Under a Very Black Sky is an Alternate Universe story set in the Doom-Verse and the first installment of the Within the Suffering Aether Trilogy.
One thing I do like about the world I live in is that there are no useless people. I'm sitting on the porch of a cabin, alongside a few of the adult campers. One of them is telling a story to a group of kids, telling them about the world before the war. If I'm to be honest, it sounds like it sucked. He's going on and on about something called a selfie, which, from what I understand, is when people stand in front of a mirror and take a picture of themselves in it. It sounds like the dumbest thing in the world. I sit up from my chair, say goodbye, and walk down the steps into the camp.
Camp is a relative term. It is a walled off variation of a resort town, with walls all around the main roads to the highways and the perimeter. We also don't have cabins, like the original Camp Half-Blood used to. Now we have houses, and we live in the housing of the town. After the war between the immortals and humanity, the rockies were one of the lucky areas to have not been razed in the final days of the war. I return to the hotel that serves as a headquarters of sorts, somewhere the older campers and counselors go to sleep if they want. It has what I was told is called a hot tub on the roof, which, following the brilliance of a few children of Poseidon, was repaired and is actually hot.
I find my room, which overlooks the whole camp, and I crash down on the bed. I have two hours to nap, something I immediately jump on. Something about this world, if you have a chance to eat, eat. If you have a chance to sleep, sleep. It only takes me about seven minutes to drift away into the realm of sleep. An unfortunate part of this world, sleep goes hand in hand with nightmares.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. I count the times the hanging slab of meat sways across the light from the ceiling. Once it hits ten, I roll to my feet and over to one of the meat slabs on a cart. It looks like a leg of some sort, with a bone sticking out one end. I turn around and cut the wires that bind my wrists on the bone. Once I'm free, I free my teammate, Josie, and we pound on the door. Almost immediately, the door swings open, a guard storming in with what looks like a pair of scissors glued to a stick. He swings at Josie, but she ducks under his attack and kicks him once in the side of the thigh, right on the nerve ending. He crumples to one knee, and I slam mine into his orbital bone, knocking him out. Josie takes his scissors and slits his throat.
We leave through the open door quickly and make our way outside. "Down." Josie immediately says and shoves me behind a broken down van. I roll underneath it and the older girl follows me. Josie points and I see why she shoved me down. The others are lined up on their knees, several guards facing them from behind, armed with pistols.
"Dad." I whisper. My father is among them, on his knees in front of the makeshift barn. Josie immediately grabs one shoulder and clasps a hand around my mouth. Smart move on her, otherwise my scream would have been heard as they callously put a bullet in my father's head.
I jolt awake to the feeling of someone grasping my arm. "You alright?" Carl asks me.
"Dammit, Carl." I say, sitting up. "You keep sneaking into rooms when you need people and one day somebody will freak out and kill you." Carl is one of the forgers, a son of Hephaestus who keeps everything intact and running smoothly. From weapons to wall maintenance, they do everything. They're also notoriously irritable, as they get the least sleep out of all of us.
"You didn't answer my question." He replies. "You were muttering and convulsing in your sleep."
"No." I shoot back. "I had that dream again."
"I'm sorry." He says, nodding. "Listen, you're not going out for another week or so, and we've had some injuries in the last few days, so we're short staffed. Would you be willing to come help out?"
"Yeah, sure. Just get out of my room so I can change into forge gear." I grumble. He climbs out my window and jumps down. I sigh and change into the old prison jumpsuit we use in the forges. I walk down to the forge, tying my hair back as I go. It is absolutely chaotic once I get there. They are so annoyingly behind on repairs and weapon orders that I get stuck working there for the rest of the day, working at a frantic pace to get all of the things they need today done. It takes about four hours for us to get caught up. Carl dismisses me and I change in the forge bathroom. As I step out of the change room, the PA system buzzes.
Zoe Johnson, make your way to gate six. Bring your weapons. I frown. Being told to bring weapons normally means that someone is going wrong. I grab my dagger, katana, and crossbow from the army and run to the gate. I meet Chiron, the Camp Director.
"Zoe." He said, nodding to me as I arrive. "We received a distress signal down the roads, brief and full of static, but it was definitely from a demigod."
"I thought we were the last." I reply skeptically.
"Not necessarily. Take a car and run out to look. If you don't find anything within five miles, assume they died and there's nothing you can do. Don't take unnecessary risks." He orders. I nod and jump into one of the cars. Chiron opens the gate and I drive out, speeding down the road, looking for new people. Stories from before the war say that there used to be hundreds of cars on roads at once, and it would take people hours and even days to get from place to place. It sounds like it would be absolute torture. As I drive, I notice, out of the corner of my eye, movement on the horizon. I pull over to the side of the road and roll down my window. I grab my crossbow and look down the scope.
"Crap." I mutter. I can see a group of four running on foot. Three young men and a young blonde woman. What they are running from concerns me. Down the hill after them is a dune buggy, modified to have blades and saws on the sides and front, with two men hanging off the side of it, holding assault rifles. Two more buggies come over the hill and down towards the group. I return my gaze to the group and see that they're heading for an old hunting lodge. I grab the wheel and start driving for the side road towards them, remembering what my father told me about the men chasing them.
"They're called Bulls. They're a group from the prairies that survived the massive sandstorm that hit Saskatchewan two years after you were born." He told me. "They've deteriorated into psychos and crazies, half suicidal in their missions. No one knows what they do to their prisoners, because as far as we know, they don't take any." I remember asking why they were called bulls. "Because all their helmets have horns of some kind."
By the time I make it to the lodge, the group has fled inside the the Bulls are either chasing after them or patrolling outside. I park a couple hundred meters away and jump out of the truck, taking all my weapons with me. "Another thing about Bulls, Zoe. Kill them all. Otherwise they never stop coming for you." My father's voice says in my head. It is not a piece of advice I plan to ignore. I hide in the shrubbery outside of the store and do a quick head count. Four Bulls wandering around outside. One of them, I swear, has a buzz saw on a stick as a weapon. Two machetes and an AK-47 are the other weapons. I take aim with my crossbow, aiming for the back of the Bull with the rifle.
I squeeze the trigger and he falls, clutching at his chest briefly and crying out in pain. I sling my crossbow over my back and draw my katana. There's no time to reload now. I run forward, quietly moving for the Bulls as they move to investigate their fallen comrade. Something I've always found remarkable about them is that they don't really care about their dead. The dead are just a mild inconvenience for them. I slash once, my blade connecting with the back of a Bull's head. I can't wrench it out, so I draw my hunting knife and keep stepping forward, stabbing once into the back of the third's neck. I step away from the fourth, Buzz saw guy, and wrench my sword out of the dead Bull's head.
He roars once and runs at me, a berserk frenzy that is child's play to counter. I step aside once and stab at the same time, catching him in the throat. I twist so I can slash his jugular on the way out. There's no taking chances with these people. I clean and sheath the sword before picking up his AK. I take aim and head into the lodge. I'm greeted by a flying hatchet, heading towards my head. I duck and roll forward, taking aim and firing instinctively. The Bull drops, but two more appear and fire back. I duck behind a series of shelves and hide, bullets hitting the floor around me, missing only by inches.
I glance up, poking my head out briefly, only to see them take aim and open fire again. I switch hiding places again, bullet holes trailing after me. I lean against a bookshelf, trying to control my breathing. I glance up at the upper level and freeze. Dammit. I think. A young man from the chased group is up there, hiding behind a desk, aiming a pistol down at me. Dammit, this is it.
Nothing happens. Slowly, I hold up two fingers and point to where I saw the Bulls last. He nods and holds up four fingers and points in the same direction. I nod, calming down, and shift around so I can get up to shoot. He holds a book up and makes a gesture as though he is about to throw it. I nod again, and he tosses it. Almost immediately, a hail of bullets hits the area around the book, and footsteps can be heard moving towards it. I aim at the book and wait. The moment two of them come into sight, I fire with three sort bursts and they hit the ground. Two gunshots ring out from the upper level, and two cries of pain can be heard from the other Bulls.
I quickly get up and stab them in the head, just in case. Gurgles can be heard from the other two. I climb up to the upper level and see the Bulls are wounded, but not quite dead. I don't even get my knife out. I stomp twice on their throats before moving on to look for the young man from before. I raise the rifle and walk over to where I saw him. He jumps out, pistol aimed at me. I aim at him and we stand there for a moment in silence. "You send in that call?" I ask eventually.
"Yeah." He replies. He's about six-foot-three, blonde hair and blue eyes. "Demi?"
"Yeah." I reply and lower my rifle. He follows suit and I take a few steps forward. "What are the Bulls doing this far into Alberta?"
"Bulls?" He asks, confused. "Is that what they're called?"
"Where are you from, blondie?" I ask.
"We're coming up from Portland." He said. My eyebrows go up. "Listen, if your people have room for four more, or at the very least, some supplies, we would be indebted to you."
"We can take you in, for a while, at least." I say and hold a hand out. He shakes it. "Zoe Johnson, daughter of Athena."
"Lucian Lohse, son of Phobos." He replies.
Lucian takes me into one of the back storage rooms, where the rest of his group is hiding. They each stand up, a pretty blonde girl, a red-eyed young man and a dark haired young man that I already don't trust just by looking at him. "That's Damian Mace." Lucian says, pointing at him. "Also Jorah Davos and my sister, Stella."
"I'm Zoe." I say. "My people got you message and sent me out."
"Demi?" Damian asks quietly. I nod. They quickly grab their bags and prepare to leave.
"Follow me outside, when I tell you to, wait." I order. They nod, and I lead them outside. Once we're a good distance from the building, I point to a spot on the ground and walk over to each of the dune buggies. I remove their tires and throw them into the back of the truck, as well as other miscellaneous pieces of metal or useful things. It takes me about half an hour before I'm done, and when I am, I get in the truck and wave for them to join me. They each get in, Stella taking the passenger seat. I start to drive, and it is fairly quiet from the start.
"How many people have you killed?" I spring the question on them, breaking the silence.
"As a group, twenty-eight." Jorah says.
"How come?" I reply.
"To survive." Stella says. I nod. "Why are you asking?" She goes on.
"Wondering whether it'd be smarter to put this truck in the ditch to stop you guys from making it back to Camp, that's all." I reply nonchalantly. They remain silent after that. I continue driving, moving slower than I had been before, until I see smoke on the horizon, a black plume of smoke going up into the sky. "Oh, Hades!" I say and push down on the gas, hard.
"What is it?" Lucian asks.
"Fires from Camp, there's a problem." I say and continue driving, ignoring a question from Damian. We pull into Camp and I see that the gate has been rammed down, and I can hear gunshots and the clashing of blades inside. I drive straight through the gate and grind to a halt. There are six Bull buggies in camp, and I can see Bulls running around everywhere. "You see a Bull you kill them." I say and jump out, raising my rifle to aim at one of them. I fire twice and one goes down.
"I'm starvin! I'm gonna eat your babies!" A high, sadistic, almost child-like voice cries out to my left. I turn and see a Bull charging straight for me, helmet adorned with actual knives, and he appears to be actually trying to gore me like a literal bull. I jump to the side, falling in a heap on the ground as he charges past me. I shoot him in the back until the gun clicks, empty. I throw it aside and draw my katana. I hear a gunshot behind me and Lucian darts forward and tackles a Bull I hadn't noticed. He appears to be fine, so I continue pressing forward.
I notice three or four Bulls running towards the forge, so I sprint after them. They slam the door behind them just as I reach it, and I can hear a struggle inside. When I try to open in, it is locked. Cursing, I look around and see an old, rusty fire axe, so I grab it and start hacking away at the door. Once I make a large enough hole, I reach in and unlock it. Then, before I can get my arm out, I feel something stab into my wrist, top and bottom of it. "Son of a harpy..." I grunt, more annoyed than anything, and grab my hunting knife with my left hand. I reach in and stab, praying I don't hit myself. As the stabbing pain in my wrist isn't joined by a different pain, as well as ceasing altogether, I think I've succeeded.
I pull my arm out and see that there are bite wounds on my wrist. "Hades almighty..." I say and open the door, finding a gurgling Bull on the ground. I finish him off with a stab to the eye. I walk further into the forge and almost throw up from the smell that hits me. The sight is just as bad. There is a burning camper body thrown into the forge, and from the size and build, I could tell it was Carl. Three hopping and jumping Bulls, one of which is about three feet tall, are singing a song in a language I don't recognize.
The big ones rush me, but it isn't that difficult to shove them into sharp things on the wall. The little one jumps into the forge, on top of Carl's body, and holds one fist up. He lets go of something in his hand, and a pin flies past my head. I turn and sprint for the door, getting it closed behind me just in time for it to fly out and flatten me under its weight from the explosion.
When I wake up, my vision is hazed and my ears are ringing. There is a voice saying something, but I can't hear them. I close my eyes again and pass out one more time. When I wake up, the ringing is gone and I can tell where I am. Infirmary...great... Once I'm able, I sit up. Almost immediately, I am approached by two medics. "Am I gonna die?" I ask them.
"No...you'll be ok." One says, trying to be soothing.
"Then get out of the way." I order and get up. I have a bit of a limp, but it is more than manageable. I walk outside and see the funeral pyres. Fourteen bodies. I groan and look around for Chiron. Not seeing him, I grab a camper, son of Ares, a little younger than me. "Where's Chiron?"
"HQ, talking to those new people you brought." He says. I thank him and start walking. I find them in the lobby, standing around a table with food on it.
"What's to eat?" I ask, walking up to them.
"Tabby cat." Chiron replies, and I grab a piece and start chewing on it. "I'll let you have the pelt." He adds. I smile at him before looking at the others. Lucian has a cut on his right cheek and Stella is bruised on her left eye, while Damian is on a crutch and Jorah is unharmed. "We were just discussing their goals."
"Fill me in?" I ask.
"We're trying to find a direct route to the CN Tower." Lucian says. "Trying to get to Olympus."
"Well, we figure that they'll have the best defenses, and since Stella is one of the last children of Zeus, she may prove valuable enough to keep us there." Jorah says. I notice Stella shifting uncomfortably. Damian produces a map, and I look at it. There's a pin where Camp is located, and it shows a route marked out in some kind of red ink. As I look at it, I sigh.
"Chiron, have you explained why their route is stupid?" I ask. He shakes his head, and I point at their route. "You're gonna go straight through the desert, which is Bull kingdom, and straight into the Condemned Zone."
"Condemned Zone?" Stella asks, and is immediately silenced by a glare from Jorah.
"The Condemned Zone is something even Hades hates. He cursed it. All the dead and living in that zone when he put the curse on it are wandering the streets, soulless shells that kill, kill, kill. What's worse are the whisperers. They are the same, but they talk to you and try to convince you to join them, let them kill you." I say and throw the map at Damian.
"We've been through worse coming from the South." Lucian says. "We just need a week or so to recuperate and we'll get going." I'm about to speak again when Chiron beats me to it.
"I think we can allow that. Simply follow our rules and obey the curfews." Chiron said. "I'll have someone show you to living quarters." He said and clapped his hands. Quickly, a pair of Campers arrive and start to lead them away. "And Zoe, go treat that leg, I don't want you doing anything physical for a while." He orders. I nod and head to my own room. I walk in and collapse onto the bed. My bed is really two beds put together into a large one. Considering I had no roommate, I figured it would be a good idea. After a few minutes, I grab a bag of ice from my freezer and put it on the sore part, which is specifically my right ankle.
I only leave my room to go and grab dinner in the headquarters' dining room. I eat with the other children of Athena, but I keep an eye on the new people, who are eating alone. Jorah remains quiet, with most of the conversation happening between Lucian and Damian. Stella only speaks if she's spoken to, and all of her responses seem to be short and pointed, never saying much at a time. I'll have to actually talk to all of them tomorrow, see what they're like. I decide. And whether they're worth keeping.
I sleep in for the first time in weeks the next morning. It truly is a glorious thing, the ability to oversleep. I eventually get up and shower. Something nice about camp is that we had a Son of Poseidon named Percy a few years back who, in conjunction with Carl, got a water system going. Percy died on a scavenging run alongside my father, being hit in some sort of secret weak spot. With both him and Carl dead, it looked like camp was going to not have a water system quite soon. Once I finished up I quickly dressed and made my way outside. I'll start with Jorah. I decide.
I wander around Camp, looking for him. I eventually find him out walking absently, hands in his pockets. I slip up behind him and follow for a few minutes. He eventually stops abruptly, and I have to do the same to avoid slamming into him. "How long have you been following me?" He asks.
"Few minutes. Sorry, I couldn't figure out what to say."
"Hi, hello, greetings, salutations." He suggests.
"I've never even heard of that last one." I reply.
"An unfortunate result of the world we live in." Jorah says. "Now to my next question." He says and turns to face me. "Why were you following me?"
"I want to know about you." I say carefully.
"Very well. I am twenty-one years old, I am a Son of Tartarus, I enjoy books that have not been used for fire-fuel, the taste of squirrel, and unicorns." He replies, utterly deadpan. I raise my eyebrows. "That last one was a joke." He says.
"You...may need work on those joking skills." I reply.
"My skills lie primarily in long-distance elimination as well as vehicle repair." Jorah says.
"Useful. Last question, why do you seem to shoot Stella down every time she says something?" I ask, and he freezes, clearly taken off guard. His expression changes, and his eyes seem to harden. "She is my key to survival. I don't trust her enough to make her own decisions with her life. If she dies, I lose that ticket to Olympus." He turns and leaves immediately after, a look of barely suppressed anger on his face. I nod slowly to myself, considering what he just told me. Ok...on to Damion.
I find Damion about forty-five minutes later in the mess hall. He's sitting on his own, munching away at a stew. I walk over and sit down across from him. "Zoe." He says without looking up.
"Damion." I reply, and we sit in silence for a long moment. "How long have you been traveling with your group?" I ask.
"Seven weeks." He replies. I wait for him to embellish that statement, but he never did.
"Why do you want to go to Olympus with them, when there's a good fortification here?" I ask. He is silent for a long moment.
"I owe Lucian a debt." He finally says.
"What do you mean?"
"I joined their group when he saved my life from a monster known as Kampê in the south. I have never been able to truly repay that debt. He's never needed my help like I needed his then. I will not leave them until that debt is paid." Damion says.
"Alright. All I wanted to know." I say and I leave him there. It takes me a while longer to find Lucian, who I come across in the training area, sparring with the air. "Great thing about dueling an imaginary opponent is that they're always greatly skilled, but easily defeated." I call to him as I draw near. He stops and turns to me.
"Point taken. Would you care to replace my imagination?" He asks, eyes wandering.
"From what I can tell, your imagination runs far too rampant to be replaced." I reply. "May I ask you something instead?"
"Sure. If you want."
"Why are you so determined to get to Olympus?" I ask. "And I doubt that it is because it will be the most fortified, so please be honest." He sighs.
"We heard a transmission from Olympus a couple months back. Olympus needs a child of each of the big three. They can undo the damage done by the war through some kind of ritual. Stella is a daughter of Zeus, one of the last. Even if they don't need her, she can be valuable." Lucian said.
"So...she's basically a bargaining chip?" I ask. He winces.
"I don't like to think of it like that...she was the one who suggested we go there in the first place." He says.
"Another thing. Do you notice how Jorah looks at her?" I ask. "I'd keep an eye on him if I were you." I say and leave, headed to the barracks to talk to Stella. I find her sitting in her room, staring out the window. "Hey." I say, and she jumps, startled, and looks at me.
"Oh, hey. What's up?" She asks.
"Nothing much, just wanted to see how you were doing." I say.
"I'm alright, thanks." She says and resumes staring out the window.
"Why aren't you headed out and about, seeing the sights of Camp?" I ask.
"They told me not to leave the room." Stella says after a moment.
"Yeah. They don't want me dying." She says. Damn, this poor girl is being controlled to hell and back by those guys. I think to myself. She's no more a danger than half the kids in camp. An idea pops into my head and I put a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, come on, I want to show you something." I say. "Don't worry about them, you'll be safe with me." I say. She nods slowly and gets up. She follows me to the armory, and I grab my weapons, handing her my handgun. "Do you know how to use it?" I ask, and she nods. "Alright, then follow me." I say and lead her to the south wall. Slipping by the guard's view, I lead her to a hole in the fence that is covered by paneling. I move the paneling over and gesture for her to hurry through. "I do this when I need to get away, there's a spot up one of those mountains I want to show you."
"You'll understand when we get there." I reply. I lead her to the base of a mountain, where an old gondola station lies. We go inside and we are immediately greeted by a permanently moving gondola. "Started malfunctioning after a lightning bolt hit it." I say. "We're gonna have to jump in one as it passes by. It shouldn't be too fast, so this will be easy." I say. When the gondola returns, we hop in and quickly take a seat on the chairs within. We ride up to the top and I lead her through a ruined building and down a stone path, up to the very top of the mountain.
"Wow." Stella said, looking around at the view. You can see for hundreds of miles, even far enough to see the beginning of the great desert. "Imagine waking up and seeing this every day."
"If you want, that could be a real possibility for you." I say. She looks at me, surprised. "You don't have to go with them. We'd be glad to have you in Camp. I can tell you don't like going with them, so, stay here." I say. Her eyes widen slightly and she opens her mouth to respond, when, suddenly, a loud, angry, hungry growl can be heard alarmingly near us. I turn around slowly and see a hellhound, pacing back and forth.
"Drop the crossbow on the ground, distract it." Stella whispers. I nod and do so. As I get the crossbow off my shoulder, I draw my Katana and jump to the side. It pounces on me, snapping with its massive jaws at my head. Then, suddenly, it stiffens and goes limp. I crawl out from underneath it and see an arrow through its eye. I look at Stella, who is still holding the crossbow, looking very proud of herself. I wipe the mountain snow off of myself and shiver. "Do you want to head back? We should get you someplace warm." She says.
"Hot springs. Bottom of the mountain. I'd much prefer that." I say. Stella's eyebrows go up and she nods. I haul myself to my feet and lead her to a broken down building that I'm told worked as a tourist attraction, people would come and pay to enter the hot springs. I smirk at the thought and hop through a broken window, Stella close behind me. I lead her through the building and we come up to the hot springs, which are still steaming even now, all these years after the world ended.
