sometimes, we need to do the hard thing—make that hard choice for the better of everyone. Sometimes we need to kill. You made that decision, and now all you can do is deal with the consequences.” –Sterno Stew
Sunlight dappled the forest floor, filtering across the crimson and gold leaves that crunched underfoot. The spicy scent of Autumn wafted through the trees, carried by the breeze that rustled through the wood. A few birds chirped, their twittering calls echoing as several women pushed through the underbrush—as they walked deeper into the unknown.
Alexa stepped over branches as she followed the others. Her eyes scanned the area warily, her hand hovering over the hilt of her blade. It was risky—what they were attempting. But it needed to be done—now more than ever. They couldn’t allow more to be taken.
Besides, it’s Bo Stalin. You can’t turn back.
Alexa swallowed, controlling her breathing as her heart raced. Calm down. They were heading into the belly of the beast, each one of them—Antigone, Shea, Rayna, Soutreia and the others. But at least it was a force that was competent. Each of them wore serious faces, eyes set on the woman’s back who was leading them. They would do what needed to be done, no matter what it was.
They stopped. The woman who had led them turned, her eyes gleaming in the dim light. She smiled benignly as she pushed brown hair from her eyes, revealing the paint that marked her face, marked her as one of them. Bo Stalin. She nodded politely and then turned, letting loose two sharp calls into the forest—high pitched noises that sounded in the gloom.
There was an answering call—two more sharp sounds. Then figures suddenly shifted from behind trees as they revealed themselves. They were there—swathed in blood and red cloth, weapons drawn. They were there—silent and waiting, eyes painted and cruel. They were there with their pacifying actions, their treaties. They were there, and all Alexa could do was watch. The Ban-She.
Alexa felt the other women around her shift as the Ban-She moved closer. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Antigone draw her blade, so similar to her own. There was a tense silence, the moment before the plunge. Then Bo Stalin turned with the same smile on her face, “Run with them.”
The confusion was almost palpable. The others stared, hands still on their weapons as Bo Stalin gestured to the Ban-She—to the raiders that had once been women like them, “They can teach you tactics. Run with them and they will show you. I want to make up for what we’ve done.”
Is she joking? It wasn’t a trap, after all. They had expected a fight and all they were getting was help. All they were receiving as training. Are they really serious? From far off, Alexa heard Antigone and Rayna agreeing with Bo, agreeing to run with the Ban-She. The taste of blood. Something sour bubbled in the back of her throat as she took a deep breath. Stay calm.
She had to play the game.
She ran. The wind tore through her hair as she leapt over logs and branches, as her feet pounded across leaves. She ran as the others surrounded her, moving on either side—all women. They ran as a pack, predatory grace aligned in every movement. They ran as if they had done so for years. They moved as one.
Alexa fought down the urge to scream.
They emerged from the wood into a larger field, keeping to the edges. Alexa paused, her eyes scanning the area in front of them. Tables were set up with wares displayed. Men and women milled through the open space, most of them not even glancing their way. Credits changed hands as vendors haggled over prices. A few sat in groups, chatting to one another in the sun. It’s the trade fair. Alexa felt her heart sink, her stomach flipping. Damnit.
Once more, the Ban-She moved forward. Alexa gritted her teeth and followed, keeping one hand on her weapon. Now people were starting to stare, some of the traders watched warily as they moved. Alexa felt something grip her chest, constricting her as she followed. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath, couldn’t seem to see straight. This is what you could have been.
More eyes followed them as they maneuvered and turned, as they screamed and rushed targets. It was a training drill. It shouldn’t be a big deal. After all, DOC conducted drills all of the time. Pain lancing through my back. It was a way to bond. Quincy’s blank face as he’s sucked into the ground. It could be a way to actually keep the Ban-She at peace with the town. Emotion that ripped and tore through heart and mind. The need for food. The hunger for flesh. The disregard for the walking dead—no threat. Only the living should die.
Alexa felt a hand on her arm. It was only then she realized that she had stopped moving, stopped participating. She jerked her head, glancing toward blue eyes and a pale face. Antigone’s voice filtered into her thoughts, bringing her back, “Are you okay?”
Alexa shook her head her head slightly, “No. This is my worst nightmare.” Antigone’s voice receding in the distance. The Ban-She staring down at her as the world faded around her. “But it has to be done.”
Otherwise, they’ll keep doing the same.
They walked together along the path through the forest, almost as if they were friends. Their footsteps matched one another’s as they traveled, trailed by the red haired man behind them. Voices mingled, speaking each in turn—polite, controlled. At a distance, you’d never suspect that they were actually enemies.
Alexa glanced toward her companion, noting the way her eyes darted from side to side. She seemed unsure, stressed. Alexa knew how that felt—the way it could overtake you and suck you under. Emotions had a way of sneaking up on you when you weren’t prepared, and she could imagine the hell that Bo Stalin had endured. After all, Alexa had gone through the same thing.
