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Dusk Territories: Haunting Rainstorms

 

Dusk Territories

Haunting Rainstorms

D.J. Munden

2014-2015

Thanks to all the supporters and Patreons.

Thanks to family and friends who supported me even when I didn’t think I deserved it.

Thanks to you for reading and trying out this wonderful book.

And thanks to Rita, Walter, and Vashon Munden for always being by my side.

Contents

Book II of Dusk Territories

Prologue

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Eternity

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p<>{color:#00F;}. The Imp of the Perverse

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Fences

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Thralls

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Everything’s Okay

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Move by Move

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Rhapsody in a Devil’s Tone

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Dead Heroes

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Palindrome

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Cicadas

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p<>{color:#00F;}. King of Hearts

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p<>{color:#00F;}. White Nightmares

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p<>{color:#00F;}. The Tenth

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Den of Wolves

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Revenant

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Fallen

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Summit of the Beasts

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Indoctrination and Retribution

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Jericho

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p<>{color:#00F;}. Endgame

Epilogue

Prologue

Spanish Moss

The moss draped the branches of the trees, curtaining them with grey-green cloaks. This is where the story begins again.”

“Spanish moss wasn’t even a moss,” Damien Howard learned as they strung him up.

They, the infamous they, wrapped thick hempen rope tight against his feet. This rope chafed his withered ankles with streaks of red, twisting the skin until it broke. His blood rushed to his head, aches pounding in his skull like a drum. The rest of his body fared no better. His arms were nothing more than noodles attached to bone, kneecaps broken and screaming with pain. Long hair cascaded down from the crown of his head to sweep the bark of the tree. Blood stained his once neat black locks. The same red liquid oozed from long open scars from previous sessions. These last days, in particular, felt like hell.

Yet all he could think about as he hung upside down was how much a plant and he had in common.

His vision blurred as he stared at the world beneath him. Clouded swamp water rippled with bubbles of unseen creatures. The shore only brought in thick mud, large frogs, and driftwood from houses taken by the bayou. It may have been night. Damien didn’t know any more. Time lost meaning to him ever since they took him. Days and nights blended together, then days and weeks. Finally, weeks and months became one and nothing made sense. Even the sun and the moon looked the same to him. His mind erased parts, parts that he didn’t want to remember. Yet the smell of that candle always awoke his senses. He never forgot that scent, even amongst the gunk and pungent stench of the swamplands. He was here.

A single man watched him swing.

Damien tried to focus his vision. Be as it might, all he could see was a silhouette. He knew who it was though. It was always him that sent chills down—or rather up, he wasn’t sure anymore—his spine. The old men stayed on the porch and talked. The woman that occasionally visited mocked him with her cruel smile and japes. The brothers came with hammers and daggers to punish him for his tight lip. Out of all that, this man was the worst. He would just stand with a candle in one hand, smoke slithering up around his face. There were times where he thought the man’s shape changed. Maybe it did. But, he always heard him speak. His voice always remained the same.

“Mornin’, Damien.” He would start off every time. Whether it was actual morning or if he was just greeting his return to consciousness, Damien never knew. “How you fairin’?”

The first few times, ages ago, Damien spit in his face. His throat was too dry to even attempt that now. Not that he would. This man taught him the repercussions of such tomfoolery early. The only two responses that were acceptable was breathing and nodding. As long as one of the two things happened, he no longer cared. Damien never knew exactly what drove this man with his cruel, shadowy form.

He reflected on the man’s smile during those days when he saw him. A cruel, twisted thing those smirks were—far worse than the woman’s. At least she knew she was vile. He just didn’t. His cruelty loomed above all others, not practiced or born. It just was. Like a cloud on a blue sky or a star in the galaxy, it just existed. Something did change in him though. Every one of his people changed. In a way, so did their prisoner. Damien wasn’t proud anymore. He wasn’t anything but an ornament on a Christmas tree that had been up too long.

Damien uttered words through impenetrable bubbles of air. His face rushed with red. His brain turned into a mass of constant stab like aches. Breathing felt rigid in his chest. The more he tried, the more it burned. He coughed. The pain swelled up his chest, up to his stomach, and even further up to his shattered legs. Tears burned in his eyes. All that man did was smile.

Without a warning, his entire weight came crashing to the ground. The mud broke most of the fall, but the descent was far from gentle. His face scraped against the bark of the tree, skin torn from the forehead to cheek. Weakly, Damien scrambled to his knees. His feet were still tied, making it harder to move in his weakened state. They barely fed him when he wasn’t hanging. At least he could get his breath now. He coughed and coughed until air was no longer in his lungs. Then he took a deep inhale. The man expected a response, one with words. “I told you—“Damien began, tasting mud in his mouth. “I told you all that I knew.”

“I know.”

He knows. Of course he knew. There was nothing left to tell, so his purpose finished. This was the day that he feared. Scenarios played in his head. What was going to happen next? Was he going to kill him? Or was he going to keep him alive? A fear settled in his chest. In the end, he didn’t know what he feared most. Death was what he was looking for right now, the only escape out of here. Then, why the dread?

For a few more seconds, he remained in the mud, just staring at the man’s feet. He’s large. Every time Damien saw him that crossed his mind. His large feet were sunken into the mud, but he still towered over him like a building. Damien looked up a bit further. His tattered blue jeans hung loosely around his legs; he had filled them much better since this all started. The tail of his green flannel shirt swung around his waist, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He wasn’t just large, the man was a behemoth.

The candle and its dimmed light faded his features, but he saw the man’s smile leave him. “You can’t see me, can you?” He gave a low chuckle, lowering himself and the candle. Dark green hair crept on his chin and cheeks in full stubble. His hirsute moss-green hair touched the side of his cheek as he kept his gaze. He laughed. The Drifter took the time to sharpen his tools, Wood was no exception.

Wood still unnerved him in the past. Now, Damien froze with just seeing him in person. He had grown. Not much in his height, of course. Just his weight wasn’t as thin and sick, his features healthier and hardened. Black scales stretched across his chest, poking out from his open shirt. There were patches of that obsidian plating on his arms as well. The man he knew, the one that started the Huston attack, mutated further. Drifter didn’t need just a bodyguard anymore. He needed something more, a dragon. Wood reconfigured himself accordingly. “Your clock’s up.” He informed him, placing the candle down in the mud.

Damien’s heart skipped a beat.

“But I’m still decidin’ what I want to do with you.”

“Let me go.”

“Hm?” Wood raised an eyebrow. “And how would that make me look again?”

“Merciful.”

Wood played with the thought. Damien watched his life being tossed from one side of this man’s head to another. “Make no mistake. It’s my choice either way. Unc told me get rid of you. His exact words, actually. He don’t care ‘bout you much. So I asked Bard. He doesn’t see much revenge in you, either. Thought for sure, he’ll want the honors and all after his baby girl died. So that leaves me. I don’t mind. Bit of a dirty job, but there’s nothin’ I can do ‘bout that. Sadly, I don’t know what I’m going to do the next few days when you’re gone.”

“What are you planning? What are all of you planning?” Damien clutched his stomach. Butterflies churned within. He tried his best to avoid losing control of his fear. The more he thought about it, the more his courage left him. Even asking questions in the past made his punishment worse. What will they do now on his death sentence day?

I need to know, he decided. All these people did since abducting him was plan. They planned during breakfast, calculated over lunch, and schemed throughout dinner. This changed with added information to their banks, information from Damien’s own lips. They did say that he would talk. He only wished he talked faster. Drifter’s patience outweighed Damien’s loyalty. Wood’s methods proved to be more than just cruel. Out of all of this, he at least deserved to know what would happen next. Since I’m not going to be here to see it….

“Funny that you asked,” Wood said smoothly. “I felt like you needed to know. Conjurer and you are gonna have somethin’ in common in the future.” He patted him on the cheek like he was a friend. “And with your slip of the tongue, we have our next target. Father is too far away. Too resourceful. But…you told us the place where the second most important person will be. And well,” the beast laughed as though it was a joke, “Well I reckon that we’re going to pay her a visit. It won’t be a long one, we’ll just pop in. That’s all. Nothing to fear. But we need to get going.”

Wood brandished a knife from his shirt pocket and cut away some of the thick rope. Is he really letting me free? The thought crossed Damien’s mind, filling him with glee. They don’t have a use for me anymore. I can barely walk, and they won’t leave me—“

His thought came to an abrupt stop as Wood seizing the fresh end and dragging him to the deeper part of the bayou’s boggy shoreline. Mud filled Damien’s mouth, choking him and ripping his remaining teeth from his mouth in the process. Branches scratched into him, leaving bits of his skin on the ground around him. Before long, he felt himself yanked up by his ankles once again. All the air left him as Wood secured him to a longer rope already attached to a branch above the water. Old bones rattled to the ground. They landed in the water with a soft plop. Murky swamp water stirred underneath. Something’s in there, he thought. “Our time together has come to an end. We’re movin’ a few days from now and I can’t keep you.”

He cut Damien’s belly open in an effortless motion. Agony didn’t fill his abdomen. It just mixed in with everything else. The sight is what got him. His innards slipped from the wound against one another, dripping down from the gash. The blood oozed down up his chest, neck, face, and finally hair as it dripped down to the brown water. The animal stirred underneath, rustling with each drop that touched it. “Caesar says hello,” Wood told him. “He should be able to getcha after the rain.”

To prove Wood wrong, the large alligator snapped upwards, missing Damien’s head by an inch. Caesar splashed back into his depths for another round. All life left Damien’s body. His heart jumped once as high as it could, and then stopped. Not long enough to kill him, though. He wanted to be dead now; fear wasn’t enough to kill him. Wait and sway became his only option. “Or maybe not,” Damien heard Wood say in his distorted hearing.

“I guess I’ll leave now. Enjoy your stay, will ya?”

Damien didn’t enjoy his stay. He might’ve been able to if the alligator didn’t bite his head off moments after his master’s words. Nothing followed his death. Only a body remained. Finally, he was the Spanish moss on the tree: a dead body with entrails leaking from his stomach and neck like vines of the tree. Caesar soon took that too. Every monster needed their fill.

Welcome back to the Dusk Territories…

1

Eternity

These webs of pain have become larger and larger, and she has yet to see the spider.”

Two years, Celine thought entering the city formerly known as Philadelphia. It’s been two years and next to nothing to account for it. Only bodies.

The young woman took another sigh as she looked up at the storm clouds huddling above the city. Their pitch black bellies threatened to burst. Lightning streaked its way across the greying sky and thunder rumbled loudly as though the storm ached with hunger. The air around Celine felt humid enough to force her cloak to stick upon her sweaty arms. She pulled up her hood. It was definitely going to rain soon, and she was no closer to figuring out what was happening here than she had in the past few days.

Dead ends are becoming the normal, she realized burrowing deeper in her cloak. It was a dismal truth of the matter. The past couple of days felt just as unproductive as the past couple of years. She wasn’t any closer to finding the Drifter again or the wreckage that her brother Brink had left behind. One moment she had tabs on all the Drifter’s movements, keeping him close to her and feeding him information. The next, he was gone, dropped off the earth as though he found the one place where the world finally did lead to an abyss. She searched the land and nothing gave her a clue. He was gone, and planning something.

She knew that one day the sleeping beast would wake again.

That’s not even my biggest worry. Celine walked down the cracked concrete sidewalk, her head low. He’s still out there. “He” was all the she could call him at first—an anomaly amongst the Ancestors controlled Dusk Territories. There had been nasty rumors of a man these past few years. The pleasure of his work was the only constant when moving from one city to another. Mangled bodies slumped in make shift cages in dust filled villages. Men and women were punished in various degrees: whether with their eyes, hands, arms, legs, or simply their lives. Skulls and fresh heads lined several gates as testament that he had come. Beaten and meek citizens whispered his name from time to time, just calling him only by one name: the Sheriff.

That was what led her here. Philadelphia, now known as the Dark Rainlands by the locals, hadn’t met Sherriff’s wrath. Yet. The Ancestors and other dominant outlaws made this place their home. The tall buildings, cracked and broken, harbored some of the nastiest groups of men and women. Roads upon roads filled with thick grime and sewer sludge. Vegetation slithered its way through cracks in the concrete, growing in thick trees and vines. In the distance, the clouds broke into rain. The familiar sounds of broken glass and sharp screaming followed next. In these dark lands, crime and power survived. This was bound to be his next target. She was bound to meet him here.

Celine was never a nervous woman. She worked through anything with efficiency and grace. Yet in the back of her mind, something stirred. This man was dangerous. He cared nothing for the blood he shed, as long as it brought peace to a land. She passed by villages where only one man suffered death by this justice. The people praised him and the peace that he brought. Other villages, he left all but a few or none at all. Those spoke nothing in reverence. The people left didn’t speak at all as though a ghost ripped their town apart in judgment. He’s forcing my hand. If there was anything left in him, she would have to reach for it.

It finally started to rain on her as she came to that conclusion. Samson discussed with her to meet him in a small bar not too far from the center of town. Apparently, he gathered information from the locals on the Sheriff’s whereabouts. She doubted that was the case. Every rumor that she heard thus far had been just that, a rumor. No one knew his exact location. They didn’t even know if he traveled alone or with a company. He wouldn’t travel with people, too risky. Given his extensive execution, others may be possible.

Celine turned down and through a dark alley. Thick puddles of mud and filth circled around her feet. Rusty pipes overhead leaked water onto her grey hood. She tried her best to ignore it as she walked, keeping her eyes forward. Somewhere to her right, a woman yelled for a man to stop touching her, followed by a gurgling sound of his throat being slit. Somewhere to her left, a man screamed at another over a bartering arrangement. A black cat screeched at the sight of Celine, dashing between her legs. The sounds of looters rumbled within the tall brick buildings beside her. Still, only the taps of the water against her hood marginally distracted her.

She came out the other end of the alley to a business street. In the past, this was a place for small businesses and simple apartments. Now, it was filled with the essentials. Scavengers searched the cities and the surrounding areas for anything they can barter. The hunters and gatherers fared the best. Anyone with food or drink lived like gods in this world as long as they had the means to protect it. Gas and oil soon followed. Anything else was considered a luxury, even a bed to sleep on. People from all over the city came here, some to steal and some to make a living. All of them looked equally as ragged and beaten. Only the entrepreneurs looked decent.

One of the best gatherers and looters in this city was a man by the name of Lance. He owned a significant share of this street. Any person with the right mind knew that he had a well-armed and well-fed group of mercenaries around him at all times. Lance bribed or blackmailed many of the vendors here for their services to him. They gave him his due and he in turn allowed them to have some small profit. If one man had made a business out of the end of the world, it was him. Lance could open a vendor in hell and the devil himself would be a regular.

His club sat on the corner of the street, named simply “The Dragon”. Celine pushed her way through the crowd and the line, earned sneers and expletives as her reward. One man even threw a wrench at her, which she dodged in a swift motion, and then proceeded to pretend for his sake that he didn’t do that. She made her way to the start of the line to meet the bouncer. Like most bouncers, he was broad shouldered, had an array of broken teeth, and bald. Celine didn’t bother to take the rest of him into account. He was just in the way.

“Who are you?” The portly man growled looking at the small woman.

“A guest. Now move aside. I have better things to do than deal with a sack of meat and muscles.” Celine stared at him. The ugly face gnarled into an angry expression. He cracked his knuckles in an ill attempt to intimidate her. She just cocked her head. Muscles only meant so much in this world of demons and mutants. “Are you going to move aside?”

“Why I oughtta—“

“Yamato! Stop! You do not want to make an enemy of her.”

A small Asian man scuttled passed his giant of a bouncer. His arms were within the sleeves of his dark green kimono, beads of sweat gleaming from his shave head. A pointed black beard sat on his small chin, the only real life in his gaunt face. Dark eyes peered at Celine as a nervous laugh uttered through the corners of his lips. He bowed a low, gracious bow. “Celine, I’ve been expecting you,” thus said the Lance of the Dark Rainlands, Akihiro Ogawa.

“I don’t want your pleasantries, Lance. I want entrance.”

“Of course, of course. This way.”

Lance nodded for Yamato to continue his work. He then turned on his heels and entered the bar. Celine followed.

The Lance of the Dark Rainlands even appearing was interesting enough to get Celine’s attention. Usually, he’ll send someone else to do his work. But, here he was nervously shuffling through his bar. Sweat tumbled down his face, and he kept muttering words in Japanese. Celine knew her fair share of the language, but pretended that she didn’t. He was apprehensive. Someone was coming for him and he didn’t need to make enemies out of the Ancestors as well. It was a bad sign for him and a wonderful sign for her. My, I think you actually have a lead, Samson.

He led her through a set of traditional Japanese sliding doors to the main bar area. Serving men and women served off the food. Meals from his home country lined the bar before the customers. The scent of green tea drifted in the air, touching Celine’s nose in a light breeze. The restaurant was a nice mix of both eastern and western cultures. Banners of traditional sumi-e paintings fluttered above them. They were offset by simple wooden stools and tables like an English pub. The food looked authentic: different types of rice, noodles, vegetables, fish, and beef all caught or gathered by people in the area. Katanas lined the wall as well as replica pieces of famous sculptures of Japan. If the outside wasn’t so grim, Celine might have wagered she stepped back to a nicer time.

It’s taken a lot of desperate people to preserve this.

Lance took his seat at the bar beside another man. That man was Samson, and he was having a cup of sake with his lunch. The thin, black eyed man in body armor shifted a bit as he saw Celine enter. He ran his fingers through his thick dark hair as he tapped his cup on the bar for another drink. Celine took her place beside him, ordering a green tea to sip on while they talked.

“Samson,” she said in way of a greeting.

“You sure seemed ready to make a scene at the door,” Samson said, sipping what he had left.

“No. I was willing to make a point,” Celine answered.

Samson watched his cup filled again with the white drink, before just grunting: “Umhm.”

Celine’s order came sliding across the bar in a ceramic tea cup. She caught it with her right hand. The cup held heat well, even catching it made her hand sting a little. She knew better not to sip it. Instead, she watched Samson grin childishly as a serving woman placed down his plate. Countless sushi and egg rolls sat on his square plate with a side of soy sauce in a small bowl to his right. He scrambled for his chopsticks before whispering: “The Lance isn’t being so confident this time around, eh?”

“No. No, he’s not.” Celine saw it all over the man’s face. From the few times she visited, Akihiro was confident: in his sales, his appearance, and his power. This new threat reduced him to a mumbling fool. His dark eyes wandered impatiently and he barked orders from one employee to the next. For the first time, Celine believed she might have a road to follow. Samson is better than I thought. She wasn’t about to tell him that. “Do you have an idea on why he’s so frazzled?”

Samson struggled with his chopsticks for a moment. “Japanese ain’t my best language, but I’m pretty sure Sheriff’s coming here.”

“How do you know?”

“Uh. The Lance might have gotten a head in the mail by one of the Messengers.”

That was very medieval of you, Sheriff. “Messengers?”

“Yeah.” Her lieutenant clumsily picked up a roll with his chopsticks. The roll tumbled to the plate. Samson tried again with no success, his lip pursed from concentration. Celine sighed deeply.

“Don’t hold them like that,” she barked. “Pinch the food, they shouldn’t cross. And don’t stab it.”

After a few moments, Samson readjusted the utensils and began using them the right way. “Little rusty,” he murmured red-faced. He continued on. “The Lance received the heads of five of his best scavengers on wooden pikes by a hooded man. These were some of his nastiest men, held on his highest standard of cruelty. To get them on his doorstep in a trash bag…well…came as a bit of a surprise.” A popped another roll in his mouth, washing it down with more sake. “This Sheriff isn’t playing nice. Anyone with any rough connections with us is disappearing.”

Yes. Yes they are, Celine thought, finally taking a sip of her tea. “Did anyone see this Messenger? Do they work closely with the Sheriff?”

“No. They’re more like his post office than his accomplices. Some say that they don’t even have faces. Rumors has it that they live and die almost wordlessly. They move so damn fast; this one was here one second and gone the next.”

“Could we track him?’

“Doubt it,” Samson responded with a quick shrug, “but it’s almost guaranteed that the Sheriff is coming.”

“Coming for the Lance?”

“Who else?”

“Well, that’s a shame, isn’t it?”

Celine gave a brisk nod before turning to Lance. She sipped her unsweetened tea gingerly as she watched the Lance yelp some more orders. He didn’t notice that she was staring until she cleared her throat. He put on his best face as he approached her. The smile came off being a wreck of his usual confidence. Trying to act tough, she thought smiling. For a resourceful scammer and opportunist, a threat on his life should have been child’s play to handle. This wasn’t just a threat now, was it? His life hung in the balance. I hope he doesn’t think that I’m here to help. If so, it was a sweet thought. Stupid. But sweet. She crossed her legs.

“I apologize for what happened back at the door, Mr. Ogawa. I’m busy and I don’t need to waste time.”

“Of course, Celine-san. The pleasure is mine. Yet, I cannot claim that I know why you are here. My informants were rather unclear about your presence in the city.”

“Good, because I tend to dislike informants that aren’t mine.”

“Good thing none of my informants has run in with you.” Lance laughed.

“It’s more like it doesn’t bother me. I prefer to be anonymous as all. You never know what you’ll find when you sneak up on someone.” I’m not here to make friends or enemies, if that is what you’re hoping for or worrying about. No need to throw your weight around. “Honestly, I just want to know about the threat that you received.”

“Are you offering help?”

“I’m willing to help.” Celine heard Samson almost choke on his meal and soon felt his eyes on her. She ignored it and continued on. “I’m very much interested into meeting this Sheriff and he couldn’t have gone far from where your men were looting. Do you mind telling me where they were?”

Lance washed his palms against his knuckles over and over again. “The last time that I heard from them was within the city limits. It makes sense, really, that they didn’t leave. One was part of my honored security detail. ”

“What?” Celine frowned. He couldn’t possibly be in the city. “That isn’t possible.”

“I thought that myself but it is the only way. The…heads…were far too fresh. I’ve had my people scout the area and still nothing. Not even a trace. I have the best talent that can possibly be bought. Yet I cannot find him.”

I didn’t either. It was no way that he got into the town without me knowing. Celine bit her lip. “Where were your men exactly?” she asked again.

“North side of town…in the place called the Gulch. It’s one of the few places I can’t go. They must have found a way in and paid for it. It’s complicated…you will stop him right?

Celine gave a callous grin as she stole some honey from the counter and poured it in her tea. “I’m here for him, yes.”

“Thank you. Thank you.” He repeated this in his native language, bowing over and over. “Please stop this madness, I mean him no harm. I’m just trying to make a business and—“

“No need to explain yourself to me, Mr. Ogawa.” Celine interrupted. “His presence is why I am here. Nothing more. Nothing less. You gave me the information and I’m going to go see him. It’s only fair.”

“Good fortune to you, Celine-san.”

The Lance grinned wide before disappearing into a back room. Celine watched him as he walked away. His confident strides were back. The top of the world had opened back to him, the weight from his shoulders lifted. The king of the riches again sat on his throne again. Now, he was back to inventory and blackmails with his air of royalty. Safety did that to a person. He’s really that dumb.

“Why did you do that?” Samson asked, shaking his head.

“I never said I was going to stop the Sheriff.”

“I know. That’s why I asked.”

“Put it this way, if you needed milk from a cow, would you tell it that it was next for slaughter?”

Samson just laughed, knowing too well that he wouldn’t.

Celine left Samson to his own devices. The Lance, in his unwavering “gratitude”, waved all potential bargaining for the meal and drinks. Neither of the customers was going to tell him their plan. They just took it as a good deed and continued on their way. His price is going to be high enough, Celine thought. Just like everyone else’s, even mine. The thought was bitter in her head. I already know my price, she told herself. One day, she’ll have to pay her price and watch her heart bleed out.

The rain hadn’t let up. Rain soaked into her clothes, chilling her bones. Raindrops streamed in small rivers from her hood to the ground. She tried to smile. The scene was oddly beautiful, an escape from duty. The ruinous landscape handled water well. It cascaded down the glassy surfaces of the skyscrapers. The storm drains gurgled loudly as they filled with water and over flowed into the streets. Trees and large mutated weeds seemed beautiful in the gleaming moonlight above. It reminded her of home.

And she didn’t want to be reminded of home.

She touched the white crystal dangling on her throat. This mission was far too critical to let her feelings get in the way. That is why she removed them. Everything that distracted her from the mission, she stored away there—whether it was painful or beautiful. As the self-proclaimed Memory-Follower, she knew more than anyone that her thoughts were a birdcage. It stopped her from doing what she needed to do. I don’t need to be thinking about what I want. That’s not the big picture. She had to press forward.

Even if it causes horrible things for my family. She tugged her cloak on tightly as she continued down the road. Thoughts of her little brother crossed her mind. She hadn’t seen Brink in a while. The young man seemed frazzled and dazed every time they spoke. Paranoia settled in. The clean cut and composed man was gone. As much as it worked in her advantage, the emotions living in the crystal felt sorry for him. Everything went full circle. Everything.

I should find somewhere to rest. It was too much to think about tired.

Celine continued down the dark pathways of the city, keeping her eyes sharp around her. A nagging feeling tugged in her mind. She might have noticed it sooner if thought hadn’t caught her. Someone watched. How long exactly, she didn’t know. Lance’s informants? No. They were too weak and unskillful to set alarms off in her head. These people were built of a different cloth than a petty thug.

She took a deep breath, opening her mind. Within the darkness, windows opened. Her mind touched living creatures and remnants of the dead alike. They came to her as reels, fast flashing images. Foreign memories and dreams met within her head, most of despair. Waves of thought struck her, even forcing her to dive deeper into the metaphorical sea. One in particular caught her attention. It was a man, the man watching her.

The Messenger watched her from the top of a tall building. She was in his head, but she couldn’t touch anything. The closer she got to a singular stray thought; the more her mind tugged closer into his mind. The pull grew as though he tugged on a rope around her neck. A sharp pain ran through her head. It’s a black hole! There wasn’t anything there except destruction. In pure panic, Celine closed her mind quickly, ripping the connection before it got any worse. Memories and thoughts were easy to read and manipulate. These men knew about their enemies.

They must have learned from someone. He doesn’t feel like a mutant or a demon. What are you?

The man in a simple black hoodie soared from the building, landing with a certain lithe expected of a cat. Such a fall should have killed the man. Someone, something tinkered with this once average fellow. It became apparent when she saw his face. Or rather, lack thereof. A thick shadow shaded his head, yet what she could see was only white skin and what may be a beard. No features remained, not even lips. “You’re a Messenger,” Celine asked. The man bowed in response.

“And by definition you’re one of our enemies.” His ambient voice sounded deep and echoing.

“Are we going to have to do something about that?” Celine cocked her head to the side. A fight this late at night would be troublesome. She may manage. Still, she didn’t know if he was alone. “Are you that quick to judge a person?”

“No. I am no judge. I have no purpose other than finding messages and keeping messages safe.”

“So you work for this Sheriff?”

“That is very inaccurate. We work for no one but ourselves, just spreading news. Good news for most.” The man produced a note from his pocket. “Sheriff has agreed to speak with you.”

“Well that is sweet of him.”

The Messenger lowered his head. Celine tried to take a peek in his hood, only to see features disappear and appear within the shadows. “It doesn’t come free, Ms. Celine. He’s in the north end of the city, like your crime lord told you.”

“And you know about that?”

“Blending into crowds and knowing people is what we do. Even the great Celine didn’t notice.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, I wasn’t looking.”

“Flattery and facts are two different things. But that’s not the point here. The Sheriff wants to see what side you’re actually on. There are…mixed reviews about you. Are you an Ancestor or are you a potential ally? You’ve been observing for far too long and the fence isn’t a place to stand. So he’s throwing a life line out for you. If you don’t decide quickly, he might have no choice but to kill you.”

Celine took off her hood, tossing her long hair from her face. Is this what you want to see? The only Daughter of the Ancestors with white-gold hair and grey eyes. “Is your Sheriff that black and white?”

“Haven’t we all seen enough grey, Ms. Celine?” A normal person might have laughed or grinned at his own clever comeback. The Messenger didn’t. He just tugged on his hood and spread his arms. “His offer is simple. You’re going to clean out some of Lance’s guards. This time you don’t get to watch.”

“I can quite possibly find this Sheriff without your help.”

“Oh he’s choosing to wait for you here. He can disappear at a whim and you’ll never see him for what—another two or more years. I highly doubt that you would want to wait that long. See it this way. Lance means nothing to you, right? But, seeing that you might be helping an enemy of the Sheriff, it still solidifies a certain amount of doubt. The question is and always has been: what side are you on?”

The Messenger approached Celine, placing the small piece of paper in her hand. He closed her palm. This time he allowed her to stare in his eyes. Luminescent red eyes glared back into her grey ones. Again, she tried to touch in his memories. A dragging void, stronger than the first, brought her in this time. She struggled silently, using any and all tricks she had to get away. This time it took longer to rip herself from his draw. Who did this to you? How is it so powerful?

“Take his offer or not. I don’t care either way. I’ll be watching. Have a good night and choose your enemies well.”

Well that’s silly advice. Enemies are made, not chosen. She watched this mannequin of a man walk away as normal as anyone else in the street. Another player added themselves into this horrible game forming. This person, whoever they were, brought Sheriff into the fold. And they’re forcing me to play as well. Gathering her cloak, Celine continued on her way. She wasn’t going to look at the letter. Not yet. There was sleep to be had. Whatever he wanted whether test or execution, it would have to wait until morning.

2

The Imp of the Perverse

There’s an imp in my head that I’ve been listening to for a long time. I should want it gone, but I don’t. I’ve grown to like it…if not a bit too much.”

Wood and the Drifter shared a pitcher of tea as they gazed off into the thick marshes of what was once known as South Carolina. Midafternoon brought with it an extreme amount of heat, exuding from the red hot sun above. Crickets chirped and sung in the distance. Sweet smells of the surrounding plants outweighed the sours scents of the bog. Thick moss-ridden trees wavered with a breeze that carried the sounds and wings of birds. It’s been nice, Wood admitted to himself. These two years have been nice.

They and the rest of the remaining caravan made the Bottomless Quagmires a home for the past two years. Ancestors and various banditry groups associated with them searched for the pieces of a once powerful force. No one followed them from Huston; they made sure of that. An amateur, after stealing such a victory, would have tried to push their success. Morale might have carried them…right to their graves. No. Drifter waited and retreated. His resources were low and they needed to live as well as travel. How did the saying go? “You gotta get all your little duckies in a row”. Right now, Drifter had a lot of damn ducks.

However, this gave Wood time to recuperate. The injuries suffered from his part in Huston proved to be persistent. Within six months, he was back to standing on his own two legs. After a make-shift rehabilitation plan and training for a year, his body changed. Wood rubbed against the scales on his forearms. His mutation grew. No one knew much about the mutations or how they worked. Some did change though, Wood learned. Their changes were not as violent as his was. In the end though, he was something else—something far worse and better at the same time.

That wasn’t the only thing that changed.

“They’re startin’ to like you, my boy,” Drifter said, pouring another glass of tea. Where or how he got the sugar and teabags, no one quite knew.

“It only took about two or so years livin’ in a swamp.”

“Hm. Proximity can’t take all the credit. That’s not why they’ve fallen for you.”

Respect did play a certain factor in his new found role, Wood knew. His words helped them claim this land and his skills helped them survive so long in these marshes. Wood knew how to survive and wager as much as Drifter did. He helped them with shelter, hunted for the group, and even helped any sick that he could. After a while, the fear around him just sort of stopped. I blame him for that, Wood thought remembering a comrade. “Things change, Unc.”

“Yeah, things change.”

Drifter rocked back and forth in his rocking chair a few times. “It’s a shame it’s gonna have to change again.”

The safety had produced a certain amount of hominess. They constructed a community, something out of nothing. Tents, old shacks, and vehicles of the caravan all surrounded a single, simple log cabin where everyone met and discussed their plans. Afternoons they gathered like a large extended family. They would discuss, swap skills, and cook a meal for the entire community. Everyone had a skill, everyone worked together. They weren’t just a group of people anymore; they knew each other quite closely.

Weariness of such a trust bothered Wood before. Ever since the murders in his past, he had trouble understanding people. A noble deed in his head became a sin and a hunger. Now, he learned to care again. He cared because Drifter cared, he told himself at first. That wasn’t becoming the case anymore. I’m not their villain; not anymore at least. “People aren’t gonna want to leave.”

“Everyone won’t be leavin’.”

“Thought so. They need to handle themselves. Y’know…” Wood grinned as he realized what he was going to say next was silly. “We don’t have to leave.”

Drifter splashed his tea against the walls of his glass. His lips played at a smile. “No, we don’t.”

“But you want to.”

“’course. I ain’t gonna forget. No one here has. They might have moved on, buried their loved ones. They might put a smile on their faces and thank every day that they’re livin’. Yet inside, they boil. I boil. We barely got away with our lives that day. People died to save our asses. Over what? Just because people wanted to stuff the truth in a box, throw it in cement, and toss it in the sea. Ah nah. Not gonna let that happen, my boy. When I threaten someone’s life, I take it. I may start with their bricks outside their house, but eventually I’ll get to their living room.”

“Good to know some things haven’t changed.”

“You might’ve changed. But your intentions are still the same. The nice role—the good cop— suits you. But I’ve known you for a very long time. The bad cop’s still lurking.”

“I’m beginning to think you know me too well.” Wood checked the sky. It’s gettin’ pretty late. “Pardon me. I better get things on the ball before we head out tomorrow.”

“Do what you do best, my boy.”

Wood pushed himself from the depths of the wooden chair and stood with his tea in hand. His body cried out with a stiff pain. He stretched, rolling his shoulders. He gave a quick one armed hug to his uncle. Drifter nodded, sipping on the rest of his drink. He left him to his thoughts, retreating into his own. So much planning, he thought opening the screen door to the cabin.

The shelter couldn’t be classified as a house in the traditional sense. It was more like one large room with a roof. One corner, the one to his upper right, was a kitchen area with a rigged gas oven, some pots and pans, knives and wooden spoons. The corner to his lower right was the living area equipped with five or so chairs and a single recliner facing the small window. The entire left side of the house was the bedrooms. Wood, Drifter, and anyone who couldn’t have shelter outside, slept here. With the mixed earthy colors and natural lighting, Wood became quite fond of the place. Frankly, he had become quite fond of a lot of things.

I’m getting better, he realized. Some things remained hard to ignore.

The urge to hate and kill everything lingered in a vehement fury. Wood stuffed his hands in his large jean’s pockets, relaying thoughts in his head.

They had found them, only a few miles away from where they split. Their bodies hung over the clinic building, torn and broken up as vultures pecked at them. Rachel, Forrest, Juvenico, and Emelle rotted in the hot sun with a cover pot beside them. Wood and Crisium’s sense of smell both confirmed the dust in the makeshift urn as Raleigh’s remains. It was a crude joke, made by River and Ragnar most like. Graham wasn’t anywhere in the complex.

He’s probably dead, or rather he died again. Wood saw something in Graham that he lost. Like everyone, Graham started to lose it too. That’s why I’ve been tryin’ to at least be sociable. Morale did drop to a low after his death. They lost something that they began to believe in. Even Wood started to believe. Was he a naïve idiot for feeling he might have been the one person unaffected by this world? Yes. Yet, Graham had a code and Wood wanted his back.

Wood shook off his thoughts, draining the rest of his tea. He placed the cup on the nearby table, just listening to the voices in the room ahead. Heron, Haggis, and Pub sat in the living area, chatting. The two brothers, large and wide men sat on a faded pink couch. Heron sat in a single antediluvian chair by the window, facing them with her prim stance. A ping of nervousness struck Wood as he stood, hands still in his pocket. He stared at the floor. “Try not to barge in,” he grumbled, telling himself to be courteous. “Try not to be a complete ass.”

“Giving yourself a pep talk over there,” Pub asked suddenly. The younger of the brothers grinned to his older sibling.

Haggis smiled back. “Aye. Get o’er here before we cut ya.”

“What these idiots are trying to say is: care to join us?” Heron asked, but slid a chair over anyway.

Their invitation given, Wood paced his way to the group. He didn’t take the offered chair. He opted to sit on the floor cross legged instead. Old chairs like that often didn’t agree with him very much. Heron arched an eyebrow in response, but said nothing. They were too busy drinking. The Scotsmen were sharing a bottle of ale, while Heron sipped a modest quantity of red wine. If almost a half of a pitcher of iced tea wasn’t in his stomach, he might have joined. Wood just sat there and waited.

Heron placed her wineglass down, picking up a long wooden smoke pipe. “When are we leaving?”

“Tomorrow,” Wood reassured, playing with a button on his red flannel shirt.

“Are we heading back to Rootgrove to give Conjurer a visit?”

Wood saw that look in Heron’s eyes. A familiar one. “You’ll like that, won’t ya?”

“Hell I’ll like that too,” Haggis agreed. “But not as much as our lassie here.”

Heron blew a ring of smoke from her mouth. “I figured we might as well even the score. This time, I won’t have to be nice.”

“He’s not in Rootgrove anymore.”

The others looked at Wood in disbelief. That didn’t make it any less true. “He’s not there. He ain’t stupid. I reckon that Rootgrove’s burnt to the ground by now. Nah. He moved. Either way, we’re leavin’ tomorrow if that’s what y’all worried about.”

“So Drifter has a hunch then.” Heron gently inhaled the smoke from her pipe again. “He wouldn’t go without a hunch. He’ll just stockpile his supplies if that was the case.”

Wood shrugged his response. He talked in depth with their leader, and he hadn’t told him about the hunch or potential clues yet. He felt it though, even rationalized it in his head. There are only a few places where he could go. Conjurer would travel with Elena and Amy. He’ll be looking for a place to hold down, with his allies close and his enemies far away. Conjurer would want the best. The very best. The Ancestors. “A city held by the Ancestors,” he said aloud.

“What?” Pub said, staring.

“Conjurer’s in another city held by the Ancestors. It would be the only place that he’ll be relatively safe.”

“That narrows it down, Wood. To about fifty old cities across the States.”

“Think of it this way.” Wood stood, pushing everything off the table and producing a map from underneath. There were marks on this map, updated with all the locations they had been or heard about. They had begun scribbling names of the new locations on each of the states in black marker. Red slashes were danger zones, places where the environments were far too hazardous to embark through—like Florida and some parts of the Midwest. This led to the creation of theoretical roads they could travel, or where others could possibly do the same.

“Now don’t you quote me on this. But, there’re only a few places where he could go without coming in contact with us.” Like a true teacher, Wood burrowed himself into the work by pulling out a green marker. “We know he started from Rootgrove.” He circled Rootgrove on the map. “Where could he go now?”

“Alright, what’s stopping the cunt from going west?” Haggis stated, putting his large finger on the map.

“Aye right. Like he’ll just waltz through the Moonlight Marches. We got eyes there.” Pub stroked his beard thoughtfully.

“Conjurer would know that,” Heron thought aloud, swatting Haggis’s hand off the map. “Someone would’ve seen him.”

“Right. He can’t go south, Florida’s gone. And can’t go east for obvious reasons.” Wood continued. “That means he had to go north.”

“Northeast, if possible.” Heron posed a good point. Anywhere further inland from the East Coast was bandit territory. The Ancestors, from all reports, held most of the West. No way would Conjurer make it through there to get to a safe zone.

“Yeah, but how far would he have gotten without notifying attention?” Wood asked. He traced the thought with the other end of the marker, ignoring the marks on his hand. “He could go through Georgia, through Tennessee, and make his way through Missouri.”

“The Ancestors don’t hold any strongholds that far, unless he’s trying to make it to California. Conjurer isn’t the traveling type. Again, that’s off the table.” Heron rolled her eyes. “Besides that’s a waste of resources, he’s not nearly as good at covering ground as we are.”

“Then what’s stopping him from getting through Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia?”

“Nothing I guess, but wouldn’t we have seen him?

Wood thought about that too. Tennessee wasn’t too far from South Carolina. “We might’ve. Getting to Tennessee’s a danger zone for any party over twenty. The land there tends to be unsteady. But for a person rolling lightly, he could go through there undetected, if they didn’t stay long. From there, he would want to go through Kentucky and West Virginia for supplies.” He marked the two states with green again for visual aid fo the foreigners.

“But where the hell’s he going?” Pub asked.

“Pennsylvania.” Wood drew an arrow to the state, and circled the city on the map. “What’s city does the Ancestors hold in Pennsylvania?” Heron was about to speak, but he stopped her with his hand. “Henderson, Paton?”

The brothers looked at each other, flustered. “We ain’t your high school class.”

“You sure act like it,” Heron quipped.

“Answer the question, boys.”

They conferred with themselves for a moment, going through city names. They were truly off at first. Being Scottish born, they hardly even knew the names of the states. Wood watched amusingly as they fumbled with the words. They bickered back and forth in their whispers, growling like two men over a pint a beer during a football game. After quite a while, Wood heard something that was close to the answer.

“Phil-something.”

“Philadona?”

“Philidella?

“Philadelphia!” Haggis shouted, beaming.

Wood suppressed a smirk. “Good job boys. I was beginning to worry, ‘cause now really have to piss.”

_

William J. Gustav managed to make Wood feel like a hero and a villain simultaneously.

Dr. Gustav scrolled into his make shift office, a small tent amongst the shaggy trees, with a smile on his face. He was a heavier set man, chunky around the face with thin rectangular glasses that slid down his nose. A billiard’s ball is what Wood compared him to in his head. Round, hairless, pasty white, with the only splash of color being in his dark blue eyes. He’s the tenth ball. Just like in billiards, he knew what angle to attack from. In fact, some might call him the cue ball instead.

“Wood Giroux, I hadn’t expected a visit from you today,” the Doctor’s throaty voice said as he wheeled around his desk. A foldable black lunch desk was all it was, but he had made it his own. Pictures of his daughter, papers, pen and pencils lined his desk as well as his all too annoying reports. He slumped back into the chair, eying Wood for the first time since entering. He said nothing else, but jotted some words down.

“We’re heading off tomorrow,” Wood told him, sitting on a red lawn chair and cleaning his toenails. “So I thought I ought to drop by.”

“Good choice.” Dr. Gustav pulled off his glasses. Wood knew what this meant. The attention was on him now. “How have you been feeling lately? I’ve heard good things about you since our sessions started a few years back.”

Yeah, I remember, Wood contemplated thoughtfully. He was part of the crew that came with Bardon, the psych expert of the team. He came off his helicopter in a uniform way too small for him and a gaze with way too much understanding. The moment he saw Wood he began talking as though he saw a puzzle in him; one that Dr. Gustav intended to solve. At first, Wood didn’t pay the man any mind. Weeks passed and he would still make conversation. The thing that convinced him to begin these sessions was Drifter. “I need more than a bodyguard,” he told him.

Wood knew exactly what that meant.

Drifter needed another leader, another thinker, another schemer. Graham left a hole. They grew attached to his work and his ability. No one would admit it, but he did things that the other people wouldn’t. With him gone, they had to regroup and fill the gap. Who’s better to do that then the nephew of their esteemed leader? That meant putting things behind him, and letting some things fester. That was Gustav’s job, to mold the knife into a sword.

“I’m feeling decent,” Wood finally admitted. “Everyone’s beginning to accept me.”

“You’ve done incredible strides towards that, Mr. Giroux. You put yourself through rather rigorous mental practices. Have you been meditating?”

“Enough.”

“On what exactly?” Gustav sweetened his tone, though countered fast enough to catch Wood off guard.

Dammit I hate this question. Something violent.”

“Was it about your parents? What they did to you?” Gustav didn’t need an answer. He knew that was the case. “About letting go,” he finished pointedly.

Letting go. Wood sneered at the thought, eyes half closed. For the first time in a while, a facial expression didn’t force itself on his face. He placed his feet on the ground and hands on his knees. He looked up, but never raised his head. “No. Killing ‘em is my happy place. Every day, I dream about what I did to them. Re-live the moment, the feeling, the power, the high. But, I’ve learned that it can only happen once. I can’t live on a good memory.”

“You still don’t regret what you did.”

“What I regret is what I became after. Not what I did.”

Dr. Gustav leaned forward, shaking his head. “That’s a quite dangerous line of thought. It’s like you have come to a conclusion in your head that what you did was right.”

“I never said it was right. I may have thought it was once, but it wasn’t. I’m not going to apologize for it, though. I’m not going to let it go either. It’s fuel, fuel that I’ve been drinking for years. Fuel that saved lives.”

“Ended them as well, I’ve heard.”

I hate this man. There was a lot more to hate.

“You have been considerably more stable and sociable. You’re a very talented and intelligent individual. Still you’re flawed, driven by an insatiable bloodlust that eats away at you. I think your mutation mimics that fact. In my earlier years, I would have put you in a mental hospital for quite some time.” Dr. Gustav placed his glasses down, focusing harder on his “client”. “But you seem to be stable enough of a person to go on this trip. I doubt I could stop you either way. That’s not why I’m here. What I am here for is to tell you that you are still a rather dangerous person. They might put in a little box, cloaked in nice wrapping paper, and tied with a bow. Still I wouldn’t want to open you.”

“Am I that bad of a Christmas present? I’m touched Doctor.”

“Stating facts is the reason I’m here. But I do have one more question.”

It’s the question again. Wood knew it before he had even opened his lips to make the words. Every session, the other questions might change order. He might ask him about other things, good or bad. One piece of the conversation always remained the same. Like always, he stood up, approached the chair closest to where his clients relaxed. He lumbered to his destination, slumping down in his chair in a plop. Lacing his thick chubby fingers together, he prepared himself as though neither of them knew what was coming next.

“When will you stop listening to the imp inside your head?”

This time, Wood absorbed the question. “Never” was always his previous response. I’ll give you something different. He listened to the rhythmic sounds around him. The wind blew outside, thudding leaves against the nylon. It was his turn to make the Doctor wait, to sit on his toes anticipating an answer. Patience was in his blood, but Wood noticed small habits. The tapping of the sole of his shoe, the change in breathing, constant glances at his clipboard, he didn’t think his patient noticed. He knew, and was going to pour it slow as honey from a jar.

“I’ve listened to him for a long time,” Wood began slowly. He allowed silence in. “It pushed me to do horrible things just ‘cause I could. I didn’t start off like that. At first it just whispered, told me to kill people. Now, it doesn’t. It’s silent sometimes but it still watches. I’m willing to do horrible things.. Not ‘cause it’s telling me anymore. I wanna do these things. For those people out there, for the people that my Uncle cares about. I’ll rip your throat open if he told me to. I’ll rip another person’s throat open if he told me to protect you. I’ll kill everyone and everything for the things I care about. So, no. I won’t stop listening.”

“So you’ve found where to put your anger. Not what I wanted, but its progress.”

“Sorry doc, I can’t let you fix me all the way,” Wood said, smirking. “There’s too much to do around here.”

_

“You’ve never told anyone why you started it.”

“Didn’t think you were the nosy type, Heron. I’m startin’ to wonder why you care.”

Heron veered around the corner, pulling her white leather jacket tight on her chest. Her blonde hair covered one side of her face, wind fighting it at every turn. Like everything, she handled it with grace, just tossing it aside as though the gust didn’t matter. She wore her expressions much like she wore her coats: they had minor differences, but always looked the same. She rubbed her hands together. “I don’t care. I’m just curious,” she said, a breath of cool air puffing from her mouth.

Wood was on the edge of the water. This large lagoon quickly became his regular spot. Every day, he would come and feed Caesar, the titan of an alligator that he claimed as his pet. The beast didn’t stop him from putting his feet in the water. Oddly, the beast treated Wood as a kinsman of some sort. Today, Caesar thrashed and snapped, while the master watched amused as though he was an underwater puppy dog. Heron caught his eye as he sent another slab of meat flying into the air. It landed with a splash. Seconds later, Caesar seized it from the water’s surface and dived back down. “Anything in particular you want to talk about?”

Heron remained quiet for several seconds, smiling all the while. You’re not going to drop this, are you, Wood thought. “You know what I want to talk about already.”

“Not gonna tell you that,” Wood warned again.

“You aren’t fooling anyone. You might have been handling yourself better, but you’re still you inside.”

“I just got out of a session with Dr. Gustav. Do I really need another shrink in my head?”

“Oh, I’m not a shrink. I don’t have the patience for that.” Heron eyed him closely as she approached. “It would explain why you’re here though. Running away has always been your thing.”

Wood gave a dry laugh. “Funny.”

She took her seat in the lofty grass beside him, arms still folded. Again, she said nothing. She just watched the lake like he did. Crickets sung deep songs amongst the wraithlike trees. Frogs croaked in the distance, followed by the hissing of snakes. Wind whistled, carrying its own sharp pitch through the hollow openings of the trunks. Still they said nothing, not to each other and not to themselves.

Testing me again? It wasn’t uncommon of her. “Push every button until you get an explosion” was a motto she lived by. Only a few buttons stayed with him during his time recovering. If she touched them, she knew she would have a problem on her hand. You’re smart enough not to do that. Wood respected that about her. He reclined backward in the mud, fingers and toes dug into the slickness.

With a highly audible sigh, she broke first: “You’re hard headed. You aren’t going to tell me.”

“Nope.”

“Well that’s a shame.” Like that, her test ended. “Do you really think that we can handle the Conjurer within his own territory?”

“Yup.”

“I know him better than anyone,” Heron said with venom in her voice. “He’s not as easy as you think.”

“Why’d think that Drifter had to get be back to top form? Why you think I signed up to be mentally prodded by that idiot? In a way, everything comes back full circle. Some might say I’m a smart person.”

“Some might say that.”

“And you’re a dick,” Wood said flatly. “Ain’t the point though. I’ll tell you a lil’ story for being patient. Drifter needed the man that arranged those killings, who thought about ‘em. He wanted the person that got a thrill from avoiding the police and living his life as normal as you thought your neighbor was. No one, no one at my school even knew I was doing what I did. This,” he tapped the side of his head, “this was something that I took pride in. After a while, I let myself degenerate to what you met.”

“You were guilty.”

“No. I was finished.”

That was what happened. Guilt didn’t bring him to the police that day. Boredom did. All the games became useless. The police ran around in circles with no one as talented as him. Unfair, Wood thought in passing. I didn’t do it for fun, but I didn’t want to be caught. The news might have painted it that he was a serial killer that enjoyed his hunting ground. Even he started to believe that. There’s a story that the heroes will tell, and the stories the villains would. In the end, the villain’s story didn’t matter.

“You don’t feel a little guilty about it. I highly doubt that.”

“I don’t. You still want something out of nothing? Just know that I’m the culprit, you don’t need to know why.”

“That’s not fun at all. The whodunit is only as fun as the why it was done.” Heron shook her head.

“A bit rude, ain’t it? Just be happy with what you got. Not like it matters anymore.” Wood pushed himself from off the ground, his pants legs and feet covered in glops of mud. “Just remember, I’m not Graham. I don’t play nice, don’t have to. He might have gotten himself killed, but I’m not going to. Some people don’t understand, y’know. You just have to teach ‘em some respect.”

Heron giggled. “If it’s one person that needs to learn that word, it’s Conjurer. But, what do you have planned?”

“It’s already set in motion.” Wood pulled the last slab of blackened, soiled meat from his backpack. He threw it, sending it spinning into the air, its juices spraying all over his face. In a fantastic display of power and speed, Caesar jumped from the lake, his beautiful obsidian scales dancing in the light that leaked from the canopy. The alligator caught it in its jaws, slamming back into the grey-green water. The thought made Wood smile. Caesar and he had a lot in common. Wood laughed. “Remember when the Conjurer baited us with the manuscript…well, he isn’t the only person that can lure a fish on his hook.”

Heron took the information with the most satisfied smile he had seen on her in months. You’ll enjoy what comes next even more. I know I will.

3

Fences

Her body teetered dangerously to one side as she began to lose her balance on the fence she walked on for so long.”

“Are you kidding me,” Samson declared, ducking under a pane of a low door.

Celine, indeed, was not kidding him. Anonymity was her strong suit. To move between each of the crowds made her a shadow to both. When this all started, she only helped to move the pieces. I wasn’t even a player, she thought in passing. Playing the game and watching had two different principles. A person from the outside knew what plays to call. They looked from above, lamenting plans that the players should have taken. Being on the field was different. You only saw what you had on your side of the field and she hated that.

Alas it had to be done, at least for now. She had no love for the Lance. In fact, she was going to give him what he wanted: a chance to meet the Sheriff. All she wanted is to see him. If that meant killing a snake that will rear its head at you as soon as you turned, so be it. For now, she would just have to play her hand. Convincing Samson to play, however, was a different story. “The Sheriff is our primary concern.”

“What the hell changed though?” Celine tossed Samson his duffle bag. He went through it, searching for his signature blue cap before sighing. “What makes him such an important player?” he said as he heaved the bag’s straps over his shoulder to let it hang.

“You’ll know when we get there.” She hadn’t told him about the eerie Messenger that she met. Even thinking about him sent a chill down her spine. These Messengers appeared out of nowhere. Even in these years searching for another lead, they hadn’t even crossed paths. Whoever placed them there, whether it was the Sheriff or some sort of fanatic group, she needed to avoid them. She felt the note in her pocket.

The message scribbled on the paper knew things. She read it, several times when she woke up this morning to the point she had it to memory. The penmanship was clean, fresh and signed with only a neatly flourished “A”. As Celine expected, another person worked with the Sheriff and the Messengers. This person, had been watching her. It explained the precautions…and the facelessness.

“We’re expected so hurry already.”

Samson pulled on his thick black boots, hopping one foot around his side of the apartment. How he exactly procured their apartments, she hadn’t asked. They were two conjoining rooms, both mapped out with a simple sofa, a small bed, a table, and a few accessories. In comparison to most places in this city, this could be considered luxury. It even had a lock. After gathering everything he needed, he flung the front door open. “Well, if it means that I can finally fire a gun, I have no complaints.”

“Recon missions used to thrill you from what I remember,” Celine said, walking passed him to go into the hallway.

“That was before you put me on them…constantly. A man doesn’t want to stay hidden all his life. You know how irritating it was taking orders from Conjurer.” Samson grunted. “‘Oh will you do this because I’m better than you.’ or ‘I’m so smarter than you, you foolish plebian.’ I never want to do that again.”

Celine suppressed her chuckle. His mock accent was rather accurate of the man that studied abroad. You have yet to fail to remind me of that fact.”

“He’s a pig.” Samson locked the door, closing it shut with a quiet click.

“I know. But that’s going to catch up with him.” Something told her that Conjurer’s days were coming to an end. He made too many deals and struck too many people to make it. She couldn’t exactly say what will strike it down. It might be me or even Father. “For now, let’s see what we can do to help Lance.”

“You mean screw him over.”

“There’s a thin line between the two,” Celine said with a shrug.

The two walked down the dim, yellow-walled and wooden floored hallway. Moths fluttered around the dim lit and naked light bulbs, kissing the glass with their wings. Smells of dusts and moss filled their nostrils, hugging to the air around them. Mice squeaked underneath as she continued down the dark hallway to the abysmal stairs. Times like this reminded Celine that she wasn’t home; and she’ll never be home again. Outside, the world was reduced to ashes and rubble. Or worse, the environment had grown violent and unpredictable. No matter how hard she tried to believe otherwise, it would remain the same.

Like a gentlemen, Samson took her hand and led her down the stairs. I was wrong to not trust him. She thought about the time in the club where she almost ripped his mind to pieces. Trust wasn’t something to come by easily these days. A man or woman will shake your hand in the daylight and slit your throat at night. They knew each other even before the Calamity or the First Act as the Ancestor’s called it. He had worked for her father’s—

She stopped thinking about it. Instead, she focused on each of the steps and creaks of the planks. Somehow that still reminded her of the past. Just like the front door steps. Her thoughts were betraying her again, filling her with sadness. In the darkness, she let herself be weak for a few. Samson would never have to see her cry. All he needed to see was that she was going to be strong. She too lost something in this madness. No, someone that still breathed, but lost ever the same. For a brief second, she thanked the darkness for blanketing her.

They emerged at the ground floor of the apartment building. Pale daylight washed over them. Celine wiped her eyes clean of tears, as she adjusted to the brightness. If Samson saw the action, he said nothing. Instead, he let her hand go and conversed with the receptionist for a moment. She left him to his pleasantries, and walked to the dirty glass door. She pushed it open.

As usual, it was raining in this place. It wasn’t as bad as it was before. Sunlight managed to break through the clouds above in rivers. The streets were bare as ever. People once filled these streets. Now, street urchins, dirt poor men, and desperate enough women were the only ones who walked these streets, even in the day. Everyone had something to fear—lack of food, spread of disease, and other people. They couldn’t risk it, even for a moment’s notice. These tumbled buildings were the only shelter they had. Celine hated this town. Everyone’s desperate and lost in the rain.

A tap on her shoulder broke her concentration. “Come with me.”

Samson’s skinny form disappeared into a dark alley to the side. Celine followed him, only to lose track a few steps away. She stood confused for a second. A roar of an engine broke that. Smells of exhaust filled the dark corridor as a singular bright light emerged from the darkness. She pinched her nose. It’s just like Samson to bring that here. “I’m going to have to ride with you aren’t I?” She shouted.

His fantastically restored motorcycle revved into the silent world. “Yeah. You do,” he returned.

Celine took her place behind Samson, who donned a pair of biker goggles. The leather back seat was in mint condition like the rest of the motorcycle. “Ice Titan” is what he called it. Titan was a hulking classic model, painted ice blue, and waxed down to a glimmer. It takes a man to name a vehicle and care for it better than himself. She kept her opinion though. Her voice wouldn’t even allow it anyway. He tossed her a helmet over his shoulder from his bag.

Before she even had the chance to put it on, he had started. The speed of the motorcycle took her by surprise. One moment they were stationary. The next Celine and Samson were speeding through the broken city. I never can get used to this feeling. Razor sharp wind, carrying honed raindrops, battered against her skin. Blurs of the world raced passed her, just grey and rust-red blobs in the corner of her eye. Ahead was the road, a shattered thing that the driver used with the deftness of a champion. To the Gulch, she thought.

Their travel was a silent one as they drove on through the city. Intermittently, they would stop to stretch, plan a new route, or do some small maintenance. All in all, it was smooth. Rugged watery paths, dark corridors, and long stretches of just nothing didn’t stop them from getting to the destination. What did stop them, however, was what neither of them expected.

A wall of compacted cars sprouted into the skies, squished together in long rectangles. The color of the paint remained in some of them. Majority had lost their paint jobs though and became a mesh of grey and reds. Vines and plants did help the inevitable monotony of color, but not by much. From one part of the street to the adjacent side was the wall’s width. The closer they got, the more the wall grew in height.

Samson parked his bike, swinging to the side of the road. He cut the engine off to marvel at the creation. “Looks pretty damn high,” he said aloud. “When was it made, I wonder, and how long? Years?”

“No,” Celine answered, allowing herself off. “It looks like it’s been done within a few weeks or months. You see, the ivy hasn’t grown quite as much as it should on the lower levels. I would think that this is where the Sheriff and maybe his associate Messengers are held up.”

“How come no one has seen it until now?”

“That’s a good question, Samson,” Celine said, stuffing her hands in her pockets. “They must have quartered the area or something. There’s a lot that’s just not adding up. Someone—anyone—would have seen this being built or constructed. Yet, I’ve heard nothing about this wall.”

“Word gets around pretty fast. I would think we would know about a 100 foot wall. What could have made it?”

“One strong mutant or demon…” It had to be. The Gulch was always enveloped in mist until recently. That must have been the culprit behind this barrier.

“No need thinking about it. Unless it’s behind there, then it’s probably our primary concern.” Samson didn’t look too thrilled about that. He kept his worries to himself.

“I guess we got here early, do you see an entrance? Never mind, I see it. ”Amidst the cobbled metal cradled an iron gate. A thick chain with a huge lock wove its way through the iron bars. Why would they make a large wall with an easily accessible entrance? That didn’t make sense, no matter what angle she attacked it from. What would the Sheriff want kept in, if the wall wasn’t there to keep them out? The more she looked at it, the less it made sense. Celine turned to her lieutenant, and opened her mouth. The sounds of trucks stopped her from expressing her concerns.

A band of armored trucks rode over and down the hill. Ten strong—each full with about five or so men—stopped one after another as they approached the gate. They were the Lance’s men. Only he would want to display his power in such a way. Each of them was equipped with rifles and bullet resistant armor, all salvaged from Lance’s treasury. A smug looking man of thick shoulders, thick stubble and hair, and an ego thicker than anything on his body exited out of the largest truck. He stood tall, well above his height and rank. Celine felt the man’s disapproving glare even before she turned to greet him.

“You must be Celine,” he said, straightening his uniform. “I’m definitely not impressed.”

“You must be Evan Biggs. I’m also not impressed.” She had heard of him from her travels. His reputation, or rather reputation of a reputation, was Lance’s right hand man. Rarely did he come from out his hiding holes to do work himself. He was a mercenary before the end of the world, and he was one after. A simple creature that lacks creativity, whose knees bleed from bowing, Celine described him to herself.

Evan gave that scowl that only a pig of a man could give a woman. “And I suppose you will do. Is that Samson Dawkins over there? If both of you are good boys and girls, I might give him a shooting lesson. I’ve heard he’s awful at it.”

Samson tensed. Celine shook her head, saying in his stead: “He’s good enough with a weapon. So, Lance sent you to do his dirty work. Do you know anything about what you’re going against?”

“Enough to know that this Sheriff doesn’t matter. What the hell is up with this?” Evan pointed to the wall.

Through clinched teeth, Samson whispered: “I hate this guy already.”

Celine ignored him but smiled all the same. I do too, Sam. “It’s a wall of some sort—“

“I can see that, do you think I’m dumb?”

“Why yes!” Celine said, giggling. “And do you think because I am a woman that you can speak to me like that?”

There was a time for her to defend herself; there was also a time to warp his mind so bad that he’ll wish he didn’t have his voice. Sadly, it wasn’t the latter right now. She needed to at least stomach him until she could get into the wall. Then, well…then things might be different. The Sheriff might be on the other side. This misogynist bastard was a means to an end to get what she needed. “There’s an entrance over here. It’s barred.”

“Does he think that he can stop us with a simple lock? This is going to be easier than I thought.”

“Oh yes, just charge in. That way you can bludgeon him to death with your massive self-worth. I do hope that you aren’t compensating for something.”

That threw Samson into a fit of laughter, leaving Evan red-faced.

“Get that lock open,” Evan barked.

His men—block-headed and nail-tough as most mercenary types—began on the gate. The chain on the door fell with a large clank, yet the entrance remained closed. The spikes were dug deep into concrete that circled when you moved them. Perhaps they’re unlocked by a specific combination. Evan didn’t care about that. The muscled brutes sawed off the bars with equipment from the supply depot. With a large shrrrnk, the bars too came rattling to the ground in a heap. If that didn’t notify that we’re here, I don’t know what would.

Celine didn’t say that. She did watch as Evan Biggs rounded everyone up to amp them with his words. “Drinks all around for anyone who brings that bastard down,” he said with his messy, low pitched voice. It was almost like Samson’s, if he had drunk a couple of beers and then gargled glass. “I’ll be taking point. The Gulch is a dangerous place and we have no clue what they’re doing in there. So we will hit them hard and fast. Sub—suber—“

“Subterfuge?” Samson provided.

“However you say that word. We don’t need it! Let’s take him down! You two!” He motioned to them with his submachine gun with its safety obviously off. Celine hoped dearly that he would shoot himself in the face. “You cover our six, and stay out of our way.”

Lowering her gaze, Celine whispered: “You’ll like that wouldn’t you.”

The strike team took their formation, each funneling into the door. Celine watched man after man enter as she and her partner hung back. Dread settled in her chest for the first time. Evan Biggs might have been dumb enough to not realize when caution was imperative. Not knowing your fears or risk looked courageous at first. It wasn’t. Only death came to men who didn’t know their limits. She shook her head.

When the last man entered the small rectangular entrance, they followed. The path way through the wall felt cramped, only wide enough for a single man. A few times, some of the larger men cursed at the sharp edges that managed to cut to their skin. Oil and beaten metallic smells stung their noses and tongues in this dark hall. Other times, the wall shook above them, forcing them to hurry a bit quicker. It can’t be this long. But it felt like it. Every step was a prayer to leave this horrid place. Just as their steps started to falter, the other end met them.

The first steps out of the contorted metal corridor were touched with mist. Celine did not know why this part of the city, a portion of Philadelphia, was called the Gulch. In her head, she imagined a dry place within the torrential downpours of the city. I understand now, it’s a joke, she thought. Rain, and only rain, touched this sector. Weather, like its people, knew no bounds in the Dusk Territories.

Fog settled all around the buildings here, but blanketed the ground all the same. Rain poured down from thick black clouds above, even when the rest of the city enjoyed drizzle or weak sunlight. Water pooled in small rivers and ponds around her. Erosion made its mark on the concrete sidewalk and asphalt roads. Vegetation hadn’t even grown here in comparison to the outside, overfed to the point of drowning. Even amongst this aqueous land, Celine felt eyes watching.

Worst of all, they were only watching her.

They made that known. The watchers kept their guns on her. Evan and his junkies, even Samson, failed to notice them. Normal people don’t think about the birds in the trees, now did they? They weren’t going to attack. They needed to see what side of the fence she was on. That wall isn’t the only fence I have to cross. Both she and the people around her knew that it wasn’t going to start or stop until she makes that choice.

