At first there was only darkness—a cloistering blackness that swirled around her like liquid smoke. It held the consciousness of others—begging, pleading, crying, speaking. All of them massed together in the dark—all except the flickering light ahead of her. It was a flame in the darkness; it was her anchor. She could sense the Merican woman that had gone through with her within that light.
“Alexa, come to join me again so soon? Are you that eager to stay?”
She didn’t hear the voice so much as sense it. After all, she didn’t have ears to hear—didn’t have eyes to see. She had what the Grave gave her, which was nothing. She knew it could probably sound any way it wanted—man, woman, child—but every time she had been through, it sounded like a man. This was no exception.
“No. I didn’t choose to be here.”
She could sense its amusement—a subtle shift in emotions. It was like sensing movement during a pitch black night. You couldn’t hear it. You couldn’t see it—but you knew. The flame flickered in the dark, wary.
“You might as well remain. After all, you’re close—next time, you’ll keep me company forever.”
“You have plenty of company without me.”
“Yes, but none are as…interesting as you are.”
She felt a cold dread, but quickly pushed it away. After all, she was in the Gravemind—a part of it. He—it—could probably sense her emotion.
“Interesting? Not really. I’m sure that there are others that are more fascinating. You have the entire world to pick from.”
“I beg to differ. You intrigue me. Though I do appreciate those you send me from time to time. Thank you for that.”
Starlight shone downward, silvering the field and creating shadows in darker places. The grass clung to her boots as a cold breeze tangled the pale strands of her hair around her face. Her hands gripped her swords tightly, squeezing the leather-wrapped hilts as she watched the man in front of her. He held a metal pole in two hands, dark eyes assessing her. Her heart pounded in her chest, sounding loudly in her ears as she attempted to keep calm.
I’m going to die.
It was a simple thought—but a realistic one—and it terrified her. She didn’t want to go back there—into the grave—but fighting someone with a larger weapon face-to-face wasn’t her forte. There was a reason she avoided the pit fights. She was better at trickery—misdirection. She was better at being clever.
She grimaced faintly, trying to push the thoughts aside. Guess I’m going back on my word to Mickey. But damn this guy to hell if I don’t make him feel some pain first.
Already, she could hear the two others engaging—the sound of clashing steel and cries of pain echoed across the field. They were fighting for their lives; Alexa could only hope that Dakota made it out in one piece. It would shatter him if she died.
Her opponent’s voice shook her from her thoughts, bringing her back. He smirked faintly at her, white teeth flashing briefly before he spoke solemnly, “You are only wasting time, Alexa. He will die if you do not follow the rules. Are you willing to sacrifice everything for him?”
Alexa gritted her teeth, her muscles tensing as she nodded curtly, “Let’s begin.”
She sprang forward with her blades, using one to knock the man’s pole aside before sweeping at him with the other. It struck, and droplets of blood flew through the air. He looked surprised for a moment as she pushed him backward, continuing to go on the offensive—and then he responded.
The pole slammed into one of her arms, a jolt of pain shooting down to her fingertips. She pushed the feeling aside, blocking his next few swings. Another hit slammed into her chest and she felt something crack, the metal plates of her armor shifting as she stumbled backward, trying to catch her breath. Fuck, he’s strong.
The man paused for a moment, breathing heavily, “You’re only prolonging this. Fight.”
He swung again, hitting her shoulder. She felt her entire arm go numb and cried out, falling to her knees and then to the ground. She felt a hot trickle of blood seep toward her wrist as she lay still, careful to control her breathing. She could sense him standing over her as he made a noise in the back of his throat, one of disgust, “What a waste.”
Just lay still. She remained motionless—dead to the world. Did it matter if she actually died or not? Probably not—and she didn’t want to die. Just stay still. Don’t move. If you stay still, you’ll survive this.
And then she heard Dakota cry out.
Alexa rolled. She was instantly on her feet and swinging at her opponent from behind. I can’t let her die. She could sense his hesitation, that moment of surprise. And then he leapt backward, a grin flashing across his face as he blocked her next few strikes. He laughed, speaking, “Tricky, aren’t you?”
Alexa didn’t respond. Instead, she pushed toward him, slashing with her blades again and again. Don’t let him recover. She shifted the grip on her sword and then slammed the metal point into his chest. A look of shock crossed her opponent’s face, and then it hardened into something else—something cruel.
He snarled and responded. The blows came faster now, each one falling like a sledgehammer. Alexa stumbled as she felt one of her ribs snap. She was having trouble breathing, sweat beading on her forehead as she backed away. Don’t give in. Pain shook her body, making it slower to respond. Fight, Alexa.
The metal pole suddenly slammed into the side of her head, causing her to see red and then black as her legs gave out from under her. She could feel blood coating her back and chest, seeping under the broken and fractured plates of her armor as grass tickled the side of her cheek. She gasped for breath as she looked upward toward the man standing above her. His dark eyes stared down at her—eyes without pity, eyes without any emotion at all. They were eyes that she recognized. You failed, Rook. See what this does to you?
“Like I said—a waste.”
She had time to scream in fury before the piece of metal sliced through her heart.
The candle flickered in front of her and slowly moved away. In some sense, Alexa knew that Dakota was leaving the Grave—that she was the light in the darkness. The flame brightened for a moment and then disappeared entirely, leaving her in darkness. Alone—except for Him.
“I’ll make a deal with you, Alexa…”
“Never make a deal with the Gravemind.”
It was true—a mantra she had told herself again and again. Those who made deals regretted them later. There was no need to play his game.
“So quick to respond? Wait until you hear me out. I’m fascinated by this Professor Barnes of yours. If you send him to me, I’ll let you leave.”
The Gravemind is always so quick to mention the Professor. Why is that? Is it my own subconscious that brings him to mind?
“I won’t let you leave if you don’t agree to it.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Why are you so sure?”
Conversations with Smiles filtered through her mind—words and thoughts and theories that they had with one another. They may not be true, but they were true enough.
“Because I realize that you are just a mirror, a reflection. You are a part of me and I am a part of you. Essentially, I’m talking with myself—which may make me crazy, but I’m not about to kill someone over being crazy.”
“Are you so sure of that? That I am you? Well let me tell you something you don’t know, Alexa Rook. You will come to me again—soon. And you won’t be dead—you’ll be very much alive. You’ll come and dig through the dirt and the filth because you’ll want to try to take something back from me…”
“…I’ll see you soon, Alexa.”