Tag Archives: dystopia

Frozen

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Photo By: Flickr/LadyDragonflyCC

Photo By: Flickr/LadyDragonflyCC

“I know that it’s not much, but I wanted to apologize again.”

“Sure.”

“I treated you like an asshole. I know.”

“Yeah, you did. You made it perfectly clear at X-Mas that you didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

“I was giving you a way out.”

“A way out? Fuck you. You weren’t giving me a way out. You were giving yourself a way out. You wanted to put this on me instead of you—fuck you. You were doing what you always do—run.”

“…Well I’m not running now.”

“Yeah, we’ll see about that.”

~

Alexa stood outside the building, staring at nothing in particular as snow whirled around her. It caught on her clothing, speckling her dark coat with white flakes and blending with her pale hair. She scanned the small, huddled buildings across from her and then glanced down a snowy slope to where men and women played some sort of game. Their laughter and shouts filtered toward her—she looked, but she didn’t see.

Everyone makes a big deal about fire—but it’s ice they should worry about. Ice can burn if it’s cold enough. And ice can lock away secrets in a vault harder than steel when the temperatures drop.

She felt sick to her stomach, her gut twisting as she swallowed hard. It was her fault, she knew. She pushed people away. She always had—maybe always would. But when I finally realized I didn’t want that…well, it’s a pity it’s too late. Her fingers clenched as more laughter sounded up from down the hill. His words echoed in her mind, a reverberation that sounded over and over and over again like some sort of sick mantra: You died for Barnes. You fucking throw your life away, and all I ever wanted was not for you to die for me—but to live with me.

Alexa turned to look away from the people playing in the snow, her breath shaky as she slowly felt her fingers and toes become numb. In a few moments, her arms and legs would follow, and then it would turn from numbness to pain. She closed her eyes briefly, fighting back the urge to scream. Stew left. Mickey doesn’t want anything to do with you. You’re used like a tool by everyone else. And you were stupid enough to not wake up to it until now. You allowed it to happen.

You’re an idiot, Alexa. A fucking idiot.

She opened her eyes again, watching her breath puff in front of her face—white in a white world. She wasn’t sure why she’d even come here to the Grove—to the small town north of Hayven. Perhaps she was seeking some kind of solace before going into the Grave. Perhaps she was trying to find answers. Who knew.

Her eyes blurred slightly and she glanced downward, blinking rapidly. He was the one that always had my back. He was the one that helped—and I was too ignorant to see. Quickly, she passed the back of her hand in front of her eyes. She took a steadying breath before breathing out two words to herself, “Fuck him.”

She didn’t need Mickey. She didn’t need Stew. She didn’t need D.O.C. or Barnes. She didn’t need their approval.

“Fuck them.”

She gritted her teeth slightly, her lips hardening into a thin line. She was done being a tool—done being a knife and a sword. She was done molding herself to others’ expectations. She was done with it all.

If they hate me, that’s fine. I’m done seeking fucking approval for what I do. I’m done being a fucking implement. I’m a fucking person—and I’m going to live on my fucking terms. I’ll take what’s mine. And lord help whoever or whatever stands in my way. It’s my turn.

The snow continued to swirl around her as she walked down the slope, her boots making small footprints behind her. She didn’t feel the cold now; she was used to it.

~

I never lied to you. And now? My only regret is that I didn’t wake up until you were long gone.

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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

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.

Dream

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To start at the beginning of this series, check out the Dystopian archives here. 

The room truly was lovely in the afternoon. Golden rays slanted through the high windows set with small crystals. Rainbow colored lights danced on the richly carpeted floor and sofas. A small tea tray was set upon a cracked marble table, the silver gleaming in the glow. Iced cakes and delicate pastries rested on a china plate next to the silver, beckoning anyone nearby with their sugary smells.

In fact, the only thing that marred the otherwise perfect afternoon and the perfect room was the person that sat on one of the perfect couches. Then again, “sat” was perhaps too generous a word. She slouched, her back sloping and her stomach sticking out at an utterly unattractive angle. Unfortunately, Richard had to bear the woman’s presence. Victoria was, after all, still his wife.

She smiled at him, showing slightly yellow teeth. Richard found himself staring at them, unable to look away as flecks of spit flew from her mouth when she spoke, “I’m so glad that you’re home, my dear. There have been a few changes since you left, but I think that you’ll enjoy them. I freshened up the rooms and made a few different arrangements. Do you want a tea cake? They’re absolutely delicious.”

Richard could tell she thought they were absolutely delicious. The woman had gained about ten pounds since he last saw her. He plastered a smile on his face and waved a hand, “Not right now, dear. You were saying something about changes?”