A few more steps in, the watchers removed the only option left. The pathway buckled and folded, as though pressed down by an iron. Evan’s mercs went into a small frenzy, checking corners and lines of sight. Even the leader seemed a bit frazzled by their only exit being suddenly blocked. It’s not for you, Celine continued on. They don’t want me to leave. They don’t want me to fold. She raised her hand, nodding to Samson. He grinned back.

And so, she did it.

It happened in an instant, but that was all she needed. Celine reached deep into herself, and then deeper into everyone else around her. Before they knew it, they were firing on each other. Bullets waltzed from one body to the next, taking lives with their dance. Some of the stronger minds in the group resisted the influence, turning to Celine with fevered anger. Samson handled them each with calculated shots, bursting through exposed parts of their body armor. Controlling those with a strong will was off the table, but there were tricks she did for Samson’s benefit.

The mind was fickle, and her greatest weapon. Guns and most weapons, she knew little of. The mind she knew. Blinding some parts of the brain allowed them to see things that weren’t there. Some shot images of her at places she never was. Others didn’t even see her or Samson. Surprises came in large, bloody packages when Samson’s shotgun pellets exploded their brains. She never raised her hand, but she watched. She always watched.

Civil war continued on. Few of the stronger men needed a little pushing in the right direction. She altered the way they moved, causing their aims to shoot up or lose focus. Others, she had to tug deep into their subconscious to force their minds to rip. One man died from her influence alone. Another killed himself out of pure fear. These took small calculated motions from her “demon’s” power. The beginning was like a blanket, now she was just patching it up with a needle. I’m a psychological monster, she thought willing the men away from their humanity. It became harder as the stronger men survived.

Soon, a band of fifty to sixty men was reduced to five. No longer did any of them trust the others. What if they were still being controlled? What if they were seeing things? Where was the demon that possessed them? Funny enough, Celine let her powers drop for a while just to see what would happen next. Four men were too slow to react. One survived.

Evan was that one. He hacked through his comrades, gun abandoned. Celine found herself surprised. He resisted all but most of her allure. He stood there seething, mouth frothing with anger. Blood dripped from his tomahawk, empty bullet shells and blood drops splashing in the water. The mist around him appeared red, the water pale pink around the soles of his boots. He knew. Everyone with a brain knew Celine’s power. He had prepared for it. Whether it was of stubbornness or intelligence, no one knew. He just raised his tomahawk, shouting: “you’re one of them!

I was never going to be one of you,” Celine mocked.

That tipped him over the edge.

He charged forward in a wild anger. Celine danced away, careful of the bloodied blade. She managed to lower his reaction speed enough to dodge. Even that was difficult. In some cases, people that were aware of her power could resist it. Some did through by rage, by hope, by dreams. It was easier to bar the door from a monster if you knew the monster’s tricks. Still, there was ways.

She shot a look at Samson as she took steps backwards from the long swings. He can’t help me. The watchers changed targets, even turned on their red dot lasers to stop Samson from interrupting. As much as she didn’t want to, she needed to finish Evan. Somehow. Evan took her by surprise. She managed to move, yet her cloak took the price. Better than that me, she thought coiling the cloak away to blind him with its tail.

Celine twisted herself, slipping past him. She spun quickly away, breathing heavily from the pressure of her power. Dirty water splashed up into her face as a pistol slid to her feet. Samson, she thought as she tore the gun from the ground. I’m not a good shot. She aimed, shot wavering. The sad part was, right now, all she needed to do is let him think that she was.

“What’s wrong, bitch!” Evan shouted, foam fuming from his mouth. He found a gun, hacking it from a dead man’s clutches and tossing the tomahawk away. It was a pistol much like hers, but he was much more experienced with it at this range. Evan increased the distance just to make sure. “Not that great with a gun, huh, princess? Never touched one in your pretty little life.”

“I’m good enough.” Celine knew she was bluffing. But did he?

The savage grin grew on the man’s face as he squared up with relative ease.

She didn’t even bother to move as he fired.

The bullets, his entire magazine, skidded past her by a hair. His face crumpled into surprise, and soon into panic. Though she couldn’t do much with his mind, she had forced a misaim—or rather she redirected the way his mind perceived it. It only took a second like a burst of wind. In his eyes, he was aiming at the right places. In reality, his mind was moving a second slower than his body and vision. His slipping rationality lost his offense in one gambit.

Celine responded in kind. She aimed, mind cooler than anything. Then she fired.

The bullet only hit his shoulder, a thud against the armor. It didn’t matter. The impact was what she needed. With her aim, and lack of training, she could never get a clean headshot or hit a vital organ on such a jittering target. Luckily, she didn’t need to. Evan’s amplified imagination did the damage for her. The sound of the bullet, smell of the gun powder, and the images of blood, was all placed in his mind at that moment of impact. To everyone, he just lost his mind, clutching his chest as though pain stabbed at his heart. To him, she knew, he was bleeding out, his heart slowly beating until he thought nothing but of the pain he perceived. Shock sank in and death soon followed.

Celine sighed in relief. If that didn’t work, she didn’t have many choices left.

The rain finally ended its impending assault and so did the observers. All the red laser sights on Samson lowered as they revealed themselves. Men and women in rags appeared from the mists in droves, peeking over the side. One in particular lowered themselves from a conclave up top, descending in a graceful, almost practiced motion. Her dark skin was drenched with the rain water, full black hair curling down her back. With full lips, she smiled. She didn’t look like the rest, beaten and horrid. She looked beautiful like an unseated queen, even in rags.

“It’s easy to kill someone you hate.” The woman said with her voice low. “One day will have to see how well you kill someone you love.”

“Are you the leader of these Messengers? And where can we find the Sheriff?” Celine kept her cool. But something about this woman sent a chill down her spine.

The striking and amused dark skinned woman just kept smirking. “We have no leaders here, but I sure do like to talk,” the woman said, her full heart-shaped face aglow. “You may call me Anima sweetie. Everyone does! We do like aliases in this new world.”

“Where’s the Sheriff,” Celine repeated.

“Oh he’s out for a moment, but he does thank you for your gift of hospitality.”

“Thank me for what?”

“Honey. You left the Lance’s door wide open on your way out. He’s probably already dead. I’m just glad that we didn’t have to kill you too.”

_

“My my, you do look horrible,” River said as she swung into the dark room.

Well, he did look awful. Phillip Kingsley, more widely accepted as Brink, stared out of the wide window into the open city below him. He would do this from time to time. Just stare. River found his behavior boring. How long can a person stare at one setting for so long? That’s the whole purpose of going to different places. You find something new to look at. All he wanted was to stay here. For what, she didn’t know. River knew it was all rather pointless, the whole idea of the Dark Rainlands. “When are we going to leave this place?” River asked in a sweet and innocent tone.

“We aren’t leaving…”

River retracted her nice expression, pushing back a snarl. The anger fleeted though, the moment she saw how pathetic Brink was in comparison.

Two years hadn’t been kind to Brink. His clothes, once fitting and simple black cargo pants and a t-shirt, sagged over his skeletal body. Hair, brittle and yellow like dying wheat, sprouted from the top of his once shaved head. The same pitiful hair touched his beard around his chin and neck. His eyes were sunken in with long wrinkles and bags coming through from the lack of sleep. He looked old. So old, Brinkies. 21 going on 121. River giggled, and he didn’t notice. “What do you mean that we aren’t going anywhere?” she said slowly, as though to be careful around an elder with sensitive ears.

Brink slumped in his chair. He pressed his thumb and index fingers against the bridge of his nose. “We can’t leave.” His free hand touched the side of his neck. A purpled bruise was once there from two years back. Now, it wasn’t there. Well, not physically. He still thought about that day from time to time. Not in the way that River did. He thought on it with dread; she thought on it fondly. “Mother and Father needed me here. Even though… even though…” he coughed. “Even though I know.”

“What do you know?” River said, sitting on the ground beside him.

“I know he’s here.” He began in a croak. “I feel him. His presence lingers. It always lingers above me. You don’t know.” Brink shook his head. “You don’t know!” He shouted. “You don’t feel him. You don’t feel him watching and waiting. I know he’s there. I can’t sleep.” His fingers trembled with anxiety, his eyes glazing over. “You’ve never lost sleep before, have you?”

“I can’t say that I have,” River said, shrugging. After the initial thought of the ghost, she didn’t think much of him.

“Of course you haven’t. You don’t know fear. You’ve never known it.”

“Why should I?”

“You’ve never thought about dying. It’s never the actual dying…it’s the anticipation. Death is much easier to deal with when you don’t know where it’s coming from. You don’t know how it feels to want to out run it. You don’t know how it feels when it’s always tapping you on the shoulder. Nothing will stop it. Nothing will stop it from giving you that hug. And…you know…I…I’m not ready to return that hug.”

River, indeed, never thought about death. It never intrigued or bothered her. Why worry about something that might come a second or fifty years from now? Only the prey thinks about the predator all the time. She wasn’t prey nor was the predator always the killer when it came to the confrontation. “No. You aren’t ready. But I could kill you if you like.”

“You won’t. You’re in too much danger and you aren’t stupid. Childish. But not stupid.” Brink rose from his chair again, like he always did. Always rising and lowering. He’s like the sun, she thought giggling. He stood at the window.

Rain pattered against the window again. Lightning flashed from cloud to cloud. Brink just stood, staring at the floor. More specifically, he stared at his shadow as though it planned to leap at him. “You won’t…” he began again. “You won’t be the one. You won’t be the one to kill me. It will be him. It was always bound to be him.”

“Do you really think that he’s going to come for you? That’s if he’s even here. I mean—“

River stopped her sentence as Brink’s skinny finger pointed to the door. A man stood there, panting. Water dribbled onto the ground as the wide recon man huffed deep from his stupid lungs for air. She didn’t like interruptions. It was rude. She let him live this time. Only because he seemed distraught and distraught was so much more interesting than staring at windows.

“The Lance is dead, sir. Just like you predicted,” the man reported.

“He’s dead?” River said, fighting off a grin. That was bound to happen. “By whom? Don’t tell me the common people finally got to him. That would be SO predictable.”

“I can’t tell you, ma’am,” the man redirected his attention back to Brink, “but I think you, sir, know who is behind this.”

“Of course I do.”

Unannounced, Brink swung open the window, letting the elements of the world in. The curtain of rain and wind slapped against his skinny body, weakness touching his already cold skin. For a second, River thought that he’ll jump to his death and prepared to laugh. It didn’t happen. Instead, he just stood with the toes of his bare feet touching the metal lining. He was too afraid to die. Too afraid to kill himself, but could only watch as death closed in. He’ll defend himself to the end. That’s the only thing he could do.

With his head lowered, Brink said over the howling wind: “One day, you’ll know this feeling, River. Sins have a way of catching up. And when they do, all you can do is wave.”

4

Thralls

Following is only so hard. After a while, you need to know the steps on your own.”

The Moonlight Manslaughters was what they had started calling it. Some people do like names, Wood noticed. Whether it was titles, the land around them, or events, the masses liked putting words together to make things easier for history to remember. Of course, there was a time and place for everything. This was much too early. Have they forgotten that we set Huston on fire not that long after? Amazing how people’s memory failed them when it came to details.

Drifter didn’t appear to mind, however, even within his own camp. Words were a powerful thing. They spread from mouth to mouth, unaware of how much damage it causes. Whispers sat under people’s lips when they passed by. “Has he gotten his strength back?” “Can he fight the Ancestors?” “He ran last time; we retreated when we had the upper hand.” How can we survive?” “Where is the revenge that he promised?” People only had more questions, not an answer or grain of patience among them.

Wood hated it, but tried not to brood. Though the closest thing to the Drifter, he hadn’t figured out one thing. What was he thinking about? It wasn’t just the plan. They discussed that. His uncle’s blue eyes, always covered with his thick white hair, never showed his thoughts. He saw flashes of emotions from time to time. Anger still settled there, touched only by ambition and hope for the people that he protected. Whatever he figured out, it stemmed from the emotions he hid behind his lordly veneer.

“Uncle,” Wood asked after hearing the whispers arise further. “Do you hear them?”

“Yeah, I hear them,” he said simply.

“Aren’t you mad ‘bout it?”

“I might be.” Drifter gave a smile, carefully using his cane to navigate in front of him. The old man act wasn’t fooling Wood. He wasn’t going to drop this subject. All he did was lower his tall body further to avoid any others in the crowd to hear. “Persistent. You’ve learned a lot in our time together. You’re dangerous, and you’re gettin’ the hang of all this here schemin’.”

“I wouldn’t be a good nephew if I wasn’t.”

“You’re more of a son to me. You should know that by now. Might not be my direct blood, but you’re more like me than my brother ever was. So, I’ll tell you a bit.” With his free hand, he waved to the crowd of people on the horizon. These were the people that he nurtured and protected through his power. They settled in huts, vehicles, and shacks amongst the trees; but, most were outside around the fires. “They still want blood. They might hide it, but they do. The waiting is killing them.”

The two men continued down the hill, shoulder to shoulder and heads low. “You’re a smart boy. You see what everyone thinks about the last encounter we had with the Ancestors.” Drifter kept his eyes focused on his cane, brow furrowed. “A fluke is what they are callin’ it. No doubt, it looks that way. Bardon’s little trick won’t work no more. So what do we have against our enemies, eh? It’s a fair question my boy. They aren’t biting the hand that feeds them. They’re just looking over my shoulder to check if there’s any food left.”

“Fair enough.”

“There’s a certain gratification in the waiting process,” Drifter told him. “Go ahead boy, light yourself a cigarette for this. “

Wood dug into his pocket, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. He slid one from the pack with his teeth, putting the rest in his pocket. Drifter provided the flames with a lighter. He took a deep drag into his lungs before blowing a grey cloud of smoke from his nose. “Alright.”

“Now relax and enjoy it.”

Wood picked up all types of bad habits during the years. Demons felt easier to fight when they staggered and fell to alcohol and drugs along with you. Some may say that he hid behind them, lost in the bottle or the darkness. Gustav forced him to kick some of the habits—not only for his sake but for conservation. Smokes were a rarity amongst the people here, enjoying them being even more so. Probably my last pack for weeks, he thought as the grey smoke coiled around his jaw. But, it was nice to take this one slow and taste the flavors. Drifter smiled.

“You know that feeling. That slow gratification that you’re feeling right now. That’s what I’m going for. Sometimes we have to wait to gather our strength. If you keep giving gifts, they learn to expect it. Some gifts are better if you open it immediately,” Drifter rubbed the handle of his cane, “others are much better if you wait. I promise. It’ll be all better. I’ll make it all better.”

Wood believed that.

The family continued through the main camp, passing the billowing bonfire and the smells of roasted meat to the log cabin’s porch. Upon it were two other men and Heron. Bardon sat on his normal seat near the rail, his dark skin covered in sweat and his long salt and pepper pony tail flying in the wind. In the past, he would be the one smiling and grinning. Now, when he tried, the dazzling smile dissolved into a rueful, pained one. He nodded his greeting.

The other man was Hispanic, shorter and more powerful than Bardon. His beard had long since gone white, but his hair tried desperately to keep to its black color. Harodo Ramos’s cold harsh eyes always contemplated pain. He wore his smile like he wore his beaded necklace, loose to the point of vagrancy. If there’s one person that Wood’s criminal record looked as though he was a juvenile delinquent, it was him. “Ah. Drifter and his prodigal nephew have arrived,” the former Mexican drug lord spoke. “With news I pray.”

Drifter knew what he wanted to hear. “It’s about that time.”

Harodo sipped his cup of spiced cider. “I was beginning to think mi hermano wasn’t going to be avenged.”

Juvenico was Harodo’s youngest brother. The drug lord risked almost everything to get his brother a better life than he. His gang, his drugs, his money didn’t matter. All that matter was his brother’s safety even when his brother felt the need to distance himself from it all. Now, he was dead. Just like Emelle and Forrest. Just like Raleigh. Just like Rachel. Wood looked at the pained expression on Bardon’s face. I hate that look.

Drifter shook his head. “I reckon you won’t have to worry any longer, my brothers. We have things to be done.”

Harodo seemed pleased at that prospect for a moment. He turned to Wood with only his eyes. “I’ve heard much about you.”

“From who exactly?”

“From me,” Heron said, tossing her hair. “It was only right of him to know who will give him his brother’s revenge.”

That’s not the reason why you told him, though. “What do you know?” Wood said amused, pulling up a chair for Drifter and another for himself.

Harodo fancied himself for an information type of guy. He and Heron had that much in common. They were friends, as close as she would allow it anyway. More than likely, she looked after Juvenico for Harodo’s sake. Always lookin’ to hang with the bad types, aren’t ya, Heron? Wood thought, taking a cup off the nearby table. He served Drifter a cup of cider, waiting for the man to spew what he knew. Drifter watched on. “Go on,” Wood urged.

“Your psychiatrist has mentioned some interesting things about you. Confidentiality amongst his people is important, but I needed to know the mind of at least one half of the leadership in this expedition. He understood that.” Harodo smiled that slimy grin. “After some convincing, he told me a little bit about your history as the Crescent Killer. Motif: slitting their throats in a crest shaped slash. Offing ten people is impressive. Ten perfect murders. Even for me, that’s extraordinary. All North Carolina was scared of you.”

“Yes,” Heron said in a whisper. “Yes they were.”

Oh this is your doing, Heron. She enjoyed games. Daily, she found at least one to play. This happened to be it, a test of some sort. Wood resigned to that knowledge and listened in more. Right now, they were on the right path. He did kill ten people. But do they know why I did it? Heron. She figured it out with the help of Harodo. Laughter swelled in Wood’s chest, but he quelled it. You couldn’t let our little conversation go, little bird.

“That meticulous planning. Legendary. Creating alibis, leaving misleading evidence, executing the plan step by step…all for what? You must have had a goal in mind. A reason why you chose those people.”

“I can help with that,” Heron laced her fingers together. “You worked at a high school, correct? But also, you were a messed up kid. Your Uncle didn’t even know you existed because your parents abandoned you. Maybe because you were wrong, maybe you were ill-conceived, or maybe you were some inbred child. But they didn’t want you, so they left you. Foster home after foster home messed you up, but you recovered. Or at least you thought you did. How hot am I?”

“This game that these two are playing is not needed,” Bardon spoke up finally. His voice came out firm, despite the look on his face. For a second, Heron and Harodo’s body language tensed. They didn’t need to anger Drifter’s close friend off their detective work. “The man’s past is what it is. His past. If I go around snooping about what the two of you done in your illustrious history, I’ll have enough dirt to fill a lawn—“

Drifter raised his hand. “Bardon, let it go.”

Understanding passed between the two friends. Drifter gave a smile, looking to Wood. Bardon shook his head.

“Yes, Bard,” Wood said in his own defense. “Let it go. Don’t want to ruin their good game. Everyone needs amusement.” They might believe in Drifter, but they want to know what makes me tick. They want to see how well I handle pressure. What’s the best type of pressure than my…history?

Heron continued: “Soon you recovered after all those years of climbing up from abuse and abandonment, you built yourself up as a teacher. It’s sweet really. Maybe you were happy in your little apartment, teaching biology. But you couldn’t get over it. You are resourceful and you found out who your parents were.”

Aren’t you clever?

“They didn’t want to see you. In fact, your parents thought you were dead after they abandoned you on the street. Mild mattered Mr. Giroux wasn’t so mild mattered after that. You killed them, planned it like a king. But you didn’t stop there. There were children getting abused, just like you. As a teacher, you might have heard some of these stories. So, you took justice in your own hands. You enjoyed it, the thrill of killing them and the satisfaction of it all. You even got away with it all for a long time.”

“But you stopped,” Harodo interrupted. “For what? No longer a thrill anymore or guilt? Either way, it was…pretty weak minded of you to get caught. If it wasn’t for the end of the world, you’ll be dead or still in the crazy house.”

Drifter and Wood shared a long silence. Both took breaths, deep ones, as they considered how to respond next. Wood took one more drag of his cigarette, blowing it into the air. Then…as sure as rain, the uncle and the nephew both dissolved into laughter. It must have been a horrid and cruel thing to share, because after they stopped, the entire camp was quiet.

Placing his cigarette on the edge of the table, Wood leaned forward with frozen eyes. He blew smoke from his nose, lazily putting his elbows on his knees. This was funny. The facts were right, most of them anyway. All up until the end. They always fuck up the end. Yet, he had to give them credit for the effort. Only a few people could connect his history, the murders, and his job in one single thought process. Alas, one part ruined the entire thing. “I didn’t get caught.”

Bardon, Harodo, and even Heron frowned at those words.

“I didn’t get caught,” Wood repeated. “I supposed Gustav didn’t allow that to slip. Good man. Well, to clarify, I turned myself in, ‘cause I was finished. I even evaded the police and continued workin’ with my boys and girls at the school for a long time after the murders. Even watched them graduate. So no. But let’s get to the real reason. You’re worried about my dedication to the job. I know you’ve heard awful things about me, Harodo, whispered from a song of a bird. Let me calm your mind.”

Wood felt the world around him change. No longer were there the crackling of fires and whispers of people at his back. The air felt stiff, and his body tingled. He fought off the urge to tap his fingers against the wood railing. “Believe me. I enjoy a good challenge. The plans, putting everything in the right place, the taste of the anticipation leading up to that point…and of course the moment of the actual execution is something I thrive on. Believe me we will get it done. It’s something, I know now, I got from my family. We don’t quit until we’re done with what we think we should be done with.”

Drifter patted him on the back. “There’s my boy.”

_

The planning leaked through the early morning into the late afternoon. Afterwards, Wood left Drifter to the company of his friends to observe the band. Unlike the last time, the Caravan itself wasn’t going to be moving in full strength. Convincing Pub and Haggis to leave the tanks was difficult enough. They didn’t need the fire power or the notoriety that came with the Abrahams. Besides, they needed them here as a contingency plan. No. They were going to roll light and quiet this time. Fire power’s nice. But not now.

Crisium and Tyrus stood with Haggis and Pub in a small area by the vehicles. There were ten of them included in this plan, each for the balance of the team. The foundation of this plan was years in the making. Wood saw to that. Now, they would have to make this strike team work, even if they have to travel through certain points first. A majority of this plan needed to be done cloak and dagger. Besides, all of them wanted revenge for a different reason.

“You ready to travel?” Wood said, keeping an unenthused tone.

Tyrus looked up from cleaning his guns. “If you mean cracking skulls…”

“For banging us up at the Moonlight Manslaughter, yeah, we want revenge,” Crisium finished.

Tyrus lost an eye during that ambush. Shrapnel was deep within him that the surgeon had to remove the entire eye to be sure. What replaced it was a metal eye patch, forged with half of a goggle and a red lens from an Ancestor’s suit. It made an intimidating man that much more so. His added look of a wasteland scavenger hardly helped. Tyrus knew his way around the Territories, traveling it quite a bit to get supplies for the group. He was the lone survivor from Graham’s tutored group, so he lived up to the reputation as best as he could.

Crisium earned a large scar—that persisted even through her wolf form—from her stomach to her chest from the ambush. She too traveled the Territories in this time to gather information to spread messages and supplies. The once war-harden woman appeared almost savage now, giving into the wolfish tendencies. Rumors had spread that she had grown attached to the taste of human blood. Drifter and Wood decided it would be best not to ask.

Both were lucky to be alive. Blood painted them so red that neither of them was recognizable in their battered truck that day. River’s attack left a lot of them like that. The ones living remembered though. Pain like that was hard to forget. It changed everyone that day. River what did you do?

“Have the trucks ready?” Wood asked, peeking over the two Scotmens’ shoulders.

Pub answered distractedly: “Yeah we do.”

Smells of fresh oil and gasoline still hung in the air from their work. Haggis went back underneath one of the trucks, the sound of his wrench squealing as he tightened a bolt. They felt the need to keep the trucks in good condition. Pub cleaned them with the cleanest water he found that wasn’t delegated for drinking. That went on to changing the tires, and even using any car cleaning product that he scavenged throughout the towns. Between the two of them, it was surprising that they didn’t own some post-apocalyptic car shop. Everyone needs something to do besides brooding and plotting. Sadly, Wood knew both of those were his past-times.

“So has high command thought of a plan to reap revenge on the Conjurer?” Haggis asked.

“Something like that.” The actual plan was unclear. For now, they just had to get there. There were plenty of variables. Could they remain quiet until they got there? What if they had to plan a certain piece of the puzzle? What if Conjurer finally gathered the courage to move? Those potential problems may come up and they may not. Not leaving any room for improvisation was a rookie mistake. Take it like a test. If you don’t know the answer, come back to it. “Right now, I’m just checking up on everyone.”

“Yeah, I get it. Who’s coming with?”

“Ten. Us,” Wood pointed to the five of them, “Heron, Harodo, Bardon, and of course the Drifter.”

Crisium nodded appreciatively, and then frowned. Both she and Tyrus counted off the names. Wood just watched as they exchanged looks. “That’s only nine,” she said finally.

“Don’t tell me the cannie bastard doesn’t know how to count.”

“I can count, Henderson.”

Pub smirked. “Ya sure? Cos you can’t even count to ten.”

“Shut up, Pub,” Wood answered.

“Did you leave out the other person on purpose or by accident?”

That’s a much better question, Tyrus. Too bad it wasn’t going to be answered.

Wood continued his way through his mental list. They packed food, dried or canned goods, and water in the back of the trucks first. Guns and ammo lined the bed. Sniper rifles, sub machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, almost anything to make a dent in a small army remained in crates. Weapons like these required a bit more training with Wood. Drifter knew these much more, even offered to teach him a few things. Wood didn’t have the talent or the skill for them. Professionals of the trade can handle that.

All he needed was his mutant powers and cunning. I reckon if I didn’t have these, he glanced at the black scales on his forearms, I’ll be worse than useless. Drifter cared for his blood. One stroke of bad luck and I would be in his care, not the other way around. If there was one thing to be thankful for in this burnt land, it was that. “Philadelphia’s a big city,” Wood said aloud. “We have to find where he’s at when we get there. I have an idea, but I won’t know until I get there. But one step at a time. Drifter wants to visit someone.”

“Anyone that we know?” Tyrus asked.

“Three of you might.”

Personally, Wood hadn’t met the guy or his little band. Little might not have been the word to describe it anymore. The Circus, they called it. Not much news reached their swamp. Most got lost in the flies, the mud, and weeping willows. A reliable source told them about these guys though. A group of misfits, much like the Drifter, had been popping up. Unlike their caravan, violence wasn’t their style. They were religious types, but some entertainers, for the Dusk Territories in these past two years. They never killed, only subdued any enemy against them.

More than likely, the Ancestors might target them. Or another party.

Crisium nodded. “You’re talking about them Russian boys?”

“Yeah. That’s them.”

“What does the Drifter want with them?” Haggis asked, finally pushing his way from under the truck he was servicing.

Wood shrugged. “Hell if I know. There’re still things that Unc doesn’t tell me. I’m just smart enough not to ask.”

Wood left his company to their devices after that. Whatever plan included Grigori Zachrov and the Circus, he had no knowledge of. “Maybe it’s just a friendly visit.” Somehow, he doubted that. Drifter doesn’t move without reason. Debts were never his thing either. And he owed Grigori quite a big favor. These games better be worth playing, Ancestors. Or I’m going to be disappointed.

_

Ragnar found himself in company that he didn’t enjoy much.

At first, the thought of breaking bread (or his case meat) with a man with the same motive as him felt invigorating. Yet the more he held company with the Conjurer, the more of an idiot he realized he was. As a doctor, Scott Owens saw his fair of intelligent and pompous morons. They would sip wine, enjoy expensive snacks, all while talking complete drivel about their successes. The problem about that was…they often didn’t realize they weren’t the smartest thing in the room. Conjurer wasn’t even close to that.

From the outside, all Conjurer saw in Ragnar was muscle. The cannibal king played along most days. During this, he learned Conjurer was close with the inner workings of the Ancestors. Too close, almost like a cornerstone, if he was to gauge. Any moves against him were foolish. Ragnar forced himself to fit in. He even shaved his head clean, and trimmed his rather lengthy auburn beard to fit into this society. That didn’t make him any less of a monster, but it didn’t make him a pet either.

I’m sure as hell being treated like one.

Even sitting at the table, Conjurer gave him meat. He knew the taste of it. It was different than what the aristocrat ate. Two years of feeding on humans couldn’t mask the flavor. He dressed it up: fried it, grilled, boiled it, sautéed it, threw things like thyme and saffron, and marinated it. Still, human meat was human meat. Conjurer just enjoyed the fact that a person was eating his enemies. He thinks I’m his pet. The only thing left was to try to give him a collar. I’ll like to see him try.

For the time being, Ragnar stayed with the Conjurer in a fancy renovated hotel. The Den he called it, like he was some predatory animal. The place was redone on the backs of slaves. Living without a fancy place to do his work might kill him, Ragnar noticed. The dinner table stretched the entire length of the room, lined with cushioned maple chairs. Long and tall stained glass windows surrounded them on each wall. A crystal chandelier swung above them, showering orange light on them. Conjurer didn’t entertain many guest aside from the Ancestors, he just liked the grandness of it all. All about show and not enough substance.

Conjurer sat at the end of the table like any great lord. Elena and Amy stood beside him, the latter pouring deep glasses of wine. He occasionally brought one of them over, and they laughed and giggled as though this their first date. They were his. Conjurer wasn’t a demon or mutant, but a modern alchemist. Those women hung on his words, not because they wanted to…because they had to. He knew that.

Conjurer sipped his wine, cupping the glass by the belly with a clawed hand. “You’ve barely eaten today, Ragnar,” he said, his normal high society accent tinged with amusement.

“I’m not that hungry.”

The lightning cracked on the outside, followed by rain and wind.

“Worried about your precious Drifter? We sent him running with his tail between his legs. You cannot tell me that you’re bothered by a man that doesn’t even know when he’s losing. Please. There’s nothing to fear. I’m much stronger than he is, and infinitely more resourceful.”

“Very nice of you to believe that.” This was Conjurer’s home, so if he believed that, he wasn’t going to tell him otherwise.

“You don’t believe that, I know. I have other business besides knocking an old man while he’s down. In your rage, you do not see it. Forgive me ladies for having such low-brow company. The Father believes that I need protection while there’s nothing to suggest that to be true.”

You’re lucky that you’re not on this plate, Ragnar thought ripping a greasy chunk off the meat with his hands. “We had an agreement.”

“Agreement that happened before Drifter disappeared. He’s probably dead. Do not waste your talents fighting a ghost. Few people have a mutant of your durability within arm’s reach.”

You’re the insolent one. Rage might’ve been the thing that filled and blinded him on occasion. He was a giant, well over several humans that even Goliath may have envied. People of that size tended to be a barbarian in this world. But, was he dumb though? No. Ragnar wasn’t that. Drifter wouldn’t roll over and die. He refused to have his guard down when the snake finally rears its head to strike.

“Now, we are going to have a guest in the few days and I want you at your best,” Conjurer told him, taking another sip of wine and a bite of his fish. “The Mother of the Ancestors wants a visit. She’s a personal friend of mine and I want you to be ready in case anything goes south.”

“I thought that you weren’t afraid of anything going wrong.”

Elena and Amy’s expressions soured. “Our master isn’t afraid of anything going wrong. The rumors just suggest some irregularities in the city, nothing more.” Elena provided.

“The Lance of the Dark Rainlands is dead. Killed in his establishment a few days back,” Amy explained further. “I’m sure that it’s nothing to worry about. Just some vigilante. Nothing will touch our master.”

You’re so damn brainwashed, Ragnar thought. He might have said it, if Conjurer wasn’t already on the next topic.

“I have a gift for you, if you promise not to eat it.”

Conjurer clapped his thin hands. Emerging from the door across from him, a young woman emerged from the living area. He kept more than his share of women around him. This one, Ragnar hadn’t seen. She was small, in frame, height, and weight. Despite that, she had the look of a woman. Long red hair tumbled down her face in waves, freckles dashed across her nose. Her eyes were bright sea blue. She was beautiful, he found himself thinking. She’s just like Lauren. For a moment, he thought he’d seen a ghost in a white sundress.

“You called,” she said, her hands behind her back. She doesn’t sound like her. But…she looks so similar. The savage part of him fought at the thought; the human trembled underneath.

“Lysandra, you will be keeping him company for now on. He’s been all matters of lonely. I’ve went through an incredible amount of work to find someone similar to your poor departed wife. I apologize for going through your stuff, but…sadly; I needed to get to know you. Believe me; I’ve dealt with loss before. Consider it a blessing.”

He’s trying to appease you! There’s no sincerity in those words! Decline this woman! Or KILL her! The savage in his head roared. His heart, his body, and the rest of his mind told him other tales. He stood up, pushing his food away and himself from the table with a loud screech of the chair. Stepping slowly towards her, his feet careful and steady, he stared at her. His large callous hands swallowed her small soft ones. She didn’t flinch. Lysandra just smiled back.

“It appears that you like your gift,” Ragnar heard Conjurer say in the background.

He wasn’t listening anymore. I’m not your slave, Conjurer. But who the hell is this woman of yours?

5

Everything’s Okay

It’s fine. Everything’s okay. What else could it be?”

The fog in the Gulch never rested, only tampered off throughout the morning. Buildings revealed themselves from the mist, jutting up and through the blue blanket like needles through cloth. Long since vacant cars remained rusted to the side, harboring some of the only plants in this quarter. Street lamps rested on each of the flooded streets, creating the illusion of small bridges over rivers. She lost the sight of the grey in the concrete amongst the dirty water, constant from the over-flooded sewers. The same can’t be said for the sky, Celine thought. This mix between black and white was beyond becoming dreary and headed towards dreadful. We’ve seen enough grey.

Just because they didn’t shoot her didn’t mean that she was a trusted person. Anima and another man under the name Hermes—the man she first met—escorted her to this small room in a petite building. Water damage was evident even when they entered. Mildew rotted the once sturdy, now darkened, wooden planks of the floor. The walls weren’t any better, broken in from the looting so much that even the insulation was gone. The room they carried her in was drier than the rest but bare. Only a single chair and a bed kept her company. Don’t forget the rain. So much rain.

When the rain inevitably bored her, she stared and listened through the empty corners of the room. The walls were thin enough to hear the constant pacing of Samson in the room to her right and men in the halls. The Messengers kept them apart. Celine asked her captors—for lack of a better term—about this precaution. Her only response was a shrug with Anima saying: “You know who you are. He knows who he is. You know who each other are. I don’t know either of you! I can’t take that risk sweetie.” Anima locked the room thereafter.

So that was why she was here, sitting.

Her mind thought about the situation at hand. These men and women knew she was an Ancestor. That much was for certain. They also knew her power, enough to have some sort of counter measure in place. Reaching out to their minds was like reaching out to a spiked wall. Blood and pain was all she earned. For now, her demon powers were useless and she didn’t want to risk a life on pure conjecture alone. How they knew about her and her abilities still lingered in her head. There’s nothing I can do about it though.

Hours passed and still nothing. The pacing in Samson’s room stopped over a half an hour ago. For a few lethargic moments, she considered shouting to check if he was okay. After listening for a while, his snoring soothed her from thinking anything was wrong. These Messengers are getting under my skin. That seemed to be the point of all this. That wasn’t a problem. Keeping her cool was easy given her emotional resolve over herself. Despite that, sometimes, she remembered that she was still a person underneath this mission. People felt anxiety and fear. She did as well. But, she didn’t have to.

Celine touched the crystal on her necklace. Crystalized light was what most people called it when they saw it. White and pristine, it shone whether it was midday, midnight, sunny, or cloudy. Celine didn’t wear it because it was pretty. She wore it because it was her. Memories linked a person to another person. Feelings chained them down. Finally, the heart locked and held to it all. She couldn’t afford to feel anything towards anyone here. There was too much on the line and too much personal baggage. She needed to meet Sheriff at any cost. Even if it meant—

As though to hear her prayers, the door swung open.

Anima walked in, trey of food in hand. She looked…different. Before, she was a woman grown. In her current appearance, she looked more like a teenager. Her frame shrunk, thick black hair pinned back, face smaller, and curves of her body thin and sharp. Only her walk remained the same. She sauntered to Celine, placing the thin metal plate in her lap. Bread, some sort of meat, and greasy eggs decked the plate as well as some utensils. Anima sat a small cup at Celine’s feet and waited.

“You’re going to have to eat that, honey. It’s not poisoned or anything,” Anima said to her, picking up a piece of the meat and eating it. “See sausage. Well you’ll have to taste it, but its sausage, sugar. You’re going to need that strength.”

Even her voice is young and different. “You’re some sort of mutant.”

“Of course. Anomaly’s our main tool. We have to keep changing to fit with the times. Some of us don’t have a mutant ability or demon power to do that. I just use mine to help those that don’t. Did that answer your question?”

“You’re honest,” Celine admitted.

“To a fault.” Anima gave a warm, honest smile. “Just don’t leave any room for me to squirm out.”

Celine forked a piece of meat and ate it. Again, Anima had told the truth. “Why, exactly, did you find the need to split and lock up my partner and me? Your last excuse seemed weak. If you didn’t know us, why were you prepared for me?”

“I just watched the both of you slaughter a band of Lance’s mercenaries, one of you with your brain. Just thought that you needed some time to yourself.” Anima shrugged as though she put both of them in time out. “Besides its better that you meet the Sheriff with a little patience. Some of our members are particularly protective over him.”

“Why so?” Celine felt her interest level rise. This sounded familiar.

“You’ll see. There is a certain amount of charm that he possesses. Not in the ‘oh my god, he’s a cute boy’ type of charm. It’s more like he’s a developing legend. That’s why I wanted to talk to you and your friend before we headed out to the Spiral.” Celine opened her mouth to ask, but Anima continued. “It was a notorious business skyscraper before this, one of the tallest in the country. We know its name but it doesn’t fit anymore considering all that happened. That is where he has been staying.”

“Is that where the Messengers stay as well?”

“No, Celine.” Somehow, when the mysterious girl said her name, it sent chills down Celine’s spine. Sheriff doesn’t confer with us all the time. He hardly even speaks to us, pushes us away as far as possible. Believe me, more than enough of us would take a bullet for him, but he won’t use us unless it’s safe. I can see why people that have lost everything would grow attach to him. Yet he’s always alone. Always in the top of the tower. Always with his—“

Anima paused with her hand over her mouth. “Oh I am talking too much.”

“Always with his what?”

The black hole on Anima’s memory dimmed without warning. Celine kept her power on a low burn during the conversation, dancing around the mind’s defenses. She was glad that she had. Celine tried to poke through during this moment of weakness. The Messenger didn’t allow it, showing no visible sign of the struggle. But, she acknowledged with a simple fire in her eyes that she knew the Ancestor had tried. Celine withdrew before any damage to Anima’s hospitable social standing with her mounted.

Rain pattered on the outside. To ease the tension, Celine took a piece of bread and chewed it slowly. Anima cocked her head to the side, dark brown eyes tense. “You promised to be honest with me,” Celine reminded her. “Then why are you avoiding a legitimate question. Allow me to rephrase it then. Is the Sheriff working alone in the Spiral?”

The rain stopped and a dark cloud drifted over the only shaft of light in the room. A darkened room felt much different than a dim one. The life went cold fast. Long shadows became a curtain of black. The warm smile of Anima faded, leaving nothing more than an empty expression like she dropped her face onto the floor. Maybe she did. The Messengers don’t have a face. In darkness, nothing did.

“I did promise to be honest,” Anima said as her voice became low. The sweet and innocent high school aged voice drifted off into nothingness. What remained was her broken tone, as bleak as stones and as cold as frozen lakes. “That’s the reason why I came here. I wanted to give you and your friend a warning. Don’t touch anything in the Spiral.”

“Excuse me.” Celine fought off the urge to squirm.

“There are things in the Spiral that Sheriff…collects. Certain objects.

He did dismember some of Lance’s people. From what she heard from the Messengers on the way here, the Lance was dead. Not only dead, beheaded. “You mean he likes to collect pieces of people that he kills.”

“No,” Anima answered soft and slow. “It’s much more personal than that. Yes, he makes a statement out of killing people, that’s for justice. That’s not what I’m talking about. Just heed my warning. Don’t speak until spoken to and don’t touch a thing in the Spiral. Understand?”

Celine knew better than to say no. Commanding, to most people, meant that you couldn’t take advice. She knew when to flex her power and when not to. This wasn’t a bodyguard or a weak mercenary. Anima followed this man for a reason. A woman like her—with her talents and abilities—was one step away from being a self-made queen of this land. She chose to work with this middle man, this Sheriff.

She felt it then.

Dedication. Loyalty. Those things she felt spill over, through the small gap Anima left in her mind. Images flashed in her head. One after another, the pictures moved too fast to process. Celine felt her throat go dry. She scrambled for the water at her feet, brought it to her lips, and drank the entire cup within a few seconds. With weary eyes, Celine stared at the woman across from her. “He saved you.”

“He saved all of us. Finish your food. We will come for you.”

Anima turned to leave the room. She stopped at the door, hand on the knob, and looked over her shoulder. Her eyes, aglow in the dark room, stared at the necklace on Celine’s neck. She sighed. “You’re digging deep for a person with so much to lose,” she whispered low, leaving through the door quieter than she entered.

The rain returned the moment Anima’s footsteps disappeared into the distance. I have so much to lose. You don’t even know.

_

After she cleaned the plate and some time passed, they came for her. There were two of them, both robed in baggy garments with long gold hair flowing from underneath their hoods. Within the shadows, their forms changed and shifted. Their trick to anonymity lied in their androgynous appearance. At times, the left one looked female and the right one male. That flipped on any occasion after staring too long. Without looking at their faces, Celine figured she’ll never know which was which. They both bowed low, leading her out of the room and into the dark wood hallway.

There Samson stood, eyes drooping from his slumber. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, giving a long yawn. He even had the nerve to stretch his long limbs. “Good to see you’re okay,” he said in a sleepy slur.

“It’s nice to see you have your priorities in order, Sam.”

“Can’t get anywhere without sleep. So, we are off to see the Sheriff.”

Celine looked at the two strange Messengers for their input. They nodded. “I guess that we are.”

“Do you two have a name?” Samson asked.

“We are Echo.” Their voices overlapped each other as though recorded and modified with a studio effect. “We will be escorting you to the Spiral. Do both of you know of the stipulations with meeting our law keeper?”

“Don’t touch anything and speak when spoken to.”

“Indeed that’s correct, Miss Celine,” Echo spoke, lips twisting up in what appeared to be smiles. “Do you understand the stipulations as well Mister Samson.”

“Yeah, I don’t touch things and ask questions anyway. That’s her job.”

Echo took in deep breaths, watching Celine with two sets of colorless eyes. I’m watching you. The glare said before their mouths even moved. “Good, now come with us. We will be traveling on foot. Beware of the water or any slippery surfaces. The Gulch is a destructive environment. It changes with the rain. Buildings fall and are then swept away in an instant. Our friend will try to regulate the damage to keep the paths safe, but nothing’s for sure. His control over his power is turbulent at best. ”

“Would it be the same friend who created the gate?” Celine wondered that for a while, amongst other things. Whatever was out there had something to do with the weather—the fog and the rain—as well as the entrance to the Gulch.

“His situation is unique.”

Almost unique as the both of yours, Celine thought to herself. She allowed them to continue.

“The bombs left him without a physical form, his body vaporized within the bombs. He still lived. His mind and his organs dissolved into the mist you saw earlier. That impenetrable grey fog was a part of his gigantic body. His spirit, his soul can appear still and works as the tether to the environment. He even regulates the rain here for we do not drown. Tlaloc is what we call him. Perhaps you’ll see him or hear him whisper if you look and listen hard enough.”

“This world has some really weird shit,” Samson noted.

And that’s our fault. The Z-12 and the P-X3. Celine heard the small crystal on her chest whistle from the memories. Their creation shouldn’t have happened, because things like this. Regular humans don’t know what to do with the things they create. He promised everything would be okay. Look at what he created. She tore her mind from her thoughts. “Let’s go. Lead the way.”

Echo led through the wooden corridor to the ragged front door. They exited through it, met with the torrential rain fall of the sector. The air felt warm and humid now, despite the colder water. Dirty water rushed around their feet and through the hollowed streets. Some of the water slipped through the chasms in the concrete while others tapered off into other streams. Buildings handled the constant barrage as a man would handle a series of punches. Good enough, but it still hurt.

“Follow closely.”

Easier said than done, Samson and Celine soon came to realize. The roads were just gone now, replaced by rivers. Upon entering the wooden building, the streets were drier. Rain here didn’t let that go for too long. These streets rushed with their own type of current, running through the slots of the street. Bending and turning, the water swept anything in its path. Large chunks of the asphalt streets were gone, ripped from the land. They coasted on the surface, traveling upstream. Light poles and car parts soon followed. The time of day didn’t help much. No light filtered through the storm clouds, giving no sign of the sun, making the steps even more difficult.

Samson gulped. Celine tried not to.

Echo led the way. The land didn’t even come close to bothering them. They appeared to just glide over the watery paths with no resistance. Phantoms in the city, they moved in swift motions, unaware of even their weight. They leaped over chasms and upon metal poles and piping without even stumbling. They worked together, using one another to accelerate or propel their jumps or twists. Celine found the lack of verbal or body communication astounding.

She only wished that they had the same level of innate skill. Samson tripped several times in his imitation, saved from embarrassment by Celine’s hand. The current tried its best to sweep them away. If not for Samson in that fact, Celine would have been upstream as well. Samson managed to remain being a gentleman in this as well. He kicked over extra debris to work as a dam to the water. He led her down safer paths than what the Messengers had taken, even if they lost time. Once, even, he picked up some larger pieces of concrete that crashed to the side to make a stone walkway to jump across.

The work became tiring after a while. Celine knew now what the rocks felt like when you skipped them across a lake. Hope we don’t meet the same fate as those pebbles, she thought as she hopped. She already had enough sinking feelings in her chest. She didn’t need to actually sink somewhere too.

Alleys upon alleys continued on for what felt like hours. They pushed through several dangerous streets before the rushing water stopped. When the first dry street they came to appeared, the followers gave an audible sigh of relief. “You think I can take five,” Samson asked. Everyone agreed.

They dried off any soaked parts of their clothing. That encompassed almost everything. Celine only had to dry her cloak, the rest of her wet clothes she could manage. Samson, on the other hand, was nearly naked as he wrung everything dry. Echo also took this time, just to communicate with each other. No words passed through their lips, but they spoke on a different level. It reminded her of how she was with her younger brother. Phillip, she thought. He was an idiot, but she still loved him.

“I’m good,” Samson said, putting on his pants and shirt. He didn’t bother with his boots and socks; they were far too wet.

“I swore that you were Secret Service, Samson.” Celine smirked. “I expected you to be tougher than this.”

“Eh. There was a lot of desk work involved,” he huffed back. “Short runs, I can handle. This crap. I can’t.”

“Mad that you couldn’t take your motorcycle?”

“Don’t remind me. I already worry about it enough as it is. Let’s go before I have a panic attack or something.”

Echo nodded. “We are almost there.”

They didn’t realize how right Echo was. They were already in the inner sanctum of the Gulch and it was amazing. For one, plants grew here. Ivy and vines leapt across the streets. Trees grew tall, even flowering exotic plants of blues, reds, and yellows. Walls of leaves dressed the sides of buildings, creeping across windows in webs. Small lakes and fountains carried clean water throughout the sector. Even the abandoned cars and trucks belonged in this green world, absorbed within its grace. Where everywhere else was grey, this place had color and life. Celine envied it somehow.

What caught Celine’s attention was what she knew was the Spiral.

The way these people find fitting names for this new world is beyond me. The Spiral was suitably named. Once a glorious skyscraper, the building spiraled into itself from appearance alone. In actuality, parts of the building were broken away, making the end result look like the tip of a screw. Brown vines wheeled around the twisted spire. Light, a meager amount, peeked through the clouds and washed over the glass windows. In the dark and the rain, she couldn’t hear or see the thing draping down. The light and the reflections of it helped that matter. A large banner rustled from the top of the building, fighting the wind. The sight made Celine’s mouth go dry.

“It’s been a while since we’ve seen one of those,” Samson thought aloud.

“Yeah…”

The Star-Spangled Banner fluttered in the wind, as torn and beaten as the country it once belonged to.

_

Dusk settled in and the clouds finally broke as they ascended the Spiral. Echo left them, allowing them to trek the long staircase alone. Windows drank in the orange light, painting the concrete and chipped black metal with a warm glow. Every step rippled through the emptiness. The Sheriff just got in and was resting on the top floor. At least, that was what they heard. More than a few times Celine wished that there was an elevator or even electricity in this part of town. This voyage to the clouds felt more of the opposite. Horrid reminders and bloodstains likened it to hell.

Heads of the Sheriff’s previous quarry touched the bottom floor. Hands and feet just sat in a pile underneath the first stairwell. More severe crimes warranted more severe punishments. Heads of bandits, thieves, murderers sat side by side on long wooden stakes. Flies, maggots, and decay took most of the features, leaving them as blobs of meat and bone. The Lance’s head was fresh. His eyes were wide, pouring blood as though ripped open. His jaw stayed open, cracked, and broken…the tongue removed. Sheriff took his time with that one. It took several flights of stairs for the stench of the flesh to leave their noses.

After the first few floors of that, softer reminiscences of the past began to surface. At first, it was just photos and heirlooms of various families. Picture frames of people, happy people, sat on each wall as though placed there for memory’s sake. None of them held resemblances to each other, just random people. Piles of clothes, shoes tied together by their laces, and battered stuffed animals came next. It’s like a memory museum. The curator must have added this recently, since not even a coat of dust was on many of them. Celine knew if her powers were to unravel here that tears would run down her face. Samson was already at that point. She left him to his quiet sobbing. He left her to bottle hers up.

Their tired legs carried them up and up. The floors of memories unsettled her; not as much as the floors of dread coming up. There were writings on the wall, ravings of a mad man. The man began with scratching days on the wall with something sharp. He got up to about fifty before he went on. As they went up, the words appeared in dark red. They were sloppily written, painted by the hand of a broken man. “No Food.” “I’m dying.” “I want to go home.” “Please let me go home.” The more steps up, the more desperate the writer got. “I want to be there.” “I want to live.” “I want to die.” “I brought this on myself.” “I’m at fault.” “He did this.” “No I did this.” “Who am I?” “Who is this?” “Why?” “Why?” “WHY?”

Then nothing. Just that one question over and over again.

“He lost his mind,” Samson said, looking up. “That could be us, you know.”

“It could be any of us.” Maybe it already is.

The words finally stopped for a while. Just blank walls surrounded them. Celine closed her eyes. She still saw the letters in her head. Tears swelled hot behind her eyelids. This was their fault. She knew that better than anyone. “What did we do, Sam?”

Samson gave a weak attempt of a laugh. “What we thought was right at the time.”

Celine pushed her tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.

Their feet carried them to where the words re-emerged. “Something happened between the two periods of time,” Celine noted. The lettering was the same, but far less quaky and desperate. Whoever wrote these took their time. “I remember.” “There’s only justice.” “Everything’s okay.” “Nothing’s wrong.” “I know who you are.” Celine read the last line over and over again, eyes locked on the words. He knows who we are. Her fingers went numb at the thought.

Celine peeked out a nearby window to realize that they were close to the top. Only a few more floors left and—

Without even an inkling, a force of pure memories slammed into her. She staggered for a moment as she caught her breath. Her eyes darted around in fevered glances, like a desperate man thirstily leafing through a religious text for answers. Despair was everywhere: on the guns to the right, on the pistol lying on the ground, on the gold necklaces and rings at her feet. Her mind tried to process these waves of emotions. This happened in places of despair where memories and objects of those people clashed. Samson, out of reflex, went to pick up a revolver from the pile. Celine acted, leaping over to catch his arm just in time. “Don’t touch anything,” she snapped, her eyes wild. She twisted his wrist almost to the point of bruising. “Don’t touch anything here! None of it! None!”

“Sorry,” Samson whispered. Her fingers clawed into his wrist, shaking. Confusion settled in his features. His eyes were still rimmed with red, she noticed. It’s not his fault. He needed a distraction. She finally let go, leaving long red marks on his arm. “I sort of forgot…it’s a nice gun though. It’s a Remington Model 1858…somebody must had good taste.”

“We were told not to—“

“To touch anything…” a voice finished.

The two Ancestors froze in place.

“I’ve been watching, but this is the first time with my own eyes.”

There’s an intercom somewhere…and a camera. He must have rigged something through the building. “Sheriff, I assume.”

“Your assumptions are correct.” The voice was a grinding sound in her ears, raspy and thick. “Come in, just remember what you heard.” Only the slam of the intercom device followed.

Celine nodded towards Samson and they continued up the last set of stairs. “I’m sorry again,” he told her as he jerked his wrist back and forth. She didn’t pay it any mind. She just took the apology. Later, maybe, she would apologize back. This wasn’t the place. Too much desolation filled her thoughts. Everything here oozed a pain so unfathomable that it touched the living. Regret is the deepest wound to ever be inflicted on a person.

Only a few steps told her that those words were true. She began to see them. There were seven pairs of combat boots. All, except one, came accompanied with a dog tag. “Andres, Hacke, Johnson, Bakes, Calder, Tabin, Yamashiro….” One spot, unfilled by tan desert boots or a dog tag, remained untouched on the left side. An American flag lay underneath the soles, this one in far better shape than the one braving the elements. Sheriff made a small memorial. Places like this did things to her. Things that played with her head.

Celine shook her mind clear. When memories gathered this strong, they would manifest themselves to her. Samson couldn’t see them. This was her cross to bear. Six of the men stood attention in white, translucent forms. She looked down, her eyes avoiding the ephemeral figures of the men created by her own power. Focus on the door. Whispers and hard looks followed. “They aren’t there,” she told herself. “Just a memory. A memory of a living person.” Celine managed. She pushed pass Samson, her arms loosely hanging from their sockets.

By the time she met the door, she was out of breath. She touched the silver handle. “Sam?”

“Cassie?” He never called her that. Not unless something was wrong.

“We didn’t do the right thing.”

She opened the door.

Neither she nor Samson expected the top floor to be like this. Dim light splashed the room with warm colors, yet the dark blue sky view cooled the room. Bookshelves, filled with old-ragged books and notes, backed both of the large room’s walls. Thin leafed trees in pots brought even more life to the dark blue world, happy in their own corners. Celine’s steps echoed from thumps to taps as she entered from concrete to nice hardwood. The closer she got, the more the room opened to a larger space. Maybe this was some executive suite in the past. Either way, it felt like a different world than the one she left at the first step of this travel.

An enormous bed with a simple white mattress on a plain black frame held the middle of the room. From the door, she couldn’t see all the man lying on his side. Light threw thick shadows upon his body. She saw him turn his head though, a single pale eye locked onto her. He didn’t even move, just shifted his body, and stared out of the large window before him. “I remember you,” he said. His voice was no better in person.

Celine stood in her place as her eyes adjusted to the dimness. Sheriff’s flesh was a purpled and splotchy mass. No hair touched his built body, stripped of flesh here and there to the muscle and bone. What black hair remained on his head looked long and thin, only patches on his head. In only a grey pair of cargo pants and an off-white t-shirt, he should’ve been comfortable. He wasn’t. There was something in the way he just laid there, motionless but rigid. He didn’t even breathe to ease the tension. He didn’t have to. This man had been dead. He had been dead for years.

“It has been a while Corporal David Graham.”

Sheriff scoffed, or laughed. Celine couldn’t tell which. “Corporal David Graham died.”

“Then who are you? You look like him.”

“I am what he left.” Sheriff got himself upright, his feet soundlessly touching the floor. “You saw his last words on the way here. The bullet didn’t kill him, but grief did. Now, what do you want Celine Collette? Or shall I say Cassandra Kingsley?”

In that moment, she knew that nothing was okay. Everything wasn’t fine. He does remember. It should have been a good thing. Then why couldn’t she ignore the pit in her stomach?

6

Move by Move

Everything goes full circle. From the moment this all started to where it is now…it’s going to head back to the beginning. That was what he was afraid of.”

All it took was one mistake, Brink thought rising out of bed drenched in cold sweat.

There were times in the back of his head that he knew everything was coming down. A stronger—or maybe foolish—part of his mind fought tooth and nail against that simple fact. Everything’s finished. We’re done. We won. The nagging inside his head never stopped. It whispered in his ear and told him that everything was wrong. Two years ago, he began to listen to the words of his inner mind. These dominos hadn’t stopped falling yet. Miles upon miles of them were already facing down. When will my domino fall? The thought of that moment lived in his dreams.

Dreams are just dreams. Even thinking it, he wondered how many men told themselves that. It’s not like he hadn’t dreamed before. Blood and war stayed with him, even with his eyes closed. Memories of howling wind and the patter of sand drummed in the inside of his skull. Bullets were there when there were none. Even awake, some large sounds broke his nerve. Yet the dreams, the nightmares, made Brink loathe the night. Last night felt no different.

In this dream he was falling as though thrown. A cloudy grey sky grew smaller and smaller above him; while the ground underneath became closer and closer. Buildings swirled all around him in blurs. The world was as it was now, burnt and demolished. He smelled the smoke in the air, mixed with the rain. All he could think of was where he fell from. A helicopter loomed above him, and a man stood within the open door. Just watching, not even trying to save him from his certain death. The man, from his stature alone, grew more and more pleased the further down Brink fell. Somehow, that made it feel real. No one was going to help. They would only watch— and inevitably enjoy—as he self-destructed.

Brink took a quick drink to wash away both his dry throat and apparitions.

Afterwards, Brink just sat cross-legged on his bed. The glass of Scotch was as empty as the bottle and the person beside it. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the back of his knuckles, frowning. His reflection met him in the glass. Puffy, red-rimmed, and black-bagged eyes stared back at him. Only twenty and I feel worse, he thought. River was right in that aspect. His growing alcohol problem wasn’t helping the matter any, though it dulled the pain. He wanted to, and thought about doing it anyway, go wandering through the halls to find another bottle. The responsible man inside told him no. There were things that needed to be done. Preparations more like it. There were always preparations, especially dealing with the Conjurer. Another fucking long day.

Mornings went slow. Thankfully, the rain stopped. Being here provided some tactical advantage for everyone involved. The fog gave a good cloak, the height good scouting points. A majority of the places were defensible due to the environment. Still, he wouldn’t have chosen it as a vacation spot. Days darkened to rival the nights in blackness. Lightning at night shone so consistently that it could be mistaken as day. From Brink’s eyes, night and day didn’t exist in the Dark Rainlands. That made routines just another figment of his imagination. What did you expect when you helped to end this world? What did anyone expect?

Brink dragged himself from his bed.

Cleaning and getting dressed left him more tired than he should have been. Lieutenant Brink stole a moment for himself for meditation in the white bathroom. He took deep breaths, listening to his own lungs. Ragged, shallow, and weak things they were. His body, thinner and tighter than rope, looked foreign in the mirror. When did he get so thin? Clothes barely fit. His strength had dwindled. Objects—simple things like his assault rifles and his armor—were heavy in his hands. Brink held his back, adjusting to the added weight with a grunt. He earned a small pop and felt marginally better.

“Sir,” a voice said from inside his main room.

“What?” he snapped back in a shout. He quickly realized the acerbity of his words. “I apologize,” he said again in a raised and even voice. “I’ll be out in a second.”

Brink pushed his way out of the bedroom to see that Miranda had let herself in. She already cleaned and fixed the bed, tidied up the floor, and was cleaning the table before he entered. Somehow, through it all, she met him with a reedy smile. Though she wore her hair short, the dark bangs of her hair flowed wildly every time she tossed her head. She drank in his presence for a small second, before continuing with her work. “You do know that the Mother’s coming here today, right? I suggest you get your act together, sir.”

You’re honest. That was one of the reasons he kept her around. She spoke her mind. That and she knew how to use her honesty: less like a hammer and more like a whip. “I’m aware,” he noted, grabbing his boots from beside the door.

“Just thought I’ll remind you in case the whiskey made you forget…” Miranda’s brow furrowed at the thought. “When are you going to stop worrying?”

“Stop worrying about…”

“What you did. It’s done. No need nursing old wounds.”

“Easy for you to say,” Brink noted. I don’t want to talk about this. I think about it enough. “Is the Conjurer here yet?”

“He’s waiting down stairs.” Tsk. Miranda tended to make that sound when something annoyed her. “He has been demanding your presence.” She mocked his pretentious voice with an over exaggeration on his pompous accent. “You would think that he owns the place from how he was talking.”

“Well, technically he does own this place. We are the guest here. He’s…just difficult to work with. “

“Understatement much? Let’s get you down there before he decides that he’ll handle the meeting with Mother himself.”

“We can’t have that. Pass me my pistol”

She did a few more little things around his room before Miranda found it. She handed him the pistol, handle first. The silver gun wasn’t standard issue from the Marines. Handling the Colt 1901 in his palm brought back memories. Regret and pride battled in his head. You don’t regret everything about it. Only years ago, you were proud of what you did. What changed? He knew what changed. He came back to the Ancestors not quite whole that day. Loose ends brought entire plans down. Still he fought on. He needed to end this. Maybe then, he’ll better sleep at night.

“Let’s go,” Brink said, holstering his gun with the margin of vigor.

“That’s my boy.”

She opened the door for him, allowing Brink to fall back into the role of command.

The role came to him easier than he imagined. Brink fell into his once proud stride. He raised his chin a little higher, spreading his shoulders a little wider. Each step contained an ounce of strength, as they echoed through these hallways. Things were easier to handle when he had something to do. His mind already raced into a safer place. For how long? He didn’t know.

Instead, Brink pondered on the luxury of this place. People struggled only yards away from the building. Conjurer and his pride often forgot that people held power. As long as he had physical power over someone else, it didn’t matter. Electricity, though not as stable as before, gave light and energy to the building. Though the Ancestors restored it to most of their allies, it was a long way before the other territories received the gift. This hallway’s light made the sun envious in this part of the country. He wondered how many of the outsiders wanted to see a light of any kind. Would they fight for it? Or will they die in their dark homes with their sick children?

Yes, they will. You will never be safe. A voice said in his head. You’ll never be 100%. You’ll never sleep.

Brink led Miranda through a small hallway. Tucked in an opening to the side was an elevator door, silver and polished. She stared at it wearily, hands on her hips. He saw the question forming on her face even before she asked it. “Does it work?”

“Only for certain people, yes.” Brink shrugged.

“Why am I not a certain person?”

Must have slipped my mind.”

“Of course it did.”

The elevators remained reserved for high ranking officers and Conjurer. Brink searched for a keycard in his pants’ pocket. He found the slick blue card and swiped it on the console. Technology didn’t disappear with the atmosphere. In fact, a plenty of pre-war technology and experts remained within the Ancestor’s care. Not pre-war, he reminded himself as the door slid open. That suggests there was resistance. He knew better than anyone that there wasn’t any. Conjurer called it a cleansing. Most, even members of their organization, called it what it was. A massacre.

“Give me some space,” Miranda noted as they stepped in. “Tight spaces freak me out.”

“Yeah, me too.”

The normalcy of the elevator ride felt surreal. For this brief stent, they weren’t soldiers in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. Phillip Kingsley and Miranda Johnson were just two people, stuck in an elevator of a building way too tall for their liking. They would remark at the brown tiles on the floor or the bulb above them. Miranda looked back at the mirror from time to time, moving her hair from her face and looking at her dark eyes. The elevator teased them with choke ups and abrupt stops. They laughed, staring at the red numbers with anxiousness. Years ago this would have been just a normal thing. Maybe they wouldn’t even know each other. As it was though, it was still nice.

Bing.

The silver doors opened to the lobby area, where reality set in. Brink and Miranda readjusted their demeanors, falling into the seriousness that the world required. The building they had taken resident in was a hotel renovated “generously” by Conjurer and his slaves. Even now, the lobby area itself showed splashes of his taste. Long wooden tables were in the middle of the area, adorned with tall wax candles. The tall windows surrounded the area with their white curtains drawn back. The glass allowed the morning’s gray embrace to filter in. Crystal chandeliers swung above pouring white light on the cream colored marble tile floor. Thin men brought in flowers and wild plants from the outside vegetation. It gave the environment colors of reds, blues, and yellows, but not enough to make this appear any less cold.

Conjurer reclined in a large cushioned chair at the end of one of the tables. This time he wore a stylish red robe, with furs around his collar. The sleeves were long to mask his missing arm, yet flowing enough to give it depth like it was there. His hair, color of a blacken chestnut, slicked back and around sides of his narrow neck. He smiled. His hawk-like features didn’t. He drank deep from his white wine before placing it on the white cloth of the table mat.

“It’s about time that you’ve arrived. I was planning on sending Elena to check up on you.” The smile didn’t change with his pleasant tone. “I thought you’ll dress nicer for the occasion.” Conjurer ran his finger against the rim of his wine cup. A sharp song followed his thin finger. “Imagine my disappointment.”

