“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.