The Priestess’s meditation chamber had been serving as a sort of conference room for the past few weeks as the six of us; Jan, Wendy, Mae, Priestess, French and myself; had been planning ahead. We all sat on the floor in a tight circle. As I had sort of grown into the ‘leader’ position, it was usually my turn to speak first. Though Jan never observed that rule too closely.
“Tell me we aren’t screwed. I didn’t see you dragging Zane back here in chains. Bad sign if I’ve ever seen one.” After giving her an annoyed look, I spoke.
“Before you jump to conclusions,” I said, smiling at my wit, “I feel we should make a note of everything we’ve accomplished this afternoon.” French grinned a toothy grin and crossed his arms.
“It looks like my solution to the numbers problem was more than adequate, no?” My response was an enthusiastic thumbs-up. He laughed at this.
“Was it ever. I’ve never seen such fear in a man’s eyes as I did in Zane’s the second he realized I was about to drop a restaurant on him. Which brings us to objective number one: Zane knows that we are not to be fucked with again. He’ll think before trying anything else, which will bring with it some disadvantages, but I’m confident that his taking us seriously is the start of something…big.” This drew enthusiastic nods from everyone but Jan, who looked worried. This, I expected, but I let her speak anyway.
“So he’s alive and out of our grasp. Doesn’t sound like much of a victory to me. Though you are still alive and don’t seem to need another bullet removal.” Mae, in very high spirits, answered her.
“I don’t think he ever will, Jan. That phasing trick-”
“Never say never, Monaghan. There is always room for things to go wrong.” I was forced to agree.
“She’s right, Mae. Phasing, especially when holding on to someone, is exhausting. I was really happy no one was left standing after French worked his magic, otherwise we would have been SOL for the next minute or two. Which is better than last week, I guess, but still nothing to write home about.”
“You were at, what, five minutes last week?” Wendy had been helping me condition myself, and was doing a damn good job of it, too.
“Five minutes if I was lucky. You remember the mess I made when I forced it after waiting what I thought was long enough.” Everyone collectively grimaced. They had been there. It hadn’t been pleasant for anyone.
“Listen,” Jan said, “the point is that we can’t get overconfident. The IAD is overconfident, and I think it’s probably the only reason the two of you got back here safely.” Mae and I rolled our eyes and nodded. It was probably true. Even so, I elected not to tell her about the manhole cover I just remembered that I had left open.
“Be that as it may, we’ve still got two accomplishments under our belt. For one, Hodes is out of the picture for the foreseeable future. Hard to chase down Alters without a leg.” Wendy smirked and mouthed a silent ‘fuck yeah.’
“And what is number two?” Priestess had been silent up to now. I think she knew what the next piece of news was.
“Number two,” I said, procuring Zane’s PDA, “is this. I checked on the way over here. On this device is a list of known Alters in America. And, guys…there are thousands. A few hundred are marked as detained, but think of everything that could be accomplished if we were to find all of the ones that aren’t.” Wendy put his pointer finger up.
“Question. If Zane and the IAD know who they are, why haven’t these Alters been detained yet?” There was a silence as I thought of a proper answer.
“There may be a few factors. A lot of them are listed without a location, so finding them may have been an issue. I mean, it seems unlikely that the IAD has the manpower to hunt down a thousand different Alters who know they’re being hunted.”
“And the ones with their location listed?” Wendy awaited my answer with his arms crossed and his eyebrow raised. Jan offered an idea.
“Bet they’re under surveillance and don’t even know it. Doubt they’ve been outed, either. IAD’s probably waiting for them to slip up and expose themselves. Seems like it’s the justification the bastards need.” It took her a few seconds to realize how important what she had just said was. Mae, French, Wendy and I were already growing excited.
“This is…good to know,” Priestess stated, retaining her composure. “I had previously assumed that Zane and his men operated unbound.”
“Nice to know we’ve got at least one law on our side,” Wendy remarked. “Wonder who put it forward?” I lit up and pointed at him, shaking my finger enthusiastically.
“We need to find out. As soon as possible.” I turned to Jan. “That’ll be your job. Do some research; dig up some information. If there’s even one politician who has our best interests at heart, it’s imperative we figure out who the guy is and what he can do for us.” Jan nodded enthusiastically.
“It may have to wait, Calvin,” Priestess said. “I do not think Zane or the IAD will take long to discover this place after this afternoon’s events.”
