Monthly Archives: August 2014

Cat and Mouse

Standard
Photo by: Flickr/mstollenwerk

Photo by: Flickr/mstollenwerk

“She turns…And appears from the darkness. Face pale and hard set. She knows what’s she’s doing. She measures the golden thread in one hand and cuts it in the other. She is stillness, the cold, the winter fear. She takes to the night and it takes to her. Her friend is the echo, her lover the pitch black, her eye the moon. And she turns.” –Quote from a letter, addressed to Alexa

__

Do you know that feeling of being watched? It’s the same way that prey feels around a predator—that prickling on the back of your neck. It’s the sudden and inexplicable rush of adrenaline—the way your breath quickens, the way your eyes dart everywhere at once.

It’s the way that person across the room glides through the crowd, never quite focusing on any other person, all animal grace and cunning. It’s the way their eyes settle on you—watching you when they think you aren’t looking.

That’s the way she felt around the “scavenger.”

Alexa gritted her teeth as they walked down the road, polished swords in each hand. She could sense him behind her—just a few paces away. It was strange to be so aware of someone—to be so on edge that their each and every footstep could be heard, despite the surrounding noises of birds and wind and branches and grass. It was strange to be able to hear his breathing through the half-mask that he wore, to sense how he moved with more grace than any scavenger should. It was strange—but perhaps not wholly unexpected.

After all, she was quite possibly dealing with Zodiac.

They had been walking for about half an hour now, making idle chatter—about the past, about the present. It was just small talk, really—nothing all that enlightening, a combination of jokes and banter and irrelevant information. Every so often, he would bend down, looking at rare plants or examining a bit of metal glimmering through fallen leaves. Each time, Alexa would pause, watching him through the dappled sunlight of the surrounding forest—how it patterned the large poncho around his shoulders and highlighted the black bag he carried slung on his back. The same one the “stranger” had right after that girl appeared—the one who had been captured.

The others in the group fanned out around the man in the mask, not willing to get close. Alexa recognized most of them from Brock’s crew—Runners that banded together. Sometimes, one of them would journey close enough to the scavenger to make Alexa nervous, but she quickly moved closer, heading them off. No reason to give him the opportunity if he does happen to be out for a kill.

Alexa breathed slowly, trying to calm her heartbeat down to normal levels as they continued to walk down the dirt road. Her booted feet stepped over rocks and puddles as she glanced over her shoulder every once in a while, careful not to let him approach too closely.  She hoped that he had given up—decided that it was too dangerous. She hoped that he really was just a scavenger and not Zodiac.

“Hey, what’s that?”

Alexa glanced away from the scavenger and toward one of the runners in the group. Trench, she thought his name was. His rusted armor hung along his thin frame, muscled by combat and hard labor. He was looking up the steep hill that wound through the surrounding forest—the one that led toward the rest of the town. Faintly, she could hear the sound of yells—of cries and screams. Zed, most likely. It wouldn’t be surprising. Shambletown was fairly close to that area, after all.

Without further word, Trench sprinted toward the hill. Alexa frowned faintly as the others followed his lead, unsheathing their weapons as they moved. Rushing into combat unprepared. Instinctively, she moved  to cover their backs—and then realized who was still behind her.

I can’t leave him unattended.  Alexa took a few steps back toward the scavenger who watched her with dark eyes. They crinkled slightly as the man either grimaced or smiled, “Good to know that at least someone remembers this is an escort mission.”

Alexa smirked faintly at him, replying jokingly, “Well I do try to be professional.”

That’s when he struck. One moment he was standing there, calmly, and the next he was lunging forward with a dagger. Before she could move, before she could respond, he had slipped behind her. She felt something slam into her temple, stunning her momentarily as she fell to her knees. Her ears rang as she felt three hard strikes slam into the back of her armor, precise strokes from a professional. Shit.

Adrenaline surged through her body as she waited for a moment, her breaths coming in hard gasps. He stopped attacking, perhaps wondering why she was still kneeling, perhaps thinking that he had succeeded. Her ears stopped ringing, and Alexa couldn’t help the smile that curled across her lips. Big mistake.

She turned.

She struck out with one sword and then the other, her blades aiming for his eyes. He stumbled back, avoiding the strikes. Then she surged to her feet and stepped to one side, slamming her blade into the side of his temple. He blinked for a moment, dazedly, and she struck him once, twice, three times. Her heart slammed against her ribs and she continued to strike, pushing him back. Kill him, Rook.

He shook his head and he turned, suddenly responding with his own dagger. Their blades rang against one another as they danced across the road. Out of the corner of her eye, Alexa could see the others had finally noticed the skirmish—and they were closing in. Shit. Why doesn’t he just give up? She struck again and he blocked it, turning away her thrust with an expert flick of his wrist. He suddenly slid to the side and was behind her again, his dagger once more slamming into the side of her head, causing her to stagger forward, vision blurring.

