Scout’s Honor

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions

The rumblings of a fuel-starved RV carved through the stale air, sputtering along a trail of asphalt and paint which was slowly being reclaimed by the earth below it. Charles cursed under his breath and ripped a sigh through his teeth, knowing that his next few hours would be spent recharging the cells for his improvised engine sooner than he had planned. The rust-covered behemoth finally came to rest near a small patch of forest, which was less than ideal due to the fact that the lanky black… things which now roamed the earth were known to use trees as cover. He supposed that mounting a turret on the roof of the RV would prepare him for the worst if he needed to react in a hurry and defend himself. One could never take enough precautions in regards to what could be waiting outside the safety of a reinforced, improvised all-terrain vehicle.

Though it wasn’t circled on the calendar which hung above his fold-out bed, today was the seven-year anniversary since the extra-terrestrials launched a massive invasion of Earth, attempting to wipe out a species for reasons that the human race could only speculate. Despite the uncertainty regarding their intentions, however, the changes which were sweeping across Earth made themselves indisputably known.

For one, the wind seemed to blow from all directions at once in sporadic bursts. There was also a type of strange, otherworldly, creeping type of vegetation slowly swallowing the indigenous plant life in such a way that could almost be heard, if one stood still and listened close. The sky above always seemed to be a muted gray, with a pale sun prying its light through the thickened shroud of muddied atmosphere.

These changes, however, were not entirely the result of a ruthless otherworldly threat. In fact, humankind had halted the advance of the aliens with the desperation of hastily-developed weapons that were decades ahead of their time. There was no time to consider, however, the devastating consequences to the environment, wildlife, and everything in between.

This didn’t stop Charles from accepting his scouting assignment for a budding colony of post-war survivors, which had ballooned from six hundred to three thousand. He was tasked with roaming uncharted areas and uncovering survivors outside of the colony’s walls, if he could find them, and offer them the opportunity to start life anew. Most were not only willing but eager, and Charles made a number of life-long friends who proved their usefulness amongst the people back home.

There was a disturbing hitch in Earth’s fostering rebound, however. Rumors were spreading that a small group of humans colluded with the aliens after being convinced of their species’ need for removal. They accepted technological augmentations which granted them superhuman abilities, helping to ensure the success of the extra-terrestrial’s initial assault. These treacherous conspirators, along with the crawling black monsters, were the last remnants of the invasion that had lost contact with the alien species which controlled them. Unfortunately, they still operated on ingrained commands to neutralize all human life.

After a moment to gather his bearings, Charles set out and embraced the outside world with conquered reluctance. He emerged from the side-hatched door of his RV wearing his usual pair of blue jeans with a dusty leather jacket and faded Nirvana t-shirt. He never did much with his jet-black hair beyond slicking it back with his own saliva, as having to spend any time styling it seemed a pointless endeavor. Deep brown eyes kept a keen watch on movements near and far, ready to discern, demand, and react. Various indentations across his arms, and one faded scar across his left cheek, had stories to tell to ears who would hear them.

Hours passed, and Charles had assembled most of the large metallic receivers in a circular pattern around the stationary RV. Sunlight was now being collected, which would be transferred to the fuel cells of the vehicle after a standardized conversion. A few more hours of patience would result in several day’s worth of travel. After dusting off his hands, Charles decided to roam the perimeter to kill time and see what he could find.

A dilapidated shack in the distance had caught Charles’ attention since he ventured out from his RV. He approached slowly with the caution of a paranoid soldier before hearing a noise, which immediately set him on edge. Charles quickly determined that it wasn’t a crawler and put a hold on his instinct to flee. Quickly and quietly, he loaded a small pistol and readied it in his right hand. He positioned himself a few yards away before barking his command.

“Show yourself, whoever you are, or be fired upon!”

What was that old cliché; any port in a storm? Muted blues shifted from the ominously dark clouds rolling across the sky to the small weather worn building in front of her. If there was another option around, she certainly didn’t see it. A slight frown knitted a smooth brow as she mulled over the pros and cons of stepping into a barn that looked like a mighty fine home for all manner of creepy crawlies.

A flash of lightning abruptly seared across the sky followed by the predictable crack-boom of thunder. A quick breath was sucked in and every muscle in her body tensed in involuntary fear of that noise. What was it about thunderstorms that brought out the frightened child in us all? The impending storm, as well as the recent adrenaline rush, was instrumental in encouraging her to step forward to inspect the structure in hopes that it would be adequate shelter for at least an evening.

Rusted hinges loudly squealed out their protests as she used the scuffed toe of her boot to gently nudge the door open. It swung back slowly revealing exactly what she’d feared; cobwebs. One would think that in a world that had been turned upside down that something as trivial as a spider wouldn’t even cause her to her bat an eyelash but it did. Oh, but it did.

Old straw littered the wooden floor and further into the back, nestled along the wall, there were a few bales of hay barely held together by the loose bands of twine. A fat drop of rain fell on her forearm and she glanced over to it, watching as it began the slow roll off the edge of her arm. Another quickly splashed down across her cheek followed by yet another on her hand. The trepidation she’d felt earlier upon entering a den of arachnids was now replaced by the urgency to stay dry. Thus a tentative step was taken inside removing herself from the steadily increasing onslaught of rain. The mere action of placing the sole of a well worn boot on the floor stirred up dust that had long settled to swirl in the air.

The compound bow was lowered from its customary resting place on her shoulder to rest against the wall just inside the door. A backpack and knife belt soon followed suit and joined the meager collection of possessions. A deep breath was in haled then exhaled, disturbing a strand of pale blonde hair that had come loose from the hastily pulled together ponytail that crowned her head. It had been weeks since she’d even seen a mirror and quite honestly, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. It would take a bit of work to make it comfortable but at the very least, she’d be dry.


The storm had rolled through by the next morning and thanks to a small tarp that she’d stretched over one corner of the old barn, she’d been able to remain dry and relatively unscathed through night. Several bales of hay had been utilized as a barrier between her person and the hardness of the wooden floor. Although she felt the urge to break camp and press on, there were a few matters that needed her attention before the trek continued.

The needle was pushed through the thick canvas fabric and pulled through the other side until it was taut before the process began all over again. It was ironic that her mother had tried for years to get her to learn to do domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing; stating that one day she was going to be on her own and would have to know such things in order to take care of herself. One corner of her mouth twitched upwards into a wry smile. If she’d only known then what she knew now – she would have done so many things differently.

The final stitch had been taken and she brought the thread, along with the canvas backpack, up to her mouth to use her teeth to snap through the thread to separate the items. It was at that moment the foreign, rumbling sound of a distant engine cut through the familiar sounds of morning. Both hands stilled at their current task, her breath caught and held as she strained to focus all senses on that one reverberating sound. There was no doubt about it, it was definitely an engine. The knowledge was as equally exciting as it was terrifying. Who would have thought that it was possible for the human body to experience both excitement and sheer panic at the exact same exact moment? A part of her was elated to even ponder the possibilities of another human being in such a close proximity; the other part was absolutely terrified.

Unfortunately the demise of the old world structure turned some of those who had survived its collapse into ne entirely different breed of people. Most of them seemed just as frightened and lacking in resources as she was, but instead of choosing the softer side of humanity, many of them had elected to callously and cruelly take from others rather than make the effort to rebuild a civilized society. A quick little prayer was sent up on a whispered breath in the hope that whoever was chugging along in the motorized vehicle wasn’t one of these people.

As the sound of the engine drew nearer, she was horridly breaking camp. The tarp had been pulled down and was hastily stuffed into the backpack along with the lengths of braided rope that were utilized to hold it in place. The woolen blankets were rolled and soon joined the tarp. It wasn’t until after she’d finished packing and securing her things that she realized the sound of the engine had completely stopped. Had it already gone by? Where was it? The icy cold fingers of panic traveled down her spine as the reality of the situation made itself fully known.

There was no sound; no birds, no insects, nothing. The nothing was even more frightening than something. Panic had a way of jump starting one’s survival skills kicking them into overdrive. In one fluid movement the pack was dropped and she launched herself at the bow that had been left leaning against the wall by the door. It felt like her heart had suddenly grown legs and was actively trying to claw its way out of her chest and up through her throat. Nocking the arrow proved to be a much more difficult task when your hands were shaking rather violently.

A breath was inhaled and exhaled slowly through her nose in effort to mentally wrestle control back from the paranoia that her own mind had evoked. “It’s ok, Alex, you got this.” The whispered words of encouragement did very little to still her shaking hands.

Over time the worn boards of the barn had shrunk and pulled away from one another leaving gaping spaces between them. It was through one of these slits that the end of the arrow protruded, aimed for the tall figure of a man who had attempted to stealthily approach her current location.

Strangely enough she had no idea what clued him in to her presence but suddenly he was on high alert, a pistol cocked and aimed straight at her through the boards of the gaping boards of the barn.

Jesus! Was he really going to shoot her? For what reason? There was a moment of indecision before the metal latch on the barn door clicked and the rusty hinges once again did their part in alerting everyone that the door was opening. It seemed there was a brief moment of indecision before the bow was tossed out into the tall grass of the field, the quiver of arrows quickly following suit.

Two hands came out first, both raised slightly in a sign of surrender as well as a show of being empty as she stepped up and over the wooden threshold of the barn and into the grass just outside. A frown of concern currently marred her normally smooth brow, giving the diminutive woman’s delicate features a very somber look that currently matched her situation. Dark blonde, shoulder length hair had been pulled up tight into a ponytail to keep it out of her face and the muted blue eyes that stared spitefully back at him, as if this entire unfortunate situation was on his shoulders. Although she didn’t quite have the look of one of those hearty survivors, she certainly had the attitude.

“I don’t have anything other than what you see.” A lift of her chin was given in the general direction of the bow and the few arrows that remained. “Take them if you have to.”

At first, Charles was confused by the pleas that broke the silence after he voiced his warning. A wave of relief quickly swept over his mind, due to the fact that the worst of his fears were alleviated – there would be no need to use his weapon before making a hasty retreat towards his idling van… at least from his initial outlook of the situation as it stood. Charles remained motionless for a time, handgun still steadied towards the general direction of the barely-visible girl in the darkness of the barn. Soon afterward, a look of dawning comprehension claimed his features. He’d gaze at his own weapon-wielding hands with a tilt of his head before abruptly withdrawing it to his holster.

“It’s okay! It’s okay… I’m not here to hurt you!” A sudden acknowledgement of the stranger’s words would result in a gaze that seemed to add a rider to his claim of benevolence. So long as you’re not thinking of hurting me.

The lack of response from the blonde-haired female prompted Charles to perform a diplomatic gesture. He casually reached for his belt and unclipped his holster before presenting it to the girl in both palms, then parting them to drop the weapon towards his boots. His hands then retreated back to the air by his sides, furthering his point of concession.

“See? Nothing to worry about. I thought you were one of those crawlers I’ve run into before…” His voice trailed off, as if to correct his course of conversation. With a breath, Charles started again.

“I have food, water, a place to sleep. I’m a scout for a colony about a week’s journey south of here. I don’t usually run into people in the middle of nowhere like this, but…” Charles’ own words seemed to give him pause. Could this woman be trusted? The evidence at hand suggested that she privy to hunting… for food, for self-defense, for survival. But the war with the aliens brought out the best and worst sides of humanity. Many strays were simply raiders and looters whose instincts to survive seemed to be on autopilot, with seemingly no desire to reintroduce themselves into society.

“I’ll be on my way soon,” Charles began once more, adjusting his offer on the fly. “I need another few hours or so before my van’s batteries recharge. You needn’t make a decision now. I’ll assume you want to be left alone if you haven’t shown yourself by the time I’m ready to leave. If that’s the case, I promise I won’t disclose your whereabouts to anyone.” And with that, his silhouette pulled itself from the barn’s open doors after retrieving his holster, out of view from the blue-eyed girl.

It seemed as if every muscle in her body was knotted tightly in anticipation. There were so many ways all of this could go wrong and really only one teeny tiny way it could go right, if right was even a possibility anymore. Although she heard the words of peace and kindness that seemed to tumble so easily from the man’s mouth, they weren’t really believed. To her they were just trigger words utilized to weave a hopeful net fabricated with the intent of enticing their target into a false sense of security. The hardened edge to her eyes and the thin slash of red lips, pressed together in tension never altered, even after the good will shown by removing and laying his weapon down on the ground. It wasn’t as if the man didn’t have eyes and lacked the ability to determine the outcome of a physical altercation. The only that laying down his weapon did is show that he would prefer her to be alive for…whatever it was.

Food, water, a place to sleep. I’m a scout for a colony….those words, all of them, generated more emotion in one split second than she’d allowed herself to feel in weeks, probably months. A small surge of hope swelled in her chest and it was immediately squelched by the firm hand of caution that had been allowed to grow unchecked within her. Regardless of whether he noticed or not, a small breath hitched in her throat and remained there for the duration of his presence.

It wasn’t until the man had retrieved his weapon and began walking back to his vehicle that she allowed herself to exhale the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Muscles that had been tensed were now quivering as the adrenaline rushed through her veins, unneeded now that the threat had moved away.

The bow and arrows that had been tossed out as an offering were quickly gathered by a shaky hand and yanked back into the open door of the small barn. The sounds of the squeaking door were heard as the door was quickly closed and latched, for whatever good that would do her. The shack itself was really no barrier, not even against a single man – if indeed he was just a lone man.

The man’s departure was watched through a sizeable gap through the wooden walls in effort to determine the location of his vehicle and in essence, the location of him. She could just barely make out the dark outline of the RV through the thin line of trees between them. Once she knew for sure that he was back within his own area and well out of hers, it was as if a dam broke and all the emotions she hadn’t allowed herself to feel came rushing forth, overwhelming the protective barrier. A sob escaped as she slid to her knees on the hay covered floor, her mind now free of the false bravado of adrenaline to go over the events, realizing how very close that situation could have been.

The tip of an index finger flicked away an unwanted tear that had managed to get past the barrier of her lower lashes. The little drop of moisture was quickly rubbed into the well worn denim of her jeans. The words she spoke were whispered to herself, as if speaking them aloud helped give them more authority. “Well that did not go as expected.” But really, what had she expected? Quite frankly she expected to be killed right there on the spot so any non-death outcome was much welcomed.

That little voice of reason in her head piped in reminding her that there was really no time to sit and deliberate over the events of the last few minutes, she needed to get moving. The voice, which had served her well enough over the course of the last few years, was obeyed and she automatically rose to her feet and began breaking camp to pack the few items she claimed as her own.