"Wow." Stella says, grinning involuntarily. I smile. It was nice to see smiling because of actual happiness, not the black humor that accompanies scavengers into the field and back, or the forced grins at camp.
"You'll want to leave your clothes on the side of the springs, or it'll be a cold walk back." I tell her.
About an hour or so later, we start walking back, talking about what my job at Camp primarily required. Lots of hunting, killing monsters, killing people, and learning to find useful stuff where other people see garbage. I started to say something about teaching her if she stayed at camp, when the words died in my throat as I looked up in the direction of camp. A blue flare had been popped. That meant there was an attack while we were away. It also meant that we had won, but there were casualties. Deaths. "Come on." I said, shifting gears as I drew my pistol and handed Stella my crossbow. We sprinted up to camp and found the repaired gate had been knocked in again. I jump in and see numerous Bull corpses.
Why do they keep coming North? I ask myself briefly before shaking the idea away and moving further into camp, towards the source of the blue flare. A see a group standing idly, looking down at something. Lucian, Damion, and Jorah are off to the side, looking worried. "Where the hell have you been?" Lucian asks Stella, hugging her tightly.
"Yes...where?" Jorah asks, though far more suspiciously. I walk past them and see what has happened. Chiron is lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood, a weapon that looks like a hack-saw on a stick carved down from his right shoulder into his chest. A lone demigod kneels next to our fallen mentor. Clarisse La Rue, daughter of Ares. She rises up and looks at me.
"Get out of this camp." She snarls, clutching a machete. "This would never have happened if you hadn't brought them here." She spits, pointing at Stella, Lucian, Jorah, and Damion. "You have ten minutes, take your things and get out, or I will kill you myself. The same goes for you four." She calls to the group. "You are no longer welcome here." The crowd of demigods starts to leave. Clarisse kneels by Chiron again, and I know she will let me nowhere near the body for any final farewells. I turn to the group of four, jaw half open, not sure what to do.
"You can come with us." Stella says, and is immediately cut off by Damion. Lucian, however, cuts Damion off.
"Yes, she can. Meet us outside the gate." He says. I nod and run up to my room and grab what few possessions I'll be needing. Approximately forty arrows, seventeen pistol clips, four tabby-cat fur pelts two wolf pelts, duct tape, and random assorted objects I've found uses for over the years. I return to the group with three minutes left.
"Why do you have wolf pelts on your bag?" Jorah asks as I approach them.
"I'll show you when we find a place to set camp." I say glumly. Stella hands me my crossbow, which I rest on my shoulder. Katana at my left hip, pistol on my right ankle, backpack with my usual gear, a bunch of fur pelts. I really must have looked like a lunatic murderer. Quite frankly, at that moment, I was fine with that. We start walking with a minute left before Clarisse would call us enemies. Before we rounded the corner, I took one last look at my home, then sighed and kept walking.
Dad always said it wouldn't last forever. I thought as I fell in line next to Lucian.
I trudged out of the forest and onto the pavement. I walked up to the abandoned garage's door and slapped it once with my palm, then twice more in rapid succession. It was our code for the day so that they would know it was me. After a few moments, the door moved up two feet. I slid my bag under the door and rolled after it. Jorah let the makeshift lever go and the door fell shut. "Four squirrels and a mouse." I say, throwing a bag full of the dead animals to him. He catches it and sets to work skinning and cleaning them. "Others aren't back yet?" I ask, looking around the empty garage.
"Yeah. They should be back in around half an hour." He says, not looking up from his work. I shrug and throw myself onto the makeshift couch we've made from the chairs of broken down cars in the garage. I pull my boots off (which are now lined with tabby fur on the inside, for those of you who were wondering what those pelts were for) and lie back, stretching out. As I'm stretching, I notice Jorah glances over, trying to be discreet, and failing. I ignore it. If he's paying attention to me, then he isn't paying attention to Stella, which I'm fine with. I lay there for several minutes until the familiar knocking could be heard on the garage door.
Jorah lifts up the door and Stella, Lucian, and Damion all slip under the door. Damion is holding a large bag of fish, all with holes in them. Damn, I owe Lucian four bullets. I think to myself. He had bet me before they left that he would be able to spear at least three fish. Judging by the size of the bag, he was able to guess extremely low compared to his abilities. Stella is wearing a jacket I helped her fashion from the wolf pelts and her old jacket. It was a hell of a lot thicker and warmer now, so hopefully any makeshift arrows fired our way would just stick in the fur. Stella sits down next to me, but Lucian and Damion do not sit down.
"Zoe, can you come with us?" Lucian asks. "We found a warehouse down the street but didn't want to check it out until we'd dropped the food off. I nod and grab my weapons, leaving my pistol with Stella. Crossbow over my back and katana in hand, I followed Lucian and Damion down the street, sticking to the bushes as much as possible, not wanting to attract any attention. We near the warehouse, a small building in the middle of a clearing.
"There's a patrol." Damion says, pointing. I sheath my sword and grab my crossbow, looking down the attached scope.
"Dracanae." I whisper. "Three of them. Should I take the shot?"
"No." Lucian hisses. Damion slips away and moves to sneak around. "He'll take them. I need to talk to you anyway." He says and shifts so we're lying up against one another, his voice uncomfortably soft. "He's indebted to me, you know that, right?" He asks.
"Yeah." I reply, not moving away. "Why?"
"He's starting to actively look to settle the score. When he does...just watch yourself. There's no telling what he'll do." Lucian says, and I nod quickly. He doesn't move away, but I wasn't complaining. In the northern Canadian prairies, it is cold, so the body heat was welcome. I watch through my scope as Damion sneaks up behind the trio of Dracanae and uses a hatchet to cut them all down. Damion waves for us to join him, and we quickly scuttle over to his position. He pushes the door of the warehouse, which has been left unlocked, and peers in.
"Four Dracanae, two angry looking harpies, and...a Hyperborean." He whispers. I bite back a truly foul curse. "We can't leave a Hyperborean wandering around."
"I know." I say. "Arrows and bullets don't tend to be effective, we'll have to get in close." I said and handed my crossbow to Lucian. "Let's see if you can find a way up into the rafters. If you can, take out the Dracanae to distract them, Damion and I will take the giant."
"We will?" Damion groans. I nod. What I wasn't going to say was that, despite being excommunicated very abruptly, I still cared about Camp and the people there. I didn't want a Hyperborean Giant this close to camp, of all things. Lucian peeks around the corners, then points. I look and see a ladder going up to the roof. He makes his way over as I draw my katana. We wait with the door open only slightly, listening. I close my eyes and focus on the sounds of the Dracanae and the giant. The hissing voices of the demons and the loud, lumbering sound that comes from the giant whenever he tries to articulate words. Then, in a break in their conversation, I hear the soft twang of the crossbow.
Immediately, I can hear total pandemonium. Panic ensues between the monsters, and I know now is the best time to strike. As I slip in the door, Lucian looses another arrow, this one missing and ricocheting off the floor and embedding itself into a cardboard box. The Dracanae notice Damion and I while the Hyperborean is kept occupied with Lucian, who is hidden in the shadows of the rafters. I duck under a swipe from a Dracanae and slash its stomach, causing it to explode in a cloud of golden dust. I catch the blade of the next one on my sword and counter-slash at her legs, removing one of them at the knee and sending her into the wind as golden cloud. I turn and see that Damion is nowhere to be found. I curse and deftly stab the last demon in the throat.
I turn around and see that Lucian is hanging from a rafter, the Hyperborean stretching his reach to try and reach him. I run up behind the giant and jump for the back of its knee. One slash and the leg falls off, sending the giant, who is turning into ice, tumbling to the ground, where he shatters into a million pieces. Lucian climbs over to one of the towers of boxes and drops down on top of it. He climbs down and walks over to me, panting. "Thanks for that."
"No problem, big guy." I say and clap him on the shoulder. He smiles, but that was something I was in no mood to return. I turn to look for Damion, and see him waiting by the door. "What the hell was that?" I call as I start walking towards him. I sheath the katana, but reach for the dagger I keep across the small of my back. "Leaving me to fight three demons and a giant on my own? What's the matter with you?" He doesn't answer me, and looks at Lucian.
"You don't need me." He says.
"What?" Lucian asks.
"I just proved that she is a million times more fit to help you than I." He says. "Our debt is settled. This is where I leave you."
"Just like that?" Lucian says, strangely quiet. "You want to leave, just like that?"
"Why would you do that?" He asks. "We have a good group, making good progress-"
"No, you're not. This is the same as it has always been. You attract death, Lucian Lohse. I'm done with that now, because I don't need to be with you anymore." He says and turns to leave. Lucian walks forward and grabs his shoulder. At first, I thought he was just trying to get him to stop. Then Lucian turned him around and slammed a massive elbow strike straight into Damion's nose, breaking it immediately and sending Damion crashing to the ground.
"Hades almighty, Lucian!" I say, but he goes after Damion anyway. Damion throws a foot up and kicks Lucian in the chest, knocking him back a few steps. Damion springs to his feet and lunges for Lucian, ducking under a left hook and tackling him straight to the cement floor. Damion plants his knees on Lucian's shoulders, stopping Lucian from using his arms. "Guys, that's enough!" I try in vain to stop them as Damion starts punching Lucian in the face. I pick up the crossbow and load an arrow into it. I point it at Damion, who has been punching Lucian nonstop now. He looks up. "Enough."
"You're not gonna shoot me." He spits and punches Lucian again. Dammit. I think. Without a moment's hesitation, I put the crossbow down and throw my dagger into his chest. Damion looks down at the handle of the blade sprouting from his sternum, then he keels over to the side, convulsing once or twice, then lying still. I walk over.
"You're right." I sigh. I reach down and pull the knife out, letting more blood flow from the wound. "Would have been a waste of an arrow." Lucian scrambles to his feet and backs away slightly.
"Hades almighty, Zoe." He says, and I notice something different in his eyes. Something changing in the way he looks at me. "You didn't need to-"
"Kill him?" I interject. "Yeah, I did. Knocking him out and leaving him here would be crueler, since something would come and get him. Hellhounds, Hyperboreans, you name it." I say and wipe the blood off my knife on Damion's shirt. "Come on, let's scavenge whatever we can from this place. That includes him." I say and start to strip the body of whatever could be considered useful. Coins, knives, rocks, I even stole his shoes and jacket before leaving the rest of the body in place. We start walking around the warehouse, opening all the crates we possibly can to look for anything useful. We split up momentarily and look for supplies separately. I open one crate and find a collection of old looking swords. I look through them one by one, checking to see if any are actually any use. Most swords you come across while scavenging are cheap remakes used for decoration more than cutting things apart.
I sigh when all of them end up to fit that description and keep walking. "Zoe!" I hear Lucian's voice call out. It doesn't sound panicked, but I run to him anyway. "Check this out." He says and points. I follow his finger and my eyes must have lit up like I was Hyperion himself. Sitting before us is a slightly busted up eighteen-wheeler. It is covered in spikes and makeshift blades, the telltale sign of it being a former Bull vehicle. I run up to it and jump in the driver's seat. I look around and find the keys for it. I shove them into the ignition and let out a loud woop when it roars to life. Lucian jumps into the passenger seat, grinning. I look at him and finally understood the look in his eyes. It's respect. Whether it's mild, major, or completely consuming, he gained respect for me that day.
We load the truck up with supplies and pull it out. The back of it is modified to have a machine gun attached as well as enough seats and cover to transport an army of fifteen. We return to the others and park it in the back, using some tarps we looted to cover it up. We knock and they let us in. "Where's-?" Jorah starts, then cuts himself off. "Ah. Got it." He says, seeming to understand by the look on Lucian's face. I walk over and sit down next to Stella, who is cooking what smells like squirrel.
"Did you have to do it?" Stella asks.
"What do you mean?"
"Kill him. Damion made it clear that if we tried to stop him when he left, he would view us as enemies." She explains. "So did you do it, or did Lucian?"
"I did." I reply. "He was on top of Lucian, pounding away at his face, and I knew he had to be stopped."
"Yeah." She says. "I always kinda figured that would be the case. Heard you guys pull in, good vehicle?"
"Perfect way to get us through Bull Territory." I say. "You and I will just need masks. Any female Bull I've encountered has worn a mask."
"Alright." Stella nods. "What about Lucian and...Jorah?" She asks. I hesitate for a moment, not sure what she paused before saying Jorah's name. I put it aside, deciding to deal with it later. "They'll need haircuts. Shaves, really. All male Bulls are bald." I say. After we eat a dinner of roast squirrel, I find a small knife and use it to shave off Jorah's hair. He is disturbingly still throughout the process, never once budging or complaining about me pulling his hair. Once I'm done he heads into the other rooms of the garage, one of which is a worker's shower that doesn't really work, it basically just drips quickly. Better than nothing, I suppose. I then walk over to Lucian. Just before I get to him, I get an idea and smirk to myself. Instead of my knife, I grab my katana and walk over to him.
"Do you trust me?" I ask, resting the blade on my shoulder and standing in front of him, still with a smirk on my face. He looks up and his eyebrows rise. There's a brief moment of silence before he nods. "Good. Stay still." I say and slip behind him. I slowly, more slowly than I really needed to, start using the blade to carefully shave his hair off.
"So what is this for?" He asks, struggling to stay still, I can feel it in how tense he is.
"Well...we're driving a bull vehicle into their kingdom, so I imagine it might be good to look the part." I say.
"So we're masquerading as them." He says.
"Just until we get through them." I assure him. He remains silent until I finish and I show him his reflection in the sword's flat side. "Thoughts?"
"It'll do." He says. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." I say and wipe the sword off on his pants. He rolls his eyes, but I can see a smirk forming. I smile to myself and return to my bedroll, where I lie down and get ready to sleep through the night. At that point, I had earned a watch-less night, honestly.
If there's something you really learn to hate as you start to enter the desert that used to be Saskatchewan, it is definitely sand. It started out with small piles just scattered across the land, then they started to mix with one another. Now our truck is stuck and we can't get the accursed thing out. Specifically, the road turned into sand and the tires won't move anymore. "Any guesses on how we're gonna get it out?" I ask from the top of the truck, sitting cross-legged with a crossbow in my lap.
"Depends." Jorah calls up from the engine. If we can find shovels, we dig it out with them. If not, I hope you have strong hands." He says and I roll my eyes.
"There's a ruined town maybe a mile away." Lucian calls from his position. He's been pacing around the vehicle for about ten minutes now. "Two of us could go up and look for a way to get the truck out." He says and glances up at me.
"I'm in." I say and climb down, slinging my katana over my back. He grabs a rifle from the back and straps a hatchet to his belt.
"Careful, guys." Stella says. "Try to be back before nightfall." She adds, more to me than anything. I notice something is a bit off with her, so I nod.
"We will, I promise." I say. "Talk to me later." I whisper to her. She nods and I start walking over to Lucian. Who has started down the road. "So, supplies again?" I ask.
"Looks that way." He nods, gazing at the map. "Ever have to dig something that big out of sand?"
"I'm from the mountains, are you joking?" I ask. "My area of expertise stopped about thirty kilometers back."
"Good point." He says and puts the map into his back pocket. "You seemed to know a little bit about what we're getting into, at least. Care to refresh my memory?"
"You just want to hear me talk, don't you?" I sigh. "This is the third story you've asked me to repeat."
"Maybe I'm just dumb." He smiles.
"I wouldn't contest that." I snark and give him a playful shove before I oblige him his story. "I don't know how this part of the world became a desert, but ever since, it has appeared to be the center of Bull activity. All their supply runs seem to come back here, at least as far as we've been able to tell. Why do you think I'm wearing this awful thing?" I ask and tap the incredibly hot hockey mask I found for myself. I hear some kind of serial killer from the realm of old world fiction wore one, so I figured I could rock that look. We found a creepy doll mask for Stella to wear, and she hates it. "As for what goes on in the realm of the bulls, I couldn't tell you." I say. "Though I do have a question for you."
"Ask away." He says.
"How come you never take Stella or Jorah on these walks?" I ask. He's quiet for a long moment, and I can see he's thinking his next words through quite carefully.
"Well...I don't want to endanger Stella and she's not exactly the greatest of assets if a fight should break out." He says.
"And Jorah? He's tough and can handle himself."
"Truth be told, I trust you more." He says.
"How come?" I ask, though I'm not what one might describe as surprised. "You've been riding with him a lot longer than me."
"I know, but..." He pauses. "Something's off with him. Has been for a little while. A couple weeks ago, I'd have him out here with me, but now, no." He says. I nod slowly but don't press the topic. We generally make small talk for the rest of the walk to the town, which is so small and insignificant upon arrival that I am amazed it was even on the map. There's a single garage and a couple small stores with a small housing area, but that's about it. "May as well start with the garage." Lucian says and we start walking towards it. We have to kick the door in, but that aside, there's no resistance whatsoever. We find a few tools that could have potential, so we kept them and moved onto the next building.
The next building was a small, two story office building of some kind. We don't need to break in, so we slip inside and scan through the contents of the first floor. I do have to kick in the door of a private office and I go through the desk to find a whole lot of nothing. However, sitting on the desk is a faded picture of a family. A man and his wife with three kids, two girls and a boy, out at what looks like a beach, though the photo quality makes it hard to tell. Lucian sneaks up behind me and peeks over my shoulder. "What's that?"
"Picture." I say and turn to leave. He surprises me by grabbing it. "How come?" I ask.
"It's a look into the life we missed out on." He says. "A whole different world. Someone should hold onto what's left of it, eh?" He says and puts it in his pack. I can't help but smile a little bit as he says it. We move onto the next floor and start to examine what is there. I sit down at a desk and start looking through all the drawers when I hear a shout from Lucian and a loud crash. I jump up and see that a hole has formed in the floor where he was standing. I run over and see that he has fallen through to the first floor, onto a desk. I sprint down the stairs and run over to him as he pulls himself to his feet, groaning.
"Hades below, are you ok?" I ask and help him up. There's a cut on the side of his head, but he doesn't look like he's broken anything.
"Yeah...careful, I think the floor's weaker up there." he jokes, and I sigh.
"C'mon. I think one of those other buildings was a pharmacy. We'll find something to help with your head, let's go." I say and help him walk over to the broken down pharmacy. We get inside and I sit him down in the back office after picking the lock. "Stay here, I'll find something to wrap your head with." I say and go out in search of bandages. Amazingly, I find a package of them hidden under a fallen shelf, and I also find some alcohol to clean the cut. I return and find him sitting in a large, comfortable looking chair that I bet was used by the old manager of the place.
"Sweetie, this is gonna sting a bit." I say and use a portion of a bandage to dab alcohol into the cut. He winces slightly, but makes no complaint otherwise. Once I'm finished, I wrap a bandage around his head a couple of times before sitting down in another chair.
"Thanks." he says, fiddling with his bandage and tightening it.
"Don't mention it." I say and get into my bag to find something to eat. "You should eat something, too. We have a long walk back to the truck." He nods and gets up.
"I'll just do a quick sweep for supplies." He says and heads into the pharmacy. I shrug and eat a couple of carrots we came across growing in the forest about four days back. He returns about ten minutes later with a bag full of stuff. He sets it down and starts to look for food himself. I roll my chair over and start sifting through his bag. Mostly medical supplies and the occasional preserved food, but one item in particular catches my interest. I recognize the logo of an ancient Greek battle helmet and snicker. I hold the box up and whistle at him to get his attention.
"You have a girlfriend I don't know about?" I ask, grinning.
"No." He sighs. "I do not."
"You and Jorah have something going on?" I laugh. He starts to go slightly red.
"Again, no..." He says, starting to look flustered.
"Oh so you're just a really confident guy then?" I ask again. His shoulders sink and he looks slightly defeated, something I can't help but burst out laughing at.
"I'd-never try, or, presume-" he stammers, oddly official.
"There something wrong with me?" I ask, standing and feigning offense. He just looks bewildered and lost. "No?" I ask. "Alright, I'm in." His eyes widen. "I mean, we'll probably be dead tomorrow." I say and walk over to the desk, clearing it off. "Ground rules. This doesn't go anywhere beyond this. I mean, it could happen again, but this is all there is to it." I say, and watch as his eyes continue to bulge until they look ready to pop from his skull. "That work?"
"Yeah...sure." He says and walks over to me. I shake off my jacket and toss it aside. "Wow." he whispers as I grab the front of his shirt.
Later, I open the door and look around the empty streets. Immediately I can feel something off. I scan the streets slowly, that nagging, gut-churning feeling in the back of my head slowly becoming more and more prominent. Remember Zoe, when you're out scavenging, your instincts are your number one asset. Not your weapons or your allies, always your instincts. My dad's old lessons come to my mind again. I slowly lift up my crossbow and aim down the scope, hoping to see some sign that I'm not losing my mind due to paranoia. Lucian comes up behind me and freezes, becoming quiet as he sees what I'm doing. I keep quiet, trying to make my field of vision as erratic as possible, not wanting to be predictable. If they can tell where you're looking, the hunt is on. If they can tell where you're going to look, the prey has already escaped.
"Thanks Dad." I whisper just so Lucian can't hear me. As the last word escapes my mouth, I see it. A tuft of short blonde hair sticking up over a garbage can that looks so rusted if I poked it it would crumble to dust. "Can you run?" I mutter to Lucian.
"Can I? Yes. Should I? No." He replies.
"Then get ready to catch up." I say and let the arrow fly. It hits the wall behind the garbage can, but it spooks the person into running. I sprint after him, moving at a breakneck pace. I chase the blonde, who I can now tell to be a scrawny male, probably younger than I am, in between a couple of houses in the housing complex and tackle him into a dumpster. We tumble to the ground and I end up on top. On reflex I kick one leg up and press his wrist to the ground while simultaneously grabbing my knife from my other boot and pressing it against his throat.
"Whoa whoa whoa!" The kid exclaims, going limp with surrender.
"Why were you watching us?" I ask calmly.