“Cal. And yeah,” I said, my smile disappearing. “That’s the downside to all this. Milwaukee is no longer safe. You wouldn’t happen to know of another Derelict we could go to?” She pondered the question for a few moments.
“The New York Derelict has quite a large Alter population. I spent a number of years there in my youth.”
“Why did you leave?” This was Mae, who had raised her hand before asking the question. Priestess pursed her lips and shook her head.
“It’s of no consequence. I recommend we move quickly. We have many bodies to move.” Mae eyed the Priestess suspiciously before frowning and sitting back.
“Yeah, about that.” I replied. “Just how many other Alters are there down here with us? Think every off-hour we’ve had has been spent in preparation for today’s events. Never really got the tour from you as a result. I’ve met, what, five? Six? About six since we got here. We’ll need more than one car.” Priestess grinned at my naivety brushed her hair back, causing a loud jingling noise as the tips of her braids all rattled against one another. Those things still crept me the hell out.
“There are twenty-four other Alters living here in the Milwaukee Derelict. They are my flock, and I shall not leave them. Where I go, where we go, so shall they.” Wendy growled, annoyed.
“What is it with you and the biblical references, anyway? Mae isn’t anywhere near this bad, and she’s the Jesus freak. What’s your excuse?”
“Touchy subject?” This was Jan, grinning like the Cheshire cat. Wendy shot her a look I’d never seen him give anyone before. There was anger in his eyes, anger in its most distilled form.
“You know damn well it is.” There was a silence as Wendy calmed down and Jan decided that antagonizing her brother wasn’t worth it.
“Any offense you take is your own burden, Wendell. Suffice it to say, my people shall not face abandonment. It is not, however, all bad news.” She motioned to follow. Curious, I obeyed, and the others soon followed.
The Milwaukee derelict, I had decided, was far preferable to the one in Portland. Its endless corridors, its mazelike structure and the staggering number of chambers allowed solitude whenever one wanted it (which, in my case, was a whole lot). You could spend a month down there and not run into anyone, if you knew the place. At that point, though, you might go mad. An experiment for another day.
After a good long while, we came to a chamber occupied by nonfunctioning machinery and hushed voices. The place was lit with trashcan fires, set up in rows from the entrance to the opposite wall. We stood on a catwalk that surveyed the entire cavernous room. A stairway led us down to the floor, where a few Derelict residents sat, huddled around a fire for warmth. The air smelled of defeat and indignation. Priestess grasped the handrail of the catwalk and spoke, in a calm but rather booming voice.
“My children of exile!” The voices in the chamber ceased abruptly, and Priestess continued. “Our world, I fear, is about to change. The safety of the Derelict threatens to crumble as the IAD draws ever closer to our front door. I know that some of you may want to fight them. I certainly do. Mark my words, there will come a day when our oppressors taste defeat and we take back our place in the world. That day, though, is not today. No, today, we move on to bigger things than the sewers of Milwaukee. Today, we begin our exodus to the east coast, where we will begin construction on a brighter future for ourselves and all of our kin!” If Priestess was right and there were only twenty-four of them, the cheers that followed her speech seemed disproportionately loud. Their enthusiasm had me worried.
“Priestess, a moment?” She turned around to face me and as we made eye contact, I felt as though a burst of air was about to blow me away.
“Yes, Calvin?” There was an allure to her voice and a divine beauty about her that I had not noticed before. From the corner of my eye, I noticed Mae noticing me noticing it. Nervous, I refocused.
“I’m still not seeing any way we could actually get to New York, unless your ‘flock’ includes an Alter or two who can…who can teleport us there.” I paused for a moment. “And you refrained from telling me about him…why?”
“He arrived this afternoon. You will find him to have been stricken with a very serious case of wanderlust. The man is rarely here.” Rolling my eyes, I looked to the flock, which had gathered underneath the catwalk.
“Uh huh. Fine. Hardly matters now, anyway. Tell me, which one of them is our ticket out of here?” In a flash, an Alter I had not been looking at disappeared from the crowd and reappeared beside me. His arrival was accompanied by a sharp hissing sound and the smell of chlorine.
“I believe it is me you were looking for.” There was something off about his appearance that had me wondering. Sure, he looked like a normal enough guy: about six foot two, with tan skin and dark brown hair. I spent longer dwelling on this than I thought I had, and jumped a bit when I heard him clear his throat.
“Right, yes. I can only imagine you know why I’m in need of someone with your capabilities. Can you get us all to New York?” He frowned, counting on his fingers.