Then suddenly she heard the sounds of the others. They were yelling for help, crying out as their weapons hit the scavenger again and again. Alexa shook her head, trying to focus as her breath sounded in her own ears. Living on the edge, Alexa—life and death. She hardly noticed the blood that trickled down her side, slicking her shirt to her skin.

She looked up just in time to see Zodiac standing over one of the runners—a pretty blonde girl with wide eyes. His dagger was pressed to her throat, the blade slowly creating a red line as she screamed.

Everything slowed. Alexa surged forward, blade striking out. The scavenger dropped the girl and rose to meet her. Once again, they were exchanging blows, moving back and forth. She stepped to the side and struck out with her blade—once, twice.

He crumpled and then fell.

There was a moment of silence. He can’t be dead. Alexa stared at the body on the ground in disbelief, her breathing sounding in her throat—hard gasps that threatened to shake her body apart. She wasn’t winded—no. It was all about the rush, the instant that she thought she was going to die, the adrenaline. Can he?

“Is he dead?” Trench echoed her thoughts as he walked toward her, eyes fixed on the remains of the man in front of them. Brown cloth covered most of the body, hiding his hands from view.  Alexa shook her head, still breathing hard, “Don’t know.” I hope he is. I can’t take another fight like that.

Trench shook his head, “I can’t check. Maybe one of the others can.” He nodded to Alexa and moved away, leaving her near the body. She shuddered slightly, trying not to think how close she had come to dying. You need to be more careful. You can’t afford to drop your…

Something rolled out from beneath the brown cloth. Alexa stared at it for a moment and had just enough time to notice that it was a bottle with a fuse before it shattered.

Everything went dark. Screams sounded. She felt a cold blade slide through her ribs toward her heart. She felt her legs fail her, her breath ceasing, her heart stopping. She felt her body slam into the ground, her hair pooling out around her as her eyes stared blankly ahead. She felt her blood trickling from the wound, flowing out of her body before slowing and congealing.

Then there was nothing.

The Earth opened up.

She became part of him—of them—of everyone.

She shambled with the dead.

__

“He’s wrong about one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I would never be like him.”

Advertisements

Temptation and Sin

Standard
Photo By: Flickr/Melsome

Photo By: Flickr/Melsome

The Gravemind lies. That’s what they all say, at least. It’s a way to comfort those that have experienced something terrible while passing through. It gives them the opportunity to dismiss what happened, filing it away in the back of their minds without examining it too closely. It’s a way to ignore the problem, brushing it beneath the rug—filth that accumulates with the rest of humanity’s sins.

They say the Gravemind lies when it tells you that you had a choice—and that you chose the darker path. They say the Gravemind lies when it tells you that you are a hollow shell—that you torture yourself in life with humble circumstances in a misguided attempt to atone for past sins. The Gravemind lies, they say. What they don’t mention is that the Gravemind also tells the truth—Zodiac told the truth.

And I hate him for it.

__

Autumn was coming—and coming quickly. The cool morning air swirled yellow leaves through the air, causing them to drop like rain through the canopy of emerald green. Light dappled the forest floor, beams scattering through the branches. It held its own kind of beauty—life and death. It was the last breath of summer.

Alexa remained silent beneath the trees, one leg stretched out in front of her as rough bark dug into her shoulders. Her swords lay across her lap, gleaming metal carefully kept clean of rust and blood. From her position, she could hear the town—the far off screams of those battling the dead, the idle chatter from those at the Double Tap, the careful footsteps of those walking the roads.

She found it hard to make herself care.

People struggled and fought and died. They fucked and screamed and created children that grew up to wallow in shit and create more children in turn. They stabbed those they called friends. They lied and cheated and cursed and shat out more filth that dirtied the world. She could see why years of seeing this repetition—this cycle—would cause someone to think like he did. She could see how someone who had good intentions would do the things that he did. A smirk slowly curved her lips. You know what they say about the road to Hell.

He had said to embrace it; he had said that it was a gift. Again, she could see why. It was like being God—seeing, knowing. If I followed a religion, I could have used that framework—the prattlings of priests and zealots that some need to exist. She closed her eyes briefly; she always knew there was power in knowledge—and he knew her well enough that he probably realized how tempting something like that would be. Years gave him the advantage, in that regard—studying others, knowing what they would do, how they would react.

The Infection flows through all of us. She could see how several lifetimes could cause someone to change—warp, twist. Power corrupts; it always does. And with that much knowledge—how could he not be the way he is after that many years? If she didn’t hate him, she would have pitied him.