The knots that held the tarp in place were quickly unknotted by deft fingers as she allowed herself to mull over the implications of the man’s words. A colony? That seemed far too good to be real. But then again, why couldn’t it exist? Why couldn’t there be people out there that wanted more than to just exist from day to day? If going by her own wants and desires was any indication, then it was entirely possible. Again that little swell of hope began but this time; she allowed it to exist – just for a moment, just to see what it felt like. It was warm, like a little flame to warm your hands during the cold of winter.

But what if he was lying and there was no colony? Hell what if there wasn’t even any food or water? Another glance was cast to the wooden barn wall, as if she could see through it and straight to the intentions of the man who had caused this little bout of internal dilemma. What was worse? Being mired in the quicksand of being alone and knowing you aren’t going to make it or grasping at an offered branch, no matter how tenuous?

The last of her items were packed into the backpack and it was set aside while she sat and stared at it for what seemed like hours while she mulled over the endless number of possible outcomes; most of them quite horrible given the fact that she’d bore witness to some rather unpleasant things in the last several years.

It was all so quick she barely remembered how she’d gotten herself over the little hump of indecision. One moment she was sitting there contemplating the situation and the next she was on the move, the backpack was being hefted over her shoulder as she walked. Quick strides ate the distance between the location of the two points and in minutes she was standing well within range of the vehicle and the man to be heard. The end of the bow was lowered and rested on the ground, a similar show of his good faith from earlier.

It was difficult to keep the skepticism from her voice as she addressed him. “There’s really a colony of people?” Yes, she wanted to make sure they were people and not those other pseudo people. “Why would they send you out to bring more people back? Don’t more people mean more mouths to feed?” It was obvious by the way she carefully lowered herself into a comfortable sitting position that she had every intention of quizzing him until his batteries were charged and he was ready to depart.

The yellow eye of the sun was slowly inching itself towards the horizon, gazing obstinately at Charles as he retreated back to his RV. He wasn’t sure what to make with the encounter of the silent girl back at the barn moments ago… he almost had the feeling that a confrontation was averted by shifting gears with his approach. Despite having practiced his negotiation tactics in the mirror numerous times, he always found himself disappointed with his own performance. The feeling in his gut was that the blonde-haired stranger wanted to be left alone, which manifested only a few fleeting pangs of regret. After all, his job was to recruit the willing, not draft the unwilling.

Time passed as Charles busied himself with some minor repairs on the underside of the RV, halfway forgetting the blonde girl in the barn who was a yell’s distance away. Her voice would startle him out of a hum-filled concentration, almost hitting his head on a steel beam before rolling himself out upon a wheeled platform. There she was, bow lain innocuously at her feet, and she was asking questions. There was both curiosity and skepticism in her inquiries, which Charles quietly identified with. He was basically in the same situation a number of years ago, distraught and alone, before a chance encounter with his good friend Steven lit a flicker of hope within the cynical shroud which had overtaken his mind.

“Yes, a colony. Still working on a name, but tentatively called the Phoenix’s Nest,” Charles responded with a casual smile. “We’re always looking for people who’d like to join us and offer their skill sets. Even the unskilled can be trained, and we won’t turn our backs on the sick or injured.”

It was the truth. The Nest was dedicated to reestablishing humanity’s propagation upon the Earth through a community of hard work, ingenuity, and compassion. Everyone lived well under its care and everyone had a say regarding its direction. Politics played little part in decision-making and was hardly the contaminating influence that claimed prominence in the old world. That’s not to say that the Nest didn’t have its flaws, but an escalating wave of optimism propelled its purpose ever forward.

“We have farmers and scientists who have set up some impressive hydroponics,” Charles continued, trying to allay any concerns from the seated stranger ahead of time. “No one goes hungry, and we’re just now compiling a surplus to prepare for any future droughts or famines.”

Charles was somewhat at a loss, disappointed that his blue-eyed audience hadn’t perked up with any sort of optimism; hell, he’d even accept incredulity at this point. The sudden realization that he must be sounding like a pitchman reddened his cheeks slightly with embarrassment, knowing he himself personally detested salesmen. All the while, the desire to prove himself a harbinger of opportunity remained steadfast in his mind and fervent on his tongue. His mouth would open as if to continue before raising a forefinger to interrupt himself.

“I’m just about due for an update with the check-in station,” he stated with renewed determination. “I don’t think they’d mind me knocking it out a day ahead of time. Wait here and I’ll be back.”

He stepped inside the RV and returned moments later with a large radio that had two spiraling antennae jutting from the top of its steel chassis. A microphone was also attached to its side with a thin black cord which Charles held in his hand. He walked towards one of the sun-dishes before setting it down and fiddling with the dials.

“Chirping bird? Chirping bird? This is Scout 1, over.”

Static at first, but the sound was strong and encouraging.

“Chirping bird? This is Scout 1, over. Reporting in a bit early but everything’s just fine. Over.”

Static again, but a sound would soon bleed in, first as a wave-like distortion that quickly unveiled itself as a male’s voice.

“Scout 1? Scout 1, are you there?” A warm, friendly Southern twang accompanied the inquiry. Charles welcomed the voice with a triumphant exhale and a confirmation before it responded in kind.  “Thanks for checking in. Glad you’re doing all right. Any news to report?”

“I’m about fifty clicks north of the last checkpoint and I think I’ve made a new friend,” he’d respond with a gaze that never left the woman. “It seems as though I’ll be having a partner with me to introduce to the Nest when I make my rendezvous in a week’s time.”

“Well, if he or she is listening, howdy-do, sir or madam,” the voice cordially offered as a greeting. “Tell him or her we’ll be awaiting their arrival with open arms and a hot bite to eat.”

Charles smiled warmly and nodded to no one in particular. “I’ll push out a little farther after my cells recharge,” Charles continued as a shift from the formalities, not wanting to risk making the blonde-haired woman uncomfortable. “After that, I’ll be heading back with the supplies I’ve gathered from the town in sector seven. Be sure to tell the housing commission to make room for a new guest.”

“Sounds good, will do. Don’t head any farther than that, ‘cause it looks like the weather guys are sayin’ there’s some electrical storms headed our way… middle o’ next week, the way I understand it. Like those crazy ones from last year.”

Charles’ eyes widened just a bit at the warning, but he otherwise kept his poise. “Thanks for the heads up, Chirping Bird. Expect my next check-in at the normally scheduled interval. Over and out.”

With that, the radio fizzled back towards static before Charles turned it off. A look of accomplishment was on his face as he slowly walked towards the newcomer sitting before him, hand outstretched.

“It’s nice to meet you, stranger. The name’s Charles. And you are?”

To the outside observer the whole interaction was absorbed in silence and although she seemed to be somewhat at ease in her current crouched position, it was nothing but a very well crafted façade; in reality she was tightly coiled bundle of nerves set to spring at the first sign of trouble.

The multiple answers to her few questions were a little too perfect. Pieces and parts of his answers were mentally caught and held so that she could ponder the words as well as the possibilities: a community of scientists, hydroponics, no one goes hungry, preparing for future natural disasters…without sounding cliché, it all sounded a little too good to be true. But if it was, why would anyone carefully craft such a plan to lure in survivors? What would be the benefit of expending so much energy and so many resources to net a few straggling remnants of humanity? As far as she was concerned humanity wasn’t worth the effort it took to even set out those solar panels to recharge the vehicle.

Most of the people she’d encountered over the course of the last few years were nowhere near this level of civilized. It was if the alien invasion triggered some type of evolutionary time warp and humanity took a huge step back to the days of the Neanderthal. Warlords rose to power by bullying by taking from the weak, all the while beating on their chests proclaiming their dominance. They formed little pockets of misery set up to trap the unwary traveler and more than one unfortunate survivor had met their fate over something as simple as a fresh piece of fruit.

The announcement that he needed to check in with his base was actually met with a small twinge of enthusiasm that was certainly not revealed. It had been months since she’d conversed with anyone civil at all and now she got the opportunity to hear a conversation via radio? Once again the possibilities of his words swam to the surface of her consciousness.

Every single word of the conversation was heard and filed away as he spoke but instead of keeping her gaze fixated on him, she took to studying the vehicle in which he had arrived. If man was able to take a few giant steps forward to create this, why couldn’t she?

When the voice on the radio directed his words to her she couldn’t suppress the surprised reaction. One corner of her mouth ticked upwards in the slightest hint of a grin. That small action changed the entire demeanor of her face and it was clear from that tiny deed alone, that she’d finally allowed hope the freedom of sprouting within her.

When Charles finished his conversation and moved towards her, hand outstretched, she didn’t flinch or stand to take a few steps back to put distance between them. Instead she rose to her minimal 5’4”, hurriedly ran the palm of her right hand down along the fabric of her jeans in effort to remove any traces of nervous sweat and readily accepted the offered hand. One firm shake was given before she released. “Alexandria Morgan, but you can call me Alex.”  Although specific areas of the country had been destroyed or practically rearranged, the people that had called those places home were scattered but still retained traces of that former life. Alex’s origins were very clear in the manifestation of a hint of a southern inflection.

Although she wasn’t entirely afraid it had been quite some time since she’d been within such a close proximity to a person. Let alone a person as well armed as Charles. The anxious looks cast around them, the steps taken in place as she attempted to remain still, all these actions were attributed to a slight case of nerves rather than fear.

A quick cast of her eyes was given to his vehicle before settling back on him. “So how can I help?”

Kelyn’s Dilemma

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions

The knock on Charles’ office door was met with a terse invitation from a gruff, impatient voice. “It’s open.”

Deputy Chief Anderson slowly turned the knob and swung it open, revealing a tall man with short dark hair, deep brown eyes, and broad shoulders situated at a large desk. His sleeves were rolled up and his tie loosened past his collar as he typed away upon his laptop. There were polaroids taped to almost every square inch of an adjacent wall which were arranged in groups in apparent conjunction to various cases. The occasional drawing could also be seen amongst the crime scene photographs… profiles of suspect’s faces, overhead maps with detailed legends, and sequenced explanations of the theories behind available evidence. Apparently, Charles had a creative side.

“Good afternoon, Detective Brock,” Anderson said with a nod as he cleared the way for Kelyn to enter the office. “I assume you got my earlier message… I thought I’d introduce you to your partner, Keyla. She’ll be providing her expertise on several cases, especially the Solstice case.” Charles took a moment before finally lifting his eyes from his laptop towards Keyla. He mustered a weak smile which seemed to weigh against a preoccupied mind. Another moment would pass before opened his mouth to speak.

“It’s nice to meet you, Keyla. Have a seat, let’s chat.” He extended a hand towards a nearby wooden chair before quickly returning to his work.

It wasn’t the first time Kelyn had worked with the FBI in general and Deputy Chief Anderson in particular, but she was ready to jump of this Solstice case. She’d gotten the case files almost three days ago but had only accepted yesterday. It was compelling and ‘right up her alley’. The Chief’s words, not hers.

Kelyn strode in behind Anderson, instantly taking in the office, the Polaroids, the laptop and the man behind them. She stood strong and sure, dressed in a smart pair of slacks and a sharp burgundy long sleeved top. She was short, maybe five foot five and couldn’t have been older than twenty five, a pretty young face, skin the color of light caramel and red hair cut short in the back and long in the front so it framed her face. She was slender and elegant, lithe like a fencer and smiled warmly with pretty lips touched with a light rose lipstick.

She looked like a pushover and a bit of an airhead.

Until you got to her eyes.

A sharp and fierce intelligence stared back through pools of liquid sapphire. It was obvious that she assessed things in an instance and acted without hesitation. And there was something… else.

Something undefinable. Not any sort of feminine wile, not any kind of expression or mannerism.

Just something… different.

Whoever she was, she didn’t fit into the typical box someone of her appearance would confine themselves to.

Kelyn sat on one of the wooden chairs, crossing her long legs. She wore sneakers – clean, but well broken in. They rather contrasted with the sharp business wear. No jewelry either.

And wasn’t it hot out for long sleeves?

“Good afternoon, Detective. I look forward to utilizing our unique skill sets in a mutually beneficial manner.

She sounded just like a grown-up. Who would of thought?

“Yes, yes. I am as well.” Charles’ eyes never left his laptop as his fingers continued their clickety-clack barrage. Another awkward moment would pass before Anderson cleared his throat, which Charles seemed to take as some sort of cue. He interrupted himself with an exhale and turned to Keyla with eyes held up by bags suggesting strings of long nights that were perhaps catching up to him. His five o’clock shadow and an afterthought smell of cologne were also quick to confess his priorities. There was no meanness or malevolence in his gaze, however… only annoyance which was perhaps distilled with a healthy amount of passion.

“You can leave us, Anderson. I’ll be sure to get Keyla up to speed.”

After a moment of reluctance, the Deputy Chief nodded towards Charles before exiting himself from the office.

“All right, Keyla,” Charles began while leaning back in his chair. “Hours are 8 to 5 with an hour’s lunch in between. You’re welcome to pursue leads that aren’t approved by me on your own time, but otherwise, deviation from the lead investigation will be met with serious repercussions.” Charles’ voice was stale, as if he was reciting a set of mandatory guidelines.

“As partners, we should be able to reach each other at any time. As a matter of fact…” Charles turned to reach for his phone, offering it up as an indication to Keyla. “457-618-1103. Go for it.”

Maybe he has never worked with a consultant before… he had certainly never worked with her before. Kelyn’s lips pursed so slightly in frustration. Obviously Anderson hadn’t filled Brock in on Kelyn’s previous cases and how she worked.

Now didn’t seem the right time. Instead she snagged her phone, large and slender and typed in his number. She then called it, her number appearing on his own. That was solved. Sitting back in the chair, the wood creaking so slightly, Kelyn considered Brock.

He was obviously one-of-those. It wasn’t a bad thing, he honestly gave a damn about his job and the people he was trying to help, but too many long nights, too much coffee, and too much skepticism was going to make this a hard one.

Plus, he spoke to her the way one would someone fresh out of the Academy.

Kelyn suppressed a sigh. After the White Hall case, she was in limbo with the FBI. Yes, they had secretly saved the world and yes, she had to write a novel for her reports to make any of it believable. Terrorist threat and explosive had come up a lot. In reality, she had done a good job handling something no one else could have, and Anderson knew it.

The FBI paid her consulting fees without question and called her the next day – but she wasn’t liked or respected by any of the working men. Even Anderson was sketchy on what really happened with White Hall and had decided to keep his questions to himself – he liked sleeping at night.

Instead, Kelyn pulled out a file.

There was no way this man would take her seriously otherwise. It was an FBI asset file and it was hers. She laid it before him. “A little light reading for you, so we generally understand each other.”

The file lay waiting between them.

