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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Starvation

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Forest Winter

“People are starving. If we don’t act now, it’s just going to get worse. Winter is far from over, and it’s going to be hard enough as it is.”

“Whatever you decide, know that I’m here for you. Like I said before, I’d go to hell and back again for you, darlin’.”

Pause.

“I hate this.”

“What?”

“This—what I do. Making these decisions.”

“It’s your choice.”

“I guess it is.”

~

Hunger isn’t something you can dismiss. It constantly gnaws at your insides and turns your stomach. It claws at your strength so that moving seems difficult.  All you want to do is sleep as you drink water just to make it feel like you’re full. You find yourself mechanically going through the motions of day-to-day life—not thinking, not acting. Your entire mind—your entire being—is focused on the possibility of a meal. You chew on twigs and bark just to give your mouth something to do. Even then, you’re never satisfied.

And when you see food? Any food? Well, let’s just say that rationality goes right out the window with common sense.

Alexa stood in the rain, the damp clinging to her hair and slipping down the back of her neck and beneath her armor. She gritted her teeth as she glanced around at the others, assessing the body language of each—how they all leaned forward with predatory eagerness and with a bit of desperation. Shit. Shit. Shit. Things had gotten out of hand.

The two groups stood in the middle of the large open field in front of the Doubletap, the main building in town. Alexa could see the faint glow of candles glimmering at the dingy windows, casting their dim light outward into the fading winter afternoon. Clouds roiled overhead as water continued to pour downward, the patter of freezing raindrops drowned out by the harsh, gravelly voice that sounded out in the crowd.

“This is my fucking territory. You think you can come in my territory without asking me? This is Old York. Don’t pull this shit with me. I know Old York.”

Uncle Chuck was practically shouting at this point, his face twisted in anger. His grizzled brows were lowered over hard, brown eyes, and he held a notched blade in one of his veined hands. Alexa watched the Yorker carefully, trying to keep her face neutral as she glanced from him to the people he was shouting toward—the caravan of mercenaries with a large crate. Their faces were grim, unyielding. They were there to do a job. And they’ll probably see it through to the end.

Alexa’s eyes shifted to the others with Uncle Chuck. TJ stood near him, the Merican’s normally cheerful face now desperate and angry. His brown hair was damp, water falling into his eyes. Bastion was nearby, her cropped, reddish hair framing impossibly dark blue eyes that flickered from one person to another. Assessing which is the largest threat, most likely. The Remnant held her shield up, ready to defend.

“We’re just doing our fucking job! We’re the Iron Cross. We’re on the road. Now get out of our fucking way!”

The voice demanded Alexa’s attention. She quickly glanced toward the man speaking, the head of the group of mercenaries. His bearded chin was thrust forward in defiance. His armor was already scratched in places where the Hayvenites had struck him, and a trickle of blood seeped down his temple.

Alexa grimaced. The Iron Cross. There was no way she could do anything other than defend them now that they had announced themselves. The price of being part of D.O.C. I’m bound in contracts tighter than a fucking noose.

She shifted her weight slightly, turning to face the Hayvenites as she lifted her blades. She kept her face neutral as she watched TJ’s face fall; it was like watching a child being hurt for the first time—watching someone being betrayed.

It’s the best option currently. And you can fall easily—make amends.

At least, that’s what she told herself.

~

The sound of rain pattered down on the roof above, muffled as people clustered together within the small space. Bunks were spaced in even rows, pushed against the back wall. A table stood in the front of the room, strewn with small bits and pieces of metal and other odds and ends. The hum of conversation sounded through the small space, the voices of those who called the Kennel “home.”

Alexa remained sitting on a trunk shoved against one of the beds, green eyes roving over the faces in the room. She was too tired to stand at this point, too tired to do more than slump in her armor as she tried to remember to stay alert. Never let your guard down.

Someone sat down next to her and Alexa quickly jerked her head to look at the arrival. Dark, shadowed eyes stared back at her, unblinking. A hat perched on his head, casting part of his face in shade.

“Alexa.”

She felt her stomach twist slightly as she nodded her head in greeting before quickly looking back toward the front of the room, her eyes focusing on nothing in particular, “Barnes.”

“I have a Christmas present for you.”

Her stomach twisted more; it felt as if a dagger had been shoved into it and someone was slowly turning the hilt. She turned her eyes to look back at him, noting the calm way he observed her. As if nothing had happened. Anger bubbled upward before quickly receding once more—washed away by control. Instead of saying what was on her mind, she replied, “I have one for you, as well.”

A faint smile touched the corners of his lips as he reached into his bag. Alexa watched him, noting the care he took before pulling out a small, glittering object. He placed it into her hands as she stared at it. It was gold with five points. As she turned it between her fingers, some of the shine came off on her hands.

“There you are. Now you don’t have to run off into the dark to look at the stars.”