Alexa opened her eyes once more, scanning her surroundings. A few people walked down the dirt path in front of her, not bothering to look at her as they passed. They chatted about the prices of rusted metal, about inane credits that didn’t really matter at the end of the day—useful to accomplish goals, useful in terms of fitting in and society, but otherwise just pieces of nothing at all. People never see, do they? They never watch.

After their conversation, she had been angry; searing rage burned through her as hot as heated iron. It was a natural response to the truth; no one had said it to her before, no one had bothered. Why fix something when it’s so efficient? I’m not allowed to die again because I’m useful, apparently.

Truth: It was more painful than any dagger. It had stunned her to the point where words had failed her. He had talked about enlightenment and she couldn’t argue with him. He had talked about the way she stood, about the way she acted, about her reasons—and she couldn’t argue with him. She had gone in blind. As blind as the rest of the world. And she didn’t know how to respond. It was only now that she was sorting through it all—making sense of it.

It was only now that the anger had left her, only now that she felt empty and hollow, that she realized what she needed to do.

Part of her wished that they could have another conversation. Part of her wished that she could have stayed and watched and listened. Part of her wanted to embrace that power again—to have another bite of the forbidden fruit.

That part of her terrified her.

Alexa shifted slightly against the tree, moving to a more comfortable position. The day was heating up, cool air being chased away by the last dregs of summer’s warmth. Leaves crunched beneath her as she moved, her breath stirring the pale strands of hair in front of her face.

He told truth—he was dismissive and even contemptuous of the choices that were made. And yet he forgets that even within the filth, the squalor, the dirt, there are pieces of brightness. Isn’t it worth digging through the shit to see them shine?

They both made their choices.

I need to make mine.

She smirked. I suppose this is what it’s like to deal with the devil.

__

“Why don’t you embrace it? It’s enlightenment.”

“Because if I did, then I would be just like you.”

Laughter.

“You could never be like me”

Silence.

“…or no. Perhaps after a few more centuries you could be.”

Whispers

Standard
Photo by: Shaunak Modi/Flickr

Photo by: Shaunak Modi/Flickr

There’s some family that you’re born with—your mother, your father, maybe a few brothers and sisters. There’s some family that you adopt—friends, colleagues, those you can trust. And there there’s some family that adopts you. Corbin, most definitely, was in that latter category.

Alexa folded her arms across her chest as she watched the man in front of her, noting how his blue eyes stared defiantly back at her in the darkness. Faintly, she could make out the tattoos that crisscrossed his arms, patterning them with his life’s story—marking him as one like her.

They stood just outside Chance’s bar, and the sounds of chatter floated toward them on the faint, damp breeze that drifted up from the lake. There was the clink of glasses, a burst of laughter—noises that were muffled by closed doors and walls, overshadowed by rustling leaves and the constant hum of insects.

Alexa had wanted to talk to him—asked to talk to him. Why is it you can’t stand seeing someone looking so tragic? Blaming himself? You’re probably the worst choice to help sort out his issues. But she could at least try.

“You do realize it’s not your fault, right?”                     

Corbin’s mouth hardened into a thin line as he continued looking at her—as if he didn’t want to say anything. His chin jutted out stubbornly as his nostrils flared. Expecting a fight, apparently. What did you expect from someone so hard-headed?

Alexa continued, keeping her face as passive as she could manage, “It isn’t. You didn’t ask her to come, you know. In fact, you actually did more than just about anyone in the settlement as far as the altercation went. You volunteered to take that bomb.”

She waited. Corbin watched her for a moment before finally he barked out a series of words, as if each one was painful, “She wouldn’t have been there in the first place if it weren’t for me.”

Really? Angry at himself, then. Alexa rolled her eyes, shifting her weight from one leg to another, “Don’t be stupid. Use logic, Corbin. It was Whalestoe—it was all Whalestoe. Sure, she might have taken advantage of the situation, but it wasn’t her idea. She was working for them. Besides, Whalestoe has been here in the past. It’s likely that they sought her out—or that she volunteered for this particular task. They would have done the same thing without her. There’s absolutely no reason for you to blame yourself.”

Corbin gritted his teeth. That’s right. Get mad at me instead of yourself. Stop wallowing in self-pity. Take charge, Corbin. He glared at her, blue eyes turning hard, “She’ll still be back. She’ll attack, and she’ll target those close to me.”

Alexa watched him, meeting his gaze with her own. He was being unreasonable, really. But it wasn’t unexpected. He cares too much for his own good at times. She closed her eyes briefly, wondering how best to get through to him—to make her point. And then she spoke, “You have family, Corbin. And by ‘family,’ I don’t mean the people you’re actually related to. I mean the people that you’ve grown close to over the years. You have Scraps. You have Stew. You have Makita and even Candace. You have Commander Dantes and Sydney and Antigone. You have D.O.C. You have all of these people around you. And we all have your back.”