“It will take awhile. To teleport so far and with baggage…twenty-nine round trips would probably take me three days, at the very least.”
“I’m not sure we have that much time,” I remarked. “Zane will find this place, there’s no doubt in my mind. With that said, we should hurry. You’ll take Jan over there first. Jan?” She looked to me, a reluctant gleam in her eyes. Whatever her reasons, she was going to have to deal with it.
“I need someone I know to be competent coordinating things on the other side. You’re going to make sure everyone disappears once they arrive.” Jan gave me a troubled look.
“You expect me to play den mother? Why don’t you send the Priestess? If it hasn’t become apparent to you yet, I’m not great at even talking to people, let alone shepherding them.” I shook my head.
“Not even halfway true. You did a damn fine job keeping Wendy and I alive on the way over here. Maybe you’re a shrew, yeah, but you’re the shrew I need for this job.” She opened her mouth to object but nothing came out. Resignedly, she nodded, crossed her arms, rolled her eyes, and walked off. My attention turned to the teleporter. His smiled at me, almost as if in jest.
“Yes?” I looked him over. He was quite a bit taller than me, so the whole ‘drill sergeant’ vibe I was trying to radiate didn’t really do any good.
“What’s your name?”
“Mordy Kane,” he answered, without skipping a beat. Nodding, I realized that I really didn’t have much to ask him. A moment passed. I made up a few questions.
“Can I trust you to do this for me?” What kind of idiotic question is that? It’s not as if the answer would change anything.
“If I can trust you to keep us alive once we get there.” I put my hand out to meet his in a firm handshake. He met my eyes and we both nodded in silent understanding. I was among kin here. The anger I felt on him was smelled to me like my own. Though why I even knew it was anger I smelled was far beyond me. Not bad for half-assed improve, Cal.
“Welcome to Operation Mangled Wolf, as we’ve been calling it.” From somewhere in the darkness came Jan’s voice.
“As you’ve been calling it!” I frowned, trying to affect a hardened scowl but probably just looking like a sturgeon with terrible stubble.
“Not everyone is on board with the name yet,” I said, quickly and quietly. Kane bit his thumb and replied.
“I must admit, I have no idea what it means in relation to this exodus of yours.” Eager to validate my creativity, I explained.
“Well, we’re walking away with our tails in between our legs, but we’re doing it with some more dignity than your average mutt.” He tried to suppress a laugh.
“Quaint.” Pursing my lips in annoyance, I waved him off with a scoff.
“Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up, Kibbutz.” The nickname seemed to genuinely surprise him.
“How did you know?”
“Spent a summer in Tel Aviv a few years back at my mom’s behest. She’s always been into the whole heritage thing, but I honestly feel far more Irish than Moroccan, and far more of both than Jewish. I do tan well, though, which is better than I can say for my dad. Anyway, the accent gave you away. And the fact that your name is Mordecai. My condolences on that, by the way.” Slightly perturbed, Kane narrowed his eyes.
“I need none, thank you. My name gives me pride. I hope, for your sake, that yours does, as well.” Shrugging, I leaned against a wall. Kane did the same and crossed his arms. Priestess had long since lost interest.
“No, I get enough of an ego boost from my looks, my confidence, my status as a badass, my effect on the ladies-”
“Duly noted,” Kane interrupted, putting up his left hand. Following that was a short silence in which he seemed to be making his decision about me. I picked myself up and looked out over the chamber.
“I have to admit something to you, Kane. I’m not getting myself into this without getting off my chest that my motives aren’t exactly…noble.” He looked up and frowned, raising an eyebrow.
“You’ll have to explain what you mean. Really hope this isn’t some twisted get-rich-quick scheme. I’d be disappointed.” I nodded in understanding before looking at the shadow one of the floodlights above the doorway cast of me. Smiling to it, almost gently, I reached down and touched my hand to its shadow. Close your eyes. My fingers curled themselves in, grasping at the shadow. At first, they just scraped concrete. I hadn’t mastered this yet, not by a long shot. But as I continued scratching against the ground, I began to feel something else. Something almost solid, almost alive. As it took form, it felt cold in my hand. But it was comforting to hold. I tugged it, like a sword from its scabbard and opened my eyes. With an unearthly ‘swish’ and the slightest bit of resistance, my own shadow had been tugged from the ground, and solidified in front of me; its hand still gripped in mine. As I focused, I was able to recall it; to bring it back to the one it so darkly reflected. And, as chills rushed through me, it followed my lead, adhering to me almost like a suit. It stuck to me completely devoid of all friction. The folds of my clothing were kept intact, every strand of my hair stayed in place. Now, though, I knew what I looked like. Color and light had been banished from my form. To anyone looking, I was ink black and completely two-dimensional: There were no shadows upon my body to help differentiate my parts in distance. A perfect silhouette.