Brink ignored that comment, instead focusing on River, Ragnar, and a red-haired girl on the other side of the table. None of them fit the part of Conjurer’s band. River was as childish and prudent as ever; her hair in those long pig tails. The doctor looked different with his shaven hair and out of his makeshift armor. Nothing changed besides that. His mind remembered. Time didn’t dull his hate. Even now he shot dark looks at him, untrusting after Drifter slipped from his fingers. The last woman, he knew nothing of. Still something about her got his attention.

That unnerved him.

Brink frowned at the girl. “Who’s that?”

“She’s a pet, of course,” Conjurer answered in the snidest voice Brink had ever heard from his mouth.

An awkward silence nestled its way into the conversation. Long minutes passed before anyone said or did anything. River was the one that broke the silence with a giggle. At first, Brink couldn’t see why she was chuckling so hard. He just assumed that she enjoyed the excruciating quietness. After a closer look, he found the reason: Ragnar’s face. Ragnar settled into a feral expression. He bared teeth at Conjurer, growling low underneath his tongue. The doctor was gone and the cannibal king rose. This could be bad, Brink thought. Very few things kept this glue together already.

“She’s a person,” Ragnar said in a deliberately slow tone. “She’s not yours. She’s a gift…remember?” The woman beside him shook her head and whispered something in his ear. She’s trying to defuse the situation. That’s a good sign.

Brink didn’t want to know about her anymore, especially if it was going to be this much trouble. “It doesn’t matter. We have more pressing matters. Keep her around if you must, Ragnar. But we need to get started.”

River’s amusement only grew at his words. “Brinkies, you’re always getting to the point. Too bad you’ve lost your thunder. Now, you’re barely sounding like a drizzle. Is there something you want to tell us?”

“The little girl in the room thinks she’s the brightest crayon in the crayon box.” Brink lowered his gaze, as he pulled a chair out from under the table. Miranda fell in beside him. “Tell me. Why are you here? I thought I sent you on a mission.”

River swung her little legs. She’s toying with me. She knows something that I don’t.

“I can answer that,” Conjurer interrupted. “Amy, the reports.”

One of Conjurer’s dolls placed a written document on the table. She bowed deeply. Deeper than he deserves, Brink said within the comforts of his head.

Pride glowed on the puppet master’s face. Yet another person that thinks he’s the smartest thing here. Times like this annoyed Brink more than anything. River and Conjurer enjoyed their games. They never realized they were pieces, not the players. Even so, this wasn’t a place for games. That was why he liked the doctor despite his hate towards him; he needed one person to not see the humor in all this.

“You see. We have unfinished business. I know that you’re aware of the Sheriff. His recent activities are stirring ‘unrest’ in some of our controlled territories. A lot of our partners are folding and starting to question the Ancestor’s ability to keep our peace. Remember, we gave more than enough for this effort. We were promised a time to start over, a moldable world of our choosing. Plenty of us wouldn’t have funded this if it wasn’t for that promised safety. Lance, for one, didn’t receive such safety. In fact, he’s dead. Dead people cannot support a new government.” Conjurer’s grin broadened.

“But you already know that, don’t you? What you don’t know, or you’re trying not to tell us, is that your sister is involved. Maybe it was overlooked during the chaos of your mishandlings two years back. We have seen her working with the Messengers and the Messengers are known for working with the Sheriff. So. When were you going to tell us that your sister has gone rogue?”

“I didn’t know,” Brink told him. That was only half way true. Knowing and believing came hand in hand. Celine always had an agenda. But, their differences didn’t change the fact that they knew each other. Celine wouldn’t betray her father. That wasn’t out of some blind loyalty or faith; she loved her father and family. Still… she orchestrated Graham’s revival…even if it was by accident. She was trying to find something. She knows why I had to kill my unit. What are you doing, sis?

“Uninformed and incompetent, what are you good for?” Conjurer asked, breaking him of his stupor.

“Tripping over his boot straps seems to be a thing he’s fantastic in,” River chimed. “But don’t think that you aren’t any of the blame for this either, Conjurer. Your thirst for Drifter’s head messed up quite a few things in the first place.”

“Cute, River. If you killed Graham when you should have, we wouldn’t be in this situation either. That’s if we are in the business of throwing blame right now.” Elena and Amy laughed. Conjurer batted them away as though falsely embarrassed. “Alas, we came blame all we want but we are in the present. What do you plan on doing about it?”

“I’ll speak with Cassandra about it,” Brink said in an appeasing tone. “Is that all you wanted to talk about?”

“Cassandra, was it? Celine is the name I’ve heard her called. A nickname perhaps.” River crossed her legs and tilted her head. “Was it you, the older brother, or the youngest one that gave it to her?”

Brink’s throat tightened. His fingers dashed towards his gun. She must have been snooping around. She’s getting too close. Miranda grabbed his wrist at the nick of time. She shook her head. She’s right. It’s not worth it. Yet right now it felt so worth it.

“Yellow’s my favorite color, Brinkies,” River said in her best innocent tone. “Last time I checked, it’s the brightest crayon there,” she ended her words in her vile, serious one.

Brink gave her the victory for now.

“Back to business,” Conjurer began again. “I have another rumor. This one’s a lot vaguer. Have you ever heard of the Circus? The group, not the event before you say something River. Though rather peaceful, they are catching the eyes of some of the common people. I was wondering if we can put some of your unit to…keep an eye on them.”

“Keeping an eye on religious nuts and misfits, for what reason?” Brink asked.

“For every reason.” The answer came from the front door instead of the table.

Everyone’s head turned as they viewed a woman entering the golden framed door. Her black leather coat, long and well made, rolled water off of its folds and onto the floor. The members of her guard took off her coat before Conjurer’s doorman could react. It revealed a simple black top and slacks that a woman would wear to a business meeting. Around her neck was a long white scarf, tucked around her skinny neck. She was an older woman, in her mid-fifties or early sixties, but didn’t look the part. She let out her long dark blond hair from its bun as her liquid blue eyes absorbed the surroundings. Her gloved hands in her lap, she smiled and bowed. “Phillip.”

“Everyone. The Mother of the Ancestors and my mother, Mary Kingsley,” Brink announced. “How is Hal?”

“He’s fine, of course.” Her voice was as he remembered it, soft and sweet. “He’s handling my security detail outside. Sweetie, he wanted to see his younger brother so bad. I’ve heard you haven’t been doing well. Are the dreams coming back?”

“I’m doing fine. Come sit.”

Mary, in practiced motions, continued around the table to introduce herself personally. She gave out hugs and kisses and engaged in a bit of small talk here and there. She didn’t care that Conjurer took the head of the table. She knew who was in charge. “Do you mind if I sit on the other side of you, dear?” Brink smiled and she sat down. His mom already started to fight off the urge to touch his face or rub his head. “The Circus holds a lot of information. Certain interest groups, particularly ones that are dangerous to us, will want to reap some benefits from them. They are too nice to refuse. I’ve even heard that they have a seer amongst them. Truth of that is fact a bit shady. ”

“Well said, Mrs. Mary.” Conjurer raised his glass. “That’s why I employed River’s help. I want to see what they know at any cost.”

“We don’t need more enemies.” Brink hated reminding idiots—particularly the moron with the wine glass—of this. “Sending her is like sending a C4 in the mail and expecting the recipient to be grateful.”

“Conjurer and River both assured me that this wasn’t going to be the case. River, you are allowed to defend yourself if you are threatened.” Mary paused, eyeing River with her blue gaze, “I don’t need to remind you what happens if you let your personal feelings get in the way. I know you have a grudge against the leader…or rather the Ringmaster… of the Circus. Grigori Zachrov, was it?”

River rapped her fingers against the table. “And I wonder how you came to know that information?”

“I might have told her.” Ragnar said. During the course of the conversation, he regained his calm demeanor. The mysterious red-haired woman ran her thumb against his large knuckles. “Mrs. Kingsley and I had a talk before she arrived. We have common grounds.”

These two are always plotting everyone else’s and each other’s downfall. Brink knew, despite his fondness for the doctor’s ambition, that he didn’t trust him either. They weren’t Ancestors. They hung around and did anything they told them. River and Ragnar still talked alone sometimes. For people that didn’t like each other much, a middle ground between them lied in their mist. They can’t leave. They already know too much…and I think they know that. What are they planning?

“I don’t trust them,” Miranda whispered.

“Good. I’m not the only one here that doesn’t.”

River, mesmerized by Ragnar’s sudden revelation, kicked her feet as though toying with thoughts in her head. “I promise not to kill Grigori Zachrov. Yet. There are plenty of other things that I could do. Is that all we have to deal with Conjurer?”

“I do have one more objective which also threatens our safety and security. Well threaten is an over statement. The Drifter might have been seen.”

“What?” Ragnar frowned.

“It’s not that big of a problem, Mr. Owens. Licking his wounds for two years has weakened the beast. We can take him out in one fatal swoop. I’m not concerned anymore. But if we could remove him from the board, I wouldn’t complain.” Conjurer sipped his wine. “Your thoughts?”

“Mom?”

“It’s unwise to keep him alive any longer. He’ll come to us. If your theories are correct, Conjurer, we won’t have anything to worry about. I trust your council.”

A single expression jumped from person to person. Conjurer was that confident, that pompous to believe a cornered beast wasn’t a threat. Brink had the half of mind to tell his mother that she was wrong. She too looked calm and confident. None of them had seen what Drifter was capable of. They didn’t watch the flames eat away at that city. They didn’t see how meticulous he worked and adapted. Damien Howard, a trusted Grandson of the Ancestor, went missing that day—just gone. That wasn’t the movements of a man that has given up. Why can’t they see that? “I don’t think that we shouldn’t worry about the Drifter.”

Conjurer straightened his back and scowled. “Why is it not wise? We have a lot on our plate already.”

“Drifter hasn’t forgotten. Remember, he just plays his strategy move by move.”

_

America proved to be an interesting and beautiful place. Sometimes, though, Grigori wished he had come sooner. Some things appeared to be off despite the general beauty of it all. People, he decided. The country, the world just lacked people. Maybe centuries from now, everything would be back to normal. That was what he prayed for any way. For now, he just wanted to enjoy the company of the world around him and relax.

Boris, covered in his thick furs and scales, curled himself up in his brother’s lap. Ivan, the middle sibling, snored much louder in the corner of the tent. Ivan curled his big muscled body in a tight ball when he slept. Grigori noted, not for the first time, he grew his first head and chin full of brown hair that he had in years. That made Grigori smile. Both of them had grown to men, strong men. Cold years on the street of Moscow sounded like a far off memory in his head. They were just three boys with nowhere to go and no one to be. Grigori raised them, giving them a childhood at the cost of his own. I fought and fought. I was not foreign to blood, but no different than dogs. Now, he wasn’t anymore, despite it all.

Grigori rose from his thin blankets, tired of peeking through the flap of the tent to see the morning. He looked down on his brother, clinching his teeth. Boris clung to him, a habit he hadn’t quite broke anytime they slept in the same vicinity. Breathing with an exaggerated care, Grigori wiggled his way from his brother’s grasp. It proved rather difficult without waking him up. He proved successful after a while. Grigori stood—comfortable at his full height. Worst out of the way, he jumped over the long limbs of Ivan to make it to the entrance. He poked his fingers through the brown cloth. Would be a shame to wake them after all that with some light, he thought. He slipped through the small crack, and they didn’t even flinch. He thanked God for it.

He also praised Him for the day.

Orange skies were new to the Russian man. Morning never reached the underground. The wind felt nice, though brisk on his wiry bare chest. Dew settled in the ground, caking wet dirt on the soles of his bare feet. At least the ground wasn’t frozen. In the distance, a river rushed around a bend to crash into the shore in splashes. Before him was nothing more than trees and tall grasses on one end; the other end held arid wastelands and bones. Only the side with life had a distinct smell—spicy and full of life. There little group of foreigners made their homes here. The locals called it Whitewater Crossing named after the river. It fit. Americans was nothing more than creative, even in this ruin of a world.

Grigori stretched his short and thin body. To many people, he might have looked like a house cat. He was shaggy enough to be one with his brown hair on his head and lighter pecan colored hair on his chest. Ivan called him kitten or kotönok in the language of their motherland. It was a jest that stuck. “As harmless as a small cat,” he told the people that met him. Ivan nicknamed his older, much shorter, brother in irony. A kitten couldn’t do what he did. With Ivan’s sarcasm, he would have fit in this country.

A quick run started his day. Quick, on his terms, matched a normal man’s entire morning routine. He did his normal length, several rounds of the entire length of the camp. That encompassed several miles if Grigori were to guess. This led to his strength training, just a few sets of bodyweight exercises. He cleared his mind of all stray thoughts as he worked. He focused on the pain, his strength, and the general activity of it all. He finished up with a round of push-ups and thought to do some more. I have to make breakfast for the camp, he realized.

The task arrived with a bit more eagerness than it did most days. Grigori began on breakfast for his company. The white waters of the nearby river provided the perfect beginning for the broth. It took three long trips, each with two large buckets attached to a long beam. Years of training ensured no enduring aches of his muscles, just a lot of sweat. By the end, Grigori loathed the idea of being any warmer than he already was. Still, he needed to start the fire. Not a lot of people liked cold soup, no matter if they were too polite to say otherwise.

It took him minutes to find a flint, gather all the fire wood, and get the roaring fire started.

He poured each of the six buckets of water into the large, black kettle pot. Chopping up potatoes, celery, radishes, carrots, and some local wild herbs came next. He threw together some salt, pepper, oils and other spices that their little group earned and began stirring with a wooden spoon. A thin and watery stew wasn’t going to be filling for most; but no one would complain. They were simple people and a meal was a meal. A good half-an-hour absently stirring passed. The smells of the food galvanized the will of the entire camp.

The first ones awake were Ivan and Boris. They emerged from the tent, sleepy-eyed. Ivan lumbered towards the smell, his little brother in toe. He petted his furred brother’s head, earning a small and beautiful hum. “Morning, brother,” Ivan said. Grigori had started to teach him English, but he couldn’t abandon their native language in the morning. At least not yet.

Grigori responded in kind. “Morning. Everything well?”

“Always been well, my brother. Boris, morning to you too.

Boris walked, four-legged as always, to his oldest brother side. Grigori hugged him around the neck, rubbing his skin against the grey fur and fish-like scales. He missed how the youngest one used to look before the mutations. Not restrained to four legs, average height, and the only one with blonde hair on his head, Boris was extraordinary. At least he kept his eyes, those pure blue ones instead of the steel grey ones that his brothers inherited from their long gone father. Boris did communicate better now as a result. Born without a voice, but always wanted to sing, Grigori . The transformation, though cruel in other ways, gave him a voice of some sort. He had never seen him happier. He sung a small song to welcome the embrace before trotting back to Ivan’s side.

“What’s the plan for today? Want me to forage for anything else?”

Grigori thought about Ivan’s request. “No. We should be fine. I’m just making extra in case our company comes early.”

“Company?” Ivan asked, dipping a wooden bowl in to the soup. He passed his first one to Boris before getting one for himself.

“We’re expecting a visitor today.”

“By who, kotönok?”

“Nysaia brought me aside the other day.” Grigori nodded to the dark colored tent that permeated thick incent smoke. “She saw someone in her crystals.”

Ivan, between mouthfuls and contemplation, finally asked: “What did she see?

It wasn’t clear, Grigori thought. Just two days ago, the beautiful gypsy woman pulled him into her tent. Grigori remembered the overpowering smells of cinnamon. He remembered the old bones on the floor, cards on the table, and crystal ball shattered on the floor. He remembered her. He asked her if she was okay. Nysaia didn’t look it as she slumped in her chair. Days before she looked fine. At that moment, her body seemed thin, face shallow, and hair disheveled. She was quick, almost babbling in her words, tripping over her English. She talked with a fervor that matched her maddened face. “The Blind White Beast is coming. Death stains his fur. He feasts on gods and devils. He will be here in two days’ time to resume his hunt. Make nice with him, Grigori. I know that you will no matter what. But please. For the sake of all here, send him and his pack away. You will thank me.” Confused, Nysaia pushed him out of the tent to meditate.

Grigori shook off the memory. The Blind White Beast? A pack? He was usually good at decrypting Nysaia’s vague precognitive power. “I just know that someone will visit. And I’ll have to send them away.

Ivan chewed carefully on a carrot. “That’s not like you. You would not send someone away.”

It only took looking around for seconds to see that. Tents of all color lied upon the landscape. Each filled with one or more people lost to the world. Everyone was waking up now. People of all shapes and sizes ducked out of tents or rose from their sleep on the ground. To the normal eye, Whitewater Crossing was a nest of freaks and misfits. Grigori brought each of them in like a young boy bringing home a puppy and keeping it. Giants, dwarves, mutated animal people, psychics, and people with nowhere to go came here. It proved difficult, but they managed. The Circus was what they called it. Grigori turned to Ivan, sighing. “Am I too nice, brother?”

“I don’t know,” Ivan grinned broadly, “can I have seconds?”

“Why did you even ask that? Of course you can.”

Ivan laughed. “Then yes. Yes you are.”

7

Rhapsody in a Devil’s Tone

It’s in your blood, boy; it’s that madness dancing inches away with morality, kissing her on the cheek. Doing what’s right and tearing someone up limb by limb doesn’t truly have a line between them for both of you, does it?”

“They’re gonna make me do something they’re gonna regret,” Drifter said, eying the traveling puffs of smoke and dust rolling over the horizon. A devil lived in his voice. Wood heard it sometimes. His own imp paled in comparison to whatever lived behind his uncle’s eyes. Amongst the twang of his accent and the smoothness of his old crackling voice, that demon lived and thrived. It wanted these people to make this mistake. It prayed for it. A hunt was only good if there was fight in the prey.

Raiders were a problem in the Barren Blacks, miles from the Moonlight Marches. Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky all made these charcoal black lands. Trees stood burnt and bare as though fire held them too close. Grasses no longer broke the skin of the earth. Only vultures—ones with wings and some without—visited these lands willingly. Inhabitable and arid, these former states left no room for mercy. Motorcycle and ATV gangs ruled the hills and endless plains. Highwaymen and bandits picked off stranglers, leaving dead bodies to rot slowly in the heat. The cracked ground refused to take them; how could it when it was dying too? These dying bodies were going to have company, if these raiders tried anything.

And they looked like they were about to start some problems.

Drifter licked his lips, tasting the bitter air. From the corner of his eye, Wood saw only the mass of white and stringy hair instead of his full face. He did see his mouth, though, often lost in his beard. Drifter was grinning with his yellowed teeth. Some words escaped his mouth in an indecipherable tone. His nostrils flared as he listened to the rumbling of his vehicles and theirs. All his senses focused on the raiders. All except touch. Wood figured out what he was saying then. “They’re so close,” Drifter whispered.

The raiders began to howl with their sharp voices hanging through the wasteland. Each of them rode their vehicles with the same reckless vigor. Some hung from the side, others hardly even steered. A few almost fell as they approached the small band with an incredible speed. Once close, they spun make shift weapons over their heads. None of them possessed firearms, Wood saw. Ammunition and even guns was a rarity now for those who didn’t horde them early. Lucky for them, most of those they hunted didn’t fight back.

“Want me to kill them?” Wood asked in a matter-of-fact tone.

Drifter considered the prospect. He shook his head, readjusting his suspenders. “No need to use an axe on a sapling. Let’s try to out run them.”

Wood knew the practicality of this. They needed their weapon’s ammunition for later. Unlike at the camp or with the full strength of the caravan, conservation was needed. To top it off, he was driving. Stopping to transform might put both him and his uncle in danger.

This proved much more difficult than Wood and Drifter anticipated. Though wild, the gang was good. They knew the environment much better and could handle it at any speed. Wood slammed on the pedal, speeding forward. The clattering of dried dirt tried its best to distract the driver from the road. Large chips of clay slammed into one of Wood’s mirrors, cracking it. He pushed harder. Another shard shot up, threatening to open a wound on Wood’s temple. He sped even more. The world became a blur around them. I’m not going to be able to out speed them. Still he went faster, faster than he had ever been. To no avail, the gang was too familiar with the terrain.

Wood jerked the wheel as he came upon a downed tree, hidden safely in the dust cloud. Shit! He managed to turn in time. One of the tires screeched as it slid across a few cracks to a halt. Pub’s truck slammed into the corner of their tail light, spinning them around. Drifter and Wood were tossed into the air, their seat belts the only thing stopping them from slamming into the windshield. Disoriented, Wood looked up. His mind confused his senses for a moment. Up was down and down was up. A sharp pain ran through his body. His head suffered the worst. “Uncle!” Wood shouted, snapping out of his stupor. He looked over.

He was there. Unharmed mostly, but just sitting. His silence was even more frightening than the crash itself. Drifter stewed in his own anger, his cut lip trembling. The old man’s body shook as he calmed himself. Wood had never seen him so angry.

The rest of the band managed to stop much better, but still with enough damage to go around.

That wasn’t the worst part. Their pursuers surrounded them like buzzards. First, the bikes, a good eight of them circled around. An ATV followed next, each full with four passengers. They were bony creatures up close, much like the creatures Ragnar once had in his company. All were men, face painted with black and white in foreign symbols. Wild eyed, a few of them managed to catch the eye of Drifter in the exposed jeep. Drifter held no reaction, or rather unclear behind those thick, round sunglasses. The leader was a bald man with a long staff of spikes and branches in his hand. “Looks like an old man in thadda one fellas,” the band leader shouted, “how ‘bout we put his other foot in the grave, eh!”

Wood gripped the useless wheel. Battle was on the horizon. Radio chatter crowded their ears. Everyone spoke over each other, expecting an order. During this, Drifter didn’t move. His pistol remained in the holster to the side. He didn’t order to fire. His expression did fall though, crusting with a layer of metaphorical ice. None of the beast saw it. They were too busy toying with their food. Chains of their weapons banged against the metal. A few managed to beat and dent their vehicle, laughing in their own madness as they did. This kept going and going.

“Is there a reason we aren’t fighting back,” Harodo asked over the radio.

Drifter ignored him. “Are you done?” he asked in a raised voice. “We are going to kill all of you, if you continue. So let’s stop this charade and—“

Whatever Drifter wanted to say lost itself on his lips. A long chain slid across his nose, ripping flesh from the skin. His brow furrowed as he touched the blood on his face. Wood looked over in horror, ignoring the still circling threat. Blood stained Drifter’s broken black glasses, painted them with thick specks of red. He placed the pair into his nephew’s lap. Anger boiled in Wood’s chest, but Drifter just kept shaking his head. “No axe, my boy. No. Axe. For. A. Sapling.”

His tone even unnerved Wood. It lacked inflictions in its constant ocean of quiet anger. “You’re hurt…you okay?” Wood asked.

The question earned a nod and nothing more as Drifter stepped out. His fingers returned to the open wound on his face. The idea of his own blood must have fascinated him for he didn’t notice the men’s hungry gaze. His wounds continued to mount. Drifter received more superficial blows the more he stayed out in the open. A nick here and a scratch there, yet his mind fixated on the long bleeding scar that pumped blood from underneath his eyes. Wood saw it as it was: like if a mortal struck their merciful god. Their prayer would now fall on deaf ears as that same god struck them down.

One of the men in a ATVs yelled nonsense as he charged forward. Drifter didn’t move, regarded them with a sense of barbarous intrigue. Wood just saw the flash of the shots. He never heard them. One minute, the bandit was driving, much alive. The next, he and all his passengers were one head short. Pink and red mesh spewed from the bloodied stump of their necks. The driver’s lifeless fingers gripped the wheel. It wasn’t long before the corpses sped off into the distance and tumbled over. The Drifter smiled in a self-satisfied way, the way a student would after answering correctly on a set of oral questions.

That moment, the quiet onslaught started.

Everyone watched as the Drifter stood his ground against these moving opponents. They sped at him, trying to run him through. It took all Wood’s power not to interfere; even though he didn’t need to.

They started to attack at once now in threes and fours. Drifter moved only when needed, taking small adjustments as he shot and dodged. One bandit on a bike turned towards him, trying to cleave the old man’s head off. All the stunt rewarded him with was a bullet in the throat. Seconds after, another boney man rode towards him with a make-shift mace. Drifter knocked him off his bike with his forearms and executed him with a bullet in the head. The high caliber bullet colored Drifter in even more red. In another clean stride, he finished off two more before they had a chance to regain themselves.

Four men remained. Those four changed, losing their previous playful demeanor. No longer did they care about themselves. Their speeds increased, their ambitions becoming clearer. Drifter didn’t care. Once he fired a bullet, people died. For once, even Wood questioned if his uncle possessed some sort of ability or was strictly human. That’s where his strength lies. No one knows.

The leader with the hook, a tall with a fatter belly than the rest, took his chances. “You’re signin’ yer death wish old—“

Bang.

The hook man wasn’t dead when he hit the ground, but the other members did stop their motorcycles. They stared at their leader, big eyed and confused. Their eyes flicked to the pistol, a small insignificant looking thing in the old man’s hand. Drifter, in a mask of crimson, wiped the blood away with the back of his hand. A laugh rose in the man’s throat. That was sign enough for the other three to run. They revved their motorcycles, creating any and all distance from the murderous intent of the “weak old man”. Drifter’s face fell cold. He reached into the jeep and grabbed a radio. “Kill them.”

The band opened fire. Everyone knew to wait for the order. Once given, they knew to execute it without question. Pools of bullet casings hit the ground, their children hitting flesh. The fleeing members all fell from their rides, crashing into the ground in puffs of dirt. The leader clutched his side as he looked up for the first time to see his companions all dead. Not just dead, piles of meat and blood. Drifter walked up to him, kicking him face up. “Mice don’t know they aren’t welcome until they’re caught in a trap. I gave you a chance to escape, now watch as the trap breaks your neck.”

Wood felt a chill down his spine as Drifter picked up one of their makeshift maces.

“We ain’t meant no harm,” the man begged, clawing at the toe of Drifter’s boots.

“Yeah, you did. I’m not gonna lie to you. I mean you harm.”

“Let me go, I don’t wanna cause no more problems. I just want…

“Stop it,” Drifter started calmly. “Stop. Just stop. We both know I can’t allow survivors after what you tried.” His voice grew more heated. “Mercy was a limited time offer; I’m not giving it again.” He raised the grotesque ball of nails and wood as far as his voice. “You don’t deserve mercy!” his voice finally allowing a shout. “I’ll give you what you deserve! I’ll give you what happens for gettin’ in my way!”

No one watched the beating, only hearing the crunches for miles.

_

Wood pulled his wet hair back as he tried to start a fire for everyone. No one had said anything since Drifter dispatched the raiders a few hours ago. Wood clicked the flint against the dry kindle, watching everyone with observant eyes. Stiff. They were stiff. Everyone huddled in separate groups as though to come to terms with their thoughts with the people they knew most. The air slept around them. Wood stroked his beard, looking towards his uncle. Pub bandaged and cleaned the gash on his nose. What he couldn’t clean was the smell on Drifter’s body. Even now, his uncle’s clothes were drying in the sun. He sat alone and exposed as he could possibly be, just glaring into the distance. Everyone left him alone, thinking. Most of them needed to think.

“You’re starting to see where you come from.” Bardon, for the first time in a while, approached Wood with a smile. Was it the same intensity as it once was? No, it wasn’t even a half-smirk in comparison to his once upbeat and dazzling smile. Though most could say, his healing had begun. Revenge still lingered on his face. “He had to kill them all. Maybe not like that, a bit dramatic for him. Still, I guess he wanted to make a point. Maybe to himself.”

Wood clicked the flint again. Again, no sparks showered on the wood. “No need justifying his actions on my account, Bard, I enjoyed it.” Mostly, he added in his own head.

“I’ve been wondering…” Bardon trailed off. “Why didn’t you jump in? That could have gotten out of hand.”

“Couldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t, you mean.”

“Couldn’t, that’s what I said.” Wood jerked the flint across the dry wood with a last push. Nothing happened. “It wasn’t my place,” he took a deep breath before shaking his head. “He needed to get that anger out of his system. He might not show it, but he wants to keep you, every one of you, safe. What happened to your daughter shouldn’t have happened. What if that was his only blood, what if that was…”

“What if it was you…” Bardon finished in a solemn voice. He extended his hand in a polite gesture. “Let me get that for you.”

“Thanks.” There were plenty of things that he could do. Starting a fire didn’t top that list. “You’ve known him for a long time. He ever done something like that before?”

Silence took his answer. Soon the swoosh sound of the fire starting and the crackling thereafter did the same. Not gonna get that response, huh. There were things about Drifter that even he didn’t know. Large gaps of his past were missing from his nephew’s knowledge. He knew once upon a time, he was a soldier. He knew he never had a family of his own aside from his brother and sister. Wood even knew his actual name. He knew things that no one else knew. No one could know everything about a person. “I—“

“Yes,” Bardon interjected.

Wood cocked his head for a moment, stunned. “Pardon?”

“Yes. He has done that before. When Drifter gets something in his head, he locks on it. He may not look it, but he’s thinking. Those raiders were in his way. Nothing stands in his way. He’ll smash your head in if you are. Don’t think any less of him. I’ve been telling everyone that since it happened. He’s just trying to get to the bottom of all this crap.

“I doubt that anyone thinks any less of him. If they do, they ain’t been in the world very long.” In our once dandy world, everyone would’ve thought him a monster. “I better check on him. Sorry for being a bother, Bard.”

The thin dark-skinned man smiled. “It’s not a problem. Go to him. He needs his family.”

Standing came with its cramps as Wood stretched. His long legs gave smalls stings around his knees as he took unsteady steps around the campfire. Haggis and Pub still sat in their jeep, discussing and fixing what they could. Heron and Harodo whispered in low tongues, amused like they always were. Crisium and Tyrus nodded as Wood eased passed them, eyes focused as the sentinels of the group. At the end of the long road was Drifter. His swept back hair and long beard webbed against his skinny and scarred chest. Seeing him without his glasses made him look a different man. “I didn’t frighten you, did I?”

“I doubt that you could.”

Drifter nodded. “I’ll admit my conduct would have made me an enemy to a lot of people.”

“No shit…”

Red still stained Drifter’s face and hands. Blood knew Wood the best. It never came off easy. That brutal justice handed out was far from that. Hearing the snapping of the man’s legs and arms would always be a memory. They became so warped and broken, skin torn from the flesh and bones poking from the muscles. Death didn’t come slow. He let him writhe in pain to stare in horror at his own broke body. Tears lit up the man’s eyes, begging for mercy. There was no mercy that time, not when Drifter beat him to a bloody mess that resembled packed meat. It took Wood, of all people to stop him. By then, there was nothing left. “You’ve never been that violent.”

“I can’t watch all the time,” Drifter said in a playful tone. “I’ll get bored.”

“But that isn’t all there is, is it?”

Drifter grinned. “No. It wasn’t.”

“Can I guess the real reason?”

“For you, my boy, guess away. I’ll even answer.”

Wood sat beside him. Drifter shivered despite the warmth. Unbuttoning his flannel, Wood gave him his shirt, draping it over the skinny shoulders of his elder. “The world’s getting worse. Raiders like that are crawling all over this goddamn world. No matter how much we try to be good. No matter what we do. They outnumber us. There are people out there just trying to survive. They live their lives because choices they didn’t make. You’ve tried to be nice. Play by the rules. That’s someone else’s job. People deserve to know what happened. Pretty warm, yet?”

Drifter pulled the large shirt a little more around his body. “Are you asking about me or your theory?” Wood chuckled. “You’re pretty warm,” he admitted.

“But you don’t play nice. You don’t see a reason to. I mean…I’ve had this thought before. Why should I let this person live when they’ll just do wrong again?”

“Why let someone live who obviously have no respect for the people around them? Why let them breathe your air and eat your food?” Drifter added in a non-committal tone. He scratched the thick white bandage on his nose.

“You shouldn’t do that.”

“Okay, dad.”

“Really? Are you okay?” I know you’re tired of that question.

“Its fine, Woody. Might not heal quite right. But go on. I want to hear more.”

Wood shifted, fighting off a proud smile. In a clear voice, he started again: “We live on the boundaries of what’s right and what’s wrong. Taking it in our own hands is instinctive. Don’t matter if it leaves dirt or blood on our hands. As long as we get it done, we can sleep at night.” Like those nights in prison. Under the eyes of people who had half the story. His mind flickered back to those times and back. “Yes. We ain’t right in the head. But we ain’t going to sit around to see when—or if—someone else figures their shit out.” With one arm, he hugged his kin closer. “We know better than that.”

Drifter hugged back, stretching his legs in the process. The words turned gears in Drifter’s head, something Wood thought of as an achievement. He curled up a bit more, shaking his head. “We aren’t the best of people, huh.”

“No,” Wood whispered. “But, I guess we’re good enough.”

_

I found them! River thought in glee as she kneeled in the thick grasses. Being trapped by the Ancestors had some advantages. She couldn’t deny that. Resources that were given to her were limitless. She could take the fastest thing in and out of the Dark Rainlands. If she wanted to go somewhere, she could make it in half the time the normal people would. Being tied down to these idiots weren’t fun. Given enough toys, she might be able to make this house a home. All to myself. Those people are absolutely adorable. Too bad, I don’t need them as much as they think that I do. Plotting against them needed to wait. There were other things planned. Much more dire things.

She heard rumors, fascinating ones actually. A bandit group was slaughtered earlier today. Morning was it? Well, that was everyday news. This one managed to pique her interest. Some of the scouters found some tire tracks and long behold more bodies. The clues alone were nondescript and separate parts. The scouts then assured that the tire tracks steadily came from the south. Someone she knew. She felt it. A ghost in the trees, a fish underwater. That was what it belonged to, no other than the Drifter. My dear, he thinks that he’s smarter than me.

He isn’t.

No one is.

The Circus wasn’t the brightest either. There wasn’t even a guard posted. A witless twat might want to pounce now. A smarter person might find one opportunity. River did what River did best: catch two birds with a single stone. Drifter headed this way. She knew he was. This was one of the safest routes, and besides, others were dangerous. Bandits were one thing. Ancestors were another. He couldn’t avoid all the traps. You think that you got me. You think you’re so discreet. She bit her lips. But, you’re so sloppy, Drifter.

More victories pleased her. River watched one of those conquests move throughout the camp. Grigori Zachrov was here. Oh yes. She found out his name. Graham-cracker had a little help last time. The mission was far from a failure, though they did get away with critical information. Not enough to fight their way up to the Ancestors. Conjurer did get his panties in a twist over some political mombo-jumbo that River didn’t’ care for. All that mattered is that Grigori interfered and now, he was going to pay.

One weakness about the things you love was that you loved them. That love left a horrid kink in your armor. She knew how it felt. She cared for many things once upon a time. Family, friends, significant others and all of them died. In the end, your tears didn’t bring them back. You had to move on. Life was going to leave you and life was far too short to be stuck in your grief. Graham was stupid. Brink was still stupid. Ragnar was the stupidest of them all to believe anything otherwise. Nothing is going to hold me back. I know what hurts people because I’ve been there. Now, the world was her playground. She wasn’t going to be a victim of this world. She wasn’t going to be a victim of anything, anymore.

She knew who will be one.

He was a good man, good men have pillars. Taking away such pillars and watching it fall was the best way to handle this. That was going to be his price. The big bad Ancestors said not to kill Grigori. They said nothing about anyone else. Loopholes made the world go round. And to have Drifter to boot, River thought suppressing her giggles, it must be Christmas.

River heard engines in the distance. It was a light party: nine or ten people at the most. The morning was still new, making it difficult for her to see at first. Rearing up the head was no other than Drifter and his pet dog, Wood. He looked different. Well, both of them did. Drifter still looked old, but the two years hallowed his features and brightened his long white hair. Wood looked like he finally learned how to eat, almost twice the size he was before. There was something else that she couldn’t quite pin, an undertone perhaps. She toyed with her hair, frowning. Something’s wrong.

The Drifter stopped the trucks. Grigori and a mysterious purple clothed woman met him. There was too much space between them to hear their words. Their heads turned away from her. They talked. For a few times, Drifter glanced over to the exact lot where she lied in wait. In those lights, his blue eyes glowed with the orange aura of the sun. A smile crept over his face. River felt an uneasy feeling creep on her. Like that time with Graham. Does he know that I’m here? No. That’s not possible.

If eyes were windows into the soul, then what was on the other side of his?

“Should we start the assault,” a peon asked, lying prone beside River. Quite frankly, she forgot this idiot existed.

“No. Not yet. Let’s see what they do first.” The words tumbled out of her mouth.

She couldn’t explain why she said it. There was nothing in her way. Nothing was stopping her. Something seemed off, everything felt off key. It was like listening to your favorite song with the disc scratched. An unsettling feeling nestled in her soul. Nothing’s going to stop me, she told herself. She just needed to wait a little longer, at least until this feeling went away.

8

Dead Heroes

Wasn’t it you that told him that all the heroes died out?”

The Sheriff wasn’t Graham; he wasn’t much of anyone anymore.

Celine watched him as he walked soundlessly throughout the room. He allowed them to stay for a while in the Spiral. During those days, she observed him. Sheriff was a cold man in appearance and in personality. Any warmth that Graham may have given him had long since frozen. It showed in the way he looked. Parts of his skin had decayed, leaving more than half of his body exposed bone. His eyes sunk to the back of his head, the left duller and rimmed with a red glow. The hole in the side of his head warped itself into a sickening open scar, layered in a film of crusted blood and uneven splotched skin. He didn’t breathe that much anymore. When he did, the sound felt heavy enough to crush the building they were living in. He didn’t notice, entertain, or even acknowledge the existence of his guest. That change bothered her the most.

A few Messengers came in and out during their stay. Echo always served their meals; cold water and salted meat three times a day to their dark room. Celine ate and drank little of hers. What she didn’t, Samson did in eagerness. She was too busy putting her mind to use—trying to find out more about the situation as a whole. Sheriff, Anima, and Tlaloc spoke often at nights. Tlaloc would tap against the window, entering as a thick mist. After the materialization of the fogged silhouette, they started their meeting in a low voice. Like always, the confines of their mind were blocked. They didn’t trust her. I’m as much of an enemy as I am an asset at this point.

Today’s pale morning proved that. She and Sheriff stared at each other, feeling each other out across the room. For an undead man, he maintained the look of a certain casual state in his own home. Celine met Graham before. Never before did he uphold such a demeanor. What he wore showed this change. Not until the end of his life—the perpetual turn that happens to everyone in this world—did he abandon his Marine uniform or any of its like. Sheriff dressed and carried himself so plain that he barely even stood out. With an alias as righteous, she expected a long coat and a hat at least. But nothing. The only thing he wore that filled his title was that gaze as unforgiving as the leather of his boots.

Celine reclined in her chair, helping herself to the water at her side. “You’ve made quite the name for yourself these past few years.”

Samson, sitting across from her, frowned. “Think it is wise to taunt him like that?”

“She’s not taunting,” Sheriff interrupted. He didn’t continue. Instead, he let her talk as he brought one knee to his chest., the toe of his foot dangled on the end of his chair. Again, her eyes caught to how human the motion was coming from someone so far from normalcy.

Well, I was trying to, she admitted to herself, and he didn’t even flinch. Celine tried to not let her disappointment show. Graham, despite everything, had a potent idealism and a slew of raw emotions. Sheriff didn’t. He just didn’t. “I am speaking the truth, Samson, he has been a busy man in the Dusk Territories. Though, his agenda is quite unclear. Many butting territory lords have met death by his hand. The Ancestors are looking down upon those who are ruining some of their friends’ rise to power. She turned her attention to Sheriff, “you haven’t been quite merciful.”

“Mercy is thin,” he answered, not even batting an eye. “You should know that.”

“I do.” Celine sipped her water again. “But why? Attacking people and putting them to judgment isn’t exactly for the just. For a man that takes the helm of a law keeper, you’ve been almost harsh.” She tried harder to bait him down to the sweet taste of her last word. Harsh. The best men became the best tyrants with good intentions.

What it earned was unexpected. A smirk, quick and fleeting, flashed across the corner of his cheek. ““Justice must be crueler than the crime.” No hesitation. No wavering of his voice. In a second, she saw the man he once was. In the next, she lost him.

Only by focused disposition did she stop herself from losing the color in her face. Samson wasn’t so lucky. “There is no law to enforce, no written rulebook to follow by.” Her voice sounded weak in her throat.

For a while, Celine thought that Sheriff lost interest in the conversation. No. She would have if his gaze weren’t still latched onto her. She assumed that he was thinking. That would mean that he doesn’t know what to say. He knew precisely what he wanted to say. She felt that. The look in his eyes just wanted her to wait.

“Laws are rules because they’re feared, not because they’re written down.”

Celine, in a mild resentment, didn’t have an answer for that. Time changes a person. She rubbed her thumb against the handle of her mug. Right now, she hadn’t a clue whether it was a good change or a bad one. His morality didn’t bother her as much as what he knew. Grief locked Graham’s memories last time they spoke. He knew something. Something important. Something that even her father never told them. If it wasn’t for Phillip, this may have been much easier. Now, she’ll have to figure out what Sheriff knew from his previous life…and what he didn’t. “Your targeting of territory lords is interesting, but what’s your bigger plan?”

Sheriff rolled his shoulders. “What would I gain from telling you that, Celine?”

“I thought I’ve already gained your trust with the little test at the gate.”

“Trust isn’t something gained through betrayal. Betrayal,” he repeated with venom in his voice,” “it’s all you know. The Lance came to you for safety. Those mercenaries were unaware of the scope of your powers and trusted your alignment. I’m not them. You earned the Messengers’ trust, you did not earn mine.”

“I’m going to assume nothing earns your trust anymore.” If he was going to be poisonous, she was too. “Then why am I here, Sheriff? Why am I not dead? We are Ancestors. We are your enemy. You gave us shelter here and even fed us.”

“You’re in a unique situation and I won’t deny your use. Graham told me about you.” Something about that statement bothered her. He spoke as though Graham was dead. Maybe he was. This person, this thing, lacked everything that made a human. “I know where your heart lies, where it will always lie. You told Graham to stop pretending to be a hero. At that point, he didn’t realize or see how hypocritical you are. How long can you pretend that you aren’t what you know you are? When will you realize that you can’t destroy and protect them at the same time?”

Sheriff rose from his seat as a knight would rise from kneeling. He approached her, walking slowly across the room. His boots thudded against the ground in loud thumps. Celine remembered how quiet he moved during the night, no sound from his torn, decayed feet. This was a stark contrast, deliberate in every way. He wanted her to hear him coming. Thump. Thump. Thump. She heard more, faint at first. There were screaming, crying, gunfire, and the desert wind. Those sounds grew louder and louder until she heard nothing else. A Messenger’s mental pull was nothingness; Sheriff’s was everything. One moment, she was fine. The next she was scrambling for breath of the sheer pressure of a dead man’s memory. She gasped for air, coughing violently as she fell out of her chair.

At some point, Samson pulled his gun. He was screaming, shouting for him to stop. Or at least, that was what she guessed. Celine couldn’t hear what they were saying. But what she saw was something in a blur. Samson was holding his gun to Sheriff. Sheriff reacted, disarming Samson so fast that Celine didn’t even notice it happened at first. That didn’t stop her bodyguard from resisting. He charged head on swinging. He’s going to kill him, she thought as the pain rolled up her spine. Again, she coughed and recovered soon enough to see Sheriff bludgeon him with his own pistol. Blood oozed from the unconscious man’s skull beside her. Sheriff tossed the gun aside.

“You see. It’s that easy.” She didn’t hear his words more than she read his lips. His cold fingers dug into her face as he gripped her cheek. The icy nails dug deeper and deeper into her flesh, drawing blood. I’m not going to falter, Sheriff. Even with the memories scraping against her chest. Even with her brow soaked in sweat. Even with her partner unconscious and bleeding from the temple. She maintained eye contact. “You don’t have the tools to break me…” she managed to croak. “You’ll have to kill me first.”

“No. I won’t. Let me put it this way. If I wanted the time, why would I break my only watch?”

He let go of his grip and gave her that look. She didn’t care anymore. Celine hated that look. She wasn’t a tool, not anymore. This man may have lost what he believed in, but it gave him no right to treat her like this. So she stood, back bent straight and proud.

Celine wiped her cheeks from blood and let her powers pour through her. White mist curled around her as she stared at the Sheriff. She stared and stared, not just with her normal eyes, but glowing white ones. The suppressing memories faded and the world was silent again. “I will not stand for you threatening me again when I’m trying to help you. You may be powerful. Your trust may be gone. But I’m going to lose much more siding with you than against you. You don’t want me as an enemy. I will break you and I will sleep at night. So we either work together or I’ll find a way to bend your thoughts and dreams so much that you’ll forget that you exist. Or….” She cocked her head. “I’ll kill your Messengers. Isn’t that what you’re afraid of? You don’t want to lead them to their deaths. Graham must have told you about your leadership history. See, you’re not the only one that can threat, Sheriff. So either channel your hate or deal with one of your only chances to stop this from walking out of that door. Because I will survive and I will walk away.”

Sheriff lowered his gaze, a glimmer of respect in his eyes. “Then let’s stop playing this game of who’s stronger. We have work to finish.”

“Then let’s.” She calmed herself down. It wasn’t worth it. Besides, overcoming that amount of memories had left her with a splitting headache and far less energy than she had.

“Clean your partner up,” Sheriff said in way of leaving. He disappeared through the door behind her as silent as a mouse. She eyed the door from the corner of her eye sockets, fuming. Sheriff knew the chip in her armor. The very people that he was trying to kill were her family. No matter how she cut it. She was choosing what she thought was right over what she knew was love. I can’t think about it. I have to push forward.

Pushing forward came in the form of getting Samson back conscious. She fetched some water and found a towel—not as clean as she wanted—and wiped his forehead. Sheriff did quite a number on him. Even after the bleeding stopped, the bruising would yield an ugly scar. Touching it made the purpled flesh turn deeper and deeper to a hue of nightshade. The pus and the yellowing wasn’t an appetizing part of this process either. She managed to find a first aid kit, dabbing his wound with antiseptics. He could’ve killed him. Even knocking him out the way that he did was gruesome and forceful. I should have seen it coming.

A few hours passed before Samson stirred. She managed to get the much taller man to a beaten leather sofa to lie down as she thought over her plan. He woke with a grunt. “Oooh—“Samson murmured, rising. Celine pushed him back down. “What happened?”

Celine didn’t answer. She passed him a cup of tea instead.

The thin gruff tempered man took in his surroundings, trying to focus. The room must have still been spinning in his eyes since they flickered from one side to the other. His cup became a totem, something to lock the room down. Samson took deep breaths as his face became less glazed by the minute. He stole a few sips of his tea and then scratched at the bandages on his head, growling in remembrance. Celine just smiled. “Some bodyguard I am,” he laughed. “He was hurting you.”

“Not in any normal way,” Celine said simply. “But yes. I’m not quite sure how. I guess he’s been studying demon and mutant powers and how to counter them. The network of the Messengers is dangerous.” They’re close enough to him to work at his side, but way too far away for him to get attached. “For now, though, we’ll work with him. How’s your head?”

“What do you think?”

“Painful. Throbbing. Would go well with a side of beer?” Celine answered.

“You know me too well….” Samson held his aching head. “That bastard.”

“That bastard indeed.”

“He still didn’t explain why he needed us. Hell, he looked like he didn’t need much of anyone.”

Or he lost too many people to let them try. Celine kept that to herself. “He wants us to get close to…” she trailed off.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you that. Ow. Ow.” Samson reclined back, balancing the cup on his stomach. “Why haven’t you just tried to kill him? You know. Him. You’re the closest to him. Why don’t you just slip in and slit his throat?”

“I can’t”

“You can’t or you won’t?”

Lies were so easy to tell. She could tell him anything. The person she held dear also held her close as well. He held everyone close like that. If there was an original, an origin to every demon and mutant in this world, it was him. Strength like no other coursed through her precious person’s veins. She could tell Samson that she needed help to defeat him. That would be true, if only half. Power wasn’t the only reason why she employed so much help. No, she couldn’t overwhelm him by herself. What came out Celine’s mouth wasn’t a lie or her fear for his power. “Sheriff was right.” She gripped the white crystal on her chest that held her memories. “I love him too much.” What came out her mouth was the truth.

In the end of the day, I will always be that little girl that he taught how to ride a bike. No matter how much I try to tell myself I’m right and force myself to do it. I can’t. Memories are my weapon, but they are also my pain and my cage. Did you know this was going to happen, dad? Do you know that I want to betray you and protect you at the same time? Celine felt relieved to see Samson resting his eyes. Again, she didn’t want him to see her like this.

_

Celine and Samson made it back down the flight of remembrance to the ground floor. Someone, presumably the Sheriff himself, moved the dismembered heads aside. They sat in the corner accompanied only by flies and their squishy white children. New iron and wood spikes replaced the previous one. Celine assumed that this was a start of a new mission. His quest for justice starts again. This time wasn’t out of some idealistic notion of how the world should be, but out of pure vengeance.

They stepped out of the stairwell to the barren lobby. A few Messengers huddled around her. Celine caught some of their eyes. Most knew exactly how they wanted to feel, angry and spiteful. The others had an emptiness that rivaled a dried lake. These were normal people as of two years ago. They lived simple lives before: clerks, assemblymen, office workers, farmers, college students, and the like. Unlike the others, they let their memories swarm her. They didn’t care that she could rip them apart. They didn’t care about anything. No one could have expected to have to survive during anything like this. And now, they had someone to blame.

Samson pulled her closer. “Don’t get caught up in that.”

“How can I not?” she whispered back.

They had every right to blame her. She was part of the problem.

Now, she had to fix anything she could.

Messengers in rags of yellow and gold opened the door for them. The Gulch’s rainfall tampered off, if only slightly. Thin grey clouds drifted above them. Sunlight showered in with helpless attempts to stop the bleakness. Only a few were outside. An unknown black-haired boy, Echo, Hermes, and Anima huddled around listening to the pattering.

Then there was Sheriff. Celine noticed how far away he was. He’s not allowing himself to get close. Death did follow him closely. He wanted to ensure the reaper on his shoulder didn’t touch anyone else. So, he melded into the background as the only uncloaked member in this rainy backdrop. Anima was speaking in his behest, and he listened as though he was mute. He will make his move, despite what the Messengers decide.

Anima, with her ever changing appearance, gave a smile as Celine and Samson entered their circle. “Ah—nice for you to join us. Sheriff told us that you might be a little late.”

“By a little late, did he inform you that he knocked me in the head?” Samson spat.

“No, he didn’t,” Anima responded, trying not to giggle. “It must’ve slipped his mind, honey. No hard feelin’s I’m sure. He’s just a bit of a grump.”

“We know.” Samson rubbed the side of his head.

Despite the bludgeoning, Samson had taken it pretty well. Most guys after such a debacle would have fought for their glory back. Not him. For now, he was content on nursing his head back to normal. Still, he shot daggers at the Sheriff as many times as he could. If an opportunity arose that he found him on the other side of his shotgun, nothing would stop the trigger. We might need that, Celine thought. But not now. To use Sheriff’s words against him: “There’s no need to break my watch when I need to know the time.” For now, this uneasy alliance would have to do.

“Now that we’re all here,” Anima said, starting her address, “I will like to tell you our next target. First, Tlaloc, hun, can you tone down the rain a bit? My hair will be all messed up.”

The rain let up even more at her word. A massive roar from the shapeless man in the clouds rattled even above the thunder. Most people from a distance might have thought it as a strong howl of wind. No. A human quality graced that sound and it sent chills down Celine’s spine. For a flash of a moment, Celine saw his hallowed face in the water and then it was gone.

“I must say that I’m surprised by the information that our little lawkeeper tripped upon. We have visitors in the Dark Rainlands, an unprecedented amount. I mean, I couldn’t have guessed that our little operations—even with the Sheriff’s help—of course would draw so much interest and ire from the top of the food chain.” Anima’s icy amusement chilled Celine’s bones even worse than Tlaloc’s roar.

What…are they talking about?

Anima continued. “The Mother of the Ancestors is here, accompanied by the one of three known Formless mutants beside our Tlaloc and the Territory Lord of the Swamps. To make things better, Conjurer is now confirmed to be under their personal protection until the Father can make way for him to cross to wherever he is. A rare opportunity like this only presents itself once and a while. We can’t attack full force. This takes some preparation and some timing. With Brink and Halo backing them, it’ll be too tricky for a hat trick.”

Hal, Phillip, and Mom are here. Why would Dad do that? There was only one reason. The Father felt threatened. If Phillip’s report was true…then there was someone…who knew the origin. Celine fought the urge to look at Sheriff.

Now, this is where mistakes happen, darlings. Taking out all three will be like serving more than one piece of cake at dinner. Yes it’s nice, but is it healthy? No we have to enjoy each slice…that is where you come in Celine.”

Celine knew the metaphorical spotlight was coming; still, the light shone in her eyes faster than she could react. The amorphous group of men and women listened to their leader, expecting words. When none came, they went to the next obvious choice. The entire group turned to her, each feeling her out in their own way. She described it in her head as walking through an abstract statue garden. Each turn of the head brought a face that possessed no words. Some eyes glowed while others didn’t have eyes at all, but still stared. For a moment, she felt uncomfortable. As quick as it came, she tossed the feeling aside.

“I see where you’re going,” she said taking strides forward. Her own white cloak fluttered in the wind. She felt her proud stride again. Flaring in her belly was that moment before showing your hand. Anyone who watched poker matches saw it all the time. This was her placing her cards on the table. “That is the reason why I’m here to offer my assistance in this delicate matter. I’m willing to help you get to your truth, but you have to choose one and I will not kill them myself.”

She saw the look on Sheriff’s face and despised it. “You can’t kill them all here, unless you want a death wish.”

“We do realize that. Killing one is hard enough.” Anima said for the entire group.

“Good that you see it my way. So here’s the deal. What I am giving you is a choice on who you wish to kill.” Celine steeled herself to use that word. They needed to see that she would allow this to happen. “Just one out of the three here. After that, I will be a spectator again. Nothing more.”

Anima opened her mouth to speak, but Sheriff shook his head and she stopped.

“One, you say?” Sheriff sounded human again, like Corporal David Graham. Celine couldn’t tell whether it was on purpose or if she caught him off guard. Either way, Celine enjoyed seeing that small change. “You’re trying to cut your losses under the guise of cutting ours.”

“True. I’ll admit that I’m protecting them, but I’m also protecting you. The Father made a decision long ago because he lost someone dear. I’m just trying to stop this, all this. Since it began this way, it will end this way.”

“Oh, I plan to end it for you,” the creeping cold grew in Sheriff’s voice again. She found her answer; he was faking. Graham wasn’t there. Only his hatred was. “And you already know who I’m going to pick.”

“I know,” she said weakly. Of course I do, he’s the only logical choice. Somehow, that made it all sadder. Sheriff was going to get his revenge, no matter what she did. She just wanted this to end. It always gets worse. It always gets worse. The voice in her head repeated in whispers. Maybe she could stop the bloodshed before they all drowned in it.

_

Ragnar fumed as he stared out into the blackness of his room. That same blackness festered and seeped into his mood. If he was a steak, he would be over done by now. Lysandra rolled her small fingers down his back trying to relax his nerves. She tried and tried with her warm cheek against his shoulder. Nothing could calm him at this point. I’m so close to killing everyone here.

River found the Drifter; he felt it in his gut long before a soldier gave his report to Conjurer this morning. He hated, out of all people, she might have the glory that drove him through these dusk-covered years. More so, he hated that he was forbade to go and assist her. He thought about going anyway. The Ancestors planned on that and placed him on constant watch. All he could wish for was that River failed. From the outside, cheering for your archenemies success seemed asinine. For Ragnar, River’s failure would inevitably lead to his success. Waiting took most of his time now.

Lysandra rolled another ache from his back. As much as he tried to pretend she didn’t exist, he still grew fond of her. She held something of a strange attraction to him and vice versa. A part of his mind resisted it, grew weary of her simple comforts. Reading through this, she just kept his company most days in quiet earnest. Even her presence felt similar, so much that it hurt to even touch her. The resemblances to his wife invoked a powerful sense of longing and sadness. The differences kept her around. “You can tell me what’s wrong. I’ll listen.”

Trying with all his might, Ragnar steeled himself into silence. Bubbles of anger popped in his blood as he clinched the balls of his knees. He didn’t manage the quietness for too long. “River is out there and she found Drifter. That was my job! That’s the reason I’m HERE! Not to be some bodyguard in some typhoon-infested corner of this burnt world that I don’t even CARE for!” Ragnar didn’t realize that he was shouting until he heard the echo of his booming voice against the actual thunder outside. Lysandra didn’t even flinch. Quite the opposite, her face calmed. Since he was the thunder, she was the rain.

“Patience.”

“Excuse me!” he shouted in response out of pure reflex. Ragnar cleared his throat. “Excuse me, what do you meant patience?” I’ve been patient enough.

“You’re not looking at the whole picture,” she repeated. Lysandra chose her next words as though they were ripe fruit from a mental tree into a basket. “Let’s look at the facts. You’re so caught up with the cage that you aren’t looking through the openings. One door’s closed. No big deal. Doesn’t mean all them are. Is there something else your talents might be useful for in the meantime? Remember, look around. Remember where you’re at. Think opportunity.”

Ragnar cooled his temper, shelved his revenge, and allowed for a moment of clarity. Think opportunity. Opportunity.

A flash of lightning filled the room, showing the world to him for a brief second. Untouched by everything outside, this place was beautiful. People only a mile away needed helter. The people here wanted for nothing. Imagine the resources to keep this up. He was in the headquarters of the most powerful organization in the post apocalypse world. They knew things. Conjurer knew things about the demons and the mutants, about food caches, about the premeditated preservation. Conjurer had people and power Pride stopped him from being great. If only I had what they had…I could.

He couldn’t help but laugh. All this time he was a dragon sitting on a horde of gems.

“How about—“

‘Shhh,” she pressed her finger against his mouth. “We don’t talk about evil things here. Let’s take our time. See patience. Patience’s the only thing that stands. When we’re done, the only one left…” Lysandra touched the side of his face, “will be you…”

“You better leave,” Ragnar whispered, not letting his joy show. “I’ll tell you what you’ll need to do when the time comes. Get any information on the Conjurer you can. Just don’t do anything drastic. Just wait. I’ll have what I need and you’ll get what you deserve. Now go. I need to think.”

“See, you’re learning.” Lysandra gave a small bow before jumping off the bed. The shivering silhouettes of her white dress dimmed lower and lower as she disappeared into the dark abyss. She’s even beautiful in the darkness, he thought and instantly banished. Only when the door opened and her footsteps disappeared that Ragnar fell backwards on his bed. Sleep took him only minutes after.

That night he dreamt of the death of gods.

9

Palindrome

No matter how he looked at it, forwards or backwards, his situation was the same.”

Brink felt right on the battlefield. Cleaning up rebels came with a certain nostalgic appeal that washed over all his doubts and worries. By no means was it a joyous experience, more of a distracting one. As long as he wasn’t thinking, his mind didn’t wander down roads once traveled. His shots took those thoughts away. Maybe he’ll dream about the people he fell tonight. Right now, he would kill and not think about it. Doubts could wait. He needed to neutralize all the targets. He was a monster and they were the prey.

Semi-automatic weapons gave him the feel of a bow and arrow. Though he liked the satisfying twang of a drawstring, the more modern weapon had another splendor instead. Each single shot sounded different if you listened close enough. Much like a fingerprint, no two were the same, even born from the same mother. He knew when his finger squeezed the trigger that someone would die. He trained his body to be a killing machine and his demon power reflected just that.

He admitted to himself, his power wasn’t as glorious as Cass’s or Hal’s power, his fit his style. His mind processed distances and honed his reflexes to the point of pure adrenaline. Where River’s skills allowed her to curtain land in those ill-boding flames, his just gave him an edge. No one matched his gun skills trigger for trigger. The instructors gawked at basic training, even against their condescending grumble. They only saw a sliver. After his training, knocking a bullet out of midair with a bullet of his own was child’s play. Rebels like this didn’t have a chance.

And it showed.

Messengers, they called themselves. He managed to find a patrol of them thanks to some of the resources Halo gave him. They held themselves up in some old run down home nearing the edge of the Gulch. Where the Gulch itself was only shattered lands and floods, the surrounding area fared better. Still, he remembered how quiet it was entering. A smell of the moldy wet wood lifted through the air of this once sturdy house. Dust covered a lot of the things, and the walls and floor cracked at every step. Darkness gave good cover for him and his men. Brink always took point on these missions since the first shot always needed to count. He was glad that he had when the first bullet slammed into a guard’s head. The bullet entered and exited cleanly—so much so that Brink’s men fought off gasps.

Brink was a legendary marksman, the cunning archer of a medieval tale. A clip of his FN-FAL held 30 rounds. On a bad day, he could kill 28 people with one clip. On a good day, he could kill a small army in three reloads. This happened to be a good day. He cleaned out the rest of the group without taking a breath, watching their lifeless bodies crumple. They took the first room with a seamless ease of a warrior taking a hold in the fantasy shows he loved so much.

Now, they were waiting. Many of the men took this chance to quietly dry their clothes off from the rain. The rest scouted, taking out any Messengers in the surrounding rooms. Brink and Miranda stayed low, running through the plan until they got the all clear. There are still a lot of guys here. He heard the footsteps pounding above. The silenced weapons did well to avoid alarming anyone, but the element of surprise was as elusive as Lady Luck.

“Everyone ready?” Brink mouthed.

The hunters in the shadows stood as more of these faceless men and women emerged from the upper floors. Ephemeral and soundless, they had come from nowhere as usual. Brink only managed to order his men into position seconds before they descended from the last step of the stairs. Even Brink had to listen hard to even estimate the footsteps. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. He counted each of their steps in his head, controlling his breathing with the rhythm. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. At the last count, he struck like lightning.

When the first man walked through that door, he had his head bashed with the butt of the gun. That stunned him long enough for one of the men to get a clean shot. Their first victim fell at Brink’s feet. Smooth as liquid, Miranda and Brink slipped with the doorway. She moved on her toes, pivoting with a casual flair, to slice the nearest man’s throat with a knife. Oh, trying to show off, are you? Brink switched to his pistol, grabbed a man’s throat, and shot the next man in the head before the rebel even reacted. He shrugged.

Miranda returned the gesture. “Are you trying to compete, Commander?”

“Are you?” Brink answered.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Then I suppose we’re competing.”

Miranda flicked the blood off of her knife on to the ground. It made a sickening slap, leaving a dark red stain amongst the stream of blood oozing from the man’s throat. She’s good, Brink noted. She must’ve trained somewhere for her knife and gun skills. They’re almost familiar. He thought about her last name and discarded the thought. There’s plenty of Johnsons in the world. That didn’t matter right now. He needed to find the leader of this little patrol. On a less serious note, he also preferred not to let Miranda kill this ringleader before he had a chance to. “Keep focused. There’s bound to be someone dangerous here. Someone worth getting rid of.”

“You mean someone worthy of me?” Miranda said, smirking. The rest of the fire squad gave quiet snickers. The statement even earned a smirk from the combat focused Brink.

“We’ll see what you can do.” With a quick hand signal, everyone reverted to their stone serious expressions.

They listened to the world around them as they continued through the house. Crickets sung to the song of the storms outside. Rain still pattered through the thin walls. Everything’s so loud here. He hated how loud their footsteps were against this old wood. The steps of the stairs sounded like a large iron door, rusted at the hinges, creaking open a centimeter at a time. Insects beneath them stirred. Ascending those wooden planks sent spiders and moths scurrying underneath their boots. Their legs and wings worked much like an alarm system to anyone listening deep enough. I don’t like this.

People hadn’t taken up residence in the top floor in years. The higher up they got, the more the narrow hallway’s walls poured in grey light from their wounds. Cobwebs fought their every movement, webbing caught on his face. Strong tastes of years old stale air were stuck in his mouth. Before long, even the light stopped; shadows crept on every side. A frozen feeling settled in next. We’re headed towards an antic. Only monsters stay in antics nowadays. Who are you people? Brink found himself thinking again. The Messengers entire purpose revolved around one goal: ruining the Ancestors. Much like Drifter’s was. He mentally paused. Drifter’s is?

Again, it didn’t matter. Ruining their lives was his job.

The endless river of stairs gave way to another wooden door. A buzzing sound nestled its way into the ambience. From here, Brink saw the difference of darkness and light between the stairwell and the antic. Someone’s here. He touched Miranda behind him on the shoulder, giving a signal. She returned the tap to tell him that everyone was ready to go. Brink switched back to his assault rifle, holding it firm within his hands. With the toe of his boot, he opened the door. It screeched with an utter and deathly creak. Ah, that’s not a good sign.

Long seconds passed before Brink saw anyone in the room. One associated antics with junk, filled with things that you don’t need and forgot about. This didn’t fit that mold. Bareness fit this one better. Colorful toys sprawled themselves on the left side, some old, some new, and others well-used. The right side, in stark contrast, kept more “grown up” memorabilia of sports teams and fatherly hobbies. The floor didn’t have a rug of a normal kind, just more dust against splinting planks. Dirty and cracked white walls framed this room. Only sunlight and the buzzing, which he now recognized as white noise, gave life to this room. That was where he saw him, after everyone else entered the room. He regretted that decision in an instant.

Behind them, the door slammed shut, tighter than a prisoner’s cage.