There was a moment of silence as the file lay like a brick between them. Charles would eventually reach for the file, but his eyes never left Kelyn, even as his fingers began to rummage through the papers encased within the beige file. Finally, he would pull his gaze upon what awaited him. It was sporadic reading at best – mainly focusing on the major aspects of each paperclipped case. His unwavering demeanor suggested insensitivity towards impressive credentials. Finally, with a grunt and a casual lean, he returned Kelyn her property, his eyes retaining their passive gaze.

“Very nice. I’m pretty sure you’ll be some help in the days ahead. But understand that, as consultant, you play by my rules now, and I generally play things by the book.”

His smiled returned, as vacant as ever, and his hands tented themselves above his lap. There was a brief moment of uneasiness… perhaps regret?… and Charles’ mind raced to actively pacify any brooding dislike between them.

“I’m not going to brush you aside like some kind of a-hole, Kelyn. I intend to use whatever talents you have to offer to their utmost capabilities. But there has to be an understanding that what I say, goes. Your advice will always be considered, I assure you. But there is an unfortunate amount of red tape which we all have to deal with, and rules which we have no choice but to play by.”

Charles hoped his explanation would enlighten Kelyn on his true intentions… he just wanted to solve cases, bottom line.

Oh boy. She hoped this case and any other future cases with him kept themselves squarely on the normal side of things. If they ever got deep into her ‘talents’, red tape would be the least of their concerns. There was a flicker of emotion again. 


Resigned comprehension.

A touch of anger. It was gone in an instant, as if it had never been there, her features once again young and open. “I have worked successfully with the Agency before and you can rest assured that I know the rules. I understand your concern and have at least an inkling of what drives them. Shall we talk about the case?”

Really? That was it? No pouting, no posturing?

She pulled out a binder in which she had organized her copies of the case files. Clean, elegant – not necessarily helpful but at least professional.

“I have been selected as the Consultant for this case due to my previous experience with missing persons. I was the consultant on the Red Tower Pointe case and the lead investigator recommended me to Anderson when he heard you had the Solstice case.”

Red Tower Pointe had been a disaster. Three Federal Judges had gone missing from the Red Tower Pointe hotel almost three years ago. It had been a very high profile case that had dragged on for almost a week with no leads before Kelyn had been called in.

Two days later the Judges were recovered. 

They had no memory of what had happened and could not account for their whereabouts for the missing interim. It was an ‘unsolved’ mystery for the department and one of those things Anderson never asked about.

“Obviously, there is still no apparent tie between the victims. Different ages, races, genders, occupations. No matching known associates. It went on for so long early on because no one noticed the Solstice connection. That hints at ritual killing, something serial or occult.”

She wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. Testing the waters perhaps?

Charles has plenty of experience with renegades, hotheads and primadonnas in his past wheelings and dealings as detective. Most were assigned to him a need-by-need, case-by-case basis to accomplish certain ends which were beyond the scope of the average investigator. He developed a healthy dislike for these relationships, as they often led to extra paperwork and countless inquiries by anxious higher-ups.

But as he put his initial assumptions aside regarding Kelyn, she seemed… different, somehow. She had something to hide, he sensed, but he wasn’t sure why he sensed it, what it was or what significance it held. It could be nothing, maybe a blemish on her record or some weird OCD habit. With an effort, Charles abandoned his train of thought, deciding to pursue his analysis at another time.

For the first time, he fully took in Kelyn’s appearance. She had an obvious physical appeal, but likely did not have a boyfriend… the work involved to build her impressive resume made almost certain of that fact. She was well-kept, neat, but her worn sneakers implied she also had a practical side as well. Orange beams of sunlight which bled in from a nearby window painted themselves against her face, and for an instant she seemed almost… angelic. A warmth of acceptance appeared on Charles’ face, the first true sign of respect that he conceded towards Kelyn.

Charles lifted himself from his seat. The stream of orange light reflected off his skin for a moment, unveiling a slight olive tint which suggested Italian or Puerto Rican ancestry. His arms seemed ropey, chiseled and strong, even underneath the wrinkled shirt which otherwise disguised most of his physical traits. A slow nod confirmed that he agreed with Kelyn’s theory, but his eyes warned that a tangent of thought was imminent. Charles walked towards the window, and with a breath, he began.

“You know, I had a case, years ago. Five murders with the same modus operandi, five different states.. the 31st of each subsequent month. Different races and backgrounds, much like this one. I thought it was some religious nutjob who was driven by some wacky-tabaccey pattern, but I eventually solved the case, a year or so later. Turned out the killer was a truck driver who had his check deposited every month on the 31st, so he had some extra cash to spend on his spur-of-the-moment hobby.”

He turned towards Kelyn with a gaze that was lost in thought. “My question is this. What is convenient about the solstices? What advantages do they offer in terms of covering tracks?”

It wasn’t a bad thought. Maybe everyone was reading so much into the Solstice idea behind the case, but to date, it was the only known connection. She flipped a few of the pages in the binder, offering a chart that showed day of the week, numeric date, coordinates, weather patterns including degrees in Fahrenheit, precipitation, and the like. The chart crossed off a number of measurable variables. No notables holidays or celebrations, no proximity to birth dates or anniversaries of the victims and their families.


Never had a page full of information summed up nothing so concisely.

“I hear you,” she said softly, slender fingertips running over the page. “Just because everyone assumes there is an occult connection doesn’t make it true. But Occam’s Razor isn’t helping either, all of the most obvious answers have been ruled out, leaving only the more unlikely answers.”

He was looking at her, listening to her – as if she was a live human being. It was a vast improvement over the first five minutes of their conversation. And standing there silhouetted by the window, Kelyn noticed he was… handsome.  That was unusual all on its own and for it’s very own reasons. She picked at the cuffs of her long sleeve shirt, a nervous habit.

“I wanted to head over to Whole Health / Whole Life, then to Diaz’s home. What do you think?”

A curious look of relief climbed its way to the surface of Charles’s face through layers of carefully managed indifference. The consideration he tossed towards Kelyn was basically an afterthought, but she entertained it with due process without an ounce of condescension. Maybe they’d get along, after all. Charles’ biggest fear was his ten years on the force weighing against him in unexpected ways – for example, simply being personable was somehow becoming more and more of a chore with every passing year. The last thing he wanted was to devolve into some bitter gumshoe whose stellar reputation was an inadequate substitute for his lack of friends. Kelyn was young, talented, accomplished, driven – but not abrasive, at least upon Charles’ initial assessment.

Charles turned towards his desk, the afternoon sun now strong upon his back, and pulled open a drawer to retrieve something.

“We’ll use my clunker on official business,” he said with a curl of a smile before tossing Kelyn a set of keys. “And you’ll need to get used to how that piece of junk runs. So, take it easy the first spin down the block, okay?” After tucking an address book into his coat, he politely led her outside into the hallway, where loitering detectives would whisper and watch with eyes that asked undue questions.

Charles guided Kelyn through the back area of the building towards a doorway which led out into an adjacent garage. “I managed to get a spot in here today, but don’t get used to it… usually, this thing is out on the street.”

The pair would navigate through several archways until they approached an old, rust-colored Toyota Corolla parked alone in a corner. As they both climbed in his car, Charles buckled himself before offering the radio to Kelyn with a gesture of his hand. “Driver gets to choose,” he’d offer in concession, nodding his go-ahead.


What a difference! She couldn’t guess what she had done or said to change the man’s opinion, but something had happened. Something was different. She would take it without complaint. The pair strode from his office, falling into step and Kelyn became quietly aware of the other investigators looking at them. It wasn’t just a casual glance in passing. Kelyn frowned softly, toying with her long sleeves as if checking for… something. It was impossible to know what.

She breathed a sigh of relief as they stepped out of the building and into the parking garage to wander amid the cars there. It was a strange amalgam of luxury vehicles and clunkers all mixed in together like a box of chocolates.

She liked his car. It wasn’t pretentious or overbearing. It was a real person’s car.

She’d driven everything from an Al Camino to a Bugatti Veyron and they all got your from point A to point B. Yes, some were more fun than others, but they were all metal (or fiberglass) boxes with wheels.

Her green Nissan Altima would have matched any other car 99.9% of the time.

Kelyn slid in, buckling up, then blinked at him softly. “Radio privileges. I am honored. I promise, nothing obnoxious.” She flipped through the radio stations until she found something that bore a mix of 80’s ballads and 90’s light alternative. John Popper crooned through the speakers, then took up his harmonica.

Kelyn checked before pulling out of the spot, then headed north from the FBI headquarters toward the highway.

She was a pretty good driver. Not too defensive, not aggressive. He could just relax and let the car steal them away for a moment. “So why FBI,” she asked as Lifehouse Hanging By a Moment sang through the speakers.

It was Charles’ habit to close his eyes and peripherally observe his surroundings senses whenever he rode shotgun. In retrospect, he mused that he must look like an old man catching up on some sleep, or a monk squeezing in a quick meditation. Whatever the case, Kelyn’s choice of music was a good backdrop for casual conversation, and he took a moment to mentally prepare himself for some not-at-all-unwelcome small talk.

“My friend stole my action figure,” Charles abruptly recounted with a cursory sigh as an opening to his story. “Initially I thought it was my brother, who was a diabolical piece of work when we were growing up. But covert searches in his room would reveal nothing. Then after a few weeks, I noticed a drawing my friend did of the character in question on his textbook… well, not right on the thing. On a paper bag that protected it.”

Charles tried to illustrate the concept of a sleeve with his hands before dismissing himself in defeat. “You get it. Anyways, my instincts kicked in even at that young age… kids only draw crap that they really like.”

Charles’ lips pressed together in some semblance of a smile; it seemed like he took a small sense of pride in his deduction. “So, next time we were playing in his room, I did some investigating… and there it was, waiting for me in his chest. I smuggled it out and back to my house, but I was sure to not play with it out in the open. I didn’t want to start any arguments.”

A heavy exhale seemed to conclude the matter in his mind. “Little jerk,” he sneered through the corner of his mouth.

“But anyways. After that incident, I realized that I liked to search for clues, assemble them logically and solve mysteries. It probably seems like a frivolous reason to choose a career, but it’s stuck with me all these years, believe it or not.”

Charles opened his eyes, turning his head toward Kelyn with a look of invitation. And you? How did things kick off on your end?”

It was a great story. Kelyn couldn’t help but smile, her eyes fixed on the road as she imagined him as a child covertly searching his friend’s room. Except in her minds eye, he had a black light flashlight and a CSI kit. She chuckled softly.

Now, Kelyn should have known, should have guessed where his quesiton would lead, it was so obvious and turn about was fair play. “I knew very young that I was different. And that I was good at finding things, seeing details other people missed. And I liked helping people. It wasn’t a big stretch to get into the low end of the business.”

She wasn’t lying, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. It was impossible for him to know that, she spoke to light-heartedly about it. Her tone didn’t change, her eyes still fixed on the highway before them, but there was just a touch of sadness that colored her words.

She pulled off the highway and onto one of the main thoroughfares, glancing about as she sought out the strip mall that held Whole Health / Whole Life.

Taco Bell.

Pep Boys.


She saw the place too late and had to bust a u-turn to get there. It was a small place tucked next to a All natural food store. It bore a decal of a man and a woman standing together and the slogan, “Welcome to a better you.”

Kelyn pulled into a nearby parking spot, and flipped off the radio. “Any thoughts on how we…” she corrected herself with a touch of chagrin, “…you want to play this.”

Once again, the sense that… something… was conveniently absent from Kelyn’s response flagged Charles’ scrupulous instincts. He of course didn’t care to interrupt their momentum with an inquiry, as their rapport was growing by leaps and bounds with every exchange, but somehow understood that whatever her secret was, it would rear its head sooner or later. It might raise an eyebrow but he’d be sure to shrug it off… he was good at that sort of thing, and to each his own, as they say. He had his own crosses to bear, after all.

Upon arriving at their destination, Charles took a moment to process Kelyn’s self-enforced correction.

“’We’ is fine,” he amicably conceded with a smile. A snooping peer might spread the rumor that Charles was bending over backwards for the new recruit, but they were far from prying eyes… and truth be told, he was enjoying the impromptu breaches of protocol.

“I’ll have you take the lead this time – you’re around Ms. Diaz’s age, and her co-workers are likely the same. They’d be more apt to opening up to you, I reckon. Go where your gut takes you – start with the usual nudges and branch from there.”

Charles would commend his own decision upon entering the establishment, as he immediately felt out his element. Something about being at the mercy of unfamiliar hands was enough to give him goosebumps, and he suppressed an urge to shudder.

“Squeeze in a question about her hobbies at some point,” Charles whispered in Kelyn’s ear as they approached the reception desk. “Something tells me that’s worth exploring.”

Beside Whole Life, Whole Health sata Fresh Market grocery store, a dry cleaner, a french bakery, and one of those self serve froyo places. It was a nice enough looking place, a pretty fountain in the front and a wall of beautiful and slender women staring out with perfect thighs and perfect smiles, their gaze proclaiming the wonders of anti-aging treatments, regular chiropractic visits, and colon cleanses. A patient or two sat on the comfortable couches, playing games or reading on their oversized cell phones.

A slender latin girl sat at the front desk collecting money and smiling her pretty smile.

It was just another day at Whole Life, Whole Health – though slightly more hectic for the loss of their lead massage therapist.

It had been a rough few days without Jill and despite the influx of clients and the co-workers calling, stopping by her place, the brilliant therapist had yet to return.

The attractive and dark haired girl at the front blinked up at the pair of them for a moment. “Good morning, may I interest the two of you in a couples massage?”

Kelyn, who had been about to speak, snapped her moth shut with a click of her teeth, took a deep breath, and started again. “Not today, thank you. This is Detective Charles Brock and I am Kelyn SInclair. We work with the FBI and we are looking into the disappearance of Ms. Jill Diaz. We wanted to look around, perhaps ask some of her co-workers some questions.”

The pretty latin girl sat up straighter as the title of FBI (but then everyone did. It was one of the perks of being a consultant with a little FBI consultant ID. 

“Of… of course. We will do anything to help you find Jill.” She buzzed him into the small but lush establishment, doors open and closed on either side of the hallway. “Just this way,” she offered, nodding to one of the therapists, a shorter and heavy set man.

“The doctor is with a patient just now, and we don’t know anything more than we told the police, but we will… well… we just are all very worried about her. The patients have been asking for her and…”

She opened the door to to a small lounge area where four people sat, three women and another man. They all looked up in different stages of lunch, blinking at him. “Patients aren’t…” One of the therapists started.

“He is asking about Jill,” the sweet Latin girl offered softly. “I said we would help in any way we can.”

“We should record this,” a small Asian woman threw out. “That way we can play it back for anyone who walks in.”