Victoria nodded and reached forward, grabbing a pink iced cake between two fingers. She popped it into her mouth and chewed loudly, the wet sound of her tongue slapping against her teeth filling the room. Richard resisted the urge to grind his own teeth as she finally swallowed, “Why yes. Your finances were in a dreadful state. I had to really do a bit of work on them. You see…”

Richard tuned out her whiny voice as she continued. She would be gone soon enough. He was ruined, of course. The downfall of Julius meant his downfall as well. He would never fully recoup his losses—but at least he didn’t need to put himself through this sham of a marriage any longer. If he was going to suffer in poverty, he was determined to suffer alone.

Richard found himself staring at Victoria’s face as she spoke—at her muddy, squinty eyes, at the mole at the corner of her mouth. Victoria didn’t have her charm, her beauty, her wit. She didn’t make graceful motions with her hands when she spoke about a topic that interested her. She didn’t grin deviously. She didn’t laugh in a high, clear voice that reminded him of running water. She didn’t take the initiative to grab his hand and twirl him around a dance floor to the sound of violins.

Then again, she also didn’t lie.

Richard turned his gaze elsewhere, glancing out the window. The early morning frost was melting in the afternoon light, blown by the wind and falling like silvered glitter, making the air sparkle. The bare trees shone with ice, diamonds that made him squint at the perfectly blue sky. It was so different from the night when they had dashed through the tunnel, when they evaded the restless, when they emerged behind the latrine near a small town. Richard found himself briefly wondering where the other two were—whether the girl was still following Robin around like some creepy, lost puppy. He shook his head. It wasn’t important. They were gone—the same way she was gone. The bright light began to make his eyes water.

“Richard dear?”

Richard turned his attention back to his wife, blinking his eyes before smiling, “Yes, my sweet?”

Victoria stared at him for a moment before biting her thin lips, “You’re not angry with me?”

Richard forced himself to laugh. Even to his own ears, it sounded false, “Why would I be angry?”

“Because I essentially indebted you to my family, Richard. I know how you hate to be indebted to anyone. But papa was so kind when he said he would repay all your debt. He said that you were part of the family now, and that you should be treated as such.”

The blood in Richard’s veins turned to ice, freezing him in place. He felt his smile slowly slide from his face as he spoke, “Did he say anything else?”

Victoria gave him a trembling smile, “I knew you wouldn’t be angry. Papa was wonderful. He said you didn’t have to worry about repaying him. All you had to do was take care of me as you always would…as your wife.”

Richard knew a veiled threat when he heard it: Take care of her or else. “Or else” could be anything. It could be his ruin…or his death. He shuddered inwardly, leaning back in his chair. “That’s…delightful.”

His wife practically beamed as she reached forward, grasping his hand with her clammy one, “I knew you’d be pleased, Richie. We’ll be together forever, and you can rebuild your fortune. Papa said he’d be watching your progress and helping when he’s needed. Isn’t it a dream?”

Forever. Richard stared at her, swallowing back the bile that had come to his throat. Forever with Victoria: sleeping in her bed, kissing her lips, smiling when he’d rather scream. Forever without…

He closed his eyes, unable to even contemplate how he’d never again see her again. Perhaps this was his punishment, his penance. Perhaps this was what he deserved: a nightmare in place of what could have been, what was once his fantasy. Only her memory remained, the faint, lingering thought of a woman that was as false as his marriage.

Richard opened his eyes and smiled back, “Yes, a dream.”

Family

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To start at the beginning of this series, check out the Dystopian archives here. 

The tunnel was dark, winding beneath the ground and branching out to other side passages. The sweet, dusty smell of decaying earth filled the air as she took one step at a time, her feet tapping on the frozen mud that made up the passage’s floor.  She had immediately recognized what it was when Kari had pointed it out: a tunnel crafted by her people. Hopefully it would wind its way somewhere safe, somewhere where she could find a family again.

Danielle glanced behind herself, her eyes easily making out the curved walls, the roots hanging from the ceiling in long, tendril-like streamers. She could no longer see them, but she could hear them. Robin sounded angry. That seemed strange. From what Danielle understood, Kari had essentially saved them in some strange way.

She hesitated for a moment, continuing to listen to the voices. She could leave them behind; she had fulfilled her obligation to Robin, after all. Without her, they would all have been prey to the living dead: so much food for the creatures that made life so difficult. A life for a life, Rak had told her. If Robin chose to stay and wait for the restless to follow, she couldn’t be blamed.

Her feet moved of their own accord. First it was one step, then another, then she was running down the passage back toward Robin and Kari and the man that they had called Richard. Her side throbbed, the pain arcing up her side from her wound as she tried to keep up her speed. Rak had also always said that you never abandon family.