A skinny light skinned boy sat in front of an old style television with silver rabbit ear antennas. Somehow, it was on despite no electricity or sockets in the room for that to be even possible. Brink rubbed his eyes to be sure; they weren’t playing tricks on him. The boy sat crossed legged before the screen, watching the lines of black and white repeat before him. The black hair of the boy curtained his neck and down his bare chest and back. Brink couldn’t see his face and nor did he want to. It was easier to kill people when he didn’t see their faces.

Brink lowered himself to a crouch. Clean shot. No distractions. He fired a single bullet.

The bullet speed through the silencer and exited the chamber in a whisper. It zipped through the air and towards the little boy’s head. The little Messenger didn’t move nor did he die.

Something else did move. The still air around them descended further into a smell of decay. A figure in black rags held the bullet within its bony hands, staring at it with a ponderous gaze. Brink couldn’t tell where this thing came from. The boy should have been defenseless; he made sure of that when he fired. There was no way that this creature could have reacted that fast. It did. Brink knew better to try his luck right now. Demon and mutant powers often came with large consequences to those who acted in haste.

The reaper, the tattered thing with way too many fingers and not enough eyes, cackled as it floated around its master’s shoulders. Brink heard the laugh even after it stopped. Heheheheh. Some sounds sticks in a person’s head as strong as some images. It reminded him of the smell of dying roses, weathered tombstones without names, and that cold only found in a graveyard. The boy craned his head back, confused. “So…you’re Phillip Kingsley,” the boy said with a creeping half-smile. “And Miranda Johnson.” He continued through every one of the soldiers in the room.

“Fancy trick you have there. How do you know us?” Miranda circled the room like a cat, her feet light. Keep him talking.

“Is it that surprising? I mean, I’m good at learning things.” The boy’s voice rivaled the cackle of his pet. His eyes followed Miranda’s. “Death knows everyone even though you might not know it yet.”

Brink swallowed the statement as he took steps around the room, his men followed.. “Grew yourself a bit of an ego, kid.” Just like River. This kid is like River. Given a little power, they thought every lock once closed would now open on their beckoned call.

“Yeah, I guess I do, huh? I’m Hades,” the boy said in an introductory tone. He stood on his feet. Being no more than four and some change feet tall, his clothes hung over his skinny body. His battered sandals made slapping sounds as the rubber soles touched the floor. He turned on his heels. Brink didn’t know what to expect. All the other Messengers just lacked an appearance altogether. Hades looked normal. Freckles lined his small nose. His eyes were big and bright, his mouth small. He wasn’t the age for his chin to even consider growing a beard. This was his opponent, a boy with a demon power that manifested itself as a reaper. Brink ignored his stomach twisting at the thought.

Hades searched the room, realizing now, that they had surrounded him. The tactic was a simple one; keep the target’s attention on one enemy, and then their natural curiosity kept them from seeing the forest from the trees. Everyone’s iron sights focused on the small child in the middle of the room, careful not to be in their adjacent soldier’s line. Brink gave a rueful twitch of his mouth. The boy just sighed in response.

“You’re going to get someone killed like this,” Hades said in a low measured voice. He pointed to one of the men in front of him. “I’ve heard; now tell me if I’m wrong, it pains the leader when one of their soldiers dies. Is that true, Mr. Kingsley?”

Garson, the man on the other end of Hades’s small finger, shifted in a nervous reaction. Silent seconds hammered into the soldier’s patience. Dammit, Brink thought as he saw the thin bald man switch from a defensive stance to an offensive one. He’s going to break formation. Seeing a small child threatening you with any weapon unnerved the best of them. More so when that weapon was something you feared or ignored until your time came.

Hades knew that. The confidence grew ever higher on the boy’s face. “I’m not gonna—“Garson began. He never finished, his intestines was too busy plopping on the ground. The reaper cut him in half from the pelvis as easy as a butcher cut a prime slab of beef. The man’s innards poured through the cracks of the antic’s floor as his torso rolled to the center of the room.

They needed to act. Now.

All the tactics in the world couldn’t stop him. Hades and his reaper fled through the opening of the circle, sprinting through their defenses. His reaper drifted above like a kite. Bullets danced through the air, trying to catch their target with no success. The boy moved too fast and jumped off any surface he could as a parkour master would. He sprung himself off a nearby wall as his partner slipped under one of Brink’s soldiers, knocking him down. Hades followed up by positioning himself behind a soldier, using that man’s body as a defense against the bullets. With his hands, he ordered the rotten creature into his makeshift human shield, sending that man flying into the next. This boy was good. Way too good.

We can’t get a clear shot on him like this. Brink was patient. Unlike everyone else, he waited for his target to move. Neither patience nor haste helped against a foe like this. What he needed was that other thing gone. Whatever it was.

“Focus on the black thing!” Brink shouted, finding his words. “Miranda go get the boy!”

“He has a name, y’know,” Hades said, running around the room. He dodged another spray of bullets. “It’s Thanotos. Read it in a book once. Or maybe it was a comic.”

Brink began his assault now. He opened fire, bursting rounds into the boy’s little instrument. They hit. Much to Brink’s surprise, it felt pain, screeching high pitched screams into the air. Each bullet twisted into the black mass’s body, ripping through the black nether. It swayed in an intoxicated pain. Thanotos soon found Brink amongst the crowd and jetted towards him. Come at me, bitch. His six remaining soldiers—Miranda excluded—fired down at the slowing beast from the back. Suppression fire became their main objective as their leader went for the kill. As long as he kept focused on him, this thing might die.

He too could move fast, running around the room. Thanotos swung, trying to cleave at Brink’s neck. Up close, the skeletal monster was much slower. Something was wrong. Brink didn’t even see that thing kill Garson until he heard those nauseating sounds. Why didn’t it kill everyone else with that ease? Was Hades playing around?

Keeping his eye on his target, Brink spotted Miranda from the corner of his eye. She moved in on Hades, rivaling the boy’s litheness, despite being only human herself. She slashed at his throat with her knife. His pale body evaded each of the attacks, never fighting back. He did earn a few shallow cuts from this blade game, but no worry reached his face. In fact, he used his own blood leaking from his wounds to his advantage. Hades flicked the red liquid into Miranda’s eyes to avoid a fatal blow. Brink wanted to help. Though, what he wanted and what he needed seldom came hand in hand. He needed to figure out this boy’s weakness.

Every demon and mutant has a weakness. Someone taught him that before the world came to calamity. Brink slipped past the maddened Thanotos. He fired a few more shots from his rifle, and finally was out. It’s slowed down once it killed Garson. He drew his pistol from its leather holster again and fired anew. I don’t think that we can kill it. He’s just buying time. Brink sidestepped another one of the wide slashes, firing three more rounds in the reaper’s throat. It doubled back, shrilling in pain. The rest of the men emptied their clip into it as well. Then it hit him.

“You can’t kill us, Hades. Can you? So, what are you trying to get at?” It only made sense. What else stopped him from killing everyone in the room?

Thanotos went in for the kill, raising its hand into the air. It descended down. Brink, intrepidly, stared into those eyes. The reaper stopped as though its body shut down against its accord. A low growl seeped into its stomach. “That’s your fault. For a grim reaper, you can only kill one person within a certain amount of time. What kind of angel of death are you even? “

Hades didn’t react at first, still locked into a dance with Miranda. His face did change though. “Thanatos, here. Now!” All childish pretenses in his voice disappeared, leaving a voice of a deep and livid full grown man.

Never in his years would Brink thought that a manifestation of death could make a yelping sound. It dropped what it was doing and swam through the air like a shark, slamming into Miranda to knock her away from his master. The bundle of cloth and darkness loomed over the boy, whimpering in pain. Hades touched the hem of one of its bandages. That simple gesture pacified the creature enough to stop crying and melt into his shadow. Hades sighed. “Don’t bother shooting. I’m gone already, well most of the important parts of me. I’m just carrying a message.”

“You’re good, I’ll admit that,” he confessed as his own form shifted. “But like everything, it means nothing. Nothing you do means anything, Phillip Kingsley. The truth you tried to hide so much is going to come out. Look around, we’re fighting in a home that once belonged to a loving family. My loving family! For what a better world? Ha. You didn’t have to watch your boy starve to death. You didn’t have to watch your power manifest as a constant reminder. You don’t have to see how much pain you and your people have caused. How wonderful it must feel to be blind, deaf, and mute to the world around you. You will die on no terms of your own. That much is sure. We can pretend like this isn’t going to happen, that you can fight your way through. But what your little group did to this world is something only repayable in blood.”

“But you can’t kill us,” Miranda mocked.

“You aren’t mine to kill. You’re right. It would take a very long time for me to wade through the people I want to kill. You might be wondering why I didn’t do that,” he pointed to Garson’s halved body, “To your leader. It would have been easy. But, someone else wants you to pay for your crime. Someone else wants your downfall.”

“Who do you work for?” Brink’s lip trembled. They know. They know. They know.

“Our leader isn’t anyone you know. We’re just tools in a box. But…there’s someone that you might want to know of.” Hades reached out his hand forming a small metal slab from his palm. “This isn’t the real thing, but we have seen it enough to make a copy of it. Take it on the house for a job well done. You’ve killed some of us today. You deserve something.”

Hades tossed the metal towards Brink. Brink didn’t grab at it first, just watched as it almost slid through the cracks. A few letters on the surface was what galvanized his body into picking it up. His heart skipped a beat. They know. They know. They know. The voice in his head told him. They have to know. Oh, god they know.

“I wish that you would stop talking.” Miranda took one step forward. The slash, a stunning arc, shimmered in the moonlight. Nothing tarnished the blade, not blood or even the boy’s clothes. Hades looked down at his stomach, annoyed. Garson shouldn’t have been the only one cut in half today.

“Please learn to listen. I told you that I’m gone. I sure wish that I could kill you right now. What a curse I have. Until next time, friends. Until next time.”

Hades walked backwards, extending his arms out. The form of the little boy was now completely gone. In its place stood a shadow of a man shrouded in gross black tendrils dripping green liquid. Black ethereal feathers fell from his boney arms. Brink saw little of his face—but a smile was there. “Next time,” he repeated. Long, pitch black arms reached out from the pit of green amalgamating at his feet. They dragged him away, deep within the whirling portal. Death left with words that hurt more than any wound he inflicted today.

The once live television cut off, leaving no sound in the room.

Everyone was pale, wordless, and close to collapsing from fatigue and fear. The Dusk Territories was a fearful thing to be sure. No one, not even Brink, thought that a power like that would manifest. What else could be out there waiting? Were there dragons? Were there gods? What did we do?

Miranda managed to gain her sea legs first. “What did he mean, what your group did? What did we sign up for? Aren’t we helping people? What did he give you?”

Something I’ve been trying to ignore. He rationalized that it was just a demon and there were plenty of those. It’s just another way to get into my head. Clutching the flat metal in his hands and pursing his lips, he went for the door. “No one here is going to talk about this, you hear. No one. We finished this mission and a good man died. Don’t speak of this encounter with Hades. Don’t even remind yourself that this even happened. We will just move on and continue to do what we do best. Understood?”

“What. Did. He. Give. You?” Miranda turned to him, fingers balled tight in her palm.

“That’s not forgetting that this happened, Johnson! Just find a way to get Garson a proper burial. I need to clear my head.”

She didn’t ask anymore after that. No one did. I’m walking around in circles, he thought exiting the room. No matter where I look the situation is the same. I can’t escape it. Brink pinched his nose. His life was a palindrome. Forwards, backwards, it didn’t matter. Every angle of it looked the same. He wished that none of this ever happened. Why did we get ourselves into this, Dad? Why couldn’t we make another way? He didn’t have an answer and that question came far too late to make a difference.

_

“You look horrible, dear,” was the first thing that Mary said when Brink entered the room.

He found himself agreeing with her. Brink didn’t bother to change when he returned to The Den (after realizing—again—how pompous and annoying that name was). His ragged clothes struggled to stay on his thinning body, which bled from so many countless scars that he felt the need to bathe in a tub of antiseptics. This condition matched how he felt, frayed and wounded like a wailing bear in a trap. More than anything, his fatigued mind wanted to sleep. First, though, he needed to talk. The only person he trusted with such delicate, traitorous feelings was his mother.

Brink and his mother hadn’t the pleasure of any family time since Mary arrived in the Dark Rainlands. Several things ate away their time: the meetings with the Conjurer, the establishment of her safety, and the reconnaissance topped that list. Little wonder there wasn’t any time to spare. He only managed to catch her out of chance on the way to another engagement. She postponed that. She knew Brink needed this. Keeping this all to himself would only kill him. Family knew what to say.

Mary sat on a large picture frame window, shoulder against the cold glass. She wore a simple yellow dress this time that showed only a fraction of her toes. A white fur shawl lined her shoulders and pearls her neck. Her blond hair was up in a tight but messy bun on the back of her head. The hairstyle brought memories of how him and Hal fought over the last roll at dinner and times of her watching them play on the tire swing. Her smile never changed, even in her age. This almost feels like home.

Brink pulled up his wooden chair—a rickety old thing—and placed it before Mary. He tugged off his boots and socks, allowing some degree of comfort. Collapsing in his chair, Brink closed his eyes for a moment. Mary waited. “I’m sorry; I just came back from a mission, Mom.”

“How did it go?”

How do I answer that? Brink toyed with the idea of telling her straight. Coming up the elevator, his mind stormed with a flurry of words. In his head, he would start with how the mission was successful. He would tell her where the Messengers were and what he learned. Maybe about Hades. Everyone needed to know that those bastards had a dangerous creature such as that. What tripped his tongue was the flat metal in his pocket. A simple object made everything crumble in his mouth until only stutters remained.

He pinched his nose.

“I don’t even know,” Brink started, “It went well I guess.”

“That doesn’t sound like it went well at all, Phil. I know you.”

“I’m just…” Brink rubbed his knuckles against his eyes, forcing them open. It felt like he hadn’t slept in days. “What do you think about what Dad started?”

Mary gave a tender sigh. No one in the family liked bringing this up. It brought memories back of that day, where the wounds festered into a blind rage. January 16th, 2013. He remembered seeing it on the news. He remembered his heart stopping, and seeing that face on the screen. Everything that day felt so unreal from the funeral to what happened next. Everything that led to here. Was it worth it? That’s the question that anyone would ask if they saw this in a history book. “Was it worth it?” he pushed himself to ask.

His mom hesitated in a familiar and still far-off way. She withdrew in her thoughts. Did she see him any different for asking that question? Maybe she too wondered and never found the words amongst her own anger? Mom, do you think any less of me for questioning this? Brink opened his mouth to apologize, to pretend that this never happened. To his surprise, she found what she felt was right before he had a chance to change the topic.

“Your father felt…feels…like it was—is…an equal trade…for what the world gave him.” Mary, in a mild irritation with herself or the situation, pushed back the tears forming underneath the crest of her eyes. “A man in his position had a lot of…problems to fix. Nothing that he did was good enough. Night after night he would tell me that he spent so much money and worked so hard to get where he was just to change something. His job brought nothing more than pain for the family and plenty others. Then…Jaden happened. He was never the same after that. You can’t blame him for what we did.”

“What we did was far worse than revenge, mom.”

“Nothing’s worse than revenge, Phil.”

“Was it worth it, though?”

“Was anything we did before this worth it? Instead of warring countries, we are down to warring groups. That’s not nearly as bad. We can persevere.”

Brink agreed with that as a warrior; but the man inside was still having trouble coming around. “The cost was too high…my cost was too high.” He tried to forget what he did. They knew too much, he told himself. Their bodies still lied fresh in his head. His entire unit knew too much. What they found out on their deployment painted a target on their head. Phil had no choice back then, now this demigod known as Brink was going to pay the price. Soon it all hit him at once: the deaths, Hades, the flat metal in his pocket, the funeral, the world, everything struck him harder than all the bullets he managed to avoid in his life. “I don’t think what we did is right anymore.”

He didn’t realize he was crying until his mother threw her arms around his neck.

“We shouldn’t have asked you to do what you did. You did it without murmuring a word. You respected those men… but that’s the past sweetie. You have to live up to it. I can’t promise it won’t hurt. This will pass.” She rubbed him on the crown of his once shaven—now spiky and overgrown—hair. No matter how tough he was. No matter whom he became. Phillip Kingsley still loved his family.

“I’m sorry for bringing this up.”

She broke the hug and just stared at her son for a moment. Brink knew that look, relished it even. She’s proud. That never changed. Never once did his family question any of his choices. They were enough.

He went to get up and began falling instead. He heard the old chair gave a powerful snap as one of the legs crashed under his weight. Brink looked up, ignoring all his previous pains for the one large throbbing ache in his back. Seconds passed before he realized that he was on the ground. Mary stood, stunned and more than a little concerned. Brink just grinned. A fit of warm laughter dissolved the tears and the tension. I’m a stupid dick. She joined in the laughter soon after.

“I guess I should’ve picked something steadier, huh?”

“You never were the cautious one,” Mary said. She chuckled out the rest of her enjoyment before helping her son up. “I’ve been meaning to ask you…” She led him to the window pane, allowing him to sit beside her. “have you seen, Cassy?”

Brink licked his bottom lip. He tasted blood in his mouth. “No. I haven’t.”

“I haven’t seen her in months. Your father asked about her.”

“Has he?”

“He has.”

“Does he know what she’s up to?”

“We aren’t even sure what to believe at this point. She disappears and appears at a whim. Your father believes your accusations, but he wasn’t in the greatest moods about the idea of his family pitted against one another. You don’t have proof and his grim mood about the idea of someone knowing blinded him. Why do you think she is doing this?”

I’m starting to see why she would, but it’s dangerous for us. “Maybe she thinks that it’s the right thing to do.”

No words described his mother’s face. Disappointment surfaced first, followed in a quick succession by sadness and a glimmer of understanding. “She cares for her father,” Mary admitted. “No one can say that she doesn’t. If we can find her, we can convince her that this isn’t the way that she should be going. She’s messing in a dangerous game. She thinks helping everyone else on her own is the best. Maybe she’ll come to her senses. Maybe she won’t.”

“What if she doesn’t?”

Neither of them wanted to answer that question. Yes, Cassandra—Celine rather—infuriated him with the meddling with Graham. Did she deserve to die for that? What are you doing? He asked himself. The siblings, Hal and he, both knew their dad had a particular fondness for her much like their mother had for them. He would forgive her until the galaxy ran thin of stars. One day, those stars will dim and payment would come. Their dad knew how to treat his children.

“I can’t tell you, honey. He loves her, but hates what she’s doing. I can’t tell you. We have to wait and see.”

_

“You cannot know what you just did,” Nysaia hissed to Grigori.

From the way she said it, Grigori might have thought that he had poisoned her village’s well. Against Nysaia’s judgment, Grigori allowed the Blind White Beast to stay with them. He and his pack stayed on their own for the most part at first, and then started mingling with the rest of the camp. No one else seemed as disturbed by this fact as the gypsy woman—who very purposely avoided them at all cost. Her red and indigo colored clothes and gorgeous silver jewelry masked none of the disdain on her tan unyielding face. She didn’t treat their leader with contempt, which Grigori was gracious for. Alas, she kept out of sight and scowled so hard that her red lips formed a perfect straight line.

“Are you watching him too?” she asked, placing the venom in her voice to the side. She almost seemed…sad now. What did you see? Why can’t you just tell me?

Grigori found that he was watching Drifter with Boris curled in a ball in his lap. That name—the Blind White Beast—served the Drifter in every way. An oddly majestic creature he was. Long white hair covered his face and trailed down his back. A wild unkempt beard—even more so than Grigori’s own—swayed in the midday wind. Glass blue eyes stared out into the distance as he listened to the people around. Humanity slipped through this man’s fingers. Any left of it clung to something. Something…just. Years ago, maybe, Grigori and Drifter may have been mellow creatures. But everything happens for a reason.

Helping himself to a piece of bread, Grigori dropped into a deeper thought. There was no mistaking that this man wasn’t a stranger to violence. He saw the deep red stains on Drifter’s white tank top amongst the caked dirt and filth. It’s in our nature, I fear. No matter how much or how little we have, we’re still violent. He remembered the days in Moscow where he would come home the same way. Money was short and he needed to raise it any way that he could. One thing he did know how to do was fight.

Fighting in an underground pit for years froze his heart. He killed before the world found it to be necessary. He fought men bigger than him, Goliaths to his David. He broke their bones all the same; smashed their faces like melons until he saw meat from the inside of their skulls. Never once did he fight for himself though. Nothing was going to stop Boris or Ivan from becoming what they wanted to be. Not people, not money, not time, so he fought. Maybe it was wrong or futile to most. But he did it. What are we fighting for now? Where did all the caring go?

Grigori kissed his younger brother on the forehead, waking him up with dreary eyes. “Sorry to wake you, brother,” he whispered in Russian. “It’s time to check on our guest.”

Boris rolled on his back to get to his normal quadruped walk. Grigori let him wake up. The little humanoid animal nuzzled his brother with his head, singing from the back of his throat. He can sing, Grigori thought again. Pianos, violins, cellos, guitars, those had been his voice before. Now he had one on his own. No matter how many times he heard it, the sound from his brother’s throat still shocked him. He may not have been good at speaking, math, or reading, but god gave him a gift and he knew how to use it. They couldn’t have been happier.

“Nysaia.” Grigori nodded in way of leaving.

Nysaia returned the bow. A sadness filled her eyes as she turned away to her incents and collection of odd trinkets. He thought to ask, but Boris exited before he could.

A blast of warm air hit him the moment he emerged from the comfort of the shade. The day turned out to be nice and warm. Breezes carried blades of grass from the other side of the Crossing, a smell of fresh water and campfires in the air. Drifter and Wood sat amongst their party with a few others of Grigori’s band crowded around them in awe. Drifter, regardless of his current disappearances, was something of a folk legend of these parts. As a token of hospitality, the once powerful caravan brought some nonperishable foods and ammo to give to their company. Grigori, himself, didn’t use guns. His brother Ivan had been fond of them since he was five. He was the ringleader of this crowd.

I bought his first one when he was 15. Ivan begged and begged until his throat was raw. Grigori, stern faced, always told him no. Well, not until he knew all it was to know about guns, the practical uses of them, and the history of them. He learned, relayed the information and even wrote it down. Grigori worked for the money for that gift after that. Ivan had earned it. That love for weapons that rivaled an artist’s love for their craft continued in his adulthood. Being around them reduced him to a large child.

“Brothers, come!” Ivan shouted across the clearing.

He’s even speaking English. If that was all it took, Grigori would have used that as an incentive years ago.

Grigori squatted beside the campfire. Their guests had set out an array of guns before Ivan’s feet. His steel eyes surfed through each option, picking up the weight and checking each part with an incredible amount of efficiency. Drifter and Wood looked more than a little impressed at his younger brother’s gun work; although neither of them said anything about it. “I—I—I am not quite sure which one I…want,” Ivan said unsure of his choice and his English.

“Pick any one you like,” Drifter reminded him.

“Take your time Ivan and—“

Thump.

Something in Grigori’s heart froze as he heard the sound. His throat went dry.

The sight beside him alone caused Grigori to break. Boris lied motionless on the ground, a gaping hole where his stomach should’ve been. Red ruined the brown of the ground and grew larger and larger until it swam around his feet. Teal flames flickered on and off, wailing with their human screams. The cries died out soon leaving no sound, at least none that Grigori could hear. Everything went dull in his ears, only muffled sounds of everything around him. There was no song. No whimpers of pain. His brother had gone mute again, this time forever. Grigori felt himself shaking, his eyes unable to comprehend a single thing that happened. Such violence couldn’t be understood. His legs collapsed underneath him.

Everything happens for a reason, his broken mind told him. This time, he didn’t know what reason it was.

10

Cicadas

The bugs came in chorus, singing a song amongst the grassy plains—unaware of the destruction happening around them. Any of them would have traded their mindfulness for such ignorance.”

One victim lied on the ground dead. The other cursed until his mouth ran dry of words.

Even then, Drifter growled, seething in a small ball as he clutched his eyes with his palms. His skin made sickening pops, boiling like a pig skin in hot oil. Foam dripped from the corner of his mouth, his lips so tight that they were like to bleed. River’s grotesque flames only scraped his face. Wood managed to catch him in the split second that the fireball hurled towards him. The heroic act wasn’t fast enough. Wood clutched his uncle’s shoulder as he wheezed from the pain. The rest of their strike team circled around them, prepared for any attack.

Drifter let his hands fall from his face, revealing his blacken skin. Dark charcoal-colored burns, itched with blood and cracked wounds, splashed against his nose, eyes, and forehead. They would scar. They would scar bad. Worse than that if they weren’t treated soon. They didn’t look half as bad as they could have been. Drifter gripped the soft blades of grass with his hands as he gathered himself. Wood just stood trembling, breathing rigid breaths as his uncle writhed in an equal measure of pain and anger. Still, you let this happen. I let this happen. I let this happen.

The words echoed in the cave of thoughts in Wood’s head.

I let this happen. Why did I let this happen?

Wood heard the target of his hate over the whistling wind. “Oops! I meant to kill both of you with one hit, but I missed. Like they say, there’s always a next time!”

River stood on the horizon, her hair caught in the wind. The tan skinned girl with hair of a bluish-black pressed her thumb against her mouth. She was giggling. Wood felt his anger rise. You’re a child! He roared inside of his head, his body too annoyed to even speak. And I reckon a child needs a whippin’!

She bowed as though she was beginning some wonderful performance. Behind her, a small army of Ancestors rose, aiming their guns down the path. Rays of sunlight leaked from between each member, some reflecting light from their blue and red riot masks. Their shadows stretched in long pillars across the blacken land to the split where the land lapped into grass. The humid wind howled, sweeping the sea of green to one side. A river crashed a small wave into the shore behind them. Cicadas hummed beautiful songs unaware of what was about to happen. The world heralded their battle.

How did I let this happen?

“Do you think that you can survive this one, Drifter? And Grigori…” River changed her tone to a sweet mock concern, “Stop your crying. It’s not that bad.” Her taunts did nothing to anyone, nothing more than what she already done.

You enjoying this, aren’t you? One big game.

Wood’s eyes found Grigori, the only person in more distress than he. The small man hadn’t moved since his brother’s death. Grief was a powerful thing. He held his brother’s head crippled by it. Ivan, eyes pink from tears, stood over his older brother with his gun loaded and poised. We brought this to you, Wood realized. Good people. Decent people. They didn’t deserve that, no matter what type of petty grudge River had with them.

River still had that slimy smile on her face. “I’m sorry; I’m not allowed to kill you, believe it or not. How about I kill the other brother instead and make it a pair? It’s like one of those “two for one” sales that I loved so much!”

The world waited for a response. Neither side moved.

“You think this is a game, River?” Wood shouted. The words erupted from a deep, unbounded recess of his soul. A primal side of him. The animal inside him clawed ripping through the mask of humanity he wore so well. Parts of his skin already started falling off from his transformation. His bones cracked loudly as the scales grew. “This isn’t your damn dollhouse; this isn’t your damn playground. It’s mine! And you don’t belong! But since you want to play, I’ll play!” He went to run at her. No. He went to run through her. He already envisioned her guts on his teeth, her head on a wall. Madness seized him, the thirsty madness that surfaces when you crack a human open. “I’m gonna kill ya! I’m gonna fuckin’ kill ya and use your ribs as a rotisserie!”

Drifter seized Wood’s arm with a tight grip.

“That’s unlike you, Woody. Don’t get mad. Empty yourself.” Apparently, River wasn’t the only one that could giggle in a morose situation. Drifter found his laugh. It wasn’t a funny or even an amused one. It was weary, weak, and annoyed with life. “I understand her power.” Drifter swayed as though drunk and slithered back upright. “Oooh, I see it now. Don’t kill her. Please don’t kill her. Don’t kill her.” Blood dripped from the hook of his nose. “Calm down my boy. She’s a tool. Her power…” Drifter laughed and laughed and laughed. Then nothing, not even his heavy breath. “She’s a toy; you just have to break her.”

“Are you gonna be okay?” Wood said, calming down if only a little.

“Oh I’ll be fine,” Drifter whispered in a low tone. Chills ran up Wood’s spine. Something haunted his tone. “I don’t even have to say the words, do I? But come here.” He dragged his nephew down.

“What are you talking about Drifty? You don’t have time to be whispering goodbyes!” River came skipping down the hill, swinging her arms. “Guys, capture Grigori. Everyone else can go. By go, I mean kill them all.”

“Don’t be rude, little girl.” Drifter brought his head up. The only color left in his eyes was that off-silver of a blind man. No longer was he looking at her. She took that from him. Somehow, he still found her if from her voice or something else. He took a deep breath, body shivering from pain or excitement. “Keep her busy, everyone. I have to tell my boy a little somethin’.”

Heron slipped out from the crowd with a glorious presence of command, the rest of the men behind her. Since the Ancestors weren’t going to strike first, they would. Gunfire rippled through the air as the rest of the party emerged from the shrubbery. The attack caught a lot of the Ancestors off guard, numbers falling. Some of the Circus’ member also joined the fray in defense of their friend and consultant. They charged forward, screaming war cries.

The sudden vigor and her gloating caught River as defenseless as her men. She whipped her flames, parrying bullets with walls of sea-green. Fire soon fanned out from her feet, cloaking her from head to toe. With flicks of her wrist, she slapped men and women away with the heatless and screaming inferno. The very grass caught flame, but no smoke. Interesting. It’s not burning as fast as humans, the strategic man left in Wood’s anger rationalized. The rest of him just bit at the opportunity to be let out of his cage.

Wood leaned over to his uncle’s mouth, pulling back his anger. She tried to take you away from me. I want that girl dead. Drifter shook his head. He always had a knack for picking up on what Wood was thinking. Wood only knew now that it didn’t need sight. “No,” he whispered to him. “I planned on killing her too. I’ve even announced it to the world before. But no. I changed my mind. Killing her would be easy and quick. Hell would be too easy for her. And I refuse to let the devil torture her before I get a chance to shame him.” He took a deep breath. “Don’t fear the flame, sonny. That’s how she works. Sudden attacks strike a natural fear in people, and if she misses, she already got into your head that she’s dangerous. Believe me…I felt the people she killed…they were terrified of her.”

That makes sense. Looking back, Wood should have seen it sooner. In the way she talked, the way she fought, the normalcy in the way she dressed, the way she worked…she needed people scared. Not only scared, petrified of her like she was the only thing in the world to be afraid of. What’s scarier than a girl you thought was normal torturing you with a screaming flame?

“You know fear, my boy. Now fly! Fly my boy! Give her something to fear!”

Wood did just that. He flew with a command in his head, given only by himself: Your parents are home.

Years of work with the power and his anger made the transformation seamless. Where once his body contorted and twisted for much longer, now the skin he wore as a human was only a husk. Wood shot into the air. The wind took the rest of his skin on his ascension, casting a large shadow on the ground against the grass. With his yellow and amber flicked eyes, he stared at River and the rest of her henchmen with a dark hunger. He had grown since the last time anyone besides Drifter saw his hulking mutation. Where once he was the size of two men, now he was the size of eight.

He forced himself to look at the form when during those two years of recovery. The sight was disgusting. His black scales shone brighter than tempered glass. His eyes were beady, small against the cobwebs of obsidian and slick oily green skin. He had seen axe heads smaller than his claws and nails duller than his teeth. His body was long in length ending in a plated tail. That was his least favorite part. His favorite by far was his wings. Wide, thin, slick and patterned with jagged green lines, those wings carried his weight. In short, he was an utterly enormous lizard-insect abomination that could fly.

Knowing that felt good. There was only one thing that felt better.

Y’know what that is, don’t you, River?

“I thought you wanted to play!” Wood shouted. Before, savagery took his speech. He had to learn words again, taught them to himself with only his pet alligator and Drifter as company. Now, he managed words through the long tongue—even if they were as slurred as a man with far too many beers. The sound of his voice in his own ears sounded bad enough. He wondered how he sounded in other people’s. Are you scared yet, River?

He was enjoying this in a twisted sort of way. If not for Drifter, he would have charged. If not for Drifter, he would most likely be dead. Now, he saw her with a certain murderous clarity despite Drifter’s injury. He just hovered, thin wings hammering in the air. Rows of teeth and a mouth that could devour a small animal didn’t stop him from smiling. His eye sight, the weird mix of colors and shapes honed in on her. Her face betrayed her. They always do.

River extended her hands, sucking up some air for courage. Or at least that was what it looked like from the air. “Then come and get me, Woody!

The first blows met it’ end and the opening bell finished ringing. The real fight raged on now.

Wood soared through the air focusing on River.

Heron and Bardon led the ground battle. People from both sides ordered commands over the ambience every now and again. To his right, Heron’s sword whistled through the air as bullet’s bounced off her hardened skin. To his left, Crisium fought a different battle, combating River’s fire with her own. Then, everywhere else, there was the endless amount of firing, reloading, and death cries. None of that mattered over the sound of his beating wings. He twirled through the rain of bullets aimed at him. He couldn’t afford to get hit. His speed, for a thing weighing at least a few tons, helped with this matter. Ballistics, from previous experience, pierced his armor after the first few. He accepted that as his weakness.

He didn’t have to worry about that too much. Most were too preoccupied with the beast in front of them, not the beast above. River did focus on him. She began hurling her flames into the air. Knowing what he did, he still chose to dodge, snaking his large body in ways he didn’t even think was possible. She didn’t need to know that they found her holy water. At first, they were just smaller fireballs. They whizzed beside him with their howling screams and smell of rot. They continued to grow in speed and size until they were basketball diameter. A few grazed past his face, yelling on their way. He didn’t notice it until then. They were stopping in midair.

The suspended balls exploded.

Admittedly, it caught Wood by surprise, but he did notice it in time. The force of each individual flare alone caused him to roll in midair. He maneuvered like some sort of gross airplane until he had a chance to get back upright. The blasts showered everything around him in will-o-wisps that turned blue on their way down. The pressure itself felt real enough to knock him from his flight pattern, but he noticed it too. If you treated her flames like they weren’t flames at all, you had nothing to fear. He wanted to laugh. There was a time for that. He needed to get close first. There were too many people in his way.

Wood called upon his strongest tool, his acid. He never got real used to the feeling of his insides and throat regurgitating highly potent liquid. He supposed he never would. But, he managed every time. What made it worth his wild was when it connected with a body. Maybe it was the murderer in him talking, but watching people he hated in pain gave some gratification. Their clothes burned through to their flesh, then flesh to bone, and bone to nothing. The panic that followed felt intoxicating. A few on the front line avoided the noxious rain. What they didn’t know, he could control the pools even after they left his mouth. Hell, he didn’t know until he tried it in practice.

With flicks of his claws, the puddles underneath swirled around his enemy’s feet, burning them away. As though connected by strings, the forest green acid jumped up and rain down on the defenseless soldiers. They howled, burning away before River’s eyes. She reacted in time though, using her flames as a rain gutter and splashing them away from herself. Wood tried again with his toxi-kinetic powers, she blocked it all the same. She danced back and back, even deflecting it on other people to avoid the attacks. Anything to survive. He respected her for that.

“That’s cute of you! Very impressive!” River yelled, whipping the flames. “I don’t care about these people; they don’t really care about me. We just want to get Grigori and leave! Killing you guys is just something an added bonus!”

River set off a stream of flames from her palms. Wood borrowed something from her playbook, blocking it with a barrier of his acid. He brought the rest back to himself, pouring more acid into the wave swirling around him. He used that to surf through what his wings couldn’t avoid. The sight must have been amazing. A few of the gunfire stopped below, watching a beast glide through the air on continuously cresting waves of poison. He was getting close. So close.

Curling through the waves of flames, better than most surfers, Wood spiraled towards her with all his speed. The acid became more of a threat for her, he could see. Her defenses became sloppy, and even a few of the splashes burnt away the looser parts of her sleeves. The more of the distance between each other dwindled, the more desperate she became. Did she start to hear the vibration of his wings clearer? The sound would be unbearable by now. Were they bleeding yet? Wood pushed the thought away as he skied up the side of his last wave, the sun white hot on a red sheet above him, and death and screaming below him.

“Are you going to stay up there all day or—“

Wood heard enough from her. He landed with a crash. Meteors have landed easier, bombs softer. The wave broke, melting everything around the land zone. He made sure, very sure, to not catch his target in this blast radius. Don’t kill her, Drifter pleaded before this began. He was starting to see why. This face was worth it.

The ground caved at the weight of this now titan of a beast. River’s eyes widened. She lost her normal confident words. Her lower lip trembled. It was Wood’s turn to eat up her fear. He approached her at leisurely pace, feet enjoying the warm acid underneath his toes.

A line of soldiers divided him and his target. They too lost their senses to his size. Distance played odd tricks on the eye. He lumbered forward as he focused his attention to the group as a whole. They shot nervous glances at each other. Who’s gonna come at me first? Who’s gonna be the dumb one? The man on the far right looks fidgety. No. The middle man just pissed his pants. Maybe he’ll do something stupid. Or—oh. One of the men on the left was the destined one to gain his courage or lose his wits. The soldier prepared to shoot and earned only a slap from Wood’s large claws. He flew far before gracing them with the sound of the crack of his neck.

Wood cocked his head to the side, a much larger thing than his normal form. “Next!” he roared. Less acidic spit sprayed everyone and everywhere. Unintentional, yes. Glorious, most definitely.

The battlefield came to a halt at his voice. Most of the Ancestors were defeated, despite heavy deaths from members of the Circus. The silence allowed him to listen to the sound of his voice. Wood enjoyed it. He enjoyed what happened next more. Out of reflex, he snapped his tongue towards the nearest man, wrapping it around the man’s waist. “Y’see,” he dangled the man upside down, “This….this could be you.” He squeezed until the man’s eyes popped from his head and his body crunched in half. Wood tasted the blood on his tongue, amongst more disgusting things. He threw the remains at River’s feet.

River clinched her fist. “Are you a dog?” she asked in a cold tone, “’cause that was an excellent trick. Have you thought about joining a show?” Where’s your confidence? That didn’t sound too strong, River. “Gentlemen…You’re all useless. No wonder the Ancestors have been having trouble with vermin…You’re supposed to be the best. The best. I haven’t seen anything of that. I’ve seen nothing but stupidity…and complacency….” she continued, energy building around her knuckles. “I don’t need your help anymore…I never needed it.”

The men went up in emerald flames as though lightning struck them. They screamed as the fear turned them into dust and ash, blowing them into the wind. In her anger, she showed the arrow to her Achilles heel. Killing the rest of her borrowed men served no purpose but to show her cruelty. It might have worked on anyone else. But, Wood fought back another toothy smile and just slobbered in his own anxiousness. She needed fear to be strong. To a man who understood all that, this was hilarious. You’re funny, River. A joke.

“Now, die. You miserable dog.”

She ran forward with arms wreathed in green and struck Wood’s face in a powerful unbridled force. The sound of the first strike wasn’t what she expected. He didn’t need to be in her head for that. Not a scream or a bellow of pain, only a simple drum of his exoskeleton armor. She stood confused, looking at her hands. River craned her head back up. Nothing made sense, she probably told herself. It worked before. He should be dead. Everyone died before. Why was this one different? All these thoughts were written on her face. This went on for long seconds until Wood couldn’t take anymore.

He laughed.

Wood laughed and laughed and laughed until his gut felt like pudding from the pain. This was what Drifter found funny. He knew his sound wasn’t sweet; giants and trolls laughed sweeter in comparison. That didn’t matter. All that mattered was that River wasn’t ahead of the game. Not this time little girl. You’ve ruined too many plans to be ahead.

“Why?” She asked, inches from slipping into the acid to hit him with another ball. It shattered on Wood’s crown. “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why aren’t you dead?” Again and again, she persisted. Blow after blow didn’t leave a scratch. Wood saw the frustration in her eyes as she changed her attacks. Fire balls, whips, knives, swords, blasts, bombs the shape didn’t matter. None would touch his skin. With her surprise attacks and initial fear gone, she was nothing.

“Why!” she shouted. An eruption spewed from the ground underneath Wood’s feet, the flames spraying underneath his belly. It was quite easy to fight off the reaction of such a surprise. His humor did most of the work. In turn, quite the opposite happened. The flames felt comfortable, just a warm feeling of a hug. Souls. He felt them. These are the people that you scared to death. They aren’t scared of you anymore. You ain’t going to do that to me.

“I hate you. I hate your uncle. I hate Brink. I hate the Ancestors. I hate the way you look at me! All of this is mine now! I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. So why aren’t you dying?” Tears of anger filled her eyes. Embarrassment marred every motion. The more she went on, the sloppier she got until her arms fell to her side. She looked around to see that no one was nearby to help her.

Remember. You killed those men.

She went for one more blast. Wood stopped her, snatching her arm from the air with his tongue. “Die to you,” Wood questioned despite his full mouth. Sparks lit up around her face as they poured from her helpless palm. “Why would I lose to a child?”

It was there where her demeanor shattered. Her red-rimmed eyes grew wild as she struggled to remove Wood’s slippery tongue from her wrist. She was struggling far too hard, to be honest. One false move and she would take an unwanted dive. Envisioning her fall with those salty tears on her face was a beautiful image. After all she had done, she was one trip away from hurting herself. So, he let her. He let her struggle, fight her fate. At best she could leave with a scar, at worse….well…

Well, Wood let go to see what happened then.

River tumbled back. She tried to regain herself in midair, twisting her body to avoid the puddle. She wasn’t going to be fast enough. One more second, her face may have been gone. He had every intention to ensure that she would have survived. Unfortunately, it didn’t come to that. Grigori, of all people, caught her in time.

He held her wrist even tighter than Wood had. A cold thirst settled underneath the shaggy brown hair.

“I have a brother to bury,” he said. His accented voice cracked at the last word. No one needed to see his face to know that he was crying. Grigori just stood, holding River by the thread of her own limb. His sadness was even more evident when the small man spoke again. “You killed him. Killed him! Over what? Ruining your good time? Yes I remember your face. I remember you and that big one attacking that man in that bunker that we lived in. Don’t pretend that you are the victim here. You’re a miserable, pathetic woman that has lost all hope.” Red energy boiled on the Russian’s fist. In a flash, he let go of his anger, grabbing back onto something less dangerous to him. He tossed her away from danger—from which danger Wood was unsure of. “For now just go. I promise…to find you. But right now, I don’t want to see you. Go! Run! Now!”

And she did. River scrambled to her feet, turned, and ran as fast as her legs could take her. Sobs of anger was still caught in her chest as she did. Wood enjoyed it. He might not have enjoyed what she did or the fact that she was alive. Nothing felt better than watching a person fall from grace. She’s just like a girl kicked off the playground for playing too rough. The pigtails didn’t help that comparison. Maybe she’ll learn to not mess with people so much.

“River!” shouted Drifter from a distance. “I know the one thing that you care about! Your freedom! I might not be the one that’ll take it! Not at first! But someone will! Someone will kill your liberty!”

Wood only heard the sobbing get worse after that. Drifter never said anything that he didn’t plan on keeping. Conjurer and the rest of the Ancestors will find that out soon. Right now, they had to pick up the pieces with Grigori. He didn’t deserve what happened. His family was just an innocent bystander in all this. They didn’t deserve it. They really didn’t…

_

“I’m burying my brother,” Wood heard Grigori repeat for the thousandth time.

Wood left Drifter in the healer’s tent to get his eyes treated from the damage that River did. Xiaoli and Liam, the healers of the Circus, received him in a closed dirty white pavilion that served as the infirmary. The former, a plump Chinese woman with no time for shenanigans, told them her diagnosis. Though it could’ve been worse, his sight was gone and will always be gone. Still, Drifter recognized where everyone was in the tent. Wood tested it himself, walking around the room with a bare chest and cargo pants that made no sound as he moved. Even lying down, his senses were impeccable. Sound and smells were becoming his new eyes. He would have to practice more when he was healthy enough, but he didn’t seem too bothered by the change. No doubt that he was angry, but he adapted or rather would adapt in time. The only real thing that did bother him now was how itchy the bandages were on his face.

His uncle sent him on his way to assist with the damage control. Well. Drifter and Liam, a skinny man with light milk chocolate skin and a Star of David on his chest, ushered him out in a forceful kindness.

So, Wood gave himself this grim task. Not for the first time.

On his shoulders slumped two lifeless bodies. All this afternoon consisted of this. Their group was lucky in that regard. Most of the Drifter’s party left with minor injuries, all things considered. Bardon’s defensive strategy helped. He knew all too well that Wood needed all nine of them for their plan. It came at a cost; the Circus wasn’t quite as lucky. There’s a lot of dead, Wood thought in a brief recollection. Most of the battle, the bloodiest, he missed with his aerial assault across the plains. The battle’s conclusion left practically nothing of the land and its inhabitants. A few of them muttered with discontent for bringing so much violence. He only needed to look one place to see how everyone felt. Nysaia. Her dark eyes told the story for a lot of them. In a way, it was their fault. They had come here for information. Wood couldn’t blame them.

Grigori didn’t send them away. Whether that was out of kindness or grieving, no one knew. They respected his privacy and helped repair any tent or damage goods that they could. Closure was what they needed and Wood wanted to try to provide as best as he could. He placed the two bodies—a man and a woman—into a fresh grave. He didn’t look at their faces, the couple reminded him too much of Emelle and Forrest. It was amazing how much a corpse bothered a murderer. Wood didn’t look even as the dirt filled the void.

Continuing to the next mount, the Russian man walked in a mindless lethargic motion. Wood wanted to say something, but nothing came to mind as he watched Grigori work with his shovel. He muttered almost completely in Russian. Wood knew quite a bit, yet not well versed enough to hold a complete conversation with a grieving family. His mantra still haunted him. “I have a brother to bury.” It was drone like, defeated, in denial. He’ll recover, Wood told himself. A part of him didn’t believe it. He saw what happened to broken minds in this world. The fact that he even had to heal bothered him. It made him want to take everything away from the Ancestors. They already took too much from everyone else with their rise. But why. We know that they’re behind it…we feel it. But why?

Wood huffed fevered breaths as sweat glistened off of his brow. He ached, his mind bone tired, from the work already. Fighting in pure anger and adrenaline was one thing. Hard labor happened to be a different beast to slay. His muscles burned underneath his skin and a hint of sleepiness hovered in his eyes. He looked to Grigori to at least tell him that he was going to rest for a while. He was already gone by the time he wanted to ask. He sighed. Maybe he never even noticed I was here.

Uncapping his canteen and drinking deep from the clean water, Wood found a familiar white shape waving him on. Weary, he walked to her. Heron acknowledged his presence with a curt nod. Unlike anyone else in this clearing, she looked clean. Her leather coat, though a little ripped here and there, still held its white sheen, despite the battle. The rest of her clothes, a simple shirt, a pair of thick pants, and boots appeared just as clean. Not a single blonde hair on the top of her head was out of place. Heron’s appearance taunted this post-apocalyptic world, somehow exempting herself from its grunge.

Wood noticed how he must have looked like in comparison. Full transformations took a lot from him. His energy, some of his weight, and even his mind drained from him afterwards. Eating obscene amounts of food was ill-advisable to the rest of the group, yet he needed to at least be a certain weight to handle these obvious draw backs. At least he handled it better than last time. Before, his body stretched so thin that the transformation left him powerless afterwards. He saw scarecrows in cornfields built better than he. Now, at least, he could stand and work.

“Wassup, is there a problem? A small feeling nagged at him about Drifter’s safety.

Heron looked down with her eyes for only a second. “It’s just that Harodo is a bit rowdy right now. Of course, you expected to hear that,” a smirk touched the corner of her lip. “I have a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s equally as expected.”

“Get to the point Heron.”

“Do you think that Drifter is in the right mind to lead right now?”

The question was so inevitable that Wood thought they should put it on a billboard. For a mob boss, Harodo’s subtlety needed some work. Wood chose to ignore this concern at first. It appeared that it would rear its head if he liked the thought or not. Gotta clip it at the bud, he guessed.

“Do you think it’s alright for a blind, crazy old man to be leading us,” Heron said. The way that she spoke left it ambiguous on what side of the fence she was on.

“I didn’t know we were blind too. We ain’t going to fall into a pit if that what’s got you worried.”

“Wood, you’re charming almost bordering pure verbal sex appeal,” she continued as her voice dripped into her dry sarcasm, “But, I’m also very charming. Can you stop Harodo from doing something silly?

“Are you asking for my help, ma’am?”

Heron shrugged her shoulders. “I’m asking you to keep my friend from making the mistake of his life by crossing the Drifter. Especially over something as frivolous as a lack of patience. I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side and I don’t want to see Harodo dead either. I promised to protect his brother and that didn’t work out. The least I can do is to protect him from an ego trip.”

“That’s…almost kind of you.”

“Don’t take it like that. I’m just fond of things staying the same.”

“Are you fond of him?”

“Not in the way that you’re thinking, but yes. Besides, you need all nine of us…or rather ten…” she lowered her gaze. “If you want our little strike team to work.”

Wood scratched the side of his cheek. She did have a point. That’s why he enjoyed Heron much more than Harodo. She, at least, knew structure mattered. Did she like rules? No. Did she play by them? Yes. Harodo didn’t. He bit at any opportunity to take control when it arose. He thought he knew what was best. Force of habit, most like. As a cool and collected mob boss, everyone came to him for advice and guidance. Amusing as this was, it held the distinct danger of a veto coup d’état. “I’m gonna go talk to him. Look after Grigori for me. He needs some company.”

Heron didn’t scowl at the thought. Her face softened in a way Wood never saw from her.

“I can do that,” she whispered, and then she was off.

Hot damn she has a heart. He didn’t bother her about it though. There was a fuse to clip before the bomb exploded. Drifter would’ve wanted to handle this himself. Even now, Wood thought about getting him. He needs to rest. This left Wood to take care of the potential problem and he planned to do that—sweaty, tired, hungry, and all. He peeled off his shirt, wringing it dry. He just hoped that was the only thing he had to wring today.

Walking down these rows of tents with the sun on his back reminded him of home. Raised in South Carolina, he didn’t have as thick of a country blood as his uncle. Still, they had the same love for the country, forests, swamps, lands, and rolling plains. Smells of weeds and grass drifted through his nose. The wind exhaled long breaths, rolling off his pale skin. Wood fought off the feeling of getting relaxed. His muscles ached so much that they cried with each step. More than a few times, he stopped to knead his muscles or drain his canteen dry. A young woman handed over a cup of water to quench his thirst after he finished, and he took it with grace.

The makeshift dirt road opened out to the huddle of vehicles on the edge of the camp in the tall grass. Harodo sat with Pub, Haggis, Crisium and Tyrus around a camp fire. Bardon removed himself from the discussion, sitting in one of the vehicles reading and eying the crowd at the same time. Their mouths were moving; but, Wood found it hard to make out what they were discussing. Reading lips wasn’t a skill that Wood possessed or cared to have until now. That didn’t mean he didn’t know how to eavesdrop. He sat behind one of the thick brown tents. To most, it looked like he took another small break for his muscles…that just happened to be in the earshot of the conversation.

“…that’s not right,” Tyrus said in a lower voice. He was the only person stationed in such a way that he could see Wood. He gave meaningful glances with his brown eyes. “What makes you think that you can just take charge like this?”

“You know that Drifter has fallen on hard times with this attack. Is it not sensible to have a backup plan if his wounds…pose more life-threatening than we see?”

“We have a backup plan. And what do you mean, more life-threatening than we see?” Tyrus folded his arms. “Xaoli and Liam told us that he’ll be fine.”

“Can you call blind and mad fine?”

“What do you expect from us, Harodo?’ Crisium said as she blew a silver line of smoke from her mouth.

The wind rose over the conversation for a while.

“No!” Pub bellowed over the wind. “We aren’t going to do that!”

“I don’t see why not.” Harodo pondered with his thumb and index finger grazing his chin.

“You know exactly why! My brother said it’s not happenin’, lad!” Haggis too roared in anger. The pair of brawny Scottish men fumed over their ale. From their ears to nose, fury boiled in red spots on their skin.

“I’m not seeing the problem in this, amigos. Why the bad reaction?”

“Oh please.” Crisium tossed her cigarette to the ground. “Everyone knows what you’re getting at.”

“What exactly am I getting at?” A thin smile split on Harodo’s face. Only for seconds did his face remind anyone of his brother’s. Something was missing, something that made Juvenico likeable and Harodo not.

Crisium took his verbal bait and snatched it in her teeth. Wood respected her for that. “You’re the only one questioning the leadership here. Juvenico’s revenge might be a goal but it isn’t your only motive. We all see that. Don’t think that Wood or Drifter is blind to it. Heron probably knows too, but she likes to play too damn much to say a damn thing. What are you getting at? Are you with us or against us?”

Wood heard the conversation died again. Cicadas—or that was what he thought they were—sung their songs in the back. They weren’t native of the area, blown in by the chaos. No matter how they came here, their wailings continued on and on as the silence strained. They said nothing of the plan. Wood assumed what Harodo wanted. No one bought it. Best part of this was Wood didn’t have to do a single thing except sit cross legged and watch from a distance.

“Everyone—“The collective of eyes hardened on him. Harodo tripped over his words, “I’ve misjudged, and I apologize, my friends. Excuse me.”

Standing from his seat with a jaded dignity, Harodo left the circle wrapped in his own thoughts. His feet carried him in Wood’s general direction. At first, Wood planned to ignore him. He already got comfy and despised the idea of disturbing the pains in his legs. His aloofness melted fast. The more he watched him sulk away, the more the urge to tear him to pieces grew. They needed Harodo. His skill was an excellent addition to the team. Wood still wanted to kill him. This urge in his system festered worse than an open scar. Wood searched his mind for solace in Drifter’s words. One surfaced, a saying: There was more than one way to kill.

“Harodo.”

He jumped at his name called, seeing Wood for the first time.

“Ain’t no need being surprised.”

“You must’ve heard that little thing back there,” Harodo pinched his nose, “don’t think too much about it. It was just a concern.”

“Really? I came here to tear down a house and ended up finding the foundation wasn’t up yet.”

“Heron told you.” Harodo sighed. “…I said it for everyone’s best interest.”

“What’s the saying ‘bout hell and good intentions? I forget.”

“There’s no need to be rash, Wood. You know that your uncle isn’t in the best health right now. I wouldn’t have harmed him.”

“No, he wouldn’t have. I would’ve made sure of that.” Wood picked a stiff blade of grass from the bed of it underneath his toes. “At this point, I’m just checkin’ if we are lookin’ eye to eye here. Just ’member, we built this house. Rain or snow won’t tear it down. You hear. Neither rain nor snow. Threaten to break into our house again, I’m going to break you. You saw how I played with River for the same sin you’re trying to commit. You saw what I am.” He put the blade of grass between his teeth. “I’ll kill you. Simply put. I’ll kill you over and over and over until I’m bored. I mean it. I’ll devise ways to break you apart until you’re nothing…until you’re gone. Every single part of you.”

Wood lowered his shoulders as Harodo stood shaking. “I won’t let you or anyone hurt him. Just to make that clear. Are we clear?”

No answer.

“Are we clear or do I have to make it clear?”

“No sir.”

“Good…go ‘head now and help these poor folks with the mess we’ve made.”

The dignity in Harodo’s face oozed as sweat from his pores. He nodded. He nodded until his neck looked sore. Wood swatted him away and he scurried off as though the threat would manifest right then. In the distance, he heard the man’s cursing and chattering of his teeth. Conspirators often hated when their plan went array, even if their plans hadn’t began yet. This was an added bonus. Not only did he foil his plan, he scared him into submission. It felt amazing.

Well, that was fun, Wood thought as he reclined backwards, relaxing for the rest of the day. He couldn’t sleep though. He worried about his family too much.

_

River spun around, shrilling to the clouds above her. She just couldn’t understand. Nothing made sense anymore. She killed everyone in her way. Drifter should have been dead. Wood should have been dead. Just like all those other people that fell to ashes at her feet. No, this wasn’t right. No. No. No. This wouldn’t do. Today’s events infuriated her. She wasn’t done yet. The strength in her legs failed her. She collapsed to her knees, the howling flames of her power thrashing around her. “This isn’t right!”

Unbeknownst to everyone, River’s plan lied crushed under a pile of rubble. One essential key was Drifter’s death. Slaying a dragon versus capturing a knight rewarded two different types of spoils. Drifter and his group would always be their greatest threats, not the Circus. Those blind swine known as the Ancestors didn’t see that. One look in that direction…just some evidence of their impending danger that she saved them from would have changed that. She had nothing; as a reward, she would get nothing.

A territory. She wanted a territory to build her kingdom. A place that was all mine. Brick by brick she worked: dealing with Conjurer, tolerating Brink, living in that cesspool for years, learning the inner workings of the factions. For what? All to lead to this? This…this wasn’t part of this plan. Every problem started from Drifter. Whether it was Graham or Wood, it came from that stupid old man. She burnt his eyes and his eyes fell on her with even more condescending pity.

His voice still lingered in her ears. He was going to take away her freedom. That lit burning candles within her chest. It reminded her of locked doors, a life she didn’t want, of a family that kept her on display. She never liked feeling trapped. There was always a way out, even if you had to cut through someone to do it. But, what now? What could she do now? She rolled on her back over and over again. “No, no, no, no!”

Revenge. She needed revenge. There was still time to fix this. There’s still something she can do. If only—

The sounds of her flames stopped. River popped her head up.

She opened her eyes to see the shoes of a man. Her eyes scrolled up to see the man’s face. His long rock-band hair dangled to her nose, a wild kept goatee grew like weeds on his chin. He wore big nerdy glasses and an easy smile. The thin man never stopped grinning, running his fingers through his pathetic neck-beard. Pity resonated in his eyes. River always hated the pity. “It appears that you can’t follow directions. Should we have written it down for you?”

“Halo—“River growled.

“Sshh. We should have known that you’ll do something stupid. Mom told me to follow you. So I did. I can be almost anywhere in the world, so why not?”

“You could have helped me.”

“You’re right. You’re right. I could’ve helped you. Only if I wanted to. Killing my men wasn’t cool. Like at all. Did you know one of them was expecting a kid? What am I supposed to say to his wife! So, no. I wasn’t going to help you. I’m petty like that. Besides Wood is scary strong, even my powers will be hopeless to stop him even if I did kill Drifter. Ever played a FPS game? Picking fights are important.” Halo kneeled down. “Honestly, this was just a recon mission. They don’t have a way into the Den. My wife has handled that. Now, they know we are in the area and now we don’t know what they have planned. The amount of things that you messed up is astronomical! No wonder my little bro told me that you were unstable. You’re so much flash and no substance that it hurts. Ever heard of going for the kill? It helped me a lot in video games. Just go for the win.”

River blew out her frustration and put on her hopeful smile. “What have you come to tell me?”

“I’m telling you don’t come back, sweetie. I would hand you a pink slip but I’m currently out. So, take this metaphorical one.” He tossed her a pink sticky note. “Hopefully you’ll find business somewhere else. Just not with us I’m afraid.” Halo stood and turned around. “Just don’t tell anything that you aren’t supposed to be telling and you can walk away. Maybe you can find some other piece of dirt that you can scavenge away from someone. Just not here. Just not with us.”

“Halo,” River said, smile dissolving.

“Yessss.”

“I hate you.”

Anger seized her. She roared flames from her mouth as straight towards Halo’s face. He caught it! Halo held her power in a ball, looking somewhat amazed before tossing it over his shoulder. He gave a deep sigh. River noticed the skin of his hands turned to pale blue light as though his flesh was just a window. “You didn’t think we knew your weakness when we recruited you? Are you really that self-confident? You don’t adopt wild dogs and expect not to get a bite. Or rabies. You are ridiculous. Brink was right. You are the corner piece of a jig-saw puzzle. It’s a shame. You could be much more.”

Halo, the First Son of the Ancestors, waited for a response. When he got none, the look of pity rose to his eyes. “Wasted potential,” Halo said, shaking his head. Giving a non-committal shrug, he prepared himself to leave, looking far more uninterested than when he came. In a flash of bright blue and purple lights, the form of the man disappeared leaving nothing of his presence. River stared at the burnt ground where he stood. Halo left her alive. Not out of mercy, care, fear, or insight. He just didn’t bother. He pitied her so much that killing her with his power wasn’t even worth the time. I’m not worth their time.

River’s eyes grew wide. And she screamed. She screamed even louder than before.

The shame broke her.

11

King of Hearts

The usurper took the form of a man with a badge never given to him. He gave them hope and anger, when himself, only had vengeance.”

“I found him…didn’t kill him though. Shame.”

Celine swallowed her sigh of relief as she heard the words from the lich. When she learned of Hades’ ability, worries settled in her gut. More than a few times, she resorted to stifling them in the crystal on her chest. From her understanding, his power saw bonds between people—like how she understood memories, thoughts, and dreams around her. Some he severed at will, most he could not. Only by luck or a divine blessing, Brink wasn’t one of those people. There was still time for him. I’m playing this game to stop you, Dad.

She wasn’t the only person that seemed satisfied with words from the reaper. She thought she saw a smile on the law-keeper’s face. A grim thing if it was. Grim and fleeting. It didn’t last long enough for her to notice either way. Sheriff went back to loading his gun. Hades drifted over to his shoulder, attached to the stench of death. “So, you saw him. How did he look?” Sheriff asked, not looking over.

“Fairly well,” Hades sighed. “Too well in fact. He has a quick head on him.”

“Always did,” Celine found herself saying. Samson gave her a rueful smile.

“I don’t understand your attachment to them.” Sheriff said everything in simple, rough-cut facts.

Celine arched an eyebrow. “You know exactly how I feel. It wasn’t that far ago to be asking that question.”

“I’m not Graham. Graham is not me. You know that and I know that. Stop making comparison.”

“I’m not making comparisons. I’m saying that the question you just asked was relatively human.”

Hades whispered something in Sheriff’s ear and he nodded. Celine disliked the way he floated around, hovered from room to room. He was that little black haired boy that listened in on their meeting earlier. In the Messenger’s way, he had a mask. His was the form of his dead child. She hated him for choosing that. It brought memories that she struggled to suppress. Trust ran thin already amongst her and the Messengers, so she chose not to pursue her disdain. Sheriff didn’t care about the words coming from the dark creature, at least not enough to make a comment on it. He continued his discussion: “There’s still something left that I can’t get rid of, ripping through this chest. Probably the only thing besides revenge that I inherited from the person you tried to manipulate. Come. We have work.”

Sheriff slung the pistol in its holster, some sort of sniper rifle on his back, and several knives within leather sheathes. Again, Celine couldn’t help but notice how simple the man looked. At least he wore a hood and a tattered grey scarf to add a little bit more mystery to him. The pale white eyes—without an actual face to behold—were unnerving enough she supposed. He knew other ways to make people fear and respect him.

Celine finished her drink and allowed Samson to finish his before following. The Sheriff took The Dragon as a gift from the late Lance thus stretching his domain out of the Gulch. The change in management also changed the atmosphere. People smiled and enjoyed the world around them for once, at least within the club. He gave them hope, a thing that they hadn’t felt since that day. You’re becoming an icon. Do you see it?

Rising from the table, Samson whispered to her. “You have to admit, they love him.”

“Love is dangerous.” Whether it was family, friends, admirers, or lovers, that four letter word held just as much danger as its foil. “He’s wielding it well without ruling them. It’s admirable.” What she wanted to know was a different matter. Was he doing it on purpose or by accident? Celine planned to see.

Leading them out of the club and back to the city, Sheriff gave no insight on where he planned to take them. The only time he muttered anything was to stop Samson from boarding his motorcycle. They were going to walk to wherever they were headed.

It was the first day in a long time that it wasn’t raining. Smells of the storm hung as though they were fresh linen on a clothesline. Thunder still rumbled in a sun filled sky far on the horizon. The grey overcast of the world let up, revealing the vibrate colors of a long gone city. Multi-colored majestic vines and ravenous weeds webbed through the streets and up buildings. Orange rust and black rot dominated the city everywhere she looked. Green and brown sludge leaked from the sewers. People trudged passed them, going on their way to the market stalls. In a way, some things didn’t change.

She never liked the cities. Her parents would take her sometimes, and she never understood the splendor. Everything around her was too noisy, too grey, and had too many people for her tastes. She wished to never go again. She got her wish. Just now, she regretted that she never said it despite the forlorn beauty of it all.

They continued down a long road and through several other alleyways. Samson, in a mild and amusing paranoia, repeatedly checked his sidearm. Celine did the same, except with her mind. Avoiding the pull into the black of the Messenger’s minds proved difficult. Everywhere her mind turned whether sleep or awake brought the void. Now, she let herself wander. She felt people around her, each with a past she touched in her gentle way. Flashes of memories rolled in a reel in the back of her head. People with lovers. Simple dinners with friends. Grief even before the world ended. Everything looked so normal. So normal she yearned for it.

Samson nudged her. She became aware of how many eyes looked at her now. Figures leaned out of windows, from off roofs of buildings, and from makeshift homes on the path way. Celine never saw the worst of the weapons aftereffects until now. Some of the better ones shared thin and broken bodies and emaciated faces. Others were bulbous blobs of flesh and twisted bones leaving many unable to tell if they were male or female. They lost their teeth, some eyes, others limbs. Discoloration of their skin destroyed the once beautiful diversity of humans. The better and the worst looked to the Sheriff with admiration. Then the inevitable question arose: where are we going?

