Category Archives: Dystopian

Based loosely off of the post-apocalyptic Dystopia Rising world, property of Eschaton Media. http://www.eschatonmedia.com/
To learn more about Dystopia Rising, visit http://www.dystopiarisinglarp.com/

Cold as Ice

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Photo By: Flickr/ladybugdiscovery

Photo By: Flickr/ladybugdiscovery

“From far, from eve and morning

And yon twelve-winded sky,

The stuff of life to knit me

Blew hither: here am I.

Now—for a breath I tarry

Nor yet disperse apart—

Take my hand quick and tell me,

What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;

How shall I help you, say;

Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters

I take my endless way.” -A.E. Housman

~

The morning sunshine was partially blurred by the cold clouds that swept over the snowy landscape, causing patterns of dark shade within the forest clearing. A large building, covered in frost and hung with icicles, stood watch amidst the darkened wood. The wind whispered its secrets across the space, rattling bare branches and catching the pale hair that framed the face of one of the two figures standing there.

“I’m leaving.”

The words hung in the space between them, crystallizing in the frozen air. Alexa stared at the large, dark-haired man in front of her, green eyes tracing the partial mask that covered his lower face. She spoke haltingly, slowly, “What do you mean? How long?”

Stew’s brown eyes met hers for a moment, unwavering, “I don’t know. I can’t dog your heels forever, Alexa. I can’t…” He paused briefly and then continued, “I can’t continue like this.” He glanced downward and slowly reached toward the large bag at his side. Alexa watched as his hand fumbled in the pocket and then produced a small leather book. A brass clasp fastened its pages tightly together, keeping safe words that were never meant to be read.

He held the book for a moment, looking down at it, “It means a lot that you gave this to me. I know what it represents. I can feel your life here in these pages.” His eyes squinted slightly, and Alexa could tell he was smiling wryly beneath his mask, “Don’t worry. I didn’t read it. But I left something in here for you for when I’m gone.”

He handed the journal to Alexa, and she took it carefully with small, black gloved hands. Something tightened in her chest as she stared at him for a moment. She swallowed hard and then looked downward at the book in her hands, unable to speak. Her eyes traced the worn letter, the small bird etched into the front cover. Coward, Alexa. You’re a coward.

“I can’t tell you what to do, but if there is anything in here that you want to say to someone, say it. Don’t…” Stew paused for a moment, as if gathering his words. Alexa squeezed her eyes shut as his voice continued, “Don’t wait, Alexa. Don’t wait until it’s too late. People care about you. They’d be by your side in an instant if you asked it of them. Don’t leave them words on a page. “

Alexa’s chest tightened further, her breath coming in puffs in front of her face. The cold pricked at the corners of her eyes as her voice wavered. You’re weak. She swallowed again, “I’m not a good person, Stew.” She paused for a moment, turning away slightly and then quickly continued, “And don’t say that I am, because I’m not. I’m a good enough judge of character, and I know myself well enough to say that I…know exactly what I am.” You’ll always be Rook—in some form or other. You can’t escape that. Alexa shook her head and a short laugh left her throat, bitter as the cold around them, “Fuck, Stew. I kill people. You know that. And that’s the reason I push people away. Why I push you away. I’m a coward.”

She continued staring at the journal, her eyes blurring slightly.  Fuck. I’m crying.

“Alexa, look at me.”

She tried to steady her breathing and looked up at Stew, quickly wiping her eyes with the back of her hand as she sniffed. He gently pushed a strand of hair away from her face, “You’re not a coward. I’ve seen you. I know you. I’ve watched men try to turn you into a weapon, a tool—a sword, a knife. I’ve watched you time and time again stand up against them. Don’t let anyone control you. Not Dantes. Not House. Not anyone.”

Alexa blinked rapidly and glanced down again. It’s your fault. You put him through hell. You pushed him away, “Are you leaving partly because I…because of me?”

She heard Stew sigh, a heavy breath as he spoke softly, “No…No, Alexa. The time we spend together. The jokes we make. Fighting. Living. That makes me happy. There are those who are lucky to find one love in their lives. I’ve had the joy to find two. But I’m not my own person here. I need to leave…but know that if you asked me to stay, I would.”