You could have become what she is.
Alexa maintained eye contact as she spoke, making sure to put emphasis behind her words. Make her trust you. “I know that it’s hard, but you have to remember. They aren’t your true family…your true commune.” She paused for a moment, letting the words sink in before continuing, “You may have adopted them as one, but that’s only because you didn’t have the option of going back to your family. It’s now possible. I will give you the cure.”
Bo stared back at her with wide eyes, hands twisting against one another. She’s uncertain. But that makes sense—she is the Ban-She Queen. Finally, she replied, “But…how is it that you were cured? Why didn’t they give it to me?”
“We only recently discovered it. And we had no idea you’d become what you are. But you have the chance now. Remember your family.” Alexa watched the other woman’s eyes, noting the uncertainty there. I almost have her. “Remember the ties you have to them. Remember what they mean to you.”
There was a pause and Bo looked away, her eyes flickering off to the woods. Alexa gritted her teeth for a moment before allowing her features to smooth. She closed her eyes briefly. Time to bring out the heavy artillery.
“Do you really want to wind up like them? Do you really want to feed on…others? I know the hunger. I know what it’s like—how it feels when you want to eat a person and you can actually feel their fear as you cut into them. Do you want to have to keep feeling that way?”
The woman’s voice cracked as she responded. Alexa noted that her eyes were shining, barely concealed tears glistening at the corners, “No…”
“I’m giving you the chance to change things.”
“Can I…think about it?”
Alexa remained silent for a moment as she glanced down at the path. Leaves mingled with dirt and rocks; cracked, frayed edges of foliage browning as the minutes and days passed. She exhaled before replying slowly, “Yes. We’ll meet back here in an hour. Then you can give me your answer.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Bo nodding, her face troubled.
“Yes, an hour.”
Her screams rang out through the forest—pained, terrified. They were the sounds of a wounded animal, of a desperate victim. They were the wails of the pleading and the dying. They were the cries of Bo Stalin.
Alexa stared down at her as the woman writhed on the ground. Bo’s voice was already turning hoarse as her fingers scrabbled at the dirt uselessly, her nails bloody. This was you.
Slowly, Alexa knelt down and drew her sword, leaning over the woman. You were like this—in pain. You felt this, and you’re no better than she is. She studied Bo’s face, the way it contorted as the screams went on and on and on. You’re no better than he is, either.
Alexa took a few deep breaths, her sword still hovering over Bo Stalin’s throat. It’s the plan. She tried to hurt the town before and she’ll try to do it again. She remained poised as the woman sobbed. She tried to manipulate everyone by asking for those with faith—she’ll kill them. Bo Stalin continued to cry, tears streaking her face. Move, Alexa. It’s the plan.
Do it, Rook.
The feeling of pain. The sound of screaming. The sensation of sand against her back as her blood soaked into the ground—as the stars and the moon shone above her. Eyes stared down at her—eyes that turned hard, eyes that waited.
There was nothing left but to follow the plan.
Alexa couldn’t think. She didn’t want to think. She just walked—away from the startled faces, away from the accusing glances, away from the blood. Her feet carried her back up the path, past trees and rocks and leaves. They carried her toward town and away from death.
She had to do it. It was part of the plan—part of what she told the others. But she hadn’t expected Bo’s answer. But who could have? She was the Ban-She queen. I had no choice.
Keep telling yourself that.
The feeling of guilt—of doubt. It churned inside her. It threatened to pull her under as she took one more breath. Was it the right choice? She didn’t know.
She was a Ban-She—their leader. What else could you have done?
Alexa watched the ground as she moved, noting how the leaves were already crumbling into the dirt. Soon, it would all be covered in frost, the packed earth hard underfoot. Soon, there would be snow that blanketed the forest and muffled sound and word and deed. She swallowed once. Stay calm. Then she glanced back upward.
That’s when she noticed who was waiting at the head of the path. Shadowed eyes watched her expectantly as each step took her closer. Pale hands rested on the top of an umbrella, its point stuck into the ground at his side. His face remained expressionless, unjudging.
Alexa stopped, her eyes staring as her limbs seemed to freeze. She didn’t deserve his sympathy—his understanding. He helped. She flexed her fingers, eyes lowering, allowing the feeling of guilt to wash over her. Can it really be the right decision? How much will I do to survive?
I need to get out.
She continued up the path, past him and toward the town. It was time to face the consequences of her decision.
I stood at the edge of a precipice, staring at the darkness below me—afraid to face the darkness behind. In the end, I had to make a choice: whether to back away from that edge or tumble over it. Now I find that I am plummeting—and there is no going back now that I’ve fallen head over heels down the rabbit hole.