"Because...you're different. You're not like the Bull tribes that come through here, that's obvious." The kid quickly says. "Not to mention you weren't exactly quiet, destroying the office building and..." He cuts himself off.
"How much were you watching?" I ask, apply just enough pressure with the knife to be uncomfortable. He says nothing and his eyes widen in panic. "Oh, you gotta be kidding me." I groan and slam an elbow into his face, knocking him out. I turn to wait for Lucian to arrive when I'm greeted with a foot coming straight for my face. I jump up and take the kick full force to the stomach. This allows me to catch the leg and spin, throwing the recipient, who weights less than I do, into the dumpster. Not into the side, I mean literally, inside the thing. I turn in time to see a massive, six-foot-six man running at me, a metal staff in hand. My hand immediately goes for my katana, but the person I had tossed into the dumpster springs out and I feel a pair of arms wrap around my neck.
I reach back and grab the back of whoever had grabbed me and throw them over my shoulders. Hundred pounds at the most. As I look up, a glance tells me its a woman my age. I draw the katana and catch the staff on its blade. He moves like a man possessed as the other end of the staff comes down on my thigh, right in a pressure point everybody has about where their fingers end. In short, it felt like my leg was broken by the strike. I stumble away and he pins me to the dumpster, using the staff to maneuver my blade to my own throat. "Who are you?" He snarls. I get a good look at him for the first time. Stubble beard, ruggedly handsome and a scar running down his left eye. A second scar as on his right cheek, like a blade had just nicked him.
"You first." He turns his head and sees Lucian aiming his rifle at the girl on the ground.
"Your girl attacked my people, friend." the man says to Lucian.
"Your boy there was stalking us." Lucian replies. The man looks down at the unconscious blonde kid. He lets out a long sigh, as though understanding something. Abruptly, he lets me go, and I scramble over to Lucian, leveling my sword at them.
"Cal is...straight up, he's creepy." The main says.
"I'll say." I snap. Lucian gives me a look. "Guess what he watched." Lucian's eyes widen and he looks about ready to shoot the kid.
"Listen, we don't want any trouble beyond this. We're just here for the night before we start trying to make our way towards Toronto." The girl says, getting up. Lucian and I look at one another.
"We're headed there as well." I say, slowly lowering my sword. "If you're willing, we could use shelter for the night, our truck is sand-trapped and our people need to not be stranded out there." I say, entering a negotiating mode. The two share a long look.
"Ok." The girl says. "We'll have our people help yours out, we'll come back here and talk things over. We'll decide what comes after then." Lucian nods, and I do the same. The man lowers his staff and holds and hand out. I sheath my sword, walk over, and shake it.
"Michael Johnson." He says, then squints. "You're both demigods, aren't you." I smile and look at Lucian, whose eyebrows are through the ceiling. I return my gaze to Michael and nod.
"Zoe Johnson, daughter of Athena." I say. He smirks at the shared last time.
"And I am a proud son of Ares. That's Kat, she's a clear-sighted mortal, probably one of the last. And Cal is unclaimed." He says.
"This should be fun." I say and pick my knife up from the cement as Cal stirs awake. "You I am still mad at." I say, pointing the knife at him. He shrinks back a little before Michael speaks again.
"Come back with us to our house, we'll send some of our people out with one of you." He says.
"I'll go back." Lucian says and I nod. Not because I didn't want to go back, I just knew that if they happened to be kidnappers, I was the more physically able one to force my way out. We walk to a small house in the residential area and Kat knocks on the door twice, waits three beats, then knocks five times. The door opens and she receives a warm hug from a girl a little older than me.
"Zoe, Lucian, this is Rachel Hughes, our medic." Michael says. "Rachel, grab Ciaran, Sohalia, and Jay. Send them out with Lucian to pick up a couple of stranded and help their truck out. We may have found the reinforcements we need." Rachel nods and scurries into the house as Michael and Kat lead the two of us down into the basement. It is a one room basement, but it sure isn't a small room. Rachel is talking to three people, a boy and two girls (though one of those girls was more manly than any of the men back at Camp) and another boy is sitting alone in a corner. The three immediately grab Lucian and lead him back up the stairs.
"That's Kaimana." Kat says and sits down on a table they have set up. I nod at him and he largely ignores me. "So, why're you headed for Toronto?"
"Why do you think?" I ask. "Safest possible place. I got kicked out of my last camp for helping the people I'm with now, effectively. So I figured I'd ride with them." Cal snickers and Michael gives him a look.
"Why do you think they'd let you in?" Rachel asks, walking over and cleaning under her fingernails with a kukri.
"We have a big three kid." I reply, and Kaimana sits up slightly straighter. "One of the others is a child of Zeus."
"Interesting." Kat says. "Kaimana is a son of Poseidon."
"Double the guarantee we get in, then." I say. "Works for all of us."
"There's only a couple of problems." Michael says. "Firstly, we are trapped in the middle of bull territory. And, as much as I hate to say it, a run a couple days ago may have stirred the hornet's nest. They're looking for us." I nod slowly.
"You guys have weapons or transpo?" I ask.
"A few rifles and a stolen bull jeep." Rachel throws in.
"Good. We've got a bull eighteen-wheeler, so hopefully we'll be inconspicuous enough to slip through. If not, well, we've got the numbers to hold them off until the condemned zone." I say. "Until then, do you have any food?"
"Enough to last a long time." Michael says and they start making food for the rest of us. When the others arrive, they're already forming bonds, it seemed. Everyone but Stella, who made a beeline straight for me. She hugs me curiously tightly, then whispers in my ear.
"You me, need to talk. Privately." She says. She pulls away and starts talking to Michael, putting on a smile that could have had me dancing in her palm like a ballerina. The rest of the evening was largely spent doing more of the same, until people started falling asleep. I kept myself awake until Stella crawled over to me.
"What's up?" I whisper. The only people awake are Michael on watch upstairs and Lucian was in the bathroom.
"Zoe, don't leave me alone with Jorah again." She says quickly.
"What? Why?" I ask.
"He's been acting strange lately, no?" Stella says, and I nod in agreement. "Well, today, he...he tried to...take advantage of us being alone."
"How far did he get?" I ask immediately. Her eyes widen, so my tone must have been more intense than I had hoped.
"Zoe, you can't kill him." She says quickly.
"I wasn't planning on it. I was going to sever his hamstrings and leave him in the road." I reply, completely deadpan.
"We need to look like we're good people to these new people, otherwise they'll turn on us." She says hurriedly. "I don't need him to die, just make sure I'm never alone with him."
"Ok...he doesn't make it to Toronto." I say. I didn't mean it as a request or a suggestion. She nods, and I stand up.
"Don't tell Lucian." She whispers. "You saw his temper flare when Damion was going to leave. Imagine what would happen now." I nod, and walk over to knock on the bathroom door quietly.
"Who's there?" He says quietly.
"Come in." He says, and I walk into the bathroom and shut the door behind me. He's shirtless and looking into the mirror, clearly looking extremely drained. "Can you top off the shave?" He asks. I nod and pull my knife out of my boot before getting to work on his head. "You did good today, negotiating this thing with them." He says. "I wouldn't have been able to do it."
"Of course you couldn't, you're a man." I reply with a grin. Once I've finished with his head, he sits on the edge of the old bathtub and gestures for me to get rid of his stubble. I lean in close and set to work, moving slightly too slow, just to torture him a little bit. "Couldn't help but notice," He says as I draw the blade up his chin. "you seemed impressed by the big guy."
"Why wouldn't I be?" I reply. "Built like that and all that authoritative confidence. Maybe you could learn a thing or two from him."
"Oh really?" He growls. "You speak as one who found themselves a new plaything."
"Please. I already a perfectly functional toy." I scoff as I finish off his face. "Though it is a bit broken." I add as I touch his bandage. I move to pull away, but he catches my hand before I can escape. "Making a move already? We've only got eleven left." I smirk.
"So we'll have to make them last." He says and surprises me by kissing me first. Of all the other stuff we'd done, that had been left behind until then.
I woke up when we hit a bump in the road. More specifically, I woke up when my head bashed against the window when we hit a bump in the road. "Ow." I groan and look over at the driver. Kat appears to have taken over driving duty.
"Morning." She says.
"Hey." I say and crack my neck. "What'd I miss?"
"Nothing really. There's a lot more driving to do. That's about it." She says. "So tell me, Zoe, how'd you end up on this trek to Toronto? You mentioned being kicked out of your former Camp, what happened?"
"I found Lucian, Stella, Jorah, and another guy under Bull attack. I saved them and brought them back to my Camp. Not long after, the Bulls came hunting them and killed one of the most well-liked and respected people in the camp. I was blamed and exiled, so I went with them."
"So are you being followed?" Kat asks.
"No, we lost them a ways back." I reply. "What about you? How'd you end up with your crew?"
"Family and friends were all murdered by bandits. They were coming to get me when Michael and Rachel appeared out of nowhere. He works wonders with that staff, they never stood a chance. Rachel finished off the wounded with her kukri, and I've been with them ever since." Kat shrugs. "You hear lots of stories like that, don't you?"
"Sadly, yes, I do." I nod. I look over my shoulder through the back window and see the others sitting in the back of the truck, save Jorah, who is currently driving the car the others had when we found them. I slide open the back window and call to the others. "Everyone good back there?"
"Yeah." Stella calls back. "There's a dust storm coming in from that way, though. We might want to outrun that." She points and I look. There is indeed a massive cloud of dust coming in our direction.
"You have binoculars?" I ask Kat, who nods and gestures to the glove compartment with her head. I find them and roll down the passenger seat window. I climb out the side so I can poke my head over the top of the truck before looking through them at the dust cloud. For the most part, it did look like just a windstorm of some kind. Then, just as I was about to go back in, I noticed something at the bottom of the cloud. Barely visible but definitely there.
I slip back into the vehicle and roll the window back up. "Kat, that's no storm. That dust is being kicked up by a lot of Bulls coming our way, put the pedal down now." I order and roll the back window open. "Not a storm! Get ready for a party, kids!" I yell and load up my crossbow, which has been resting between me and Kat.
"That really gonna work against a bunch of vans and trucks?" Kat asks.
"You'd be surprised, honey." I say and roll the window back down so I can aim. I can hear the others loading what guns they have in the back, and I wait. It takes ten minutes for the Bulls to catch up with us, but when they do, immediately the gunfire erupts from the back. I wait for them to surround us, dozens of spiked vehicles decorated with some of the strangest things you could imagine. One of them actually had a teddy bear wearing a football helmet propped up on the hood. Once they've surrounded us, their snipers came out. All identical, shirtless, bald, with faces painted straight black. They each poke their heads and rifles out of their respective vehicles, making them easy targets.
I line up a shot and let the arrow fly. As I duck down, I see it go down a sniper's scope and into his eye. The snipers open fire, shattering the windows and windshield but not hitting either myself or Kat, miraculously. I load a second arrow and repeat the process. I do this until I'm onto my last arrow. I aim for a driver and the arrow hits him just behind the ear. He slouches down and the vehicle spins out of control. Immediately, a large truck pulls up right next to us. A quick glance shows that it has a large boarding party, armed to the teeth with various melee weapons, and a crane on the back. "Look out, Kat." I say as I get an idea and angle myself so I can spring forward.
"You gotta be kidding me." She says, looking over at me. She's shrunk so far back into the seat I have to wonder if she can even see the wheel.
"Nope. Just insane." I say and spring through the shattered window. I catch the top of the truck and pull myself up before I've even realized that I was doing it. Immediately, the Bull in the passenger seat is trying to climb up to join me. He pokes his head over, helmet-less, wide eyed and mouth snarling at me. In under a second, the katana has flashed out from its sheath and has removed his head from his shoulders. I roll over and fall down onto the back of the crane-truck, right into the boarding party. I slash once as I get up and remove a bull's leg at the knee. Before I've even fully risen, I have my knife out of my boot and have slashed the hamstring of a second. I spin in a circle as I rise, finishing them both with a single slash, across one's throat and into the other.
I turn and see about eight Bull's about to either jump over to my truck or come at me. I decide to focus on the three coming for me. I block a hammer strike and slide the blade down to remove his fingertips. I kick forward and push him back in time to use the sword to block an overhand strike from the second. I push his attack away and pivot around him, slashing the back of the neck of the first while stabbing the second in the back of his neck with the dagger. I sidestep an attack from the third and side-kick him off the edge of the truck, straight into another one pulling up beside us. He is impaled on that truck's spikes as I dive into the remaining five.
Jorah jumps over from the car, which spins out and crashes into two bull vehicles, and into their number just as I do, and between my sword and his machete, they all fall quite quickly. "Cover me!" He yells and runs for the crane controls. I duck my head down and listen for any sounds that could have implied we were about to be boarded. When nothing comes, I glance at Jorah and see why. He's maneuvered the crane so the hook is under the front bumper of the Bull transport directly behind us, and he is slowly lifting it up. He keeps it moving until the bumper rips off and the truck comes crashing down, causing a massive wreck. "Zoe!" He yells and holds a hand up. In it is a single grenade. "Run up the crane and jump to our vehicle, I'll be behind you!" He says. I nod and start moving to climb up to the crane when a bullet grazes my temple, leaving a furrow in my hair and skin. I duck back down, eyes wide.
"Son of a..." I mutter and shake it off. "Move the crane, I'll grab the hook!" I yell. He nods and I jump off the back of the truck and straight onto the hood of a bull car. I think it was a modified Volkswagen Bug. The total lack of windshield leaves me face to face with a pair of quite cheerful looking Bulls.
"What a day, what a lovely day!" One of them cries gleefully. I get up and jump off the roof of their Bug and grab the hook. Jorah swings me over our vehicle and I drop down into our own crew's midst. I turn and see Jorah moving to climb up to the top of the crane, when a spear, flung from the very car I jumped off of not thirty seconds earlier, nails him to his seat. Bull boarders take advantage of it and jump aboard the truck. I look into the crane compartment and realize that Jorah still has that grenade.
"Hold on!" I scream. "Hold the f-" I'm cut off as the explosion causes three bull vehicles to explode as well, sending our own truck into the air, flipping. We all go flying out the back in various states of panic. When I hit the ground, my world goes black immediately.
There's a consistent scraping sound, like a piece of metal is being dragged across stone. Wait a minute, stone? We were in a desert...? My eyes flutter open and I look around. I'm lying on a piece of car door being dragged by Kaimana and Michael. "I'm up..." I grumble as I pass out once again. The next time I wake up, I hear a curious sound. A bird chirping. More strange sounds for a desert. Wind rustling leaves, crickets, and people actually talking. Quietly, but still talking. My eyes finally open and I look around. The first thing that really confused me was the fact that I was upside down. Then I looked and saw that Lucian was carrying me over his shoulders, like a fireman.
"Hey babe, I'm awake now." I mutter, and he immediately stops moving and lowers me to my feet, hugging me. "Oof...I'm alright...just a headache..." I say, though that wasn't totally true. My head was still spinning a little bit. I look around and see most of the group still walking, and we start to catch up. "What happened?"
"Explosion caused a massive pileup. Jorah's dead, and Ciaran ran off and didn't come back." Lucian says quietly. He seems angry, which is understandable, considering two of our crew is dead or most likely dead. "We won the battle, but they fled and screamed stuff like 'we'll be back', so we started moving."
"Where are we now?" I ask.
"Outskirts of the condemned zone." He replies. Looking up at him, I see a cut on his shoulder has soaked through a wrapping. Looking around, I see everyone is fairly beat up. The worst is Kat, who is being carried by Michael and Stella. Her left foot is utterly mangled. I mean, I was amazed that the thing was still on her leg. I start to numbly follow the walk of the group until I abruptly bump into Stella's back. I lean on her shoulder and she grasps my hand, squeezing. She's in the best condition out of all of us, by the looks of it. I look past her and see a sign.
"Althea's farm." Michael says from the front of the group. He pulls out one half of a set of binoculars and looks through it. "There's a woman on the porch. Should we go in?"
"Do we have another choice?" Kat snaps. He nods and we all start to walk in. We reach the front porch of a small farmhouse. I look around and see an electric fence surrounding much of the property.
"Hello!" A cheerful voice says. "Welcome to my farm. I'm Althea. You must be hungry, come on in, I'll make you a plate."
Two young men appear and see us. "Is she alright?" One of them asks.
"We need to operate on her foot, now." Michael calls to them.
"We'll help, my father was a former army medic." One of them says and they rush down and help Michael carry Kat into the house. Althea walks down and shakes all of our hands, and it occurs to me that she may not know much about the outside world. I glance around at her farm and see very few actual fortifications. Place must not have been touched by any of the monsters or gangs. I think to myself. Yet.
"Vincent and Zenon can take care of her, don't worry." Althea says. "You look like you've been through the worst kind of hell."
"You could say that." Lucian says. "Do you have a place we can rest for a bit? We've been walking a long way."
"Sure, just follow me." She says and leads us around to her backyard, where a few lawn chairs and a gazebo are placed next to the barn. We gradually move towards them and sit down. Everybody but me finds a place to sit. "So, you're Zoe, no?" Althea says.
"Yeah, that's me." I reply. "It's a nice place you have here."
"Thank you. It was my grandfather's. Zenon and Vincent are my farmhands." She says proudly.
"Would they be able to look over some of my people when they're done with Kat?" I ask. "We're all pretty banged up."
"Yeah, sure. I'll go grab you some biscuits and butter. You all look hungry."
"This a dairy farm?" I ask.
"Yep. We have a few cows in the barn." She says and heads into the house. Rachel comes over to me, looking grim.
"We shouldn't stay here too long." She says. "No security of any kind, really. How the hell have they stayed so safe?"
"Yeah..." I say, trying to avoid showing how wiped I am. "Must mean they have something secret to defend themselves."
"That or they've just been very, very lucky." Rachel says. She looks like she's about to continue when she stops and points behind me. I look and see Michael coming back from the house. He wordlessly sits down on the gazebo steps and stares into space, looking worse than I feel. "You should rest too, Zoe. I'll look everyone over just to see how we're doing." Rachel says. I nod and lie down on the grass on my own, off to the side. It doesn't take long for me to drift to sleep. I have the glorious fortune of it being dreamless. I also have the glorious misfortune of it being far too short. What feels like fifteen minutes later, I hear shouting voices. I wake up and my katana is out of it's sheath in about a second. I roll to my feet and see Althea and Zenon carrying Kaimana, who is looking alarmingly pale and very unconscious, into the house.
"What the hell just happened?" I ask.
"Infected wound or something, he just dropped and passed out." Lucian says. Althea comes out of the house several minutes later.
"Vincent is working on him right now. It looks like some kind of blood poisoning. Your friend Kat should be ok. She's asleep in the spare room. Doctor's orders are to leave her alone for now."
"Is there anything we can do?" Michael asks.
"If you could help me milk the cows so we can get some food in your friends and you all later, that'd be great." Althea says. We follow her over to the barn, which she opens and leads us in. Rachel, Stella, and Michael go to help with milking the cows, leaving me and Lucian to look around. He gestures with a finger to the back of the barn, where a trap door is in the floor, bolted shut. I raise my eyebrows, and he shrugs. What could they be hiding down there...? I ask myself.
"Hey guys, please don't mess around with that, that's where we keep our generators." Althea says. I nod, but I can't help but shake the feeling that she isn't exactly telling the truth. I lean in closer to Lucian and whisper to him.
"Find a way to get her out of this barn." He nods and heads outside. I help with the cows for about fifteen minutes before Althea freezes up and heads outside in a hurry. Lucian comes back in almost immediately afterwards.
"They have an electric fence surrounding the cow's outside pens. They have a generator out there, so I broke it." He explains.
"Guess that means they're definitely lying about having generators down there." I mutter. Before he can reply, the sound of a bell rings out, filling the air with a metallic, brassy clang.
"I'll make something up for you, that's the dinner bell." Lucian says quickly as the others start yo leave the barn. It occurs to me just how hungry I am once again. I draw my knife and slip the blade in between the lines of the screws holding the bolt to the floor. Once everyone has left the barn, I throw open the trap door and jump down into the cellar below. It's extremely dimly lit, but what I can see makes my stomach churn. Bloodied walls, tables, and saw blades everywhere, with jars full of what looks like organs.
"Honey, didn't you hear the bell?" Althea's voice says. I look up and see her looking down at me from the barn. "Dinner time."
"What's with all the blood down here?" I ask.
"Hey, we have to hunt to get food sometimes, it's a sad necessity.We prefer to keep the mess when we skin and dress the animals down there so it doesn't draw the dead from the condemned zone our way. Come on, it's time for food." She says and gestures for me to follow her. After a moment, I climb up and follow her into the house. We head into the house and the first thing I see in the dining room is Kat on crutches, her leg missing from the knee down.
"What the hell happened?" I ask, eyes widening.
"They had to amputate. She'll be alright, she's a tough one, she is." Everyone is sitting at the table, and the one guy, Vincent, grabs a chair for me.
"Where's Kaimana, how's he doing?" I ask.
"He's upstairs resting, you don't need to worry about him, I've already brought some food up for him." Vincent says.
"Awesome, thanks." I say and contemplate sitting down for a moment. "Mind if I go wash my hands first? I've been in the dirt and forest all day."
"Sure, the bathroom is just down the hall." Althea says and points. I thank her and leave the room quickly. I spot the staircase and head straight for it. I creep up slowly, praying to any god who will listen that the stairs don't creak on the way up. I quickly find the bedrooms and look in all of them. As I search the last one, which is as devoid of Kaimana as the others, I start to panic, when I notice something on the ground. A single, tiny drop of blood, and another, and another. They lead to a bookshelf on the wall. I quickly push it out of the way and find a door hidden behind it. I open it and turn on the light.
My immediate response is to suppress the reflex to vomit. Kaimana is lying in the bathtub, covered in his own blood, slashes all up and down his torso, and his legs very much missing. On the other end of the room is a mangled foot that used to be Kat's. "Zoe..." He whispers. "Don't...eat...dinner...Kat's leg...first course..." He whispers.