He would stay if you asked, Alexa. He’d stay, and he’d work and do as you asked. She felt like she was choking, her eyes stinging. But he wouldn’t be happy. Her voice wavered as she spoke, “I won’t. I won’t ask you to stay because you’d be miserable here. I’ve watched you, Stew. I’ve watched time and time again as you stood up for others. I’ve watched as they took you for granted. And you…you’re the anchor, Stew. You’ve always stood fast for others, and for me. Whenever I waver, I always think of you and come back to the fucking bullshit code I live by.” Snow and branches swirled in front of her eyes as she continued, “If I were a better person. If I were less selfish, I’d wish you well on your way. I’d wish you happiness and for you to live your life. But I’m not. I’m not a good person. I won’t ask you to stay, but I love you.”

There was silence—silence except for the small hush of wind. Alexa sniffed, feeling Stew’s eyes on her, “Bullshit. No you don’t.”

“I do.”

“Then look at me when you say it.”

Alexa took a steadying breath and glanced upward at the man in front of her. His brown eyes looked back at her, unjudging. She closed her eyes briefly and then spoke, “I love you.”

She could hear his breath stop for a moment before he spoke the next words, “I love you, too, Alexa. You could come with me.” There was a hopeful note there—hope, but not expectation.

Alexa exhaled slowly, blowing the pale strands of hair in front of her face as icy tracks raced down her face. Her voice broke, “I can’t.”

He nodded once, looking off to the side as he spoke softly, “You know, it’s funny. I never look forward to the dawn anymore.” His eyes crinkled faintly, as if he were smiling, “It’s because we always seem to be around one another more during the nights. And we always look at the stars together.” He paused for a moment, and then continued, “A year from now, I’ll stand on this spot before dawn while the stars are still out. I’ll wait for you.”

Alexa quickly wiped her face with the back of her hand, taking a steadying breath. She looked up at him, unwavering, “I’ll be there.”

She didn’t tell him what she knew–didn’t tell him the full truth. How could she when she didn’t want it to be true, herself?

~

“These, in the day when heaven was falling,

The hour when earth’s foundations fled,

Followed their mercenary calling,

And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;

They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;

What God abandoned, these defended,

And saved the sum of things for pay.” -A.E. Housman

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I’ll See You Soon

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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.

“Mercy…”

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?

“No.”

“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.”

My Town

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Photo By: Flickr/Pam Morris

Photo By: Flickr/Pam Morris

A chill wind rattled the branches of skeletal trees as ice shattered and dropped to the ground from bare twigs. A few drifts of snow whirled in the wind, flurries swirling in small eddies within the forest. Nothing stirred within the heart of winter–nothing, save one creature.

At first glance, you might think he was a man. He certainly looked like one–he had two legs, a head, two arms. He trudged through the snow like a man, head bowed slightly against the bitter cold, the furs that clothed him covered in ice and frost. 
But you’d be wrong.

His face was pale–paler than death itself. Hunks of frozen hair hung in bloodied clumps around his eyes, the color of blue ice. It wasn’t a man, but Death itself that haunted the woods of winter. And within his stiff arms, he held a bundle that squirmed and moved–that cried. Within his arms, he held Autumn. Within his arms, he held Amaroq–for he was born of Death itself. And that is how his story began.

__

“Do you know what this is, Jeanie?”

The Iron turned, her eyes fixed on the man before her. The glowing rock cupped within his hands emitted an eerie light, flickering across his features like rippling water. He smiled, his teeth greenish in the glow, “This is ascension.”

The woman looked back at him, her hardened fists clenching at her sides before she replied, quietly, “You’ve gone too far with it. You’ve taken hearts and minds unwillingly. They didn’t want it, and you didn’t care.”

The man’s smile only grew wider as she spoke. Then he replied in turn, transferring the glowing rock into one hand, “True. But you will come willingly–or not. It doesn’t matter, in the end.”

Jeanie didn’t have time to respond. With a quick movement, the man reached forward. Jeanie tried to jerk back, but she was too slow. Instead, the man’s fingers sunk into her chest, past her rib cage to her heart. She couldn’t breathe–couldn’t move. All she could feel was the pain and the steady thump, thump, thump of her heart–the feeling as it slowed. The feeling as it stopped.