The dark alley opened up to an untouched part of the town, a plaza. Untamed grass swayed, tall to about their thighs. A once brilliant fountain refused to spew out water anymore. People surrounded that, drinking the dirty rainwater that pooled in the stone circle. Trees stood proud overhead, whistling in the wind. The bricks of the pathway remained visible despite the years of growth leaking between cracks. A stone statue, some sort of animal, sat in the middle far too weathered to be recognizable. Brown broken benches lined the area, all filled from one side to the other with people.

Actually, the entire area was full in the way those benches were.

Throngs of people huddled in an area north of them. Men stood all around with women at their sides. Children stood on their tip toes, trying to see over grownups with no avail. No one shouted or spoke high enough for Celine to hear with her ears. Sounds of leaves hitting the puddles of water drifted over the whispers. The wind did carry a word. She heard it and at first didn’t believe. Only after a few more times did she listen to her mind and the air. Execution.

“We’re going to an execution,” she whispered loud enough for Samson to hear.

“We’re what?”

“We’re heading to an execution.”

Sheriff stopped, turning on his heels. More than ever she wanted to see his face. Was he smiling? Was he grim? Who is he even anymore? Is he that far gone? Nothing. His face showed nothing. “This isn’t yours. Not yet.”

“Well golly! Thanks for that. I’m touched that you think about us. Why not just get it all over with?” Samson asked with equal measures of sarcasm and venom.

“Why would I murder people in cold blood to make my point? Ever thought about that? Would these people feel safe under my hand if I took every criminal to their death in the shadows? No. I’ll be no different than the people that I’m killing. They have to see them. They have to bring them down. These executions aren’t for me.”

Samson lurched forward to swing his fist. Celine stopped him just in time. “Revenge is for you,” she said in his stead. A metaphorical punch hurt just as much as physical one.

“It is.” Sheriff admitted, “Justice and revenge isn’t that much different. Just the way that you go about it is.”

“This isn’t the way to do this.”

You out of all people are going to preach to me about right and wrong.”

“I think I’m the most qualified to teach that subject.” Celine felt a bit of cold in her voice. He was getting to her.

“I suppose you are.”

Sheriff closed the conversation as a person might close a file cabinet. Celine let him. Not worth the effort. She had more to worry about than getting through to him. He always meant to view her as an enemy, just another root in the tree he wished to uproot. Just means to an end, she told herself again as she stepped towards the crowd.

In light steps, Celine led Samson through the crowd. The pungent smell of body odor and filth overwhelmed her senses. Everyone here is human. The thought frightened her. Far away they looked human enough for her to withstand. Now stuck in the crowd with them, she felt as though none of them shared the same blood as her. Twisted faces covered in green puss stared down at her. Members of the crowd growled at her presence, their teeth sharp, broken, or missing. This was what happened in the major cities. This was what they set off.

One man—a massive giant of grey flesh and bones sticking from his shoulders—saw Sheriff. The large man gasped hurrying in lumbering steps. He shouted, pushing people aside. He parted the crowd for them. The giant…was the announcer. With bowed heads and fevered murmurs, the mass stepped aside creating a long road. Walls of people stared at them now, a few even on their knees. Celine saw Anima and the amorphous form of Tlaloc standing on a large wooden plank. Between them, prisoners lined up, gagged and hooded. Celine imagined things that she didn’t want to see. You won’t see me cry. None of you will.

“Thank you Alex for helping Sheriff and our guests!” Anima called out. “Honey. Sit down. The trials are about to start.”

Celine straightened her back and held her head up high. Not a moment of weakness. These people needed to see her resolve. This test will not break her. No test will. She just hoped after all of this that the test will end. Sheriff’s little games were becoming taxing.

Anima curtsied as Celine took her seat on a bench beside the prisoners. Samson squeezed in beside her. His form stiffed as he looked at the crowd. “They look so hurt,” she told him. “The Ancestors will at least hear about this.”

“You know, I expected cheering when you said executions.” Samson gave a deep sigh. “Like what you saw in those old medieval films and you read in those books. Angry, hateful people that tore at the prisoners body’s until there was nothing left.” That was true. None of that was happening. “I think I could’ve handled the cheering. That would have made everything feel real right now. But, this…” Words fizzled in his mouth and dissolved. “It’s like watching a funeral…”

“Without knowing anyone in the room, even the one in the coffin…” Celine finished in a whisper.

“Yeah, just like that.” Samson sat with his fist balled in his lap.

One of us has to look like a deer in headlights. I’m sorry Sam.

The trials began calm and smooth. She watched Anima work as the judge, making the case for the people. Anima brought fair points to the table for the three men. One by one the men spoke. These were just thieves. She listened to them, each with stories of pain. Even from here, Celine knew who acted and who told the truth. She didn’t even have to read their thoughts or see their memories to know. Celine didn’t say a word. Neither did the Sheriff. He wandered around them, hawking with judging eyes.

He’s feeling them out, she noticed after a while. Sheriff listened to every word. Sometimes, he just closed his eyes and listened to the testimonies. Witnesses went and came. The thieves told their side of the story. Evidence was even brought up. They didn’t cut corners. This worked much like a trial without the lawyers and the controlled jury. How fair could someone be though in this world? Trials wasn’t even fair before.

“Celine.”

Celine snapped her head up in attention.

“You’re not asleep over there, sweetie?” Anima gave another one of her warm smiles. “Do you have a response on this trial?”

“It’s not mine to judge.”

“We have three men, each with a crime against our people. One murdered a man for food.” Anima pointed to the young man in the middle. “A just act but for himself. The man to his right is a father, who did the same act, but for his child. The last is…much more interesting. We caught him and his group smuggling weapons in. For…your people.” Anima’s dark eyes glowed with an inner fire. “I suppose that they are stockpiling for something dangerous. Many people were killed just to bring this one shipment here. So, who’s the guiltiest of them all? Is there one that is worse than the others?”

“There is none.”

The words tumbled out of her mouth.

“There is one.” Sheriff cracked his neck before approaching the three men. He put his right hand up, hovering his palm over the middle man’s head. The crowd just nodded, solemnly. Sheriff slashed off both of the man’s hands with a succession of quick slices. The man looked down as he watched his disembodied fists roll off the planks. He howled in a pain that must have felt like a thousand burning suns. A few of the Messengers led him away.

He went on to the second man for judgment—the father. Sheriff put his hand on the man’s head. Some of the crowd shook their head while others still bobbed up and down. The whispers came back. Some people in the crowd had done this before. Most likely, everyone in the crowd was in this man’s or the other fellow’s shoes at one point or another. Sheriff sensed that and gave him his punishment…lopping off only a few fingers. The ragged middle aged man held his bleeding nubs with a gracious mercy in his eyes. His little boy helped him off the stage.

When it came to the last one on the stand, Sheriff yanked him forward. All matters of civility dropped as Sheriff dragged the man kicking and screaming to the front. “You…you are what’s wrong with this world,” Sheriff said. Somber expressions sung throughout the crowd. Everyone knew something that Celine didn’t.

“We do not return to the civilization we loved if we steal or plunder from our own to survive. We help each other. We create a world we want to live in. Murder is a crime. Murder for another is still a crime. Theft is a crime. Yet that is the necessary evil that we have come to face. We need order. Those men were selfless and selfish for reasons put forth by the evil of this world. But everyone knows the price for dealing with the world-destroyers.” Sheriff pulled a knife, a long one, from the sheath on his chest. “There’s only one price for helping the people that destroyed our land.”

Sheriff stared at Celine and Samson. Only Celine stared back.

Everyone else nodded.

The smuggler, still ungagged from his testimony, wore a crest fallen expression. “But I’m not a murderer, I’m not like the res—“

Sheriff didn’t allow him to speak any more. Where the others were clean, the judgment here was brutal. He hacked away at the man’s neck. Sickening sounds swelled in Celine’s ears. Samson vomited beside her. Celine just watched. She felt her nerves fry as Sheriff brought up the man’s head, still dangling pieces of his bloody throat. Seeing it on a stick was one thing. Seeing it in person produced of a savage rage of justice was another.

“That is our law.” He dropped the head. Gravity sent it rolling towards Celine’s feet. “And our law is final.”

She looked down at the man’s open mouth and wide eyes. And I’m going to eventually break it.

_

“Will he kill us after he’s done?”

There wasn’t an answer to that question. Silence was her best option. Celine doubted that Sheriff will double back on his word. Honor still hooked deep into the man’s side. She needed that hook to stay. For now, she knew she had to keep her guard up. He expected her to keep up their end of the bargain. That meant everyone she ever known in her life, aside from Samson, would only hear lies from her mouth. Well-crafted lies but lies all the same.

The sun burned low above them as she turned onto the street. Dusk graced the world around them in cool air instead of the sticky, humid waves. Orange lights shimmered down in columns around them, reflecting off the broken windows and glass. She knew that the Conjurer set up shop in a hotel not too far from here. It was simple to find the area where her family set up. She followed the trail of troops. In the post-apocalyptic city, this section was high society. Remodeled buildings rose into the air, shimmering in a pristine light, clean from the wild plants. Water and electricity ran in some. Some of Conjurer’s workers waddled passed her, dazed in their work. It left a bitter taste in Celine’s mouth. Those people were…no. She didn’t like to think about her fault in this. Some, though, appeared to have life and hope in their eyes…someone was tinkering.

Who’s been busy?

She ignored that for now. A bigger problem was presenting itself. Where exactly did Conjurer set up? Every one of these tall buildings embellished in an endless grandeur fit Conjurer’s ego complex. Celine admitted that taking on this city’s restoration was…admirable? Well. If he cared about the people it would’ve been. Still it was impressive. He shouldn’t be that hard to find. A man that viewed himself as a god was never too hard to find, especially when wrapped in a security blanket. I’ll find him. He’ll make sure of that.

While one half of her brain worked on directions, the other stayed fixated on the past. Celine mustered up a level of calmness. Her inner emotions stormed. The memories of the executions burned into the back of her mind as crystal clear as thought they were happening live. She struggled with the good and the bad. The father who lost some fingers still seemed so grateful about it. He smiled at her as he hugged his boy with his maimed hand. It amazed her. Why did he remind me of you Dad? He looked nothing like you. Still, she put his face on the man most times. Others…she imagined his head rolling to her feet.

“Do you think this will stop it?” Samson asked in way of a casual conversation. She begged for a brief respite and he managed to give that. “You’ve been running around for years, pulling strings you might damn near regret. Is it worth it all?”

“Is this worth it all?” Celine stretched out her arms. Emptiness and broken things surrounded them. Millions of people lost their lives, thousands during this struggle of power and truth. This city missed a more than a few thousand to be alive. “I’m doing my best here, Samson. I think this is right. I’ve done some things wrong. I’m trying to fix it. That’s all anyone can do.”

Ignoring Samson’s smile, Celine continued forward.

“Oh. Well…I see where they may be hiding.”

She used the word “hiding” very loosely. In fact, Conjurer made no real effort to hide at all. His ego astounded her. On the corner where the roads bent at a right angle stood about thirty armored trucks. Twenty or so men patrolled the area with guns. A woman sat cross legged on one of the trucks, moving her arms like a dance that required only her upper torso. Celine recognized her as Halo’s “Grand-Daughter”. Though the title might complicate the matter, she was no more Halo’s grand-daughter than Samson was Celine’s grand-son. She was the reason for their complacency.

The woman threaded layers and layers of warm colored light into ribbons of golden energy. Her fingers moved, pulling and pushing the webbed weave into the air. A shield of this particular size took her months of strenuous work. Even the sunset paled in its brilliance. It was beauty like a blown glass. This thing can kill you, happened to be Celine’s primary thought on it despite its sheer magnitude. Sheriff knew this; he didn’t have a way in. That shield won’t drop for anyone.

“Cassandra Kingsley, Daughter of the Ancestors, requesting entrance.” Dull moments passed before even a person came by. Her heart skipped a beat. How much do they know? It wasn’t that far-fetched of a worry.

Seconds dragged into painful minutes. Celine felt her heart thump louder in her chest. She was playing a dangerous game. If they figured out what she was doing…no one would save her. Someone might have seen me at the executions. No. Sheriff and his people were careful. But…it was a public place outside of the Gulch. Would—

A small portion of the shield whirled within itself. An opening about the size of a normal size door appeared from the warped area. The woman appeared

“Celine! I apologize for the delay; I had to make sure that no one followed you and check if it’s really you. Can’t be too sure with this craziness!”

Like always, Millie Kingsley, Demon-named Mystic, presented herself with the glamour of a queen. Her wheat colored hair fell around her neck, lighting up her hazel eyes. She wore the same clothes as Celine: pants, boots, and a simple t-shirt. She just wore it better, in Celine’s mind. Her nerd of a husband had made her a cloak too, though far glorious than what he made for his sister. It was gold, high around the neck with a furred hood. Hal called her his little ray of sunlight. The name did fit her. She remembered meeting her the first time with that pearly white smile. She never took it off. Pangs of a child-like envy touched Celine in those days back when things were simpler and things like that mattered. Millie was a good woman for her brother and an even better wife.

“Millie,” Celine said, forcing some excitement in her voice. It came easier than expected.

Mystic threw her arms around Celine’s neck for an embrace. Celine stood shocked for a second. She is family. Family is family. She wanted to reach for the crystal around her neck. She returned the hug from her sister-in-law instead. Does she deserve what I have planned? Finally, she broke the hug and placed her hands on Celine’s small shoulders. “Where have you been? Everyone’s been looking for you!”

“Sorry I haven’t been able to contact anyone. I’ve been trying to fix things around the Territories. Things are getting out of hand out there.” The best lies are half-truths.

“That’s expected. Still, you should have checked in. Hal and Phil are worried sick…” Mystic frowned.

Phil’s not worried, he’s suspicious. He knows I’m no good. “I just like being out of sight. Always have.”

“You need to get out of that.” Mystic nodded and accepted the lie with no resistance. She turned to Samson. “Did you always look so good, Sam?”

Samson gave his low, warm laugh. “You’re lucky you’re a married woman, Millie. You shouldn’t be teasing a man like that”

“Come on, Sam, you’ll flirt with anything.”

“Guilty,” Samson admitted.

“Besides, my husband can’t have all the flirting fun.”

“How is Hal, anyway?” Celine asked.

“C’mon.” Mystic gave a small nod, telling them to follow. Once across the threshold, she waved her hand and the shield grew around them again in a brilliant display of yellows, oranges, and gold. They continued to the large corner building, what was once a hotel. “You haven’t heard. Mom and Conjurer sent River to learn some things about the Circus. To our surprise, the Drifter was there and she made some less than satisfactory decisions. From the report, Drifter is injured and most likely off the table. I tried to convince everyone to keep her for that, but she defied an order and Mom didn’t like that. Shame though, River was nice to have around.”

“She’s not dead, is she?” Celine didn’t care about River enough. However, she stood by what she said years ago. I don’t need you to hang now, River. A part of her plan still hung on that. Without it, someone might be harder to tackle than Celine imagined. I hope it doesn’t come to that. “Is she dead?”

“Hal’s too nice, so I doubt it.”

Again, it was easy enough to not make a facial expression. River was going to be the hardest piece to keep alive. Sometimes, Celine questioned her value at all. “Is Mom here?”

“She’s been looking for you! Want me to show you to her?”

“That would be nice.”

Mystic obliged. On their way, their guide again showed her infinite amounts of friendliness. She knew everyone’s name, asked about their family and how they were fairing. She noticed a bit of rough housing and put a stop to it. She relieved two men to the barracks after their almost endless hours of patrol. Laughs and smiles surfaced through the crowd in this grim world. Not all Ancestors were monsters and that was what made this journey harder. Celine clutched her crystal this time. Don’t feel it.

Like a true gentlemen, Samson opened the door for them. Mystic nudged him with her shoulder on her way in. He nudged back as best as he could. “You two need to stop before I tell Hal,” Celine told him entering.

“Go tell him,” they responded in unison. Even Celine had no choice but to laugh at that.

It only took going through the small entrance area before Celine realized how fancy this place was. Above them swung crystal chandeliers that bounced light onto the clean white walls. Checker patterns floor made of marble stretched outward from the entrance way and ended at a smaller red carpeted section to their right. On the left sat several long tables, each with tall wax candles and exotic flowers from the vines. Slaves brought in dark wood chairs as their masters entered. They looked just as inanimate as the things decorating the room. “Conjurer’s still up to his old tricks, I see,” Celine said aloud. Their subjugation was her fault, and she knew it.

“When is he not?” Mystic said in a sigh.

“His little concoctions created a lot of mistakes.” Samson couldn’t have spoken truer words.

“Just don’t let him hear that. Although…none of us really finds him a good person.”

How long exactly is this mutually beneficial relationship with the Conjurer going to remain mutually beneficial? The thought was on every Ancestors mind. No love for the Conjurer had been a concern for most of the rank. With his vile practices, new inventions, and superiority complex, it surprised Celine not to see his body strung up on a flag pole in pieces. The Father must have still found a use for him.

Mystic brought them to the table where Conjurer, the Mother, Ragnar, and Brink sat. There were a few people she didn’t recognize such as the red hair girl beside Ragnar or the woman beside her younger brother. She took her seat and Samson took his beside her. They barely noticed her until the Mother popped her head up. “Cassie!” The Mother, Mary Kingsley, almost shouted with tears in her eyes. “Dear! Cassie, where have you been?”

Brink raised his head from the papers. His eyes went cold. “Yes, where have you been?”

Both of the siblings knew what she was up to. Without proof, no one here would believe him. To them, she was just wandering the world and fixing problems. Lying, again, came simple to Celine. “Working on balancing the territories that we have put into our benefactor’s hands. This campaign to save what’s left of our world has created some enemies. In short, I’m regulating how many enemies we have to deal with. My powers are best for this, as you all well know.”

The last sentence left a taste of bitterness in her mouth.

“Are you telling me that two years away from an active meeting was for maintenance? That’s some bullshit.”

“Phillip, mind your tongue!” Mary cut in. For that moment, both of them were children again in the backyard. Little Cassandra told white lies to Mom. Little Phillip never honed the truth sharp enough to cut through it. The white lies weren’t so white anymore. Then again, white lies happened to be poorly named anyway.

Celine felt on top of the world. “I’m working for our best interest. Don’t question that, Philip.”

“Hmm.” He let it slide for now, having no other choice. “Let me clue you in, do you know what’s been going on with the Drifter?”

Celine nodded.

“Defeating River isn’t an easy task.”

Conjurer sucked on his teeth. “It was bound to happen. River didn’t know her place and she couldn’t step up to the big game. So sad. Elena, more wine.” Elena bowed and filled the cup to its brim. Somehow, she looked…not quite as subservient. “What River did manage was to see Drifter’s hand. From Halo’s report, he’s even blind from the attack. They retreated somewhere like some sort of wounded animal. That should make the task of exposing him for the swine he is that much easier. What say you, Ragnar? It’s easier to slay a two legged lamb than a four legged lion, right?”

Ragnar gave a low grumble. This was the first time Celine ever faced the man. He knew nothing of her place or how she knew him. Rumors didn’t do his size justice. He hardly fit into the chair that he sat in and looked more of an animal than a human. His chin was aflame with an auburn beard and his skin covered in a thick pelt of human hair made him look the part of a barbarian. Celine saw what Conjurer didn’t. Intelligence, a high level of plotting and skill, glimmered behind the rage. “I’ll wait,” Ragnar said in his rich low voice. “I’m not going to chase after him halfway across the damn world.”

“I thought you’ll bask in the opportunity of an easy slay.” Conjurer sipped his cup, eyes peering over the rim.

“Running out got River in trouble. Do you think that I’m dumb enough to make that decision, no matter how much I hate Drifter.”

Brink made a face. That wasn’t the answer he expected either.

It’s Ragnar. He’s planning something! He’s the one playing a game here!

“Your loss,” Conjurer shrugged. “To more important matters.”

As of a few years ago, that would have been an important matter.

“Everyone, what are we going to do with that nasty Sheriff poking around? I didn’t get my shipment of weapons and supplies today and he’s the only possible answer. He’s running amok in our good city. It’s about time he’s been solved. What do you plan to do with this? We tarried around this topic long enough.”

“We don’t know where he’s at. Believe me, I would have by now,” Brink said.

“I can help with that.” Celine straighten her back and cleared her throat. Everyone—leaders, lieutenants, associates, and slaves alike—waited for her response. Her wording needed to be perfect. Too much information and solid of a plan would give her away. It needed to have flaws and strengths like a person who observed the Messengers and Sheriff from afar. They needed to hate it and they needed to love it in equal measures. That was the beauty of such a sin. This was going to be the beginning of the downfall: their downfall and hers.

“That’s the reason I’ve been gone. I’ve found him. I found the Sheriff.”

Those were the truest words she spoke all day.

_

He dreamt of emerald lights, faceless men, year old skeletons, and an image of a double-sided coin. He saw the face of an angel without wings and a man that had them. He saw a man with a familiar briar thorn crown with a monster by his side. Above them was a red star falling from the black sky and glowing against the white ground. Seven seats sat within the snow and iced wasteland. The roar of a demon awoke him from his coma.

_

When Grigori finally did wake, sweat drenched his body, and he felt his stomach yearn for food. He pushed his dream away. A dull pain ran through his body as the fever ate through his strength. Maybe that was a dream too. Maybe he’s still alive. Denial told him that, over and over and over. Grigori wandered out of the tent, swaying back and forth. He felt as though he was a wraith heading back to the place where he died. In his trance, he noticed no one, even as they passed and shouted his name vaguely above the ringing in his ear.

It wasn’t a dream. What stood before him was an unmarked grave. There wasn’t even enough stone to make a proper grave for him or anyone.

Grigori sat in front of it. The night grew cold and so did the plot of dirt where his brother slept underneath. Tears swelled in his eyes and he wondered if the cold or the grief caused him to shake. He managed to keep his strength up until the Drifter and his party left. As their host, he couldn’t take in all the grief that he wanted to. Once their trucks disappeared over the horizon, he collapsed into unconsciousness. His mind just couldn’t take it anymore. Boris was gone. Forever.

Grief of that same level haunted him even now.

Hours passed before he realized that Ivan was there too. His little brother stayed with him throughout the night. He knew the pain too. The two of them cried until their tears ran dry. What does one do after the crying stopped? Did they mope forever? Did they curse the very ground that they stood on? Grigori didn’t want any of this. All he wanted to do was stay with his brothers, the one alive and the one dead. “What do we do now?” Grigori asked. His mind made it hard to grasp what language he spoke or if he spoke words at all.

He must have at least spoke since the question caught Ivan off-guard. Ever since they were born and left alone, Grigori made all the decisions. He was not only their brother, but their parents. He guided them in the right direction. To see him so lost must have been harrowing. Ivan said nothing at first. Grigori didn’t expect an answer until he saw motion from the corner of his eye. Ivan shook his large head, muttering in their language. “Revenge’s a good idea….”

“Against who?

“The small girl that brought this pain to us.”

The thought was appealing, even against his good will. “But, I brought this to us. Nysaia told me that I will pay by bringing the Blind White Beast into our home. What’s a greater price than the death of my brother? That could have been both of you.”

“You didn’t have to save her.”

“I didn’t know what to do. What would that have solved, Ivan? Would I feel better knowing that I regressed back into my own sins and lost a brother in the process?”

“We can’t stay out of this brewing war forever. The more people like River that stays around, more people like us will die.”

Grigori, red-eyed, trembled. “People like River were born well before the world collapsed. It’s tempting to fall into their trap. But who will stand after the dust falls and the blood dries? Who would make this world better?”

“That’s not an answer. Saving the world’s morality doesn’t fall in your hands, kotönok.”

“Then who hands does it fall into?”

Ivan bit his lip.

“Things will take their course. People will make their decisions. We will make ours. Boris is in a better place….but are we?”

Grigori prayed on that thought. When things were good, prayers came easy. Only when the storms rolled in did the words trip in the faithful’s mouth. He thanked the Heavenly father for everything that he could and everything that he couldn’t. His brother’s face still stung in his mind. Only the calmness of his destination kept him from crying out. One day we will meet again, brother.

He opened his eyes to see that Nysaia at prayer beside him. Grigori knew that she didn’t share the same religion as him. That didn’t stop her. She respected the family and their religion all the same. Tolerance was a high thing amongst the Circus. Nysaia opened her eyes, the only thing visible within her mourning clothes. “You paid a dear price for your kindness.”

“There’s always a price.” Grigori had to repeat the words in English for her to understand. “I don’t regret it.”

“Even after I told you not to bring him in.”

“Death happens for a reason.” Grigori knew why people responded to those words in bitter-taste. He said them all the same. “Do you think River would have stopped if Drifter wasn’t there? She already had a blood price on me.”

“That’s true.” Nysaia put her hands in her lap. “I talked with Drifter before he left. You don’t have to worry about your revenge. Destruction is his avenue. Creation is yours. Deal with that.”

“What did you tell him?” Grigori wiped his eyes.

Nysaia placed burning incenses and fresh flowers on the grave. “Just things that I’ve seen with him. Ever see someone and know that they were going to reshape the world? I have. He’s it. I didn’t want to have this discussion with him. I honestly tried to avoid it as much as I tried to stop this death. I gave him a path to wreak his destruction he desires…but he’s already set groundwork. I see black within him. The purest of blacks, but black all the same.

“You must see it everywhere….” Grigori mentioned.

“I don’t see much of it in you. Not yet.”

Her words brought a deep sense of happiness within the grief.

Nysaia stood, wiping the dust from her black gown. “Grigori, you need to find River. The more she’s out there, the more your grief will swell. We don’t need a killer, we need a savior.”

12

White Nightmares

He knew she was lying, knew that she would rip the floor from underneath their feet. Could he stop it? Or would he watch like everyone else underneath a dirt floor?”

You’re a liar, Cassie. You always have been.

The words burned on Brink’s tongue, biting through his teeth. He sure as hell knew that she was lying. Years before she orchestrated the finding of the manuscript and the facility of the weapons to the enemy. She brought the Drifter to their doorstep at Huston, even gloated as she used his blunder as a shield. He wanted to kill her, right there; but, he didn’t have the proof. Surely, their father wouldn’t look on him kindly for killing his only daughter. Not without some evidence of a betrayal at least. You couldn’t do it anyway, a voice told him. She’s your family. You love her.

“She’s good,” Miranda mentioned as she appeared to review the plan in her head. “She gave us precisely what we wanted to hear, and left enough wiggle room for failure and success. If what you say is true, she’s putting us in a horrible situation.”

Brink nodded, splashing the contents of his water bottle against its plastic. The plan was good. She set up a spy within the Messengers to tail them, feeding her info on their whereabouts. When the time came, they could strike. Still, something felt off. There was a certain danger in this. Variables stood in their way and they couldn’t stand for what ifs. They retired for tonight leaving Brink brooding over this sounding too good to be true. “Don’t you see how she’s playing us?”

“Maybe,” Miranda tapped her finger against her cheek, “but I can’t think of a good motive for her.”

Getting the motive was the hardest part. Even back when he saw her outside of that hospital, the word “why” did come to mind. What does she have to gain from this shit? “I don’t fucking know,” he said finally. “Whatever she has planned, I’m going to have to speak with her about it.”

They needed to find the truth. Maybe then the doubt would go away…

The Den was a large place, filled with several different wings and floors. Celine retired to the president suites on the first floor, away from other people. It was always like her to remove herself from the confrontation. Memories of countless sibling spats taught him that was her way of closing off any potential argument. Running was always what you did best.

Brink wished that irritation was the only feeling brewing. Phillip, the Marine and younger brother, still admired his sister. She was always a strong studious type. Lying—or twisting the truth for favorability—had turned into a career in law for her. She was well in her years of law school when this all happened. She cared for everyone in the house: Mom, Dad, Hal, himself…and….

I can’t think about that. Brink pushed his mind and his body forward.

Moonlight shifted through the windows, giving illumination to the dark corridors. Many of the essential tenants enjoyed the higher floors. Naturally, the lower floors received far less love and far less electricity. He passed by a countless amount of white doors, each with numbers on them. Cobwebs crusted on some, rust on others, and even a few lied unhinged. In the past, they might have held some people of importance—businessmen, stock traders, or presidents of companies perhaps. Now, just people no one cared about. Sometimes, Brink caught the eye of one of those servants…dulled eyed and confused. Conjurer made these weapons from….

He . He made them from…

Even in his thoughts, he refused to acknowledge their part in this.

“Do you know what room she’s in?” Miranda asked.

“She’ll take the end of the hallway.”

“What makes you think that?

Brink took a sharp breath for himself. “I know her well enough to make that assumption.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Miranda touching the knife’s handle with her fingers. “You don’t want to go in there with your knife drawn.”

“What? Why?” Miranda furrowed her eyebrows.

“Threatening her may end up with you slitting your own throat.”

Even Brink knew that making the Memory-Follower feel threatened resulted in your mind being a muddled mess. Her powers manifested in a way that scared anyone. He knew that from years of experience with her. The mind was fickle. Any soldier knew that your worst enemies resided in your skull. Reliving things that you put in the back of your head broke the best of men. She knew that. That was why he had to be careful before she made him hear the winds of the desert again. He already heard enough of it as it was.

They came to the final door of the hallway. It didn’t look different than the rest of the doors, marked with gold numbers and white as pure plaster. Brink stared at the door, wanting to have an urge to kick it down. I’m not as angry as I thought. With some common courtesy, he rapped on the door with the back of his knuckles. “Cassandra, open the door. We need to talk.” The use of her real name came to his lips unintentionally. Somehow it felt too personal, despite their demon names being as sentimental. “We need to talk now.”

The door didn’t open. Brink still felt her moving in the room. Siblings tended to know that. He soon found his anger was gone. In his mind, he rehearsed what he wanted to say to her. He tried to boil his blood with what she did to him. All that came out was him tapping his knuckles again on the door. “We need to talk,” the resolve in his voice wavered. “Cass just open this door.”

She answered.

The smug look on her face didn’t meet him at the door. Celine just stood, arms crossed. The two years changed both of them. She looked thinner and her silver eyes sunk with exhaustion. Her hair was a mess and her face pale. School yard children teased her for her hair or one thing or another. That face met her at the door. Young Phillip rose again in his chest. He knew that look, even as a little brother. She was too proud to cry, but too hurt to speak. “Phillip.”

“Johnson, leave.”

Miranda frowned, but did as she was told.

Brink closed his eyes as he heard Miranda’s footsteps become softer and softer in the distance. Wind howled outside, whistling a horrible draft through the doors. “I’m going to ask you again,” he began soft almost mimicking the ambience outside, “Why are you doing this? I don’t get it. I’ve toyed with the idea in my head a thousand times. What are you doing? What is this about?”

“You know what this is about,” Celine snapped. It caught him off guard. She turned her head, her hair falling across her eyes. The crystal around her neck was missing. “You’ve always known what this was about.” She sounded different.

“No I don’t.”

“Really, Phil? You’re going to pretend like you don’t know what this is about. Let me spell it out for you: we’re cursed. We were born into this curse. Do you really think that it is fair what we did?” The sound of her voice seared pain in his mind. “This started because we felt helpless. Now, we’ve done too much. Who’s going to stop us?”

“You can’t say the world didn’t deserve it for what it did to us. To our family. To our people. You’ve never seen the wars and fights I have, Cassandra. Someone needed to put a stop to the bloodshed.”

“You’re going to use that against me,” Celine retorted hotly. “After all we went through; after all I’ve seen you go through. I’ve seen you push through days. I’ve watched you cry at night. I’ve seen you threaten suicide. I stopped you from pulling the trigger. Do you remember that phone call? I do! I begged you! So don’t tell me I don’t know!”

He did remember that day, fumbling at the phone with clumsy fingers and teary eyes. “Stop it, Cass.”

“Stop what?” she said with a weak laughter in her voice. “You can’t prove that I’ve done anything to hurt you or anyone else.”

Brink had never seen Celine so emotional. He knew bit by bit that she suppressed her emotions. A bad habit she picked up from their Dad. Outside, they wore peace with a mask of ice. It was an ability that he always envied. It wasn’t until watching both of theirs melt that he realized that he didn’t want it anymore. “Everyone needed to pay for what they did.”

“You’re justifying him. You’re justifying what Dad did with his twisted revenge logic!” Celine, realizing that her voice turned sharp, stopped and reeled herself in. She took a deep breath. “It’s not going to bring him back, you know. Reforming this world isn’t going to bring him back.” She opened her clinched fist to show white energy. Brink felt it then: the warmth of the sun of that day, the wind on his back, the shock of the moment, and the sound. The sound, that crack followed by screaming.

Before he realized it, he was staring at the image of the small boy at his feet. Translucent and glowing, the image’s features blurred. He was there, standing in that oversized dress shirt and those black slacks a little wide for his waist. Brink reached to touch him, only for his fingers to phase right through. Jaden. He was their little brother, the youngest of all the family. The spotlight made him a target, his death the lynchpin. He turned his attention back to Celine.

“What we’re doing isn’t going to bring him back.” With one clinch of her fist, Jaden’s image was gone. Maybe it wasn’t even there to begin with. “Now not even the world can satisfy our father’s hunger and grief. I can’t allow this to go any further. It has already gone far enough.”

“He’ll stop when there’s peace. Actual peace.”

Celine began to close the door. “If you believe that, I can’t save you. Good night and good luck with trying to stop me.”

He didn’t the door closing in his face; his eyes burned too much.

_

“I lost them,” Halo said, coming from out of the rain with a shrug.

Brink frowned. “You did what?”

“I lost them!”

“How can you lose a rag tag band of heathens on a flat land?” Conjurer asked.

Halo chose to ignore him as he reached over to Brink’s plate to steal a strip of beef. Brink slapped his oldest brother’s hand away. He gave an annoyed grunt. “I don’t know how I lost them. It’s probably thanks to the voodoo lady at the Circus’s camp. All I know is that I tried to follow them, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. They could be in space for all I know.”

“I swear you people cannot get anything done without specific orders. This is becoming asinine. How far away can a blind man and his slobbering pet nephew go in that small amount of time? I knew that we should have sent you to follow them earlier.”

We? There’s a we now? When did this happen?” I thought there was a Brink, a Celine, a Father, a Mother…but I don’t remember their ever being a puffed up scientist at the top of the food chain. How long have I been gone? I swore that you were just an advisor when I left.”

Halo plopped himself in the nearest seat. Mystic, his wife, came in with his food instead of the servants. She pecked him on the cheek and he returned it on her lips. She took her seat beside him. The force field outside worked a few hours without her reinforcing it. Those times they spent together. She still cooked him dinner, still washed his clothes, and still loved him like they hadn’t been together for five years.

The gestures made Brink a little jealous. He shifted in his seat. Luckily, there were other things on his mind to take that negative thought away. He deserves to be happy. Hal never really had a social life due to his….condition.

His brother helped himself to his own beef and bacon strips on his plate. The scorn on Conjurer’s face hadn’t subsided. It grew worse until his face twisted into a vile snarl. Elena and Amy, his wives, whispered their venomous words in his ear. They wouldn’t do anything. Halo and Mystic together had the skill to kill them a thousand times. But that didn’t stop him from raging. You don’t know how dangerous we are, Conjurer. You think you know us.

“Do you not realize what I did? You should be grateful. I brought this world down with what I gave to you. What right do I not have to rebuild this world in my image too?”

“Oh please,” Halo said between mouthfuls.

“Would this have all been possible if not for my help?”

“Urgh.” Halo picked up a piece of beef with his fingers and tore it in half. “You’re under our protection. Right? Always have been? Even while developing the—the—“He sucked on his teeth. “What’s the word, honey?”

“Technology?”

“No. Something more blunt.”

Mystic gave a smile. “Bioweapons then.”

“Bioweapons it is. You created those bioweapons per my dad’s request. He was grief-stricken like the rest of us and decided to let your little experiment with ‘resources’ we, as a loving family, gave you to go on. Of course, you did fail to mention that survivors might develop side-effects.” Halo tossed a piece of meat into his mouth. “From my point of view, we’re doing damage control over something that shouldn’t even happened. So back to the basics, losing the Drifter was your fault. I’m just coming home for dinner to tell you that.”

That was one thing Brink enjoyed about his brother, Hal Kingsley. He took one thing you said, turned it against you, and then playfully bashed you in the head with it. Growing up with that had its moments. Now, as adults, he enjoyed watching the man work. Everything he said was true. The fact there was hundreds and maybe thousands of groups like the Messengers did stem from a miscalculation. Father recruited some of these people, still it wasn’t enough.

“I warned you of the risk. That is all I could have done.”

“You two play nice now. We don’t want to wake up anyone.” Brink sighed. “What did you learn though, Hal?”

Halo huffed. “Drifter is planning something nasty.”

“Like what he did at Huston?” Brink asked quickly. He sat a little straighter. A personal friend of his disappeared from a smoldering ruin. He remembered how the land looked after the Drifter left. It smelled of blood and ash—charred land and dead men. He left nothing in his path. And that was just him angry, a bestial and spontaneous reaction to an attack. This time he had room to think. Too much room, Brink wagered. “You know nothing about it?”

“Nah. Not a damn thing.” Halo pondered the thought for a moment in his head. “But it has to do with that nephew. Man, I don’t like that Drifter is putting his faith in that guy. He has something nasty planned for us.”

Brink agreed. “Wood’s his name right?”

Conjurer laughed. It wasn’t a chuckle or a giggle in his normal patronizing way. He guffawed as though this entire thing was some joke. “You’re afraid of that and not of me. He’s a babbling fool. Whatever he has planned, it will fail without his uncle telling him word by word what to do. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Remember, we have Mrs. Kingsley’s shield to protect us. No one can get in or out unless she wills it. What we do need to focus on is on Miss Celine’s plan.”

“Celine’s back?” Halo looked over to Brink. He knew that like everyone in the family, he had a special bond with Cassandra. “How’s she doing? Where has she been? What’s going on with her?”

“She’s probably still up. You can ask her those questions.” Brink wondered how bitter he sounded. Maybe he hadn’t got enough sleep. “I need to head off to bed myself. I’m getting annoyed over stupid shit.”

“Pass your bed time, soldier?” Halo grinned broadly.

“Hell yes.”

Brink pushed himself from the table, passing the rest of his plate to Halo. He wasn’t going to eat the rest anyway. Slapping his wrist earlier happened to be a reflex he honed. Halo’s lean flabby frame fooled many people into thinking he ate light. No. Anyone would tell you the man ate almost twice as much as a normal man. Ate us out of dinner most days, he thought as he headed towards the elevator hallway. He felt his body long at the thought of a bed instead of food.

He exited the meeting hall and through a dark hallway towards the elevator shaft. The path felt longer than usual. He allowed himself to slump his shoulders, listening to the constant sound of rain. The soles of his feet ached and every step against the sides of his boot hurt more. More than ever, Brink wanted to take them off. A doleful smile crept on his face as he realized that he was complaining. I promised myself I wouldn’t be that guy complaining about how much his combat boots hurt. Maybe he didn’t do it aloud, but it was happening all the same. He shook his head. Graham wouldn’t like that. He would’ve told me to get better shoes or suck it up. He frowned at that thought.

Graham. Brink felt his mouth go dry. He wanted to call him, talk to his superior officer and friend. He couldn’t. He killed him. Twice.

Brink crept to the silver door, thoughts of his former comrades surfacing. He still remembered killing them. The pools of blood pooled on the concrete in his head. He saw their faces, surprised at the sudden betrayal. I didn’t want to do it. I had to. I was ordered to. They knew too much. He was the best person for the job. I was the only person he trusted. Sweat poured from his forehead. The world began to shake. Or was that the elevator coming down? His vision blurred as he looked at his palms slide down, making long white prints on the door. Or were they red? Was he bleeding?

Don’t think about it. Breathe.

The thought still came. One after another he remembered how he killed them. They called them back for a duty in North Carolina, orders from the higher ups. Graham was in line for a promotion anyway. He never had seen him so happy. Hell, they were all happy. Their group even planned drinks at the time, despite Phillip’s age. But, I had to do it. Guys, I had to do it. You were the only loose ends left. They were. No one heard their reports of the weird experiments; no one had the chance to. After their deaths, his father shut down the camp. Dad didn’t even bury their bodies or order someone to cover it up. He didn’t have to.

He blew up the world the next day.

Those memories stayed. Whispers joined them. You did wrong, boy. You’re gonna die. How does it feel? We trusted you, accepted your whiney ass. Why? You didn’t have to do it. You didn’t need to do it. They were voices of those dead men, wraiths, and monsters—jumbled words from things without mouths. Brink felt his forehead pour with sweat. They shouted at him. Why did you do it! How is one little boy’s life equal to millions of dead people! The voices shrilled altogether in a high pitched yell. They screamed about how he took everything away. He did. He did take everything away. Graham lost more than he had.

You’re going to die, BOY!!!!!!

Brink looked over his shoulder. His fingers trembled at the thought of his own demons as he pressed the door. The elevator refused to go down faster. His panic forced him to press the red down arrow over and over again. He heard footsteps behind him: the flat sounds of bare feet and bone. He looked down, and even the floor shifted into a mesh of red human meat and organs. The walls and doors were gone, leaving only muscle bare faces as sick wallpaper against dirty windows. His mind created monsters in the night. Lightning flashed through the dirty windows and a silhouette stood in the hallway. He opened his mouth to speak, to yell, to plead.

More shapes loomed outside, more dead spectating through the glass.

Every part of him hoped it was Halo in that doorway.

No. It wasn’t his brother. What stood in the corridor was much shorter and void of hair. It loomed with its whitened flesh, tendrils of muscles pouring from any opening they could. Maggots slapped on the ground every time it moved. The flashes of lightning gave sight to the tattered remains of their Marine uniform, rotten and asymmetrical. Brink shook his head. The apparition approached, hulking as though its back was broke and breathing horrid green gas. The footsteps grew louder, pat after pat. Faintly, Brink heard the elevator coming down. Still it wasn’t fast enough.

“You’re not real, none of this is real,” he told himself. His fear swallowed his words, allowing only whispers. “You’re dead.”

He knew it was Graham. The look in his eyes, those pale eyes glowing in hell’s playground, possessed a hate only a betrayed knew. Ever since that day, the hallucinations had always been Graham. In his nightmares, he saw him. In his daydreams, he saw him. He recognized him as the voice in his head, the one that sung him doubts. Brink feared to even close his eyes with the thought that the man would rip through his lids.

“You’re gone. You’re gone. You’re dead,” he told himself back to the elevator. “You can’t even get in here. You’re gone.”

The nightmare raised its head, breathing. “But am I?”

Bing.

Reflexes alone spurred Brink’s body to flee into the open door. He huffed, eyes red from tears and nose covered in the slime of yellow mucus. He looked back to the hallway to see that the horrendous images were gone. A sigh of relief rippled in his lungs as he took steps back. Goosebumps rolled up his arms and he felt cold. Somehow the steel walls of the elevator felt safe. The light inside was bright, only showing his face in the reflections. The door closed. From there he rose up and up, sobbing madly on the way. I’m a mess, he thought.

The whispers responded: You deserved to be.

Another ring notified him of his stop.

He did better going out than going in. Brink took small deliberate steps forward. All the energy drained from his arms and legs. The only thing that kept him moving was the thoughts of taking these boots off and a warm bed. Nightmares were going to follow him. He just wanted to be comfortable when they did. A few more steps. Mouthing the words made it easier. When did he get so tired? Right, around about the time my mind shut down from guilt.

Brink found his door in a blurred haze. His fingers grasped his door’s handle before his mind registered it. The locked door didn’t give way. Frustrated, Brink glared at the door. Though his body slowed down to a sluggish pace, his mind still raced. Instinct drove him to his key card. Instinct opened the door. Finally, instinct took the final steps in.

The room was dark, rain patted against the window, and lightning streaked bright flashes. He managed to get his boots off at least before falling into the bed. Tonight his fears came in droves. Jaden, the Marines, and Cassandra all came to mind. His subconscious wanted—needed— to sleep now. His eyes wouldn’t allow it. On the window sill, on the far side of the room, he saw a maggot crawl from one end to the other.

Brink never wished for morning to break faster than he did that night.

_

Ragnar let himself be just a little proud of his preparations. Dissention sowed easier in soft ground. In a way, a twisted sort of way, this was thanks to Sheriff’s aid. When people see a storm on their horizons, they looked for a way out. Ragnar became that for them. He managed to breakthrough to some of the enthralled slaves, freed some of the prisoners, and convinced some of the lower soldiers to his regime. Now, all it took was a single opportunity.

He searched for it since this little plan started, lying in wake like a snake.

A few things weren’t quite perfect, specifically a single person’s existence. If not removed, there was going to be some issues. Ragnar played the scenarios over in his head. He kept his mind sharp with a chessboard and puzzles; his physical body too stayed ready. He may never want to touch a gun. But, he made sure that he had some on his side this time. Everything was coming together. He liked that. He liked that a lot.

He wanted to scream out his glee. There’s a time and place for that, he told himself every time.

Ragnar took the role of a loyal dog. Conjurer personally wanted his services. There he was. Elena and Amy spoke hot words to Conjurer. They wanted to kill everyone here and take the slots for themselves Ragnar withheld his laugh at that. Everyone was planning awful under the same roof. Still, he might not have realized that his own wives were acting more brazen than usual. With Ancestors fighting wars on every front and Conjurer too busy plotting, they forgot that matches can be set in their own home.

“There’s a time and place for everything!” Conjurer said in a muffled voice. Ragnar strained to hear it. “It takes planning, execution, and resources. I still don’t have the people to handle the Father, despite knowing a weakness. With that other little mind reader around, I can’t be too sure. For now, we will wait. Bring Ragnar in. I need a word with him.”

Ragnar heard one of the women get up and approached the door. It was easy to act like he wasn’t listening. Stand straight, stare forward, and continue to walk back and forth as though programmed. People tend to forget that bodyguards aren’t robots if they don’t show that they’re human. Elena was the one that opened the door. He looked into her grey crystalized eyes. Even his wives were under the control of his potions. Or at least Conjurer thought they were. “Master wants to see you.”

She didn’t even wait to see his reaction.

Ragnar followed her into the room. Exotic smells doused his senses, leaving him discombobulated for a few seconds. He didn’t recognize every fragrance, but the smells of rot and blood he knew. Stepping through the purple curtains and beads gave away to a large room. Thick leather bound books laid sprawled on the floor. Studies of human capabilities and anatomy mixed in seamlessly with literature of old legends and myths. Vials of opaque liquids of greens and blacks line the shelves where the books should be. The more he looked around, the more it felt like he tripped into some warlock’s lair. A green light hovered in the middle of the room. Herbs and vines hung on the walls, kept company by the bones of animals and humans. Whatever he practiced in here was beyond vile, bordering the occult.

Conjurer reclined in a lofty cushion chair. He wore a purple, black, and silver robe this time. His long skeletal fingers of his only hand held a long beaker at the neck. Still, he splashed the contents from one side to the other in a very casual motion. An unsettling glow settled in the glass. “Take a seat. I needed a quick talk before bed and I’ve heard interesting things about you, Ragnar.”

“You have, have you?” Ragnar said stone-faced. You aren’t scaring me, even if you do know. The people he employed had no love for Conjurer. Hate bounded men to loyal actions better than loyalty itself sometimes. “What did you hear?”

“I heard that you were once a doctor, a surprising enough tale to be sure. But I had to hear it from your mouth.”

“I was. Proving it now would be difficult, but I was nevertheless.”

“I’ll take you at your word.” Conjurer tapped his fingers on the side of his beaker. “Health and medicine is a wondrous thing. Don’t you agree? Knowing how the mind and body works on a purely scientific level always been amusing to me. Even when I was sick.” He sipped some of the thick liquid in the flask. “That’s how I developed the chemicals that made you giant, made men grow fur, and raise them from the dead. All because I refused to die and the human body had so much untapped potential. I only scraped the surface of it. There are people with far more power than you can know.”

By a small talk, you meant time to gloat, I see.

“You could have saved millions with your breakthrough,” Ragnar found himself saying.

“See this is why I figured that I’ll enjoy your company for a moment. You have some morals left under that barbaric exterior. You see, I didn’t research medicine for anyone else. I researched medicine for me, to further myself. There’s no better puzzle than a human. Look around. Look at all the monsters that this one Dr. Frankenstein created. See of the new possibilities. Yes, with my actions I might have stunted scientific progress for a moment. A fair trade in the long term. Imagine the people in the future. Imagine the thousands that might prosper. It was no mistake that people like you were born from this shattering. I made sure it would happen.”

“That sounds like a man who fancies himself a god.”

“The only god.”

Ragnar began to loath him more than even the Drifter. He cracked a smirk underneath his bush of a beard. “That’s how you have these people under your control. Your will. Something dealing with those chemicals. They aren’t awake and hardly alive. Their manipulated in that state, like their under hypnotism. It’s clever.” As long as you keep them with a steady supply, I found. With some IVs and some medical equipment, it was easy to wane the addiction you placed on them.

“You don’t know the half of it. Ever wondered how I got such a powerful thing to work.”

“I have.”

“You’ve noticed that girl, Celine?”

“I have.”

“You noticed that her powers, as well as the rest of the high end of the Ancestral bloodline have a different level of skills than anyone else.”

Ragnar felt his body go numb. I’ve heard.

“You see it. They weren’t my products, they were products of nature. I just reproduced them.”

That made sense. Without a base, these things couldn’t have happened. Every living thing responded to this experiment. Anything that didn’t died. That was how he changed the world. That was what happened.

“I see it in your eyes. You appreciate my work. No one else here seems to realize my greatness. The man behind the end of the world and defiler of death.”

“I see.”

You don’t realize my plan, do you? You just gave me the key. If the man’s head wasn’t in the clouds, he might have noticed that he had no cards in his hand. His people, his resources, his pull, slipped from under him. Conjurer thought he was standing on a rug, where he only stood in the dirt underneath his house. Security was a funny thing. It kept people warm at night, so warm that people never noticed when they didn’t have it. “I should be going, sir. I enjoyed our time.”

“I like you, Ragnar. You’re interesting enough to keep me amused. Come by sometime.”

I will. He only said those words in his mind. What Conjurer wanted to see was a nod and a bow. Ragnar performed that role admirably.

13

The Tenth

All the players accepted their role in this twisted play. They know their lines and more importantly, they know their place.”

Celine stole away in the dark of night as a phantom. She stood on a steep precipice where the land gave way to a dark pit. A constant shower of dirt and broken concrete leaked over the edge, eating away at the amount of land left. The sunlight-colored shield shimmered overhead. Her eyes caught the brilliant lights above her that bounced rainwater off of their bellies like a windshield of a car. Each droplet met a different demise against the light, breaking apart in shatters. Humans are mostly water. Would they do the same, burst into a million pieces? She imagined the thought using herself as a base, as gruesome as it was. She was already breaking apart anyway.

I’m not the only broken thing here. I might get lonely if I was. She sat on the blacken concrete of a once thriving parking lot, legs over the edge. Some cars were still there, old rusted things with gutted interiors and batteries. Plants vined their way through the hoods, linking them together in a nest of ancient time. It amazed her how age crept up on things, broke them and made them weak. Was she going to shatter until nothingness remained? She already felt her cracks. Brink—no, her little brother then—had already seen them. Even the crystal on her neck was giving way to the small fissures.

I shouldn’t have done that. I broke down in front of him with my crystal only an arm’s length away. Words tumbled from her mouth. Words she soon regretted. She felt fine before. That swiftly changed. She screamed. She shouted. She cried, even after he left or stood at the door thunder-shocked. Hours later, the bags underneath her eyes still quaked with hurt. No one heard. Thankfully….

“I haven’t seen your face in ages.”

The voice startled her. Halo approached her staring up to the stars. He always had his head up there. Celine imagined that his wife never got any sleep from the wild ideas that popped in his head. “Sorry that I’ve been away for so long.” She tugged his pants legs to stop him from falling off the edge. He was never the type to look forward; again, he was too busy looking up.

He’s not going to ask questions. The fact that I’m here is enough. Celine didn’t know how to feel about that. Being oblivious versus being suspicious was two different beasts her brothers caged. Both, in her case, ripped out throats of the people she loved.

“Ah, I didn’t miss you that much, Cass. Don’t get so mushy.”

Celine smiled. He only said that when he did miss her a lot. “You sure? Who else is going to keep your head straight? You did almost fall off a cliff.”

“I can’t fall even if I tried,” Halo said in mock indignation.

“Doesn’t mean you should just walk off cliffs. But answer my question. Has anyone been keeping you sane?”

“Sure ain’t my wife. She drives me up the wall. You’ll think something as big as the end of the world would stop a woman nagging over silly things.”

“Maybe you should listen sometime. We ladies tend to use our brains more than you men believe it or not.” Celine winked causing Halo to burst into a fit of laughter.

“Alright, alright. God. I don’t need my sister scorning me too over stupid shit.”

They shared a laugh at that and looked up at the stars together. A pang of guilt touched her heart. I’m going to have to hurt you too, Hal. She rubbed the crystal on her chest, carefully avoiding Halo’s sight. Her thumb ran against every crack, feeling as though they might cut through her skin. You can stop now, a voice deep within her said. You can stop and rebuild this world with your family. The possibility is there. Walk away and you’ll be happy. You may not be truly happy, but you’ll be happy.

No. She told herself. She needed to see this through. No matter the cost.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Halo looked so confused at the statement. His brow creased and he formed the most pathetic frown. “I’m not sure why I deserved an apology,” he said, forcing his legs into a cross legged stance. “It’s nothing to apologize for. We can’t live life saying sorry all the time. If we did, we wouldn’t be able to say anything else.” He began to hover inches above the ground. Even Celine forgot that the person before him was just a reconstruction. His real body, being a Formless, was nothing more than shimmering lights of blues. He had come so far since the first time his powers manifested in his younger years. “We can’t change what happened. We can just live life.”

“I know we can’t change anything. I’m just working on the damage.”

“Stop thinking so much.”

“Not everyone can look up and not forward, big bro. I’m heading back to bed.”

“Alrighty then.” Halo gave a single armed hug, still refusing to let gravity work its proper way on him. “Sleep well sis. If you need a story, just ask.”

“I will…” Celine choked.

That hurt.

That hurt a lot. She remembered the nights where Mom and Dad went to work; she, Phillip, and Hal were alone. Halo was what they called him, first by accident and later on purpose. He liked it so much; he used it in all his video game gamer tags. He tucked them in, told them stories he wrote. Hal Kingsley went on to become a self-taught children illustrator due to those nights. Those nights also brought hopes for them as impressionable young children. You told me I can be anything. How am I going to repay you for your love? With a knife in the back.

Gathering the tattered cloak around herself, she stood up. Strength surged through her as she put the memories away. I’ll end this. There weren’t any need for tears. Without unwavering resolve, she won’t be able to save anyone. She hugged her hovering brother again and pecked him on the cheek. Then she was off.

She entered through the back door of “The Den”. It wasn’t as illustrious as the front, but had far less ears. Everyone listened now, the servants the most. Many of the Ancestors paid it no heed and clouds blinded Conjurer from seeing it. Celine was a fresh set of eyes, she knew when people listened. They were gaining their independence back. Ragnar. That man wants something. He was in a good position, a giant hiding in the shadows. But, what did he want? Did she need to stop it?

Continuing through the pipe ridden back corridor, something caught Celine’s eye. Something took a liking to the darkness. A cloth of white fluttered through the abyss. Someone laughed. She waited for the sound again. Only the sounds of water from the leaking pipes and airy drafts met her ears in this narrow path. No footsteps though besides her own. Taking a deep breath, she reached her mind out instead of focusing just on her eyes.

Nothing drew her attention at first. The more she looked, the more she felt that familiar pull of her mind. She felt a difference in this one though. Where the Messenger’s pulled her in relentlessly to the point that she felt herself slipping, this one nudged her. Come to me. The allure felt beautiful like familiar notes in a song that she never would tire of. Celine yanked herself away. The desire to come back was there. A siren’s song was the last thing a sailor heard, didn’t make it any less gorgeous. “Who’s there?” she shouted out, determined not to crash her ship—her mind—into a rocky cliff.

“Mistress Celine,” a woman’s voice responded. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

A woman stepped out of the shadows. She wore the white servant dress of Conjurer’s litter. Though it held tears and tatters, it still draped her shoulders with grace. Celine didn’t see much of her face in this milky darkness. She did see the flaming red hair tumbling down the woman’s neck. Celine recognized her as the servant girl beside Ragnar when she returned. “Why were you expecting me…?”

“Lysandra. You may call me Lysandra.”

“You were expecting me, Lysandra?”

“Of course. I’m here to give you a message.” Her voice held high and beautiful sounds, wrapped in innocence. No one was innocent anymore. “Do you care to hear it now? I’m afraid that I cannot give you any more time but the present to acquire the information.” Though she spoke in an almost robotic tone, Celine recognized something. She was…acting? An actress can always point out one of their own.

“I don’t have much of a choice then, do I?” Celine said.

“You have the choice not to hear it, which is a completely valid one if you chose to do so.”

Celine wished that Lysandra said it in a mocking tone. That would have been much more enjoyable to tear apart. With the way she gave it now stirred some guilt. She’s good. Passiveness under the guise of a choice gave people the implication they weren’t being manipulated. “What’s your message for me?”

“I’m here to advise you that you and Brink should leave to dispatch the Messengers tomorrow morning.”

“What?”

“I’m advising you to leave tomorrow morning.” Lysandra repeated the words with nothing in her voice. She was paper and her voice the memo.

“I understand that.” Something about the way she said it bothered her. “But why?”

Lysandra clasped her hands in front of her body. The darkness gave away to a bit of light from an opening of a window, enough to show the woman’s small face. Her expression showed a pinnacle of serenity. That was until she opened her eyes. Dull, empty eyes, void of light, stared back at her. Pain settled in them, deep rooted from these years. She fought many battles, but not in the way that the Messengers or the Sheriff fought theirs. “Are you trustworthy?”

Celine felt her brain swimming in pain. The song. The song. “Excuse me?”

“Are you trustworthy, Mistress Celine? Tell me that you are and I’ll tell you what you want.”

Lies danced on her lips. You know what you’re doing to your family. You’re going to betray them. So, why even bother trying to lie about this? Why would anyone trust you? “No,” she said. There was no need to lie. She already did it enough for today.

The pain dissolved as the truth came out.

“That’s a shame.” Lysandra seemed…disappointed. “Then my message is done. Please leave tomorrow. Take Brink with you and go ahead with your plan.” She bowed and began to leave.

“One question.” The presence of the world dropped thick with cold, like somehow she was thrown into a freezer. Icy tendrils of wind tore through her clothes and chilled her skin. . Mixed smells of winter and spring winds assaulted her nose, carrying flowers and snow. She refused to show her chills or her weakness. I don’t know what you are. You aren’t just a servant. “Who gave you this message?”

The red-haired woman lowered her gaze. “I can’t tell you that. By your own words, you aren’t trustworthy. Of course, I’ll meet you with honesty. It’s not a good idea to trust me. Just listen to me this once; you’ll want to leave by tomorrow morning.”

_

The morning sun rose and the gears of her plan turned. Trusting Lysandra happened over night. And, in a paradox, it didn’t. Doubt settled in her gut about the topic. How was she going to convince them to make a move now? The key was in her worry. Celine began the moment she entered from the presidential suites to the main den. Acting the part came easier than expected. A frown settled in the once hard line of her mouth. She kept her eyes to the floor and took small steps to the table. Samson’s expression worked wonders to help. His more legitmate reaction to the plans sudden change was something she banked on.

Samson pulled her seat out for her. She fell into it with her hands in her lap. No one talked since the moment that she entered. Brink sat beside her, Halo in front, and their mother beside him. She hadn’t seen a better seat in the movie theaters or an ending run of musical chairs. Celine didn’t care for getting Conjurer’s line of sight, he was practically on her side to begin with if she assumed correctly.

“What’s wrong, dear?” Mary spoke soft, a whisper in the hollow world.

“It’s nothing.” Celine reflexively looked towards Samson in a worried glance. He returned it, he didn’t have to act. “Just…I’ve heard news that the Sheriff has made a move.”

The air sucked itself out of the room’s patrons. Brink turned pale, Halo gritted his teeth, and Mary held her hand to her mouth.

“How do you know this?” her mother asked.

“I have a spy that managed to infiltrate the Messenger camp. I told him not to act unless Sheriff makes a move. It’s a tough call.” The tale held some truth; Celine possessed a web of spies under her command. Just this time, it happened not to be her spies. Hermes leaked information to her through a mental link that he opened and closed at will. She wondered how many people that man talked to get information from one place to another. “He’s at the Rupture.”

“The Rupture, like here, in the Dark Rainlands?” Halo’s face told the story for the rest of the people.

“We always knew he was close after Lance’s death,” Brink said in a tired voice of a man whose sleep never involved much sleeping. Coffee was hard to come by in this world, even with the endless resources of the Ancestors. Somehow, he managed to scrounge up a cup. “We just didn’t know how close. This city is dangerous enough as it is. To put patrols on the Rupture, the Gulch, and the Blacks would be hard. ” He yawned. “It’s already difficult to get footing in those places.”

Phillip. You’re off your game. There are so many flaws here. Where did I get this information? Why aren’t you fighting? Celine disliked this. She didn’t expect a trick; her brother was too busy falling apart to fight this battle.

“That’s a very dangerous place to hold up. Sheriff is putting his people in danger.” Brink sipped his coffee. His eyes looked so lost despite his cool demeanor.

“It’s not his people,” Celine corrected. “The Messengers as a group is commandeered by a woman named Anima. Sheriff is their lead…executioner.” Flashes of the executions ran fresh in her mind. “He just uses them for the sake of resources from what I understand.”

“Ah, that’s very useful information”

I figured that you would like that, Mom. “Capturing or killing her might be difficult. She is flanked by a Formless mutant, Tlaloc. I don’t know her particular power either. It’s something that blocks my memory and mind demon powers on her or her subjects.”

“They have a Formless? Like me.” In classic Halo fashion, he showed off. With just a flick of his wrist, his hand dissolved into a blue mass of crackling plasma. Mary gave him one sharp glance and he put it away. “What can he turn into?”

“You sound way too excited about an enemy, dear,” her mother retorted. He did. He sounded like he just made a best friend.

“It’s cool! I haven’t seen another one like me. Everyone else has seen someone like them!”

“He’s water,” Celine said, entertaining his excitement.

“Awwww. That’s awesome!”

“What are you? Five?” Brink snapped.

“You know how old I am, bro.”

Somehow, he lightened the mood. Celine didn’t know how he did it, but he did. Halo fist bumped Samson across the table, who seemed much more relaxed now. They were similar people. Maybe that was why Celine held a certain fondness for both of them. I’m going to hurt you, Hal. I’m going to hurt everyone here. Celine swallowed her pride and darkened the room’s mood again.

“They’re preparing something at the chasm. I’ve already set the net. All we have to do is catch the fish.”

“I have a question.”

Everyone turned to Conjurer. Stroking his beard with thin fingers, he rose like a king. He fit the part well. Once upon a time, his appearance caught women’s eyes. Now, all Celine could see was the vileness. A wreath of bones and rope dangled from his neck. In this world, his experiments continued. Most of his resources used technology that no longer worked. That didn’t stop his ambition. “My dear, Celine, you proposed a thrilling trap. Anything that’s good, takes time. Why would we push up the timetable?”

The question caught her by surprise. She was sure that Conjurer would be on her side. “This is a rare opportunity. We’ll have the environmental advantage.”

“But why now? I’m just curious. This seems to be a very, very quick change. I don’t wish you or Brink a perilous trip on a simple misstep.” Conjurer walked around the table, his robes flowing behind him. He stopped on his heel behind Celine. “What’s in this for you? I know that look more than anyone. You may fake it to everyone else, but I see it. The Messengers, the Ancestors, Drifter’s Caravan, this world,” he ran his fingers down her hair. “What does it mean to you? What do you want? You’re so smart and your power,” Conjurer lowered his hand around her neck, “has so much potential. You can rule this world if you wanted to. What do you want? What do you want?”

He touched her hair. “Tell me what you want…”

She had enough.

Celine whipped her body around in a flash, seizing the man’s wrist. “Don’t touch me like I’m one of your dolls!” She didn’t care how it looked. This man, this creep, will not touch her and pretend that this was okay. “You should know a lot about opportunity. Isn’t that how you got here?” Her other hand formed a long sword of pure white energy, a pure figment of her mind and everyone’s around her. She put the tip to Conjurer’s forehead. “This blade can remove everything about you. Don’t every touch me. Ever!”

“I understand.” Conjurer rewarded himself an exhale. “Now, everyone, put your weapons away.”

Everyone made obvious efforts to settle down. Samson and Brink lowered their guns. Halo’s upper body turned back to normal flesh. Even Mary, the Mother, withdrew her powers. She rarely used them in comparison to everyone else and perhaps no one saw it. Celine didn’t even know she activated it until her eyes glossed back from violet to her normal color. Family, regardless of the situation, still ran deep.

“I…apologize if I offended.”