"Hades almighty." I whisper and throw myself out the room, into the hall and down the stairs. I burst into the dining room and draw my sword and I immediately grab Althea and hold her prisoner. "Stop eating, all of you!" I shout. "You're eating human meat!" Silence reigns.
"Are you nuts?" Rachel asks me. Michael's jaw has slackened as he stares at me.
"Kaimana's upstairs with no legs!" I exclaim. "You know who else is missing a leg? Kat is. You look around out there on that farm, you see what, two cows? Nothing they can use for meat." I point to the table with the katana at the meat platter sitting there, and I feel my urge to throw up return. "Where do you think they got that?" Silence reigns once again, then I feel Althea twist in my grip and slam her head into my nose, knocking me back. When my senses return to me, I see a rifle butt coming for my skull, and then blackness.
As I wake up, sore and stiff, I can't help but feel impressed by the steady stream of expletives that Lucian is unleashing as he pounds on what sounds like metal. I sit up and someone grabs my shoulder. I look over and see Stella, a look of concern on her face. "You ok?" She asks as my vision starts to clear. Michael is frantically looking around the room, looking for some way out. Kat is on her hands and one remaining knee, throwing up in the corner. Cal is seated on a pile of salt licks, looking pale and distant.
"I'm alright." I nod and haul myself to my feet. My head is pounding and there's blood running from my nose still, but that aside, I'm not lying to her. A sense of horror comes over me as I realize something. "Where's Rachel?"
"They took her." Michael snaps. "Hades below, when I get out of here..."
"Relax." Stella tells him. "They still need Rachel, she's a medic, they wouldn't waste that."
"Right...still, look around, we're in a meat locker. They're saving us for lunch." He says and continues to search the room. "Help me, will you?" He says. I nod and start looking around for any method of escape. Unfortunately, considering we're in a meat locker of all things, there is no readily available exit, aside from the locked, metal door that Lucian is pounding on. All I can see is a few wooden panels, a shelf, a pile of salt licks for the cows, and a large box of meat that I choose to not identify. Lucian's incessant pounding on the door and yelling at the farmhands and Althea to open it does absolutely nothing to help.
"Lucian, for Hades' sake, shut the hell up!" I eventually yell. He turns and looks at me, and I see something different in his eyes. It's a blend of shock, anger, and an emotion that looks insulted. In the newfound silence, I hear a gurgle come from Kat, and I look over to her. She's slumped on the ground, eyes closed and face first in a pool of her own vomit.
"Kat, no!" Michael says and rushes over to her. In a wordless panic, he starts performing CPR on her.
"Oh, my gods." Lucian says. "Stella, you heard what they were saying earlier, right?"
"If you die in the condemned zone, you turn into one of the condemned, unless your head is destroyed." Stella says. "But he can bring her back." She adds, pointing to Michael.
"Don't be naive, Hades' curse won't differentiate if we bring her back or if the curse does." He turns to me. "Zoe, we've gotta break her head in."
"Go to hell!" Michael shouts at him. "Gods dammit, Zoe, we bring her back."
"I wish we could, I really do, but in a few minutes, we're gonna be stuck in here with a really fast, surprisingly strong, crawling about dead girl." Lucian says. "You both know what has to happen now." Lucian says before looking at me. "You've gotta have my back on this one, Zoe."
"Gods dammit, Zoe, I need you!" Michael says, his voice cracking. "Please help me!" Time seems to slow down as for a brief moment, I'm torn between helping Lucian and Michael. I weigh the options at record speed. While it is possible she could come back, if she does, it'd be easy to handle, and we don't know the specifics of Hades' curse and how it determines who it reanimates. I move to take over the CPR on Kat, asking Michael if she's been breathing at all, even shallowly. I glance at the stump on her leg, and judging by the green pus on the bandage, it looked to me like blood poisoning. I'm about to tell this to Michael, ignoring Lucian's wave of insults about how worthless the two of us are, when a warm splatter of fluid splashes my face. I look over and see the top half of Kat's head has been crushed in by one of the salt licks.
Stella screams, Michael lets out a guttural "No!" while I stand up.
"What the hell is wrong with you, Lucian!?" I shout.
"I'm sorry, but it had to be done." He snaps. I walk over to the wall and lean against it, fighting back yet another urge to throw up. I wipe Kat's blood away from my mouth and feel a small cut on my cheek. With another jolt of disgust, I realize that it was a chunk of her skull embedding itself in my face that made the abrasion. A brief worry about her having any form of transmittable disease goes through my mind, but I push it aside and lean my head back, staring up at the ceiling. As my head leans back, I see an air conditioning unit on the far side of the room. I jump up and move over to it, glad for the distraction from Lucian's murder of Kat.
"Does it come off?" Stella asks as she sees what I'm doing. I point to some screws holding it on the wall.
"If we can find something to undo the screws, we might be able to remove it. " I say and instinctively reach for the knife in my boot. "Of course they took it, damn."
"Do you have a coin?" Stella says. "That might work." I quickly look through all my pockets and Stella does the same. I bite back one of the more foul curses I know as we both shake our heads. Lucian does a quick pat down of his own pockets before doing the same. Cal follows suit, to the same result. I grimace and turn my gaze to Michael before walking over to him.
"Hey...listen, I am so sorry about her...I know you two were close." I start, and take a deep breath before continuing. "We may know a way out of here. Do you have a coin on you?"
"No." He replies shortly. I let out a sigh.
"What...what about her, then?" I ask and gesture to Kat's body. "Did she ever grab coins for any purpose before?"
"I don't know." He says. I really don't know how to word my next question, but he has guessed it before I can get it out. "What, do you want my blessing to loot her corpse?" He snaps.
"Your...permission." I wince at having to say that. Normally I'm fine with looting bodies, but I also don't normally know them or have to do it right in front of people who knew them well.
"Do what you have to." Michael says after a moment. I nod and start pawing around Kat's pockets, feeling for coins of any kind. It feels incredibly perverse, doing it in front of Michael, and considering I had known her myself. As I feel in her breast pocket, I feel a surge of relief as I locate what feels like a dime. I pull it out and head over to the air conditioner. After a long, annoying process of using the coin to undo the screws, Lucian and I lift the unit off the wall and see a small air vent.
"Neither me or Michael can fit through there." Lucian says.
"Me neither." I say. Like it or not, the muscle mass on me would prevent me from being able to worm my way through the vent. Cal holds his hands up and shakes his head.
"I got this." Stella says and climbs up. She's far more slender than I, so she vanishes into the vent before either of us can say a word. A minute passes. Two minutes. Three torturous minutes pass before the door opens.
"You ok?" I ask. "Anyone see you?"
"No, but Zenon is outside in the barn, I could hear him from the bottom of the ladder." She whispers back. Lucian heads for the door quickly.
"Where are you going?" I ask.
"What do you care?" He shoots back and leaves without another word. I curse and crouch down next to Michael.
"Hey...we have to go, man." I say quietly.
"I know...just, give me a minute to say goodbye." Michael says. I nod and walk over to Stella.
"Take care of him?" I ask, and she nods. I head out the door and follow Lucian up the ladder. I follow him behind one of the cow stalls, where a rack of farm equipment is sitting. I see a sickle and grab it quickly.
"Dammit, I wish they'd hurry up." Zenon's voice says. I peer around the corner and see him sitting on a hay bale just outside the barn. Lucian gives me a signal to sneak up on him, and we slowly start to make our way over to him. "It can't take that long to finish dinner, the least they coulda' done was bring me a plate." He keeps musing as we approach.
"Zenon, what're you doing outside the barn?" Althea's voice asks, and she walks into view. We quickly hide in an empty cow stall and listen to their voices.
"Just guardin' the place, like you told me to." Zenon replies, sounding annoyed.
"What're they doing?" Lucian asks. I shrug. "Look outside, see what's there." I peer out the door, opening it only slightly. Neither Zenon nor Althea can be seen. I close it.
"Look again, just to be safe." He says. I shake my head and do so, only to be greeted by the barrel of Zenon's hunting rifle. Instinct takes over and I push the barrel away from my head and bring the sickle down on his shoulder. He cries out in pain and smacks me across the jaw with the butt of his weapon, sending me sprawling to the ground. I look up and see him staring down at me, a menacing smirk on his face. I can't help but take note that Lucian is not helping me. Before Zenon can pull the trigger and end my life, Michael springs out from the trapdoor, loosing a savage, feral war cry, and wraps his arms around Zenon. He throws him, not a slam or a suplex, he literally throws him through the air and into the wall on the other end of the barn. Michael raises one foot and stomps down on Zenon's throat. I hear Zenon's neck snap and feel an involuntary shiver.
Michael walks over to me and holds a hand out. "You really are the son of ares." I say and take it. He helps me up.
"We're good, ok?" He says. "I got your back from now on, got it?" He says. I nod, and I spot Stella climbing up the trapdoor, Cal right behind her. She walks over and Lucian springs from his cow stall.
"I'm gonna kill them all." He snarls and runs into the darkness.
"Idiot is gonna get us all killed." I curse. "Stay here, you two, I'll go and check the house." I say and start running for the farmhouse. It's the dead of night and storming, with thunder booming every minute or so. Hope that masks any noise Lucian makes. I hop the gate and start to creep, careful to make sure nobody notices me. Armed with just a sickle, I won't be much of a match against them at range, especially if they have more guns. When I'm halfway up the walk to the house, I freeze as I hear voices.
"Something's off, I'm gonna go check around." Althea says and I hear the back door open and close. I speed up my walk when I see a shadow of a man in the window of the door.
"Zenon, that you?" Vincent's voice says. I bite back a curse. There's no faking his voice, considering he was a man.
"I left him in the barn." I reply and stand up straight.
"Oh god..." Vincent says and vanishes. I run up to the door and open it. Two steps in and I freeze. On the staircase is Vincent with Rachel in a headlock, gun pointed to her head. He aims at me quickly. "Not another step!" He warns. "You just had to go snooping around, didn't you?"
"C'mon, Vince, you know you don't want to do this." I say, strangely calm, considering the situation. Thunder booms and lightning illuminates the stairs behind Vincent and Rachel. I see the look of fear on Rachel's face, her eyes wide and boring into me, pleading for help. Normally she'd be fine, but if anybody had a gun to their head, they'd be panicked too. However, the most important detail that I notice is Kaimana at the top of the stairs, stuck between the railing and a few wooden posts that are there mostly for decoration.
"Just go away and leave us alone!" He shouts and backs up a few steps, headed up the stairs, gun pointed at Rachel again, moving towards Kaimana. Thunder booms again, and I realize that Hades' curse has turned Kaimana into a dead cannibal, reaching for Vincent. I get a gruesome idea, and take a few more steps. He aims the gun at me again. "Not another move!"
"How did Althea get you to agree to cannibalism, Vincent? How did she spin that story to make it seem appealing?" I ask.
"I'll kill her, Zoe." He says, returning to the gun to Rachel's head and backing up a few more steps. I walk forward a few more steps, slowly, hands in the air. When he aims the gun at me again, I halt.
"You were obviously smart, wasn't your father an army medic?" I ask. "Surely he'd have taught you things."
"Just stop." He shoots back, much more quietly, and he backs up the steps, and right into Kaimana's eager arms. Kaimana grabs him and bites his throat, ripping into the jugular. Rachel springs away and towards me.
"Thanks." She says and grips my forearm. I nod. She walks into the kitchen and brings back my knife and Katana, my crossbow slung over her shoulder. I'm about to thank her, when I hear Lucian shouting.
"Put the gun down, you monster!" I, stupidly, forgo grabbing my weapons from her and sprint out the door. I see Lucian and Althea in a staredown, with her aiming a rifle at him. I run over and she switches her aim to me. Lucian takes the gamble and runs towards her, but ends up taking a bullet to the shoulder. Althea turns her weapon to me as I start to slowly walk towards her, hands in the air one more time.
"Who the hell do you people think you are?!" Althea screeches.
"Calm down." I say as I move towards her.
"Calm down?! For what?! We were trying to help you! Your friends would have died anyway!" She shouts. I hear my crossbow twang, and Althea ducks as an arrow soars over her head. I close the distance as she stands back up, and we immediately begin to grapple over control of the rifle. She tries to kick me away, but I shove the rifle into her nose and try to throw her down the front walk of her precious farmhouse. She grabs me as she falls and we both end up tumbling down the small hill, rolling in the puddles and mud. She's on her feet first and throws a kick into my ribs.
Seizing the initiative, she grabs my hair and starts to drag me. I roll once and see she's dragging me towards a bear trap. I try punching me way out of her grip, but soon find myself being pushed towards the bear trap headfirst. The visual of dying like that scares me so much that it gives me the energy to fight through the fatigue and injuries I've sustained over the past few days. It's all I can do to just push back against her surprising strength. I look up and see Michael outside the barn, rifle in hand. "Michael!: I yell. He immediately aims and fires, shooting Althea in the shoulder and knocking her back.
I jump back and mount her, raining punches on her face. I start pouring everything I have into these strikes. All the frustration over the people I know dying, the fury at being kicked out of camp, the fatigue of constant running from the Bulls, the shock of nearly eating human flesh, all of it. I throw all of it into these punches into Althea's once beautiful face. The swelling is immediate. Then I knock out two of her teeth. One punch smashes her nose into oblivion. Another punch lands and I feel her orbital bone break. Her right eye swells shut after the next punch. I just don't stop throwing.
"Zoe, that's enough!" Rachel yells behind me. Slowly, I realize she's right, and I get off of Althea. "She's had enough." Rachel says as I start walking back towards her.
"That all you got, Zoe!?" Althea yells. "You're nothing!"
"Shut up!" I turn around and shout back. "All of this is over for you! You hear me, it's over!"
"Go to hell!" She screams and stands up. "As soon as Zenon and Vince get here, you're all lunch!"
"They're both dead." I tell her. The look on her faces changes from defiant rage to shock.
"What have you done?" She asks. "What the hell have you done?!" I turn and Rachel and I start to walk back to the group, which has congregated at the main gate. "Don't you dare leave this Zoe!" Althea screams, her voice cracking. "Get back here and finish this!" I stop. Rachel immediately grabs my shoulder.
"Don't. That's what they would do." She says, barely audible over the rain. I weigh the options in my head, and sigh. "We're better than them." She tries to convince me.
"You are. I'm not." I say and rush back over to Althea. She swings a punch at my head, which I duck under and grab her hips to lift her up over my shoulder. I slam her down on her neck, stunning her, before doing what she did to me. I drag her over to the bear trap and start to shove her head towards it. the only difference now is that she has no fight left in her. The trap closes on her skull with an ugly crunch. I get up and start walking back to the group, all of them looking at me differently.
And for once, I don't give a damn.
I lead the march back into the woods, none of them approaching me, none of them saying anything to me for a long time. Eventually, I feel Rachel gently sling the crossbow over my shoulder. "Thanks." I say as she hands me my katana and knife. I slip them into their places, at my waist and boot, without breaking stride.
"Michael told me what happened in the meat locker." She says. "I just wanted to thank you for trying to help him."
"Don't mention it. I wasn't about to give up on her."
"Yeah, well, just, you know. We both have your back now, you don't need to worry about that."
"Thanks." I say. We find a small clearing to stop and rest at, and Lucian starts getting his bullet wound treated by Stella and Rachel. When they're done, I walk over.
"Guys, give us a minute?" He asks, and they both walk away immediately. "There's gonna be fallout."
"For murdering Kat, yeah, I'd say so." I say.
"If we're gonna be together, you need to have my back." He says.
"If your solution is to kill one of our own on a chance, then we're not together anymore." I tell him. "You're no hero, you destroyed two lives in that meat locker." I say and point at Michael.
"Hey guys, check this out." Michael calls. We all congregate to him and see what he's looking at. A large RV. "Zoe, with me." He says. I nod and we approach it quickly and quietly. I paw at the door handle and see that it is open. We slip inside and find the keys still in the ignition.
"Everybody in." I call and they quickly pile in. I test to see if the engine works, and it roars to life. "Let's get out of here." I say. Michael takes the wheel and Rachel sits next to him in the passenger seat. Lucian finds a bed to lie down in, Cal hides in the RV's bathroom and locks himself inside, and Stella finds a chair, looking disturbed. I go and join her. "You ok?"
"No." She says. "You stopped me, but everyone else ate Kaimana and Kat. Hell...Michael ate his best friend on the planet. Kat ate herself. None of us are ok."
"Yeah...it was a dumb question." I admit. "Still, you seem like you don't like...this." I say and gesture to the RV.
"Yeah...I think we may have just stolen someone's home. Make no mistake, I get the necessity of it all, but...man, we might have just killed a whole other group." I can't think of a response to that. She leans back in the chair and falls asleep, leaving me to contemplate her words.
If I had a bullet for every time I woke up to someone swearing loudly in this world, I would have had enough bullets to kill every last monster, god, man, woman, and child in between me and safety and then some. Unfortunately, I don't, so I was forced to wake up and sit up from a small nest I made for myself on the floor of the RV. "Everybody get ready to walk." Michael says. "Gas is almost out." I sigh and drag myself to my feet. It's been maybe a week and a half since the events of the farm, but it's becoming hard to tell. The days are starting to blur together.
Everyone else stirs up and starts strapping on their gear. We're down to two rifles and a pistol with only about twenty bullets between them. I still have a half-full quiver of arrows for my crossbow, but that aside, we haven't got a lot in terms of ranged weapons. We're lucky so many of us are trained to fight up close, otherwise we'd be in trouble. I walk up to the front of the RV and look to see where we are. We're pulling into a small town that looks so deserted the towns in the desert looked like Olympus in comparison.
When we're about five minutes in, the vehicle slows to a halt. "Well, that's it. No more gas." Michael says. We all finish grabbing everything we can from the RV and start to file out of the RV. I take my crossbow off my shoulder and start carrying at the ready. "Ok, we should look around for supplies, maybe find a shelter if we can't find any gas." Michael says.
"And who put you in charge?" Lucian says quickly. I sigh. Ever since the farm, the two of them have been in a power struggle. It normally comes down to the rest of us picking sides to determine what the course of action is. Most of us side with Michael, but Stella routinely sides with Lucian, but I know it isn't by choice. Within the week or so, I made a point of watching their interactions, remembering the look of rage Lucian gets in his eyes whenever she disagrees with him. I realized that he's always been the pack leader of their group, and he developed, somehow, into a control freak. And now, with the rest of us no longer under his control, he tries doubly hard to control her.
"You have any better ideas?" Michael asks, sounding fed up more than angry.
"No, he doesn't." I interrupt. "We're not splitting up, we move as one unit. Building to building, only go inside if it is open. If it's locked, it's probably locked for a reason." I say. "I'll take point, everyone follow me." I say and walk to the front of the group. I'm glad nobody argues, having to walk around in the condemned zone is bad enough. We've been lucky enough so far to not encounter any condemned or convincers, but luck runs out fast, in my experience. It takes a long time to find anything of note, but when we do, I feel a deep unease begin to settle. Painted across a wall of what looks like an office building are three simple words.
Fear The Hunters
"Something's off." I say and fall into a crouch behind an abandoned car. Everyone follow suit and slips behind other forms of nearby cover. "Keep an eye out for movement, anything out of the ordinary." I whisper to Cal, who is right behind me. Under normal circumstances, having him immediately to by rear would scare me into another world completely, but with the feeling of unease in my gut, I'm not positive I really care anymore.
I jolt as the sound fills my ears, maybe a foot away from my head. An arrow is embedded in the car. Immediately, the car alarm starts blaring. It is followed almost immediately by the sound of moans and hisses. "What the hell is that?" Cal whispers behind me. His answer comes about four seconds later, as a crowd of shambling dead round the corner and lock eyes with us. They start walking towards us, a pace that is quickly turning into a slow run.
"Run, now." I order and turn around, back the way we came. "Head back to the RV, now." I order and everyone nods is immediate agreement. We start running, sprinting back the way we came. We turn a corner and see the RV, as well as about twenty condemned in the road, moving towards us. "Aim for the head!" I yell and put an arrow through the eye of the closest of the dead.
"Don't use the guns, we don't want more coming!" I hear Michael shout. We start running quickly, myself, Michael, and Lucian taking the front of the group to either throw the condemned aside or bring them down. As we're drawing near, I hear a scream come from Rachel behind us. I whirl around, as does Michael, while Lucian keeps pressing forwards. A condemned man has tackled Rachel to the ground, and I see more coming from a side alley. I put an arrow through his head and he stops moving. Michael helps Rachel to her feet and I turn to keep running.
More and more of the condemned are coming from every alley, building, and street, smashing through windows and doors and sneaking around corners and everything. I sling the crossbow over my shoulder and draw my katana. I have to slash my way through the crowd of the dead now until I reach the RV. As I reach it, I hear a few of the dead behind me as well, and realize I'm backed against the RV door. I slash until I have a moment to reach for the handle, and a cold stab of fear hits me as I realize someone has locked it. I start slashing wildly, cutting down every member of the dead in my path.
It feels like an eternity before I notice another arrow hit a condemned woman in the back of the head. I glance up at the roof and see a lone archer. The door behind me opens and I feel someone grab me and pull me into the RV. The door slams shut and I realize it's Stella who has pulled me in. "Thanks, hun." I say. I turn and see an arrow has embedded itself in the wall, with a note attached. "Hades below, they could put an arrow in here in that short of a time?" I mutter. Before I hear Lucian's voice speak up.
"Stella, are you nuts?!" He says angrily. "They could have gotten in here!"
"I wasn't going to leave Zoe out there to die! Not after everything she's done for us!"
"She doesn't care about us, she was content to let us die not a week ago!" Lucian barks back, and I can see a look of anger in his eyes.
"She was trying to save a life you useless bastard." Stella says, and I feel a gush of pride for her well up inside me. I also spot that familiar dark look in Lucian's eyes, and I know it is time to step in.
"That's enough!" I say. "Where are the others?"
"They escaped into a building across the street and locked themselves inside, I could see from the driver's seat." Lucian says. "All we can do now is wait it out, they'll get bored eventually." He sits down on the floor, away from all the windows, and I put myself between him and Stella. It feels like forever, before the moans of the condemned outside began to quiet. They don't subside, but they get quiet.