She wasn’t sure if she screamed.

It might have been minutes later. It might have been hours. All she knew was that she woke again. The man was gone–and she could no longer feel her heart.There was only a faint, green glow where it should have been.

__

You’re almost never without some form of light. Even at night, there’s the subtle gleam of the moon, the shimmer of distant stars that silver forest leaves and pattern the ground in shifting shadows. There’s the golden shafts that pour from windows, the wavering form of candlelight, the steady shine of an Iron’s glow.

And yet within the tunnels, there was only darkness.

Makita crept quietly through the deep, making sure to keep her breathing slow and still. She could hear the faint drip of water coming from further down the passage, the shuffling and squeaking of rats in the dark. She felt hard stone against her bare feet as she carefully picked her way through debris.

And then she heard it. It was the sound of another–the whisper of a sigh in the tunnels. Her muscles tensed as her lips drew back from over her pointed teeth. Her fingers tightened on the rusted metal in her hand.

That’s when the other attacked. Makita could sense her–the way she moved in the darkness. Makita jerked her head aside and felt a whisper of wind pass her cheek–the feeling of a blade that had nearly taken her head. She lunged forward with her own dagger, missing her opponent by inches.

The girl was almost as good as Makita was–almost.

The opponent lunged again, but this time she was ready. Makita grabbed the girl’s arm. There was a faint gasp and then a cry as Makita plunged her dagger into warm flesh. Something wet trickled down her fingers as she twisted and then withdrew the blade.

There was a soft sound as the body collapsed.

It was time for dinner.

__

“Have you ever wondered why the way you are, Rasputin?”

The woman’s voice sounded through the room–soft, delicate. It was the sound of cobwebs brushing against silk, the sound of rustling paper and falling petals.

Rasputin turned his head to watch the woman, wrapped in brown cloth so that only her yellowish eyes showed, gleaming in the dim candlelight of the small room. He paused for a moment and then spoke, “I do not know what you are referring to.”

The eyes slanted slightly. If Rasputin didn’t know better, he would have said she was smiling beneath the cloth wrapped around her face, “Why you separate yourself so much from your emotions. Why you only function on logic. Have you ever wondered why that is?”

“It is because I am not stupid like most people.”

The woman’s eyes squinted more in response. She slowly reached into the folds of her clothing and drew out a box. Rasputin’s eyes settled on it for a moment, tracing the warped wood that made up its casing. The woman spoke again, “I thought you’d say that. But no, it’s not because you’re less stupid. It’s because long ago, you gave something away so that it wouldn’t cloud your judgement–your logic. You gave something away, and I have kept it all these years.”

Rasputin frowned faintly, “What do you mean? Who are you?”

The woman reached up and slowly lowered the cloth from around her face. White teeth gleamed as she replied, “You gave away your humanity. I am Justice, and I am here to give it back.”

__

The world stops when you look down the barrel of a gun. Your heart seems to beat slower and faster all at once as adrenaline rushes through your veins. Your eyes can’t seem to focus on anything else except for that piece of metal pointing at you–threatening you. It’s all you can do to tear your eyes away.


At least, that’s what Dakota felt when the man pointed his pistol toward her head.


“I ain’t foolin’ ’round here, girl. Y’all are gonna give me what I want, or else yer pretty brains are gonna be spattered over that there wall right quick.” The man was tall, his grizzled salt-and-pepper stubble covering a lined face. He kept his greasy hair long, falling to his shoulders as he jerked his head toward the side, “Now hurry up.”


Dakota stared at him, her heart pounding in her throat as she spoke slowly, “I ain’t quite sure what y’all want. My cred? Don’t got much of that. And you don’t look like y’all can use a shield.”


The man shook his head, “I ain’t ‘ere for your stuff. I’m ‘ere for a person.’


Dakota swallowed hard as she told herself to stay calm–that she could get out of this. After all, she’d been in worse situations. If he wanted her, then she’d fight, “What do y’all want me fer?”