“Tess!” A pretty blonde haired woman looked scandalized.

“What,” the Asian Tess shot back. “I like Jill and all but do we just pour out her and our life story to every one who walks in?”

They looked at one another with questions in their eyes, then nodded. The pretty Latin girl, Martina, spoke first. “We do what the FBI asks, Tess.” 

The group turned more curious eyes to the pair.”

“Let’s start easy,” Kelyn said, pulling out a notebook and pencil. Tell us how well each of you knew Jill?” 

Marian cleared her throat. “I started her a few months ago, so I didn’t know Jill that well. We shared lunch sometimes because we are both vegan. Bought something from the local Flaffel Pit and split it. She’s nice. Friendly. I invited her out to play pool with my fiancee and I, but she didn’t come.” She glanced over her shoulder at the sound of the door’s chime. “Excuse me.” She slipped out of the kitchen, closing the door behind her.

“I am Laura,” the blonde spoke up. She had a heart shaped face, large blue eyes and a soothing voice. “I started her not too long after Jill. Been here five years now. Everyone liked Jill. She was friendly, always listened, good news or bad. She could take the meanest patients and calm them right down. She just had that way about her. She never spoke of anyone.”

The man spoke up. He was dark skinned, tall, with a hint of an accent. “She mentioned her mother once, in New York, remember. Her mom was sick and she thought she would have to fly up there, but…” The man shrugged. “Guess she got better.”

“Or died.” Tess frowned at the lot of them as they turned wide eyed to glare at her. “What?” Tess questioned.

“Oh, come off it,” the final woman said from the far end of the table. “You are still just pissed that you were loosing clients to her. She wasn’t stealing your clients, Tess. You are just a bitch.”

Laura blinked at the woman, frowning between she and Tess. “Andrea, Tess, please. We are trying to help these people find Jill. She could need help, be hurt, and you are fighting.”

Laura turned to face him, her features soft. “None of us knew Jill really well. Whenever we asked about things, she quietly changed the subject. I know she just had a birthday last week.”

The rest of the group looked surprised. “I didn’t know that,” Andrea said.

“She didn’t want anyone to make a big deal out of it. She asked me not to say anything.”

Laura looked at Kelyn for the first time, blue eyes wide and deep. “Do you think she is okay? Honestly? She really is anything good person. Maybe you will find out more at her home, but she kept everything here very… calm and professional.”

“Well, it is too early to know anything yet,” Kelyn offered, “but we are going to do everything in our power to find her.” Her notepad was scrawled with details. “So no romantic partners that you know of. What did she do for run? Did she have any hobbies?”

“That music thing,” Tess said with a sneering sigh. The group glared at her again and the Asian woman shrugged. “What? She made Everyone subscribe to her Youtube channel, just to watch her sing and play the guitar. She was okay, but she wasn’t the next Joni Mitchell.” Kelyn wrote furiously. “Do you know the name of the Youtube station?” They all shook their heads slowly. “Excuse us for one moment,” Kelyn offered politely, then steered she and Charles into the hallway. “What do you think?”

The offer for a couple’s massage caught Charles completely off-guard, prompting an embarrassed bite of his lip while darting his eyes to the floor. A warm sense of pride pulsed in his chest, however – perhaps he wasn’t the old goat he thought himself to be. He saw that Kelyn reset herself with the most casual of hiccups, which was impressive… but Charles couldn’t help feeling the slightest bit of disappointment. Her response was so natural that perhaps she disregarded the secretary’s notion as absurd.

His eyes would glaze over as Ms. Diaz’s employees bickered back and forth, storing only a few bits of information away in his mind as potentially useful. In actuality, his primary focus was watching how Kelyn handled herself, and she seemed to be as advertised – professional and straightforward, which was a major relief, and certainly a change of pace from previous partners. The YouTube channel held the most promise, and he quietly congratulated himself with giving his own hunch the time of day.  

As Kelyn pulled him aside to discuss their developments, Charles would peek over once more toward the kitchen before locking his eyes with Kelyn’s.

“I think we’ve gotten everything we can from the peanut gallery, especially if Ms. Diaz only worked here part-time for a few months. I say our next move is to head over to her home and compare notes with any and all of her family members.”

A slow smile would then spread across Charles’s face. “If you’re up for some overtime, we can take a couple hours to try and uncover more about her YouTube thing tonight in my office. Social media was never really my thing.”

“I’m game,” she offered back with a smile. “Besides, if anyone knows where to get the best take out around here, I am sure it is the FBI.” She flipped the notebook closed, stepping back into the kitchen. “This is my card as well as Detective Brock’s.” (She must have grabbed a pile off his desk when he wasn’t looking. Trixy little thing.) “If any of you speak to Jill or think of something that might help us, please call. Day or night.”

They strode out of Whole Life / Whole Health, Kelyn pulling out a pair of sleek sunglasses and sliding them on. “I doubt we will get much at the house. Great instinct with the hobby. I wonder if it it is a YouTube stalker thing. I’ve heard of weirder.”

Boy had she, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.

They piled back in his car and she pulled out of the spot and hopped onto the main roads, driving further from the highway. Commercialized strips of tiny stores and massive malls gave way to suburban mazes. The houses here were nothing to write home about, but they weren’t run down either. More solid than the pre-mods, build of actual brick and mortar with slightly sagging wooden porches and overgrown lawns. But there were children playing outside, dogs barking as they ran tracks through the thin grass and the occasional man or woman or both sitting on the front porch drinking coffee or tea or lemonade or something harder.

They found Jill Diaz’s home, a small single family with a well trimmed lawn, a few plants in pots, and a bright yellow paint job. Kelyn pulled the call into the driveway, killing the radio as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang about Californication.

Kelyn slid from the car and strode up to the home, knocking confidently on the front door.

Kelyn’s third knock was conclusively curt, and by then Charles’ right cheek would have pulled his lips in resignation. He reached into his coat and pulled out his relic of a flip phone, dialing a number and waiting for it to ring while informing Kelyn with a look to keep her ears open. Indeed, the faint sound of a phone ringing in the house could be heard before it reached the mumblings of a voice machine. Charles then put his away and seemed to resolve something in his mind.

“It’s a stretch, but we’ll use that as our fallback for taking the initiative and having a look inside. Gotta cover our butts, right?” He winked before waving Kelyn to follow him to the side gate of the home, leading into the horseshoe-shaped yard.

A brief survey of the house would reveal the back door, which was canopied by a small porch, to be much less restrictive. In fact, there was only a screen door blocking a glass-plated entryway with no curtains or other obstructions. A clear view could be seen throughout the kitchen and living room, and things did seem rather dead inside.

Charles would nod some kind of acknowledgment before pulling himself away from Kelyn. “Wait here,” he’d instruct while starting a jog back to the front of the residence. “I’ll be right back.”

Charles returned with some kind of awkwardly-shaped, hand-held device and situated himself in front of the back door. “Let’s see if this baby can work its magic…”

After some clamp-like maneuvers and a few manually adjusted settings, it would fully encase the stubbornly-locked latch. A few yanks from Charles’ determined hands were necessary before the endgame was reached. The door nudged open from its frame, albeit grudgingly, prompting Charles to prod it fully open with a grunt of success.

“Don’t tell anyone I used this thing,” Charles grinned with a wink towards Kelyn before entering the residence. “It’s supposed to be retired.”

Kelyn waited quite patiently at the back door, smiling softly to herself. Calling was a smart idea. Resourceful. She considered the little patio, a small pot garden ripe with tomatoes, onions, spinach, and a dozen different herbs. It was impressive what the woman had managed in such a small space and she obviously had a green thumb. If Kelyn walked to close to any of the plants, they would wilt and die out of sheer spite.

When he returned, she was still standing right about where he left her, her eyes widening at the device in his hand. “Well, naturally, I saw nothing, I have no idea what that is and am obviously not at all amazingly impressed that you happen to have one.” There was soft laughter in her tone.

Most ‘Suits’ would never use such a useful and law-line-skittering device. Kelyn faithfully looked away as the door loosed from its frame.

“It really is a shame that such a nice home would have such a flimsy and poorly constructed sliding glass door. When we find Ms. Diaz, we will have to advise her of the necessity of well fortified exterior doors.”

Kelyn let Charles take the lead in, considering the home around them. The kitchen to their left was small but well suited for one person. It was generally clean with a single dish and glass in the sink, water inside it. Kelyn checked the fridge. A half gallon of milk, a quarter full and expired. There was some tofu in a brick and some apples that looked a touch shriveled. In the freezer waited home made pre-packed single serve dinners. Tehy were all carefully labeled with the contents and the date. The trash can was empty. No scraps, no bag.

The living room sported a small tv, a worn rug and mismatched second hand furniture. A patina of dust covered all the flat surfaces.

The master bedroom boasted a comfortable looking bed with sheets all rumpled and soothing art on the walls. Clean clothing lay folded in a hamper to be put away and a small pile of assumed dirty laundry waited in a basket on the floor. The small trash can was empty.

The bathroom was well kept, the tub and toilet clean. Bottles of shampoo and conditioner sat half full. The trash can was also completely empty.

The other room had been converted from a bedroom to an office/studio. An electric keyboard sat in the corner, a guitar on a stand nearby and an empty stand beside it. Another guitar lay face down on the floor. The computer on the desk was off, the webcam perched atop the monitor like a patient bird. The trash can beside the desk was also empty.

Kelyn stood in the middle of the converted studio, staring at the guitar on the floor and then the guitar on the stand.

Charles politely took the reigns and combed the residence with keen eyes, starting first in the kitchen before the pair made their way to the living room. Though his focus was unmistakable, his real objective was once again to study Kelyn’s investigative techniques. Her periodic, intensive stops in unassuming areas and other curious mannerisms reminded him an awful lot of his own particular habits; it was a bit like looking into a gender-bending mirror.

There was the occasional drawing and painting of a guitar or guitar-related equipment hanging upon the walls throughout the residence. Charles was at a loss regarding their relevance to particular genres of music, but he imagined Ms. Diaz’s style having more a folksy rock vibe. The webcam in her room stood out to him like a sore thumb, and he mentally noted to explore the possible connection with the other relevant cases.  

“All right, so I’m guessing our strongest lead at this point is the music channel thing?” Charles absentmindedly ran his finger along the headstock of one of the guitars, collecting a bit of dust upon his fingertip. He knew now more than ever the importance Kelyn would play in this investigation, as his knowledge regarding popular trends across various types of media had become very rusty indeed.

“She must have friends that are into the same kind of hobbies… maybe we could reach out to a small handful once we get a handle on her YouTube account.”

“I agree,” Kelyn said from the middle of the studio. “But I think all of this is definitely connected.” She crouched before the guitar on the floor then took a closer look at the guitar on the stand.

Pulling out a pair of blue nitrile gloves, Kelyn pulled them on and carefully flipped the guitar over. “I thought so,” she glanced up at him. “The guitar on the stand over there is a DBZ. It costs about $135.00 and can be bought at most music stores and Walmart during the holidays. The guitar on the floor is a Conde Hermanos. They run between 2 to 4 grand depending on the model and quality of sound. Jill is a neat person. Clothes folded, freezer labled. Why is her very expensive guitar on the floor?”

She rose, weaving her blue gloved fingers together. “Did you see the trash cans? Nothing. Not even a bag.”

She quirked a an odd expression. “That’s weird.” She glanced slowly around the room. “I think whatever happened here happened fast, happened quietly, and then someone decided to take out the trash, which means we should care about what has been thrown away…”

Charles’ head would lean forward just a tad, as was his habit whenever he was listening intently to someone speak. Kelyn had brought up a number of promising points in a very short period of time, and he couldn’t help but be impressed, allowing himself a slight smile.

“Two-to-four big ones for a guitar? Yeah, I’d have that thing behind a plate of reinforced glass when I wasn’t using it. Something definitely happened here. I wonder if it’s too late to check the local dumpster and rummage through any bags that may fit the bill for our lonely trash cans. Let’s hope our potential perpetrator and the city itself are both lazy, hm?”

Leading the way down several adjacent houses, Charles would indeed find a dumpster area, with two large, green trash receptacles parked within a wooden alcove. He gave it a twice-over and realized that the bins were still full, though it was impossible to know from their vantage point if they held anything of relevance.

“There’s a variety of waste removal services in this area that compete with one another. Their collections occur anywhere from two days apart towards the back end of a week. Let’s hope these two are showing us the latter.”

Charles put on his own pair of FBI-issued handling gloves and set to tossing various bags upon the concrete foundation around them. “This should be fun,” he’d sarcastically mutter while wrinkling his nose.

“Any chance you have another pair of those high tech FBI gloves? I don’t know if my weak little nitrile gloves can handle this?”

She didn’t know if her stomach could handle it either but it had been a long time since breakfast and she was willing to do her portion. Gloves or not, once the bags started coming out, Kelyn couldn’t help but ‘dive’ in.

The first few bags were clearly kitchen garbage and contained meat. Couldn’t possibly belong to the vegan massage therapist.

The next set of bags was paper trash and required a more in depth look. She ruled out each bag by finding a piece of mail and checking the name and address.

Buy your car back!

Vote Republican!

2 for 1 bags of dorittos from the local supermarket!

Past due bills.

Not Jill Diaz.

Kelyn sighed and moved onto the next bag.

It was a solid hours worth of work, the sun pouring down as the pair dug through bag after bag. He had all but emptied the two dumpsters and they still hadn’t found anything.

Kelyn glanced at Charles to make sure he was deeply occupied in his current search.

She closed her eyes, rubbing her blue gloved hands together and Saw.

He would feel it like a pulse against his body, the deep beat of a dropped base.

Kelyn groaned. Dumpster diving. Naturally.

She opened her eyes and strode to the second mostly empty dumpster. Lever ing herself up, Kelyn climbed into the dumpster.

Squish. Tear.

The smell of rotting spagetti punched the air and soaked into her slacks.


Kelyn disappeared into the confines of the dumpster with only the sound of bags rustling and mild cursing. One. Two. Three bags flew out of the dumpster, one almost catching Charles in the shoulder.

Kelyn rose, moved towards the dumpsters edge and pushed herself up. It wasn’t graceful or elegant at all and it was dumb luck she didn’t land on her but surrounded by their various garbage bags.

“I have a good feeling about these.”

Again that pulse, that sensation of… something.

Kelyn tore open one of the bags. Jill Diaz’s discarded mail looked back at them.

Methodically sifting through the smelly garbage bags was an unpleasant experience, but Charles had certainly been assigned worse tasks involving various crime scenes in his past. He’d brace himself for another round when the first dumpster turned up no leads, but it wasn’t long until Kelyn uncovered something promising.