Alexa closed her eyes briefly before continuing to stare at the object. Her thoughts whirled, unable to form anything coherent.

“I have one more thing for you as well.” A pale hand suddenly came into her line of sight and handed her a small bag. Alexa swallowed hard as she took it from him, unable to meet his gaze.

“Thank you.”

“Merry Christmas, Alexa.”

~

Noise and laughter and warmth filled the room. The smells of cooking food still hung in the air, even though every last morsel had already been eaten.  The entire party crowded around the wooden table at the center of the room, strewn with now-empty bowls and dishes.

House with her long dreads and piercing blue eyes sat at one end of the table, a very faint smile tilting the side of her mouth as she watched a young boy with dark hair excitedly show off one of his new toys. Aladdin was near them, the Rover’s many scarves standing out bright against his patchwork clothes as he chatted with Tex. The southern twang of the Merican’s voice mingled with Aladdin’s polished accent.

Alexa found a smile crossing her face as she listened, her eyes focused on her pale fingers spread against the dark wood of the table. A copper-colored ring flashed on her right hand, glimmering faintly in the dim light. It’s nice—relaxing for once. She glanced up at the others once more, watching as they laughed.  It’s a pity it can’t last.

She turned her head to look at the profile of the man next to her. His dark hair was tucked up under a black hat, and his brown, hard eyes twinkled faintly as he grinned and joked. He’s as good with a mask as you are, Rook. For once, he had taken off his armor, a dark shirt and trousers lying beneath. She briefly noted that they looked far less worn than his usual clothing. Trying to impress? Or has he just had a windfall lately? She studied him for a bit longer as a faint twinge of guilt tugged at her chest. You shouldn’t overanalyze this—any of it. Can’t you accept that you’re not being used?

She lowered her gaze again to look at her hands. It had been a long few months—and they had barely seen one another. He didn’t know what had happened—didn’t know what the costs would be. You should tell him—even if you want to enjoy a few more minutes. It’s the right thing to do. You don’t know when you’ll see him again.

“Hey, Mickey?”

She could sense him turn toward her more than anything else; she could feel his eyes on her, watching her. She continued to stare at her hands, twisting the ring on her finger absentmindedly as she spoke, “I have something to tell you.” She paused for a moment, hesitating. How do I even say this? Don’t be such a coward, Alexa. “I…died again.”

There was only silence. Alexa fidgeted slightly as she heard a sharp intake of breath from Mickey. She felt a burning sensation on the back of her neck as an icy trickle of dread raced down her spine. Mickey finally spoke, the single, quiet word shaking the air with barely-restrained anger.

“How.”

She couldn’t look at him. Coward. She instead continued staring at her hands, swallowing hard, “I was in a situation where I had to fight to the death—or Barnes would die. I fought, and wasn’t strong enough.”

There was more silence from Mickey. You should give him a way out—if he wants it. It’s only fair, after all. Alexa turned her gaze to look at the wood of the table, closing her eyes for a moment, “I’m going to see about potentially doing a surgery. I need to speak with House first. Because not everyone makes it out, I…understand if you no longer want to continue this.” She gestured with one hand weakly, feeling her face go warm as she hurriedly finished.

Again, there was silence. Then she felt Mickey shift slightly, his head lowering near hers, “If we weren’t under the rules of hospitality, I would punch you right now. If you die…”

The rest of the words didn’t matter. Alexa lowered her head, still unable to look at him. How could she? You kill people, Rook—both outside and inside. You’re a killer—always have been, always will be. Creation was never for you.

She closed her eyes for a moment more, exhaling slowly.

Well maybe it’s time to change that.

~

“Here. This is for you. I thought you’d appreciate it.”

He handed a wrapped package to her. The faint scent of flowers hung in the air.

“…Thank you.”

Pause.

“Do you have everything settled to go in?”

“I need to explain why I’m worth it to House.”

Pause.

He leaned forward, gently taking the sides of her face in his hands and kissing her on the forehead.

“What was that for?”

“I might not get another chance.”

She hid the disgust that roiled in the back of her throat.

I’ll See You Soon

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Shadow

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.

Cat and Mouse

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Photo by: Flickr/mstollenwerk

Photo by: Flickr/mstollenwerk

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

__

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

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

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

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

After all, she was quite possibly dealing with Zodiac.

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

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

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

“Hey, what’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned.

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

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

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

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

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

He crumpled and then fell.

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was nothing.

The Earth opened up.

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

She shambled with the dead.

__

“He’s wrong about one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I would never be like him.”

Temptation and Sin

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Photo By: Flickr/Melsome

Photo By: Flickr/Melsome

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

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

And I hate him for it.

__

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

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

She found it hard to make herself care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That part of her terrified her.

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

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

They both made their choices.

I need to make mine.

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

__

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

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

Laughter.

“You could never be like me”

Silence.

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