The man smirked at her, shaking his head again–almost pityingly, “Don’t be stupid, girl. I ain’t here for Deliverance.” His eyes slid to the side, focusing on something only he could see.


“I’m ‘ere for Mercy.”

__

There are no monsters in this world. There are only people.


For those who suffer from the sickness of emotions, this is a terrifying thought. For me, it is merely fact–a statement of truth. But people like Templeton cling onto morals just as they cli
ng onto emotions. It’s an addiction–one that cannot be given up so easily.


My hands feel light as I run them through the lake, the moonlight glinting off the water and reflecting the stars. Is this why she uses water to write in her letters? My fingers tingle as minnows tear off peeling skin.


I am sitting in the waves, knees drawn up to my chest as I tilt my head upward. My clothes float around me. It is peaceful here. But her voice makes me turn. I remember my knife is on the beach and I fall still.


“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be more than you are, Smiles?” She is tall–willowy. White, matted hair falls around a face that is too pale to be alive.


I remain silent. Silence is better when confronted with a threat.


“Have you ever wondered why you are different?”


I keep my silence.


“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to actually live?” The woman smiles, a hollow gesture with yellowed teeth. “I sometimes wonder. Because you are like me, Smiles. We are both dead.”

__

Pain wracked Stew’s body as he stumbled backward, staring at the monster before him. He could feel the slow, steady trickle of blood down his arm where one of its claws had sliced peeling skin, raking through rot and dirt. He gritted his teeth, hefting his shield and weapon once more.


He couldn’t allow it to win.


The creature grimaced at him, showing pointed, bloody teeth. Dark, matted hair hung in front of a face twisted by death–hollowed by time spent within the ground. It snarled once, clawed hands extending outward.


Stew growled back, hefting his shield, and the monster charged again. It slammed against the sturdy wood, and Stew took a step back from the impact. He heard a screech as the creature scrabbled to get past the defense. Quickly, Stew pushed forward, shifting his grip on his weapon. He’d only have the one opening–he knew how fast it could be.


He shifted his shield and then slammed his weapon into the monster’s temple. There was the feeling of crunching skull, the sickening thud of a body, a spray of blood, and then everything was still. His heart thudded.


Stew slowly approached the creature on the ground–or what was left of it. Pale eyes stared upward at nothing as its mouth worked with no sound. He lifted his weapon, intending to end it, and then the monster’s eyes focused–turning from white to green in an instant. It gave him a fanged smile as it spoke in a hoarse rasp.


“We both know who the real monster is.”


Then there was silence.

Shadowed Lies

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Photo By: Flickr/Askertoner

Photo By: Flickr/Askertoner

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.

“Begin!”

__

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.

Whispers

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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

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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.

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Photo by: Flickr/*will~les~photo*

Photo by: Flickr/*will~les~photo*

Some will tell you that the most dangerous part of the Mass is the restless dead, the monsters that haunt the marshes and lie in wait beneath the water. Some will tell you that the most dangerous part is the people themselves, the backstabbing Pure Bloods and the hard Bay Walkers, used to their difficult lives. But they would be wrong.

The most dangerous part of the Mass isn’t the monsters—no. It’s the fog that rolls in from the sea, blanketing the docks and softening torn buildings with its grey haze. It’s the winding and treacherous marshes with their secret ways that only Bay Walkers know. It’s the winter storms that lash the people with their fury and their waves, turning the sky green as the winds rise to a fever pitch. The most dangerous part of the Mass is the Mass itself—and like the sea, she shows no mercy.

But even with these dangers, life goes on. The people that live in the Mass learn to be wary of her, to respect her. After all, you don’t grow up if you don’t learn how to cope with danger; in fact, you don’t grow up at all.

The young girl crouched behind a thick copse of saltmeadow hay, green eyes peering through the thin stalks of grass that cloaked her motionless form. Her small fingers dug into the peat beneath her, feeling the damp of the marsh water that seeped through the springy material. Quiet—that was the point of the game. It was something that she learned early in the marshes—how to be silent when need be. If you couldn’t fight, then your best chance at surviving was to hide.

She had remained there, still, for the past several minutes—watching, waiting. The trick about hiding was to not move. If you moved, they’d see you—and then it’d be all over.