Though there was nothing overtly unorthodox regarding her discovery, Charles sensed the faintest indication of… something uncanny at work. His mind wouldn’t dwell as it often does in regards to these little revelations, but he’d file it away for future reference. The bags were there and ready, and they had better get to sorting before some expired bag of spaghetti slop was accidentally punctured, ruining any potential evidence.

Charles would arrange two piles upon the concrete floor; one which was dedicated to obvious pieces of useless garbage, and another to more promising articles of evidence. Once he was finished with his quota, he’d hand the relevant stack to Kelyn and stand beside her to join in an examination.

“Lots of papers, receipts and the like,” Charles would comment while filtering through in a casual manner. One torn envelope he’d initially dismiss before Kelyn reached to reintroduce it on the top of the pile. There was a return address written poorly in pen, and after some quick deciphering, it read:

50 Bryansford Road
Newcastle, BT33 0PT, UK

“Something catch your eye about this?” Charles would ask Kelyn, giving her his undivided attention.

It did. It certainly did but how could she explain it to him? Kelyn just knew this particular envelope was important. It was the reason the garbage had been emptied, she just didn’t know why. “Yeah. How much correspondence did she get from out of the state much less out of the country? It is definitely something that does not the pattern.” Her leg was stained with rotten spaghetti, her sneaker smelling rough at best.

She crouched before him, sifting through the papers.

It was the envelope. She knew it.

“I think we should take this, toss the rest back in and head back to your office. Fair?”

Ignoring the Canadian envelope was just a pseudo-test thrown Kelyn’s way, perhaps a change-up down the middle of the plate, but she nevertheless hit Charles’ pitch out of the ballpark. There was indeed something fishy about it, and though Charles initially found something peculiar about Kelyn’s confident proposal to proceed only with the envelope, he’d thumb through the pile one last time before nodding his agreement. She was obviously on some kind of intuitive roll, and who was he to needlessly throw his weight around and stop her? There’d be plenty of conversation and debate in the evening that lay ahead.

“Let’s get back to the house and clean you up a bit,” Charles would suggest before sealing the envelope away in a ziplocked evidence bag. “Then we’ll grab something to eat before we head back to the office.”

The stark orange line of the setting sun across the horizon was enough to reinforce their decision to retire for the day, at least regarding their field work.

Charles should have known that Kelyn would turn down the drive-thru run he’d initially suggest as a time-saver. It was for his own good, he’d reconcile in his mind… after all, he hadn’t been feeling all that great lately and had honestly put on a little extra weight, which he wasn’t pleased with. They decided upon a Noodles & Co. which was relatively close to the office and parked the car in a spot that was easily visible from the restaurant.

Charles and Kelyn would order their meals before claiming an empty table towards the back of the dining area, away from the hullabaloo of other patrons. On the way there, Charles took notice of a sticker on the glass exterior of the restaurant… Free Wi-Fi, it said.

“Wi-Fi. That’s internet, right?” Charles would ask Kelyn as they say themselves down. “Maybe you should do some of our internet research here on your phone as we wait for our food. The internet speed at the office isn’t the greatest.”

Ug. She smelled like rotting spaghetti. How horrible! Kelyn stared at the envelope, her eyes narrowed. Why would Ms. Diaz get a strange handwritten envelope from the United Kingdom of all places. She didn’t know the country abbreviations enough to know just where the envelope had originated from, but it was strange to say the least.

She used Ms. Diaz’s clorox wipes to scrub her shoe and the hem of her pants, so she ended up smelling of rotting marinara AND clorox wipes.


When Charles recommended they call it a day, Kelyn couldn’t agree more. It had been a long time since breakfast and she was starving, but all of the junk food places he recommended met with her vehement resistance.

She felt Noodles & Co was an excellent compromise, particularly since she didn’t have to compromise all that much.

She ordered the mongolian and a cup for water and they found a table in the back.

Kelyn sat with a quiet sigh. Scaling dumpsters, not what she had on the docket for the day, but it was successful on all accounts.

At least she assumed so.

When he mentioned the free Wi-Fi, she pulled out her phone, cocking an eyebrow at him. The way he asked the question betrayed a certain technophobia… no that was the wrong word. Just a lack of familiarity. Thinking back to his office, that actually made sense.

Kelyn’s first order of business – to look up the address. A quick google search showed her a red dot outside a big green park. Weird.

Zooming out far enough showed her a map she recognized.

“Huh… Ireland. Northern Ireland to be exact. Right next to a park called ‘Tollymore Forest Park.’”

She copied the name and three it into the google search, a bunch of pretty pictures popping up on her screen. “Nice,” she said, turning it to show him. A stone archway decorated in classic celtic design stared back at her.

“Does that look familiar to you?’

Charles leaned forward in his chair and studied the image carefully. Nothing about it triggered any inherent relevance in his mind, but a sense of momentum combined with the process of elimination from other dead-end avenues gave him hope.

“Unfortunately not,” he’d say while calmly finding Kelyn’s eyes with his own. “But I have a strong feeling that we’re on the right track. I’ll push through the paperwork ahead of time to expand our budget in case we need to head up there in the future.”

He hoped that his initiative would neutralize any discouraging aspects of the inevitable red tape they’d have to cut. Whatever we need to solve this damn case, his smile seemed to suggest as he nodded to Kelyn. Just point us in the right direction.

Their meals were delivered by a cute Asian girl who seemed to take a quiet interest in their endeavors. Charles accepted his plate with a gracious smile which was eagerly reciprocated with rosy cheeks before she retreated back to the register. Two-for-two today?Charles thought to himself before diving headfirst into his dish of Japanese pan noodles. Don’t get full of yourself, champ.

The arrival of their food naturally introduced a brief reprieve from their investigative pursuits, and Charles’ thoughts drifted once again. He was seasoned enough to know that a tapestry of interlocking clues was often too muddled to comprehend without some act of blind faith, but a sense of dread would sift its way to the surface of his mind. If the address they uncovered was a solid lead, it would be a royal pain to cooperate with the local governments, police officials and God knows who else. He wasn’t even sure if there was an extradition agreement in place between the United States and Ireland if things escalated to that point. They would have to proceed very carefully indeed to make the most of whatever discoveries that lay ahead.

Oh, mongolian! It looked amazing and smelled even better. They should have gotten edamame. Maybe next time. Kelyn, chopsticks laden with noodles half-way to her lips stopped for a second. Next time? Did she anticipate spending many an asian influenced dinner with her new FBI liaison. Oddly, the thought did not send her leaping through the oversized (and no doubt shatterproof) store windows. Whatever else she might have to say and forgoing their questionable introduction, Kelyn felt like they were getting somewhere.


As a team.

That was painfully unusual, especially when she had to deal with a suite. Private clients were so much easier and usually relied on her to use her own consultants for specialty work, which suited her perfectly. But if she was going to have to work with anyone, and if their progress today was any indicator, Kelyn might be adding Agent Charles Brock to her mental Rolodex of go-tos when it came to government and particularly FBI matters.

She glanced up in time to see a touch of red flush across his cheeks, the cute Asian serve sauntering away. A smile crept across her lips.

Kelyn sat back, her bowl empty. She was surprised she ate it all, but it was very tasty, the sauce in particular adding just the right layer of flavor and spice. For a moment the pair sat on the hard plastic benches, watching couples, families, and single people eating. “Want to play a game?” She said with a smirk.

A game?

Was she kidding?

“Far corner, couple.”

A sweet couple in their late thirties leaned toward one another, holding hands, their little metal holder with the humber 43 patiently displayed. He was blonde hairs with hazel eyes and wearing a button down polo and slacks. She was dark haired, dark eyed, chunky but not fat and pretty in a soft way.

“Two kids, one in school, young though. Kindergarten, maybe first, one still in diapers. He is an accountant or number cruncher of some sort. Probably usually works late but made it a point to get out early. She stays at home with the little one but runs something on the side. Ebay or Amazon, something to bring in a bit of extra money. They are tight, but content. He is up for a promotion of some sort and is nervous about it.”

What was she talking about?

It took Charles a moment to grasp the concept, but he caught on quickly and invested himself with a mellow smile.

“I’d say Businessman,” Charles would remark conclusively after a moment’s observation. “Or an assistant store manager on his way up. A large chain store like Wal-Mart or Kroger. His boss might be jumping to district manager so he’s the natural successor of the vacant position.” He’d pass a wink Kelyn’s way before scanning the restaurant for another specimen.

“She’s an artist,” he’d propose with a gentle nudge of his nose towards a young woman seated near the large window at the front of the restaurant. “She’d rather draw in her sketchbook than play on her phone. Though drawing alone at home gets lonely sometimes, so she’ll use dinnertime as an excuse to get out of the house.” As if taking a cue, the woman would pull a sketchbook and pencil from a messenger bag she set on the floor. “She might be here until the store closes. Loses track of time rather easily. I used to do that on occasion, back when I was a rookie detective. I wasn’t sure how my compatriots would take to my creative side, so I kept it under wraps for the longest time.”

The game continued until their meals were finished. Charles leaned back into his chair and stretched his arms only after surveying the area for prying eyes. Did his mental vigilance ever take a break?

“Carbs always make me sleepy,” he’d admit while stifling a yawn. “But our night really hasn’t even begun yet. We still have to explore this YouTube account back at the office. The internet speed should be okay since we’ll be one of the few staying late.” He’d reflect on his own comment momentarily before offering a look of apology. “That is, if you’re up to it, of course. Overtime is second nature for me, but I always forget to consider other people’s plans.”

“I’m open,” she flashed back with a grin having thoroughly enjoyed the game and the banter. He was smart. She liked that. It made everything infinitely easier in ways that were nearly indescribable. After all, intelligent people could be offered facts, figures, and logic and draw certain conclusions from incomplete data.

Considering that was the entirety of their job, it never ceased to amaze her how many detectives and agents she had consulted with lacked that basic (and in her opinion necessary) trait.

She toyed with the idea of popping into the self-serve froyo place next store just to sample a few of the sweet flavors out of the little paper cups, but decided that was enough playing for one night.

There was a case with leads and real people missing right now.

People they might be able to help.

“Shall we?” she said, gathering her plates and carrying them over to the little area set aside for dirty dishes and silverware, saving the server the trip.

The city was picking up, all bright lights, neon signs and people in a rush to be about their business. Couples hoping for a quiet night out, college kids checking out the newest club. Kelyn soaked in the buzz of the city as she drove them back to Headquarters, Bare Naked Ladies singing all about how it will still be two days till she says she is sorry.

“The Ireland thing is a real clue. Like you said, I can just feel it. I wish I knew more about it all.” She pulled into the parking garage which was much emptier than it had been and gave them a perfect spot by the elevator.

Kelyn passed over the keys after closing and locking the door. “I believe these are yours.”

Save for the distant activity of a few stray detectives, the walk through the station was almost eerily quiet. Charles would politely hold his office door open for Kelyn and follow her inside before offering her a seat at his computer desk.

“You can take the captain’s chair for now,” he offered while carefully typing his administrator’s password over her shoulder. He then pulled out a sketchbook from a desk drawer and settled himself near Kelyn after resituating the guest’s chair.

Truth be told, Charles had the urge to draw the strange archway since Kelyn presented it to him back at the restaurant. His hand took on a life of its own as he simultaneously vocalized his stream of consciousness.

“So, strange address in Ireland. Possible clue in a YouTube account. If there’s any sort of correlation between the two, I’d say we’d have a doozie of a clue.” A few minutes would pass before he completed a drawing which he casually presented to Kelyn. “Pretty place. Seems like a nice change of pace from the usual dusty city. Which reminds me…”

Charles stood up and selected a few forms from a plastic wall rack and began to fill them out. “Let’s get the ball rolling on our potential trip to Ireland. It’s usually tricky to get prompt approval on a business trip but…” His firm glance seemed to imply that a quick turnaround wouldn’t be a problem.

As soon as she had access, she searched both YouTube itself and run a general Google search with no luck. Oh, Ms. Diaz was a licensed massage therapist in good standing whose license was registered with Whole Health / Whole Life. She had a Facebook page, all private and very limited which offered no clues as to her YouTube channel.

She was also on LinkedIn, but it too was quite limited. Not as much of a social media buff as Kelyn had expected.

She frowned at the computer, the monitor light playing across her features, casting strange lights and shadows. Kelyn turned and considered the drawing Charles offered, quietly impressed on two accounts. Firstly, it was quite good. She shouldn’t be surprised considering the revelation at the restaurant and his naturally sharp observational skills, but he hadn’t looked at the archway that long, and yet there it was. Secondly, well, it was quite good. Most suite types she’d run across had no artistic slant whatsoever. They were all die hard Ooh-Rah boys that wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do with a sketchbook. There was real talent in that drawing.

And the subject bothered here. There was something there for certain. Out-of-place International Envelopes didn’t just fall from the sky after all.

She would have to do more digging into that as well, but Diaz’s YouTube channel was calling her and she had to pull on that string and see where it unraveled.

“Ok,” she said slowly. “Now we get complicated. I am going to pull her IP from her ISP and then cross reference the recent uploads from that address. That should get us something.”

Her fingers flew across the keyboard as she opened another Google panel. Then a third. She flipped between them, information fluttering around her like so many flitting butterflies. It was strange to see her in this light. She’d held her own out in the field, more than willing to get her hands (and sneakers) dirty, but here she offered an obviously advantage. Even if everything she just spouted could well be utter nonsense.

“Got you,” Kelyn whispered with a soft and slightly wolfish grin. Suddenly, Ms. Diaz was on the screen before them, seated in her studio. There were seven or eight videos, each with a couple hundred hits. The most recently uploaded also had the most traffic at 756 hits. Everything else only had about 200.


“Well, here goes nothing,” Kelyn said and clicked the link. The video loaded full screen, buffering for a long moment.

“Hi everyone. Thanks for watching. This is the latest and I hope you like it.” Jill’s voice reached out to them from across time.

She was pretty in an unconventional way, on the slender side with that look that health nuts sometimes get. Strong. Healthy. She settled on her chair, guitar in hand and began to play.

The notes flowed, her voice rich and silvery against the deep bronze resonance of the Conde. Kelyn didn’t understand the words, a language she didn’t recognize but sounded slightly familiar.

It made her think of the Celtic Women she had heard singing at some Medieval Festival once.

It was beautiful, breathtakingly but painfully beautiful.

No doubt Charles would feel it too, the draw, the pull, the need to hear more. It swelled as the song continued, becoming more that just a need but instead a physical and tangible requirement.

It grabbed them both forcefully until it was impossible to look away.

It tore at them from the inside, as if invisible white hot claws sliced through their skin and shredded their vital organs.