Celine looked around the room, her weapon still fresh in her hands. She dispersed her sword, and then threw his wrist away as though it was contaminated. She took her seat again with no expression. “To answer your question,” she lowered her voice to a civil level, “Sometimes you have to make choices.” She touched Brink’s hand, feeling the coarseness of his palms. His hands were always dry. “Sometimes we have to make decisions far faster than we planned. I’m only willing to do this if Brink is willing to. I’m only providing Samson and myself to the attack. It’s his soldiers that will create the offense. So, how about it? Are you willing to take this risk to deal a preemptive blow on the Messengers, Phillip?”

You can’t say no now, can you? In her heart of hearts, she wanted him to deny it. The scene played out in her head; her plan would be thwarted. That will be fine, a part of her hidden in the dark said. You don’t want this; they stuck up for you and everything just then—

No. I won’t think about that.

“I’m willing to go now,” Brink said in a resounding fashion. She saw the pain in his eyes, those beaten sleepless eyes. He knew something was wrong. But, did he care? How far has he gone down the steps of hell to get to this point? “It’s either now or never.” He rose and left the table with his heavy boots pounding against the tiles. “I’m going to make preparations. Meet me outside and tell your informant to stay low.”

She watched him go. Everyone watched him go.

“I have preparations to attend to as well.”

Celine excused herself from the meeting, pushing pass the still livid Conjurer. She paid him no mind. Her feet carried her to follow Brink. He moved too fast for her, his slumped form disappearing into the distance. She didn’t expect the convincing to be so easy. Resignation came to mind. A pitiful thing it was to see. No matter how fast she walked, Brink was gone. He was gone in more than one way. His pride drove him to never stop fighting though. A question begged in her head: would her pride carry her so far?

_

Freedom came in the form of a woman, all alone, with sunlight colored hair. Mystic’s fingers threaded string after string upon the shield above them, as she did every day. She created this cage. As beautiful as it was, it still served its purpose. Ragnar smiled as he stood and watched her. Usually, she wasn’t alone. She, like all people, enjoyed her privacy. Tonight was a gift from something, the devil that watched over him. If she would to escape, his new army would be stuck here. No food and water after a while. Cannibalism wasn’t beneath him, but even the supply of people would run out. In short, she needed to die.

She was someone’s wife though. That tugged at his heart strings. His body froze in the doorway as his mind froze in a thought. The better man, the doctor and husband, still gave him trouble. Putting it aside during the planning stages came easier than expected. Liberating the slaves, helping the prisoners, and convincing the guards made him feel like a hero rather than a monster. Every path he walked led back to villainy.

He took some steps forward. No the doctor wasn’t needed here. The husband was dead without his wife. Words were wind and there were no more chains to break. An animal needed his pack; one created out of pure loyalty and love for him. The sweetness of the thought danced on his tongue. He found a grin deep within himself. The destruction of kings and gods. The destruction of kings and gods.

Mystic turned around startled, hearing his massive footsteps. He wanted her to hear. Ragnar opened his arms, showing that he didn’t have a weapon—at least visibly so. She shook her head. “Oh, Ragnar, was it? I wasn’t expecting company. It’s pretty hard to concentrate on this shield every day. It’s nice having a distraction from time to time.”

“Yes, I understand that,” Ragnar enjoyed the sound of her voice, it was sweet. He smiled a warm smile. “I needed some air.”

“Ah I understand. We all need some air sometimes. Mystic produced another glimmering wave of light from her hand.

“Your demon power is dazzling. I used to write poetry and paint. It almost brings back those feelings.” It did, honestly and true, it did. The love of art had a separate grave in his heart. Perhaps I’ll learn to paint in a different way. With a different easel….and paper. The taste of pure victory and dominance washed itself on the walls of his mouth. Caution first. Her guard wasn’t down.

“Funny how our powers manifested,” Mystic smiled. “It’s like something deep inside of us awakened, something always sleeping. Humans were meant for much more. I knew that when I met Hal. I feel like we—as people—finally awoke from a sleep that haunted us for years.”

“Indeed, it awoke the best and the worse in humans. We are an evolving race—whether it’s by divine will or science, I cannot say. But we evolve. We grow.”

“Everyone is right about you. You’re talented and smart, and a mutant I reckon. You could own your own territory in this land if you wanted to. Why are you here?”

For that reason actually. Night after night, he thought about it in the small room they gave him. It had a bed, a window, and some tables. They provided food for him from straps to full meals depending on the time of day. Yes, anywhere within the building was free to him. It didn’t make it any less of a prison. Funny how such a little thing as bars—regardless of the material—changed a room into a dungeon. He nodded, ignoring her question. “I’m a mutant, yes. I’m like an animal with the hide and jaw of a beast.”

“Interesting. Were you a big man before?”

“Yeah. Not this big, but big enough to make people uncomfortable. It amazed people that I moved and operated so well at my size.” Nothing changed, of course. Making incisions came easy to him. He thumbed a knife in his pocket. Incisions always came easy. He gave a smile. “Do you regret anything, Mrs…?”

“Millie. People call me Millie. And I regret a lot of things.”

“Can you name one for me? I have so many that I couldn’t start.”

“I regret that Hal and I can’t have a normal family in this world. Just us and a child. We tried. I just couldn’t. We went to so many doctors and we were both healthy. Just…it never worked out. Now, it never will.”

Ragnar pulled her in for a hug. It’s something that he knew. The embrace surprised her. She was already tearing up. Tears burned in his eyes as well. Every night he thought about his wife’s child and thought about her. No matter how long they waited, a child never came. When it did, this world ripped them away from him. That pain he learned to bear. “I regret that too.”

He slit her stomach open.

Mystic didn’t feel it at first. The cold metal slid across her belly, as clean of a wound as any. She looked at the wound, red staining through her shirt and dripping on the ground. Her hands quaked as she slid down his body. Ragnar held her chin up. Life drained from her as she tried to speak. “H—Ha—“ she lost the name in her mouth. She fell, crashing into the black asphalt with tears down her face. Many times this scene played out before him. Never before was a death so beautiful.

The shield around them broke in pieces. Bit by bit it fell like the shattering of a stain glass window against a giant rock. It tumbled down, breaking from the center and down the sides. The real sunlight above filtered through the thick clouds. The day was so dark and grey still. Water came down, touching the den and its patrons for the first time. He was free. That wasn’t even the best part.

“Lysandra!” He bellowed.

Lysandra stepped from the doorway as Ragnar laid the corpse of Mystic on the ground. She approached him with her hands in her lap. She took a deep breath of fresh air. He expected a smile on her face, yearned for it even. It reminded him of Lauren. They held so many similarities and so many differences. He just wanted to see if the smile was the same. No, he prayed that the smile was the same.

“Ragnar,” she whispered. “How many unborn children are you going to kill to survive? She didn’t even know. Maybe she would’ve found out tonight.”

She sounded different. Ragnar turned around to view her. Her shape undulated. He went to touch her and all he felt was air. She smiled. It wasn’t like Lauren’s; no, it was a vile smile of a brutal trick. She touched him back and he felt the chill of winter and the warmth of summer. Her hair, once red, turned gold. The shape of her small frame transformed into a more womanly figure, as did her face. The white dress wasn’t even real; it too dissolved into the air to the point that an only long green cloth covered her body. A nymph. She was a nymph. “You’re such a diligent beast. Only if you used your nose, maybe you would’ve caught me. But it’s hard when the person speaking looks so similar to your wife.”

She stabbed him in the stomach with the ease of butter with only her hand. It didn’t feel like flesh at all that cut through him. He was a twig in a hurricane. A Formless of wind. He knew how Mystic felt moment much like how Mystic looked. “How? W-who sent you here? W-why would you?”

Lysandra pulled her hand from his stomach. “I should thank you. You’ve done so much for me and my friends.”

“Who. Sent. You?”

“That would be me.”

Wood stepped from the alley, over a small ridge of cars in the broken garage. He wore a smirk that reached so high that his eyes squinted with joy. They had the same smile that a mentor and a student shared. Ragnar never knew that evil could be taught. “You look surprised. You were our most important player. I couldn’t have done this without you. We managed to find your sketchbook, thanks to Heron, Crisum, and Tyrus. Lysandra wouldn’t have known who to mimic if you didn’t draw so well.”

The green devil walked forward, revealing the other eight men behind him. Ragnar saw the Drifter with him. This time, though, he couldn’t blame him. This was all Wood’s doing; he knew it the moment that he saw him. “I’m the monster that you didn’t know was under your bed. Reckon it’s been a pleasure.” Lysandra went to his side as though she never left.

“Ain’t no fun if you die though” Ragnar heard with Wood say. His vision slowly dimmed and their forms began disappearing into the dark. “Drifter still has plans for you.”

They laughed. Lysandra, the Drifter, Wood, they laughed harder and harder as he slipped into unconsciousness. All he ever wanted was to be happy. Why did they always have to take it away?

14

Den of Wolves

When a wolf and its pack smell blood, they follow the scent until they soaked their paws in red and filled their stomachs to bursting. They are the ultimate opportunist and the best hunters all wrapped up in one.”

Wood knew the part of him that he kept buried for so long would dig its way out of the grave. The nails of his vile thoughts dug through the mental dirt, through the better person. It felt nice. He never thought to feel this way again. The first time, he remembered how clumsy he was. He thought of his sweaty palms, fumbling with the sharp knife in his hand. Improvising saved him those days. The reward tempted him to want more. A fixation to the blood that came next forced him to learn the craft. This wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t know how to take mistakes into account. Now, he knew better and the reward came easier.

He also knew to restrain his joy whilst halfway through the deed. Some men of his caliber pranced to their targets. Other stalked. Wood walked, walked like there wasn’t a soul in the room. Nine other people flanked him. They were responsible for their parts, even his Uncle to his right and Lysandra, his student, to his left. Everyone knew to let him indulge in his alone time; everyone knew he cherished his moments.

They walked through the hallways from the back entrance, through various storage wings. Back here, the building didn’t have to look pretty. White walls, metal pipes, and brown doors surrounded them. Scents of old dust and mold rubbed harshly against his nose. The only real color was in the rust and the blood that Ragnar left behind during his plan. Soldiers slumped in the corner, their portions of their faces and bodies red meat on the floor. Ragnar bludgeoned them to death in corners, heads smashed in by that weapon of his. Wood liked his style, not enough to leave him as a loose end though. Drifter disagreed. It was his idea to not kill him.

“Why did you want to keep him again,” Wood asked.

Drifter, blind eyes covered by his veil of wet white hair, smiled. Wood hated looking at those eyes. They marked a moment where his guard dropped. He knew that, despite not being able to see his nephew’s face. The darkness suited him. That was the words he used. No more color, no more sight, only purpose. “He’s like you,” he said in a whisper. “With a little guidance…he’ll become useful to us.”

Wood accepted it. “Do you think you can…you know fight in this condition.“

Drifter toyed with the thought. “Not as well as I used to, I’m afraid. But, every soul makes a sound. You need us. Trust in your plan and just enjoy it.”

“Yes,” Lysandra agreed. “Just trust in us.” She had her arms around both of the McLanahan brothers. She adored both of them. That attraction was one of the reasons that they got the Territory Lord of the Swamp on this mission. They didn’t seem to mind sharing their fondness over this one woman. Wood didn’t know if he found that disturbing or amusing. Right now, that didn’t matter. His own disturbing thoughts needed entertaining.

“Lysandra, anything else we need to know?” Wood asked.

“No,” she thought about it again for a moment, “Celine just left with Brink in the morning, heading to the Rupture as we speak. The rest should be having dinner around this time. Lovely things of habit they are.” Lysandra giggled.

“So, we’re going to ruin their dinner plans,” Haggis huffed. “That’s sorta unfair.”

“Don’t act like they don’t deserve it,” his brother interrupted. “Besides, dinner plans get interrupted all the time. We are just being rude house guests.”

Lysandra tapped both of her red beasts on the cheek. “They do deserve it, dearies. Regardless of how fair or unfair this may be.”

They did, Wood knew that so did everyone else. After the dubbed Moonlight Manslaughter and then River’s attack on Whitewater Crossing, they did deserve it. Like all those people that he killed in the past. Justifying it didn’t make it any better. A man may tell himself its right until his face turned blue and his tongue crumbled to dust in their mouth. That didn’t make the act itself okay. They deserve it; they don’t deserve a happy ending.

A single door gave way to a more lavish looking wing. This was the lobby; he saw that it was on Lysandra’s face. Everyone prepared their guns and Crisium threw off her jacket. Wood debated whether he wanted to transform as well. No. Not yet, he wanted to see their faces first. A memory dug on the surface. A sense of satisfaction dawned on him. Yes. He’ll wait until the last second for this.

“Harodo,” Wood said, eyeing the man from the corner of his eye. “Ain’t you going to take point?’

Heron giggled as the Hispanic man broke out in a sweat. She whispered something in his ear. His bronze skinned reddened even more, huffing all the while. Wood watched him take point. This wasn’t his first time. Drug lords didn’t start off as such. Wood just figured that he was the best for the job. Undermining the leadership at this point possessed certain consequences for him as well. Still having him up front made everyone feel better. “Why do I have to take point again?”

“Well, you did want to lead, didn’t you?” Heron mocked.

Tyrus gave him a bit of a push of encouragement. “You got this.”

“Of course he does, Ty,” Crisuim said. “He’s a badass motherfucker, remember?”

Harodo shuffled forward, his assault rifle in his hands. Bardon followed up next.

“Bard?” Drifter nudged him.

Bardon, quiet as a mouse, nodded. “Yes, Drifter,” vocalizing acknowledgement to his old friend.

“Revenge is a beautiful thing, isn’t she? May not bring what you want back, but she’s good enough,” Drifter grinned a bit wider, holding his nephew’s arm. “Ain’t that right, my boy?”

Wood cradled in revenge’s arms so many times that he forgot she wasn’t a person. She was a force, like the wind or the water that led to destruction. She pushed people to the darkest part of themselves. The woman known as vengeance existed separate from her sisters of love, joy, and happiness. They did touch though. Enjoying the revenge only led to wanting more. His next shot of this drug stood within a few more minutes. No one touched the things that he loved nor could they take them away.

“They should be just beyond those doors,” Lysandra told them. “So, do try to be quiet, will you dear? Don’t want to startle the little birds at dinner.”

Cautiously, Harodo stepped towards the door. Seconds belong to him and only him. Everyone else just waited. Wood saw his fear of the door, the normal coolness of his demeanor leaking from his brow. They didn’t agree on most things. One thing that they did agree on relied in a debt they needed to pay. Still, he crept to the door as though the brown door stopped the monsters in front of him instead of those behind him. Good, Wood mused. He soon found his courage. No doubt from the thought of his dead brother. Funny how we find hate in our love.

The door finally opened, bathing Harodo in an orange light. No one fired. No one noticed they were even there. They filed in, standing in the grandeur of the large lobby. It was nice. Wood never saw anything so artistic in his life. Sadly, he didn’t have time to absorb it all. There were people across the other side of the room, sitting at the dark wood table. Nothing was more beautiful than that.

A soldier burst in the front door, dripping in sweat and rain.

“The shield is down!” he shouted. He was just a little too late.

The members of the high council—at least that was what Wood assumed they were—straightened in fear. One man even stood up. They spoke in high tones, confused. They were too far away to hear anything else clearly. Guards and servants shifted on either side. Some of them raised weapons, not against the shades that entered the back door…but against their masters. Ragnar did a wonderful job. Maybe he does deserve to be alive after all this work.

“Hellllllo!!!!” Drifter sung to the room. Wood saw Conjurer and his wives get up, confused. Two high ranking members of the Ancestors, a man and a woman, wore crest fallen and milk white expressions. The man, no more than his early thirties with long blonde hair, shook for a moment. The man’s breaking expression resembled much like the husband of his last murder victim—his own father. He found joy in that. They realized what happened then.

“What did you do to Millie?” The man shouted across the room.

Wood didn’t respond with words but with a shrug. His band didn’t either. They responded with bullets.

Chaos ensued. Ragnar’s—or Lysandra’s—men starting firing as well on the men and women. A few fired back, but reacted too slow. Bullets smashed through the beauty, cracking vases, punching through tables, and shattering the chandelier above. The room dimmed down to a weak yellow. Glass cracked against the carpet, glass and skulls. People were dropping like flies.

Crisium jumped from the back line, howling above him with her crimson-black fur. Heron followed her, skin shimmering. The swordswoman blocked any oncoming bullets, helping anyone who needed to advance. Her weapon flashed, cutting through anyone in her way, leaving splashes of red and gore. Harodo, Tyrus, and Bardon followed them, shooting clip after clip. Wood stayed with the brothers, Drifter, and Lysandra at the rear. This wasn’t a battle, this was becoming a slaughter.

And such the slaughter waged on framed in shattered windows and broken furniture. Wood covered Drifter.hihihihihahahahahahahahahahahaha!” He was laughing hysterically at the whole battle. The experience must have been delightful to listen to. He managed to kill a few people that managed to get close without Wood’s guidance. Their brains exploded on his shirt. Gross.

Wood knocked over a nearby table for cover. The McLanahans followed up beside him.

One of them howled: “Conjurer’s getting away!” Wood couldn’t pin which one.

Drifter wiped saliva from his mouth. “We can’t allow that. Can you go get him?”

Wood peeked over the wood, almost earning a bullet between the eyes. “Yup. He’s getting away. Lysandra!”

“Allow me to escort you, Mr. Giroux.”Lysandra rose from the ground, a whirlwind as her legs. Bullets bounced in all directions upon hitting her. Those conflicting smells of winter and summer air swept the smell of death from the room. The Lord of the Swamp tossed a few men to the side, impaling them on sharp objects.

“Keep an eye out on—“

“Halo? The man’s a Formless,” she said in a calm interruption. “I’ve heard him mention it before. He won’t be able to keep his form for long. Too much stress and we lose our shape, sometimes for a long time. Ragnar killed his wife. That’s pretty stressful. “She giggled. “What a lovely way to kill two birds with one stone.

Wood hadn’t expected that. He knew of the Formless by Lysandra, but didn’t know that particular detail. Like any mutant, they had to transform. Formless did theirs backwards. The chemicals reacted in such a way in their body that they lost it all together. They learned to get it back. Wood didn’t know that they shield-barer was the Son of the Ancestor’s wife. He couldn’t control himself with that stress. This couldn’t have been better.

Their already brutal victory grew more decisive. The doors swung open revealing men, women, and children in tattered clothes. Each held weapons in their hand, taken from their captors. Lysandra waved them in. “Come now. We can’t get all this way to let all of them get away.”

They advanced through the shambles of a once beautiful room. Lysandra floated beside him, keeping the bullets away with her gusts. Out in the open provided an interesting sight of the Son and the other woman. She was crying out his name as he wept dry tears. Blue and violet energy snapped in the air, eating everything around them. The woman’s eyes managed to catch Wood’s face. Wood knew then that she was the Mother. I’ll ruin you. Over and over again.

“Hal! We need to go!” the Mother cried out. “You’ll kill yourself at this rate. Stop it! Hal! Stop!”

“I’m going to destroy them!”

“You can’t! Not now!” Mother looked at him with panicked eyes. “We have to leave! There’s nothing we can do without risking everything!”

Halo shook in his anger. He muttered sick things under his breath. “We’re leaving, hold on.” In a shaft of blinding light, they were gone. Wood hated to see them leave, but the Mother was powerful. Damien told him that. She couldn’t risk them seeing what she was all about without certainty of their death. The retreat was smart. They won for today…

Time to wrap this up. Wood ran into a sprint down the corridor where Conjurer was last seen.

The faint sounds of battle still rang in behind them. It was dying down. Before them was a death-like silence. Light from the setting sun crept in columns through the windows. Dust motes drifted in the air in hordes. Wood watched his shadow ran against door after door. Lysandra’s shadow didn’t seem half as solid as his own. I’ll hate to lose Conjurer like this. “Do y’know where he would’ve gone?” he asked Lysandra. Serving him for months brought certain routine. “Where would he go if he had to leave hella quick?”

“Hella quick?” she giggled.

“Yeah, hella quick!”

“I’ve never heard that used in an actual sentence.”

“Just tell me, Lysandra.”

“He would go to his room no matter what. He has too many things in there to leave behind. It’s the third one to your right from here.”

“Y’know, you could’ve told me sooner instead of having me run aimlessly. “

“What’s the fun in that?”

In a few more steps Wood started to hear bustling. He caressed the golden door knob. His fingers wrapped around it slowly. The feeling was back, the reward he always waited for. This time he didn’t have a weapon in his hand. My palms are dry. No more worrying about his skill No more fear of police at his heels. Can’t ask for no more, that’ll be a sin.

He opened the door, revealing a room in green light and purple curtains. Conjurer, Elena, and Amy all scrambled around the large room. They were packing, he observed as he leaned against the door’s frame. Wood’s right arm snapped and warped into the large, bestial mass of tentacles and muscles. The arm was almost the length of his body, three times over, dripping that potent acid on the floor. He wanted a full transformation more than this partial one. The space didn’t agree with his titan body though. This will have to do.

Wood slammed the slick arm into Conjurer’s body halfway across the room.

Elena and Amy gasped.

“You don’t want to do anything stupid, do you ladies? He squeezed Conjurer tighter with his elongated arm. “Do you want to risk your life over this?”

Surprisingly. Very surprisingly. The two women laughed. “We honestly expected Ragnar to do this,” Amy said.

Wood squeezed harder and the Conjurer coughed blood. “This is your doing? At this rate, should I be afraid?”

Lysandra dropped to the ground, her feet hitting the floor. She walked around Wood’s incongruous limb to the girls. She took both of them by the hands, hugging them like they were long-time friends. “They aren’t yours. Poor things didn’t want anything to do with you, but you use Celine’s power to create that awful hypnotism. Once off it, they weren’t yours. They were one of us.”

“G-girls don’t listen to the—“A glob of blood rose in Conjurer’s throat, choking him.

“What would you do in this situation, honey?” Amy asked.

Elena pressed her free hand against her cheek. “He’ll watch us die.”

“I saved y-you from River,” Conjurer croaked.

Elena shook her head. “Remember what River said. Were you begging for my life or yours? I know the answer and so do you. We’re done here, Amy.”

“Look, you were on top of the world and now you have no one to protect you.” Lysandra kissed both of their hands like a loving mother. “This scum is yours, Woody. I’m taking the girls to help with the injured.”

“Lysandra…you betrayed—“

“I was never yours to begin with.” Lysandra gave a deep and gracious bow. “It’s been a pleasure, Conjurer.”

Amy and Elena did the same. “Indeed it has.”

Conjurer’s face fell as his last hope sauntered off into the distance. He squirmed under the pressure of Wood’s deformed arm. His skin melted underneath as the tentacles twitched on bare flesh. Wood rolled a few of the slime covered appendages into holes in his skin, playing with the muscles underneath. Tears rolled down the side of his face and blood from the side of his mouth. Wood increased the pressure, walking towards him and hearing his ribs snap. Good sounds, all healthy and fresh. The smell of his death started to linger around the room. It all seemed so fitting. “I’ve taken everything from you,” Wood whispered. “I’ve taken your home, I’ve taken your wives, and I’ve taken your security. I’m great at what I do. But I want to know something from you.”

“What—“

“I reckon you need to breathe.” Wood lessened the pressure—marginally at best. “Where did you get the resources for this?”

“Why does it matter? You lived because of it…you’ll be rotting on death….” Spolsh. Conjurer hurled both blood and vomit this time. “On death row by now.”

“You’re right, and I should thank you. But this isn’t about me. This is about what you did.”

“I needed to live.

“Who ordered you to make it all? Who is behind this?”

“Y—you know that, don’t you?”

Wood knew already. “I do, but say it anyway.”

“The 45th President of the United States Colin Kingsley.”

“Of course he did.”

“I. Am. Eternity. I won’t die forgotten.” Conjurer’s body began to lose energy. He gritted his red stained teeth. “You don’t know what this is like, being a brilliant mind lost to the bounds of time. To die and be gone forever. I didn’t care if I had to destroy the world for it. They will remember me.”

“You don’t get to rewrite the history books to fit you. Thousands of years from now, people are going to rebuild. This nastiness will be gone and peace will settle back down. Not once will your name be on people’s mouths. I guarantee it. They will throw you away. Some new inventor is going to come and make the world a lot better. Gone forever. No legacy. Nothing. Just a blip, the fear you tried to avoid. You’re nothing, Vice President Vincent Harmon. Nothing at all.”

Wood found joy as he ripped eternity apart.

_

Drifter laughed himself into a pool of blood as his loyal dog dropped the corpse at his feet. He kept this fit short, but remained on the floor whistling a song. The victory, as underhanded as it was, brought all the victors joy. The slaves, servants, and prisoner weres all free to go. Some stayed to assist their liberators with anything they needed; but, majority of them asked for Ragnar. It was smart after all to keep Ragnar alive. Loyalty tended to fashion strong people and people loved their hero.

“Welp, he’s deader than anything I’ve ever seen.” Tyrus looked at the crumpled human slush. At least the face was recognizable. Wood made sure of that. “Was this guy really our Vice President?”

“Hell of a country you guys had running here,” Pub teased.

“But why didn’t we recognize him before? We must have seen him thousands and thousands of times on television. Many of us thought that the White House fell first,” Bardon said confused. “I remember it happening…”

“Do you, Bard?” Drifter sat up, hair an off pink and leaking liquid. “Do any of us remember? Try thinking about, until Damien slipped it.”

The members of the Caravan exchanged looks in confusion. Wood tried to remember the face of the President and Vice President of their country two years ago. Even he couldn’t do it. They appeared as grey wraiths, their faces and forms scrubbed from his thoughts. I never even gave them much thought until recently, until Damien slipped. There was only one person that could do that. “Celine wiped it from everyone’s memory. That was why Graham was important,” Wood mused. “He wasn’t affected by Celine’s power and he knew important events because he was dead at the time…”

“That doesn’t explain how they got the power in the first place,” Haggis countered.

“Because they were born with them.” Stunned, everyone turned to Lysandra. “Yes. They were born with them. I can’t explain how or what gave them the powers in the first place, but that’s how they brought this world to heel so easily.”

“Even so, wiping a specific memory of the whole world seems unlikely.” Heron crossed her legs, sipping wine from a wineglass. She sat in the exact seat where Conjurer was before. She hadn’t gotten her eyes off the corpse of her once betrothed. You enjoy the sight the most. “Did they have some sort of amplification device?”

“It makes sense. If so, Father might keep it close for his own personal use now.” Bardon frowned. “Does that mean we have to kill the girl? With powers like that, she can become a danger.”

“Celine? No.” Drifter crossed his legs, casually poking the human soup. Wood joined him, just not in the prodding of the remains. “You can’t make a broken tool do the job you want again. There’s a victory here. For now.”

“The Ancestors aren’t going to take this lightly,” Harodo said. He scratched a bullet wound on his shoulder. Elena’s human weaving stopped him from bleeding out. “They’ll want blood.”

“Let them want it.” Wood hooked his arm around his uncle’s thin arm prep helping him up. “Wood, we have to discuss things privately. Come, my boy.” The old man yanked him up instead.

They left the rest of them to their discussion, leading him through another corridor. “Where are we going?” Wood asked. Drifter didn’t say a word. Just whistled. We’re insane. They looked the part, still covered in human bits, hair disheveled, walking down a hallway like escaped mental patient. Drifter’s whistling graduated to a song with twisted lyrics.

We are coming for you, said the wolf to the sheep.

You’ll come to us, and your life we will reap.

So said the pastor to his daughter he loved.

Then dumped her head in river with cold water above. “

The place still reeked of the dead. Foul tastes settled on his tongue and in his nose no matter where they went. They took smalls steps through the liquid formed shadows on the floor. Pillars of grey light shone through windows, showing bodies curled up on each side. Rats found meals today in these ruins. A large one gnawed at a man’s nose, the only thing left on his clubbed face. Similar scenes surrounded them with other people and more vermin. Gore wallpapered the hallway and the ground dissolved into nothing more than a grave without dirt. A lotta dead. And flies, so many flies.

Drifter stopped his song for a while. “You see it don’t you? I can’t, but you can.”

“I do.”

“You’re seeing war.”

They continued through the twisting hallways, over a pile of bodies, and through another door on his side. Drifter must have been this direction before; he knew it well enough to walk it blind. Only a few times did he ask questions about his surroundings. As obscene as these questions were, Wood answered them. Simple questions gave way to larger ones until he was describing specific things as they passed. This continued until they got to a unique door deep in the building. Where the others around it were monotonous, this one was metal and embedded with indigo crystals. Wood touched the door, and it emitted some sort of coldness. “What’s this?”

Drifter said nothing and opened the door.

A blast of cold air stung Wood in the face as he entered. The sacking of “the Den” reached everywhere aside from here, removed of the smells that entailed. The door opened up to a circular room, leading into a dais. More of the crystals lined the floors and the walls of different shapes and colors. Clean windows still filtered light in beautiful grey showers, bouncing color across the wall. Above them, a sky light showed him the black clouds in the sky. Underneath his feet laid an oriental rug, covering the hard floor in blue comfort. Sleek, cushioned chairs rimmed the edge, ending in a long white bench. What is this even? Wood stepped forward.

Drifter accepted the silence for quite some time. “You’re just as stunned as Heron was. That’s no easy task. ”

“I can’t even begin to tell you it all without sounding dumb. It’s like…a throne room of some sort. Who the hell are these people?”

“See that question bothers me too. Lysandra said that they were born this way. ” Drifter pondered. “There’s so much we don’t understand about them. I don’t like being in the dark, as ironic as that is. We dig deeper and find coals instead of diamonds, stones instead of gold. We might as well be trying to find raindrops in water. But, we know one thing. The Ancestors are powerful. For whatever the reason, we need to stop them.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Drifter hummed again. He enjoyed this time alone with Wood and Wood did too. He began singing in a low gravelly voice. It wasn’t by far his best skill, more than a little off tone.

He brought his daughter from the cold, cradling her head.

He brushed her hair and kissed her cheek, but she was plenty dead.

The congregation watched and prayed and didn’t say a word.

‘cause whose the demon and whose the human, that’ll kill a little bird?

Wood led him to the bench and sat him down. Drifter hummed the rest, bobbing as though they hadn’t just killed plenty of people. He took his seat beside his uncle, grasping his pale hand. “What did we get ourselves into, Pa?” Drifter returned the tight grasp, feeling his nephew’s—no his son’s—knuckles.

“I don’t know. But if I have to flip over every rock to find worms, I will.”

_

He woke in pure shock and darkness. His breathing felt like knives in his chest and his belly itched with an unseen wound. They wrapped yards of chains tight around him, locking him to a cold stone pillar. A thick cloth gagged his mouth. He didn’t even bother to move or try to escape. Sitting there, naked and alone, brought back every memory he ever felt. His heart raced and his face went hot from the pain. From there came the weeping. He wept until his eyes were dry and his large body gave no more tears away. Even then he coughed.

Everything fell apart. Rage fed him before. All he needed was a target, a totem for this anger. I just want to be angry. He tried. He tried to envision Lauren. Only Lysandra came to mind. His mind went to her for his anger, yet he couldn’t. It was his fault to even trust her. She was way too good to be true. Fooled me, and I let it. That knife he should’ve seen coming. He had his back turned all the same.

For the eighth time tonight, he tried to gnash at his own tongue, shred it with his teeth. The gag worked its wonders. Today would not be the day he bled out.

Drifter and Wood, I can still be mad at them. He drew himself upright, crossing his shackled legs and attempted to meditate. He saw their faces as the sunlight shield crumbled all around them. Monsters in human flesh waited to eat him alive. His mind tried to focus on those faces. No rage came. But another feeling did. One kept away by blankets and night lights. A feeling he hadn’t felt in a long time. Fear.

Traveling with River years ago, a thought occurred to him. This is going to kill me. Fighting that fate brought him security. Nothing prepared him for a death like this. He felt his mouth go dry, tongue praying for water (and made him want to rip it out more). This is how I’m going to die. He wanted something easier, like a bullet to the chest or a stab in the heart. He didn’t even get that. This death was personal, a death in his mind. I’m going to go mad.

Their laughs run in his head.

He tumbled to his side, bare skin bruising beneath the metal. Nothing in the room was worth looking at. The stones were cold and grey underneath him. He counted the puffs of moss over a thousand times. Blackness was everywhere else. A stale smell kept him company. He never felt more alone. Do I deserve this? Every person he ever ate felt like they were tearing through his stomach. Maybe they’ll kill me soon. An image of human hands ripping through his stomach brought a brief moment of gratification.

They didn’t.

Time passed before anyone came through that door. He didn’t see their face. They moved towards him, black and shapeless in the abyss. They placed bread and water at his feet. Famished, he ate the food and drank the water like a legless dog. He vomited twice from the mindless and reflexive eating. His captors didn’t even give him the chance to ponder anything suicidal. The second he finished, they gagged him again. I should’ve killed myself then. I should‘ve. I should’ve. I should’ve. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

More time passed and still nothing.

When will this end? Drifter didn’t care for him, he knew that. So, why did he play this game? Murder me. Kill me. Liberate me. Whatever word the old man wanted to use to end his existence, he should do it already. But what did he have to end? He wasn’t Ragnar. He was a rebellious king and a warrior. He wasn’t Scott Owens either. That man was a doctor and a good person. He wasn’t a father or a husband. He was a thing. Just a thing. What was he? He wanted to laugh or cry. I’m out of both.

Somewhere along the line, he fell asleep.

He awoke to the sight of a man’s boots. Blurry eyed and brow beaten, the man once known as Ragnar brought himself upright. A fiery pain burnt through his shoulder and stomach. He tried his best to ignore it and focused on the person ahead of him. His gag was gone again and he tried words on his mouth. You can kill yourself. He didn’t. His jaw didn’t want to work. “Hello,” his lips said. At first he thought he said it only in his head, since no answer came from his captor’s mouth. Maybe I can’t hear them.

“I kept you alive.”

Oh. I know that voice. His fever, somehow, had gotten worse.

He recognized the voice as Drifter’s. Rage still didn’t bubble in his chest. “Why?” he said in a dry voice. Logically a day might’ve passed, but to him it felt like weeks. A man without a name or a purpose anymore made hours into days in his head. “You took away everything, why not kill me?”

“No. You have people’s hearts with you. I can’t kill them.”

“You used me.” His voice felt dry and broken.

“I did.” Drifter sounded so far away despite being so close.

“How far will you go?”

“Farther than you did.” Drifter kneeled down. He unlocked one of the locks, causing it to slam into the ground. “Think about who’s truly your enemy. You’re far too brilliant of a person to die. But until I can trust you, I’m keeping you away from your people.”

I should hate you, the man thought. He was too broken to hate now. Nothingness ate away at any resolve that he had. “What do you want from me?”

“I don’t need anything. They—the people—needs a hero.”

Drifter disappeared into the darkness, carrying his words with him. His prisoner just stared in the infinite dark with nothing else to say.

15

Revenant

I’m saying this to you, not as an apology for my actions. They are and forever will be unforgiveable. I’m saying this to give me some peace of mind, some closure. You never have to forgive me; I just want you to hear the words.”

The Rupture was another deep wound on the land. It took nearly a day to even tread through the horrid chasm. A thin grey haze swept across the blacken asphalt and darkened rust covered buildings. Above them the clouds moved, exposing just a dense layer of purple lights and stars. The ground underneath them crumbled away into deep pits that ate men as snacks. Brink lost his fair share of men to the earth. Many of them didn’t even have a chance to scream as they fell to their soundless doom. Where the Tear was just a scar on the world’s skin, the Rupture was a stab that went deep into the muscles. Brink hated this place, it cuddled death too close.

Again they named the world right. I guess when so many people die near a place; a nickname is bound to pop up.

Brink hadn’t seen many clues from the Messengers yet. Someone had crossed this place though. Tracking them posed difficult amongst the creeping hands of old structures and the spiky land. The morning forgave their missteps; the night hadn’t been so merciful. Any dark corner froze the men’s hearts and hollowed their breathing. Everyone expected a battle. Many feared it and others relished the thought. What do I feel? Why did I come? A razor wind cut through the thick cloth of his uniform. Why did you bring me? Or rather, why did I choose to come?

Because you’re dumb and predictable, his conscious told him.

Celine wore a different face as usual. The redness in her eyes faded and there wasn’t a trace of a tear to be found. She kept Samson close, his weapon drawn. They talked in low voices of about nothing important. Too smart. She’s too smart. The voice inside his head told him. She was planning something. She had planned something. She’s going to break you. Kill her. Kill her before she can kill you.

But you won’t. You love big sister too much. Don’t worry you’ll regret that. You deserve it, worm. The voice in his head caused his mind to swim. At times it didn’t sound like his voice at all. He focused on Celine with his somnolent eyes.

Nothing bothered her in this land of death. A man only inches from her fell to his doom a few miles back. She watched on emotionlessly. We can’t help him, she had said. She masked the statement with just a mark of ambiguity. Brink wondered who she fashioned the statement to—the dead men or the living ones. Perhaps both, a dead man living. They continued on after that.

They walked and walked through miles and miles of mountainous concrete. Rabid mutants, forgotten demons, and pure outright mad men slithered from these cracks. Some of the men smelled their presence in the air. Animal sound screeched through the pits and from the top of buildings. Brink swore he heard a wolf or two to his left. Night was beginning to settle in and the already low visibility dropped to blind. At least the weather held up.

Hours passed. Murmurs of irritation rose within his squad. The whining, Brink ignored. The dissension, he listened to. Luke Aaron, a stringy, raven-haired soldier who they had a hard time even finding a uniform for, started it. “We’ve been walking for fucking hours to find this guy. What if she made the guy up? What makes you think she hasn’t tricked us?” Brink saw his pale grey eyes flair with anger.

“Yeah, how do we even know she’s not sending us to our deaths?” Bill, another soldier, chimed in. “Andrew died right in front of me. How can you tell me she isn’t trying to kill us?”

We don’t. Brink thought to say. His mouth said nothing. He still trusted her. That foolish part of him clung to the ideas of love amongst the family. It gnawed at him. “How far do we have left, Celine?” Though he made a conscious effort for a commanding voice, what exited his mouth sounded whiny. That’s not a voice the men want to hear. Maybe because you’re not a commander at *all*. “How far?” he repeated.

Celine hardly noticed the words, up until Miranda drew her blade. Amusement glittered in his sister’s eyes. Her bodyguard shook his head. “It’s not far from here.”

“You’ve said that a lot, bitch,” Luke growled.

“Don’t call her that.” Of course, my voice doesn’t whimper now. “I won’t have this.”

“Sir, this b—“Luke changed his words, tripping over his tongue, “this girl has been taking us in circles for hours.”

“A circle?” Celine smirked. “You do know what one of those looks like, right? It’s the one without corners. Should I draw a diagram for you?”

Luke wasn’t much of a thinker. Brink knew that when he brought him. He had the mind of a typical tough guy and the body of a bean pole. So, when someone insulted him (and this happened more often than not) he swung at them. This was no exception. Brink caught his fist despite being several steps ahead, moving as smooth as liquid to get there. He held the man’s knuckles in his palm, hearing them pop. Luke’s face scrunched up in a foul expression, his thin nose pig-like on his face. His friend, Bill, grabbed him by the arm after a long look into Brink’s eyes.

“Don’t strike her. Ever.” Brink turned to Celine, letting his soldier’s fist go. You’re not getting out of this. “But, he does bring up a good point. Why haven’t we found the informant yet?”

Celine’s shoulders sunk a little as she sighed. She grabbed Brink by the hand, feeling the leather of his gloves. “He’s not too far from here. Just a little over this ridge. See the smoke.” She pointed to the small column of gray rising from the hill to their north. “Trust me.”

Trust you, you’re lying. But I already know that, don’t I? “Lead the way.”

She understood the disquieting harshness in his voice. Celine took point from him. Her white cloak billowed in the wind, a patchwork thing to keep off the elements. It reminded him of a wizard from Hal’s stories. Like those wizards, she had an immense amount of power and worked outside of the natural course of things. Thoughts of hating and admiring her waged a war in his mind. The coin that would win this mental war still twirled in the air.

“Cassandra?”

“Yes,” Celine’s voice remained calm and collected. She grabbed a handful of her cloak to keep it from her face. “You have something to ask?”

“Tell her to fuck herself,” Luke barked.

Brink ignored him. “I won’t show any mercy if this’s a trick.”

“If you believe it’s a trick, then why did you come?” She looked at him. She wondered that too. “Why will you risk it?”

“If it’s a trick, it won’t work. I have enough trust in you to not make this mistake. We are the best soldiers ever brought up in this world; we are all that’s left from complete chaos. You won’t try it. That’s why I trust you.”

The men around him all gave a small rattle of cheer. In an open field, nothing stopped them from rallying around their leader. In the Rupture, things lurked in the ground and air. One loud sound here might awake a beast or collapse some of the earth. But, they needed the morale boost. He did too, finding himself smiling at the words. Celine let them have their victory.

Darkness settled in the world around them as they marched up to the ridge. Brink began to see marks of another presence in this land. Someone cut a pathway through this ridge, pushing away the debris of thick rock. Thick metal poles jutted from the land like spears of an undiscovered battlefield. A few men wanted to see more around them. Better judgment ruled that out. No one wanted to risk turning on a flashlight or lighting a match. It fell to Brink and Celine to guide their footsteps up the hill. It didn’t stop a few men from getting a bump or two; but no one died.

Cautious still, Celine and Brink cleared the plateau together. There was little space for the entire platoon, only five at most. With the bodyguards and the leaders, it only had room for one more. That man sat boldly at the edge, a torch in his hand. He wore the white armor of the Ancestors with thick, well-worn boots. His face was thin, beard almost as brown as oak, and eyes the color of old amber. Unlike Luke, he wore his uniform in a much more fitting fashion despite being as thin. He met them with a nod. “Celine.”

Brink didn’t recognize him nor did he know all the men in the Ancestors either. “Who’s this?”

“Wilhelm Baker,” the man introduced himself. His voice was calm and distinct over the crackling of the fire near his face. Brink mentally winced at the last name. Once upon a time, he knew a man with the last name Baker.

“That’s a risk you have in your hand.”

“You haven’t lived here for weeks to make that assumption, sir,” Wilhelm countered. Brink liked him marginally better after that. “Look over there.”

Wilhelm straightened his back and nodded to the ravine below them. With a long skinny finger, he pointed to the bundles of light at the bottom of the bowl. No one here had enough vision to see who was down there at this visibility—even Brink. This man scouted with ease. His eyes darted from one side to another. Absently, the young soldier passed him a night vision helmet. “I forget that you can’t see anything.”

“Doubt anyone else can,” Miranda muttered.

“No kidding,” Samson agreed with a frown.

Wilhelm laughed. “Plebs.”

Brink put on the helmet and pulled the goggles over his head. These were top notch. He pulled them up from his face, frowning in curiosity. “Where did you get these?”

Wilhelm pointed to Celine and she just shrugged. Of course she did. “I can’t see everything with these eyes, just most things.”

Appeased, he gazed back into the green field of the device. They were down there.

Dark shapes moved across the flat land near the bottom of the valley. A deep gash in the earth surrounded this place, made only accessible by makeshift bridges of old cars and wooden planks. They erected some tents for shelter, old things made of tarp Brink imagined. Among those people appeared to be a long willowy woman in the largest tent. Guards followed her through a pavilion of some sort to talk with a man. Brink wished he could see their face to read their lips. Brink took a sharp breath and turned his head. “Know any information on who’s down there?”

“The woman is the spokesperson for the Messengers from what I gathered.” Wilhelm carefully handed the torch to someone behind him. “Anima, I’ve heard her called.”

“We can also disturb all of the Messengers activities if we kill her.” Miranda ran her finger across her knife.

“Um. Not quite.” Wilhelm crossed his arms. “You see, I avoided the term leader for a reason. They will go on without her. She’s more or less the mouthpiece and recruiter.”

The Messengers have no leader,” Brink quoted from his previous briefings on the subject. “Still, someone has to gather the members and she’s more or less that key. Stopping her will kill the flow of constant people…” Brink took a deep sigh. “Is the man she’s talking to the Sheriff?”

Wilhelm squinted. It only took a few seconds for him to shake his head. “I couldn’t tell you. To be honest, I hadn’t seen his face. Occasionally a man would visit and the camp would stir. But other than that. I can’t give you a description. Can’t win ‘em all though. Sorry ‘bout that sir.”

Sheriff, who are you? He could be anyone in the camp or no one at all. “Not a problem. Would you know anything about this?”

“Matter-of-fact, I do.” Celine answered in a light tone.

“Do you know who he is?”

“Yes.”

“Who is he?

“I can’t point him out from here….he’s rather non-descript.”

“You wouldn’t be lying.”

“Why would I? You found Wilhelm and I can point out Sheriff to you. Just clear the whole camp. If he’s not there, he’ll come back to an ambush. If he is…you just killed two birds with one stone.”

She’s lying. The voice in is head told him. She’s using the truth to cover up a lie. A lie. A lie. His mind told him one thing, his body did another. You’re going to regret that, coward. Weakling. Idiot. “He might not be there. He might. Either way, we’re going to surprise these motherfuckers before they get the chance to surprise us.”

Brink reasoned his way through the fear in his chest. This route was the smarter of the choices given. The Ancestors kept an eye on the Gulch ever since Lance’s and Bigg’s disappearance. The list of defensive possibilities of that part of town grew longer by the day. He had hoped to draw them out from that massive wall they erected or find a way through the watery passes. No such luck and no such men. The Rupture might be more dangerous in a territory since, but defeating them in their own game was impossible. A ping of trust rose in his chest. She’s lying.

“Course of attack sir,” said one of the men right behind him.

“We’re going in slow. It can’t be many of them. We intercept and rout them. Simple enough. Any way down?”

Wilhelm bit his lip as he considered the question. “There’s a path down the side of the canyon, but I can’t guarantee you won’t be seen. It’s best to just follow this one down, despite how perilous it is.”

“Think you can handle a bit of climbing, ladies.”

The squad gave another quiet cheer.

“No offense to you of course, Miranda,” Brink added with a smile.

“No offense taken. I’m the best one here.” She threw up her arms, playing the crowd. “Let’s take these guys down.”

Brink kept the night vision goggles, he liked them too much. Besides they still had a use left in them. Samson stomped out the torch, their only source of light. As the leader of this, he needed to guide them down—if Wilhelm’s knowledge proved true. The tale rang true enough in his ears and his eyes. Everywhere else, the path that the Messengers used excluded, was rocky or filled with anything from old appliances to pure scraps of entire buildings. They would have to take their chances. One wrong step might alert the enemies below. Or break their necks.

He took his first step down. The side of his shoes slammed into a metal plate. Everyone froze. Great job, leader…. Not a fantastic start. After that weary first step though, the fleetness of his natural state took over. Through the grey haze, they descended step by step in the shadows. They took it slow, careful on any movements. Luke almost fell twice; both times Samson’s stern grasps caught him. He was the only one here that had trouble with this navigation. They just had to watch their step, and look for footholds.

Celine and Miranda worked the best in these conditions, two lithe cats competing on a tightrope. They jumped from spot to spot and were the closest to Brink. A few times, he even struggled to keep point.

Step by step they continued down and their sight on the camp continued to widen. The dim lights showed the faceless men and women of the camp. Some were beyond recognition with bent faces and scars. Most had hoods over their faces, lost in the black. That made things easier in Brink’s mind. Faces he remembered. From his first kill long ago to this moment, they stayed with him, haunted him. These weren’t men or women if they didn’t have faces. Just one face you have to remember. That should be easy for you. That face stood meters away.

A woman stood in a long black jacket, her dark skin dripping with the moisture of the air. There wasn’t a clean shot available, even for the snipers. She knew her defense well. Even moving around the camp, she never left an open shot. She knows. The voice told him again. She knows because of the liar. She’s a liar. Brink resisted the urge to speak with Celine. He readied his weapon, waiting for the rest of the men to make their steps down.

Celine came in beside him. She abandoned her cloak, stuffing it in a small pack on her back. Like the rest of them, she melted in the dark and grey mist. “I might be able to take a few out around here. Their mental defense is a lot weaker when they aren’t on guard.”

“What?” The suggestion caught him off guard. Long seconds passed before she continued.

“This is my mission as well.”

“Since when?” Brink whispered.

“Looking a gift horse in the mouth?”

No. This gift horse is sick. When will she stop lying? But again, I’m too stupid to listen. The voice in his head pounded on his skull. You’re going to regret this. It flipped from speaking to him as a person…and speaking to him as himself. Even the voice changed.

“Prove it.”

“Just give me the okay, I’ll be happy to.”

Brink gave a signal the moment the last man stood at his side. He pulled up his goggles. It begun to mist, the sound of the newborn rain drops thudding against the materials of the junkyard. Shapes stirred in the dark chasms, monstrous creatures of unhinged limbs. Whatever they were, they had enough make shift weapons to kill both sides with. They needed to end this quick. “Silencers on, everyone.”

The quiet order ran from one ear to another. Light clicks of the attachments followed. The added song of rain wouldn’t be enough to mask a full fire fight. At this range and visibility, they needed to make as little noise as possible. I don’t need Celine. No. That’s not true. Trust versus doubt. Logic versus emotions. Choose. Choose. He needed her. No time to react. No time to make mistakes. You made enough of those. “Go,” he told her and feared what would happened next.

Celine didn’t smile. He wanted her to. He wanted her to prove she was evil. Something sad glittered in those eyes as she put her hands up. She took deep breaths. Brink felt her power, a thud in the back of his brain. Everyone felt it, the whisper of old memories and thoughts long buried. He never seen Celine invoke so much power, ever since that day a long time ago. A shiver ran down his spine.

Like a knife across a throat, the men helplessly fell to their sides one by one. Brink tried to imagine the pain, the moment that she raked their minds. He didn’t linger on the thought for long. He needed to act. In those delicate split seconds, he scrambled forward, sprinting across a downed car with his gun raised. He fired a few shots and everyone else followed.

The first burst caught Anima in the shoulder. The woman backpedaled, struck again in the stomach. She managed to draw a weapon through the fire. Brink moved far quicker. This time, he didn’t hit something inconsequential. This time he hit her chest. She fell back, bleeding. Brink didn’t even watch her drop. He moved. The camp was in disarray. Those who weren’t affected by Celine’s assault began fighting back.

He fired three times, covering Miranda as she closed in behind one of the men to slit his throat. To his left, Samson and Wilhelm swept through the camp, each firing close ranged weapons. His right, Luke and his band worked to clean up the masked men. They were struggling, he noticed. Despite Celine’s abilities and the ambush, they still had enough fight in them to fight back. They had weapons too. Conjurer’s supplies. This is where they went. A few of Brink’s own men fell to the chaos of the battle, howling in pain. Brink slid to cover as gunfire whistled over his head. Loud clattering hit the rusted washing machine. We’re going to wake the monsters. Everyone’s going to die if we don’t end this. I have to—

Hovering above them was a black cloud. Brink tried to ignore it, tried to believe it was his imagination. It wasn’t. An executioner arrived. Hades. You’re not stringing the puppet along this time. This time he played that part.

The lich laughed low as he soared from the sky to the ground. This time he looked tangible, alive. Death couldn’t follow a man who conquered it so many times. Courage and adrenaline coursed through him as he ran towards it. Hades responded in kind, producing a black scythe from his chest. A few men fired at him, but he ignored them. Whatever stopped him from killing consecutive people, he wasn’t going to waste it on anyone but Brink.

He fired at Hades, but his opponent was fast, moving like the first lightning strike of a storm. The gap closed between them in seconds. Brink rolled away from the first attack, hearing a knk of the weapon against the washing machine. It split in half. Humans are watery things and that scythe looked sharp. Don’t want to get hit by that. Nope. Not at all. Brink tumbled in the dirt, feeling the pain of a couple of old screws in his side. He wasn’t out of the clear yet. His enemy loomed above him.

Hades swung the scythe—blacker than even the night sky above them—down on Brink’s head. A normal man’s reaction time, no matter how hard they trained, couldn’t have dodged. Brink wasn’t a normal man. Twisting his body, the hooked blade missed him by inches. Most of him anyway, he felt a sting of a gash on his right arm. Brink fired his rifle as Hades recovered. He saw the bullet corkscrew deeper and deeper into the black flesh. The lich howled. He’s hurt!

Scrambling to his feet, he dashed away. Everyone around him fought their battles. It was hard to absorb it all in an Earth that looked nothing like theirs. Heavy breaths hung in his chest and every cut on his body stung. He couldn’t find Celine. Where did she go? He shook the thought away. Someone was trying to kill him.

“How dare you,” the haunting voice roared, its claws digging deep into Brink’s ears.

Brink saw nothing of the people around him as he staggered backwards. He shot a few more bullets, a few missing the result of the bone deep wound on his arm. Click. He was out of bullets. It was the sound that Hades wanted to hear. Brink, not so much. He felt himself go numb. In a reflex, he went to reload, reaching to his pack. It was gone. He gritted his teeth as Hades picked up the supply pack with a wicked grin. He then proceeded to throw the bag over his shoulder and into a chasm. You bastard… And just like that, he was down a weapon. Several in fact.

Much like he expected, Hades zipped to him, seizing him by the neck. The cold claws of his skeleton hand ripped into his throat, choking him of air. He saw the thing’s face, a skull on a black field like a pirate ship flag. Red eyes stared back at him, shifting ethereal cloth dancing around him. Brink felt his face go hot as he kicked at the air. His vision began to go black. The pain ran deep, and his eyes felt as though they threatened to pop out of his head. Hades raised his weapon. You aren’t going to kill me. You aren’t going to kill me. Brink rallied up his strength, dug into his side pocket, and stabbed him with a knife in the neck.

Air.

He coughed. The air tasted sweet, even if it tasted of garbage too.

Black blood sputtered from Hades’s neck.

“You can’t kill me, can you?” A raw emotion drove him to say these things to his enemy. Pride. Pride and stupidity. This was going to be his victory. Brink rose like a proud phoenix with all the power of his youth. “You can’t. ‘cause I’m going to kill you.”

Hades slashed again, knife in his neck and all. Brink snaked himself inward into the arc and jammed his empty rifle where the head and the blade met. A gun wasn’t a shield though. Still, hell if he wasn’t going to use it like one if it had no other purpose. Using all his strength, he forced the blade and its owner away, roaring a bestial cry. The scythe flung from the creatures hands, sliding down the same depths as his weapons. It was fitting. That was all he needed. He dropped his rifle to his belt, switched to his side arm and fired three times: head, stomach, and heart.

Quietness.

I won, Brink thought. I won.

Hades didn’t die instantly despite all the wounds. He crawled on the ground; his eyes flickering on and off like a broken pair of light bulbs. He began crumbling. First the unnatural shroud around him fell. Next the black cloth dissolved, revealing the naked pale figure of a full grown man with black hair. Blood stained his head and chest, stomach pumping the liquid the worst. The knife was still lodged in his neck. He coughed heavily. “Great job…you killed a farmer. Killing his kid wasn’t enough for you people.” Hades croaked. “What a man you are.” His shallow, sunken face craned to see his killer’s face. Brink’s heart stopped. What did he have to smile about? But, there it was, a smile plastered on his thin, almost fleshless lips. He pointed, finger quivering—whether from pain or excitement, Brink couldn’t tell. He died. But something in Brink did too.

Out of pure instinct, Brink looked towards where Anima died. She wasn’t there. Nothing was. Panicking, he looked around himself. The shadows from the crags arose, but stood like sentinels around the area. Their weapons were dug face down in the dirt, standing in a salute as colossal statues. They were fleshy grey things of decay and exposed bone. Some snarled like beast, hunched over with extra limbs and slobbering globs of odd colored spittle or clouds of mists. None moved. He blinked, hoping this was a nightmare. He hoped he somehow slipped into the gates of an illusionary hell in his mind. This time he wasn’t so lucky.

The taste of victory lost its flavor.

He wanted to scream for them to retreat. It was too late for that; his voice left him. Where would they go? One of those giant beasts blocked every possible exit and then some. This had been a trap.

Celine stood on the edge. The look in her eyes hadn’t disappeared. She looked devastated, shaking from what was going to happen next. Brink knew that illusion of Anima was her doing then. Why are you surprised?

Beside her and Samson was Wilhelm. But wasn’t. Wilhelm wasn’t Wilhelm anymore. He was one of the faceless. She saved you from one bullet to put you in front of another one. But, he wasn’t going out without a fight. At least he thought he wasn’t, until the last shadow jumped from the other side of the chasm.

The shadow stalked on his unknowing pray. He went from person to person before anyone could react. The close quarter combat proved easily effective against them. They had little to no ammo left. Their energy was in a similar state. They fell like flies to the might of their assailant. Miranda was the only person to muster up a reaction. Even she couldn’t in time. The shadow tossed one of the unconscious men at her and swept her off her feet. Her head thudded against the ground. He placed his boot on her neck, looking at Brink with pale eyes. Never once did he show that he had a weapon until he pointed it at Brink. He couldn’t see his face, but he knew. His mind knew. His body knew. His logic knew. His heart knew. The voice in his head—for once—went quiet. “Graham.”

“No, you killed him, remember? I’m the thing that haunted you, pulled your strings, and kept you up at night.” Brink’s revenant raised his gun, the same make and model as Brink himself used. “You wanted to know the difference between justice and revenge, Celine.” Graham—no the Sheriff—clicked his safety off. “It’s this moment.”

Fear and guilt gripped him as the bullet tore through his armor and stomach. He fell back only thinking of the pain he caused. Sins have a way of catching up. And when they do, all you can do is wave. His mind faded to black, hoping never to wake up again.

_

Light woke him and the crowd called for his name.

Brink tasted the blood and bile in his mouth as his eyes struggled to open. Everything felt bruised and battered—his skin soft to the touch. A few of his teeth was missing. He felt the bloody gum in his mouth. He tried to breathe. No such luck there. A thick chain bonded his arms to his chest. The wetness in the air brought a certain comfort to it. He was hot, very hot as though his skin burned from magma. All he wanted to do was to lie down. They didn’t allow even that. A two headed brute dragged him up by the neck. They wanted him upright and attentive. Why? I just want to sleep.

He soon found the reason.

All around him stood the men and women of his platoon. Some looked worse than others, residue from the battle he supposed. What he didn’t expect though was the mob below them. They solemnly stood, hands clasped together as though in prayer and mourning. Something about them stung deep. Hate rippled in their eyes as they stared up onto the stage. These were the people in his dreams, the monsters that kept him awake at night. This was his fall. Tears burned his eyes.

That was where he saw her standing in the crowd. Celine appeared as a priest in a sea of hate. Her fingers gripped the crystal on her chest. The necklace emitted a broken light from its fissures. She didn’t want this. He saw it in her eyes, the way her shoulders sunk and her eyes closed. Even the way she breathed, slow and jagged, showed her regret. He wanted to hate her for this. He didn’t because he knew this would happen. With or without her, he would have to face this music no matter how sharp the notes were.

“You’re awake,” Sheriff said walking into his vision. “You need to see this.”

I know what you’re going to do.

“I can see what you’re thinking. You think I’m going to kill you first. No. The crime must fit the punishment.”

Sheriff dug his colorless fingers into his cheeks, gripping his jaw. This thing didn’t look like Graham. Maybe some imitation of Graham from a horror movie, but not the man he knew. Somehow he looked worse than two years prior. His thin flesh hung loosely around his cheeks and his brittle black hair dangled wild in a dry ponytail. The rest of his thin body was hairless as though stripped from his purpled skin. From a distance, his eyes looked pale and empty. Up close told another story. The blue eyes were gone, replaced with a single red rim where the iris should be. Brink saw himself in the reflection of them and feared.

“What did you make Graham watch?”

He knew the answer. Both of them did. “I made him watch his unit die.”

“Not once.”

“I made him watch his unit die twice.” Brink felt his heart pump harder by the second. He did. Once with the people he knew and once with the men Drifter put in his command. He lost them both. “You won’t…” he coughed the words out. Someone tightened the chains.

“Bring the girl first,” Sheriff called out.

Anima, the real Anima, moseyed over dragging Miranda. “Oh hi hun! You look surprised. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. I managed to save quite a few people that your soldiers hurt though. Too bad Hades died. He forgot his goal for a bit there. He was just meant to wear you guys down. He was always a bit too head strong. But…you win some and you lose some. ” The dark-skinned woman threw Miranda to the ground with a gentle push and a hard look. “Or in your case you lose a lot. This is a punishment better than anything that I could imagine.”

Sheriff waved her off and she disappeared back into the crowd. Miranda stayed on the ground for a second as though to relish the cold of the wood her face was against. With an almost inhuman ruthlessness, Sheriff seized her by the hair. He pressed her head as close to Brink’s face as he could. “You have something to tell this woman, don’t you?” he said.

“Let me go, you bastard.”

“No, you will want to listen to this, Miranda Johnson. Your precious commander’s crime.”

Brink’s heart skipped a beat. “I—“the word tripped in his mouth.

“Tell her!” Sheriff roared.

Nothing.

“Oh. You don’t know. Somehow that makes sense.” Sheriff lowered his face to where Brink and his lieutenant stared at each other. You never connected the dots. A small world, isn’t it? Let me enlighten you. Tell her how you killed her husband, Lance Corporal Erin Johnson, the man that she met in the military and loved with all her heart. How you killed his entire unit to cover up a secret? Tell her! Tell everyone here!” The sound of his shouting made even the thunder sound more distant. Rain ran down the contours of his face. He pressed the gun to her head. “Tell her to give her peace.”

Was life really that small or did fate just have it out for him?

“This isn’t right—“Brink began to plea, but stopped when Miranda opened her mouth.

“No.” Her voice was in a whisper, her eyes down to the ground. “No you don’t get to say that. All this time, I wondered….about Erin’s death. I always thought that he died somewhere through the chaos. I thought the Ancestors would help me. I thought….I….” Miranda choked on her words. “I worked under you. You never even told me. Why didn’t you tell me? Of course you didn’t. I started to even like you….and…god. Dammit!”

Brink tried to put that past behind him and it still caught up. Sheriff saw that. He showed no enjoyment in this fact. This was just a sentence in progress. “I’m sorry, Miranda.. They made me. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry…I’m sorry.”

“I don’t accept your apology. Maybe you didn’t know. Maybe you did. I don’t care. You managed to get everyone here killed,” Miranda said. She straightened her back. “I’m not going to let you rest with a peace of mind.” Sheriff fingered the trigger, the barrel steady on her temple. “Go ahead. I can die now. Can you?”

A gunshot soared over the thunder and rain. Brink’s band let out a painful howl. He sought strength from them, and received none. Miranda’s body fell from the dead man’s grip, splashing on the wet boards. Brink understood, he understood what he put Graham through. Too late, his mind, his own conscious told him in a broken voice. Too late to feel guilty.

“You see your punishment now.” Sheriff nudged Miranda’s head with his foot to show his captive the wound in her head. “I’m going to kill each and every one of your men. I’m going to make you watch them hate you for this. Then I’ll kill you when you have nothing left but your own regret to keep you cold in hell. That’s the price I put up and that’s the price you’re going to pay.”

Brink shook, eyes clouded by the pain he felt in his chest. This is my punishment. This is how I die. He’s going to throw me into hell. Just like the dream. Just like the dream.

16

Fallen

Hate me. Curse me. Show me that you resent me. Make it easier to watch you go.”

It’s not supposed to hurt this much, Celine told herself over and over again.

Sheriff brought each of the men up in the same fashion as his first victim. He asked their names, their families, and what they did. Cold eyes watched each of the prisoners. She felt them come forward with heavy regrets and memories that weighted against her mind. Those that went with no resistance earned the bullet. The ones that fought, begged, or cursed him received a slow or brutal death. He gave no mercy; their alignment was a sin that he refused to ignore.

Even with all her planning, she didn’t expect this. Every light in Brink’s eyes died one by one until his mind broke. Celine tried to reach out to him and found only white noise and mad mumbling. After Miranda, he wasn’t quite the same. He shivered within the confines of his chain, his bare skin red from each small movement. The unclean deaths gave a little life to his body. The first time this happened—to the man named Luke—the contents of the man’s body spewed on Brink’s face. Sheriff chopped his soldier’s head off with a machete, purposely missing his vitals a few times to cause pain. Chop. Chop. Chop. Each cut knocking a little bit of Brink’s mind loose.

Brink’s body slumped, chest breathing hard, and eyes lethargically blinking. Rain glistened off his body, water running down his cheeks. Was he crying? The question rippled even through the contents of the crystal on her neck. Celine was the sentinel, the watcher for a world that died because of one too many funerals. She promised not to see another. Yet there she was and it was far more tragic than even Jaden’s.

This went on for hours. Or she thought it was hours. Time tended to drag its feet when dread loomed next door. There wasn’t many left to begin with. Somehow Sheriff made this slow. I know what’s at the end of this tunnel. What does a person have to look forward to if the outside of the tunnel is just as dark as the inside?

When Sheriff brought the last one to judgment, Celine’s heart stopped. The executioner approached this last one with a calm tenderness. The largest victim yet shook with nervousness, weeping all the while. After watching every member of his platoon killed individually and inevitably, he knew what happened next. Sheriff didn’t yank or pull him, just tugged him across the wooden planks through the muck from all the other kills. He propped him in front of the dead totem of his commander. “Your name?” he said in that raspy, tired voice. You’re not enjoying this, why continue? Why?

“Derrick. Derrick Wilson.”