"Sounds like they're leaving." Stella says hopefully.
"No, they're still there..." I say. "They're still right outside, they're just...doing something different." My eyes widen as I realize what comes next. "Find something to plug your ears." I say.
"Why?" Lucian asks. That's when the whispers started.
"You can open the door for us, you know..."
"It'll be easier this way..."
"No more pain and struggle..."
I learned something that day. You don't know fear until you hear the convincers start to whisper to you. "Guys, look for something to plug your ears with." I order and we start looking around the RV, frantic, looking for any kind of reprieve from the whisperings. There's nothing, nothing we can do to stop the whispers from reaching our ears. The whispers don't stop for what feels like hours, gently trying to coax us to open the door for them. Eventually, the whispers stop with broad coaxes, and they instead begin to work on us individually.
"Zoe, look at how much you've fought. Look at all the hurt you've endured in order to make it here. Is it really worth it? All you exist for in this world is to suffer, Zoe." I frantically cover my ears, but nothing can drown out their whispers. "Why do you keep fighting, Zoe? Is it for you? Why? Nothing in your experiences have every shown you a life worth living. Who wants to wake up every day and have to fight, kill, steal, torture, all just for the purpose of staying alive? Do you want to, Zoe? You may want to pretend you're a hardened killer, but you're better than that. You want a life where you don't have to kill every single day and possibly murder everyone you meet."
"Shut up." I mutter.
"Would a more simple existence not be preferable? No pain, emotional or physical, can be felt. No conscience over what you need to do to survive. No fear, no sadness, and no anger. There's just a cycle of eat and hunt, and you need not worry about anything else in this existence. It's easier. So much easier." As I listened to these words, I couldn't help but think about them. And the scariest of things was that they were right. It would have been so much easier to let them take me, to become a condemned one. To hunt, kill, and eat, with no other obligations to anything or anybody. "Come to us, child of the wise one. Prove your wisdom to all who know you."
Looking back, I like to pretend that I was a hundred percent able to resist the effects of the whispers, but I would be lying. Their offer tempted me, and it tempted me greatly. But in the end, one feeling overcame the temptations. Hope. Hope that one day, I could make a real life that is better than all of the violence that made up my life and my world. "No." I mutter again, and there's a moment of solitude.
"Stella, Stella, Stella. Life has always been a prison for you, has it not?" The whispers begin. Stella's hands jump to her ears and her eyes widen."Always the prisoner, kept around by your friends, your groups, your brother, all because of your birth. The last child of Zeus. You never had to face violence like the others, they all made sure you stayed alive for you. How does that make you feel, knowing all that violence was for you? How does it feel, knowing how many people have died for you? Because of you? In that way, you're a bigger killer than any member of your group ever was." Stella starts to tear up. "You know life would be easier as one of us. No worries about what your brother will do if you defy him. No pain over your friends dying because of you. No pressure on you to survive because if you don't everyone else will die." I see her eyes shut. "You'll be free, Stella. You'll finally be free."
"No." She whispers and shakes their head. Lucian's eyes widen as he realizes it is his turn for the voices to torment him.
"Lucian. How bravely you've fought through this life. Ever the warrior. Ever the sentinel. He who was willing to do the hard things to make it through to the end of the day. No one matched your will, your heart. The others always showed themselves to be of fainter heart than you, not worthy of the peaceful life you knew you were always destined for. Well, this is how you can make it to that life. Easy, no struggle, no worries, no pain, no feeling, you've reached the reward you've been craving for so long. The boons you've desired in exchange for your never-ending will to win and live." Lucian simply stares into space. "You don't need to bring them with you, what have they done to earn this easy life? Nothing. None of them have earned their way into the paradise you know this can be. Just open the door for us and you can join us in the blissful world that is the hunt. Join us, brother, you have earned your rest."
Silence. Then, Lucian stands up and walks toward the door. "Lucian, what are you doing?" I ask. He ignores me. Stella and I quickly try to grab him and pull him back from the door. "Lucian stop, if you want to die that's fine, but don't kill us in the process." I try to say, but he still struggles. Stella tries to kick out his leg, to no avail. He grabs her abruptly and throws her off of him and across the RV, where she crashes into the bathroom door and slumps to the floor. Lucian falls back and lands on top of me. He springs up and goes for the door. I glance at Stella, and she looks at me with something that looks like a pleading permission. I don't hesitate from there, and rise, draw my katana, and slash once.
I only meant to slash the back of his throat to sever his spinal column, but instead, his head falls from his shoulders. Stella curls into a ball and hides her eyes. I hang my head and close my eyes as well. It occurs to me again that the convincers were right. So much killing that I am directly involved with and responsible for. In an effort to distract myself I grab the note from the arrow and read it.
I'm going to try to draw the condemned away from you. I apologize for sending them your way. I was used to only having to deal with the hunters. I will come and rescue you once they are drawn away.
They who is known as "The Robin."
I frown and a single whisper starts to sound. The usual, generic coaxes. I look down and see Lucian's head is whispering to me. Stella starts to cry. Working quickly, I pick up the head, throw the door open for a brief moment, and toss it outside. I do the same with the body before sitting down on the floor, avoiding the fresh pool of blood. The moans and whispers outside start to die down, accompanied by the muffled sounds of slumps. I look out the window and see the mystery archer, they who is known as "The Robin," firing arrows from a bow down at the condemned, taking them out one by one.
"Stella, can you fight?" I ask, crouching down in front of her. "There's someone out there giving us our best shot we're ever gonna have. Can you fight through the condemned?" She looks up at me with a new steel in her eyes that wasn't there before. She nods, rises, picks up Lucian's machete, and gets ready to go out the door. I draw my knife and get ready to use it in conjunction with my katana. I listen for the arrows dropping the condemned, counting the amount that have dropped. "Now." I finally say and throw the door open. The archer is good. Only about twenty between us and the building the others ran into.
"Go, go, go." I say quickly and lunge forward to slash the first one's head off with my katana. The world becomes an immediate blur of blood and death as we cut our way through the condemned and into the building. As we reach the door, Michael opens it for us. We dive in the doorway and he slams it shut. Rachel immediately pushes a shelf of some kind down to barricade it. "Thanks..." I pant and look up. Rachel offers a quizzical look about Lucian, so I simply shake my head. Michael and Cal both realize what happened and Cal hangs his head while Michael just grimaces.
I also can't help but notice that there is a person about my size, clutching a bow and a quiver of arrows slung over their back. "They who is known as the Robin?" I ask.
"You can just call me Robin, if you want." They say with a shrug.
"Zoe. Thanks for the assist." I say.
"Don't mention it." They reply.
"Can you explain that fear the hunters thing?" I ask.
"Yeah. Hunters of Artemis. Ever since Artemis went down, they've been a crazy, murderous cult that kills anything that comes through this town. I've been fighting them for about a year now, since they took out my group. They like to kidnap the girls and brainwash them to join their ranks while the men are sacrificed to the memory of Artemis." Robin says.
"Hades below, why do we keep picking these places to visit?" Cal asks. Force once, I agree with him.
"Do you have any reason to stay here?" Michael asks them.
"Aside from putting the hunters in a hole, not really, no." Robin says.
"Well, can you show us how to get out of this town, maybe find a transport into the Canadian shield and out of the condemned zone?" Michael goes on.
"Son, the condemned zone extends way into the shield. It ends at New Olympus, honestly." Robin says. "But, I do know that the hunters have a small fleet of trucks that they use for transport."
"Would you be able to help us steal one?" Rachel says.
"In exchange for a ride, sure." Robin replies.
"Done." I say. Before anyone else can say anything, the window shatters, and an arrow embeds itself in the wall between my own and Rachel's heads. Everyone hits the floor. I sheath my blades and get my crossbow out.
"That's the hunters. Guess they followed the sounds of the action." Robin says. "You a good shot with that thing?" They say and gesture to my crossbow.
"The best." I reply and load an arrow. "What about you?"
"I'm the best around." They say and rise, fire an arrow through the broken window and duck down. There's a single woman's scream outside. A few more arrows rain in on us, but only for the next five or so minutes. Robin and I take aim to look for targets, but none show up. "This is a siege tactic." Robin says. "Your friends were smart enough to take shelter in an old food mart, where survivors actually grew food. There's a place in the basement to grow food out. We can outlast them in here." Robin says. I look around and everyone nods. "After maybe a week, they'll get impatient and do something stupid. This won't be difficult at all.
At around a month of only seeing the inside of that damn food mart, I was ready to strangle Robin for saying a week. At the two week mark, we discovered that there was a back entrance the hunters weren't watching. Robin and I had begun to make scouting runs ever since. Primarily because we were the two best stealth runners in the group. The two of us were out, well past the siege set up the hunters had going. They hadn't tried to kill us for a long time, but they were also not keen on letting us leave, for some reason.
"What do you think is happening back with the others right now?" Robin asks.
"Only Hades knows." I reply.
"You think Michael and Rachel will ever get off each others' backs?"
"At this rate, no, I don't." I reply. Around three weeks prior, Michael had started to not get along well with Rachel. We weren't totally positive as to why. All I knew was that it was annoying. Extremely annoying. We slip up to a small garage and break in one of the doors. The alarm system was so ancient it didn't work anymore, so we didn't have to worry about drawing attention from the hunters. We sift through a mostly empty office and find a single, half-empty bottle of painkillers. I throw it in Robin's bag and we move on to the actual garage part.
"Well crap." Robin says. There's a large bus. It isn't one of the giant banana-things that apparently used to ferry children to forced learning every day before the apocalypse, it's large, grey, and has a storage compartment in the bottom of it. "Bet the hunters didn't know about this thing, or else they'd have stolen it for themselves." They say and go to check the gas tank. I pry open the door and check out the inside. There's a bathroom at the back, with a lot of cushioned seats throughout the bus. "Gas tank is half full. We could escape in this thing."
"Let's take it back to the building and hide it. If we're lucky they won't hear it."
"They like to chatter a fair bit, loudly. Have you noticed?" Robin asks. "If anything can drown them out, it'd be their own dumb conversations."
"Well, you're not wrong." I say. We find the keys in a glove box and slowly drive it back to the camp. We park it quietly and slip inside the back entrance. Immediately, we can hear Michael and Rachel arguing. "Oh gods, now what?" I mutter as we approach the two of them. By the time we arrive, Rachel's stormed off. I roll my eyes and walk over to Michael.
"Hey, you guys find anything good?"
"Some meds and a working bus." I reply. "We might be able to run with that thing."
"Nice." He says. "Listen, come find me in private when you have a moment, there's something I want to show you." He slips away into an office in the back of the building. I leave my weapons at our weapon rack, in the stocking area of the food mart, when someone taps me on the shoulder. I look over and see Stella.
"Hey, hun." I say. "What's up?"
"When you have a moment, meet me in the old dairy aisle, ok?" She says. I nod, and she slips off to the door into the actual food mart area. Just before she heads through the door, she glances back at me for a fleeting moment, then walks on through. I feel a strange feeling like I just jumped off a high place and my stomach is churning from the fall. I glance once at Michael's office, then I head for the dairy aisle.
I find Stella sitting on the edge of the shelves. "Hey." She says as I come into view.
"You wanted to talk?" I say as I get closer.
"Yeah, I just wanted to say thanks. You've been there for me since the moment we met. Without you around, I don't know where I'd be today."
"Oh, you'd do fine." I say.
"No, I wouldn't. Old Stella was not someone meant for this world. This Stella can tackle anything, because you showed me how. Thank you for that." She trails off, and I sense she has some more to say.
"You're welcome." I smile at her. "But that's not all you wanted to talk about, is it?"
"No. I...I've been thinking a lot, lately. About you." She says. I blink four times in rapid succession. I just jumped off Olympus itself, that's how I feel.
"I think about you, too." I tell her. She smiles for a long moment.
"Listen, something about me. I don't experience attraction to people unless I have a major emotional attachment to them first." She says. "And...let's just say you're really pretty." She laughs. I laugh as well. Her face darkens slightly. "Listen...I think you should tell the others about what happened to Lucian."
"Really?" I ask, cocking my head to the side slightly.
"Yeah. If someone finds out another way, they might just think you murdered him. It'll sound a lot better coming from you." She says.
"Alright, makes sense. I'll let people know." I agree. Before I go, she slips in close and kisses me once on the cheek. She smiles and playfully shoves me off to talk to people. I briefly forget what I was supposed to tell them before heading off to talk to everyone. I find Cal on watch, rifle in hand and staring out the window.
"Hey Cal, I've got something to tell you." I say. He jumps slightly.
"Is it about my watch?" He asks. "I'm trying to do a good job."
"You're doing fine." I say. "Listen, in the RV, a month ago. I had to kill Lucian."
"Whoa...really?" He asks. "Why?"
"He was convinced." I say. "He was gonna let them in and kill us all."
"Ok...makes sense. Wow, thanks for trusting me." He says, sounding legitimately shocked. I shrug and go to find Robin. They're sitting on a pile of crates in the back of the food mart, making more arrows for their quiver.
"Hey bud, can we talk?" I ask them. They nod and jump down.
"Listen, the day we met. I had to kill one of my group members in the RV. They were gonna let the condemned and the convincers in. They were convinced."
"I kinda figured." They say. "I mean, I did watch you throw his body out. You're not gonna get any crap from me, my friend. I understand what you had to do."
"Thanks." I say and we grip each others forearms briefly before I head off to find Rachel. She's currently sitting cross-legged on the floor next to a collection of plants she's been cultivating over the last little while. "Yo, Rach. Can we talk?"
"What's going on?" She asks, not looking up.
"I thought you might want to know, I killed Lucian."
"Good." She replies simply. "He killed Kat. I'd been hoping for his demise for a long time."
"Good to know." I say and slip away without another word. I finally make my way to Michael, who is sitting in the office.
"We need to talk." He says seriously, and I can already tell I don't like where this is headed. "I think someone is stealing from us."
"Stealing from us?" I ask. "Who could do that? We're the only ones in here and all our stuff is right next to us while we sleep."
"I know. Nobody can get in and just take anything. I understand that, we'd wake up and catch them. Therefore someone on the inside is doing this."
"You think one of us is stealing?" I ask. "Stealing what?"
"We're running low on meds. Faster than we normally do. Much faster." he says and turns to grab something behind him. "And I found this." He holds out a broken flashlight. "We don't just throw out equipment like this, we tend to fix it. Only reason you'd throw something like this out is in case you were using it when you shouldn't have been."
"What do you want me to do?" I ask.
"Look around, see if there's any sign of anything going on. Anything out of the ordinary."
"Ok..." I sigh. "Before I go, you should know that I killed Lucian."
"I knew that the moment you and Stella came back alone. I don't care." He says. "All I care about is that someone is killing us by taking our medications." I take the hint and get up to leave. He hands me the flashlight, and I head for Stella immediately.
"Hey, how'd things go?" She asks.
"I told Cal."
"Low risk." I shrug.
"Good point. Anyone else?" She asks.
"Michael, Rachel, Robin." I say.
"So, everyone." She nods. "No freakouts?"
"Nope." I say. "Anyway, know anything about this?" I ask, holding out the flashlight.
"Well, I think it might be broken." She says.
"Hahaha, did you break it?" I ask.
"Nope." She shakes her head.
"Alright. If you see anything broken, let me know, ok?" I ask. She nods, and I head back down the aisles to the back entrance, meaning to ask Robin if they know anything. However, before I can, I spot something at the secret exit we've been using. A scuff of pink chalk, for some reason. I head over and look at it. It looks like someone tried to crush a chalk stick. I peer outside and see pink chalk drawings on the wall. How the hell did I not notice this before? I ask myself and walk over to it. The drawings are arrows, pointing to a grate on the wall. use my knife to pry off the grate and find it to be empty. I should look for more of this pink chalk stuff. I tell myself and start to comb the food mart for any sign of it.
I find some more when I check on where Cal is. I glance out the window and see another chalk scuff, not pink, blue this time. Close enough. I tell myself. "Cal, you see who did that with the chalk?" I ask.
"Nope, and I've been watching all day long." He says.
"Ok, I'm gonna head outside to check the front."
"Are you nuts?" He asks.
"Yes, yes I am." I say and slip out one of the non-boarded up windows. I look around and follow a trail of chalk scuffs to another grate. I pry this one open and find, to my shock, a brown paper bag. I take it out and look inside. My stomach does a less enjoyable churn as I see three bottles of pills. Michael should know about this. I think and head back inside. I immediately go over to Michael's office. "Look what I found outside." I say and throw him the bag. "It was in a grate with chalk signs all over it."
"Hades below." He says. "Ok, we line up everybody. Everybody. We have to find out who is doing this."
"I agree." I say, though it sickens me that someone is stealing from us. I'm about to speak again when a voice that belongs to nobody in the group shouts from the food mart.
"What the hell is this, huh?!" We poke our heads out the door of the office and see the hunters have snuck in out=r back entrance and have gathered everyone, taking them prisoner, by the crate stack Robin was perched upon. "We had a deal, and our stuff is missing? What the hell are you trying to play on us?" A tall, short haired woman is yelling. The hunters are flanking her and encircling the group.
"Distract them." Michael says and climbs out the office window into the food mart. "Just keep them talking." I nod and walk out into the full view of the hunters.
"Jay, look." A hunter says and points to me. A dozen bows are immediately trained on me.
"Everybody just calm down!" I say.
"What for? You've failed to meet our quota!" The woman known as Jay says.
"What will it take to reach a deal?" I ask. "We'll do it."
"About double what you've been giving us." She snaps.
"Done, you got it!" I say as I walk closer, hands in the air.
"Well, since we're here, we may as well hash out some terms, then." Jay says.
"I don't like no hash." one of the hunters says. Then, a gunshot rings out, and the hunter who complained drops. Rachel springs up and kicks Jay in the face, causing a melee to break out. Jay escapes into the food mart, but we take down the rest of the hunters. I can hear more hunters approaching from the food mart, so I point to the back exit.
"Everyone onto the bus, go." I shout and start running. Michael appears out of nowhere and jumps aboard the bus first. Robin, being the quickest of us, normally, is second aboard, with Stella and Cal close behind. I dive through the door while Rachel covers us with shots from a stolen bow. She follows me on and Robin starts to drive away. Once we're onto the highway and a fair distance away, the sun starts to set, and tempers start to flare.
"So, who was it that was giving the hunters meds, huh?" Michael asks. Everyone starts asking questions, save Cal, who simply stares. Michael picks up on this, and he homes in on Cal. "You're awful quiet."
"What? Are you saying it was me?" Cal asks.
"No, but since you brought it up, did you?"
"No, I didn't!" Cal exclaims, louder than he usually does.
"You're the only one who was watching the front when meds could have been put in that grate. How did someone slip pats your guard?"
"Maybe they did it in the night!" Cal says.
"And who was on guard duty last night?" Michael growls.
"That was me, but I sure as hell didn't give them any of our meds." Rachel says. "I'm a healer, I know how important those things are."
"Exactly, which makes me think Cal here is the most likely perpetrator." Michael says.
"Why?!" He exclaims. "What did I do to make you think that!"
"You're the one being super jumpy." Michael says. "Say that means you're hiding something."
"Michael, enough, this isn't the time." Rachel says sternly. I catch Robin's eye, and they put a finger gun to the side of their head and mime shooting themself.
"Oh, you're standing up for him, maybe you two were in on it together." Michael snarls. A large bump rocks the vehicle, and Robin swears from the front.
"Have to pull over, I think we hit a condemned." They say and slowly pull over to the side of the highway.
"Good, this is a conversation we should have outside." Michael growls, and we all get out of the bus. Robin heads to the front.
"Gods, this will take a moment." Robin says and I hear a rather impressive stream of curses coming from them as they work on getting the condemned out from under the front of the bus.
"Maybe we should take a vote or something..." Cal suggests, looking terrified as Michael stares him down.
"A vote, really?" Michael asks. "Fine. Rachel, what do you think?"
"I think you're nuts. None of us would sell the others out." Rachel snaps.
"You're always so eager to see what we get at, maybe it really was you." Michael says.
"That's a stab in the dark and you know it, Michael." I tell him. "There's no way Rachel would do that."
"Fine. Robin, your opinion?" Michael asks. Robin replies with four foul words I'd never even heard of before.
"Just stop, gimme a minute!" Robin says, continuing with the swearing.
"Stella, what about you?" Michael asks.
"Don't you start interrogating her!" Rachel snaps. "How do we know you didn't do it, huh?"
"Because I'm the one doing something about it." Michael says angrily.
"Oh, you think you're some hard bastard, don't you Michael? But deep down you're just a scared little boy. Get over yourself. Over the last month you've been nothing but a nuisance with this attitude, so I wouldn't be shocked if it really was you!" Rachel yells. The argument is interrupted by the sound of a knife stabbing a condemned. We all look over and see Robin pulling their blade out of the condemned's eye. They walk over.
"Now, what the hell is the probl-?" They ask as we turn to look at Michael again. They're interrupted as a single gunshot hits Rachel in the forehead and drops her to the ground. Silence reigns as we stand there, shocked. We look and see Michael holding a handgun. Stella and I move as one and pin Michael to the side of the bus. I draw my knife and hold his armed hand against the side of the bus and put the blade to his throat.
"Drop it." I snarl. He does so.
"Holy hell." Robin says as Cal stares and Rachel's body. Robin walks over to us. "Get in. We're leaving this crazy bastard behind."
"She couldn't be trusted, Zoe, I swear. Please." He says.
"Wh-wh-what are we gonna do with her?" Cal asks. I let Michael go and Stella follows suit, backing towards the door.
"You're not coming with us." I say and grab the handgun. We back up as one, me keeping the gun trained on my former friend.
"If you leave me out here, I'm gonna die!" Michael says. "If the condemned don't get me the hunters will make a sacrifice out of me!"
"I don't care." I reply. We don't have time to get Rachel's body, so we climb on the bus one by one, me getting on last, and leaving Michael with her body. The last I see of him is him starting to run as condemned appear, drawn by the sound of his betrayal and murder of Rachel.
