Words are malleable, changeable. They are as insubstantial as wind—as powerful as a storm. They warp actions and twist thoughts. They can be everything and nothing. But what is truth and what is a lie? How can you tell when everything you know is just a screen—a mask? Words flow past me and through me—and I can no longer tell what is illusion and what is reality.
They stood beneath the stars, wind whispering its secrets to no one as the scent of smoke and changing leaves and Autumn filtered through the air. The sounds of voices echoed down the road, the constant hum of life around the local bar and the chatter of townsfolk seeping through the night.
Alexa shifted her feet slightly, one hand resting on the smooth pommel of one of the swords belted at her side. Absentmindedly, she pushed a strand of pale hair away from her eyes as she watched the two others next to her. Professor Barnes stood solemnly, leaning slightly on his umbrella as he watched the world with dark, shadowed eyes. Smiles remained nearby, her stoic face smeared with dark paint and a white smile. Alexa could just see her hands peeking out from her long sleeves, peeling skin flaking along her fingertips.
It was such a different scene from a few moments ago. The Professor had sat on a trunk inside, calm eyes scanning a wrinkled page by candlelight as the hum of conversation surrounded him. Alexa had watched as a smile flickered at the corner of his mouth, his face softening as he read words from miles away. Something had clenched at Alexa’s heart then. They deserve that happiness. They deserve knowing.
Now quiet happiness had given way to solemnity and worry. She shouldn’t be surprised. After all, they were dealing with something that the Professor had nicknamed “The Entity.” But exactly who and what that was, Alexa still didn’t know. Zodiac? A remnant of the Grave Mind? A mere man who plays the game? She hated not having all the answers—and there was no real way to determine the truth. People cling onto information as if it were gold—pieces of a larger puzzle. And no one can see the entire picture because of it. It grated on her nerves. But the only way to find out was to continue digging.
Alexa turned toward the Professor, green eyes meeting his dark ones briefly as she spoke, “Technically I’m under no obligation not to tell her, if you want me to. You technically wouldn’t be breaking your promise and if questioned, you could truthfully say you didn’t tell her.”
It was a difficult situation. He had been told not to tell Smiles—for whatever reason. Another puzzle—or perhaps another clue? At this point, though, Smiles needed to know; it might make things more dangerous for her, but not knowing everything might also land her in danger.
The Professor didn’t speak. He only nodded.
Alexa told her.
Everyone has a pet peeve. Some dislike it when others chew too loudly. Others hate it when someone cracks their knuckles or coughs continuously. Still others despise fidgeting or nail tapping.
It’s something that grates on your nerves, something that makes you clench your fists and bite your tongue to keep from lashing out. You can’t always explain why it is that it bothers you so much—but it does.
For Alexa, it was being a pretty face.
She stood in the arena, eyes fixed on the man across the stadium. He was heavily armored, a dagger in one hand as his wide, brown eyes watched her. Alexa could tell that he was trying to show he was brave, trying to show false bravado and confidence. It might have worked for the crowd, but she’d seen fear before—seen it far too often recently. Usually, it disturbed her. She didn’t want to go back to being the person she was before.
This time, though, she welcomed it. If you know anything, Rook, you know how to intimidate a person. Sometimes humanity deserves to feel a bit of fear. Sometimes they need to be reminded that you’re not just a pretty face. She gritted her teeth, her hands tightening on her blades. She wanted him to feel that fear. But more than that—she wanted him to feel pain. In the back of her mind, she knew this was a change since she’d been through the Gravemind—but she didn’t care.
Logically, though, she needed to put on a show.
Others called from the side of the ring, cheering her name. Their faces pressed against the rusted metal mesh of the chain link fence around the arena as they discussed odds and bets—as money changed hands. Alexa hadn’t planned on fighting on the cracked concrete of the arena, stained with patches of blood. All she’d wanted to do was to watch; you can learn a lot about a person by watching how they fight, and she’d wanted to keep tabs on a few of the people there. But that all changed when she heard them.
“Fuck. She’s pretty hot for a Baywalker.”
“Hey, sexy! Nice legs!”
“Five credits to the man that makes it painful for him.”
“Do you really need me to fight your battle for you, Alexa?”
Now she was in the ring, facing down the man who thought she was just another mask with nothing beneath. She usually used it to her advantage but this time, she needed to make a point. She smirked faintly to herself. One of these days, I need to start wearing an actual mask.
A man from the side of the arena called out, his voice echoing across the space, “Are you both ready?”
Alexa merely nodded as her opponent waved one hand, showing that he was set. She waited, leaning forward slightly as her muscles tensed. Time to put on a show, Rook. You know how to do that pretty well by now.
Morning sunlight streamed across the dirt road, filtering through the leaves and branches of nearby trees as early risers stirred from their beds. A few birds chirped, their songs mingling with the wind that ran through the pale strands of Alexa’s hair. Another night survived.
She quickly scanned her surroundings, eyes flickering over the landscape. A few people walked down the road, heading toward the Double Tap where drunks were no doubt grumbling about the dawn. Others filtered in and out of the two small buildings nearby. Her eyes continued and finally rested on a tall man lounging in one of the chairs outside.
Stew was tall, even when sitting. He kept his weapon nearby as his brown eyes flickered back and forth, assessing any potential threats. Ever the watchful guardian. Blood flecked his arms, probably left over from the night before; after all, there had been a lot of fighting—and not all of it had been easy.
Alexa inwardly cringed as she watched him, remembering the conversation they’d had the other day—and then reminded herself that there was no reason to be embarrassed. After all, they spoke in truths; they owed that to one another, at the very least. Even if you never tell the whole truth.
Alexa exhaled slightly and then slowly approached. As she did, he glanced toward her, his face cracking slightly in a close-lipped smile, “Hey there.”
She smiled faintly in return, taking a seat in one of the chairs next to him, “Hey, Stew.” The muscles in her legs protested, each one slowly relaxing after being tense for so long. She grimaced faintly and then leaned forward. Ironic that sitting can be more tiring than standing. “How are you this morning?”
“Doing all right.” He paused for a moment, glancing down at the ground. They were silent. The hum of chatter down the road sounded through the crisp air. A shout of laughter mingled with the crunch of footsteps on gravel. He wants to say something more. Alexa waited, feeling her muscles tense again as she did.
He glanced up again, brown eyes meeting her green ones. He shifted forward slightly and then spoke, his voice low, “I’m…sorry about the way I’ve acted. It’s just what you said threw me off a bit.” He shifted his weight, glancing down once more. Alexa found herself thinking of another conversation, her mind turning over words briefly. “Yeah, I met Disco when I was down there just a couple months ago. Heard she was from up here.” She closed her eyes for a moment. You knew he was manipulative, but you didn’t realize how far he’d gone—talking with Corbin, throwing out hints whenever Stew is around, trying to get you to join. Doesn’t he realize he doesn’t need to do that?
Stew continued, his voice still low as he looked up at her again, “But what I said before is true. She’s gone, Alexa. And I still feel the same.”
It was Alexa’s turn to look downward. He still loves her, though—even if she’s gone. You’re no good for him, anyway. You know you would destroy him in the end—it’s only a matter of time.
She nodded and looked back at him, “I understand.”
He gave me a choice—walk a darker path or turn back toward the light. I said I needed time, but that’s not entirely true. I already know what the outcome will be—and I think he knows as well.
My answer is “yes.”
Unspoken words, unspoken lies, unspoken truths: Without all of the information, how can we ever succeed? The answer is simple: we can’t. And that’s what he wants in the end.