She rounded the corner and stopped, staring. Kari was convulsing on the floor, her eyes fluttering as her limbs spasmed. White foam came from her mouth, pouring down the side of her pale face. She didn’t look quite so pretty now. Robin was sitting nearby. For once, his emotionless face was twisted into something else: disappointment. Richard, on the other hand, was kneeling down next to her and shouting. He reached down and grabbed Kari’s shoulders, pulling her into his arms, “You can’t just leave without explaining! Why did you do it?!”

Danielle stepped forward hesitantly, keeping to the back wall of the tunnel. She could hear the screams of the dead above them. Soon enough, one of them would follow the sounds down the shaft…and then they’d be in trouble.

Just as suddenly, Kari stopped moving. Her blue eyes gazed blankly at the ceiling, her body going limp. Richard leaned over her and murmured something that Danielle couldn’t hear. Then he reached down and closed her eyes. Robin still sat on the ground, seemingly dazed.

Danielle suddenly heard a tell-tale thump and then the sound of a shuffling gait from around the bend. For a moment, she was frozen. The restless were around her once more, her brothers beside her as they tried to escape.

Then the moment passed. Danielle rushed forward, tapping Robin on the arm, “We need to go.”

Robin glanced up at her blankly. Slowly, he nodded, “Let’s go then.” He stood and walked over toward Richard, grabbing him by the arm roughly and pulling him away from Kari’s body. Richard made a noise that sounded as if someone was choking him as he struggled. Robin jerked him hard and then slapped him across the face, “Quiet. You can’t do anything more about her. It’s time to leave.”

Richard stared at Robin for a moment. Shock and disbelief crossed his face, and his eyes flickered back toward Kari’s prone body. Then his lips curled into a sneer, “If you do that again…”

Robin cut him off, jerking his head toward Danielle, “No time.” He jogged toward her, nodding for her to lead. Danielle took off down the tunnel—away from the screams, away from the entrance, away from death. Roots scraped the top of her head as the packed dirt flashed by on either side. Her feet pounded the dirt floor, thudding and then clanging as it gave way to metal. She could hear Robin and Richard behind her, following. Further behind, she could hear screams and quick footsteps. The restless had finally decided to follow.

The walls slowly changed from earth to rusted metal. Water dripped downward into the frigid air and left greenish streaks against the walls. The footsteps behind her suddenly stopped. Danielle whirled around, her eyes seeking out her companions. Robin had stopped, his sword withdrawn. The metal gleamed dully in the darkness as he turned to face the way they had come. There was a figure approaching them quickly. It had an uneven gait, one of its arms twisted backward while the other swung forward as it ran. Robin crouched slightly as the creature let out a horrific scream; it bounced off the walls, echoing through the small space as it reached one skeletal hand toward him.

At the last second, Robin shifted his weight and stepped to one side. The creature barreled past him and he swung his sword, catching the monster’s neck. Blood sprayed outward as the body stumbled, still reaching for Robin. Then the head fell and what was left of the creature slumped to the ground.

More screams came from down the hallway. Danielle glanced to Robin and then spun around, sprinting away from the sounds. The pain was almost non-existent now. All that mattered was getting away. She could hear his and Richard’s footsteps following, their breath heaving as they rushed forward.

Danielle rounded a corner and slammed into a metal wall. She stared for a moment. Unlike the rest of the system, the wall had been maintained. No green stains marred its surface, and there were only a few patches of rust to mark where age had taken its toll. She pressed her hands against the metal, feeling its cold, smooth surface, tracing her fingertips along the faint grooves that were there. Richard’s voice sounded high-pitched behind her, “We’re trapped!”

She closed her eyes, ignoring Richard’s panicked words, ignoring the screaming, ignoring the pain. She moved her hand along the metal until she found one indentation, pressing it with her finger. Then she found another and pressed that too. There was the squeak and whine of rusty hinges as the door slowly swung inward, revealing more of the passage.

Danielle didn’t waste any time. She darted through and waited on the other side, watching as Richard and Robin followed. She was already tracing the grooves on the wall as the screaming came closer and closer. Her eyes moved over the small symbols, finding the right shapes before she glanced briefly toward the open door. That was a mistake. She could see more shapes sprinting toward them, teeth gnashing. Danielle turned her attention back to the wall. There. She pressed a finger against a small indentation, and the door swung closed with a click.

She slowly turned to look at the others. Relief showed plainly on their faces as they looked back. If it hadn’t been for her, they would be dead. Danielle allowed herself a small smile before turning to continue limping down the passage, “This way.”

She was sure Rak would have been proud.