“’Rich’ isn’t quite the word,” I finally said, my voice now slightly flanged. “Powerful. A cliché, yes, but don’t argue with what works.” Kane was speechless, and instinctually backed up a few steps as I extended my arms to unnatural lengths. There was so much I could do now, and now the horrible pain that came with the use of my abilities had been replaced by a toxic euphoria.
“God in heaven.” My favorite response to it all so far. Kane gripped the handrails, now, like if he let go he would fall to hell.
“Not God, no. Not human, either. Alter.” A few of the others had noticed, and soon, all the eyes in the room were now fixed on me. “It’s taken me awhile to understand, now. Not too long ago I would have been ashamed of myself for what I am. But I’ve learned, and soon, the whole of this country will share the lesson. We were taught to be afraid of power like this. In the past, they hunted us down for fear of what we could become. But they failed. We have become.”
There was a silence in the room before Wendy’s voice cut through it like a sword piercing the sky.
“And what of our sacrifices?” Mae and a few others backed him up with some cheering. I receded the shadow cloaking me so that my face could be seen again.
“We have sacrificed too much just for the right to live. The right! And the world owes us even more than that. We are special. Superior. Earth is ours to inherit. But we will not take it. There is room for us to be better than those people ever were to me, to us. We could take everything from them, and they should know that. Our people are not monsters, though. The whole of us will wait, somewhere far away from their little fears and their little prejudices. When they kill one another off, and they will, we shall take the world that we were destined to have.
“But I’m just rehashing what our Priestess has said. And I don’t blame you if you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t. Not after what I’ve been through. Me, I can’t even imagine how much worse it must have been for the rest of you. I’ve only been on the run for a month or so, now, but most of you have spent years with those insects breathing down your necks. I promise, in the time that is to come, to try to understand all of you and what you’ve done so that I can make sure you are rewarded for your efforts. In return, I ask of you your service for the good of us all. Together, we will face the new dawn without fear. Close your eyes and you can almost see it; I know I can. A real future for all of us and every one of our Alter brethren.” For a moment, I felt like I had almost gone blind. There was no telling why. The lights were still low and no one had put their hands over my eyes. But for just one sliver of a second, there was nothing. And then, there was applause. Thunderous and booming it was; there was no doubt that those walking on the streets above us heard.
“You’ve just made quite a few promises.” Jan had on her trademark ‘shirt unstuffer’ look that begged to be forcibly removed from her face. Nevertheless, I maintained a cool head and explained myself.
“I’m pretty good at making promises, no?” No reply, no laughter. “Oh, so I guess you want to know what I’m actually up to. That’s cool too.” The Priestess shook her head and closed her eyes.
“Jan may be right about this, Calvin. Your speech may prove to have been shortsighted. I’m not even entirely sure what you wish to accomplish. You could enlighten me, perhaps?” I looked around. Mae, of course, seemed to await my explanation with baited breath, but there was still a little skepticism in her eyes. I touched by cheek before looking to Wendy and French, both of whom looked like they were ready for one hell of a story. The trick, I’ve found, to diffusing such sentiments is to give it to them. You can work on its veracity later.
“The reason is, of course, simple. You see, this past month or so has taught me a lot about myself. That I’m an Alter; one of the people I swore to hate. That I’m the only one who knows proper road-trip etiquette.” Wendy looked away sheepishly. “Most of all, though, I’ve learned just how much I wish not to die. Guys, I have to tell you, I really don’t want to die. And the faster I ran from Zane, the more I realized how much worse my punishment at his hands was becoming if it ever came to pass. So, no, there’s not going to be any punishment. Ever. I don’t fancy it. In the end, him and the IAD are all made up of flesh and blood. They can all be removed as a threat, and if Zane takes orders from anyone, they can be removed as well. And this’ll keep going until I know for a fact that I’m safe from them.” It took awhile for what I just said to sink in with everyone, most of all me. It was Wendy, finally, who steepled his fingers and slowly pointed them towards me.