Corbin’s mouth worked for a moment, as if he wanted to say something. Then he slowly uncrossed his arms, lowering his eyes silently. Alexa counted the seconds as they remained in silence.

Well that’s enough of that. She reached forward and punched him in the arm.

Corbin’s head jerked upward, surprise briefly flitting across his face, “Hey, what was that for?”

“You deserved it. You know, you’re like the little brother I never wanted, Corbin. But we’ll make sure you’re okay.”

He smirked at her, “I know.”

__

They sat across from one another on the floor, a metal bed frame between them serving as both divider and table as they spoke. Dim light filtered down from the wires and cracked bulbs strung across the rafters of the room as flickering shadows danced in corners, outlining a discarded suit of armor, rows of more beds, a heap of blankets, a bag packed with food. From their position, they could hear the faint sound of screams from down the road outside—the cries of people who were foolish enough to venture abroad after dark in Ripton Falls.

Alexa watched the man carefully, keeping her face neutral as her green eyes flickered over his features. Sparrow’s skin parted slightly on one side, revealing red flesh underneath that seeped blood in coagulated droplets. Dark hair fell into his eyes, rimmed by dark circles. She’d always wondered whether Retrogrades felt pain as their skin peeled and rotted—but she’d always been too polite to ask.

His voice sounded rough, scratchy. It graveled and grated as he spoke, “You know you’re one of the few people I have trouble getting a read on. I think I told you that before—when we had that conversation by the lake a while back.”

Alexa shifted her weight slightly, moving into a more comfortable position on the hard, wooden floor, “Yeah, I remember.”

“You always have that mask firmly in place.” Sparrow paused briefly, his eyes shifting downward before fixing her with his gaze once more, “Has anything changed since then? Do you know what you want?”

Alexa turned over his words in her head. She’d been running all day—fighting—and fatigue weighed down on her like a mantle, pressing down and cloaking her. Her thoughts churned more slowly than normal as she watched Sparrow. Truth or lies? And if truth, how much of it?

“I’m still trying to find myself, I suppose. I…” She hesitated and then continued, “I’m still not sure.”

He nodded, switching subjects, “I admit that I’m slightly jealous of you sometimes. I couldn’t do what you do.”

Alexa arched a brow. He’s good at what he does—finding out information.  She glanced away for a brief moment. A slight compliment to prompt the flow of words—a change of topic when things become uncomfortable. I wish I were nearly that good. “What do you mean?”

“Sacrifice. You sacrifice a lot…everything to people. You rarely live for yourself. I’m too selfish to do what you do.”

Alexa felt a wry smile cross her face. He thinks I’m selfless instead of selfish? He obviously hasn’t seen Stew in action, if that’s the case. Alexa shook her head briefly, “I’m selfish.”

“When are you ever selfish?”

“You’d be surprised.”

Sparrow’s eyes narrowed slightly, “Sometimes when you wear a mask long enough, it becomes the real thing.”

Sometimes it becomes the real thing. Her mind briefly flashed back to that place—the one that she kept safely locked in the corner of her mind. You always knew you were a monster, Rook. She carefully shut that door again. Instead, she responded flippantly, “Don’t I know it.” She paused for a moment, gauging his reaction, then continued, “I…do what I do because it’s easier. People trust me because of it. I don’t have to work as hard.”

He continued watching her, not breaking her gaze, “That’s not selfish. That’s survival.”

She shot back quickly, “Survival can be selfish.”

They lapsed into silence for a brief moment, and Sparrow shifted slightly on the floor. Alexa turned to look at the windows of the building—at the darkness outside. The screams had subsided and instead there was only the faint sigh of the wind—the whisper of leaves in the cool, humid night air. She closed her eyes for a brief moment. How much of a mask is real? And if you wear enough of them, do you remember what lies beneath?

“I don’t know if you remember but a while back, that firstborn illness was going around—the one that would essentially turn your bones into mush.”

Alexa glanced back at the man, arching a brow briefly, “I remember.”

“I was halfway joking around in the Double Tap—asking everyone who was sick what would make them happy before they died.” Sparrow paused for a moment, his eyes lowering, “You said something that’s haunted me for a while now. You said that you’ve never really been happy. You said it in a joking manner, but there was something there…Is that still true?”

Alexa smiled wryly at him, “I’m a work in progress.”

__

“Are you fucking with me?”

The response took her by surprise, momentarily jerking her out of her train of thought. The woman sat across from her, eyes incredulous, mouth turned down slightly in a faint scowl. Her red hair was chopped short, framing a face that was marred by scars and rot. Alexa’s eyes automatically were drawn to the zipper on the side of the woman’s cheek, attached by faint threads that were sewn through flesh—a practical attempt to keep her face from splitting when talking, she imagined. Must be difficult being a Retrograde.