Sheriff circled around Derrick with his gun drawn. Why can’t you laugh or be angry? Some men—men that Celine knew—would have enjoyed picking off these people one by one. Sheriff didn’t. That didn’t make this process end faster. Maybe the punishment extended to her as well. She remembered meeting Sheriff for the first time. She treated him like a toy, a piece, flotsam on a wave. He treated her likewise. She did have sins to bear. “Who are you?”

“Just a man, s-sir.”

“Just a man? What did you do before?”

Derrick learned from the dead not to plea or to beg even if his tears didn’t agree with him. “I just jumped from job to job, sir. I never figured my life out. Guess I won’t get a chance to…”

“So, why did you make the decision to join the Ancestors?”

“’cause….’cause.” Derrick mouthed the words. “I-I just wanted to feel safe, sir.”

Sheriff stop. Sheriff stop this. Pain cluttered all around Celine’s head. He’s seen enough.

“Safe.” The word echoed in the air. “Safe, Phillip. Safe. A word that I treasure above all else. The man that I was valued it; the man that I am that shield to keep people safe. So let me ask this? Do you feel safe now? Did your Commander—no Private—Phillip Kingsley keep you safe? Did he protect you? He’s your leader, that’s his job.”

Derrick Wilson gulped as though it was his last. “No, he didn’t.”

Sheriff smiled. Finally. Be happy about this. It didn’t suit him. He wore the smile like a badly patterned shirt. “No. He didn’t protect you.” He shot Derrick in the back of the head with the smallest caliber gun in his arsenal.

He’s about to get what he wants. One of the things that drove him these years…. Every nerve in her body prickled with pain. She clasped the crystal on her chest with both of her hands. Her lips quivered. This isn’t something I wanted to happen, Phil. Either I give him what he wants or everyone will suffer. Her mind rationalized her fear with a panicked effort. Father, her father, needed to stop. A death of another son might just do that. She just needed to endure. The light from the crystal beamed through her fingers, no matter how tight she held it. Just a little longer.

Gun still smoking, Sheriff tossed the body over to the mass. One by one, they carried the massive body across the field to a brown, barren land where plants stopped growing. Unmarked plots of land surrounded that small area, deep several feet. The Gulch residents had buried them in a mass grave, deeper than anything Celine ever seen. Executioner’s Grove, Celine heard a few call it. With a sickening plop, they placed Derrick with the rest of his dismembered team. Only one remained.

“Do you have anything to say?” Sheriff asked. He leaned in to Brink’s dead eyed body, holstering his gun. You already killed him. Why use the knife? Celine knew a gun was too swift. Will a gun be too quick for me too? Off in the distance, a large church bell rung. The audience bowed at the final execution, lining up. Samson wrapped his arm around Celine’s shoulder. She was shivering, not from the cold outside her body but inside. This was the end. “Do you have any last words, he repeated in the words more appropriate to give a dead man.

Brink opened his mouth and no words came out. He tried to move his arms, tried to reach out to her. Celine began to walk over, slowly. She heard Samson following her; it didn’t matter if he did or didn’t. She needed to get to her brother. I’m sorry. “I have something to say to him. May I?” Celine asked in the calmest voice she could muster. Even then, it broke on the last words. I can’t stop it. The least I can do is say goodbye to him.

Sherriff made no effort to turn his head. He stepped aside nevertheless. “Make your peace.”

So, there she was, kneeling to the brother she had betrayed. He tried to trust her when she told him that she would do this very thing. She pressed her forehead against his, holding his shoulders. This was her little brother, her last little brother. Every memory they ever shared opened up to her in a reel in her head. Never before did she curse her power to collect memories and thoughts. She remembered everything from the earliest memories of his birth, from the letters at boot camp, to the first deployment. She felt his thoughts too. As muddled and broken as they were she heard him think one thing: I’m sorry. Who was it for? Was it for her or Graham or everyone else he ever hurt?

“You’re sorry? After all this, you tell me you’re sorry. Tell me that you hate me, Phillip,” she began quietly. Make it easier. “Resent me, hate me. Do something. Don’t just sit here. Don’t just take this judgment.” She raised her voice higher and higher until she was screaming. “Don’t make me regret this! Hate me. Tell me that you hate me.”

Silence.

“I just want all of this to end. I never wanted any of this. You never wanted any of this. Dad brought this to us. Dammit. I want this to stop. Beg, plead, curse, do something. Just—just don’t be quiet.”

She felt the sweat of his forehead and the tears of his cheeks as they broke the embrace. Brink didn’t hate her. Why he didn’t was simple. They brought it upon themselves. That didn’t make it hurt any less. Where did we go wrong? Instinctively, she grabbed for the crystal on her neck. Snap. She opened her palm, revealing only the dust that stored all her memories, all her pain, all her emotions. Celine stared in shock. I can’t make another one, not like this. A wave of emotions crashed into her.

The shock of all her bottled up feelings struck her at once. Her mind began to warp into itself, trying to catch up on feelings she already made decisions for. Her mind became a paradox that she couldn’t solve. She was a Rubik’s Cube to a blind person. Everything was so unclear. Emotions slammed into her with no way to process it. She realized what she had done though. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t ready to watch another person die. Why did she even make this plan? What would it solve?

I’m not ready to lose you too. The realization came harder than anything she ever felt. Samson ripped her away from Brink, pulling her away further and further. She cried harder than anything, until her eyes blazed red and she bit her tongue from her shaking jaw. Strength told her to watch. Weakness whispered to tell her that she had to live with this. That she might never forget if she did. “Sheriff, stop!”

Sheriff didn’t stop. He brandished his knife, an ugly angular thing, from a pouch on his waist. He used that knife on no one, an intimate relic for his revenge no doubt. To him, he was killing an enemy. How much of Graham is telling you to spare him? How much of Graham is left? Is this justice? Will this be the end of everything? The last question was answered with a lightning fast a stab in the throat. Celine screamed.

His death wasn’t instant. Life slowly leaked out of him, the knife still wedged in his throat. Celine heard the croaks of pain over the drizzle. Blood filled his mouth, leaking in a steady stream from the corners of his lip. He crawled and crawled, like a fish without fins on land, in Celine’s direction. He never made it to his sister’s feet; there were too many people in the way. None of them respected him the way she did.

Once in the mob, the people showed no more respect for his dying body. The well-ordered, quiet, mournful crowd went into a frenzied rage. She didn’t even see what happened to him. All she felt was in the inside, she knew he was dying. Their roars proved that. “Stop! Stop! Please stop! Don’t treat him like that!” Monsters cared nothing for her screams. They needed their satisfaction. This was the source of all their pain and they wanted to defile him. Sheriff loomed over with an expression of emptiness.

You don’t enjoy this. How does revenge feel? Does it taste as good as you imagined?

The Messengers and Samson kept her and her brother apart. At some point, Samson slung her over his shoulders as Anima and her guard flanked around them. They ran off. Celine’s chest thought to bursts. She clutched the pain in her heart, trying not to wail. She managed it for a while before the wave hit her. He’s dead and it’s your fault. She knew that from the moment she put the cogs in this horrible plan. That didn’t stop her hurting. She didn’t want to think anymore.

Her brain gave her that wish and shut down.

_

So, this is how it feels to be insane.

She awoke with blankets on her body and the room filtering rays of pink and orange light through the window. Celine recognized it loosely as the Spiral. Samson stood on the other side of the room, in pair of dirty jeans and a worse off t-shirt. She saw a weapon in his hand and found a certain comfort in looking at it. His thin skinned form fled to her side of the room the moment that she stirred awake. An ache drummed in the back of her head; she managed, despite it, to sit up right. “You okay, champ?” He knew the answer to the question. It was sweet of him to ask though.

“What are we doing here?” she asked in a sweet voice, cocking her head to the side.

“Sheriff just asked me to bring you up here. I can’t really say no since he just got done killing people left and right.”

“Fair enough.” Celine pulled the blanket on her body a bit more. She was cold. Who wanted to be cold? “What happened with my brother’s body?” A grimmer thought surfaced. I sure hope that he didn’t do what I think he did. Sheriff was still undead some sort and survived on the blood of living things to stop the hunger. “Did he—“

“No.”

“Did you see if he did or didn’t?” Celine asked.

“No, I didn’t. I was too worried they might come after you next.”

That’s sweet of you, Sam.

With that somewhat solved for now, what did she want to think about? Her brother was dead and she was going to have to speak with Father soon. He wasn’t going to be too happy about this. Bad Cassandra was really bad today. And Sheriff, would he let them live after all this? They were as much of an Ancestor as Phillip and his platoon. His words might have stopped him before. The bargain is law and an enemy is an enemy. “Why aren’t we dead yet?”

“If he wanted us dead, he would’ve killed us by now,” Samson said in a very comforting voice. He sat on the end of the bed, hands in his lap. “You think that this is over.”

“I sure hope so.” Celine reclined back, falling into a pillow. “I just want it to be over. This is getting tiring.”

“It better be. I don’t think you can handle anymore. I suppose you can’t create one of those crystal things again.”

Celine shook her head. No, I can’t. The fact she created what she called a memory chest at all was a fluke in itself. All—but mom—grew into their own particular power from genetics alone. They were the original demons and mutants. They kept it quiet in front of public until Jaden’s death. Then anger drove her dad, the President, to do terrible things. Things that she didn’t agree with, things she had to contain. One day she made it, ever since then she relied on it like a drug. Only now she felt the withdrawals. What she would give for another hit? “I guess we’re waiting, huh?”

“I don’t know what to do either.” Samson admitted. “But, you don’t quite sound like yourself….

His words were cut off the moment Sheriff walked in.

The lean, shorter man entered in silence. He sat in a comfortable leather chair in the corner, pinching his nose. It reminded Celine of watching an office man coming home from work and popping the television on. This time, he wore a long coat that was still soaked in rainwater. You’re looking the part. That’s wonderful; all you need is a hat. Uncomfortable minutes passed as they felt each other’s agenda out. I’m the Memory-Follower, remember? She found a particular strength in that empty title. “Our bargain is done.”

“At what price though.” Sheriff swept his hair back. Celine wondered how it grew so long despite him being dead. Some of his functions must still worked. Growing hair wasn’t that outlandish once she thought about like that. Weirder things have happened in this world.

“Did you—“Celine didn’t know quite how to word the question.

“Did you eat him,” Samson finished.

“Blunt but to the point. Did you eat him?”

Sheriff narrowed his eyes as though asked an offensive question. “No. He was a comrade of Graham’s and a Marine until that point.”

“I wouldn’t have known that from the way you let him crawl into an angry mob. You didn’t treat any of those people like they were human beings.””

“No. I didn’t. They wronged so many people, they didn’t deserve that honor.”

Look at those flaws in that argument; I should hang them on my wall. “There is some Graham left. Shame that little bit lacked mercy.”

“Hm.” Sheriff stood sharply. “How many times do you have to say that? Does repeating it make it real to you?

Nothing’s real or fake to me anymore. Celine crossed her arms underneath the sheets. “Are you starting to believe it?”

“As much as you believe that you can fix this.”

How much do you think needs fixing? Let’s find out.

Corporal Graham died before President Kingsley enacted his plans. Memories of what happened before were still wedged in his brain like an apple peeling between teeth. He knew who they were. He knew what they did. But, he knew something much more important. This all started with her trying to pluck that piece of info from his dead corpse. In a way, Celine created this revenant that seemed so dedicated to kill everyone she loved. “You know about Father’s abilities, don’t you? You were in the team that found a particular document on the subject. Vincent Harmon’s studies wanted to use that as leverage, but before his team could report it, my dad caught wind of it. He ordered you and your team to wipe it. But you didn’t know it came from the top. You were a simple soldier on a strike mission.”

Samson looked to Celine with worry. He was good at those looks, she noticed. His whole thin, bristly face crumpled in a way that just looked so pathetic. He knew some things, but didn’t know everything. Who did?

No doubt the playful sound of her voice bothered him too. What he didn’t know was that Celine didn’t care. She just didn’t. The thoughts, the pain in her head, felt more divided than ever. Everything sad was on one side, everything else stuffed and unsorted on the other. Words just fell out of her mouth. She wasn’t responsible for her words anymore. What could she lose at this point? They were going to come look for her either way.

“Yes, you’re right.” Sheriff’s strained into a thinking face. “No one said that the retriever needed to die.” That memory hurt. Celine saw in the way his body tightened. “Your family has tried twice to kill me. I can’t allow it anymore. It’s that simple.”

“Nothing’s that simple. That brings us beautifully back to our first point. Why not kill me now then? I’m the blame for all your woes, current and past.”

“I promised you safe passage and you will get it. Simple as that….”

So if we meet again….I won’t be an ally to him anymore. “I’ll be out of your hair. No need to worry.”

“Celine, I can never promise to stop trying. But I didn’t come for this. I came to tell you something. Something you might want to hear.” Sheriff’s voice lowered. “So, have you heard yet?”

“Heard what?”

He licked through some of his missing teeth as though the sweet words were stuck on his gums. Sheriff savored every bit. Something happened at the Den. She felt it in her gut even in her madness. She tore the sheets from her body, standing up from the bed. “Something happened.” Celine knew what happened. She opened a door to chaos and it just flung in her face. Someone’s dead. Why am I surprised?

“The Drifter’s here.”

Celine stared blankly into those pale eyes for a second. “What?”

“And he…slaughtered the people in the Den. I had planned to do that myself. But…Conjurer is dead.”

The shield was up…that must mean. Hal…oh, they are going to blame this one on me too. “I have to go.”

Samson threw her coat on her shoulders. “Where are we going?”

“No. You aren’t going, Sam.” Celine closed the gap between her and Sheriff. They were about the same height, her beating him out by a few inches. “I have no right to ask you a favor, but you won’t deny this one. You’re too honorable. Samson did nothing wrong and took no part in the Ancestors agenda. I want to protect him for a change. Let him join you. Not the Messengers, only you.”

“What?” Samson frowned, stunned at the prospect. “Cass?”

“Father is going to blame what the Drifter did and what happened today on me. I don’t want you hurt because of that. He tends to punish by proximity. Made our childhood interesting, but not so anymore. So please take him.”

Sheriff clinched his teeth so hard that they should’ve broken. “Fine.”

Samson shook off the shock of the moment. “I’m not something to be given away, dammit.”

She took Samson by the hand before he got on one of his rants. He was always a sweaty person, but she didn’t expect to almost slip out of his grip. This isn’t about you, Sam. That was why she made this choice. She knew Sheriff wouldn’t deny him; he killed enough today. “This is my downfall not yours.” She pulled him in for a hug, regretting it as his shirt stuck to hers. “You need to take a shower, bud.”

Samson gave a weak laugh. “I’ll remember that you said that,” his voice broke. He pulled himself away.

“I’m sorry but you won’t.” I have to do this for you. She didn’t let him respond. White mist surrounded his feet, spinning like a mini tornado. She touched his face and focused—despite all the things going in her head—on his memories. She began erasing better than the soft pink end of a pencil. From his memories of the world, to any incriminating evidence that anyone here could use against him, and ended at the person he was before. He knew too much about her, about them, to leave him with anything. Her gift was a clean slate. “You won’t remember me or anyone. You’ll be innocent. You’ll be free. Father won’t search for you.”

Celine’s cracked mind whispered nasty things in her head, the real reason. She didn’t want him to see her like this. She was slipping. Either he deserved to remember her at her best or none at all. If that took taking away everything he was, so be it.

Dutifully, Samson nodded as she wiped his memories clean one by one. She cracked every memory until they broke into a million pieces. At first, he tried to struggle. That didn’t work for anyone. But, he knew that; she almost ripped him apart before. This was different. She proceeded gently than before, careful not to cause any lasting damage (unlike she did with herself). His eyelids drooped lower and lower until they closed. When he woke, Celine wouldn’t even cross his mind. In a way, she was killing Samson as much as she was killing herself. “Goodbye, Samson.” You gave me all you can give. Thanks for that.

Sheriff caught him after the process finished. He placed him on the same bed that Celine herself once laid. “I respect you enough to keep him safe,” he said.

“You don’t have a choice. I took all your evidence away that he was even an Ancestor. The people won’t agree with killing a man who doesn’t remember much of anything.”

“They saw him with you.”

“Were they looking at him? You’re just afraid to have someone nearby under your command. Don’t worry, if he’s anything like himself, he’ll be more than a little rowdy. This way, you’ll have someone that you trust because he’ll know nothing else. He always knew nothing else.”

“You may have saved him; but you may have condemned him to something far crueler.”

“Nothing is crueler than what will come next if I didn’t.” Celine pushed her way to the door, keeping her head down. “You were right. I dug this grave for myself, now I have to lie in it alone.”

“That’s all any of us can do.”

Pity. Sheriff’s voice had pity in it. What a horrible world they lived in if they found middle ground there of all places. She left him to make the descent down the Spiral. It would be easier this time around. She was already falling.

_

Halo found her underneath the tall trees with multi-colored leaves and winding vines. She waited for them to come there. No need to run anymore.

Celine had left the Dark Rainlands the moment she made peace with Samson and her sins. She thought she had anyway. Seeing Halo brought all different types of emotions flushing within her. All the progress that he made was gone. He lost his form, leaving no choice but to fill a large black gas suit from head to toe. She couldn’t see his face. He had none, just crackling blue plasma behind the glass lens. He huffed; his form making long sounds like the wind itself as he took inhales and exhales. “Millie’s dead, Cassandra.” Not even his voice made it, just a chorus of ambient whispers from underneath his gas mask.

“I know.” The words came so easy that she might have thought it was a reflex.

The trees too whispered, loud enough to rival even Halo’s voice as it traveled. Celine sat against one of these trees. The back of her head bounced against the rough bark. Dry mud caked around her feet and legs. Spiders ran up her arms, scurrying everywhere for safe passage. Why couldn’t she have safe passage too? Right. She caused too much pain. Halo was here to take her away. “I’m sorry about Millie.”

“She didn’t deserve that,” Halo said. “We needed both of you. What took you so long?”

“I was too busy betraying Phillip.”

The truth startled him. Maybe it didn’t. She couldn’t tell. “Phillip’s dead?”

“I killed him.” I might not have wielded the knife, but I killed him though. Celine rolled one of her palms upward to see a congregation of black spiders in her hand. “I wanted this to stop.”

“By killing our brother? How was that going to make this stop? Everything was fine!”

“Everything wasn’t fine, Hal,” Celine interrupted, “we can pretend all we want to. Dad isn’t going to stop trying to punish this world for what happened to Jaden. One assassination attempt ended in the death of our little brother. He’ll never stop.”

“But he’s been passive up until now. Killing Phillip will only ignite him. Is that what you wanted?”

“No. I wanted him to stop.”

“You aren’t going to get that especially with people like the Drifter and the Sheriff around. You made things a lot worse for everyone.”

“Did I?” Celine couldn’t hold it in anymore. She guffawed into the morning sky above her. Cold, fresh air bathed in her lungs as she looked up at him. “It was bad before. We could’ve been happy without the Ancestors. Without the revenge. Without the hate. Yet, I’m the one that made it worse. Maybe I did. Maybe I ruined everything. I just wanted everything to be back to normal. Maybe I was stupid thinking that grief my snap our dad back into place like it broke him. Is that wrong, Hal? How come grief ruined everything? Why did everyone have to pay for it?”

Halo tripped over his words. He’s angry. She knew he was. Millie was his world. Millie brought him happiness despite everything. No one can make him half as happy. “I have to bring you in, Cass. I have no choice.”

“I wasn’t running from you. I wasn’t running from anyone.” A fleeting moment and a foolish thought told her to fight him. But, how far could she go? What could she do to harm a Formless? She already killed one brother, was two really that different? No. This time she lacked another hand to pick up the deed for her. She buried the thought with that. Her fingers still itched with it though. Survival only got a person so far. “How’s Daddy doing? He’s probably worried sick about me. I should pay him a visit.” She giggled.

“He’s not going to take it well. Hell, I’m not taking it well.”

“The only reason you haven’t attacked me is because you’re too busy grieving.” Those words slipped out of her mouth. She shrugged when she realized she said them. “In the end, I hurt everyone.”

“You aren’t planning on…”

“I am.” There was a certain freedom in this. Amongst the blackness of her head, she made her choice. Dignity drove her to at least not cry. She already did that. It was behind her. Now it was time to face the music. She dusted her pants clean, allowed the spiders to scamper off her, and stared at the blazing sky. “Do you hate me, Hal?”

“You conspired against us.”

“That wasn’t the question. I asked: do you hate me?”

“I’m more confused than anything. Hurt and confused.”

“You still didn’t answer the question. It’s simple. Two words. One or the other. Yes or no. Do you hate me, Hal?”

He paused. Are you frowning? Am I the enemy of the tale in your head? “No. Not yet.”

“You’re stupid. You should hate me,” Celine shook her head. “If you don’t already, you’re nostalgic or just plain dumb. Hating me would have kept Phillip alive. Hating me is wise. One day you’ll figure that out. Maybe today.” She walked slowly to his side, wrapping her arm around his. It was heavy, but not anything like a person, as though she was holding a display at a fire station. Something about the warmth he produced, a comforting glow that ascended normal light, made her smile. “We’re a horrible bunch, aren’t we?”

The question was rhetorical, so she hadn’t expected an answer at all. “You’ve given up.”

“No. I plan to give dad all I have. That’s the complete opposite of giving up. Now, let’s stop stalling Hal. You need to get back to Millie’s revenge and I have a grave to fall into.” Celine pressed her head on his shoulder. It folded like a stiff pillow. “Phillip’s dead, Hal,” she said again. “Of course, I’ve already told you. Maybe I don’t believe it myself.”

“Phil once told me, ‘the dead has it easier than the living’. Do you think that’s true?”

“What’s the truth to a liar?”

“I suppose it’s whatever they aren’t telling you.”

Celine giggled at the unexpected response. It was good. He was catching on. Too late though. “To answer your question, yes. He has it easier than we do right now. Let’s go already, steed. Become dad’s hero, his prodigal and last son, and realize that I didn’t do anything wrong by trying to get him to stop. Was sacrificing our little brother the right way to do it? Maybe not. In the end, though, you’ll realize that we all pay prices.”

“Hold on. Try not to fall off.”

“I won’t.”

No one told her that flying was euphoric. She learned that as the entire world around her lightened as though gravity itself was removed. She felt her legs lift from the ground and she saw the leaves on the crown of trees. They went higher and higher until those same trees were specks below them. Halo led her through the sky and thought to touch the clouds. They were so close. I’m going home. I hope you at least cooked dinner, Dad. That was all she thought as she soared over the land by the hands of a star.

17

Summit of the Beasts

Tonight, we gather as beasts amongst men, lawmakers amongst kings, devils amongst angels to propose a way out of hell.”

The city sacking and looting persisted through several days and nights. Wood began losing count on how many stories that he heard about in the last day alone. The Ancestors, to their credit, did have a strong hold over the area—a weary peace, some called it. Without their presence, the people began to fight among themselves like rabid dogs over a bite of meat on a dried out bone. Drifter made used of this. Desperate people looked for a savior, more often than not. And here he was.

Ruling a city wasn’t on Drifter’s agenda per say, though the blind old man did enjoy fixing it. He ironed out some problems and formed a sanctuary to those who haven’t given into the savagery. All the credit wasn’t given to him they learned. They soon found out about other “fixers” in the city. It began as whispers of a justice darker than black but swifter than the guillotine. Sheriff, they called him. The Messengers, a shadowy organization in themselves, had taken him in years ago. That piqued Drifter’s interest. When something piqued his uncle’s thoughts, they sought it out. That was simple as far as Wood saw it.

Finding the Sheriff proved to be a certain kind of difficult. Criminals, the harsher ones, just disappeared. Sometimes a day—or hours, depending on the mood of the Sheriff, Wood supposed—the bodies would show up. Hanging and beheading seemed to be this man’s favorite. Got a traditionalist, here. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting about them after the first few bodies though. Sheriff lacked creativity on the subject; admittedly, it wasn’t everyone’s strong suit. When Wood told Drifter that thought, he laughed for a good few minutes.

Now, they just walked down a long street, towering ruins walling them on each side. The alleys between stretched on, harboring animals that knew better than to fight things higher up on the food-chain. Wood only had to hurt one man. The creature lured too close, trying to mug a blind man and his nephew discussing business. He brandished a knife and Wood did the same. Not in the literal sense, he hadn’t used a knife in a good while. The only thing that stopped a full transformation and a dead man was Drifter. They had better things to do.

“Say whatever about ‘em, the Ancestors kept this place together from going to shit,” Wood said, still wiping himself clean from the mugger’s ill-fated attempt.

“Just ‘cause you taped something together, doesn’t mean that it’s whole, my boy.”

Wood laughed, he only had to look at a mirror to know that was true. “Where do you think we’ll find this Sheriff?”

“I’m not sure.” Drifter gave a soft smile under his cascade of white hair to match his soft shrug. He was cherry-picking the words in his mouth lately. Something was on his mind. Or rather it was on someone that he kept under the floorboards. Ragnar, or what was left of that once proud beast, was the latest puzzle in the series that he resolved to pick apart and put back together. Wood felt equally perplexed by the giant. “If the Sheriff is what I think he is—I reckon I got a clue—I’m gonna need his permission first.”

“Do you need his permission?”

“No. Not exactly….”Drifter trailed off for a second. “It’s safer that way, I suppose.”

“You care what the people think about you. That’s smart.”

“You’ve always been quick to catch on.” Drifter patted Wood on the head. He always knew where his nephew was, and even compensated for his height despite his vision. Wood grinned as his uncle rubbed the crown of his head. “I’m going to do what I always do. I served the people when they needed supplies. Now, they need guidance—“

A man scurried passed them, chasing a black cat with a knife and a rather pointy stick. The hunter caught the little feline by the stomach with the make-shift spear. It took only seconds to die, curling and writhing before receiving a swift slice across the throat. He hardly even waited to find the nearest flame to cook it, licking the blood off his fingers. The smell of it wretched the stomach or watered the mouth of everyone around. But, Wood hadn’t seen a happier hunter, and he lived in the south all his life.

“Maybe we need to work on supplies too,” Drifter amended quickly, hearing the entire thing happen. “Whatever the Ancestors think they’re doing. They’re doing it wrong.”

“Some might say that about us.”

“Y’know I’m not that sort of blind. I wouldn’t be looking all over this place for a legend if I was.”

That was what they were looking for, a legend and a myth. Just hearing the murmurs of the lower people, the desperate of the desperate, and a person might get the idea that he was a god. In the slums, they heard of the executions. The story varied from person to person. Some told a more exaggerated tale that they tricked the Son of the Ancestor into a level of hell then yanked him from it to stand trial. Others told a story about the Son and his battle with what he thought was Death, only to kill his little brother Sleep instead. Fantasy and truth often got mixed together. They knew the gist of the story.

Somebody tricked Brink and he died for it.

Shame.

This was just a recent event, still fresh on their mouths. After a few of those, they looked for older ones. They told them about personal problems solved by the Sheriff, old world laws that needed to be upheld. Stealing wasn’t permitted as seen by the significant amount of amputees. Rape and any other forceful servitude weren’t allowed either. Unjust murder, everyone knew what happened with murder. Everyone, even in this backwater corner of the city knew the rules. Plenty was sure that the newcomers knew it too.

Wood and Drifter kept low most of the time as they listened. A bit of urging and questioning led them to some few good men. They shared their meal with them. It wasn’t much, just watery stews and charred unknown animals that Wood tasted first to check if they were edible. A single handed man with his young son pointed them in the right direction. Drifter gave them a knife in return as well as directions to their sanctuary. Some people are determined to be nice, no matter the circumstances. Those people kept humanity alive.

Stars and the moon above them splashed light into their path as they looked for the market. Drifter contently chewed on the bone of what they assumed to be a squirrel or a rat or something with four legs. “One good thing about being blind,” Drifter told him between searching for charred skin with his teeth, “Don’t have to see what I’m eatin’.”

“Not that you’ll mind that much anyway,” Wood japed.

“True enough.”

It wasn’t long before they arrived at the lane of merchants that the older man spoke about. From the tales, Wood expected a smaller affair. What he got couldn’t have been any different, a thriving bartering market system. People of many skills and trades used their abilities to rebuild this world. Food and water, of course, was the first to go. Farmers stood with the highest level of protection. Faceless men and women armed with melee weapons and firearms nodded as they passed them. Mechanics were as protected, considering the exodus from the city. The most plentiful of these were the clothes and miscellaneous merchants. Some made the stuff they sold, others raided inside and out of the city to get their items. Sheriff allowed certain amount of scavenging, as long as no one died.

Drifter made nice with a lot of the merchants on his way through the markets. As a trader and one of the most powerful men in the Territories, people knew him well enough. Most thought he was dead considering no one fought the Ancestors and won until recently. In this environment, he transformed into a smooth business man, who somehow lost is suit in favor for grunge and practicality. His cane helped this transition, making him look even more regal regardless of what he wore. His gnawing on the animal bone at least helped Wood to stay grounded in Drifter’s sudden change.

He didn’t talk for long. They shoved their way through, careful of any person that got too close. Some of the faceless guards noticed them. A few scurried off. They’re off to tell someone important. Oh goody.

After a few more stops, they made it to a bar or a club called the Dragon. A wide-shouldered Asian man with fine black hair and stubble met them at the door. He bowed low as though he expected the visit. “Wood, Drifter, we were told of your coming. Please, come right in.”

“Expectin’ us.”

“Mr. Wood, we have expected you two for quite some time since your arrival here. Even before.” His voice was perfect, subservient, and cold. The bouncer didn’t raise his head from his bow. “Do you want me to take you to your seat or do you have somewhere else to be?”

“Since we’re expected,” Drifter finally tossed his bone away, “no need to keep our host waiting.”

“That’s a fantastic choice, sir. Please, do come in.”

The doorman rose from his bow and turned on his heels with a smile on his face. The stocky man moved with a certain grace as they followed him in. It was the same sort of movement Wood saw from the faceless men. Though this one did have an expression to read, there was nothing to read. Yes, he smiled, but nothing reached his eyes, cheeks, or eyebrows like he froze the muscles in his face. A chill settled down Wood’s spine.

That same chill was in the air, rolling down his skin with icy fingers. Warmth mingled within this feeling as he walked past the stoves and the burning fire. Shadows stretched long against the walls, dancing with every spark. People stood in those shadows, huddled in thick poorly-made leather coats. They stiffened and watched on pins and needles. Each step brought their cold, dead eyes leaning forward from the pitch darkness. Maybe it was those glares that made the room so frigid.

The patrons heaved a heavy breath as they retired deeper into the building.

Wood guided Drifter’s steps, holding to one of his gloved hands. The doorman led them to a small side room. The shutters gave them small amounts of white moonlight. Small wax candles glowed on a circular table, swaying their flames back and forth from the draft in the room. Much like the rest of the Dragon, the inside of its belly had some warmth but Wood couldn’t ignore the chill. A dark skinned woman invited them in. Even with the candlelight, her form changed every second. She was an enigma and one of the people they were looking for. Their guide announced her in his clear accent-less voice: “I present to you, Anima of the Messengers.”

“Thank you, Jiro. You can leave us sweetie.”

Jiro bowed again in a reverent respect. He excused himself out of the room and closed the door behind him.

“Would you like something to eat?” Anima asked as her guest took their seats.

“I’ve already ate,” Drifter said. Wood just shook his head. “From what I’ve heard, your group is fond of anonymity. It makes you quite hard to find. Luckily, you decided to make yourself known.”

“It’s a shame you can’t see the masks I put on my people. They’re absolutely gorgeous. It’s a shame that savage robbed you of your sight.”

“It’s difficult to adjust to,” Drifter began. “But it’s funny you don’t need to see to notice someone is wearing a lie. I hear it in your voice.”

Anima found Drifter’s counter so amusing that she took a drink of water. “That’s so true, Drifter. So, what brought you all this way? What did you come for?”

“I wanted to invite you, both of you, to a little get together we’re having. A summit of some sort to discuss Territorial diplomacy.”

Wood searched the room with his eyes to see what Drifter felt. His vision took time to readjust to the various tricks the lights pulled on him. Even it took time then. It was like searching for the last word in a word search through all the penciled circles. A shadow, a ghost, stood in the corner of this room. His body was small, compact, and thin. His right hand clutched a gun; his left touched the dog tags on his chest. What startled Wood into sitting up were the man’s pale eyes that found him. Rimmed with a small glowing red iris, the ghost stepped forward. He knew this man. He knew him well enough.

“Sheriff? What do you think?” Anima asked. “Should we go to this shindig ?”

Only the crackling of the flame responded to her words at first. Sheriff cocked his head to the side, sizing up Drifter. “I’m interested in what you have to say.” Without a doubt, that was his voice. What happened to you though? “I’ve heard about your attack on the Den. Crude, but effective.”

“Can’t be calling the kettle black, now can we? Whatever happened at the Rupture wasn’t rainbows and cotton candy.”” Wood smiled. Hypocrisy was funny like that.

“Hm.” Sheriff shrugged, rubbing his fingers thumb against the metal of the gun. “That’s true I suppose. It depends on how you look at it. But…” he trailed off. “What did you have to accomplish taking the city? Are we trading one tyrant for another?”

“Are you?” Drifter arched an eyebrow. Never once did he turn his head in the direction of the Sheriff’s voice. “Do you really doubt that?” A flash of a hurt expressions glinted in the sightless eyes of his uncle. Wood forced himself to reel in his anger. “Do you doubt me?”

“I don’t doubt anything anymore.”

“You’d think after all this time you’ll be a better liar than this. Which of us do you doubt the most? Do you doubt us or do you doubt you?”

Two years had passed since Corporal Graham and a few others died at the Moonlight Marches. He lost his memories the first time he died. What happened this time? Did he lose something more important? Wood saw nothing in him, just a gaping pit of empty driving for a just cause. He knew that look too. They were more the same, more than either cared to admit. You’ve lost so many people that you care about and you only see more bodies pile up.

“We’ll come to your summit,” Sheriff reassured. “If I don’t like what I see, I can’t promise that I’ll stay.”

Drifter frowned. “The fact that you’re startin’ to pool me with the rest shows that we need some quality time together, don’t you think? I promise you that we’re on the same side.”

“You can’t promise me that. Not with words.” Sheriff cleared his raspy voice. “Torture these people any longer and I’ll make sure that I’ll go through you or anyone else, debt or no.

The wind howled and all the candles went out. The tension rose and rose as they sat in the dark. Rain pattered outside. Sheriff’s form in the dark still held the gun. Are you pooling us with the rest, Graham? Are we that much like the rest that you think we’re here to hurt your people? Wood’s instinct wrestled against his better judgment.

“Alright. Alright boys,” Anima said breaking up the rising fight. “Let’s hear each other out before making this a war. We’ll meet you later on this evening. And remember, do be courteous and bring some refreshments. We know what you did to the last hosts of the Den. That was pretty rude.”

_

In the crystallized court meant for gods, mortals planned their next move.

Wood held Drifter’s hand as they entered through the wooden gate. Moonlight poured from the ceiling like milk into a bowl. Every crystal of every color around them was alive with light. Drifter’s cane tapped against the hard floor, the only clear sound among them. The voices bounced off the walls to sound more far off than they were. The Caravan members were still just shapes in a room way too large for them to fill alone. From the front door, he began to see that their people made themselves comfortable in someone else’s home. Just like us to take over and then pretend like we’ve been here the entire time. Southern hospitality right here.

Crisum and Tyrus ushered them in from the doorway and flanked them down the path. The rest already sat in the chairs and benches engrained on the rim. Pub and Haggis reclined together on the far in, heads up and telling japes to each other. Beside them, Lysandra sat sideways in one of the chairs, her feet swinging on the arms. On the other end, Heron crossed one leg over her knee as she watched the door with curiosity. Harodo watched in a different way with a remarkable level of sternness despite his wrapped ribs. Bardon, a seasoned veteran and friend of Drifter, took one of the middle seats as head of the council.

Wood helped Drifter into the center seat and then took the one to his right. The seats weren’t comfortable at all. They were hard, just slabs of stone fashioned in a way to only inflict back pain on its victims. Wood let his eyes wander again. What was this place? The idea of it still daunted him. Whatever they thought about the Ancestors was wrong. This, whatever it was, wasn’t a recent event. These people were something more. To combat them, they needed all the help they can get—even if they needed to use some level of coercion.

The first of this help arrived in the form of a dead man. When he entered the room, all the caravan members stopped what they were doing. Bardon, Harodo, and Lysandra excluded, everyone knew this man pretty well. Heron laughed. She laughed and giggled until her throat failed her. Then she just stopped abruptly. Sheriff acknowledged her with only his eyes and said nothing. Do you even remember us?

Sheriff rolled in with a light company— himself and another man, a thin darker skinned fellow with black eyes. Wood recognized him from somewhere, but couldn’t quite point it out. From his expression, he didn’t seem to know either. The Middle Eastern man creased his eyebrows into a strong “v” on his forehead. Sheriff spoke to him in whispers. Looks like he found his deputy. And he’s making plans if this little meeting doesn’t go to his liking. Everyone here knew to be careful and win him over, no matter the cost.

“Sheriff.”

“Drifter.”

Tyrus took a deep breath. “Are you who I think you are?”

“No. But, I remember who you are, Tyrus.”

“Do you?” Tyrus asked.

“Not as much as you might like.”

The last surviving member of Graham’s squad fell silent. The look on Crisum’s face looked apprehensive, though she wanted to hug her best friend.

As much as they wanted to continue, the last members of the Summit arrived. If Sheriff rolled light, Anima had a full blown entourage. She left guards outside and no doubt they guarded the proximity too. Wood saw her this time in the moonlight as a young lanky dark woman. She tied her black hair to one side in a long ponytail. To her, the occasion warranted formal attire. She wore a white, flowing and off the shoulder dress that trailed behind her. She held her head high and walked with a grace of a mermaid in water. Two men in tuxedoes walked her down the aisle, stone faced. Common knowledge told Wood that these things weren’t possible. Her appearance…the clothing…

Then it hit Wood like a truck. She can morph bodies. No. It went deeper than that. What was the extent of this? What could she change in the human body?

“It appears that we’re all here!” Anima stretched her arms as though arriving at her own wedding. “And it appears that we have more than one of the Formless in our presence. The odds.” The spokeswoman of the Messengers giggled. “I suppose we all have tricks up our sleeves, eh, Drifter?”

Drifter stroked his beard. “As long as we all play nice.”

“Don’t worry,” Anima said as her men brought her a seat. “We aren’t a violent people. Well, the three most powerful forces in the Dark Rainlands are here. What do we have to discuss?”

Wood didn’t know this answer himself. Drifter kept this plan close to his heart. That didn’t mean that the ideas didn’t soak in his head. The Ancestors were a strong force. Only through cleverness and some degree of luck did any of the groups here have an upper hand on them. That wasn’t enough to hold an area, especially since they also had a strong hold on the Moonlight Marches for the time being. How long, though? How long would they last?

“The Territories are a torn place,” Drifter began. “And here we stand divided too. Up until this point, we worked separately, cogs individually placed on the table instead of in a clock. Now. Now. We’ve done our parts up until this point. Isn’t it about time that we put the pieces together?”

“Are you suggesting that we should have an alliance in these terrible times?” Anima’s surprised tone didn’t match her body language at all. “An alliance is nice when both sides get what they want. Or in this case, three sides.” Anima smiled towards Sheriff. He didn’t smile back.

“And what are you trying to accomplish,” Sheriff asked instead.

Sheriff’s going to be harder to convince. Anima is just playing a game.

Drifter rubbed the arm of his chair as he contemplated. A single absent gesture told a lot of stories. The length of his stringy white hair, reaching down now to his upper chest and back, gave him a certain amount of regality. In comparison to Anima, he wore only in a pair of faded jeans, old boots, a tank top, and a dirty blue patterned button-up. The old man didn’t look the part of royalty. Somehow, he did though. Even Anima couldn’t rebuke that they were equals. “How long before they fire back at us? How long will it be before the Ancestors weeds us out like pest? Even now, holding what we have is posing difficult. One day…we will wake up and find a full war on our doorsteps. How would will deal with that apart?”

“I guess we don’t. With our covers thinning, we don’t have much of a choice. But I’m going to need more.” Anima sighed.

“How ‘bout some incentives? I only brought a small amount of weapons, ammo and supplies here. I have more.”

“How much more?”

“A lot more,” Sheriff answered for him.

“And how would you know that, dearie?” Anima gave a half of a shrug. She even turned her head to see Sherriff’s reaction. He had none. That amused her even more. Hurry up and make friends with our little Heron over there.

Drifter fought off a smile, so much so that it tugged at the corner of his mouth. “We worked together before.”

Sheriff ignored the reminiscing like most people avoided high school reunions. “You’re going to provide some supplies for the Messengers, but I doubt that’s all that they want.”

“Why you have to be like that, hun?” Anima waited. She ended up leaving the conversation empty handed. “But, honeycakes was right, I didn’t come here to be fed and supplied. The supplies are all nice and good. But I want something else. Something much more important. It’s sort of cramped in this city. I want a guaranteed safety as we migrate to safer grounds”

The McLanahan brothers perked up. “What makes you think we can provide that?” Pub barked.

“I have to agree with the ginger brutes over there. Nothing’s guaranteed. It’s simply not something that we can provide.” Heron knew better than that. She was goading them; she winked at Wood.

“How ‘bout this? If you can take Paton and Henderson back down to the Moonlight Marches, the protection of their tanks will be yours. At least until you can take an inhabited region of your own.” Wood liked his plan, and so did his uncle. “You can even take Lysandra. She knows her way back the best.”

“I want to see my dad again,” Lysandra agreed, swinging her feet. Dr. William Gustav.

“And we get to fucking drive again!” Haggis and Pub both loved Lysandra; maybe not as much as they loved their tanks though. “That sounds like a bloody good exchange.”

“That’s the best I can ask for.”

Anima and Drifter discussed the finer points with the group in soft words. Drifter will supply the food and ammo to the return voyage. Anima provided her swiftest traveler, Hermes. Together they would go to assist Pub, Haggis, and Lysandra to receive the tanks. They were going to settle in a bandit controlled territory of the Jagged Strips, once formerly Michigan. The snow and ice gave everything Anima wanted for her recruitment services. Once in the territory, Drifter’s men were safe to return. “Alright, that’s good enough.”

All the talking left some dry throats. Water and refreshments came in by some of the serving people. A few stayed and like the job enough for their saviors. Though far from a proper meal, there was enough for everyone. Sheriff didn’t eat or drink anything even when offer conventional and more non-conventional sources of food. He did serve his food off to his silent partner, the man lost in thought. The man picked at his food hopelessly, trying to remember something important. Sheriff told him countless times to eat to get his strength up. How many times have you told yourself that Sheriff? Wood wondered. How many did you eat to get this strong?

Only when the intermission ran its course did the discussions begin again. “You have a prisoner, I’ve heard.” Sheriff stated more of a fact than a rumor. “Who is it?”

“Who do you think it is?” Heron answered. “What makes you think that we have a prisoner at all?”

“I know Drifter. He didn’t kill him.”

“But how do you know? You could have very well heard wro—“

Drifter put up his hand. “I’ll answer it, Heron. I do have a prisoner and it is who you think it is.”

“Why is he alive then?” The spark of anger grew in a flame in Sheriff’s body. His voice tone remained cold and distant despite the heat in his eyes. “He deserves to be dead.”

“And you deserve to be dead too.”

Bardon’s voice came out in a whisper, but everyone heard it. “You brought my daughter to her death; do I hold that against you? Yes, I know who you are. You don’t have a clue who I am. I’m Rachel’s father. ” Bardon’s words caught everyone off guard. Sweat oozed down the dark man’s face as he struggled to get the words out of his mouth. Most of the journey here, his spare time involved bottling his emotions. This was where it broke. “How did she die? Was it protecting you? Why did you come back? Why? Tell me?” He got to his feet in a sharp motion, breathing heavy. “Did she die for you or anyone else?”

Anima’s face turned serious. “Yes, tell us why, Sheriff.” Something about the way her voice changed bothered Wood on a physical level. She wasn’t stringing them along. She wasn’t playing nice. What place did Anima have in all this?

Sheriff told the story as an observer. He didn’t drop a single detail. Everyone focused on his face and his body. They were looking in the wrong places. Drifter leaned over, mid-story. “Close your eyes, my boy.” He told him. Wood closed his eyes, listening to the words and not the face attached to it. On the surface, Sheriff masked David Graham on all fronts. There were cracks unfilled though. Some words he stressed more than others. Some he ran through. Whenever a death came into the story, he broke off the sentences with a harsh crack. He regretted it. He regretted being alive. This new persona did have some of the Marine, a twisted remainder of an unfinished math problem.

They fought in a hospital, miles away. Desperation led to some quick choices, a few they could have died from. That didn’t get the Ancestors, River, and Ragnar off their tails. They trapped them in a room. Sheriff explained the world around, going back deep into a dead man’s memories. Rachel was the first to die, horrible and sudden amongst the sea of green flames. Then one by one they fell. Sheriff repeated some of the words, almost in a robotic tone. “She died. They died. He died. They shot them. She burned him. He died.”

Anima shook him out of that stupor.

He closed the tale with his own ‘death’. His resolved returned then. No tone, no influxes, not even a shred of regret in his own death. He thinks he deserved that. The prospect wasn’t an unheard of thing. Wood remembered his thoughts after realizing his murders in the old world. Death rubbed its fingers so close around him; he thought he died in prison. They each had failures and triumphs in the light and dark. “That is how we died,” Sheriff said as Wood opened his eyes. He saw it then, the dog tags on his chest.

“Those aren’t yours.” Wood knew regret, grief, and pain. No one hid it well.

Somewhere along the line Harodo stood with Bardon. They shrank deeply into their respective chairs, furious but with glimmering with understanding. The Hispanic man bit his lower lip so hard, tearing skin from it until it bled. The latter just collapsed, fingers pitching his nose. Tears filled both of their eyes.

Harodo gave a deep, savage grunt. “Juv died because of those bastards. And you had to watch.”

“Graham did.” Wood no longer found it weird that they were separate in Sheriff’s head. Graham died with the rest. “That is why I want Ragnar. He was a part of this.

“You can’t have him,” Drifter said. “Hear me out before you blow a gasket. He’s mine to punish. Killing him is final. Breaking him takes far longer. He has some potential to stop the person that started all this. But we need a little girl to join our party first?”

There’s the hook. Now here comes the fish.

“What do you say, Sheriff? You help me with the things that you do best. I’ll bring you our little River.”

“What’s the catch?”

“You can’t kill her when she gets here. You have to think bigger. There are so many things around us that you can’t understand.” Drifter opened his arms to show off the shining illumination around them. “We can’t begin to comprehend everything that we got into. We need all the help we can get. After this is all done, we can kill each other. For now, we need to work together.”

“How can you trust her?” Anima asked the question, though it formed on Sheriff’s fleshless lips.

“No. I ain’t expectin’ anyone to. I even owe her something horrible. So don’t think she’s getting off scot-free. Yet, we need what we need. We can’t bring down a giant on our own. We need…people. People we like, people we dislike, people we feel indifferent to, people we hate, people we love. Everyone. We need everyone. The time for sneak attacks and petty squabbles are over.” Drifter drained his cup dry. “Sometimes you don’t choose your allies. Sometimes your allies are given to you.”

Anima raised her cup and sipped it. “This is turning out to be an interesting friendship. I should have thought of it sooner.”

_

River harnessed the power of her namesake and ran as hard as her legs allowed. The length of her blue-black hair streamed behind her in ribbons. Enemies haunted every step, thirsting for her blood. She imagined them as summer wasps in her head. She always hated wasps. They swarmed, stung, and left as though nothing happened. That was how her assailants worked. They attacked, leaving her bloody. She outran them only to run into another hive. Who were they working for: Drifter or the Ancestors? Or was it someone else she pissed off? Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’ll kill them all.

At least she told herself that. She wasn’t sure anymore. A small part of her regretted that she made so many enemies in such a small amount of time. Now she didn’t have a shield to even hide behind. Hide wasn’t the exact word she wanted. Before someone else took the fall before she crashed on the floor. This time, she had to take all of it and she didn’t like that much.

Her mind drifted to Ragnar as she jumped into the deep brush. She heard him laughing, chiding her for her failures. That stung worse than these insects that attacked her at every whim. You won’t be laughing for long. That was what she wanted. She wanted the laughing to stop and everyone to bow in respect.

River ran through the thick trees and briars. Miles away inwards from the White Water Crossing, the land went from a mixture of bone lands and plains to deep forest again. She stopped to clean the wounds on her arms and legs. Her fel-flames cleaned the tears of her skin, cauterizing them for infections. These useless flames did nothing before. The battle with Wood played over in her head. She knew her weakness. Once people overcame the initial fear of the flames, causing damage became…problematic. Defeat tasted awful, bitter and unsavory. It upset her stomach the first few days. Weeks later, she just thought about it. You won’t embarrass me again.

That may have to wait though. Survival came first. Not her best skill, no doubt. Her knowledge of the woodlands and what was and was not edible was meager at best. The weather, the hunger, and the solitude mixed together in her head. The cold killed people. Loneliness didn’t. Together they might. Thoughts like that churned her stomach even more.

She pushed through the leaves to a small clearing. River took quiet steps forward. Sounds of water mingled in the fresh air that filled her lungs. Above her, an afternoon sun burn dimly through a blanket of fresh white clouds. In the middle was a small brackish lake surrounded by mushrooms and filled with some sort of mutated fish. Something about it felt wrong. A quaint little places like this made excellent camping spots. Yet, no one was here: not a bandit, not a struggling family or camp, and not a soldier in sight. There was no such thing as peace in this land.

Step by step, the feeling grew in her. Eyes were everywhere. How many pairs were there? The wasps never left her. No matter how far she got, no matter where she went. They went. Even through bruised arms, aching legs, a trembling heart, and a headache rivaling anything she ever felt, she continued forward. I’m not going down without a fight. That begged the question: how much fight did she have?

I’ll find out soon.

Flames danced at her fingertips again as she felt the hate and fear within her. Long ago, she was a scared, small, stupid, foolish little girl that knew only fear and obedience. River Valentine knew better now. That little girl might still live in her. Nothing will make her feel that way again. She gave people something to fear now.

One arc of her palm ruined the tranquil clearing into a brilliant sea-colored inferno. Trees snapped as though split by lightning. Leaves danced down to the ground eaten by the fires that consumed them. Even the water stood helpless to her power, burning on the surface. No. I won’t back down here. I won’t be a victim. Not you. Not anyone will look down on me.

The wasps answered her thought with a long chain sailing through the air. The metal caught her around the neck, ripping her to the ground. She scratched at it for a while, her own flames causing the links to heat up hotter and hotter until the links branded her skin. She howled in pain, a backlash of her own fear. Only out a pure desperation did she stop as she twirled helplessly through the dirt. Wounds reopened as they dragged her through jagged rocks, thick roots, and the dried land underneath the grass. They didn’t even wait to wrap her up by these chains. A sharp pain ran up both of her wrists and ankles. She couldn’t move.

“We got you.”

That accent made her smile through bloody teeth. Did Grigori send his ghouls? That was so unlike him. Why keep her alive to hunt her down like a dog? “Well. What brought you boys to find me?”

“Saving your…life.”

“Ivan was it,” River asked squirming. She recognized those steel-colored eyes. Everything in them struggled with not killing her. You’re under order not to kill me. She killed many of his kind to get to this point. “You might want to let me go now, Ivan?”

“I—I try to talk to—“

Ivan flew his head back at the right moment, avoiding the dragon’s breath from River’s mouth. That earned her a tight squeeze around the neck, metal biting into her already soft skin. The big Russian twisted his weapon to the point that she had no choice but the scream out. “You quiet,” he shouted, losing his English along the way. I’m going to burn that ugly brown beard off that blocky pale face. He composed himself. “They told me to bring you back alive. For own safety. Even if I want to kill you.”

“Oh did they now?” She wanted to say that at least. What came out was a painful croak.

“Nysaia told me the break any limbs… if necessary.” You look so fucking proud at that word. “You will come with us. For your sake, but you will pay for your crime.” River wondered if it was the anger that broke his English or just his poor language control.

“I killed your little brother…” River loved that she got that one out. She didn’t love the foot to the side of the face. She knew this pain. In her past, she had dealt with worse. She dealt with gilded cages and the darkest dungeons in her own home. A kick in the face was nothing. It only served to make her angry. “You better kill me now to save yourself the trouble.”

“No. I will not. You serve purpose. Purpose Nysaia has seen. My brother will not kill you, but my brother will punish you.”

I’ll like to see him try. No one punishes me. No one.

18

Indoctrination and Retribution

On the first night, he tried to resist. On the second, his resistance slowed. By the fifth day, they ripped a gaping hole in his sanity. They were effective and efficient. Somewhere he lost count and who he was.”

You’re capable of much more, they told him every time they unlocked another shackle.

A long time passed since he heard the new footsteps outside of his prison. He took it upon himself to count them, one by one in his head. Or should he say two by two? Either way, he knew there were others—new people. The thought of that scared him at first, quivering and alone in the dark. Were they going to do worse than what the white one did? They sounded horrible enough, a woman with a sinister laugh and a man with the voice of gravel. He wasn’t visited by these new shadows. Only familiar devils ever graced his presence.

He didn’t even have a set schedule to keep in mind. A man needed time. A man needed time to see where he was. Without it, how did a man know he was alive? The only reason he knew it moved at all was Elena, his healer. She tended his wounds, weaving skin with careful attention. She came back every so often to heal and tend his scar. It still stung, throbbed through his abdomen and up to his chest. Sometimes it burned. He begged her to heal other parts of him, things she couldn’t just weave through. She shook her head. Save me, he thought as she walked away.

His mental pain began bearing ugly scars in his head. He was becoming scared to think. One thought was like taking steps off a snowy slope on a sharp-sided mountain. All day, he sat and listened. All night, he wept over memories. Nothing around him said anything. Rats scuttled from wall to wall in the distance. Muffled wind hummed through the concrete walls. After the first day of hearing only that and the footsteps, his mind became his best friend and his best prison. He held onto something he heard in fear of thinking about his past. It hurt to think about everything. He was losing who he was: Ragnar, Scott Owens, the Cannibal King, the Doctor, they didn’t matter anymore.

They were things.

Parts of him lost.

Or the parts of him he was losing.

The voices in his head told him that anyway. They began to listen to the things the white beast said. Some of them loved to learn he was still needed. Others just repeated words. You’re capable of much more. Who was capable of much more? Much more what? Failure. Regret. Grief. Success. Love. Happiness. What? He wanted to know. He needed to know, before he clawed out his own skull for the answer. My fingernails aren’t sharp enough. Can’t get to them anyway. Tried. Failed. Still no answer. Smashing head in might work. Yes. Might work. Still can’t. Too tight. Too scared.

The lost man brought his heavy body up. His skin was cold against the wet concrete covered in filth. Hunger stirred in his stomach. His jailer told him that he must remake his image. That meant no more human meat. Not that he had the taste for it anymore. This hunger felt better, less painful. No more people clawing out. We can’t have a cannibal with us, at least not a voluntary one. They needed something from him. But, what did he have to give?

Hours passed, or at least it felt like it. White light blinded him as he stirred awake. He had fallen asleep upright in his disjointed musing. It didn’t feel like it. He still ached and his eyes drooped from sleepiness. Saliva leaked from this side of his mouth and dripped down his chin. His skin soaked up some of his sleep slobber. I look so pale, he thought laughing. It was less because he was pasty, and more that he used “I” so intimately. That required him having a sense of self. What was that anymore?

Watching the white one walk in through sleepy eyes was amazing though. He walked with a direction, poise, dignity, and power. He wondered what that felt like to permeate such an atmosphere. Only a week ago, he thought he knew. How did he know where to go if he couldn’t see? Drifter just tapped his cane as he approached to insure he didn’t run into anything. Tap. Tap. Tap. It looked so effortless. Maybe popping out my eyes is the answer. No, that’s not right. That was his mind knocking lose again. He needed to see. He had a purpose. But, what was it? Maybe if he found it, he might lose the chains the bound him to this column. That’ll be nice.

“Evening.” Drifter didn’t even call him by his name—or a name at all.

The lost man grunted his acknowledgement.

“Have you learned your place yet?”

No. No I haven’t. A part of him clung onto some residue of rebellion. He never verbalized it. Like a dog waiting for his next bowl, he nodded earnestly. It’s too early to be losing yourself like this. What are you becoming? A voice told him, the last survivor of sanity in his broken mine. That voice stood behind killing the Drifter. It was a weak whisper that made as much sound as a star in space made to a man on earth. “No. Don’t try.” He mouthed the words to himself. “I don’t know yet,” he said. When will I know?

“You’ll figure it out. Your people are going to need you soon. Someone that they won’t be afraid of, someone to keep the wolves away. Wolves like me.”

“My people?”

“Yes, your people.”

Drifter crouched and fell into a cross legged position in front of his captive. Somebody closed the door behind them. This one had soft footsteps; no wonder he hadn’t heard it before. It also didn’t breathe. The night’s one stalked through the room, observing with pale eyes. They glowed. They did. The red in those scary eyes shone through the dark. Somewhere, deep inside, he feared that thing in the dark as much as the beast in front of him. “You wanna ask something? Go right ahead. I’m all ears.”

“What are you doing with him?” It was that raspy voiced man. The lost man shrunk in fear.

“I’m doing nothing.” His voice spun a different tale. Innocent, it sounded innocent as he poked his lost lamb with the end of his cane. But, he wasn’t innocent. Nothing was innocent about him. Not his talk. Not his words. Not his voice. Not his cane. Not his smile. Not his laugh. Nothing in him spoke of innocence. But the prisoner obeyed. By god he obeyed and listened. “I’m suggesting a few things. A man needs advice from time to time.”

The night’s one grew more interested in Drifter’s little lamb. The shape of the lean, short figure just disappeared and reappeared as a black form around the room. He made his boots heard now. Thump. Thump. Thump. Every sound rattled through his skull. “This isn’t right, Drifter. This isn’t a way to live.”

“Says the man that was voting to kill him. Make up your mind. But, I dare say son that sounded like you were antagonizing me. Are you antagonizing me? I reckon you have every good reason to.” You should be, his lamb thought. “Don’t answer that. I know the answer. You don’t know what I’m capable of. So it’s a legitimate concern. A normal person might even lose sleep over it. Why would you trade one enemy for ‘nother? But, please don’t be like that. I’m not your enemy. I just lead people where I want them to go. This is why I—and by extension you—need him.”

Drifter pointed his thin finger towards his newest pet. “People want someone that they can relate to. Someone they can love and adore. Someone that has gone through their pain. Someone who’s been at the bottom, scrapping and clawing to live. They have something to fear, someone protecting them, and someone to hold their laws up. They don’t have a person to cherish.”

“Someone they can relate to,” Drifter whispered as he lolled backwards. The white one laughed in a bitter low voice. “They need a shepherd. I can’t do it. I’m too afraid that I’ll eat the sheep.”

Even the shadow quivered at those words. The remnant of Ragnar looked up. He understood. There was a purpose. There was his purpose. He did lead those people, did talk and cuddle them in the shadows. Could he have done more? Yes. He could have. Not now though. He was weak, inferior, and lonely. He needed nothing. He deserved nothing. Not nothing. He deserved to rot. That was what he was good at. “I—“he stumbled upon the word again. “No. No. No. No. No. I won’t. I can’t. I can’t do it.” He wanted to back pedal away, to run from all this. They were talking about scary things.

Drifter sighed. “You’re capable of much more.” He told him. He produced a key from his pockets. He felt for the chain around the column that they had kept him too. A simple turn led him to freedom amongst this dark room.

He’s just an old man. You can take him now. For a moment, one single intoxicating moment, he felt like Ragnar again. The boy, the scared little man betrayed by a siren with his wife’s face, disappeared. He had his weapon, a long chain to twist around that thin neck. The one last voice in his head that clung on to some part of hope or rebellion screamed. He acted.

As to read his thoughts, Drifter grabbed at his wrist shackles and slammed his head into the column. The last voice died upon impact. Everything spun as his brain rattled in his skull. He lied there for a second, bleeding from the crown of his head. Drifter dragged him up by his face, pressing his face against the stone. The voices were so distant and his vision was so blurry. “Don’t do that,” he vaguely heard Drifter start. No more did he seem amused. “That was your balls in ice water stupid, son.”

The lost man whimpered and his head hurt.

“I’m letting you live.” Drifter’s dirty fingernails dug into his face. His yellowing teeth were close to his ear. “That’s the most gracious thing I’ve ever done to an enemy.” Drifter sounded mad and human. He was nothing like the entity that worked magic behind closed doors. His voice lowered to a hiss.

“We don’t get back on track by lickin’ our wounds.” He twisted the chains with his free hands, scarring the man’s wrist. “You lost everything. You know how it feels. That’s why people could need you. Love you. You dare think about something like that again. I might forget that I’m merciful. I got my boy to think about. Yes, he’s a grown ass man, but that’s my kin. I’m not going to leave him alone. Got that? I’ll kill you, feed you your Adam’s Apple through your open throat, and then jump rope with your lower intestines. The order isn’t exclusive.”

Drifter yanked him to the ground and regained his demeanor. He smiled again. “You have a lot to learn. That’s why I keep you down here. A lot of the townspeople want to see you. They don’t need a monster. They need a champion. Someone that’ll change something that’s been wrong for so long.” With that, he stood up. “When you have a good idea on how this whole thing works, I’ll let you go. I need you to pick up something for me.”

“Are you sure, Drifter? I can’t say that I’ll bet on turning an enemy into an ally. It’s safer to just kill him.”

The shadow was right. It’s safer to just kill me.

“He’ll come around. C’mon. My boy’s probably wonderin’ where I gone to. You.” Drifter jabbed with that horridly stiff cane. “Think about what I said.”

Like that, Drifter and his observer were gone. They soaked back into the darkness and through the door. Only when the door closed that he felt safe to get back up.

There he just stood, the knobs of his knees knocking against each other. His only courage left leaked down the side of his leg. Why can’t he just leave me alone? His fever grew worse and his head split from pain. Anger was what drove him the past few years. What did he have now that Drifter didn’t take? He thought and thought as his body shook with pain and fear. Then the thought struck him like lightning as he stared at the piss covered object at his bare feet.

_

Wood made do with what he had in this rundown schoolhouse. All morning with a little help they managed to fix up at least a few of the classrooms. They found a few stray men and women wandering in the building, sleeping there for shelter. The Messengers and the Caravan worked on providing those people with homes. In exchange, they would use this for its original purpose. It worked. When given reasonable choices, people often found a beneficial reward.

So there he was, back in the front of the class. The setting wasn’t quite how he wanted for the kids. Looters had broken every window. No electricity reached this building despite the Den a few blocks down having some. Plants webbed on the floor and on the ceiling. Graffiti painted the walls in grim reminders of what young people like them went through. Wood forced himself to clean up most of it before they got here. His best effort didn’t stop the constant snow-fall of dust and rain of a leaky ceiling. The class didn’t appear to mind though. Inwardly, Wood sighed in relief. I can’t stop myself when it comes to school-aged kids.

He only had a few books, classic literature and some encyclopedias for reference. There wasn’t much of a marker board left. Even if it wasn’t shattered, he didn’t have a marker to write with. That’s exactly why I liked chalk boards. That didn’t stop him from lecturing the class. Some observers may even say that he liked this more than his original classroom. There were no restrictions on what he could do or say. Wood was never a completely by the book teacher before this or his serial killings began. He liked bringing the class and himself some personality. The moment that he was back in front of a crowd of young pre-teens and teens, instincts just kicked in.

Mentally, he split the lessons up into different subjects. Math, literature, history, science (especially science) came to mind as he lectured from his steel trap of a memory. His lessons started in the bright mornings then melted into the weak-sunned afternoon. Some students came in for a while and left like college students. Wood saw a deep sense of longing and purpose in those eyes. They fought hard, if for themselves, for a younger sibling, or even their older parents. He respected that.

What he didn’t respect was talking in class.

“Adam,” Wood shouted, stopping in mid lecture.

A curly hair blonde kid jumped at his name called. “Sir,” he said in a startled voice.

Wood formed a deep frown that bent his entire face into an over exaggerated scowl. The moss-green of his beard and hair made him look more comical than serious, he figured. He cleared his throat, pulling his trucker cap over his eyes. “How many times have I told you to pay attention now?”

“A few?” Adam whispered.

“Try ‘bout six.”

“Six?”

“I’m being generous. Wanna tell me what Miss Lindsey had to say so important?” Wood grinned. He knew what he had to say to the dark-haired girl beside him. She reddened. “Care to share with us since I’m not saying anything important.”

Adam gulped. His fingers tapped nervously against his chipped desk. “I’ll be quiet,” he said in a low voice. The rest of the class giggled underneath their breaths. A few even started to poke fun at Adam and Lindsey’s expense. They were being kids for once. Not survivors. Just normal kids poking fun at a crush at school.

“’ey now. Don’t be throwing stones at glass houses. Y’all been acting up all day and…” Wood tried to keep a straight face through that one. He failed miserably. “Dammit guys. Can we get through a lesson without me grinning like a fool?”

Someone entered through the class room door.

“Go take a nap or something guys.”

“We aren’t kindergardeners, teach,” a girl in the back of the room cried out.