“If you do that, Cal, you will be exactly what they want you to be. The reason the IAD exists. They make up stories about homicidal Alters trying to wipe us all out. If you make those stories true, then you’ll have validated their existence, if not proven them right all along.” I sneered, the sentiment giving me a foul taste in my mouth.
“That sounds like a good epitaph for a dead tyrant. Maybe it’ll warm his bones, to know that he was right to fear me. Right to fear us.”
“Okay, even if you’re right,” he said, “this is nothing like you promised everyone out there. You said that there wouldn’t be any fighting, any killing.”
“And I meant it. I really meant it, Wendy.” A sigh escaped as I inwardly wept for humanity. “But really, what are the chances that Zane and the IAD don’t escalate this? I’ve gone and evened things out for us. He took my life from me, my home, the people I loved. So I shoved a restaurant down his throat and turned his lacky into a sobbing gimp. If it could end there, I would be perfectly at peace and would never raise my hand in violence again. He has every opportunity to back off now and let us live our lives the way we now choose. But he won’t. I know he won’t. I refuse to give him the benefit of any doubt in our minds!” I only noticed after I had finished that I had been getting louder and louder, until finally I had been shouting. Mae stood up and walked over to me.
“Cal…are you sure there’s not more to this?” It took a few moments for me to calm down and recompose myself. There had been a thought gnawing at me for a long while now, and it had evolved from a thought to a suspicion to an anxiety very steadily, very deliberately. Now, it was a primal, paralyzing fear.
“He took them, Mae. My parents. Stacy. Probably Jay.” Mae shook her head violently.
“No. No he didn’t. He would have told you if he had. And they’d be alive. He has no reason to…you know, to kill them.”
“I’d be telling myself that if I didn’t already know they were gone.” She perked an eyebrow up.
“How is that?” Suddenly feeling tired, I sat down and rubbed my eyes with my thumb and forefinger.
“It’s not something I can explain. I just…I feel it. I know how afraid they were at the end of their lives. How much they hated me for doing this to them.” There was a long silence as Mae thought of something to say. Thankfully, the rest had decided to stay out of this.
“You’re afraid, Cal, and I understand that,” she said. “But I think because of that, you’re jumping to conclusions and making assumpt-”
“They’re dead, Mae. They’re dead and I’m to blame for it. Who I am got them killed, I know this to be true. And who I am will avenge them. Who I am will kill Zane and everyone like him. Everyone.” It was at this point that Jan picked herself up and pointed at me accusingly.
“Oh, just put them all out of your misery, then? Damnit, Cal, are you even listening to a word you’re saying? Or are you just too frustrated by how inconvenient this has all been for you to realize that killing the number of people you’re talking about would put you up there with Hitler, Stalin, and Zenith?”
“None of them were fighting for the good of their people, Jan!” I was fuming now, and the shadows moved with me as I swept my hand through the air. “None of those three ever lost what I’ve lost! They didn’t understand what death and suffering even mean.”
“You don’t have any intention of seeking a peaceful resolution, do you? You’re just a child with a sense of entitlement so freakishly huge, you’d kill millions to see that the world services you.”
“And if I have the power to make it that way, then I have a responsibility to do so! It’ll be a cold day when I just let my people go on suffering.” Jan, at this point, had taken enough. Faster than I even thought possible for someone as short as she was, the little sparkplug was on me in seconds, and I was on the ground clutching a broken nose. There was a miasma in the air, a miasma of blind fury, and it was overpowering. I couldn’t even find my way to my feet before her foot was on my chest with her finger pointing down at my face.
“Shut up. Just shut up. Are you a sociopath, or are you just too stupid to understand the value of human life? Maybe it’s both, or maybe you’re just so pissed off that your comfy bed and your comfy school and your comfy lifestyle were pulled out from underneath you that now, everyone has to pay. Well, guess what? I’ve been in that boat. Everyone here has been in that boat, but you don’t see us making threats against humanity and talking about how justified we are. We lost, Cal. We lost thirty years ago, I lost five years ago, and you lost a month ago, but our status as the defeated party does not justify anything. Any fighting we do will be for our own survival, not to take back the convenience of upper-middle class. Hell, I bet you’d give up your powers and your friends in a second if it meant you could go back to that and forget everything that’s happened to you since then. So stop talking about how we are your people. It’s the other way around. You belong to a people. They do not belong to you. And I, personally, am not going to let you do something as stupid as the acts that got us hunted down in the first place.”