It hurt.

It hurt beyond reason or understanding, as if something life-sustaining was being brutally ripped away.

There was no way to move, to speak, to even blink.

It was impossible to breathe.

There was nothing but the song and the pain, coming in waves, pouring from the computer screen and speakers.

Kelyn gasped with a pain filled hiss and there it was again, the pulse he had felt earlier. The one that seemed to emanate from Kelyn herself. It was stronger now. Deeper and sustained, a constant rumble like the bass of rolling thunder that seemed to burst from her, pouring out. It flowed over him and the pain stopped, leaving him cold, tired, and hurting. It hit the computer and sparks flew, the monitor, the speakers, the computer itself a dead black screen, smoke rising pitifully. The UPS beeped mournfully.

Kelyn turned slowly to look at him, her face pale, her features shocked. There was pain and fury there, as if she comprehended something inherent about what had happened and it infuriated her. And it must have been his imagination but through the cuffs of her long sleeve shirt and climbing up to her elbows he would swear he saw at blue patina of light filtered through the burgundy cloth in a courscating pattern. It faded away as he watched.

That wasn’t possible.

That didn’t make any sense.

There was a moment of trembling and shocked silence, then Kelyn rose so sharply she knocked the desk chair over. “I need another computer right now!”

But she has just destroyed the last computer, its husk a smoking and slightly melted ruin before them. All his files. All his work.

And there was a high percentage of likelihood she would destroy the next computer in turn. Perhaps it was time for some answers.

Charles’ assumption of a quiet, clue-hunting evening quickly unraveled itself in a few short moments. He stared towards Kelyn with widened eyes while barely comprehending the events that just unfolded before him. There was music, sublime with an almost unearthly resonance before the searing pain introduced itself without the slightest warning. He certainly wasn’t ready for the sheer intensity of it. It felt like his very organs were under attack, and his heart seized for a few terrifying seconds before Kelyn did… something. His vision would blur as he collapsed to his knees, forcing a few desperate breaths from his mouth before he managed to reclaim his senses.

“What… the hell?” Charles could only manage a few raspy words as he wrestled with the exhaustion which now claimed every muscle in his body. His instincts begged him to stand and prepare himself for the possible return of the force that, at the moment, he could only describe in his mind as pure… unadulterated… evil. His knees, however, refused to offer their support. The strange, bluish glow which pulsed through Kelyn’s clothing was just now registering in his mind. The smell of fried electronics soon followed. With one colossal effort, he willed himself to his feet.

“Kelyn… what… the fuh…”

His computer was finished, there was no doubt about it. Eleven years of case files down the tube. The most important information were backed up somewhere on the network but… Kelyn’s insistent voice carved its way through his fog of bitter disappointment.  She needed another machine, stat. Why, so you can annihilate it with your weird blue energy crap? Charles snidely thought to himself with a quiet snort. Somehow, though, he put aside his frustration and focused on the situation at hand. Something of immense consequence just occurred, and Kelyn had gained his trust.

“Two offices down on the left. It’s my spare computer. Try to be a little gentler with…” His attempt at humor was quickly lost. Kelyn was already out the door.

She ran.

She had to be in just as much pain, be just as exhausted, but Kelyn ran. She burst into the office, all but leaping into the seat and moving the mouse back and forth so quickly to awaken the computer that it nearly went flying from her fingers.

Her hands were trembling just a bit.

Kelyn sat before the computer, her fingers moving so quickly that the keyboard jumped with each strike. She was running a search on something while in another window she was deep into the bowels of Jill Diaz’s Youtube account. How exactly she has managed that she didn’t feel apt to share. She pulled a file and emailed it to herself, hopped back to the search. She was looking through Hospital and Insurance databases. Why in the world would she be bothering with something like that?

Kelyn frowned at the numbers, pulled open a wordpad and wrote a set of digits.

Back to the search.


She checked her email, opened the file and downloaded an audio stripping program, loaded the video and let it strip.

Back to Youtube, she deleted the link, the video, any connection to the primary file and all its back ups and redundancies.

Back to her search. Another Hospital Network.

More numbers.

Oh God. Kelyn was pale and furious.

Back to the video. She saved the audio as one file, naming it ‘Caution Audio’ and the video as ‘Audio Stripped Video Safe’.

She closed the Youtube browser, opened it again and went searching. The video came up missing.

Thank God.



She checked it, checked it. Checked it.

By link.

By name.

By keyword search.

It was gone.

She sat back with a shudder, pointing to the number on the screen. She turned, checking to see if Charles had joined her before speaking.

A bunch of numbers stared back at him.

“This,” Kelyn said slowly, quietly, “is the number of reported cases of comas, seizures that led to comas and the like reported in the last two weeks to the National and International Hospital Database.”

The number read 1534.

“This,” she said arrowing down. “Is the number of hits on Jill Diaz’s song.”

The number read 766.

“This,” she said, pointing to a list of odd numbers, ranging in blocks but all carrying the familiar number-dot-number-dot-number-dot-number. “Is the list of IPs that watched Jill Diaz’s video. This last one is… was the IP of that computer over there.” She glanced over to the smoking remains of the PC.

“How much do you want to bet if we cross reference the IP owners names to the people admitted for a coma, there would be a match, either the owner, family of the owner or friend of the owner?”

Charles rushed in behind Kelyn, taking his place over her shoulder while the most curious expression plastered itself all over his face.  He must have looked like a dog given orders by two different masters. One part of his being desperately wanted to hoist Kelyn up by the armpits and pin her against the nearby wall to demand answers while boring holes into her eyes with his merciless gaze. The other part knew that the momentum they had acquired was escalating towards some of break in the case which had stumped in for the last five years. There were wars and rumors of wars, battles and conflicts which took place in the very same soul which was somehow touched by some mysterious entity just a scant minute earlier.

In the end, Charles would dismiss his inner turbulence for the task at hand. Numbers. Kelyn was mentioning numbers and records and Charles barely, or hardly, could understand what they meant. The look in her eyes was undeniable, though. She was on to something, and he didn’t want to get in the way.

“Now… is there anything we can do about this now?” His voice was quavering due to some combination of excitement, confusion… and fear? It wasn’t Kelyn he feared, but perhaps the can of worms which seemed to be opening up wide before him… Charles prided himself on a solemn promise to be ready for anything, but evil music and weird blue glows from his partner? Was he truly read for that?

The commotion had drawn the attention of a detective who peered into the doorway inquisitively. Charles waved him off with the most reassuring look he could muster, but his glare towards Kelyn suggested that the matter was far from over.

You better be ready to explain yourself, missy.

“We did it,” she said softly pushing back just a bit from his computer to bend over and take a deep breath. Her hands were shaking. “The video. Whatever Jill Diaz was into, I think her video caused the comas and the like. Must be some sort of cyber-terrorism. Seizure inducing frequency modulation. I made a copy of it and emailed it to myself, then deleted it. No one else will just stumble across it and end up a victim.”

Oh, it sounded good. It all sounded very plausible and cyber-terrorism was such a go-to phrase at the moment, but he could tell she was lying.

Utterly and without question lying.

Kelyn knew more than she was letting on and for whatever reason, she wasn’t sharing. “Have cyber department look this over if you want. Have them check the broken links. Cross reference the IPs of the hits to the IPs of the coma victims. Something happened in that video, that song, Charles. I know you felt it.”

It was strange to hear her speak his first name, familiar somehow, though her tone held nothing but shuddering formality. If it was true and Kelyn knew more about the situation than she was letting on, it was terrifying her. Oh, she was trying to put on a calm face about it all, but just one look at pale features, that slight tremor that still hadn’t faded, the soft shiver in her voice as she spoke.

Kelyn was frightened beyond reason.

“I have just the video, audio stripped. We can watch it. I am… sixty-five percent certain that the danger was in the song, the audio. We can watch it on my phone if company resources are a concern.”

Was she teasing him or was she serious? It was impossible to tell. She seemed to see him suddenly, noticing the after-effects of the encounter that she was in turn suffering reflected in his own stance, tone, and appearance. “Are you alright?”

“Cyber-terrorism… right.” In a way, Charles’ skeptical response must have been some kind of relief. He was still visibly shaken, but his lack of reproach must have meant that a pursuit of the lead before them outweighed any desires for an inquest. Oh, he would ask questions, and plenty of them, when the time was right. But he knew the nature of the department he worked in and how the quietest rumors spread like wildfire. He didn’t want to throw Kelyn to the wolves, not if he didn’t have to. For now, he was playing off his gut, which hadn’t yet let him down.

“I’m fine,” Charles answered with eyes that immediately betrayed his words. Kelyn’s suggestion of presenting the evidence to the tech department was obviously some sort of ruse. What they experienced seemed… personal, somehow… intimate in a disturbing way… not likely to be replicated in another set of conditions. He nodded a conciliatory agreement as a matter of course before switching gears completely.

“Let’s call it a night for now,” he stated in a way that seemed more like a command than a proposal. He’d usher Kelyn up from her chair and chase her eyes in a manner that could only be described as… purpose. “Pack your bags tonight, we’re leaving for Ireland tomorrow morning. Budget be damned.”

Thank god. He wasn’t some warmongering idiot. She knew he wasn’t. Everything she had seen thus far of Detective Charles Brock had left her quietly impressed with his insight and his stoic acceptance of some crazy shit.

After something like that video, lesser men would have had a fit, screamed about a dead computer and kicked her out of the office.

Instead, she had gotten the video down. No more victims tonight.

She rose slowly from his chair, nodding softly to herself. Ireland sounded like a good idea, but they wouldn’t have the resources there they did here. She was all for going, but…

She stood at the door for a moment, her back to him and facing down the hallway before spinning to look at him. “I don’t know about you, but I am not going to be able to let this rest. Not how I am… feeling right now.”

So it had affected her too. She’d been stoic enough about it that it had been a passing question.

“I am going to watch Jill Diaz’s video. I am going to look into Ireland, most especially that park. I am going to keep digging because if those people out there in a coma can be helped, every second matters.”

She stood there for a moment, young but strong. Sure.

“It would be impossibly helpful if I had your eyes and your observation. I’m not letting this one go tonight, Agent Brock. With me?”

Well then.

Kelyn had said her piece. She could pack later if she had to, sleep on the airplane if the time came, but she did not want to go to Ireland uninformed and under-prepared, especially knowing all the things she knew and all the dangers they might befall.

Kelyn was right, of course. The ball was still rolling, and Charles knew that their impetus should be maximized before a wall was eventually hit. Truth be told, exhaustion was settling in after his recent spike of adrenaline, but the protocol in his mind was always to shrug it off and suck it up.

“Okay. Fine. But not here. My place.” The look on his face warned of prying eyes and ears amongst the remaining personnel in the building. He’d hand his car keys once again to Kelyn out in the garage with an apologetic shrug. “I like the way you drive.”

The ride to his apartment was awkward, to say the least. Charles refrained from saying much, save from the necessary directions pertaining to their route. Questions were clearly burning bright in his mind, begging to be asked, but still he refrained. It wasn’t until the door to his place was safely closed behind them that he let his lips fly.

“Okay, Kelyn. Just WHAT. The FUCK. HAPPENED back there?” Before Kelyn could even gather her thoughts, he’d pause her with his index finger and walk to his sound system to play some big band music from the 30’s. Charles would then plop himself down upon an office chair and offer Kelyn a seat on his couch with a wave of his hand, nodding his approval to proceed with her reply.

Charles’ apartment seemed small but cozy. There was a large couch which Kelyn was now familiar with. The doorframe to a master bedroom was easily seen behind said couch, and another door further down the same wall was likely the bathroom. A small desk with a laptop could be found with the sound system on a shelf above it. The obligatory big screen television rested upon a wooden stand across from where Kelyn was seated. A series of three small windows peered out towards the violet sky outside, offering the bland view of an industrial complex across the street.  And then there were the drawings. Many drawings of various subject matter were spread across the floors and walls of the apartment. Countless sketchbooks were stacked in a corner near the waist-high median of the kitchen area which greeted them through the front door. All in all, it seemed to be a modest bachelor’s den.

Well. She didn’t expect that. As Kelyn drove, following his directions, her mind raced. The case, the video, the sensation that gripped her body. She knew what it meant, she just couldn’t… comprehend it.

And Charles in the passenger seat, giving her occasional directions while Incubus reminded them to take the wheel and steer.

She was already deep in a Google search in her mind, wondering what she might find. Already ground through all the research and all the clues, all the madness and nightmares. She had already helped those people who laid still in their beds, family members gripping their fingers and speaking to them in comforting voices, trying not to let the fear show.

She pulled into the spot he indicated and stepped past him and into his apartment.


Covered in sketches.

He turned on her then and Kelyn sucked in a sharp breath, wide-eyed, only to have him silence her reply.

Well, good.

That would give her a minute to figure out what the hell she was going to say.

As he put on some music and indicated she should take a seat, she slipped her sneakers off, tucking them on the floor at the edge of the couch and sit indian style.


Still had no idea.

“I don’t know what to say, Charles, honestly I don’t. This case has been a disaster from day one. Not you now, I am talking 2010. No one has taken any of this seriously until now and now I know why. I don’t think we are the first people to put together the coma connection. Why else would they have called me in?”

What did she mean by that? What, pray tell, was so special about Kelyn Sinclair?

“I just know that video, that audio was hurting you. Hurting us. If it wasn’t stopped, our next trip would have been in an ambulance.”

She was scrambling. He could tell.

But she didn’t have a good answer either. He would know if she was lying and she respected him. She didn’t want to lie. She would just know what would happen if she told him the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

“For now, and until we know more, we are just going to have to assume there was something about the audio that messed people up. If we watch the video, figure out the Ireland connection, then we can go from there. Fair?”

She meant it, her tone utterly honest and completely sincere.

Charles’ mind filled with the screeching chorus of alarms and sirens. Kelyn was treading water. Buying time. Hiding something. Never mind the evil presence brought on by a YouTube video which seemed to momentarily seize his heart and tear at his very soul. He also caught the briefest glimpse of a bluish glow which seemed to pulse though her clothing. And here she was, hoping to God… or whatever peered down from the skies above… that he missed that portion of the night’s events. Hmm. How to proceed from here? In his experience, he found it best, perhaps necessary, to place everything on the table.

“You’re lying,” Charles casually remarked, as if observing the conversation from a third-hand perspective. He’d lift himself from his chair and mosey on over to the fridge, passing Kelyn without the slightest glance. “Or at least hiding something. Something… big. About yourself, perhaps?” His question would linger in the air even as Charles nonchalantly retrieved a frosty beer. He’d rummage through a drawer to find a bottle opener and pry off the cap before knocking back a swig. Finally, Charles would face her from behind the kitchen’s median, which seemed to divide the pair of detectives in some weird, metaphorical way.