She shook her head briefly, responding to the woman’s outburst, “No, I’m not ‘fucking’ with you. That’s what happened to me.”

They had been speaking for some time now in the dim light of the room. The door was open, allowing a fresh, afternoon breeze to waft through the space, cooling beads of sweat that collected on heated brows. They lounged on the furniture crammed into the tiny quarters, backs propped against wooden walls and feet pulled up onto metal bedframes. The hum of insects provided a low chorus to their conversation.

The Retrograde watched Alexa, distrust plain on her face. You shouldn’t be so surprised by that. After all, you did trick her into this situation. But that’s what I was asked to do. And you always do your job—don’t you? Alexa maintained eye contact with the woman—Slink—and waited for her response.

“That’s…” Slink’s mouth worked for a moment and then she glanced downward, breaking eye contact. “That’s exactly what happened to me when I went into the Gravemind.”

It really is all about that, isn’t it? Alexa pushed a few pale strands of hair back from her face with a faint frown. Strange that we’d have the same experience, though. She may have been charged with getting Slink help, but the two of them had little in common—on the surface, anyway. Sure, they could both throw down in a fight and they both worked for the same person, but that didn’t mean they had much else in common. Except for dying, apparently.

Another voice echoed in the mostly-empty room, and Alexa turned her attention to the curly haired man in the corner. She was lucky that Augustus had agreed to help—lucky that she’d been able to track down both him and Slink and then ensure they were in the same room for more than five minutes. She wasn’t going to take it for granted.

“Tell me a little bit more about your experience. How did it make you feel?” Augustus leaned forward slightly on his perch. A large pipe rested next to him, flecked with rust and molded by a few dents. His wide hardhat he kept on his lap as he spoke.

Slink’s wary eyes flickered toward him and she shrugged, leaning back slightly, “There’s not much to tell, really.”

“Tell me, anyway.”

Alexa listened as they spoke, keeping her silence. After all, she wasn’t experienced in these kinds of things. You have a great habit of putting your foot in your mouth when it comes to something important—or someone important, for that matter. She half closed her eyes, letting the murmur of conversation rise and fall around her.

We all have our talents. Yours just happens to be something else.

__

At first glance, you wouldn’t think the man was someone of faith. He was a wash of colors and textures; scarves and scraps of cloth and patterns wrapped around his thin frame, creating a look that was both exotic and flashy. At first glance, he looked more like a performer or a layabout than a man of the court—someone who you might find drunk and high in a bar, slurring his words as he tried to convince the bar tender to pour him another drink.

But his faith wasn’t something you could see; it was something you could feel. It was the way he spoke about music and the stars. It was the way his eyes lit up when he learned someone could sing or play an instrument. It was the way he altered his entire persona when he understood that someone was in need. Aladdin Hell: A man of music.

He stood next to Alexa, his brown eyes dancing as he spoke. His hands gestured as his voice rose and fell, explaining his beliefs. Alexa listened, brushing some of her pale hair away from her eyes as she scanned the field in front of them, noting the men and women that mingled with one another as they went about their daily lives.

“Just imagine it—they’re all up there. Waiting. They’ve been up there for years and years and years. And finally they’re coming down—shooting down to Earth because now is the time that they plan to take us away with them to the stars.”

Alexa glanced toward Aladdin. He was looking upward, eyes lit up with something that she couldn’t quite name. Fanaticism? No—more like passion. She watched him for a moment longer, mulling over his words in her mind.  He does have a point, Alexa. The stars have been falling all over—tumbling to Earth like rain upon parched ground.

She turned to look at the people walking across the field once more before speaking, “I don’t mean any offense by this, Aladdin. But what if they aren’t coming back here to take us away with them? What if they’re coming here to take what’s theirs and kill us all off?”

“I suppose that’s possible.”

His answer surprised her, causing her to turn toward him quickly as he continued, “But I like to believe that they’ll take us away. That we’ll travel among the stars and the planets—forever wandering as we explore the universe above us.” A faint smile flashed across his face and then he looked downward. “Can you imagine it?”

Alexa remained silent, thoughts churning. He has faith—faith that he will one day escape into the stars and leave this world behind. A wry smile crossed her face. In some ways, you’re not so different. You’re both looking for a way to run.

It’s a pity we’re both trapped.

__

The lake stretched out before them, clouds swirling overhead and blocking out starlight and moonlight. The water remained motionless and calm—a flat expanse of nothingness that gurgled and whispered in the dark.

She drank. He didn’t.

She wondered if he noticed that she noticed. She decided he didn’t.

It was something he kept to himself—and she respected privacy.

“I found out why it bothers me so much that you do what you do—why it bothers me that people take advantage of you,” she said.