Silence followed; the only sound was that of both our breaths. Mine, heavy and labored; hers, calm and steady. This whole time, she had kept her voice firm, but never louder than a conversational volume. Every word had been thought out in advance, even though she barely paused in between sentences. Mae, in my periphery, looked as though she was about to come to my side when Jan shot her a look that might have killed someone with a more delicate constitution. Tired of the silence but honestly terrified, I spoke, softly.
“You…you read me, didn’t you?” The most diminutive hint of a smile crept to the left corner of her lip before she pursed her lips. Slowly, she lowered herself to me, her foot not moving from my chest, until her face was positioned directly above mine by about six inches.
“I don’t need to read you, Cal. You’re too shallow for it to be at all useful.” With that, she picked herself up and went back to her seat, sitting down as if nothing had happened. But her eyes never left me. She didn’t even blink. I was silent. In the background, a pipe was dripping. The Priestess spoke, and in a tone unchanged by what had just happened. I only half listened.
“If we are to be successful in our plan, haste will serve us well. I suggest we begin evacuating as soon as possible. Zane will find us, and he will do it within the next twelve hours. This I know.”
Fate has an interesting way of reminding you that it is indeed a powerful force in this world of ours, and chose that moment to knock on my door with a gun trained on the peephole. The part of fate, tonight, was played by ten men in black kevlar with very powerful-looking carbines. It was barely an instant before I realized that the six of us now sported tiny little red dots on our respective foreheads. It took me a few seconds to care.
“Speak of the devil and he shall appear,” Jan uttered, more angry than afraid. The team leader aimed his weapon at me, and I could feel his disgust as he made an offer.
“We’ve already rounded up the twenty-three others downstairs. You will come with us or we will kill them one day at a time until you turn yourselves in.” At that moment, the most I had been expecting (in terms of noise) were a few gunshots and the sound of hell’s accordion ensemble. Instead, a horrible screeching noise filled the room and, in a flash of hair, teeth, and fury, the Priestess flew past my seat and onto the soldier who had just spoken. At that point, I was doubtful of her abilities as anything but a distraction. Whatever the case was, though, I definitely had one. In the space between the muzzle flare and the sound of a gunshot, the shadows had welcomed me into their safe embrace, and for the moment, I was protected.
They, on the other hand, were not.
Reaching out with every bit of hatred, anger and indignation that the world had stuffed into me, I felt myself leap out, silhouetted. Barely even thinking about it, I slammed my fist, its strength augmented by the solid shadows that it clung to, into one of them with enough force to send his ribs flying through his chest had he been kept completely stationary. He had not, though, and instead, it was he who was sent ten feet through the air before landing on the cold stone floor, gasping for breath through two collapsed lungs. At this, a few members of the squad turned their attention to me. As hard to target as I may have been, the bastards were still pretty quick with their guns. Before I even knew what to do next, there were two rounds very deep in my leg and one that had grazed my right cheekbone.
Pain surged through me like a tidal force, and the shadows that cloaked me distorted my scream into a horrible, ethereal wail. Perhaps the sound seemed muffled to me through the solid shadows, as I could not, at first, really understand why everyone in the room, friends and enemies included, clutched at their ears and replied with screams of their own. Though the pain still burned me like lye injected into the bloodstream, I forced myself to stop and fell to my knees, vomiting up a mix of blood, bile, and tobacco sludge as the shadows receded from me.
I was, at this point, more than just merely incapacitated, but the eight soldiers that had still posed any kind of threat now writhed in agony on the ground while Jan and the others clutched at their skulls and picked themselves up. Mae, incredulous, was the first to ask the question on everyone’s minds.
“What in God’s name was that?” Picking myself up, I stumbled to a wall in order to stay on my feet while I attempted to get ahold of myself. Still reeling, Wendy replied.
“If there is a God – and I highly doubt that there is – he would not be caught dead having anything to do with what just happened,” he breathed, his voice failing him. Another surge of vomit. It burned through the concrete floor a few inches before dissipating into a horrid-smelling steam.
While the rest of us recovered and the soldiers passed out from whatever trauma my screeching had put them through, the Priestess stood up very calmly and wiped the blood off of her face as best she could, spitting out bits of the team-leader’s throat.
“We shall find my children and we shall do it now.” No one really knew what to say to that. It was Wendy who first found the courage to speak.
“They…they aren’t here. I can’t find them anywhere in the sewers no matter how hard I concentrate.” Jan offered up an explanation.