“I don’t blame you. Nor do I expect you to spill the beans. But give me a little credit. After all, we’re partners, right?” There would be another awkward silence, but Charles hoped that Kelyn could see the skeletal foundation of a bridge being built between them. “Help me solve this case, and your secret is safe with me. Just… warn me in the future when something like this could happen again.”

And that was that. There was finality in the way he delivered his request. Charles was no doubt ready to move on. There was plenty of work to do. “So, then. While I’m up… would you like something to drink?”

She paled when he said it. He would see the slow progression of hue shift not unlike watching a chameleon camouflage to its surroundings, except in Kelyn’s case, his words brought in her such a visceral reaction, she almost looked like she would be ill.

She didn’t respond.

She just listened. After all, she had always known in the back of her mind that one of these days she would meet someone, likely a suite, who was just as smart or smarter than she was. Who would catch on to the weirdness quickly and to whom she would have no good answers. She rested her elbow on her bent knee and her forehead balanced precariously on her fingertips, the long ends of her hair hanging down to frame her sharp cheeks and closed eyes.

She just listened because so far, all of this was salvageable.

Barely, but salvageable.

If there had been any other way, she would have taken it, any other means to stop the audio that had been carving at their souls, she would have done it.

But there hadn’t been. Not really.

It was just a drastically bad turn of events and she had gotten comfortable. Instead of watching the video on her own and avoiding this whole debacle, she had wanted his opinion. His insight.

And she still did, damn it.

She had the chance to walk out, take her car, go home and have a long hot bath and then tackle this thing from her comfy flat but no.

Kelyn was sitting on his couch having to decide just how much she had to share. How much would be acceptable but survivable.

And then he asked for a warning next time and if she wanted something to drink.

She started slightly, so surprised. She expected the full twenty question, demands and explanations.

And he wanted to get her something to drink?

“Um… just water, I think.” Dear god, she could use something stiffer, but that was dangerous territory. Kelyn was a light weight at best and the situation was too volatile for anything else.

“And if I had even guessed anything of the sort about the video, neither of us would have watched it, but I understand your point. I will do my best to give you a heads up when things are about it get…”


Oh god, she hated that word. Hated it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. But it was the word.

The right and fitting word and it didn’t matter how much she hated it.

“… weird.”

She uncurled her legs, tucking them under her. “For what it is worth, I am sorry about your computer.”

Charles would hand Kelyn a chilled bottled water along with his laptop after fetching it from his desk. “Don’t worry about it,” he’d remark regarding Kelyn’s condolences, though the tone in his voice suggested his loss still weighed significantly in his mind. After a quick adjustment to the thermostat, Charles would grab a notebook and pen before resituating himself upon his office chair with his beer in his hand.

“Okay, down to business. But first, let’s talk about our trip to Ireland tomorrow.”

Charles would jot a few notes down onto his pad as he began to verbally examine their looming excursion. “Most likely, we’ll have to check in at the nearest station and fill out a few forms as part of a face-to-face interview process. Hopefully it won’t take long, but in my experience it may be a few hours. They may insist on having one of their agents join us during any official investigations, but let’s keep our fingers crossed. I don’t want any unforeseen hiccups to complicate any big breaks we may come across.”

A quick chew on his pen cap would precede his next point. “We’ll be leaving around nine in the morning, but our arrival will be closer to noon despite an eight hour trip. I suggest we catch as much sleep along the way to keep us fresh. I’d like to check that archway out the same night we arrive in the area. Bring enough clothes for a three day trip.”

One last flurry of scribbles would conclude his thoughts on the matter before Charles finally redirected his concentration. “Okay, now that that’s out of the way. Let’s iron out exactly what we know about this case, and what we should be looking for in the day ahead.”

He’d turn a page in his notebook before fervently staring into Kelyn’s eyes. “Tell me exactly what you stumbled upon back at the office, keeping in mind that I’m not the most technologically astute person in the world. It’s about time I touched base with the modern generation… with your help, of course.” His smile reflected the readiness in his mind.

He was very organized and he spoke with such authority and experience that Kelyn didn’t doubt a thing he said. She’d never traveled internationally on the government’s dime before and a certain amount of paperwork and red tape was to be expected, especially since they would be brushing elbows with another nation. She pulled out her phone as he spoke, texting notes to herself. 9 am departure, three days of clothes (she would bring 4, plus and extra pair of underwear and socks – no trip was every spoiled for having too many socks.)

She knew very little of Ireland’s National Security, but part of her was silently thankful leads hadn’t pointed them toward the middle east, Russia, or China.

That would have been infinitely more difficult.

She agreed that they should get to the park and check out the archway, but she also felt there was a lot more digging to do in that regard. She emailed something to herself, then set her phone aside as he turned toward her, requesting a clearer and less ‘tech-speak’ explanation of the events at the office.

Kelyn opened the bottle, taking a sip as she coalesced her thoughts.

“Every computer or device needs a connection to access the internet. In order to do so and not jumble up the words, Internet Service Providers or ISPs assign addresses to the computers, a lot like the addresses of buildings. They are called IPs, TCP/IPs or Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol. Normally this only matters if something has gone wrong and you have to call up a computer guy to fix it, but it can be used, by hackers, corporations, and even the government to track traffic on the web.”

She took another pull from the water.

“Diaz’s video, you know the one, had seen a lot more traffic than any of her others and I was able to track down the ‘addresses’,” she offered the double quotes with her fingers, “of the people who had watched the video. It is an easy guess that they didn’t fare as well against it as we did.”

Mainly because they didn’t have a strange blue-glowing girl to blow up the computer when necessary.

“So I looked at the national and international hospital databases, which track certain diagnosis for the CDC and WHO. There was a spike in comas since Diaz put up that video, and I bet if we pulled the IP addresses of a number of those patients, they would match the IPs I pulled from the video link. Short answer, I think that video put about seven and a half hundred people into the hospital. I bet most of them are still there, in a coma. And now we have an audio stripped video of Diaz. I think we need to watch it.”

Pulling open his laptop, she opened his browser and dug into her email, pulling up the attachment, but not opening it. Her hands shook so slightly, come and gone so fast, it may as well have never been there. Kelyn may have played it cool in the office, but she was more than frightened by the concept of watching Jill Diaz’s video.

“Seven and a half hundred people.” Charles softly repeated the figure aloud with heavy disconcertion. His eyes fought hard against glazing over during Kelyn’s explanation, but in the end he understood it well enough. Now over seven hundred people had accidentally or purposely seen a video on YouTube and paid a heavy price.

“What are the odds that the audio was the only threatening aspect of the video?” Charles would ask, somewhat hypothetically, before continuing his train of thought. “Can you imagine if this video somehow went viral? If no one is immune to its effects, then we were looking at the digital form of the bubonic plague on steroids.”

His face soured, and a twinge of fear surfaced in his eyes before it was promptly discarded… or buried.

“I agree with you,” Charles concluded aloud with a nod towards Kelyn, folding his arms after setting his bottle on the nearby coffee table. “But we need to be smart about this. If the video portion is still dangerous, then only one of us should watch as the other is in position to intervene. Maybe with a finger at the ready to shut down the laptop at the slightest indication of things going awry.”

He’d sigh a bit before fidgeting in his chair, prowling his eyes around the room before finding Kelyn again with a steady gaze. “How about a game of paper-rock-scissors to decide who donates their eyeballs? Unless you think you’d naturally fare better in that arena…” 

Charles’ eyebrow raised just a bit, but his demeanor suggested a growing acceptance of his talented partner… whatever those talents may be.

“I would say… 85% certain it was an audio issue. I could… feel the music.” Yeah, she didn’t feel like explaining that one at the moment, but he likely understood her meaning. I was the music that had pulled at them, had divorced will from body.

“And I can’t help but think that the point of all of this may be a technological plague striking down people all over the world. I just have no idea why… or how.” She watched him for a long moment while he considered their options.

He was right.

One of them should watch the video, the other ready to shut it down if necessary.

“I’ll do it,” Kelyn said slowly with a deep breath. “Just be ready to close the laptop if things seem off…”

As if he would be able to tell.

They arranged themselves so she sat with the laptop’s glow highlighting her face, throwing stark contrast of white and red and blue in broad strokes across her slender features.

She looked up at him over the laptop, nodding softly with a tiny swallow the only indication of nervousness.

Kelyn opened the attachment, let it load, and pushed play.

Jill Diaz sat in her spare room with her Conde, looking exactly the way they remembered from the original video. She spoke, but no words came out.

She began to play, began to sing.

Kelyn tensed for a moment, the deep rumble emanating from her so low it was barely audible, but as Jill’s lips moved to the lyrics, none of that sensation, that need, that pain pressed upon her.

Kelyn exhaled, the tension releasing and that feeling, that deep base fell silent again.

Jill Diaz sang soundless on, her features transported and ethereal. She sang and played, played and sang.

Kelyn leaned forward.

Jill’s features twisted in pain, her mouth stretched wide in a scream with no sound.

It was actually more terrifying, waiting for the scream that never came.

She screamed on and on, then fell out of her chair and out of the frame, the Conde laying face down on the floor in the background.

For a minute nothing happened.

Motionless room.

Still and silent.


Kelyn leaned closer.

Suddenly Jill Diaz stood up.

Kelyn jerked back with a little yelp of surprise.

Diaz moved awkwardly, jerkily, like a marionette at the hands of a novice. There was no smoothness of motion, no semblance of normality there.

She turned and looked at the camera. Her eyes glowed a sickly yellow green. There was nothing human in those eyes. Kelyn swallowed sharply, her eyes narrowing.

Jill reached out and the video cut.

“Shit,” Kelyn hissed, taking another swig of her water. Her hands shook just a touch and her breathing was shaking, but she nodded to Charles. “You need to see this…”

Charles’ hand was strategically placed behind the fold-out laptop screen as Kelyn prepared herself to watch the video. He was awkwardly situated as his torso leaned towards Kelyn in his seated position, with his knee on the couch as his eyes stared resolutely towards the wall over the top of her head. Charles was primed and ready to shut the laptop closed upon a moment’s notice, and based on her reactions during her viewing, he was certainly tempted more than once. However, there would be no threatening ‘presence’ to attack the pair’s senses, and though his will was tested, he allowed the video to run its course.

Finally, Kelyn indicated its conclusion with a curse, and Charles breathed a sigh of relief. “Perhaps the most tense three minutes of my life,” Charles grumbled as his clammy hand retired itself from its duties.

His own viewing of the video would be an exercise in restraint as he tried to remain as placid as possible. Despite his efforts, however, his eyes widened several times and his breath would catch noticeably towards the end. “What the fuck?” Charles would question with a glance towards Kelyn as beads of sweat began to rise to the surface of his forehead. “Just what are we dealing with…”

Out of nowhere, a vision of the archway began to pound against Charles’ mind, prompting his eyes to turn away from Kelyn’s in contemplation. Why did that just pop in my head? It’s certainly a focus in our investigation but… The video. He’d scan back a few seconds, past the revelation of Jill’s possessed body for comfort’s sake, and survey the room around her. Game of Thrones. There was a poster on her wall, small but prevalent, showcasing several characters of the show.

Why is this jabbing at me? The only reason Charles knew about the show was because of someone he briefly dated a year back. She was a Game of Thrones junkie and would invite him over to her place for every new episode. Charles would politely pull the computer from Kelyn’s lap and place it upon his own. A quick Google image search of the show’s name revealed nothing of interest… cheesy character pinups with horrible fanart thrown in for good measure. Hmm. He’d add archway to the end of his search entry… and there it was. The very archway they planned to investigate was a focal point in one’s of the program’s episodes.

Charles took a heavy breath and folded his arms after handing the laptop back to Kelyn. “I think we have another breakthrough. Know anything about the show ‘Game of Thrones’?”

If she knew, really knew what they were dealing with, it would be a completely different matter. As it was, Kelyn had vague guesses at best and none of them were good. Watching the video a second time did nothing for her nerves and when he stole the laptop from her, she took another long pull from her water bottle, almost wishing it was something stronger.

He jumped through the video again (she gave him a bit more credit, she wasn’t sure how many times she could watch the damn thing and then it paused it. He had skipped the worst part, for which she was thankful and yet… Kelyn leaned forward, her shoulder brushing his. “What is it… just a poster from some show?”

But he was hard at work. She leaned over as best she could to watch what he was up to. So, she liked a show. There was no indication of any other connection to the show and…

He pulled up Game of Thrones archway and Kelyn almost fell out of her seat. There it was, the archway from her search, the one he had sketched. Thr one in the park the international letter had originated from.

“Yeah,” she said softly, peering at the image. “That is an epic neon clue if I ever saw one and I know nothing about the show, the books. Nothing. Sorry.”

But was the show even in production when the first disappearance occurred.

She swiped back the laptop, pulling up the IMDB. There it was.

Premiered April 2011.

They were well into production of the first season when the first disappearance occurred, June of 2010.

It was a connection. A real honest to god connection.

Kelyn’s fingers lay across her lips in silent shock. It was a real lead, not just a clue, but pointing without question to a place, a similarity. She looked at Charles, her eyes wide, a soft smile on her lips. “Well done, Agent. I would call that a break in the case.”

It wasn’t often when Charles felt older than he was, but the series of adrenaline spikes he had experienced in accordance with the day’s events had finally accumulated themselves into exhaustion. He was excited, surely, but his vision seemed to lag behind him whenever he turned his head, a surefire sign that his reset button needed to be pushed with a prompt round of sleep.

“Let’s back to the office,” Charles abruptly suggested, doing his best to mask his fatigue while casually shutting the laptop closed. “Something tells me we’ll need our forty winks to be at our best for whatever awaits us tomorrow.” Kelyn was sure to be surprised and frustrated at his sudden declaration, but Charles knew it was for the best. Cases that seemed to solve themselves were always trouble. Something was waiting for them… or perhaps just for him… at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps it was related to the strange abilities which his partner seemed to harness, but he avoided dwelling on that possibility for now. Staying in the moment was a philosophy which paralleled his inclination to trust his gut when the going got tough… or strange, as it were in this case.

Kelyn, of course, could barely contain herself in the driver’s seat during the car ride back to the station. Charles did his best to match her enthusiasm, but his mental resignation must have been evident at this point. The case file he’d find upon his desk back in his office would set him upon another roller coaster of contemplation, however. Aside from the curious psychiatric evaluations which Charles decided to explore in-depth at a later point, there were no parents or next-of-kin to speak of… and the only emergency contact was a facility called “The Institute.” He casually hid the file behind his back when Kelyn popped her head around the corner of his office door. Hopefully she didn’t catch his flushed face in the absence of light as they reasserted their plans to be ready to roll at 8am the next morning.