“Been acting like a bunch of them. Now get along. I need to talk with my Pops.”

The entire class turned to see Drifter standing in the doorway. More than likely, Drifter was behind that door all class. A few of the children looked in amazement for a while. No doubt, they heard stories about the Drifter’s fight against the Ancestors to seek the truth and make them pay. In their eyes, it must have looked hell of a lot simpler. Slay the bad guys and save the world. No. It didn’t work like that. The world didn’t need saving. It needed fixing, but not saving. The Ancestors were in the way of that.

“Go on, get.” Wood’s students with books in hand filed out of their class. Half gaped at Drifter on his way out. He didn’t mind or noticed.

A fool’s smile was still on Wood’s face even after his kids left. He sat down in the nearest chair, his left leg crossed over his right knee. Drifter walked through the room, carefully knocking on desks with his cane. Wood started to go help him. He didn’t need to. Drifter found a seat all on his own. He learned far quicker than he should have. Not only could he recognize the relative placement of things by sound, he sensed things…with an eerie direction. Are you going to tell me if you have some special power or not? Wood knew the answer was no.

“You’re happy here.”

“Yeah,” Wood admitted. It’s been the first time in a while that he was happy, legitimately happy.

“You can stay if you want.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I know.” Drifter rubbed his fingers against the rounded top of his cane. That, in itself, was something that bound them together. The first gift I ever gave. The thought was comforting. “You’ve done more than I’ve asked. Even after how I treated you when this began.”

“You’re worried about what comes next,” Wood thought aloud. With the Sheriff and Anima nearby things was about to get much worse. Though Drifter relished his ability to make war and even enjoyed the game enough to play it, he cared about his people. He cared about Wood the most. Some may call that a weakness, a chip in his glorious armor. The thing was everyone had something they cared about. If they didn’t in this new harsh world, there was always a noose to greet them.

“I am.” Drifter nodded his head, smiling. “I don’t ask myself why I’m doing this and a part of me enjoys it. But, I do care what happens next. Whatever the Ancestors are planning, it isn’t something I can agree with. Maybe I should left well enough alone, let them bring up this world the way that they wanted. But I picked a fight trying to figure out this before it disappeared. They had that right.”

“They took it away, why should they build it too?” Wood finished for him.

A gruff laugh filled the air. “That’s right.”

“We’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

“Yeah, we are,” Drifter said in small words. “I have a gut feeling.”

“About the Ancestors, I got it too.”

“They’ve been playing this passive. At the Den, two high ranking officers fled, and that bothered me more than I admit to others. That’s why I searched for Sheriff’s and Anima’s help.”

“Safety in numbers?”

“Yes safety in numbers,” Drifter reassured. “With Brink dead, there’s only two ways this can go. Full out slaughter or a truce.”

“You’re not expecting a truce?” Wood asked with mild sarcasm.

“Color me surprised if they do. Stepped on a lot of toes on the way.” Drifter sunk his shoulders. He looked old and tired, not the powerful warlord fighting an uprising government. “Sometimes I wish this road wasn’t so bumpy.”

Wood nodded as he thought about the kids. “I’m sorry but I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t.”

_

River woke up in a daze. Somewhere, she had passed out from the pain of her broken limbs. These morons apparently carted her off and continued to their travels. The smell of scented candles and baking bread settled in her nose. She was in a house, a rather run down piece of work. The broken hardwood planks below her gave off a sheen as though mopped clean. Above her, the ceiling had one small fan that only served as a rack for dust. Birds sung outside of her window and a man whistled a tune outside her door. River brought the freshly washed sheets to her face. They were coming in for a visit. And she already wanted to kill them.

A man, no older than twenty, walked in with his patchy beard and puffy head of curly black hair. In his hand was a tray of warm rolls lathered in butter. His skin, a light brown, glinted with beads of sweat from the morning work. Around his waist was a blue and white patchwork cloak, arms tied in a knot at his navel. He must have noticed that River was awake since he took his seat beside her bed, placing down the small tray on a nearby table. The young man just took his time, reading a small book as he waited.

After a few painful minutes of hoping that he’ll leave, River sat up. It wasn’t the wisest of choices. The pain in her arms flared up and her broken rib screamed with pain. He helped her up, checking the wrappings on her wrist. “You can’t be making sudden movements like that,” he said in a sweet voice. So sweet, in fact, River wanted to rip his throat out with her teeth. “You’ve been through a lot. Ivan wasn’t exactly gentle with you. I implore you to stay still for a while.”

I implore you to stay still for a while, she mocked in her head. River growled her displeasure.

“Play nice now. Allow me to introduce myself before you try to kill me with a blunt instrument. I’m Liam. I’ll be seeing how you’ll recover these next few months.”

“Months?” River howled.

“Yes, months. Last time I checked, your bones aren’t going to heal themselves. Well they are. But you get the point. Good thing they weren’t all broken.” River knew this man, Liam, was joking. That didn’t stop her from looking around for something sharp to stick him with. “Can you pick up something to eat at least? I know one of your arms is better than the other.”

“What do you want from me?”

“Me personally? Oh. Nothing at all. Except maybe for you to get better. Caring for people is hard work after a while.”

“You’re what now?”

“I’m caring for you, silly! Xiaoli refused the job. She’s such a grump sometimes. Taking all the easy jobs and jank.”

“Are you serious?” The question was rhetorical, of course. Still, Liam considered answering. “You’re sweet, so sweet that I may want to eat you.” She returned his sweetness with some of her own. Hers was nothing more than an act in response to his humbleness. At a moment’s notice, she could kill him. The only reason she didn’t right now was that her arms were heavy in pain. Thinking about that way, she didn’t even have the energy to create a flame to kill anything at this point. “Any reasons why you want me back to full health?”

“Eat first, and I’ll tell you.”

Liam offered her the center roll, placing it on her lap. Grabbing it with her right arm proved to be more than ineffective, so she took it with her left. He brought it to her mouth and tore away a piece. This man wasn’t the type for poisons. Try to kill me and I’ll make sure my last breath is ripping off your face. After the first chew, she almost forgot that she hated the guy.

He smiled as she ate. Another lady came in with some bottled water. Liam opened it for her. “Sorry we didn’t have any meat. Finding game in this part of the land has been more difficult the further west we’ve been going.”

“Don’t care. What. Am. I. Here. For?”

“You don’t like when it’s you without a hand to play, do you?” He smiled, rubbing through his fuzzy black puff on his head. The way he said it sounded nice, but he knew what she was. A monster. She too smiled this time, out of reputation alone. “Well. In all honesty we brought you here to handle things with Grigori. Nysaia believes it will cleanse the taint in him. Whatever that means. You did commit a heinous crime against him.”

“A crime,” River said incredulously. “I’m not sure which is more delusional: the fact that you believe there’s a law left or the fact that you think I should pay for it? You guys are ridiculous.” She took another bite from her roll.

“Hm.” Liam toyed with what to say next. “Grigori doesn’t think so. You did kill his brother?”

“You mean that furry little beast!”

“I do.”

“That’s cute. Then why nurse me back to health?”

Liam gave no answer to that, and just straightened the wrinkles in his dirty t-shirt then followed suit for his cargo pants. He stuffed one hand in his pocket. With his free hand, he grabbed himself a roll. “Just take time to get yourself together,” he said in some way of an explanation. “I’ll come back in a few to show you the answer to that question.” Like that, he was gone, the sounds of his flip flops echoing through the hallway.

Aww. Someone’s a little upset with me, River thought as she took a swig of her water. She supposed that she should have been a little grateful. Most people, and she meant a lot more, would have killed her by now. This way, she wasn’t dead. Others may be by the end of this though. She finished her breakfast with that thought.

Liam came back hours later listening to a CD. Somewhere along that line, River fell asleep. She remembered dreaming lucidly of a time where she didn’t have as much power and freedom as she did. In her dreams, she would look back into them to change those days to better fit her style. It would’ve been so easy now that I look back on it. All it took was a knife. The thought filled her with joy. Liam saw it too. “What’s got you in such a good mood?” he said taking his headphones off.

“I’m thinking about hurting you,” River said with a stark honesty. If he was going to be cheery and elusive, she was going to be cheery, blunt, and murderous.

“Whatever makes you happy!” He placed a pile of clothes on her lap. His hands, daft and quick, continued on gathering the breakfast items that he left there. “We’re going for a walk. I managed to find—and by find I mean finish jerry rigging —you a wheel-chair like thing. Well I haven’t made anything like it before. I did some carpentry on the side of my nursing job. I was multi-talented before this all happened. I guess I still am. I restore houses for people in the towns that we go to. Oh man. I’m rambling so hard right now. ”

“Are you trying to make friends?”

“Oh merciful god no. I’m just always like this. It’s better than making enemies. Alas, no. I’m not trying to make friends with you. So, do you need help getting dressed? I can call Dema in if you aren’t comfortable getting undressed around me.”

“I think I got this.”

Liam respected her privacy all the same, walking to the window. River did manage to get dressed, despite her fractured limbs and aches. She ate the pain as she slipped the pants and shirt on. She didn’t ask for his help in any stage of this. Instead, she wanted to make due on her promise. She found it in a small piece of glass on the floor. I’m not going to just go with you, she thought as she stooped, her legs protesting. The glass sliced into her hand as she picked it up. I’ve been playing sweet now…here comes the sour.

The door interrupted her.

A woman in a black Hijab walked in. She met River with raven eyes, the only thing visible besides her hands. Her fingers were long with skin of a lighter brown than Liam’s. She brought with her the wooden wheeled chair. It only took a second before she realized River had the weapon in her hand. It took even fewer to bridge the gap, seize River’s arm, and twist it behind her back to drop the shard. “I see what you were doing,” the Arab woman hissed.

“My aren’t you a perspective one? Dema, was it?”

“Do not mock me little girl.”

“Dema, let her go.”

“She just tried to kill you, Liam.”

“Let her go. No real reason to let all my good work go to waste.” Liam looked over his shoulder. He didn’t look like a man that just had his life saved.

Dema let River go with an obvious disdain. Still, she practically shoved the smaller woman into the wheelchair, and seized the handles.

“Let’s be going. I told Grigori will be there soon. We don’t want to miss the main event.” Liam pulled on his white and blue cloak. Only now did River realize it resembled Israeli’s flag.

What main event?

They didn’t explain that either. But they did cart her through the cramp one-floor-house. Liam walked through the home with his hands in his pockets. River caught him staring at the moldings, paneling of the dark walls, or something in a dark side room. He traced his finger through the dust on old pictures, frames cracked from looters. Fleeting sad moments surfaced on his face. That disappeared the second he opened the door to the outside world.

The morning was gone. Its brother, noon, took its place with a certain freshness. Around them was tall brick buildings and smaller homes like the one the group just exited. Fertile landscapes of plants bathed the place in thick shrubs and grasses. Flowers grew of all shapes and sizes, storming the wind with petals. The walkway was gone, overrun by weeds and tall grass. The road met a similar fate. River didn’t recognize the place. Everything looked so different that she couldn’t even begin to guess. She didn’t get much time to anyway. Dema rode over the terrains all the same. River wanted to kill her before. Now, she wanted to murder her with a wooden spoon. She knew that this hurt.

“Play nice, Dema.” Liam nodded with his headphones back on.

“I’ll be gentle.”

She was far from gentle on the way through the town. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. River thought as Dema took every bump and every crack that she could find. It soon got to the point that Liam took over. He took his little wooden creation with the gentleness of a well-oiled car. River growled in a different displeasure again. “Don’t worry. We’re almost there,” he whispered lowly, enjoying the warm weather around them.

No more than a short walk from where they were, they met their destination. The Circus lived up to its name now. Tents were all around in thousands of different colors, patched up from…well…her fun she guessed. Weird men performed acts for the people. A big bare-chested man with weird mutant monkeys walked past them. A post-apocalypse doll with eyes the color of mint ice cream followed them with only her gaze. These were some of the better. Some were worse. River didn’t get to inspect everything and everyone. Liam picked up speed.

When they got there, River felt underwhelmed. At first. Then she knew dread. Their leisure scroll ended at a plot of land with people huddled all around. Barrel fires crackled into the air. People stood with skewed meat over them, staring at whatever was happening in the middle of the plot. A few people roared their excitement like this was some sporting event. Others quietly watched, enjoying it like an art form. A cold shiver ran down River’s back. I’m not going to like this.

A few members of the crowd saw River, Dema, and Liam. Those few frowned. Nevertheless, they parted, exposing what was happening in the middle of the ring. Two men fought, naked from the top up and the knee down. What did cover their body was patchwork, knee-length trousers. River recognized one man as Grigori by only his small, compact frame showing deep muscles from years of training. His hair had always been long; now, it seemed frizzled and frayed as it covered his eyes. He growled like some sort of animal as he lunged at the other man with a powerful kick. He missed.

“He was mourning after you killed his brother,” Liam told her. “He didn’t like the anger that festered inside him. He feared it even. So, some of us decided to make this little league for him. He’s always been a fighter. My, is he god-blessed with that talent.”

River knew then why she was alive. “I have to fight that.”

Liam nodded as he watched Grigori take down a much larger man with a powerful kick to the legs. “Yes.” Grigori followed up with a powerful knee to the jaw. The giant tumbled down, teeth flying in all directions. “Yes. You do.”

A pit of something grew in River’s stomach as she watched Grigori stand over his opponent. He kissed the cross on his neck. She thought he was going to lick the pendent with his savage, unaligned teeth. He looked through the crowd with those steel blue eyes as he saw her. He was going to make her pay. He might not kill her, but he was going to make her regret everything. I’m scared, she realized. She hadn’t felt that way in years.

19

Jericho

Every wall came crashing down around them brick by brick until their enemies saw the heart of the city. What is one to do without their only defense?”

Grigori Zachrov wasn’t always a god-fearing man. He was quite the opposite of pious for a large majority of his life. His countrymen whispered of a beast trapped in a five foot body. They weren’t wrong. In his snowy and cold motherland, he had seen bears with less violence in its blood than him. Now, the rage grew again despite a part of his mind resisting the urge to destroy everything. Fighting helped. Fighting helped a lot.

His next opponent walked out of the circle. The dirt-blonde haired man was lean, strong, and as pale as milk. The sinewy frame of his body had a certain broadness that Grigori didn’t in his. Grigori stared at this man unfazed. I’m losing myself again, he thought. His fighting changed after he learned to center himself. He met all his opponents with grace and respect. Now, he couldn’t. They were objects; they might as well been the sandbags hanging in a gym. His mind kept going back to Boris. Everyone felt like an enemy. He hated that he thought that way. There’s blackness in me too, Nysaia.

A woman refereed the match. “You ready, Grigori?”

Grigori nodded with a dark face.

“You ready, Jean?”

Grigori didn’t see the man’s first punch through his veil of brown hair. He dodged it all the same, slapping away the punch from the long-armed man. The Russian’s footwork slid across the clay, dancing back with ease of a man born to do this. A kick soared over his head. He just watched as the man fought, spectating with cold eyes and moving mechanically. Thousands of options ran through his mind. Instincts knew where to go. The gut alone didn’t win battles. It betrayed your mind. Deer had instincts. Deer often died.

The man charged forward with a powerful knee. Grigori dodged this too. A flash of anger glinted in his opponent. He roared something in French. Apparently, the man was Canadian…and outlaw from the broken northern land. The Circus let him in out of repentance. Still the man was violent and fighting Grigori was the best option to hone him—or punish him. Most did calm down after the fight with Grigori. Only a chosen few went to the little man’s butchery again. They too learned after a while.

“Fight me!” Jean roared in English as he stopped, huffing.

Grigori lowered his gaze, letting the man get his breath. He wanted to speak to him. Tell him: I’m preoccupied with thought. Yet, he didn’t. He gave him what he wanted. A fight.

Crowds grew in excitement when a fight built up. It was always like that. When people saw their favorite competitor strike back, it made their heart jump. Grigori kept his offense simple with straight-line jabs, falling back on his boxing. The speed was fast enough. Of the three styles that he knew (and the six he dabbled in), this was his simplest. His underground mixed martial artist mentor must’ve been smiling in hell.

The sudden change caught the taller and lean muscled Jean off guard. The jabs were fast, blinding balls of flesh hurling towards his face. Jean’s long arms guarded many of the hits. His reaction was slow though. Way too slow. Grigori broke it down into simple parts, testing the water at various levels of difficulty. This won’t be enough, the hunger of the fighter told him. He slammed his fist into his opponent’s square jaw with an uppercut. That first strike back knocked Jean’s face back so hard that blood and spittle shot from his mouth. Once cracked, Jean took more and more punches than he wanted to. Head. Stomach. Ribs. Stomach. Head. Ribs. His defense went down like a baseball through a neighbor’s window. So did Grigori’s in a way. His restrictions just shattered.

Jean fought back with a strong punch as a response, abandoning his ill-made defense after a few strikes. One of his kicks struck Grigori in the jaw, forcing him to tumble back. Pain he trusted. Pain he knew. That was why Grigori figured this fate gave him this power. His nerves yelled at him, his body addicted to their abuse. Grigori’s vision blurred. Sound distorted in his ears, disorienting him. Blood swashed in his gums like mouthwash. It wasn’t pain. No he hadn’t felt that kick at all. What he did feel was that animalistic rage running underneath his soul. White energy boiled on his skin. I’m losing myself…again, he thought swaying. I have to stop.

His body didn’t stop though. Grigori blocked the next attack and kicked the man’s stomach. Grigori, as though controlled by the inner goblin, switched to one of his more dangerous styles. He wasn’t in control anymore. Jean keeled over from the blow and earned a knee to the jaw. Teeth flew in all directions. Grigori heard himself laughing in his ear. “You’re my height now,” the Russian monster said. Stop. Don’t do that. Jean tumbled on his back, eyes glazed over. The match was over.

That didn’t stop Grigori. This wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Grigori mounted himself on the man’s belly. He swung so many punches that he lost count. His knuckles didn’t hurt but they did bleed from the repeated impacts. Jean squirmed underneath, trying to overpower his lighter opponent. Desperation led to mistakes. In his panic, Jean kicked the little beast off, but on his way down, Grigori grabbed onto an arm.

Like a leech, Grigori latched on the limb tight with his arms and legs. He heard snaps as Jean tried to get his leverage better. Please. Don’t do that. His instincts kicked into high gear as he readjusted his submission. He transitioned from one position to another to clamp his legs on his throat, one leg under the other, and Jean’s arm through his legs like pulling a string through a knot. This was his favorite hold: a triangle choke.

Something about the hold brought memories back. He killed people like this. It didn’t take long, considering the wind pipe was a fragile thing in squishy case. One more squeeze and suffocation lulled the victim into death. Why did he want to kill him? Was it revenge? Jean tapped out against the ground, a sign of his surrender. Grigori didn’t notice it. No. He did. His mind registered it at least. At least he noticed his surrender when Jean vomited blood on his chest. Somewhere in hell, his mentor laughed again.

It took three to four men to get Grigori off. Liam and Ivan both dragged him away, breaking the hold with hard tugs. The other two men helped the unconscious Jean to his feet, carting him off to Xiaoli. Grigori just stood with his brother. He shook uncontrollably while taking deep breaths. The sky was above him as clear as any day. He felt the warmth of the world, the liquid on his body. “I’m sorry.”

That was when he saw her.

Liam had brought her out. He hadn’t remembered telling Liam to bring her out at first. He must have though since she was sitting right there. His rage tugged at the better part of him. You know you want to kill her. The little goblin in his head bounced up and down. You’re a monster like all the rest. Why hide it? He used his rage up though. His legs quivered underneath him. Grief and mourning still filled the pain. Better empty than killing someone. “Are you okay, Grigori?”

“I’m fine,” he told Liam as he took careful steps forward to her. I’m half a monster. How can Nysaia say I’m good after this? He didn’t feel good. “I apologize, that was a lie. I have to move forward.”

“You promised not to kill her.”

“I did.”

“You don’t have to keep that promise,” Liam said in his calm, soothing voice. He didn’t mind healing her up. Though he didn’t mind killing her either. Given only one word to explain Liam to another, impartiality was it. It made him a good advisor and a great friend in situations such as these.

“I can’t kill her.”

Liam touched the Star of David on his chest. “Well, I suppose I can’t blame you for that. Perhaps you should clean up before you talk with her.”

“No. She will see me as I am as a reminder of what I can do.”

Grigori broke up the crowd around River with just the sound of his feet. The tan girl—most likely Puerto Rican descent—seemed small in that chair that Liam made. The Russian was a bit of an expert on small. He knew, then, that ruthlessness came in all sizes. People liked to think that the intimidating large men or the charismatic, lean and tall women were the worst. The unassuming easily trumped them. No one expected it. She met him with a confident smile. A ghost of what he saw earlier when she killed Boris. You’re acting, just like my mentor used to do.

“Come with me,” Grigori said to the source of his pain.

River’s smile deepened. “What are you planning to do with me?”

I’m not giving you pleasure from this. “Liam. I need to show her something. Will you assist?”

Liam bowed. “Of course. Dema, may I ask you to get started on lunch for everyone?” Dema growled in an oddly respectful sort of way towards her boyfriend. “I’ll pay you back, dear. I promise.” The Arab woman stalked off into the distance, barking orders on the way. “I love that woman. Now, up we go!”

Liam wheeled behind River, pushing her beside Grigori. It was hard for him to look at her. The fact she was alive and his brother wasn’t lingered in the back of his head. This feeling isn’t going to go away, he thought. He needed to see the bigger picture. If he killed her now, the pit in his chest would only grow. Ivan lost his smile already. What would he lose if his brother reverted back to an animal? He frowned at the thought of it.

Grigori led them through the street. The rest of the Circus broke up into smaller groups, continuing with the day to day task after watching their sport end. They had taken to restoring as much as they can along the way. They stayed a couple of weeks to sow seeds, repair buildings, and get everything back to working order. This town was almost at the best they could do with their resources. It was looking more and more beautiful each day.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Liam said, starting a conversation. “We’ve been working on it for days. Of course, I’ve never been to Illinois before so I don’t have anything to compare it to. ”

“Where are you from, Liam?” Grigori found himself asking. He knew what Liam was doing. Distractions often gave the best relief from other pains.

“I’m from Florida.” Liam paused. “Things became a bit of a problem when it fell into the sea. A bunch of running, a magma hotspot, radiation. Getting out was fun. Where are you from dear?” He aimed the question at River. Grigori tensed. It was only reasonable for him to ask the question to her too.

River made an amused sound—half a laugh and half a squeal. Grigori knew she was grinning without even turning around. “I’m from Washington.” She giggled again. “The state, not the capital,” she added quickly. “You know to clarify for our foreign visitors, of course.” Her legs and feet constantly knocked against the wood of the chair she scrolled in. “Since we’re on the topic of personal background. Where are you from Grigori?” She lowered her voice. “I heard you had a family.”

That was where he drew the line. He stretched out his arm and Liam lost his cheery expression. It took everything in him to stop from turning around and killing her. Simple. One punch, filled with rage, hate and pain. The goblin told him in that savage Russian that sounded more like a demonic tongue. It tripped over its words. She won’t even feel it as her head explodes. Rage and pain was his demon power. Her flames couldn’t hurt him. He was a battery to every sort of pain. Just one punch. One punch One punch One punch. And you’ll get to watch her explode into a million bloody chunks. Warn Liam first. You don’t want to get it in his hair. “I’m letting you live. And you continue to spit in my face.”

“I—“

“Stop talking, girl!” His voice roared over the ambience of work and the crowd. “You talk and talk and have nothing to say. You’re as empty as a dry well even though you try to take water from everyone else! Does this make you happy? Are you any closer to your dreams and wants? No. You’re not. You’re a lost broken little girl who believes she’s the driver in a car that’s already crashed.”

That felt better than even killing her. He turned his head to see her expression. A crumbled visage graced her face. It hardened and grew as she gripped the arms of her chair. He hit her, just not physically. A jab to a person’s pride hurt more sometimes. Grigori continued: “I’ve been hurt hundreds and thousands of times; but no one has injured me the way you have.”

River said nothing for once and that pleased him more than anything.

They continued in silence down the path to a tall brick building. It was a church, one restored by the carpenters and stone masons of the Circus. Grey-brown stone led up to the sky, reaching up to a point where it met wood. The portal itself was gorgeous with a large, cleaned dark wooden door framed with a lighter wood. Simple concrete stairs and metal railings led up to the entrance, with a long ramp down the side for handicapped members of the congregation. Flowerbeds that bore new unique wildflowers graced the building on either side. Must have been beautiful, he told himself to lower his nerves. The goblin was sleeping from its tirade. This wasn’t his place.

“Take her around the side,” he asked.

Liam crossed his arms and stretched. “You can’t go into a church looking like that.”

“Don’t worry. God has seen worse from me.”

Ascending the small stairs solemnly, Grigori went into God’s place as he was—as the battered and broken man that he felt like. He touched the gold-painted handles of the door, careful to avoid getting Jean’s blood or his own on it. They felt weird in his hand. It’s like my first time all over again. Ruefully, he grinned as he swung the door open. Light bathed him as he entered. At least I feel loved here.

Though this was a Baptist church and he was Orthodox-Catholic, the people welcomed him all the same. It was a spacious sanctuary. The exterior gave no justice to the interior. Dark wood gave a certain warm appeal to the space. Two sets of wooden pews stretched out, an aisle of red carpet trimmed with gold between them. Candles burnt on small tables. A freshly restored form on a wooden cross looked over the sanctuary with purposeful eyes. A man swept the dust motes with an old broom into the air that flew like small stars in the light.

A slim woman excused herself from the pews to wrap him in a blanket and clean his body with a towel. He thanked her. She bowed and returned to her own meditations. Grigori pulled the warm sheet tighter as he continued down the aisle towards the altar. Kneeling before the wooden cross, he prepared his prayers amongst the crystalized lights of the stain windows.

He prayed for everything. The world was in shambles, one brother was dead, the other losing himself. He remained on his knees to speak into the heavens. He ended his prayer with a simple phrase, one he learned early through his years of being a monster. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” He stood finally, after several minutes of taking in what he needed.

Then it hit him. The dream of green and pearl lights. He already had the sign he waited for. Framed in the light pouring from the highest window, Grigori spoke low. “I know what I’m going to do now.” He stared at River as she entered through the door with a soft expression. “I know how this ends.” He had made the right decision for the sake of what’s left of the world.

_

The Father made her wait in some ill-attempt to break her. Celine knew his tricks. He had done this since she was old enough to walk yet young enough to not know better. She wasn’t going to squirm now. She had come too far to fall by something as stupid as impatience. Digging deep, she found that patience that she needed even while she waited in this pretty prison. Put this off as much as you like, Dad. I know you hate this as much as I do.

Halo brought her into this room several days ago. They landed in Oregon the same day thanks to his light speed. Father’s men met them as they landed, stern faced men of the same sect that Samson was a part of. They had none of his friendliness on the job as he did. Nor did they have his gentleness with her. The news of Phillip’s and Millie’s death struck home faster than she thought. Everyone knew her for a traitor the moment she stepped foot in the thin aired mountains.

She didn’t quite know the use of the building before, but she did know they locked her in. It reminded her of a modern tower, tall, industrial, and made of simple glass and metal. Like any other princess, they put her at the top in a lavish room. She had a fluffy white bed, a comfortable arm chair, an old table, and a few knickknacks to keep time from driving her mad. Too bad, I’m ahead of the game when it comes to that. For her “safety”, they boarded up all the windows but one and even that one wasn’t large enough for an escape. Light gaped out through the boards, touching her face in the red chair. A candle glowed beside her. Other than that, it wasn’t anything special or cruel. Keep me up here all you want, she thought picking at a plate of food. But I’m not your princess, not anymore.

The thought almost saddened her. Emotions gurgled in her heart, indefinable as the mist she watched from this single window. She found herself thinking about her father’s face. Before, she did anything to avoid that disappointed look. In her mind, his eyes were downcast and he looked sad, sadder than even humanly capable by most. His voice would be low and broken. Punishment never was far behind. Worst of all, he always did it out of love. He knew what was right.

Did he now? Did he know what was right?

Celine sunk in her chair, frowning. President Colin J. Kingsley was always a soft spoken, gentle, and brilliant man. At least, he was when she left. He was aware of his abilities, never thinking much about them before. A man first, he always said. Humanity was always first in his mind and he loved the country that he was born in. That was why he wanted to lead. Not out of some genetic abnormality or superiority that he had. He loved the country. That changed. Everyone saw it when Jaden died.

He made his speeches, kept his composure, and held solemn words with his grieving country. All lies. No lies were in his actions. President Kingsley spoke with a withdrawn truth. Anyone that knew him knew that the ghost in his words lingered something sinister. Months of working led to what happened next. Sometimes Celine wondered if it was her grief that made her agree with her part. Her father’s words whispered in her broken mind: “We need to start over. This world will never change until it has no choice.”

He did what he did, Celine reflected. With the Vice President’s resources and the President’s hidden abilities, they found a punishment. Conjurer worked for his own cruel agenda and within his own pride. Ironically, that led to his death. Consequences often led to one death or another. She hugged herself with that thought, touching her forehead on one of the boards. When will he learn that everything came with a price?

The door opened behind her, letting in a small cold gust in the room. Her candle flickered unsteadily beside her. “He’s ready to see you now.” Halo’s voice sounded so different from that mask—distant, beautiful, and lost. In a twisted way, she liked his huffs and the long drawls. “He’ll meet with you in the courtyard.”

“We’ll be alone, right?” Celine cocked her head to the side.

“Just you, me, Mom, and Dad.”

“All that we have left.”

“All that we have left,” Halo repeated.

Halo came into the room. His condition had gotten worse, Celine saw. The shape of his suit weakened and he had difficulty moving. As the original Formless, his body always had a weak constitution. From what she heard as a child, Hal Kingsley was sick until one day he just disappeared. It must have been incredibly shocking for their mother. Their father knew what was in his blood. Since then, he had been able to change human forms at will, usually with enough resemblance to pass off as family for the future Senator. Years of teaching and learning disappeared when the love of his life died. My fault somehow. I didn’t leave the door open for Drifter. I can’t convince them otherwise.

“You’re back to being a wisp,” Celine thought aloud, standing.

Halo gave a shrug. “You’re back to messing everything up.”

“Hal.”

“Cassandra. Just stop talking. I know what you’re doing.”

Celine grabbed the shoulder of her older brother, again just touching the suit—not the human. “When will everyone see that I’m not doing this to spite you? I have nothing to gain here.”

“You’re losing a lot more than you think.”

“Of course I am. If this doesn’t work, what else will?”

“You aren’t going to change his mind.”

“He’s not going to change my mind either. Just take me to him. Be a good little knight for once.”

Doing as he bid, Halo took the princess from her tower to meet the king. The hallways looked all the same, just open doors and simple frames. It wasn’t nearly as luxurious as the Den was. Simple yet functional always suited her father’s taste more. They had always been well to do and never had to want for anything. Still, they lived in a simple home with some of the same simplicity this building possessed.

The lack of sleep and her room made it impossible for her to pin down the time of day. Now, she saw that it was morning. At the latest, it was 9 or 10 o’clock. Clouds spun on a pure purple and red sky as the sun awoke from its bed. The cleaned windows dripped condensation. Some of them were open allowing fresh air to pour into the doorways. The Dark Rainlands’ precipitation tasted old and stale. Rain here tasted of honey and earth. Celine wasn’t used to freshness anymore. “Dad always wanted this. He got his dream.”

“’cuse me.”

“This is what he wanted.”

Celine and Halo kept walking down the hallway and down a flight of stairs. This one had bigger windows than the ones in the hallway. On the distance, she saw the snowy mountains edged with white fog. Mutated birds the size of rocs flew passed them, their brown and silver feathers trailing their course. Giant tree leaves of thousands of different colors swayed gently in the distance. The world hadn’t seen cleaner or weirder years. “You don’t see it do you?”

“No. I don’t.”

“Don’t get agitated. I’m just making conversation. Make do with what you have.” She let her voice lower just a bit. “Think about his policies as president, what did he like to talk about the most?”

“Environments. He wanted to find a cleaner energy and was greener than most trees.”

“We couldn’t waste anything without him yelling. In some twisted way he got what he wanted.” Celine gave a low giggle at the thought. “I’m losing my mind with emotions,” she said simply. “How has he been? At least tell me that.”

“He’s been…” Halo tripped over his words. He stopped talking this time. “You’re not going to pull that on me, sis. I know your tricks.” Tinkering with his emotions as family was hard enough as it is. As a Formless, she couldn’t use her powers against him. Parts in his head were like static. Still, it was worth a shot. Like Philip, he still harbored some affection for her. “You’re not escaping this.”

“It was worth a try,” she smiled genuinely. She would rip Halo apart if it made Father stop this foolishness. I’m starting to see why I suppressed these emotions. I’m mad. “Are you going to tell me how my dad has been? I was his favorite of course.”

Halo said nothing about the latter statement. “He’s been fine. He’s been training some of the people that he recruited.”

“Captured.”

“Recruited.”

“There’s a clear difference between the two. It must be nice being so blind.”

“We have more people on our side than what Drifter or any of our opposition can mass. Within the year, maybe less, we can get rid of this obvious distraction from a backwater cultist, a wannabe spy group, and a shadowy lawkeeper.”

Oh, she had to smile at that. “Can you even see the ground from how high your pedestal is?”

“I learned from the best.”

“A compliment? You’ve always been sweet to me, Hal.”

They said nothing after that; they were well on their way to the ground floor.

They lowered into a simple tiled room that served as an artistic foyer. Blown away and restructured, the ground floor of this keep didn’t have walls. The architects replaced them with arc-ways and large stone columns that reminded her of a Greek temple. Those same workers created the middle piece, a large white fountain where some of the large birds perched on. Nature found its way in. Weeds, grasses, and flowers cracked through the floor, giving color to the white of the stone and the silver of the fog. Celine saw the walkway of cut stone leading out of the front. She followed Halo on this metaphorical yellow brick road.

The walkway of tile finally broke off to one of dirt and stones. Once struggling grasses grew into long blades that towered over them on each side. Water ran somewhere in the back by way of a creek or a river. Butterflies even soared, normal ones in size and shapes with unique colors. Smells of spring and summer assaulted her nose, carrying her into thoughts of her childhood. She liked it here. Her muddled mind went back to a simpler time. She practically saw the hills they played on in this landscape.

Winding and cutting through this path felt like a fantasy adventure. Healthy and sturdy trees of dark barks began to flank them now on either side. Leaves danced in the wind as small gifts from these trees. Animals scurried unseen in the canopy. They twirled around as though leading them down the road. It took a near fifteen minutes to a half-hour before they saw anything different in this field of grass. A clearing.

In the middle of what felt like the galaxy sat a small table under a giant sequoia tree. At the base of the red-barked trees sat her parents. The Mother, Mary, sat in a hard way in her chair. She saw Celine out of the corner of her eye, turned away, and pulled a strain of hair behind her ear. The older woman found solace in the man across from her. The man just gave a stern, passive look. As comforting and deadly with the same smile.

Knowing he was here was one thing. Seeing him was an entirely different one. His hair finally greyed out completely, swept back and a little long around the ears. Scruff lined his chin and lip— a pleasant surprise since his face always was hairless. His cheek bones were low but fairly prominent on his solid face. She had inherited her pale eyes from him. They somehow looked better and colder than hers like he trapped the fog in them. He gave a thin smile, refusing to raise his head from the book he was writing in.

“Cassandra,” Father said. His voice was always kind, even before a punishment (especially before a punishment). He put his square framed glasses down on the table casually like he did behind the president’s desk. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”

She forced herself into looking comfortable. “I’ve been busy.”

“Indeed you have.” There was sharpness in the way he said it. It wasn’t to be mistaken for sarcasm. Colin Kingsley never had been one to use that particular skill. He dealt in absolutes with a dash of wit and charm to deal with politicians on a regular basis. Still, he spoke as though he had something else to say. It was his way. He liked the knives in his words to slip on the skin and fester until it burned.

“Then you did know? Why didn’t you stop me?” Yes why didn’t you stop me, Dad?

“I didn’t think much of your plan. I hoped that you would come to the right decision.”

“We should have,” Mother finally said what was on her mind. Or on everyone’s mind most like.

“There’s nothing that we could have done, honey. She made a decision. Just not the one that I would’ve guessed.”

“No,” Celine interrupted. Even that thought aloud caught her off guard, still her mouth continued on. “I didn’t make this decision. You made it for me.”

Father thought about that as he reviewed the things written in his book. He carefully turned the page. “Our youngest is dead because of you. Our oldest is widowed.”

“The latter wasn’t my fault. The former I take full responsibility for. I killed Phillip. Simply put. I watched them rip him apart.” She felt nothing in her voice, a dry laugh caught in her throat. Tears rolled down her face.

“Why?” Father closed the book with a loud snap. “Did you love Phillip?”

Celine went to take steps forward, but Halo grabbed her arm. She eyed him from the corner of her eyes. “I did. I cared for him.” The thought of seeing him die still kept her up at night. The look in his eyes told her everything. He always had a guilty conscious. She grew into that as well, she just dealt with it differently. She moved on. “I loved him, but I’ll kill him again to make you see what you did.”

Mother closed her eyes and stared at the red tree. Just like a yin-yang, the Father did quite the opposite. He confronted her, simple exiting from his seat in a curt and sudden stand. Celine craned her neck slightly to look up at him. By no means was he tall, just a few inches above the average height. Somehow, he managed to appear impressive. ““I shouldn’t have asked you to do what you did. But, I can’t say sorry either. I believe what I did. I can’t ask you to do the same.”

“Then I can’t…I won’t say sorry either.”

At that moment, she saw that she had lost him. There was no bringing him back. Phillip was dead and he still wasn’t going to stop. She had failed. Celine stepped back, shaking her head. She was stupid. She was foolish. Nothing she did mattered and everyone around her was right. Tears still burned on her face. Why am I surprised?

Father touched her face with his rough and cold hands. She stopped shaking. Phillip had those hands. Somehow he still loved her too. “I did this for Jaden. The world wasn’t going to change. People were going to keep dying. We were stuck in our ways, honey. Don’t you see? The rich got richer. The poor grew poorer. Resources were growing thin and food prices were going up while food supplies were going down. Wars tore families apart. Hate was everywhere. It needed to stop. So I took it away. I took it away for Jaden. I took it away for you. I took it away for our future. We were at a decline, sweetie. Nothing I or any other president could do anything with our words or laws to fix it. I wasn’t going to lose anymore to a world that wasn’t going to change.”

You believe that. You actually believe that. You say did this out of love?” Celine asked, pushing away her thoughts. “I did too. I’m doing this because I thought you had something good in you left. I guess love is both of our poisons.”

“I guess it is.” He stepped away in soft footsteps. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you go from this.”

“Then why didn’t you kill me just then?”

She felt it. The thought crossed his mind yet still she breathed air. “You deserve to defend yourself.”

“I’ll do it,” Halo and Mother said. Both of them had apparently given up on the creature before them. Her father, the Father of the Ancestors, still clung to the burden.

“No, it has to be me.”

Celine sighed. Of course. This was a fitting punishment as any. A battle. Not just any battle, it was a battle for her life with her dad. Did he have the stomach to kill her? Perhaps she could play on that. Memories were a powerful thing that ruined your resolve. A small part of her, the little girl that was afraid of daddy’s belt, feared that it wouldn’t work. He was the original mutant. All demons and mutants derived from him. What could she do? This is the part that I tried to avoid. Sometimes, it’s the walls you tried to walk around was the ones that you ran into anyway. Alas, she wondered if she had the strength to knock this one down. Or was she going to fall over like all the rest?

20

Endgame: Riposa

We dance this dance that neither of us knows. Sometimes we wonder if the music is even playing. Other times the music is too loud that we can’t hear each other speak. Still our feet dance across this landscape of giant trees like we know what we’re doing.”

Father rolled up his sleeves. Studying his face, an audience wouldn’t think that he was about to be in a death struggle with his only daughter. They knew each other well. Ever since her genetic powers surfaced, he had taught her. She knew her tricks. She only wished that she knew his. From what Celine knew of her father, his powers were deeper and wider than most seas. Just with that simple motion, he showed that he wasn’t going to show any restraint.

But there wasn’t much of an audience to make this observation. Father sent the bulk of his guard away to view it from a distance. He was careful to avoid Celine noticing them in the first place. Celine’s power could control a man ignorant of the full scope of her power. The only two people on the battlefield present were two people that her powers had no effect on: her mother and her brother. They wore solemn faces as they waited for the battle to start.

I have to end this quick. Celine knew there weren’t many other options. She still had some tricks under her sleeve that he didn’t know about. “Dad,” she asked solemnly as she stretched her hand out, “you can stop this. It doesn’t have to end this way.” In part, she bluffed. A larger part of her believed this to be true. If one thing chipped his armor, his love did.

Father gave a sad smile as he watched the white mist form at Celine’s fingertips. “I’m sorry. I can’t stop this. You’ve already started it, now I have no choice but to end it.”

“We can throw blame at each other all we want.” White mist rolled together to her palms, becoming more tangible than ever before. Thinking of the shape for this sort of battle was effortless. The broadsword appeared, created out of the thoughts in her head. It was a marvelous weapon in silver ethereal form from hilt to tip. The glowing edge shifted and turned on itself though she somehow held water. Whisperer—the sword in Halo’s stories with Princess Celine—didn’t have a bladed edge. It did cut in a less than traditional fashion. “I’m going to bring out the better man in you, even if I have to cut away some parts.”

“You think what I’m doing is evil, honey.”

“Of course you don’t think so.”

“That’s true. Can one really know the evil or good in what they’re doing? But I can’t allow you to take away my resolve. You have hurt this family enough.”

Celine laughed. “And you haven’t? Just look around. You sit in a pretty little grove while hundreds of thousands of other people are scavenging, others being far worse. Still you play god.”

“You’re trying to fix this. Doesn’t that make you a goddess?”

“I’ll be anything and far worse to make you realize how stupid you are.”

“Then no time to waste. Come, bring it Cass.”

You’re not going to transform? That’s unlike you. Was he playing this game as a human first? Taking it easy on his only daughter? But he never rolled up his sleeves to play around; he never held back in anything whether it was politics or sparring. Even in her teenage years, Colin and Cassandra Kingsley practiced with medieval broadswords for a project. He forgot she was a beginner and even when he remembered, he kept pushing her until she got better. So why wouldn’t he be serious now? No. He was going to be serious, no doubt. Just in a matter of time.

Celine needed to be careful in this first blow. Anything, anything at all, may lead to her own destruction.

As dangerous as it was to do, she broke her human limits with her mind. Her brain, already hurt, ached from the decision and soon her body would to. She dashed forward in a lightning speed with her blade in both hands and swung with an overhead strike. Father dodged it at the last second, watching as the mist shimmered in a repeated afterimage beside his face. Dust kicked up around them as Celine slid from her own speed. He showed no obvious beginning of a counter attack. Or rather, he didn’t have the chance to. She slashed at him length-wise, forcing him to hop back in caution. Whisperer had no weight; changing direction with it would be easier than that of a real sword. With her enhanced speed and her weapon’s properties, even the world’s new patriarch struggled to keep steady at first.

He doesn’t know what it does, so he’s playing it safe. The hint she gave earlier wasn’t the entire story. The blade wouldn’t cut away his thoughts more than amplify his memories. There’s hope in you. I know it.

Celine stepped around him, thrusting with the tip. Father jumped back out of pure reaction, but he shouldn’t have jumped that far back. Whisperer changed length at her will but the white hazed sword missed inches away from his skin. It caught her by surprise so much that she stumbled. That doesn’t make sense. She pivoted on her heels, switching to a one handed sword stance upon tripping behind him with a slash. That too missed. Whisperer whistled as it pulsated over Father’s head as he ducked. Why isn’t he attacking back? The thought struck her as she went for another blow, this time low towards his legs. She curved the blade, sweeping in a long fanning motion that covered most of their battlefield. That didn’t hit either. He jumped over it with eased and landed on his feet as though dropped from heaven.

Why can’t I hit him?

It was possible before. Was he letting her win all those years ago or what she that out of practice?

All I need is a few hits

“You’ve gotten better.” He had said that so many times in her past that Celine didn’t believe it anymore.

Not bothering to respond, she cut at him again. His dodges looked lazy from the naked eye. It was like he stole seconds from time itself to move at his own pace. The attacks continued with a blinding speed. The onslaught didn’t give her anything but bated breaths. Sweat poured from her forehead and she felt her body scream at its overuse. She tossed her hair back, trying to not show her creeping fatigue. Her eyes felt puffy and she wanted to lie down. I wanted to end this quickly. He’s going to force me to meet him at his pace.

Sadly, she knew that the former President—human form or not—couldn’t tire. His metabolism had an almost endless reserve of energy making him an almost perfect defender. Phillip inherited that to some degree with his reaction time. That was only a fifth of what Father was capable of. Again, the dread of a counter attack still lingered in her head. In a desperate attempt to end it, she stabbed with Whisperer, transforming it into several different branches to create a web of white. Attack everything and give him no room to dodge.

Snap.

A sound of flesh on flesh echoed through the grove. Her father was inches away, his hand tight on her wrist. No way. The web of shimmering white blades surrounded them even now, reaching out into the distance. Purple and gold leaves danced into the mist, falling through it unharmed. They weren’t the only thing unharmed. Father just stood in the only place where she couldn’t form the blade’s branches, at her side. “You won’t stop me like that.” He met her with a cold expression. “Do you really want to stop me?”

“Stop playing with her,” Mother said in a raised voice.

“I’m not playing with her…she’s playing with me.”

Am I? She thought as Father pushed her away. Whisperer retracted to its normal shape.

“Take this last bit of fatherly advice; I’ve tried to fix people. You’re trying to fix me. You’re trying to reconfigure me like I’m some computer. That’s always been your fault. You can’t change people. Years as senators and six years into my two presidential terms taught me that. Humans will remain humans, clinging onto violence as though stuck in an endless loop. Despite our powers, we’re human too. You can’t change me. The only way to stop me…is to kill me. ”

I don’t want to kill you. That summed up all her strengths and weaknesses in one simple sentence. She fumbled with the thought, her mind swimming with pain and confusion. In a desperate attempt to stop these emotions, she reached for her neck. Empty. That’s right; my addiction won’t help me here. That crutch broke a long time ago. A pit of emptiness and doubt within her heart began to grow. Was that always there? Did I always know that I couldn’t save him?

You’re hopeless. I’m hopeless. Everything I am is a lie. Celine raised her sword, laughing. It distorted slightly from her wavering emotions. No. It was her hand that was shaking, not the sword. “You’re right. I’m holding back. I can’t change you. You’ve always wanted to change the world. At first, I thought that was heroic. That made you a hero to little girls with big dreams. The man that will change the world is my daddy.” She raised her white sword higher. “That was a lie. You made me do horrible things. Made them forget. You made me ruin people’s lives. Heroes were already dead and I can’t love you anymore. You managed to blacken every memory of you I’ve ever had, and I still cling to that man. I will never get him back and Cassandra will never fight him. So…you left me with no choice.”

“Cassandra stop!” Her father’s voice shouted.

She stabbed herself with her blade.

Distorted midnight-colored energy surrounded her, expanding into the canopy above. A dead dream tainted the grove. The leaves went black, the bark on the trees dissolving into white. White wraiths of little girls with melted faces pranced around them, twirling like a dance play for an undead audience. The air grew colder until she saw wisp of frozen air puff from her mouth. Everywhere went black and shadows lurked in the dark. Celine smiled but felt nothing.

Of course. It wasn’t meant to kill her in a traditional sense. Whisperer did have its purpose: to remove every feeling she had for her family. A harsh thing to do to myself, she thought as passively as one who cut themselves on a jagged edge of a soup can. Whisperer’s hilt was still lodged in her chest cavity as she saw the man before her. He looked so foreign, so alone, so pitiful, so surprised. She met him with her empty silver eyes. Desolation was what her eyes needed to mimic his.

All she knew now was that this man destroyed everything.

Celine pulled the sword from her chest as though it was a scabbard. Every inch of silver was gone. Whisperer drooled red energy, plopping on the ground and disappearing into rose petals. She stared at it for a second, amused only on the surface. This would feel nice if I felt anything. “I can kill you.” Her voice didn’t match her face; it was colder than even calm and yet warmer than death. “I’ve already hurt you. But we are going to have our fight and you’re going to lose more than you thought was possible.”

This time she landed a hit despite her body breaking beyond its limits. Whisperer slid across Father’s chest and it cut deep. It slashed through his white dress shirt, met skin, and left a large gash that sputtered blood on his chest. His reaction time didn’t save him in that instance. Something else did. Nothing would save him. Dreams were her strongest tools. The blade was as real as one created by a blacksmith now. A dying girl’s wish happened to be the forge she needed.

Mother and Halo both scrambled to help. No. That won’t do. A flash shimmered in the darkness. The meddlers banged against the prismatic wall of dead ghost, yelling some nonsense or another. They didn’t need such foolish sounds. Good thing that they didn’t have to hear it. With a simple snap of Celine’s fingers, the sound was gone and they were alone. “We’re alone. We’re alone and I can kill you,” she said hugging her weapon. It was in fact a real thing now.

“Seems like my blood got the better of me,” Father said, wiping said blood from his chest. “For that reason, I’m going to need you, I’m afraid.”

Father lost the shape of that pitiful man. His transformation was as effortless as putting on his favorite pair of shoes. He grew and grew and grew until he rivaled some of the trees in size. His skin turned silver, expanding with muscles and throbbing veins. He went from two legs to four, each limb covered with thick white scales and black fur. Talons bigger than even the birds she saw before stomped on the ground. A river of bones ran down his spine, each with a different color and shape. Four large wings sprouted from his back, two feathered and two webbed. Large pale eyes, the sizes of baseballs stared down at her. He must’ve looked like a mythological creature to a normal man. To Celine, right now, he looked like another beast to slay.

His bell to herald the Apocalypse erupted from his throat as a roar. It wasn’t bombs or the weapons that destroyed everything not at first. The initial attack was just him letting go into despair and anger. The dead little girl once watched him level a continent with his voice. Celine knew this thing. This creature was a premature the Fenrir and Jormungand of Ragnarok, The Beast of the Apocalypse, the comet of Gochihr. And she was going to fight it with her mind absent of fear.

The beast soared at her through the air, trying to cleave Celine with a powerful blow from his claws. She managed to roll out of its way but he knocked her back by a sheer boom of his wing’s pressure. She rolled on the ground, tasting the dirt in her mouth. His wings were going to be a problem. She managed to get to her feet. Stop flying like that. It’s annoying.”

She watched him circle around above her, a white dragon on a black background. He needed to get down from there. Black energy coursed through her, creating a net of energy. She flung the hurried creation towards her enemy, forcing Father to maneuver. He was a good flier as annoying as that was. Every net formed from her mind missed or sliced by the large wings. There was more than one way to bring him down.

It didn’t go unanswered. With another strong roar, Father tried to lever her with his voice. She resisted it, forming a shield with her free hand and pushed up. She adjusted accordingly through the pressure, staying on her feet. She hardly enjoyed the victory. The creature was on her with a blinding speed. That should’ve been impossible for a thing that big. She parried enough of his blow not to lose her head. Flesh tore away from her arm as he ascended with her blood on his black claws. This time he was slow though and caught the extended Whisperer to the shoulder and through one of his wings.

Original mutants and demons were a different level.

The dragon howled as he plummeted to the ground. He landed with a crash. Celine ignored the pain, and went on the offensive, running towards the beast. She needed to confuse him, even grounded he was dangerous. Calling upon her power, she surrounded him with thousands of mirror images. They converged upon their pray, each with a blood sword in hand. Only she could hurt him. He didn’t know that. Father thrashed at the images, dispersing them into shards of a thousand little lights. By the time he noticed the trick, she was already too close.

She jumped and slashed at his face.

Father howled. She didn’t even feel when he swatted her halfway across the land. Her hardened body from her enhanced mind did well in absorbing the attack. Even through a busted lip, Celine grinned. It wasn’t out of joy or amusement. Honestly, she didn’t know why she was grinning. One or two strikes didn’t mean anything. He was still alive.

Lurching forward, Father clawed at her with his long paw. She prepared to block it. Only he too was good at feints. The creature moved quickly—no, moved in a god-like speed—to slam his entire bodyweight into her small. A tackle from that speed rivaled a sapling getting hit by a train somehow carrying a full skyscraper. She created a softer wall behind herself, allowing her back to just hit against it with a dull thud. Her ethereal white shield absorbed most of the frontal blow. Coupled with ignoring all pain, she found strength in herself to stand. Still, she felt slower after she got up. I’m breaking apart. I’m not going to last long. Human bodies aren’t meant for this type of punishment.

Oh my arm’s broke, she thought as she cracked it back into place. She wouldn’t be able to use it. But better that than her legs or her main arm. She continued with her attacks, moving at the best she can to get on his blind side. Pale eyes followed her, watched her as she twirled for an attack. Father managed to dodge the first few, block the next with one of his legs, but still earned a long slash to his stomach. He forced her back with a blast from that unseen energy from his talons.

Celine barreled through the dirt. She coughed up a bit of it as she stood. Every inch of her matched Whisperer now. Father wasn’t clean either. Blood became both of their clothes. They were becoming equals. She tried to get her other arm up, yet it still wouldn’t move as far as she wanted it to. The shield still served well enough on if it came to that.

Surely enough, she needed it.

She saw a light from the other side of the battlefield. She frowned when she came to the realization of what it was. A stream of bright blue lightning roared from Father’s maw. She didn’t even know he could do that. Her mind ignored the heat and the shield buffered the sparks. Step by step she pushed forward, putting layer upon layer on the shield. It wasn’t enough. The breath was alive, expanding around her and spreading like a virus. She tried to create other objects to block it, a fortress around her. Endless they smashed under the pressure. The breath was too powerful. Crack. Crack. Crack. Finally, her defense gave way. The bolt smashed through her shield, breaking it into a thousand pieces. Her threshold of pain broke on the way. Volts coursed through her as she screamed. She smelled the burning of her own skin. Still she stood, smoking and burnt. She was her father’s daughter; an abomination that knew no end.

“You’re not quitting,” Father said. The voice sounded familiar, even behind the gravel of his voice.

Celine didn’t know how to quit. There was a beast to slay. She staggered forward; ignoring her fatal injuries, and predicting the next attack in a fluid motion. Even Father jumped back in a bit of surprise as she slipped past his claw. She arched her blade up to the giant, striking him in the face. Bright blood glistened from his nose as he reared back like a horse. This time, his attack didn’t work. Even she didn’t know how he managed to miss. She didn’t care, he was close. This was the end.

Snap.

Both of her legs broke underneath her.

In that second, she missed his heart. The blade dug through his belly. If she had both of her arms, she would have dug it in deeper. All she had left in her now was to twist it. Father shouted in pain for a while, and then just stopped. Those large pale eyes met hers. Anger boiled in them. It was over. Did she feel fear on that fact? No. Logic had no fear. This just wasn’t her checkmate. This is how failed knights must look like before being burnt to death.

Celine didn’t even see what happened next. She hurled into the air, taking the blast in the chest. It rammed into her over and over again, from different directions. Her mind didn’t register the pain. Just one hit after another. The attack didn’t stop—just repeated over and over and over until she saw blood oozing from every corner of her body. She didn’t know it was over until Father grabbed her from the sky.

“I loved you,” he shouted, pulling the sword out with one of his free paws. “I gave you everything. I gave you this world. And you do this to me. You do this to yourself!”

Celine cocked her head and spit blood in his face. “I don’t love you….” She croaked. Her throat hurt. “Not anymore. I made sure of it.”

That enraged him further. He threw her to the ground. Celine heard a snap, paying it no mind. Then he just stared. She saw the look in his eyes. Father fought off tears. Even in this diabolic form, a human still thrived in there. In his eyes, he saw a girl he raised, a girl he loved, a girl he saw off to school. His claws tore at the ground around her. Only one of her arms moved. It wouldn’t be enough to save her. Not without a sword.

She touched his face. This part was a lot easier without her emotions to cloud her. Celine just laughed. “See. I hurt you.” The words were simple, beautiful, and painful. “I’m never going to stop until you pay for what you did. You know and I know it wasn’t right. This world has seen enough grey.”

“You were my daughter.”

“Yes I was. And I’ll never stop trying to get rid of this plan. You’ll never reform this world to your dream. You can’t control them.”

Celine watched with blurred vision as his wound on his chest healed. There was no way she could kill him now. “I’m going to end this,” she told him, her fingers clinching into a fist. Another weapon swirled into existence within that bloodstained grip, a white dagger. Father jumped back assuming the attack was for him. He was wrong. Perhaps he was always wrong. Just now in a clear head she realized it. “Goodbye.”

The results of her wellbeing didn’t matter. Through her pain, she saw the horrid shock before he had to watch his world collapse again. If I can’t stop you, I’ll break you enough until someone else will, she thought.

She stabbed herself and the world went black.

_

Father returned to his human form, stricken by horror. The black world of her nightmare broke, turning everything back to normal. With it, the wall that kept his wife and oldest son away soon dropped. They ran to his side. Mary put a robe around him, covering his naked body from the cool wind. The fog did leave residue on his skin that he felt, especially the ones around the wounds he received. It gave some comfort, still not enough to soothe what burned inside. She was gone.

He walked up to her. Her lungs still went up and down, taking in shallow breaths. Father pressed his hand on Celine’s chest. “She’s still alive,” he told his family checking her pulse. I was too rough with her. No matter what she did, blood came before anything in Father’s mind. Today, he spilled that blood. “It shouldn’t have come to that.”

Carefully, he scooped her up from the ground. Every limb on her hung low and loose from her torso. Blood was everywhere. Sadly, holding back wasn’t an option. Even his children had to learn. At least she lives. One so broken and battered shouldn’t have though. Her mind must have gone into some sort of preservation state. But why? He took a deep breath, moving light blond hair from his daughter’s face. She looked so small despite being a grown woman.

“It’s a shame,” Mary said lowly. “You cuddled her the same way when she was born.”

“Maybe I didn’t cuddle her enough.” Father heard his own voice. It sounded weak, barely a croak in his throat. “You don’t seem half as broken up about this as I do.”

“Cassandra made her choice. The fact that you didn’t kill her was mercy enough. I doubt she’ll ever wake though.”

“Then, I’ll keep her safe until she draws her last breath.”

Mary gave him that passive-aggressive look. He learned how to read those ever since he married her forty years ago. She didn’t trust that this creature—despite being her only daughter—drew breath. Father liked to believe that she thought this out of grief for her baby boy. Mothers lost their way when grief hits them through their children. Fathers do too, he learned. Still, she might have lost hope in her, but he wouldn’t. She was right about him in that. Love did poison his better thoughts. He only had to look around for that.

“We still have use for her,” he continued in a more logical stance. A politician knew how to twist his words to make any situation more favorable to everyone. “You can still amplify her powers right?”

“Without Conjurer no. Probably not in the same way that I did before. Remember I’m not a genetic demon. I’m a created one like the others.”

“How long will it take?”

“Maybe a few months, a year or two at the most. What are you planning?”

Father took in a jagged breath, taking his daughter up the road that she came. “You remember how we made everyone forget how this world started. You and Celine masked my destruction with lost memories. There’s still people out there that knows something’s wrong. She’s been pushing for someone to stop us, stop our new order. I feel it. I should have done this before but I feared for her safety. Now I know she can handle a lot more.”

Mother froze. “Hal?”

“Yes, Ma?”

“She seemed incredibly interested in the Sheriff, did she not? Do you think..?”

“Do you think that it was the Marine that Phillip tried to kill?” Halo tapped against the surface of his mask, impatiently. “I should have seen that. That Marine is the Sheriff. No wonder she was so protective of that fact. She wanted to make sure he survived. But…why? Why is he so important?”

Dammit Vincent. Even in death your pride haunts me. “His unit tripped over some vital information about me…you see. Conjurer was careless enough, downright prideful, to place his research in a foreign country across seas on a United States Marine Corp Facility. What I didn’t know was that he shoehorned his research by using the Marines injured there. Apparently, they took one of Graham’s comrades. The unit and the entire army found him. They found the lab, assumed it was terrorist territory, and extracted the man…they also found the data. On me. I wouldn’t have known if Phillip didn’t report to me.”

“So you had no choice but to recall them back and kill them off in an accident. Things got a bit messy afterwards and…well…” Mother sighed deeply. “You know the rest.”

Halo nodded. “Indeed we do.”

“Back to the topic at hand, we are going to have to recreate that phenomenon on a larger scale. I need them to believe in me without question. If it got out that I had something to do with this, the world wouldn’t be at peace. I’m still not ready to create a stable government and protection for the people. Drifter and the Sheriff, though you don’t believe it, is a horrible threat to our safety. Cassandra wasn’t the type to put her stock on a losing team. Not without a chance.”

“I just want revenge for Millie.”

“In due time, Hal. Now, leave me be. I’m going to make sure that my daughter has a proper place to rest.”

The family disbanded in different directions from the grove. They each carried their sorrows with them. Only he held his current one in his arms.

Colin Kingsley made his way to a small alcove that he found when he first settled here. A natural over cropping of shimmering rocks beside a lake withstood the sands of time and destruction well. Quiet waves rolled over the surface of the water. Bright green grasses tore away from their roots, slung into the air by the gentle yet gusty winds. He took her to the lakeside, where the dirt was loose underneath his bare toes. He laid her down by the water, quietly cleaning her with a small white towel he found in his robe.

Silently, he dipped her in the water. His strength kept her from getting too deep, just enough to clean her broken body from all the red. I’m going to have to order someone to watch over her, keep her safe. No. That was his cross to bear. This path started with him. If he took his grief against the world in a different way, his daughter wouldn’t be sleeping and one of his dead sons will be alive. If someone was going to look after her, it was going to be her daddy.

Just give me a little time. Then it hit him. Everything. His girl was gone, in his arms. He brought her from the water and into his chest. “I never meant any of this to happen. I can’t stop now. I’ve tried. I’ve tried for you. I just hate this world and want it better. You’ll see. We will fix you and everything.”

His embrace lasted until the red sun glowed on the other side of the sky. Father shivered, breathing heavy from his dry sobs. He took her, and placed her in the small cave by the water. From the outside, it appeared nothing more than rock. Inside was a thing of natural beauty. Water dripped from the shining rocks of the roof. The floor was uneven clay and stone. Various flowers and mushrooms grew in a large circle in the middle where a shaft of light pouring from a small crack. A perfect tomb.

He placed her down carefully. Insects scurried as he placed her on the plush grasses. Sorry my little princess. Things have to move on. Cassandra wanted him to stop. That way no one else got hurt. In the end, there are people like me all over the world that lost family. Millions of people. I’m the cause of that. Still, we need to push forward. That time has passed and we need to move on, to a better world. Not one filled with hatred or pain. Where little boys die because their father is important or where people starve because of something like money.

I have that power and I’m sorry that you couldn’t see this. Forgive me. It’s time to move forward. Gathering himself, he left as the crimson sun showered him. There were things to do and a world to change.

Epilogue

Sleeping Beauty

A dreamer was the most powerful when they are asleep. He should have known that. Killing her would have been the wiser option. All the pieces were in their places. All they needed was a hand to push them. The dreamer knew this. In this way, she enjoyed this freedom. This dream world was only hers. Here she could be this hand. She had no feelings, no heart, and no worldly connections. Just a purpose. Was she any more different than an angel now? Maybe.

From this throne of clouds and dreams, she could guide the people. Father showed his hand to her. She could show his hand to anyone from here. It was a fight she couldn’t win. Others could. They will know what to expect, where to go. This was all because he didn’t know how to kill her. His downfall might be as beautiful as hers. Still, that day was in the future. There was someone that she needed to meet with.

There was one person that would feel her touch a lot deeper. He wouldn’t know who she was. That’s fine, the dreamer thought. One day he’ll realize that his part of this puzzle was just as important. He’ll try to resist. The woman known as Cassandra or Celine knew that. Eventually, he’ll come around.

He just needed to dream like she did. The day will come where he’ll notify everyone. He was her courier, her letter without a stamp or a wax seal No one would know her. She wasn’t going to be a damsel. She didn’t need saving. All she needed was to watch now. That’s how I started. Watching. She wondered—logically of course—how she managed to watch the whole field from just one side? From up here, everything looked so…simple.

What she needed was that one person. He didn’t know it yet, but he needed to make his move. She emptied his mind, remade him as a person for his safety. What type of person, she didn’t know? Too bad she couldn’t keep to her promise and keep him out of it. The end of days was coming again. The dreamer will be there when that day happened.

 


Dusk Territories: Haunting Rainstorms

Two year passed and a war wages over the blacken world of the Dusk Territories. This time the war surfaces in the Dark Rainlands, a ruin of a city where dark clouds never leaves. Celine has now found herself caught in the middle of her family and sharing the truth with the world. Just saying it won’t be enough. Her foes— her family—are much too powerful to accept betrayal. Both powerful foes and sinister allies clash in this watery grave over the truth behind the cataclysm.

  • Author: D.J. Munden
  • Published: 2016-01-14 16:50:21
  • Words: 113996
Dusk Territories: Haunting Rainstorms Dusk Territories: Haunting Rainstorms