“Bastards must have caught them by surprise and lead them out in chains. Bet some Formula-15 was involved.” A noise came from the back of the Priestess’s throat that caused everyone in the room to recoil. Even French. With an eerie calm, she walked over to the corpse of the man she had killed, picked up his radio, and spoke into it.
“Zane….Zane.” The words she spoke sounded of the Pit. “You have invaded my home, filled my children with your disgusting poison, taken them away and threatened them with death. Your pain shall never end. Your death shall never come. This is not a threat, nor is it a vow. It is a statement of this universe’s one. Absolute. Truth. God shall not take any mercy on your soul, because if he does, I will come for him next.” For a few moments, there was only static. Then, two words in Zane’s voice.
“Duly noted.” There was a split second when I felt that the sheer force of the Priestess’s hatred might have just up and killed me. It was overpowering; the smell, the feeling. As I emptied myself out onto the floor, though, Wendy swooped in to my rescue with an effectively distracting statement.
“There are more. If we don’t get out of here now then at least half of us are going to die.” Priestess seemed to register this and nodded before gesturing towards the dead soldiers on the ground.
“Arm yourselves. None of them leave here with their heads.” It was French who then stepped up, his movements calm and unfaltering.
“No. We fall back this time, Miss. Our time will come.” It was an agonizingly long couple of seconds before Priestess fully worked the situation out in her head and sighed in resignation.
“Pick Calvin up off the floor and follow me; all of you. We are going to meet up with Number 24.” At this, I put up a finger before bracing myself with both hands and struggling to my feet. Pain racked my head, my body and the bullet wounds in my leg but all I could think of now was the numbness I felt when the Forumula-15 first pumped through me. I would not go back to that. Somehow, it motivated me to move.
“I’ll carry my own weight. And his,” I said, picking up one of the assault rifles the soldiers’ had been carrying. A couple seconds of searching revealed some spare ammunition, as well. Wendy, Jan, and French followed my lead. Mae abstained, putting a hand up as if someone had offered her an unwanted second helping of casserole. By the time we had gotten ourselves together, the Priestess had already opened up a door at the end of the room I had no clue even existed until now.
“The rendezvous point is this way. He’ll wait for us five minutes and then assume our death or capture. By my count we have two or so left.”
It had been a long time since I ran this fast. I didn’t even know how I was doing it with two slugs in my leg. The pain was excruciating, but it felt almost like a propellant, spurring me forward lest it catch up with me. And even then, Mae was running faster. The fear on her skin smelled like steam, paint and alcohol. It was not a pleasant odor, but the circumstances themselves were far from pleasant. After French closed the door behind it and got rid of its function as a door, the place was so dark I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face without closing my eyes and feeling it there. The blind sprint seemed to take fifteen minutes and certainly felt like it, but it was probably only about thirty seconds. Finally, we came upon what looked to have been a pump station at one point. The machinery was long dead, though, and now it seemed forgotten by all but the Priestess. There was a familiar scent of chlorine in the air that accompanied an equally familiar voice.
“You lot sure took your time.” Kane stepped out from behind a pump, looking disheveled and pained. It didn’t take long for me to notice that a few very lucky shots had mangled his left hand beyond recognition. Wendy grimaced before putting to words the suspicion that was on all of our minds.
“He found us too quickly. Was there a traitor?” No one wanted to answer. Jan offered up a suggestion.
“Could be that he knew all along and was just waiting for us to think we had won.” French, ever stoic, stepped.
“We can theorize later. Kane, can you take us all to New York in your condition?” He was about to answer before Wendy raised a finger.
“No,” He objected. “We have to assume he knows of all our plans. For now, we just need to lie low. Regroup.” The Israeli nodded.
“I know just the place, but taking all of you there at once in my condition will put me out of commission for a month. Seems, though, that we don’t have much choice.” Everyone exchanged glances (except for the Priestess, who stared at the floor dejectedly) before nodding. “Grab on, then,” he ordered.
After we obeyed, a strange feeling washed over me, like I had just been emerged in water but could still breathe. The ground disappeared from beneath my feet, and my stomach jumped up into my throat. It was not an entirely unpleasant feeling, but after a moment of it, my head seemed to go in a different direction than the rest of me. I tried to vomit. It didn’t work. Instead, a reddish-black closed in around my field of vision and I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness. The last thing I saw before completely blacking out was Mae’s hand grasping at my shoulder. Then darkness.