“Why’s that?” he asked

“Because I let people do the same to me sometimes,” she replied.

Marked

Standard
Photo by: isafmedia

Photo by: isafmedia

“I admit that I’m slightly jealous. I don’t think I could do what you do.

“What do you mean?”

“Sacrifice. You sacrifice everything to people. I’m too selfish to do what you do.”

“I’m selfish.”

“How are you selfish?”

“You’d be surprised. I do what I do because it makes things easier. How many people in town want to kill me? How many people in town trust what I do?”

“That’s not selfish. That’s survival.”

“Survival can be selfish.”

More silence.

“I don’t know if you remember, but something you said to me in the past has haunted me until now. You said that you’ve never really been happy.”

Silence again.

“I’m a work in progress.”

__

Have you ever been in a situation when you realized you could die? A moment in time when you realize that these could be your very last few breaths? Your heart thrums in your chest like a bird’s; adrenaline pumps through your veins and, at the same time, both narrows and widens your vision. You feel terror and regret and anger and determination.

This was one of those situations.

Screaming mortars echoed through the night air as gunshot ricocheted off of the sturdy walls of the Bulwark. There was a boom and the windows rattled in their frames. Fire lit up the darkness outside, flickering as it caught on dry grass and branches. Outlined in its glow, dark figures approached, armed with clubs and steel. They walked through a greenish haze—the remnants of the poisonous gas that had been sent downwind toward the building.

Alexa gritted her teeth, ignoring the burns that laced her skin, making it painful to move. She wiped one bloody hand across her brow, pushing away the sweat and the dirt that threatened to fall into her eyes. They had been fighting for a while now—how long exactly was difficult to say. But it had been long enough for both of the Bulwark’s doors to be blown off of their hinges, for the mercenaries to bleed and sweat as missiles fell down like rain.

A few of the men from Bravo had positioned themselves by the door, keeping their shields up to use as a makeshift wall against the oncoming tide of enemies. Alexa remained behind them, every so often stabbing forward with her blade to discourage the Yorkers from trying to breach the Bulwark. All this to kill a few Baywalkers. Sometimes she felt the slight resistance of metal cutting through flesh, but more often than not her target jumped backward out of her reach. I suppose I should be flattered. She could sense rather than see Commander Dantes behind her, helping guard the other opening to the Bulwark. He barked orders, rallying the others to follow his lead.

The problem was that they weren’t going anywhere. Sure, they’d eventually wear down their enemies, but the mortars were becoming more and more accurate. Soon, they’d be burning inside the Bulwark itself, surrounded on all sides and unable to escape. We’re going to have to make a move.

It seemed as if she wasn’t the only one thinking it. The men with the shield wall pushed forward, moving outside—and then all was chaos.

Alexa darted into the night air, which smelled of smoke and blood and metal. She ran through the crowd of men and women, slicing at them with her sword as she passed. She spun and dodged, ducking beneath blows. Breathe. One of her swords connected with a man’s face, causing him to cry out, covering his eyes with a scream before falling to the ground. Her other sword pierced a woman’s side. She made a sound like a deflating balloon before slumping forward. And then Alexa was moving once more. Just breathe.

That’s when she heard the telltale whistling noise. She had enough time to register something bright flying toward the road in front of her, and then the world exploded. A blast of heat hit her like a wave as an invisible force knocked her to the ground. She gasped, choking on dust as rocks pummeled what was left of the metal plates of her armor. Her ears rang and she dully noted that there was something digging into the back of her shoulder, piercing skin. Something wet and slick seeped down her torso as she struggled to rise.

Then the second blast hit. And the third. And the fourth. Alexa cried out—or she thought she did. It was hard to tell through the sounds of the screams around her. A haze of smoke and fire and debris clouded the night as her vision blurred. It was hard to breathe as she lay on the ground, hard to suck in another breath. Everything hurt—pain raced through her body like water, like fire.

Figures suddenly emerged from the smoke, weapons drawn. They walked around the other bodies near her, examining each closely. Alexa swallowed another cry of pain, biting into her lower lip hard enough that it began to bleed. Shit. They were the Yorkers—the ones that were attacking. Probably searching for Baywalkers. Shit. Shit. Shit.

They approached paused in front of her, staring down at her. Two of them were women, one wearing a straw hat and the other in patched jeans and a checkered shirt. Alexa sucked in another breath, trying to keep herself calm when all her heart wanted to do was burst from her chest. One of the women spoke, an accent drawling out slowly, “So what are you? We’re only supposed to kill the Baywalkers.”

Alexa stared at her for a moment, her mind whirling. Shit. Fuck. Shit. Then she responded in a hoarse whisper, “Remnant. I’m a remnant.”