"What the hell?" Robin says. I look up from the back of the bus and see them pulling the bus to a stop. I walk up to the front. "Train." They say as we come to a halt. Indeed, we have come to a stop at train tracks, with a train simply sitting there. "No driving around that. We'll have to get off for a little bit." Robin says. I nod and call for everyone to get off and stretch their legs while we investigate.
"Cal, come with me, everyone else, just watch the bus." I say and climb off. Cal follows me towards the train and we find an unlocked boxcar. "Was it you?" I ask.
"Not this again." He snaps.
"No." He says, with such a new authority to him that I believe him.
"Alright." I say. We push open the boxcar door and climb inside.
"Empty." Cal says as we survey the area. There's a sleeping bag and a pillow on the floor in the corner, with a couple empty bottles of wine in the surrounding area. They don't look old.
"Yeah, but that looks freshly used." I say, pointing. "Keep a lookout and keep your guard up." I tell him. He nods, and I push open the other side and climb down. Looking around, I spot a ladder leading up to the next car, and I climb up. There's a safety railing leading around the other side, so I follow it and find myself next to a console of some kind.
I open it and find a lot of controls that ultimately just confuse me. I pass it and walk over to the door of the place on the train where the driver sits. I had never really seen a train before, so I didn't know what half of the stuff was called. I peek my head in the window and see a very dead-looking man sitting in the driver's seat. "Think he's condemned?" Cal asks from behind me.
"Let's find out." I say and reach for my katana. I get a sudden jolt when I grasp nothing but air. Then I get a sinking feeling in my gut as I realize that it had been lost at the food mart, along with my crossbow. I sigh and draw the knife from my boot. That was something I never removed from my person. I open the door and stab the man in the back of the head, just to be safe. I throw the body to the floor and see that most of his face and forehead had been blown off. Looking around, I see a sawed-off shotgun on the floor. I lean down and pick it up. To my luck, there's an ammo box beside it, still half full. "This is now mine." I declare as we start to look around the cabin.
"Why is this button glowing?" Cal asks. I look over and see a yellow button next to him is indeed glowing. I shrug. "I'm gonna push it."
"Are you kidding me?"
"No, look." He says and pushes it. To my amazement, the brakes roar to life.
"This thing works!?" Robin yells from outside. They jump up over the safety railing and joins us. "Wow, if we can get this to work, we can put a lot of distance between us and the hunters. A million condemned between us and...anywhere, and we don't have to care at all!" They crack a smile and sit in the pilot's seat.
"Cal, go stay with the others, we'll keep looking around." I say. He heads back to the bus while I climb out onto the safety railing-walkway again. I look at the back of the train and see that a part of it is derailed. We'll have to unhinge that. I think to myself. I glance at the top of the locomotive and climb up onto the roof. I see a second train, one that looks far more rusted and beaten up, on a set of tracks adjacent to ours. It doesn't look promising at all, so I ignore it and look around at ours.
"Hey, Zoe." Robin calls. "I found a paper pad with directions on how to get this thing started."
"Nice, let's do it." I say.
"That's the problem. The paper itself was ripped off. If you can find a pencil or something we could make a rubbing of the directions."
"Alright, I'll keep an eye out." I say. I go back to the original boxcar that Cal and I investigated and look around. Sure enough, I find an old pencil in one of the sleeping bags.
"You taking anything of mine?" a voice says behind me and I jump up. I whirl around and see a very unkempt looking young man, with scraggly hair and an even messier beard.
"Just need to borrow this pencil." I say.
"That's fine you can have that." He says and holds a hand out. "Name's Mal. Malcolm if you're feeling fancy."
"Zoe." I say. "We're, uh, trying to get the train to run." I say.
"Well, if you can unhinge the pileup back there, I can help you with that." He says. "As long as you don't mind me coming along."
"As long as you aren't a threat, that shouldn't be too much of a problem." I say.
"I sure am glad, considering you'd be driving away in my home." He replies. "Alright then. I've met you're whole crew, they all warmed right up to me in direct sunlight." He says and jumps off to go and rejoin Stella and the others. I shake my head and start to think about how to unhinge the train. I remember seeing a spike remover in the console on the side of the train, and head back to it. I find that memory had served me correctly, and I grab it. I head back to the pileup, find the appropriate attachment, and undo it.
"That ought to let us go." I say to myself. I'm about to head up front again, when I hear voices from the bus. Voices that don't belong to our group. I jump through the boxcar and see a couple of people, a man and a woman, the woman holding a child, looking at us desperately. I run over and join the group.
"Please, we heard the train and thought it might have been those hunter folk." The man says. "I'm Max, this is Sohalia and our son, Kenny." He says. "We just want to get to the next town. That's all we want to do." I look around at our group and see that nobody really knows what to do.
"How many people have you killed?" I ask them. The two adults look at each other, and I realize the child is paler than any normal person could be. He must be sick. He isn't really moving, either. I think to myself.
"One." Sohalia says.
"I don't know." says Max.
"Why?" I ask.
"Because they tried to kill us." Max says. I nod, and gesture to the boxcar.
"We're leaving soon, you should get on." I tell both them and the group. Malcolm goes up to the front to help Robin get the train started as we all climb in the boxcar. The engine roars to life and we start moving. Max goes to see if he can help Robin with the driving, so I sit down next to Sohalia. "Is he alright?" I ask, gesturing to Kenny.
"He's sick. Something he ate earlier today isn't agreeing with him...it's not good. He's never looked like this when he's sick." She says sadly. I look at the kid and I can feel my heart break at how worn out he looks. It's normal for someone my age, but for a child, it's just depressing. I reach into my pack and pull out a water bottle and a couple of old crackers that had been sitting at the bottom of my bag for a while. I hold them out to Sohalia.
"Here. If he's up for it."
"Thank you." She says, taking them. "You're very kind. He's not fussy, you know?"
"What do you mean?"
"A lot of kids are stubborn about eating. Not him. He just eats anything, really." She smiles sadly. "He's allergic to bees, you know." I see tears form in her eyes. "I don't know why, but that's all I can think about." I give her my own sad attempt at a reassuring smile and look at the boy again. Looking at him, it either looks like he ate something poisonous or is having an allergic reaction. It's hard to tell which. With a pang of sadness, I realize that the boy isn't sick, he's probably dying. One look at Sohalia and I realize she knows it as well. I sit down by Stella again and she rests her head on my shoulder, staring at the wall.
After around half an hour, Kenny starts coughing. "Zoe, I need you, please." Sohalia says. I get up and move over, and see he's coughing up blood. "Can you wipe that off his face, my hands are full." She says and gestures to a rag on the ground. I oblige her. "He's...he's dying." Sohalia whispers to me, tears in her eyes. "Can you go and get Max, please? He should be here right now..." I nod and get up, taking the rag with me to the cabin of the bus.
I walk in and see Max sitting in the driver's seat. Robin is seated on the floor on the other side of the cabin, cross-legged and snacking on some form of plant. "Max." I say. "You should come back to the boxcar."
"Why?" He snaps, and I realize he's in denial about what's happening to his son. Oh great. I think. I hold out the bloodied rag. "What is that?" He snaps again.
"Your son's blood." I say, sternly, but not overtly harsh.
"Get out of her, girl." He says quietly.
"No. Your family needs you, and I'm gonna make sure you stop this train and get back there to be there."
"Make me." He snarls and stands up, turning to face me. I can tell immediately that if this train is going to stop, I'll have to fight past him. So, I give him a surprise and shove him once. He stumbles back.
"You're just acting like nothing is at all wrong and someone has to make you see sense." I say, rapidly losing patience. If one of my friends was dying, I wouldn't be pretending it would all be ok. He lunges for me, but I duck under his punch and force him against the wall. "I told Sohalia I was gonna make you stop this train, and you bet I'm gonna make good on that promise." I say, putting my forearm to his throat. "We may have just met but I don't care. You're gonna go back there and let me stop this train now." He tries to punch me, but I block with my elbow and keep forcing him against the wall. "Guess what, you will only lose everything by acting like this!" I yell. I didn't mean to, but it just came out.
He stops struggling and I let him go. He walks over to the breaks and activates them, and the train slowly grinds to a halt. He leaves the cabin and I look over at the stunned looking Robin. "The kid's gonna die." I tell them and follow Max. We find Sohalia holding Kenny at the side of the train, the others sitting nearby. We approach them and Max takes one look at his son before letting out a long sigh. "Take as long as you need." I say.
"What are we gonna do?" Max asks.
"I think it's time to...oh god, this is impossible..." Sohalia chokes out. "We...we're in the condemned zone...we can't let him come back as one of those...things." She says.
"What if he doesn't?" Max asks.
"Max...I love you very much. I love our son more than life itself. But what you're saying right now is foolish."
"No." She interrupts him. "It's here-" She points to her head. "-or nothing."
"God...what...are you asking me to-"
"You don't have to..." She whispers.
"I'll do it, I can do it." he tries to tell her, but at this point she's ignoring him. Both of them seem bent on being the one to do it.
"You shouldn't be the one." She says to him.
"I'll do it." He insists weakly.
"I'll do it." I interrupt.
"No...it should be a parent." Sohalis says.
"Zoe's right, hun. We can just say our goodbyes, and..." Max trails off, choking up.
"You would be doing this family a great service, Zoe." Sohalia says. "Just...give us some time to say goodbye?" She asks. I nod, and they take Kenny out into the forest. I sit down next to Stella.
"It's a good thing you're doing." She tells me gently, putting a hand on my shoulder.
"I know." I say. "It ain't easy, but I know." She's about to respond when a gunshot fills the air, followed by a scream of from Max. "Stay here." I order the rest of them and sprint after them. I run for what feels like miles before finding them in a small clearing. Kenny is leaned against a tree, motionless, and Sohalia is lying on the ground, a bullet in the side of her head and a gun in her frozen hand. Max is sobbing on the ground next to her.
"Oh my gods..." I whisper. After a long moment, Max takes the gun and stands up.
"Will you still...?" He asks.
"Yes, give me the gun. No parent should have to do something like this." I say, slowly moving towards him.
"I agree." He says, puts the gun in his mouth and fires once. I freeze in place, stunned. I feel hot liquid on my face, and realize it's his blood. I give in to the urge I've fought so many times and throw up. I'm fine with death, I've seen so much of it, how could I not be. But...when it's something like Rachel, something like watching two parents kill themselves out of grief, that I can't handle. When I finish wretching, I get up, take the pistol from him, see that the child is indeed dead, and shoot him once, making sure he doesn't return, like his parents had feared. I return to the group to horrified stares all around, and I climb into the boxcar, sit in a corner, and cry.
A few hours later, I wipe the blood off my face and look around. Cal is hanging around in the area between our two traincars, Stella is sitting with her legs dangling off the edge of the boxcar we're in, Robin is driving, and Mal is standing on the pilot up at the front of the train, in front of the cabin. I move over and sit next to Stella. "How're you doing?" I ask .
"Not good." She says.
"What's on your mind?"
"What Malcolm said."
"What'd he say?"
"That what happened to that kid is gonna happen to me." She says.
"The hell he did." I say angrily. "I'm gonna go have a word with him." I say and get up. I go through the door, move past Cal and through the cabin to find Mal at the front.
"Hey." He says.
"What'd you up and tell her she's gonna die for, huh?" I ask.
"It's true." He says, strangely calm.
"After what happened today, you want to go freaking everyone else out?"
"It's not that. If you people keep on this course, which you will, it seems, she is almost certainly going to die, clear as the sun coming up tomorrow. Of all of you, she is the least capable of taking care of herself. She even told me she's not sure how to use a handgun. Not to mention, and this goes for you and the bird kid as well, with hair that long, a condemned will find and nab you." He says. "You want her to live, go and show her how to shoot and cut that damn hair."
"Ok." I say, realizing he isn't entirely wrong. I return to Stella and sit down next to her again. "So, he made some...interesting points. Why didn't you tell me you couldn't shoot?"
"Never came up." She says, sounding embarrassed.
"Well, I'll show you. But first...we should give you a haircut. Robin and I can handle ourselves if someone grabs our hair, bu, no offense, you're not as good." She nods, and I take out my knife. I kneel behind her and start cutting her hair, being as gentle as I possibly can. She's silent throughout the process, and when I'm done, her hair only passes her ears slightly, and it's pretty spiky in places, giving her a slightly boyish look. I show her her reflection in my knife blade.
"Ugh." She grimaces.
"Shut up, you're stunning." I tell her and kiss her once on the cheek. "Come on, there's some glass bottles in here we can use for target practice." I say. We stand up and I set up some of the bottles, wine bottles mostly. I suspect Mal could have been an alcoholic. I take the pistol that had belonged to Max and Sohalia and I hand it to her. She takes aim and I step behind her, putting my hands over her ears. It won't help, but at that point, I was just trying to reassure her. "Your arms are too straight. Bend them a bit so they can absorb the shock of the recoil." I tell her. She does so, and fires. She misses. "Aim a bit to your left, and up." I say. She does so and fires, this time hitting the bottle.
I set up another one and resume my old position. She fires again, this time hitting the box it is standing on. "A little up, maybe to your right a smidge." I say. She fires again, smashing the bottle to pieces. I set up another bottle, and she hits it without any help from me. "There you go." I say as she turns to give the gun back to me. "You'll be a sharpshooter in no time. Hell, you're probably better than Robin with the pistol already. Kid's done well with just a bow, they've never needed a gun."
"Thanks." She says and smiles. "I had a good teacher." At that moment, I felt a strange knot in my stomach form, and I get a sudden burst of either adrenaline or courage. Either way, I lean forward and kiss her once. Just a quick one. She smiles even wider, and returns the favor. This one lasts a lot longer.
We'd been on the train for about four hours before anything exciting happened. I was rooting through a couple of the crates in the boxcar and came across a bottle of whiskey. "Honestly, I have a feeling Mal would want that." Stella says, looking over my shoulder and seeing what I'm holding.
"He'll probably want it back, actually." I say. "I'll go take it to him." I get up and head out the door to step onto the head train car. I step over the gap between them and climb the stairs to go around the walkway up to the cabin. I slip past Cal, who is sitting cross-legged and staring off at the constantly changing environment as we pass through it. I ignore him and head into the cabin, where Robin is sitting in the driver's seat. I see Mal through the windshield, standing out in front and leaning on a safety railing. I head out to join him. "Hey, pretty sure this is yours." I say.
"Indeed it is." He says and takes it. He immediately downs a swig of it before wiping off the bottle. "Want some?" He asks. It occurs to me that I've never actually tried whiskey before. By all accounts it's terrible.
"Sure." I say and he hands me the bottle. I throw a swig back and immediately try not to cough it back up. I hand him back the bottle and start to head back to the boxcar where Stella is sitting. Robin is humming a song of their own composure, earning a small smile from me. As I pass Cal, I hear him stand up behind me and I stop, realizing he's about to speak.
"It was me." He says. I turn around. "I was the one giving the hunters supplies."
"Good lords, Cal..." I say quietly. He's about to speak again, but I hold up a hand to interrupt him. "No, don't speak. I don't want to hear any more. Don't tell anyone, I'll decide what to do with you later." I say and head into the boxcar without another word. I sit down next to Stella and let out a long sigh.
"What's wrong?" She asks.
"Cal was the one supplying the Hunters. All of this is his fault." I say, just loud enough to be heard over the roar of the train. "What Michael did to Rachel...me having to watch that family die...it's all because of him." Stella was quiet. "What the Hades do I do with him now?"
"We'll have to discuss this with Robin...but...I don't think we should kill him." Stella says. "Leave him to fend for himself, same as Michael. He's out of our world and we bear no responsibility for what happens after." I start to nod in agreement, though my first instinct would have been to kill him, when the brakes get slammed on. In seconds, Mal, Robin, and Cal come diving in the door.
"Brace yoursel-" Robin starts to say, and the train slams into something.
Or, as I was about to discover, something slammed into the train.
I was immediately flung forward and I hit the door. The boxcar soared over the top of the engine, and I expected to come crashing down to earth, I was wrong. A giant axe-blade cut the box-car in half. The half I was in was caught by a large hand, while the other half, which sent Mal and Stella flying, landed around a hundred meters away. The hand tips our half over and Robin and I fall to the ground. The wind is knocked out of me immediately, but I still haul myself to my feet and draw my knife. Robin is on their feet just a second later and has an arrow aimed at what I'm currently staring at in shock and horror.
The minotaur, twelve feet tall and carrying an axe the size of a school bus. I look behind him and see Stella and Mal pulling themselves out of their half of the boxcar, miraculously unhurt. "Guys!" Cal's voice rings out. I look behind me and see him running backwards towards a nearby bridge, going over the train tracks for the train to pass under. I see what he's going for. A ladder leading up to it. It's our only shot. Robin sees this as well and fires an arrow up at the Minotaur's head.
It embeds itself in the monster's thick skull, but it has no visible effect other than to annoy it. It immediately gives chase to me and him, but no long after, a gunshot rings out, hitting it in the back. Mal's shot it with a pistol I didn't know he had. Robin and I run for the bridge for three seconds before I draw the sawed-off and fire it in the general direction of the minotaur, it works, allowing Stella and Mal some time to run for the bridge themselves. We repeat this strategy until we reach the base of the ladder. Mal and Stella practically fly up the rungs, with Robin close behind. Cal is already at the top, helping them up. I start climbing last. When I'm about halfway up, the monster's hand wraps around me. I turn my head and see it opening it's mouth to eat me. I free my arm with the sawed-off and fire both triggers at once, right down it's throat. It let's go and falls backwards. My entire left arm is numb.
I continue climbing, but once I'm at the top, Cal's hands appear and grab my wrists, wrenching them off the ladder rungs. "Sorry, but you're the only one who knows." He says as he pokes his head over the edge. Realizing he's about throw me off, I wrap one of my legs around the ladder below me. At the top of the ladder, I hear a loud thwack, and Cal tumbles over the edge and past me. Stella appears and holds a hand out to me. "No she wasn't." She mutters darkly and helps me up. I glance back and see the minotaur making a feast of Cal. For the first time, that feeling of vomiting doesn't arise.
The minotaur looks up at us with bloody jaws and a look of burning hatred in its eyes. "Look." Robin says. I look up and see a train, the other train from the pileup, coming towards us on the other track. Coming straight for the minotaur. In around four seconds, the trains slams into the minotaur at full speed, smashing it apart and into a cloud of gold dust. The train screeches to a sudden halt after it has past us and starts coming back, moving in reverse.
"Who do you think it is?" Stella asks.
"Not sure." I say, but I have a sinking feeling I know. As it arrives, I see a man tied to a pole on top of it. He looks at us and shouts.
"That's them! Get them!" Out of the boxcars pour a bunch of young women and girls, with braided hair and bows and arrows, and all of them looking up at us with a fanatical hatred.
"Run." I say and we take off in one direction, headed into the forest and into the Canadian Shield. Adrenaline takes over as we run through the trees, ducking under branches and jumping over bushes. Time both slows down and speeds up, and everything around me is out of focus and intensely colored and focused at the same time. I come to a stop and take cover behind a tree. Two or three arrows soar past but beyond that, stillness and silence reign. I look for any sign of my group, but no sign appears. In the silence however, I can hear one thing.
River. I think as I recognize the sound of a flowing river and rapids. If they're sane, they'll go there. I think and look around the tree. The Hunters are stealthy, but they leave some telltale signs of their whereabouts. I can spot the braids of their hair as they hide in green bushes, especially the blondes. I see around thirteen, and I take out the sawed-off. I'll need to draw them in closer, this thing doesn't have a lot of range. I think. I see a tree not far from me and in the direction of the river. I run for it and dive behind it, narrowly avoiding an arrow to the eye.
Two hunters start to give chase, so I poke my head out and fire once, dropping them both. Then, the group starts to swarm. I fire again, taking out a second before I start openly running for the river. None of them seem to being relying on stealth anymore, and it's an almost kamikaze state they're in. A few are able to come into range of their knives, but that also means they're in range of mine, so they tend to be dead before they can do anything. I think maybe about five minutes passed before I broke out of the treeline and the river was in view. I look around and only see one member of my group.
Mal is lying on the ground, an arrow in his ear. I look up and see the tall leader of the Hunters, the woman known as Jay. "This one was no trouble. You think you'll do any better?" She asks. I raise the sawed-off and pulled the trigger. Click. Damn. No rounds left. I draw my knife and get ready for a brawl. The hunter smirks and pulls a weapon off of their back. I recognize the weapon as my old katana.
"That's mine." I snarl.
"Not anymore." Jay says and charges. I duck under a berserk, overhand swing and stab for her stomach. She catches my wrist and headbutts me. I stumble back, dazed. As my vision clears, I see her charging, blade thrusting out for my heart. I react on instinct and sidestep, raising my leg high up above my own head and slam my heel down on her fingers in an axe-kick motion. She drops the blade, but ignores the fact and throws out a left hook with her other hand, digging it into my liver. I gasp as the strike, which is immobilizing, drops me. If you've never been hit in the liver before, you don't know what the pain is like.
She grabs me by the throat and pushes my head under the water of the river. All I can see is her hands strangling me and the dim sunlight through the shallows. My vision forms a tunnel, one that has a light at the center, one that is rapidly getting smaller. Jay's hands are vices, the tendons in her arms like iron bands, coiled to the highest possible tightness. Then, they slacken, and the water turns red. I sit up immediately and shove Jay off of me. Stella is standing over her, holding a bloodied dagger looted from one of the hunters.
"Thanks." I gasp as she helps me to my feet. "Where's Robin?"
"Don't know. Zoe, we need to go, there's more coming for sure."
"I know, but they're strong, they can handle themself. We have to go, now, more are on the way." She says, and I can tell she's struggling with it. I nod, and I grab my katana from the dead hunter. We dive into the river and swim to the other side, being battered by the terrible current the entire time. Once we reach the other side, we stumble towards the next tree and rock line, when a deafening bang fills the air, and I wince. I've lost feeling in most of my back. Stella turns around and her mouth opens in a scream, but I can't hear a word of it.