The smells of fish and damp and decaying things drifted on the wet wind, stirring the pale strands of her hair. The stalks of plants bent slightly and ripples stirred the muddy waters around her. Over the sound of rustling grass, it was hard to make out other noises—the plop of a fish, the call of a marsh sparrow, the cry of a gull. She squeezed her eyes shut and listened hard. Were those footsteps? Or was that just her imagination?

The distinct sound of a foot falling a few feet away caused her eyes to snap open. She resisted the urge to jerk her head in that direction. Instead, she remained completely still, her heart hammering in her chest as she chewed on her lip. Maybe if she was quiet, he would go away.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

The voice was a whisper—a mere breath—but she could hear it from her hiding place. She shivered slightly; this meant he was close, very close. They were always careful to be quiet. After all, loud noises attracted the dead.

“Come out!”

The girl held her breath, small, booted feet shifting slightly on the springy layer of peat. She just had to be quiet—like her parents taught her. “Always be silent and still. Most people look for movement. If you stay as still as a stone, people will often look right at you and not see you as a person,” they had told her. She had asked them, “Is it like being invisible?” They had responded, “It’s just like being invisible. You need to learn how not to be seen.”

The footsteps were even louder now. They approached her hiding spot, and the girl tensed. Even if you were silent and still, you couldn’t avoid being seen if the other person tripped over you. Her small shoulders tensed.

“I said come out!”

The voice was right next to her. She could see the boy’s brown shoes through the grass, standing only a few inches away from her pale fingers. If she moved, he would see her. If she stayed, he would still see her. There was only one thing to do: if you couldn’t fight and you couldn’t hide, the third option was obvious.

The girl stood up and ran. Her feet splashed through puddles as she leapt through the marshes, careful to keep on the narrow causeways that she knew so well. She heard a faint cry behind her as the boy realized what was happening, and then she heard his footsteps behind her. It was a race, now. Wind whipped her hair back from her face as she tried not to slip. A false step would send her into one of the boggy mires where she’d be stuck, unable to pull herself free.

Ahead of her, she could see the docks and the buildings of Beacon Hill, outlined in grey haze from the fog that was beginning to roll off the sea. But she wasn’t aiming for the city; it was too far of a run, anyway, and her parents were still working on the marshes. Instead, she turned and hurtled toward the landmark that they had chosen: the rusted and gaunt remains of what might have once been a ship in the distant past. Its hull had been torn out, its parts harvested for salvage and scrap. All that remained were its bones—pitted and torn by water and time.

She heard a small shout behind her. The boy was gaining on her, his legs longer than hers as they raced across the water. She put on an extra burst of speed, determined to reach the safe spot before he did. Her heart pounded, her eyes focused forward—every forward.

She reached out a hand toward the remains of the metal ship and then slapped her palm against it. Her fingers stung slightly from the force, but she felt a wide grin cross her face as she spun around to look at the other child, “Home free!”

The boy had come to a halt in front of her, his arms crossed defensively across his chest as he frowned. Sea-green eyes squinted at her from beneath a mop of dirty, brown hair as he fought to catch his breath, “You were lucky I didn’t see you! And I was just about to catch you!”

“Doesn’t matter! ‘Cause I got here first still.” The girl smiled at him and then sat down next to the ship, trying to catch her own breath. She drew her legs up toward her chest, tilting her head up to look at the grey sky above,“Think the others are still out there?”

The boy’s frown vanished as he glanced back toward the marshes. The other children—the children of dock workers and scavengers and slaves—were probably still hiding. They were tempting targets in the game of Hunter-and-Prey. He turned to look at the girl once more, slowly uncrossing his arms, “Guess so. I’m gonna go find them.” He took a few slow steps away from her and then headed more rapidly toward the marshes once more, calling quietly over his shoulder, “And you get to be Hunter next, Alexa! I want to hide next time.”

The girl grinned, “Okay!” She settled next to the ship, falling still and silent once more as the boy’s back retreated into the mist. She listened and watched and waited. After all, she knew what every Bay Walker child has been raised to know—life is never certain, life is never a game, and the Mass will always be there to collect.