The woman arched an eyebrow, lowering her club slightly and swinging it at her side, “That so? You don’t look like no Remnant I’ve ever seen.”

Alexa’s eyes widened slightly as she spoke again, “I’m a Remnant. Really.”

The other woman tossed her hair, a scowl crossing her lips, “Well if that’s the case, we got someone who can check.”

The two kneeled down, grabbing Alexa around the arms. She bit back a cry of pain as their fingers dug into scorched skin. They dragged her down the road as Alexa tried to struggle, each movement aching, flaring across her body. Shit. Her heart thudded in her chest, sounding in her ears as she called out, “D.O.C.! Someone! Commander Dantes! They’re taking me!” The women continued to pull her away from the Bulwark—from her allies. “Anyone! Please!”

There was no answer. The sounds of battle and falling mortars drowned her out, taking her words before they had even dropped from her lips. Alexa turned her head slightly as her feet dragged behind her in the dirt. She coughed once, tasting blood on her tongue. No one was coming. She was on her own. For a moment, her heart plummeted—and then she remembered his words.

“Don’t hesitate to use this when you’re in trouble, Alexa. Don’t save it if you’re dying.”

A faint smile crossed her lips as she reached into the pouch at her side. Always have a plan B. Each moment seemed to stretch for days. Her vision clouded slightly as her fingers touched something cool and smooth. Shakily, she pulled it toward her—and then she slammed the needle into her body.

Everything snapped into focus—everything. Sounds, sights, smells. Her entire body thrummed and vibrated with the adrenaline that coursed through her body, pushing away the pain and making anything seem possible. She found herself grinning widely as she jerked free of her captors, her breathing rapid as she noted their stunned faces. It was a high of another kind—and she was going to ride it for all it was worth.

She ran.

__

Darkness cloaked their forms, shrouding them in its embrace as they walked side by side. Gravel and dirt crunched beneath their feet as a gentle breeze rustled nearby branches and leaves, carrying the scents of summer. A few glow bugs flickered in and out of existence in the nearby forest, winking to them as they continued down the beaten path.

Alexa exhaled slowly, allowing her muscles to relax slightly as alcohol buzzed across her fingertips. She could feel it taking effect, slowly working its way through her system and threatening to lull her into a false sense of security. Don’t relax. Her muscles tensed for a moment. You can’t afford to get close, Rook.

She quickly glanced toward the man next to her—Mickey. His brown eyes glittered in the darkness, features barely seen within the gloom. And yet she knew them well enough to fill in the details—the pieces that were taken by the night: the well-cut jawline, the scruffy beard, the dark hair shoved beneath a hat. His shoulders were padded by armor, widely set and muscled beneath cloth and metal. Alexa quickly looked away. Never get close.

“So, Alexa. Can I ask you a question?” His accented voice sounded out in the darkness as they paused for a brief moment, the lyrical words rolling from his tongue.

Alexa turned to look at him once more, watching him out of the corner of her eye, “Yeah, sure. What is it?”

“Did I…” He paused briefly, as if uncomfortable with the question. She could see the way his brow furrowed, the way he glanced downward before looking toward her, “Did…I ever have a chance with you? At all?”

A chance? Alexa felt the air rush out of her lungs, felt her gut twist slightly. It would be so easy to lie—to avoid the whole situation entirely. She could just pretend that she felt nothing—be as still as a stone. A small voice whispered in the back of her head—a voice that wouldn’t stay silent. Say “no,” Alexa. Say “no,” because that will keep him safer. Say “no” because that’s what you should say. Say “no,” because that will make things simpler. Say “no” because he can’t know.

She glanced downward and then toward him. His eyes locked with hers and before she could stop herself, she found herself speaking, “Yes…Yes, of course.”

He watched her for a moment and then he smiled, teeth glinting in the darkness. Alexa felt her face warm slightly as she looked away. Now why’d you have to tell the truth? It will only cause problems later. Her eyes traveled across the road, fixing on the trees and sky beyond. And that’s when she saw it.

There was a faint light in the sky—drawing ever closer. A whistling sound accompanied it. Alexa jerked her head to look at Mickey, saw how his eyes widened. He shouted at her and everyone around them, “Hit the deck!”

Alexa slammed herself to the ground and seconds later, she felt the blast. It shook the earth around them, forcing everyone into the dirt. Rocks and debris flew up around them as fire raced toward them. Alexa inhaled sharply, crying out as the plates of her armor heated up, scorching her skin. She tried to catch her breath as the screams of others sounded out around her, as dust swirled in the air and as her skin throbbed.

Then there was suddenly more whistling. Alexa gritted her teeth, struggling to sit up. She wouldn’t survive another few rounds of this—not intact. Lying on the ground would just be a death sentence. The whistling came closer. Not fast enough. Her eyes squeezed shut.