I look down and see a growing red stain in my stomach. I look behind me and see the man who had been tied to the Hunters' train standing there, holding a rifle.
Michael... I think to myself before I pass out, hitting the ground painfully hard.
Ok, so, I spent the next several days coming in and out of consciousness. However, what happened while I was out of it is still pretty important, so, I will give you the best description of events I can, as told to me by Stella Lohse.
Stella was crouched in a bush, hood pulled over her head and scarf pulled around her face. She'd taken me further towards Toronto when we'd run into a blizzard. Out of nowhere and freezing. She'd had to loot the surviving Hunters for winter coats for us, and she'd hidden me in the basement of a small cabin we'd come across. At this moment, she was watching a rabbit that she'd been stalking for nearly an hour. She raised a bow, one stolen from the hunters as well, and let the arrow fly. It struck home and the rabbit dropped dead. She walked over, picked it up and strapped it to her belt. She had nearly nine rabbits and birds on it over the course of the day.
A twig snapped behind her and she whirled around, nocking another arrow and aiming it. "Who's there?" She called. "Come out!" Two men stepped out from behind a tree, one holding a rifle over his shoulder.
"I'm Maxis." The one with the rifle says. "This here's my friend, Brandon. We just want to talk."
"Any sudden moves and an arrow is in between your eyes, both of you." Stella warned them.
"We're from a larger group. Women, children, all very very hungry." Maxis says.
"So am I." She lied.
"That's a lot of meat you have on you. If you're interested in trading, we have some things to barter with." Maxis tells me. "Ammo, medical supplies."
"The meds." Stella says quickly.
"Ok. You're welcome to follow us."
"No." Stella says immediately. "Brandon can go get the stuff, he comes back, the meat is all yours. Anyone else shows up-"
"You put one right between my eyes." Maxis chuckles. She nods. Maxis nods and Brandon takes off into the wilderness.
"I'll take that rifle." Stella orders. He nods and tosses it to the ground between the two of them. "Back up." She says, and he backs up. She picks it up and falls into a crouch by a tree. He sits down at a tree across from her.
"So what's your name?" He asks her.
"Look, I understand it isn't easy to trust a pair of strangers." He says. "Whoever's hurt, you clearly care about them. What happened?" Stella is silent. "Well, I'm sure it'll all be just fine." He tells her.
"We'll see." She says. Then, her ears perked up at the sound of moaning and whispering. She turned around and saw a convincer coming straight for her. She raised the rifle, but before she could snap off a shot, three different shots rang out instead. She looked over and saw Maxis holding a pistol as the convincer dropped dead. "You had another gun?"
"Sorry." Maxis shrugged.
"Trade guns, now." She ordered and they swapped. She was better with a pistol. Instantly, nearly thirty condemned appeared from the trees. The two opened fire, each taking down a condemned with each shot of their firearms. Stella eventually ran out of ammo and switched to her bow. After a long period of dropping every condemned that appeared, the numbers of the cursed dead stopped.
"You know what kid? I think we did it. Listen." He says. She did so, and heard only silence.
"No condemned." She muttered.
"No need to sound so unhappy."
"More like disbelief."
"Come on, we should get out of the cold soon. Wind's picking up." Maxis told her. She nodded, and they found a small cliff to take cover beneath. "You handled yourself pretty nicely back there. I'd say we, uh, make a pretty good team."
"We got lucky." Stella snorted.
"Oh no, not lucky. No such thing as luck." Maxis says. "See I believe that everything happens for a reason."
"Karma, in this day and age?" Stella asked, incredulous.
"Yeah. And I can prove it to you." He says. "Now, this winter has been especially cruel. We've needed to hunt and look for supplies much more than normal. A few weeks back, I sent my best team out. Only a few came back just three days ago. Four girls, bloodied and beaten. They said that they'd been screwed out of a deal and that the rest had been killed by this crazy, raven haired demigod." Stella froze. "And the kicker is...this demigod has a daughter of Zeus with her. Beautiful blonde thing." Maxis gave her a knowing smile. "See? Everything happens for a reason." Stella sprung to her feet and leveled an arrow at him. "Brandon lower the gun."
Stella whipped around and saw Brandon with a pistol aimed at her. "No way Maxis, I'm not letting her go."
"Lower the gun." Maxis said, this time with more authority. "Give her the medicine. The others won't be happy, I know."
"Out of the way." Stella said and pushed past Brandon.
"I can protect you, you know." Maxis told her.
"No thanks." She said and took off running. She returned to the cabin where she was keeping me, and came downstairs in the basement, where I was lying, unconscious. She gave me the meds through a syringe they had given her, and she sat near me for a while, standing guard. "You're gonna make it, love. I promise." She whispered to me. She lay down next to me on an old mattress on the floor and fell asleep.
The next morning, she was awoken by the sound of angry voices. She shot up and darted for a window. "Son of a...They tracked me." She whispered, seeing a group of men approaching the cabin. "I'm gonna draw them away, I'll be back for you in a bit." She said to me sleeping body before sneaking out of the house. She was able to get to the shrubbery before anyone found her. A man grabbed her and started yelling for his comrades. She grabbed the knife she'd killed Jay with and stabbed him in the neck.
"There she is, shoot her!"
"But Maxis said-"
"To Hades with Maxis, kill her!" The voices said, and she started running. Gunshots followed her as well as the battle cries of the men chasing her. She ran for a long time before diving behind a tree and spotting a brief glimpse of Maxis as he clothes-lined her with a rifle butt to the chest. He wrapped an arm around her neck and choked her unconscious from there.
She woke up in a cell. She sat up quietly and saw a man doing something that appeared to be operating on someone sick. Then, the man raised a cleaver and chopped off an arm before tossing it to the side. She scrambled to the back of her cell. The man looked over at her, then quickly left the room. Almost immediately, Maxis walked in. "How are you feeling?"
"Amazing." She replied. He placed a tray of food on the ground and pushed it under the cell bars.
"You should eat. I know you're hungry, you've been out for at least a day."
"What is it?" She shot back.
"Rabbit stew." He replied.
"With human helping on the side?" She asked and pointed to the armless man on the operating table.
"You think we eat them? No. Grind up human parts and you can make oil for your vehicles." He says.
"You're an animal." Stella said and began to eat.
"Says you. You and your friend killed how many of my people? The hunters were a good group."
"So now what, you chop me into tiny pieces?" She asked.
"I'd rather not. Please tell me your name." Maxis said. In response, Stella shoved the food tray back under the cell bars to him.
"You're so full of it."
"Oh, I've been very truthful with you." Maxis said. "Your turn."
"Because I want to convince the others that you can come around. You have heart, spirit. You're special." He said and put his hand on hers as she held the bars of the cell. Realizing what he wanted, she put her free hand on his, and snapped his index finger. He cried in pain as she reached for the keys on his belt. He grabbed her other hand and pulled, smashing her head against the bars of the cell, knocking her back. "Stupid little girl." He snarled. "What am I supposed to tell them now."
"And what should I tell them about Stella?"
"That she's the one who broke your finger."
"Tiny pieces, you said? So be it." Maxis said and strode from the room. It was around that time that I woke up.
I gasped in pain as I tried to sit up. I looked around and felt panic rise as I realized Stella was missing. I grabbed all of my supplies, gradually ignoring the pain in my back and stomach, before I climbed up the steps and into the cabin's main floor. I looked outside and saw two men looking through the forest. Following tracks, by the looks of it. I think to myself and head for the exit, I tail them for a few minutes before I start to hear their conversation.
"We got the Zeus kid. Now we just need the psycho girl."
"Yeah. Still don't know why Maxis wanted to keep her alive."
"Did you get a look at her? Imagine coming home to that in your room every night. No question that's why he wants her alive."
Stella. I think, and my vision runs red. They have my Stella. I pull out my katana and walk up behind them. I'm about to bash one over the back of the head when they spin around. I swear as a scuffle begins. It is fast, short, and brutal, but it isn't long before I've taken both of them my prisoner and have them tied up in the cabin basement. I grab a kitchen chair from the upstairs and bring it down. I tie one to the chair and chain the other to a broken down fridge in the kitchen.
I start pounding on the one in the kitchen behind his friend's back. I think I kicked him in the ribs maybe twenty-eight times before I stop to hold my poorly stitched wounds and groan. "Wait here." I growl and go to sit down in front of the one in the chair. "The daughter of Zeus. Is she alive?" I ask.
"Who?" The man replies, defiant to the end. "I don't know no daughter of Zeus, I'm Lutheran." I respond by taking my knife and stabbing him in the knee. He screams out a long, agonized curse. I smack him in the face once.
"Focus on me, right here. Or I'm gonna pop your knee off." I warn. "Where is she?"
"She's alive. She's Maxis' newest toy." He pants. I twist the knife ever so slightly, earning another shout of pain.
"There's a town about three klicks west of here." He tells me. I put the knife in his mouth, blade facing me, and I hold up a map I stole from his friend.
"Mark it." I say. "And it better be the same spot your friend points to." He does so, and I look at the map and see a single blood dab on my new destination. I get up and walk behind him, taking my knife from his mouth and putting it into the back of his neck, straight into the spinal cord. I walk over to the other, who is sitting in a panic by the fridge.
"Go to hell, I won't tell you anything!" He yells.
"That's fine." I say. "I believe him." And I lunge down with the knife.
Ok, all I did for the next while was run through the forest, so I think Stella's details are more important here.
Stella was grabbed and forced onto the operating table. As Maxis and the butcher held her down, she looked around and saw that they had left the door open. The butcher raised his cleaver. "I can get your people into Olympus!" She cried quickly, and they halted. "I'm a bargaining chip, I can get you in. They need me, I'm the last child of Zeus." The two men looked at one another, and she rolled her legs over to kick Maxis in the face. She sprang up and grabbed the cleaver from the butcher and put it in between his eyes.
"Maximus!" Maxis cried as Stella ran from the room. She saw her dagger on the floor and picked it up before diving through and open window and into the harsh winter air. It was a blizzard, and she could barely see four feet in front of her. She saw another open window and jumped inside. She heard an alarm bell sound somewhere in the town, and swore to herself. She hid inside a wooden crate as she began to hear running feet leaving the building. She climbed out once she was sure there was nobody left, and slipped over to a window to look for anyone on patrol.
"Girl got out." She heard Maxis' voice. "Sara, Castella, sweep the southern half, Jade, Xi'an, the Northern. You're the last of the Hunters, don't let their memory be tainted by failure now." He was responded to with a clamor of female voices saying a variety of different terms for 'Yes, sir.' Stella waited for them to leave before slipping outside and following Sara and Castella. If she could take out the Hunters, escape would be much, much easier to accomplish. As she followed them, she realized the wind could help her to mask the sound of her steps, so she increased her speed.
It wasn't enough, as the two hunters slipped into a building with no doors or windows. They split up and began to look around. As Stella stepped inside, she realized they were in an old arcade. One of the Hunters slipped into a back door and Stella saw her vanish down a flight of steps. Stella targeted the other one and slipped up behind her. She grabbed the back of her head and slammed it down on an old arcade game before stabbing her in the neck to silence any cries of death from her vocal cords. Stella ripped the blade out and went down the stairs after the hunter. As she reached the bottom, the hunter turned a corner and bumped right into her.
Stella tried to stab her but the hunter caught her wrist. Immediately, the two entered a frenzied melee which wound up with both of them on the ground. The floor splashed and Stella landed on something that felt suspiciously like animal organs. She looked around and realized they were fighting in a room that was clearly used to store the organs of killed animals and people. She felt a sudden urge to throw up. Before she could, the hunter crashed into her and slammed her to the ground. Stella twisted her body and slipped out of the hunter's grip and rolled around so she could wrap her legs around her enemy's back and waist. Stella tried to wrap her arms around her enemy's neck to break it, but the hunter threw her head back and headbutted Stella in the nose. Stella lost her grip and fell into the organ pile.
The hunter raised a foot to stomp on Stella's face, but Stella grabbed her foot and twisted her ankle, breaking it. The hunter collapsed, screaming, and Stella grabbed the nearest thing, which wound up being a human brain, and shoved it into the face of her opponent, blinding her eyes. She grabbed a set of intestines she suspected were from some kind of oxen, and strangled the hunter until the hunter passed out. Stella buried her in the organ pile and ran out again. Before heading to any buildings, she saw a small patrol of guards only ten feet from her. Realizing they couldn't see her, she dove into a large snowbank and hid inside it. "Guys, look, blood." One of the guards said. Oh no, the organ pile must have left some blood on me. She thought and waited for them to find her. "She must place close, spread out!" one of them yelled and the patrol left her. Stella let out a long sigh of relief.
She took cover in a building that she realized was an old hotel. She darted around the lobby, looking for something to use as a weapon. She found a bottle of rum lying behind the lobby desk and grabbed an old blanket. She cut a chunk of it off with a knife and set to work making a molotov cocktail. She made for the exit, but a fist greeted her face and knocked her back into the lobby. She landed with a roll and ran off, quickly regaining her senses, and hid in the lobby behind a small stone wall. "That's fine." Maxis' voice said, and she heard him close and look the door. She looked around for stairs and saw that they'd all been cut down with axes. "You want out, you gotta come get these keys." He started walking around, and he headed into an old restaurant attached to the hotel lobby. She followed him in and started tailing him. "You know, you almost had me back there. You shook my faith for a second. Only for a second though." He called out as she began to inch closer. "I'm sorry about your friend, but I sent men out to kill her a few hours ago. She'll be dead by now."
As the last word left his mouth, she pounced on his back and stabbed him in the shoulder. He shouted out and threw her off. She scrambled into cover and hid again. "That was good, kid." He said and pulled out what she recognized as a hatchet. He fell into a crouch and started to stalk throughout the restaurant. She noticed, just behind him, was a fireplace with an active fire. Getting an idea, she slipped over to it after he moved to stalk her elsewhere, and she lit the molotov. She began to stalk her stalker and once she had him in view, she threw the molotov at him.
He turned at the last second and rolled to safety. A fire broke out in the restaurant and started to catch on all around them. Stella hid in a smoke cloud and once her moment came, she sprang towards him. He turned, spotted her, and began to swing the hatchet in an upwards motion towards her. She kicked him in the hand and stabbed him in the chest once. Before she could get another stab in, he grabbed her and slammed her face into a wooden wall separating two booths. She dropped, unconscious, as did he from the stab wound.
While this was happening, I was sneaking in the southern gate. I had to stab two sentries at the gate to death in order to escape. I headed into the town, listening for any sign of a patrol or a guard or anything. The wind drowned out any sound and the blizzard obscured any sight. Annoyed, I took in a long sniff through my nose and smelled smoke. Not just cooking smoke, like a building was on fire. She must be there. I think. It'd be the first place either of us would look. I start following my nose, only moving where the smell gets stronger.
As I move in the direction of the smoke, two people grab me and throw me into a building. I get tossed down a hallway and roll backwards to my feet. Two women wielding hunter knives walk in after me. "You're gonna pay for what you did to the hunters." One of them says.
"We will avenge our friends."
"No." I say and draw my katana. "You're going to try." They lunge at me and attack me in a frenzy. I slash once and take off one of their hands. I kick out and knock one back down the hall. I follow through with the kick and slash the other across the throat. They drop and I roll forward in a somersault towards the first and stab up into their stomach. I spin on my knees and take out half of their intestines, splattering the walls and painting them scarlet. I run out the door and start running through the streets now. It's only a matter of time before someone finds the rest of the bodies. I have to turn down a dozen streets, but I eventually find the burning building. I run over and find that it is locked. I look in a window and see Stella crawling across the floor, looking concussed, while a man is standing over her. He kicks her once in the ribs and I start working to knock the door down.
I look in the window again and see that he has mounted her and is strangling her. I raise the katana and start hacking a hole in the door. After an eternity in seconds, I cut a hole large enough for me to fit through, and I squeeze inside. I hear two sounds as I enter.
Chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk. It is a bit like a shovel being forced into wet dirt. The other sound is Stella shouting, punctuating every chunk. I run over and see her repeatedly forcing a hatchet into the man's forehead. "Stella!" I yell and grab her to pull her away. She struggles to get free.
"Don't touch me!" She screams as I grab her face and force her to look me in the eye.
"It's me, it's me. Look, look." I say. "It's me." A look of comprehension comes to her eyes, and I see a lot of fear pressure, stress, and worry in them.
"He tried to..." She starts and I pull her into a tight embrace.
"Oh, baby girl..." I whisper to her. "It's ok...I got you..."
"Zoe..." She whimpers.
"Come on." I tell her gently. "Let's get out of her. Together. You know that no one should face this world alone. Promise me you'll stay with me. We'll never make the other face what you faced alone." She nods and we get up and head for the door. I can't help but feel proud of her for facing everything she did on her own, especially for someone who normally was the one to be protected, not doing the protecting. She told me everything about that man with the hatchet in his forehead the next day, and if it weren't for the fact that we promised one another to never leave the other alone again, I'd have gone back in there to put another hatchet into his face.
"Well, that means we're getting closer." Stella says as the confusion hits us both. We'd been moving through the winter wasteland for at least two weeks by this point with nothing of note really happening. Moving through the forests, small, abandoned towns, and the highways, fighting through the blizzards and snow drifts. Eventually, we'd made it to Toronto and had begun making our way toward the tower. We'd taken refuge in a broken down gas station for the night, and when we'd woken up, it was summer. And I mean the sun was shining bright, the snow was melted completely, and it was already so abominably hot that in our winter gear, we had begun to overheat. "Leave the winter clothes, the closer we get to Olympus the better the weather will be." She tells me.
I leave my winter coat behind and stuff my leather fall jacket into my pack. It feels strange, not wearing it, and despite the fact I still have a long-sleeved shirt on, I feel curiously exposed without it. Stella does the same, save the fact she has a t-shirt on instead of a long-sleeve. "How much longer do you reckon it'll be to the tower?" I ask her.
"Not sure." She says and looks around the area surrounding the gas station. "See that hotel?" She points out a seven floor hotel not far from us. "Let's get to the roof and have a look around, maybe we'll be able to see the tower from there."
"Well, lead the way." I say. She smiles and starts jogging into the streets, me not far behind her. The hotel was open, so we just strolled in. It was also extremely abandoned, we would discover. "Must be out of the condemned zone." I muse. "Otherwise we'd have encountered at least one convincer by now."
"Yeah, I think it ends at the border of Olympus." She replies. We wander through a hallway full of hotel rooms until we reach a staircase. Stella tries to open it, but finds that it is locked. She tries to kick it down, but considering it is made of metal, I don't think there was every any hope of that happening.
"Damn. Any other ideas?" She asks.
"Just one." I say and kick open a wooden hotel room door. Inside, we find two people lying dead on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Two men, partially decayed and holding hands. The one on the right is holding a revolver in one hand. I stare at them for a few seconds, slightly disturbed by the sight. Stella comes up behind me and sees what I'm looking at. She gently takes my hand and squeezes it.
"This won't be us." She says. "I promise. I won't let this happen to us."
"I thought I was the one supposed to keep you safe?" I say, glancing at her.
"Come on, we've grown well past that, haven't we?"
"Yes, yes we have." I say and head out to the room's balcony. I look up and see another balcony right above the one I'm standing on. I can tell from where I am that the floor of it has been severely weakened. "Stand back." I tell her and pull out my sawed-off. I fire upwards once, and a hole is formed in the balcony above me. I fire again to make it larger, and I can see up above into the room above us. I put the sawed off back in my pack and gesture for Stella to join me. I hold my hands so she can step on them, and when she does, I hoist her up onto the balcony above us and into the room above ours.
"Meet me at the stairway." She says and disappears. I run back to the stairway and she appears maybe a minute later. "Ta-da." She says as she opens the door.
"You're gaining some muscle weight, honey." I say. "That would have been much easier two weeks ago."
"You know you love the look, though." She smirks, and I can't deny she's right. We climb the staircase up to the roof and have a look around. "There." She says and points. I look and see a large spire with a round, room like structure about two thirds of the way up. "That's maybe a two hour walk." She says, sounding excited. I look around and see a huge ladder lying on the roof. I glance at the building across from us and get an idea.
"I may know a way to speed that up." I say and pick up the ladder. She sees what I'm doing and helps me carry it to the edge. We push it over the side so that it forms a bridge spanning the distance between our building and its neighbor. "I'll go first." I say and she grabs it to hold it in place. I crouch and start to horizontally climb across. At one occasion, the ladder stirs slightly and I freeze, thinking I'm about to fall seven floors to my doom, but when it doesn't happen, I continue making my way across. Once my feet touch the other roof, I immediately grab the ladder to hold it steady while Stella climbs across. She makes it across without any trouble, and we start to move it to the other side of the building to look for a different roof.
We see one maybe a floor smaller than ours. "I'll go first this time." Stella says as we set up the ladder. She climbs downward and makes it to the other side in about thirty seconds. She turns to grab it, but freezes and ducks down.
"Turn around." A voice says behind me. I turn and see Michael standing there, pistol leveled at my head. "Oh, you thought just leaving me was fine, huh? There's no getting away from me, Zoe. Stella did a good job of escaping, but that only lasted a while."
"You murdered Rachel, Michael. What the hell else was I supposed to do?"
"I was trying to save us all." He snaps. "And was I wrong?"
"About Rachel, yes." I say. "Cal was the one."
"So I was right. She was so ready to defend him, she was probably in on-" He's interrupted by a glass bottle sailing over my head and hitting him in the face. I turn and see Stella holding the ladder and I practically slide down. I turn and kick it out before Michael can use it to get across. Instead, he jumps the distance and lands on a fire-exit just below us. "You can't escape me!" He roars as he starts running up the stairs.
"Run. Jump across to the next building." I tell her. She nods and we take off running for the edge of the building. The distance isn't that big, so Stella clears the distance quite easily. I, on the other hand, crash through a window on the top floor. "Keep moving!" I scream as I turn back and see Michael diving after me. I pull out the sawed-off and fire in his direction. "I'll meet you at the tower!" I shout as I fire again, having missed the first shot. I miss again and run into the halls of the hotel, struggling to reload.
"You're gonna have to do a lot better than that, Zoe. One of us isn't leaving this hotel alive."