There was nothing, but I could see it clearly. Everything was black, but it was such a vibrant shade of black as to humble even the proudest blind man who thought that he had seen it all. The silence was deafening. And as I took it all in with senses I didn’t have, a sort of cathartic rage bubbled up inside of me like I had just won a heated argument. It had no discernable source; I couldn’t remember the circumstances that had brought me here or even my name. Words failed me, even within my mind. But none of that was important now. For all I knew, I had been buried alive in my own wretchedness, and there was a strange feeling of contentedness with this fate, if that’s what it indeed was. And though I did not know how they got there, there were two words. No one had spoken them. They had not come from any train of thought or idea. They were just there. The only certainty. Welcome Home. Warm. This was a warm place, but as I began to enjoy it, the darkness began to fade away and consciousness returned to my head like a tidal wave rushing through the streets of a coastal city, carrying with it thousand of drowned, broken and bloated thoughts.
I awoke to an unfamiliar ceiling with a groan that shook my soul. The world was gray but for my skin, and I quickly realized that I had been disrobed. My right leg was wrapped in bandages and when I moved it, the pain was only a little bit agonizing, like a burn submerged into ice water. As I shifted about, it came to me that I was not alone. Tilting my head back, I saw the Priestess and Mae sitting down at a card table and looking quite intently at me. I blinked.
“Well, I’m awake, so you can go get my pants before I remember to get embarrassed.” Mae grimaced a bit, nodded and stumbled out of the room, blushing. The Priestess, on the other hand, made no moves whatsoever until Mae was already gone. She sighed.
“It has been a day and a half, if you’re wondering. Please try not to feel too damaged. None of us are at our best, least of all me.”
“Where are we?” She hesitated, obviously not fond of the answer she was about to give.
“One of Kane’s safe houses in Detriot. He’s out looking for some essentials.” I started the process of cracking my joints, starting with my neck and working my way down.
“How’s his hand?” She frowned and looked at her own hands, dissatisfied.
“Gone, but not infected. He took it surprisingly well, even considering the fact that I might have been able to save it had I not been so…compromised.” There were a few seconds of silence as she took a deep breath, struggling to keep composed. I decided to end this little intermission early, as it was going to go on for a few minutes otherwise.
“And my leg?”
“If you stop squirming, you should be feeling better in a day or two. The slugs are out and I did my work on it. The rest is up to you. Your cheek is fine, if scarred.” I had forgotten about that. Lifting my hand up to where the wound had been, it became quite apparent that the bullet had taken a fair amount of flesh with it and had left a long, rough-feeling indent in my upper cheek. The old me would have been irate at this mar. As it stood, I just found myself wondering if Kane had a beard trimmer I could borrow, as I also felt some rather uncomfortable stubble beneath this new scar (as it turns out, he did).
“Neat. Where are the others?” As we talked, the Priestess had begun to remove the shell casings from her many braids. Now nearly done, she ran her fingers through her hair. If it weren’t for the scar running down her face, one might confuse her for a normal, if quite beautiful, woman. She had changed into a pair of jeans and a tank-top since arriving here and seemed to have even bothered to apply some makeup.
“In the other room, probably receiving the update on your condition from Mae. You should thank her, by the way. Had it not been for her convincing, you would have woken up alone and the rest of us would have all died in some half-cocked rescue attempt. Wendy seems to think that my flock is already dead anyway. I can’t tell if he’s lying to save us or telling the truth to save us. Whichever one it is, it hardly matters. Very little does.” There was an instinct to try cheering her up, but I honestly couldn’t muster it. I suppose one must be in a better mood than the person they’re trying to console for it to actually work. As I sighed in defeat, a question appeared in my mind. It was a very simple one, but the fact that I had not yet asked it of her left me surprised.
“Who are you?”
“Yvonne Mathis. I do not keep it a secret.”
“I know that.” She looked surprised to hear this, but I went on. “No, I want to know who you are. We’re good and fucked, you see, and the only way I can see us getting un-fucked is if I understand everything that’s lead up to this moment. And that starts with you telling me everything I don’t know about you. We’re in this together now, Mathis.”
Sunlight was streaming in through the room’s windows, and for the first time, I saw the Priestess quite clearly. Doubtless this was not the way she wished to be viewed, but a sullen look darkened her face and betrayed to me a vulnerability that had been hidden up to this point. Her stomach expanded and contracted quite visibly as she took a few deep breaths. There was a weariness, now, to her every action, and no matter how badly she wished to hide it, the signs were quite apparent.
“Sit down,” she said. “There is much to tell and there will be even more to ask.”