And then someone knocked into her, bowling her over. There was another blast that shook the earth, causing tongues of flame to dart across the landscape. Then another—and another. And yet someone was above her, shielding her with his body. She turned her head slightly and saw that it was Mickey who was shielding her—saving her. Her eyes widened slightly as the mortars continued to fall, as he grimaced in pain.

And then there was silence.

__

The woman stood in front of the building, whorls of paint highlighting her cheekbones beneath her broad-brimmed hat. Green eyes stared out from beneath, fierce and calculating as she watched those around her. This was someone who would lead armies—someone who would step forward if the need arose. Better Sydney than me.

Alexa watched from her position on the side of the field, eyes scanning the faces surrounding Sydney. There was Commander Dantes with his pale hair and vest, face even more serious than usual. There was Antigone with her hat and sword, making sure she knew what was going on. Miyako, the pretty dark-haired Genjin girl, stood nearby with a few sheets of torn paper and a pen, quickly taking notes. All of them—even Sydney—leaned forward, listening intently to the man sitting on one of the cracked, wooden benches in front of the old building. Kellen, I think they said his name was—a mercenary. His shirt was slightly stained, but professionally maintained. He looked confident, collected—like someone who was used to being in control. In fact, he reminded her of Commander Dantes—if the Commander had more scars and a few years more experience under his belt.

The sun was quickly setting over the horizon, casting the field that spread out in front of them in a golden glow. The light slanted through the forest nearby, dappling the grass with wavering shadows. Dust motes swirled through the air as the slam of doors from the nearby building broke into the conversation every so often, the tromp of shuffling feat mingling with the general buzz of chatter from townsfolk. Alexa remained slightly to the outside of the group surrounding Kellen, watching. There was no point in getting involved just yet. After all, she was no captain.

Kellen turned to look at those around him, voice low but demanding attention. Good tactic. Speaking loudly could grab the attention of a group of people but once you had it, speaking more quietly made people hang on what you said—made them pay more attention. Might need to use that in the future.

“Timing is going to be crucial. We’re going to have to make sure that each team works in tandem. The gunners on the boats will have to rely on the stealth team to take out the snipers, and the main force will have to push up the hill fast enough so that the stealth team isn’t overwhelmed. The ones going out to set off the bomb will need the cover of the gunners to get out there—it all relies on team work. Now, who’s going to be in command of each team?”

Alexa glanced toward Commander Dantes, Sydney and the others. Dantes will be leaving, so Sydney will probably be commanding the main force. We need someone who knows guns—Crow maybe? Her green eyes quickly flickered over the faces of those in the group. Stealth team needs to be handled, too. Better nip that one in the bud.

She stepped toward Sydney, keeping her own voice slightly low as she spoke, “I can grab people for the stealth team—but let me pick those involved. Don’t make a general announcement; some people aren’t as stealthy as they think they are.” Probably should include myself in that group.  Alexa smiled wryly to herself for a brief moment before feeling it fade.

Sydney turned to look at her and nodded, “Do what you need to.”

“Always.”

__

Screams tore through the night air, the guttural grunts of creatures that had no more mind—no more sense—than animals. Hunt, eat, take, kill, leave. That is all they knew—all they would ever know. Alexa felt a chill fall down her spine; she knew that instinct far better than she’d like to admit.

They tumbled through the doors of the building, wild, empty eyes searching for food—for shelter. Tangled hair fell in front of dirty faces smeared with blood. They weren’t people—and if they ever were, it was far better for them to die than continue to live a half-life. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. It’s what helps us sleep at night—if we can manage to sleep.

Alexa darted through the fray, sword snaking out to carve through flesh and unguarded bodies. Blood spattered the floor, already stained with the gore and mess from countless other attacks. We try to cover over the past—but it always comes back; it’s always waiting.

One of the creatures—the raiders—came at her from the front. She gritted her teeth and blocked his blow, jabbing forward with one of her blades. Normally she would have just played a defensive position, but people were on the ground, dying. It would be a waste.

That’s when something cut at her from behind, making her cry out. Something hot soaked through the fabric of her shirt, seeping down her body, pain lancing through her. She spun around to face the new opponent. Wide, brown eyes stared at her blankly, a vicious grin ripping across the raider’s face. He—it—stepped forward with its club…

And then suddenly it stopped. Its eyes widened, blood suddenly burbling from its mouth as it collapsed to the ground. Alexa stared as a man appeared from behind the raider. He carefully flicked his blade, droplets of blood spattering the ground before he quickly put it away. Deadly intelligence watched her for a moment before he placed the mask firmly back in place.

Confusion and wariness trickled through her like a river. 

That one needs to be watched. Next time he’s in town, we’re going to chat.