You're not wrong. I think to myself as I finish loading the weapon. I run into the hall and fire at him once. He takes cover in an open hotel room, so I run for a stairwell. I throw the door open and run in, bullets from his pistol hitting the door behind me. I run down the turn of the stairs and as I'm starting to descend the next flight, Michael runs in the stairwell and jumps over the railings and slams into me, tackling me down into the stairs. We tumble down the steps until we reach a flat surface. We end up with me on top of him, so I start unloading short elbow strikes into his right eye. He twists and throws me off of him and down the next flight of stairs, where I slam into the wall and slide to the floor.
He jumps down to kick me in the face, but I roll to my feet and continue the sprint down the stairs. I hear him reload his pistol as his footsteps start to race down the stairs above me. I stop and fall into a crouch, aiming at the stairs, waiting for him to appear. He appears, just not the way down the steps I thought he would. He drops straight down, just past my aim, and he tackles me, pinning me to the floor. With my right hand I catch his wrist as he tries to put his pistol to the side of my head, and with my left I struggle to aim my own firearm at his skull while he holds my weapon back.
Once I have my gun near his head, I fire once, missing completely, but stunning and deafening him. I roll out from under him and try to shoot him again, but I realize I'm out of ammo. I throw the weapon into his head and run down into the basement. I look around and realize the hotel had some kind of wood shop in the basement. Why, I really cannot tell you. I hide beneath a work desk and watch as Michael stumbles in, bleeding from his right ear and a fervent look of blood lust on his face. "You're trapped in here now, Zoe." He says.
"I'm not stuck in here with you. You're stuck in here with me." I call back. He fires in my general direction, missing by a mile above my head and hitting the wall. Fifteen rounds per clip. That's three. I need to get him to empty that thing, then close the distance while he's reloading.
I run to a different place of cover, a large, mechanical saw. Four shots rang out, all missing. Seven. I thought. Then, he started moving, making him more difficult to avoid. I started moving, divining beneath a wood table as another shot rang out, this one only missing by a few inches. Eight. I start crawling underneath the table, moving the distance of it. A loud thump indicates he has jumped atop of the table, and bullets start raining down in front of me. Thirteen. I think as I stop and start moving in the opposite direction. I roll out the side and punch him in the side of the knee, buckling him. He falls on top of me and we slam into the ground. His pistol goes off again. Fourteen. I wrench it from him and put it to the side of his head with the non-bleeding ear. Before I can finish him off, he moves my hand and the bullet ricochets away.
He throws me again and I slam into the console of a band saw. To my amazement, it turns on. I get to my feet and see him running at me. I don't have time to draw one of my blades, so I resign myself to the reality that this will be fought out without weapons. He shoves my head into the metal console, and in retaliation, I bring a knee up into the side of the knee I buckled earlier. He stumbles, and I slash my elbow across his face and open a massive cut on his nose. I start throwing punches straight at it, but he fires a knee of his own into my liver, causing me to hunch over in pain as he slams his own elbow down on my back.
He kicks me in the ribs and I fall to the ground. Instinctively, I roll away from a stomp towards my head and get to my feet. As he runs towards me, I jump up and plant both of my feet on his chest, knocking the wind out of him and sending us both falling to the ground. We both get up at the same time, and he shoots to tackle me to the ground. At the last second, I jump into the air and slam my knee into his chin, sending him sprawling to the ground. I jump on his back and start punching him in his bleeding ear as hard as I can. He eventually catches a punch and twists my wrist. In response, I push off a nearby table and flip over, righting the angle of my bones, and I punch him across the jaw, knocking him down again.
I go down after him again, smashing my knee into his face. By this point, he's too dazed to fight, so I know I have to finish him off now. Looking back, I should have draw a blade and stabbed him, but in the heated rush of battle, I grab him by his hair and force his face into the moving band saw. Blood sprays everywhere, covering my face completely. Eventually, the blade shorts out, and I leave his body there. I walk out into the streets and hear a voice. "Zoe!" I look over and see Stella running towards me. "Where'd you go?" She asks.
"Fought Michael...thought I told you I'd meet you at the tower?"
"I wasn't gonna leave you behind, remember? Are you ok?" She asks, grabbing my arms and gripping them so tightly her fingertips turn white.
"Yeah, I'm ok." I say. She pulls an old shirt out of her pack and wipes my face of as much of the blood as she can.
"Come on, let's get to a shelter. We'll head for Olympus tomorrow." We head into an old office building that miraculously has running water, and we find a shower in the basement of it. We take turns using it, with me going second so she doesn't have to stand in a bloody puddle. Once I'm out, we find an old staff room and lie down on the couch together. Silence reigns, neither of us really interested in talking. "You ok?" She asks eventually.
"Yeah, I'll be ok." I reply, though I'm not entirely sure I'm being honest. "You?"
"I'm good. As long as you're safe, I'll be good. A hundred percent." She says and snuggles closer. "Listen...that was a close call back there. We...we may not get another chance for this."
"For what?" I ask, slightly confused. She gives me a look that says 'Really?' "Oh. Yeah, you may be right." I say.
"Do you want to?" She asks. I hesitate, loath to let my guard down for even a minute considering where we are and how easily someone could sneak in while we were distracted. Then, a more primal instinct kicks in and obliterates any doubt from my mind.
"Yeah." I say.
"Good." She says and starts to kiss me with more passion than I'd ever experienced in my life before.
We walked up to the front doors of the tower and just walked in. A lone man is sitting next to an elevator door. He's reading an age-old newspaper and ignoring us completely. We tentatively walk up to him. "Is this the way to Olympus?" I ask him.
"I don't know what you're on about kid. Beat it." He replies. Stella puts a hand on my shoulder.
"I'd think a daughter of Zeus would warrant a trip up, wouldn't she?" Stella says. The guard's eyes widen and the elevator door opens.
"Head on up." He says. We step in and the door closes. Stella pushes a button and the elevator starts to move up. A bundle of nerves forms in my stomach.
"We finally made it." She whispers, taking my hand.
The moment we stepped off the elevator a horde of Demigods surrounded us, weapons of all kinds trained on us. I think one of them was even holding a frying pan in one hand and a toaster in the other. "Oh for..." I mutter and hold my hands up.
"Which of you is the daughter of Zeus?" One of them asks.
"Me." Stella says immediately.
"Hades would speak with you both. Separately." A demigod says and they begin to march us towards the throne room. Stella is pushed in first, leaving me in the middle of a few dozen armed soldiers. I look them all over and start to calculate in my mind the easiest way to kill my way out of the situation just in case things go badly. Mostly to entertain myself, but just in case. I'd been attacked too many times over the last several weeks to take those chances anymore.
"So, where are the rest of the gods?" I ask. "If Hades is in there, what happened to the rest of them?" They look at one another uncomfortably. One of them looks like he's about to speak, but the others stop him.
"Hades will explain everything." The one I assume to be the leader says.
"Ok then." I mutter. After a long period of trying to get the demigods to talk to me and failing, Stella walks out, looking slightly shaken. "What's wrong?" I ask, immediately on alert.
"Nothing." She says. "I'm fine, don't worry." I can tell she's lying as I get shoved into the throne room. Once I'm inside, I see an old man sitting on the only throne in the room, holding a staff that is part lightning bolt and part trident, a helmet of shadow on his head.
"Hades." I say.
"What is your name?" He asks with surprising gentleness.
"I am Zoe Johnson, daughter of Athena." I reply. "What did you do to Stella?"
"I told her everything. Please, allow me to do the same." He says. I nod, and he begins to speak. "A year ago, my fellow Olympians one by one realized that our world is doomed. One by one, hope left them. Your mother was the first. They began to fade, and fade, and fade. Then, only I remained. However, they left me with a plan. As they each faded, they prayed to the most powerful primordial being left. Chaos. And Chaos agreed to their prayers. We could send one individual from our world to someplace better. Someone worthy, and that person could go on and live for us all."
"I sense a but coming." I say.
"So few people in this world are worthy. And there was another problem. We would be required to sacrifice a child of my own, a child of Poseidon, and a child of Zeus. I myself would have to fade as well." He stops when I have my katana out.
"Where did you take her?" I ask.
"Relax. She agreed to this. She told me that if you were kept safe, guaranteed, she would do this for us."
"I don't care." I snap.
"A shame, because you've no other choice." He says and claps his hands. I'm tackled to the ground by four demigods and dragged from the room. They take all of my weapons and put them in a building we pass along the way. Three of the guards leave, leaving one of them escorting me through the streets at gunpoint.
"Keep walking." He says as I slow slightly. I keep walking until we reach a wall. Then, I spin and disarm the demigod and pin him to the wall, pistol pressed to his gut.
"Where are they making the sacrifice?" I snarl. He says nothing. "I don't have time for this." I mutter and shoot him once in the stomach. "Where?" I ask. Silence, so I shoot him again. "Where?!" I yell.
"Throne room...right now." He says. I drop him to the ground and shoot him once in the forehead. I run back to where they were keeping my weapons and grab my katana, not having time for the knife. I sprint towards the throne room, but four demigod guards get in the way, each of them holding swords and shields. It makes no difference. It takes all of nine seconds for me to cut through them and continue my mad sprint. More guards got in my way, but none of them can stop me. Blood ran through the streets of Olympus that day.
Finally, I throw open the door of the throne room, and immediately a blast of purple lightning hits me in the chest. Strangely, it does me no harm. Instead it pulls me further into the room, towards a swirl of purple energy in the center. I see Hades fade away, Stella standing next to him. "Stella!" I scream at her. She looks over and a look of sadness comes over her face. She walks over to me and embraces me tightly. "Stella, please, stop this. I don't care about my safety, please, let's go away from here, far away, we don't need to-" She silences me with the last kiss we ever shared.
"Zoe..." She says as she breaks it off. "I struck a deal. I'll live, I won't die, but the god in me will. I'll be banished from Olympus forever."
"Stella, you don't need to do this-"
"Yes I do." She says, barely audible over the whirlwind of energy behind me. "And I'll be ok. You taught me how to live in this world. I'll find Robin, I know they're alive. We'll be ok."
"I'm coming with you-"
"No...you can't." She says, looking down, tears forming in her eyes. "You deserve better than this world, if I can make you as safe as I can by sending you from it, I will."
"Stella, we said we would never leave one another, ever. Remember?"
"I know...it breaks my heart to break that promise, but I know that I need to do this. Just promise me you'll live in this new world, please."
"Stella, I love you." I say desperately. "Don't make me..." I trail off, crying as well now.
"I love you too." She says and tightens her embrace on me. "That's why I had to do this." She pulls out a small piece of folded black fabric and unfolds it. It turns into a long black hoodie, which she puts on me and zips up. "It's a gift, trust me." I'm still not sure if it does anything, but it's something that I will keep forever. Then, she embraces me a final time. "I'm sorry." She whispers in my ear and shoves me into the swirling mass of purple energy. Reality distorts around me for a long period of time, then, when it stops, I'm in the midst of absolute chaos.
I look around and see an army of skeletons doing battle with an army of monsters. A mortal woman holding a shotgun is shooting monsters left right and center, and a mortal man near her is somehow fencing with a monster I recognize as an empousa. I see a portal similar to the one I just fell through at the other end of the chaos. Get to the portal, Zoe! Stella's voice yells in my head. I listen, and wade into the violence, katana flashing this way and that, taking out monsters, skeletons, anything that gets in my way.
I end up locking blades with a kid who looks to be maybe 12 years old. Normally, my sword would have cut through block like it was paper. Then, I realize that I'm several years younger, maybe physically fifteen. "What the hell?" I mutter and push past him, not wanting to kill a kid. I continue my sprint, stopping only when a massive explosion fills the air. I look up and see a monster larger than any I'd ever seen before, a towering giant with a crater in his forehead as Zeus flies around him on a chariot. "What the hell is happening?" I ask myself as I run for the portal again.
I jump in and land on the side of a random road. I look around and see a motorcycle left unattended at the side of the road. I walk over to it and look past it. There's a young boy, maybe twelve years old, staring down the shimmering form of some kind of demonic looking monster. I realize two things. One, that this boy is a demigod, and two, that if I don't save him, this monster will probably ruin his life. I run over. "Duck, kid!" I shout. He turns and dives to the side with surprising speed. I slash the monster and it vanishes. "Are you ok?" I ask the boy, but he's run away. Then, I get flashes, images, an entire lifetime's worth of information passing through my brain at once. The entire life of that young boy, what it would have been had I not intervened.
I see another portal and run for it. I dive in. It's the last portal I have to jump through. I land and crash through a coffee table. Immediately, I pull myself to my feet and look around. I'm in a small, two-room cabin. There's a girl about my age sitting on the couch, looking stunned. In the other room, a kitchen, a boy and a girl are looking at me, equally confused. I lock eyes with the boy and get a terrifying jolt. I don't know how, and I don't know why, but everything in my being knew that the boy standing before me was Michael Johnson.
I enter a mad panic and cross the cabin in four steps. I punch this new Michael in the face, breaking his nose and knocking him into a wall. The two girls are on their feet in seconds as I dart out the door. I look around, confused. I appear to be at some form of summer camp. Then, I see a sign that says 'Camp Half-Blood' and I really start to freak out. I turn and see the two girls charging after me. The one from the couch starts to throw knives at me, pulling them from hidden sheaths I didn't think were possible. I duck and avoid them, slashing two or three from the air with my katana. The other levels a bow and arrow at me. I pretend to surrender, but when her guard is down, I vault through the air and spin, planting the ball of my foot into her solar plexus.
"What the hell is going on?" A voice yells. Two more demigods are approaching, a teen boy and teen girl, each armed with a sword. I knee the bow girl in the forehead and turn to face them. The ensuing fight between the two of them, knife girl, and me, is long and brutal, eventually drawing an audience of demigods and monsters of all kinds. Finally, I'm able to knock them away from me. The boy with the sword locks eyes with me, and I realize with a jolt that he is the same kid I saved from that monster. They're standing around me in ready stances, not sure how to proceed. I see faces all around me that I recognize.
I see a different Lucian. I see a different Rachel. There was the different Michael. There is a different version of half of my former allies and enemies all around me. Then, I see a different Stella, and I realize what happened. They sent me to an alternate version of my world. One where the gods and mortals did not go to war and the apocalypse never happened. Emotions that I can't describe with words well up in me and as I lock eyes with the boy I saved once again, I realize that he is an alternate me. My grip on my sword slackens as I start to cry.
Then I dropped to my knees and screamed.
"And then I was imprisoned and taken here." Zoe said to Kyra, who was tasked with interrogating her. They had taken her to Olympus because there wasn't any decent places to keep her in the camp. Kyra nodded, thanked her, and left the interrogation room. On the other end of the two-way mirror, she joined Zack, Ava, and Nat, as well as a few members of The Heroes Organization.
"Hell of a story." Ava said.
"Yeah..." Nat agreed, scratching the back of her head.
"Were it not for the fact that I was there when that portal opened up, I may not have believed a word of it." Kyra said. "Well, what should we do with her?"
"I do not know." Nat said, sounding baffled. It was a sentiment the rest of them shared.
"What kind of world was this?" Rachel asked, sounding disturbed. "I don't think I could ever imagine Michael doing what that alternate did.
"Or me falling for any version of Zack..." Lucian muttered, earning a punch on the arm from Rachel.
"Are you alright, Zack?" Nat asked, gripping his shoulder. He was leaning against the mirror and had been silent for a long time.
"I need to talk to her." He said after a moment. After hearing no complaints her remotely cared about, as Lucian did complain, he walked into the interrogation room and closed the door. He grabbed the chair Kyra had been sitting in and jammed it under the door handle. Then, he pulled a switchblade out of his pocket, leaned down, and cut something.
"Oh, dammit." Rachel muttered.
"What?" Kyra asked as Zack sat on the table while Zoe looked up at him. They appeared to be sizing one another up.
"He locked us out and cut the mics. We can't hear a word of what they're saying." Rachel sighed.
"Oh, Zack..." Nat sighed and sat down to watch and try to read the lips of the ones talking.
"We sure can pick em." Ava shook her head as Michael walked in, holding an ice pack to the back of his head. "How's the head, buddy?"
"Sore. That girl packs a punch. They fixed my nose, but the headache is something that'll stay for a while." He replied. "What is Zack doing?"
"Do any of you have any way of stopping him from doing stuff like this?" Lucian asked. he received a resounding no.
"So. You're me." Zoe said, looking up at Zack as he sat on the table.
"Guess so." He replied. "How are you feeling right now?" He asked.
"Terrible." She replied bluntly.
"I know. I would in your position." He said. "I just have a question for you."
"Ask it then." She replied. "I've been asked a hundred questions so far. What's one more?"
"What did you see when you saw what my life would have been?" He asked. She sighed.
"You would have had your soul fused to that monster and you could take his form whenever you chose. However, this led to you having a split personality between you and him. This would have also made you immortal. It would have seemed like a boon at first. Then, after many years, you would have left your girlfriend, knife girl, out of guilt. You would have watched as all your friends and loved ones died around you and you would endure and watch the world burn until you were all that was left living." She said. "I felt your pain, Zack. I felt your fury. I felt your anguish. I know what your life would have been like because I lived it in those seconds. And I saved you from it, believe me."
"Ok." He said, nodding. "Alright, I believe you."
"You're a lot more trusting than most of them." Zoe said, pointing at the mirror. "Why?"
"Because I wouldn't lie if our places were reversed." He said. She nodded. "So what will you do now?"
"What is to be done with me?" She asked.
"Nothing. I'll make sure of that." Zack said.
"Then I don't know. I learn to live in this world."
"How about you come with me down to New York, I'll tell you all about this world, and you can decide what you want to do from there?" Zack suggested. After a moment, she nodded. Zack walked over to the door and removed the door. "Come on, follow me." He said. She rose and followed him into the room full of Questers and Heroes. "She's coming with me, you have nothing to worry about." Zack said, then he looked at Natalie. "I'll be back tonight, I promise." She nodded, and he went for the door.
"Just a sec, Zack. A few things I need to do first." Zoe said. He stopped and turned to watch. She walked up to Rachel and hugged her. "It's good to see you alive, Rach." She whispered the Hero's ear. Rachel uncertainly hugged her and patted her on the back. Zoe let the embrace go and looked at Lucian. "If you do to her what you did to me, they will never find your body." Zoe said and turned to Michael. "Sorry about the nose, kid." She said, and then swept from the room with Zack.
They went down the elevator and walked through the streets, Zack explaining things as they went. She asked him what certain stores were for, and after hearing him explain a hunting store, she went in and forced him do buy her new hiking boots. She also forced him to buy her a new leather jacket at one point before they stopped at a restaurant for dinner. Zack asked her a lot about flavors and tastes she would have liked, and helped her order. She wound up getting a grilled chicken breast with clean salad on the side. "However they made this, they did a good job." Zoe said after a long period of silent, ravenous eating.
"That's their job. They get up every day and make food in exchange for currency, which in this country is called a dollar." He said and pulled one out and showed it to her.
"So this green piece of cotton and paper is what everyone wants in this world?" She asked.
"Yeah. When you put it like that it does sound really freaking stupid, I suppose." He said.
"It does." She mused. "Tell me, you say you're armed, but I don't see any weapons on you." She said.
"This ring is a concealed weapon. He said, pulling a ring out of his pocket to show her. "I turn it around on my finger and it becomes my sword."
"I'll have to have that done to my katana." She said.
"I...may have had someone do that already." He admitted and held out a necklace. "Run your hand across the gemstone and it will become your blade. Just don't do it while you're wearing it." Zack said. She nodded and put the necklace on.
"The people you work with, they're all good people?" She asked.
"Yeah. Most of the people at Camp are. I may not get along with some of them, but if you come back to camp, you shouldn't have to worry about dealing with people like you had to in your world.
"Ok...I have a confession to make." She said. "I lied about not knowing what is special about this hoodie."
"Go on." He said, not angrily.
"Before he faded, my Hades refurbished the helmet of invisibility into a hoodie for me. Their plan was always to send me forth into this world with his tool. If I put the hood up I become invisible."
"Nice." Zack said. "Why do you bring this up?"
"Because...I want to explore this world a bit on my own. Then, if I'm ready, I'll come to your camp and see how things work."
"Ok." Zack nodded. "I'll make sure nobody comes after you."
"Just a few questions." She said as she finished her meal. "What is the year and date?"
"July eleventh, two-thousand-twelve." Zack said.
"Thank you." She said. "Thanks for buying me all this new stuff." She said and flipped her hood up. And just like that, she vanished from view. Zack paid the bill and returned to camp. By the time he was back it was late at night already, so he quietly slipped into The Questers' headquarters. Ava was lying on the couch, completely asleep, while Kyra had stolen the one recliner in the base to sleep on. Michael was in a sleeping bag on an old mattress on the floor of the living room. Natalie was sitting at the kitchen table, a steaming mug of coffee in her hand.
"Hey, how'd it go?" She asked.
"Not bad. She wants to learn to adjust to the world for a bit. She said that she'll come here if and when she's ready." He said, taking a root beer from the fridge.
"It's eleven at night and you're drinking root beer." She chuckled.
"Come on, you know I don't sleep for another four hours." He pointed out.
"So, how did the others feel about me taking her away?"
"Lucian took some convincing, but Rachel was on your side, so that wasn't a problem. We'll likely receive a few letters of complaint from the Organization, but I can already tell you don't care."
"Once again, you are right." He said, sitting at the table with her.
Zoe removed her hood and looked around the city. She saw madness and insanity everywhere, in the forms of traffic, advertising, and the people that surrounded her. She let out a long sigh, knowing the transition was going to be an extremely long and annoying one. Then, she saw a group of men follow a young woman down an alley. "Well that can't be good." She muttered and tailed them. She found the men harassing her, and took off her necklace and turned it into her katana. She noticed a gemstone in the pommel now. "Hey." She called and the men turned to her as the woman scampered away.
"You're in over your head, little girl." One of them growled. Zoe pulled the cowl of darkness over her head and smiled.
Maybe this world ain't so different after all.