Charles cursed at his alarm clock when its sharp beeps shook him from his sleep at 6:45. The intense dreams he experienced throughout the night quickly gave way to the rising sun as it pried open his pupils without the slightest apology. All of them involved Kelyn, but the details ebbed away with each second his head parted from his pillow. He couldn’t shake the feeling of an impending showdown, however, where he would protect Kelyn from an evil force not unlike the one which assaulted him the afternoon prior… or wouldshe be the one protecting him?

His energy level quickly snowballed after a short shower, which was his personal gauge on the quality of sleep he received the night prior. Charles decided upon a luxury suit which was collecting dust in his closet for the day’s attire, as making a good impression on foreign departments was an unspoken priority which he picked up from his superiors. From the looks of things in the mirror before leaving his apartment with his duffel bag, Charles was sharply dressed. A scant ten minutes later, he was parked near Kelyn’s residence, where she herself was ready and dressed to kill.  

Kelyn was in no way becoming accustomed to Charles’s sudden shifts in attitude. She was still high on adrenaline and aching for answers. Yes, it was terrifying but it was also exciting and dangerous and she wanted more than anything to learn more.

Which she could not do driving back to the station.

Nevertheless the drive was made and the office quite this late. She knew nothing of the file left on his desk though she was more than aware of the contents. After all, they were the bold details of her life.

She confirmed the pick up time and drove home, rolling over all the realities, the things she had seen, the things she understood but had no way of telling him.

The things she had to hide.

Those were the hardest. The worst.

She packed up a bag with a few essentials with the intention of packing the rest in the morning. She laid down on her simple platform bed with her tablet in her hand, planning on doing some research, but fell asleep in the interim.

The alarm screamed at her at 5:45 a.m. and Kelyn dragged herself from her bed and threw herself into the shower. It was only after the super heated water had beat upon her for a good ten minutes that her mind began to engage again and her packing list raced before her eyes.

Kelyn made a quick breakfast, dressed and packed, settled her things and watered her plants.

She made a cup of tea for herself, resting in the comfortable round chair that dominated her living room and playing various logic and escape games on her cell phone.

She too was dressed sharply, but not her finest. After all, she wanted to look nice but they would be landing in Ireland in 1:00 a.m. No one to impress. She just hoped the Agency would have picked them a decent hotel close to the airport.

She glanced at the time, threw a backpack with a number of country patches sewn onto it over her shoulders and a simple rolling bag with her other items. Four days worth of clothing and essentials plus a few extra pair of socks and underwear.

A trip was never ruined by too much underwear.

Her cup of tea in hand and a cup she had brewed for him in the other, Kelyn strode down to the lot in front of her flat and stood waiting as Charles pulled up.

“Good morning,” she said with a grin. “Tea? It is my own brew so I can’t promise the flavor.”

By default, Charles wasn’t much of a tea guy, but the offer of a hot caffeinated beverage was too much to turn down.

“Why thank you, Kelyn. I’m sure it’s delicious.” He wasn’t accustomed to the flavor, but slurped most of it down anyway, even before the pair of detectives left her parking lot. With a laugh he stifled in his throat, Charles supposed that he wasn’t very cultured, either. But with all things considered regarding his current case, he quickly forgave himself for his lack of refinement.

The airport wasn’t too far away, and their passage through security was brisk with the flash of their badges. Before long, they were sitting beside one another while waiting for their flight to announce its passengers to board, an hour-and-a-half ahead of schedule. There was plenty of time for idle chit-chat amidst punctuated observations of the series of clues from the day prior. It was then that Charles fully took in Kelyn and what she was wearing. She was indeed an attractive young woman, and his face instinctively turned a number of times to obscure his flustered cheeks.

Easy there, tiger, he thought to himself. Solve this case first. Then we’ll see about wining and dining a woman as your reward.

Charles and Kelyn’s seats on the plane were naturally beside on another. As a stewardess conducted the usual pre-flight ritual regarding proper seatbelt buckling, Charles amused himself with the ridiculous catalogs where one could purchase a Darth Vader hood ornament or a Big Foot lawn statue. The plane slowly bounced from its parking area to the main runway, and took to the skies before Charles even had a chance to realize it. His previous anxiety regarding air travel were negated after years of routine and necessity. In a quiet way, he was proud of himself, having come so far from his green years as a rookie and up-and-comer in the Bureau… and now, he was likely on the cusp of solving the case which would define his career.

The tea was delicious, actually. A blend of mint and orange blossom and something else. Something mysterious and exotic and undefinable. Much like the woman who mixed it. The drive to the airport was short and uneventful, the trip through security laughable and the time they sat in the terminal surprisingly pleasant.

Kelyn wasn’t one for small talk, nor did she feel comfortable enough to ask any deep and burning questions. Any question would be fielded with one of his own and Kelyn was not ready for that. Instead, she found herself at the window seat with Charles beside her, all but pressing her face to the glass as they took off.

Obviously, she had no problems with flying. She turned to say something to him and caught him looking at her. Kelyn smirked a bit and decided not to say anything, turning her attention back to the shrinking landscape below.

As she stared out the portal, she thought not about what lay beyond the polymer window nor about the adventure before them but instead what she knew of Agent Charles Brock.

Well, he had impressed her. That was new.

He knew something was up, but hadn’t tried to bully answers from her.

He understood he was in unfamiliar water and was willing to let her lead, but all with a quiet air of confidence and authority that…

… well she could at least think it… was very attractive.

Kelyn shook her head softly. That way lay a dangerous road for both of them.

The flight settled, promising to be a long one.

Kelyn reviewed some case facts, shared a game or two on her phone, and basically whittled away the time on the plane.

They flew across the world, chasing the sun but never catching it. The world outside the window seemed made of clouds and endless sky which blossomed from light and crystalline blue to the reds and oranges of sunset, to a deep and brooding purple and finally to endless black.

A number of the passengers opted to sleep, so the cabin lights were off, but Kelyn kept her reading light on. They talked quietly, mainly about the case until the plane began its descent.

It was both the shortest and most pleasant 8 consecutive hours she had ever spent beside another human being, but now, tired, feeling grimy, and unable to get the cardboard taste of the chicken and vegetables they had served for dinner from her mouth, Kelyn was glad to depart the plane and take her first breath of Irish Air.

It still smelled just like any other airport.

“Hotel?” she questioned softly, backpack over her shoulder and wheeling bag spread behind her like a lounging guest. “And better food if possible.”

Charles revealed a neatly folded piece of paper tucked away in his suit coat, offering it to Kelyn for her examination. “I went ahead and made some arrangements before heading to bed last night. My boss owed me a favor after I took on a long series of stakeouts from a suspect he had his eye on.”

A slight smile curled upon Charles’ lips before he continued. “We’ll be staying at the Belvedere hotel, indefinitely, until we’ve milked everything we can here regarding our case. It’s three stars but should be a nice improvement from the usual motel arrangements for investigators like us.”

Charles’ focus shifted towards hailing a cab after claiming their luggage, which soon led to a chatty and almost certainly drunk Irish driver to request that they “get their arses on in here, whydoncha.” His terse responses to the driver’s nosiness left the door wide open for Kelyn to field his incessant inquiries. Charles was quietly relieved that Kelyn had no issue being the sociable one between them. He knew that his placidity was often misinterpreted as moodiness, which was another project on his self-improvement list he’d been meaning to tackle.

Their hotel room revealed two full-size beds which seemed to tease their wearied bodies upon their arrival. Charles immediately hung his coat and began undressing, ineffectively using a closet door as a makeshift barrier for privacy’s sake. He honestly didn’t care at this point after their long flight; they were both adults, after all, and nothing was revealed past his boxers… but a few scars on his legs and torso seemed to beg that their stories be told. He popped a melatonin pill to circumvent any jet lag after climbing into his nightly attire, offering one to Kelyn before hitting his head on the pillow and falling asleep almost immediately.

A plague upon life itself, Charles groaned in his mind as the morning sun hit his eyes through the window’s blinds, forcing him awake. He sat up in bed, stretching and yawning while mentally planning the day’s events. They’d have to visit the local precinct and fill out some paperwork before embarking on any clue-hunting adventures, but the thought didn’t annoy him one bit. Soon enough, they’d be hot on the trail towards solving the case once again.

“The Belvedere?” she questioned softly, looking through exhausted eyes at the slip of paper. She hadn’t heard of it, but Kelyn wasn’t the foremost experts of three star Irish hotels. How was it possible that sitting on an airplane playing cell phone games and talking about their case had so exhausted her?

She hauled her rolling bag into the cab, sliding in, and waded her way through the cabbie’s accent to tell him where they were going.

He shared all sorts of helpful and useful information in words she barely understood about the local pubs and who brewed the best beer and how one of the boys from the city had come up on the local football team and now had a chance at the World Cup.

He chatted aimlessly as if it wasn’t nearly 2 a.m. and as if his passengers weren’t dead on their feet.

Kelyn smiled and nodded and asked the pertinent questions at the right times, but she barely retained anything.

He pulled up before the hotel and wished them both a pleasant evenin’ before driving off into the pre-dawn darkness of NewCastle.

Kelyn fluttered an eyebrow at Charles.

It was a nice enough looking place, all white stucco and column in the classical style. The lobby was staffed by a single friendly clerk who welcomed them and issues their electronic keys.

As the pair wheeled their luggage down the slightly worn carpeting of the first floor, Kelyn realized with a burst of heat across her cheeks that the receptionist had only given them one room number.

She was sharing a hotel room with the quiet and dedicated and hard working and… interesting Agent Charles Brock.

The room was nicely appointed, neutral and calming tans and beiges with rich accents of dark green and blue and red.

Kelyn saw none of it beyond two beds which seemed to beckon with all the allure of a lover.

Sleep sounded blissful.

She changed in the bathroom, giving them both some privacy and after washing her face, brushing her teeth, and switching into a pair of shorts and a large t-shirt, slipped from the bathroom to the empty bed.

She was asleep before she had managed to wish him a good night.

The problem with going to sleep at 2:30 in the morning and wanting to get an early start was the lack of needed and restful sleep inbetween. Kelyn dreamed restlessly, as always, old Disney afternoon cartoons like Duck Tales and Rescue Rangers playing as a backdrop to cold stone walls, huge men in suits with no faces, the heat of a surrounding fire and the searing, stunning, luminescent azure light.

She woke only a few minutes after he did, roused by the sound of moment.

After all, Kelyn was not used to sleeping with anyone else in the same domicile, much less the same room.

She tore through her morning routine with a certain bitterness but appeared showered and dressed. A smart long sleeved burgundy top and simple black slacks, finished off with a solid pair of sneakers.

It would be terribly hot out at Tollymore and he knew Kelyn was smart enough to realize that, and yet she strode out the door to their room with only her simple backpack, bespeckled with various countries flags, seemingly unaware of future discomfort.

Another taxi brought them to the NewCastle precinct who held jurisdiction over the park itself.

Where they waited.

And waited.

Kelyn sat in one of the uncomfortable visitors chairs, made of plastic with a tattered pillow to offer some modicum of comfort.

She glanced to Charles, who looked unbearable calm, then scanned the tiny police station once more.

This was the part she hated. The reason she could never be what he was or do what he did.

She would have just gone to the forest and skipped all this jurisdiction nonsense.

After an hour and ten minutes they were presented to Captain Michael Kelly.

The man was a mountain, huge and agingly muscular, like a weightlifter a few years after retiring. He had a bit of a belly held in tight by a chipper brown belt, but his eyes missed nothing at all.
“So, what interest does the United States FBI have with our little park? Surely this isn’t about the purse snatching incident during that ‘Game of Thrones’ tour.”

Kelyn perked up a bit, but said nothing.

It wasn’t often when Charles didn’t have to shift his neck downwards while greeting someone. Captain Michael Kelly was just as tall as he was, maybe even a bit taller, with a bear wrestler’s physique to boot. Charles’s psyche was as fragile and envious as any other guy, so he imagined having to sprawl with such a physical specimen and couldn’t foresee a positive outcome under most circumstances. Maybe with a baseball bat and a tranquilizer dart, he could even the playing field somewhat.

“No, sir. Not a purse-snatching.” Charles offered his hand towards Mr. Kelly alongside a focused pair of eyes. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain Kelly. My name is Charles Brock, senior investigator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Chicago, and this is my consultant, Agent Kelyn Sinclair.“ His hand segued towards Kelyn after the principle handshake, allowing her and the Irish Mountain of Man to exchange their own pleasantries. He couldn’t help but quietly study her body language, scanning for any sort of infatuation.

“We’re here because a trail of clues for an ongoing homicide case led us to this location.” Charles pulled out another folded piece of paper from his overcoat, a type-written document that looked official with highlights to emphasize particular sentences. He offered it to Captain Kelly, who accepted it after a moment’s hesitation.

The mountainous man murmured to himself as he read the document while listening to Charles detail their investigation to this point. The reading continued even after Charles finished his explanation, leaving a few long moments of silence between the investigators that bordered on awkward. Finally, with a heavy exhale indicating bad news was forthcoming, Captain Kelly handed back the piece of paper to Charles.

“Normally, foreign departments would initiate their negotiations with us months ahead of time.” His comment wasn’t posed as a complaint but as a matter of fact. “I’m afraid that matters like these require two weeks’ time before your investigation can be reviewed and approved by my superiors.” Instinctively, Charles butted the side of his shoe against Kelyn’s as a silent indication to keep her cool. Captain Kelly continued with a face of concern and apology, but in Charles’ mind, the look seemed artificial.

“I would do my best to push that time period down to one week or less, but please understand that I cannot guarantee such a turnaround.” Again, the promise fell flat on the floor at the detective’s shoes.

“But there’s even a bigger dilemma at hand, Agent Brock. There hasn’t been an extradition agreement between the United States and Ireland in nine years. Even if your investigation culminated with a suspect, we couldn’t detain him or her for more than seventy-two hours before we’re required to facilitate their release.” The way he winded down his sentence suggested that the matter had come to a close in his mind.

The steady look on Charles’ face never wavered as Captain Kelly delivered his sour news, with Kelyn being as cooperative as he had hoped.  Charles wouldn’t press the issue any further and instead nod his acceptance.

“I understand that your hands are tied, Captain Kelly. I appreciate your time and effort regarding this matter. We’ll be keeping in touch.” With that, Charles and Kelyn excused themselves and returned to their car. Once they were seated inside, Charles delayed Kelyn’s boiling frustrations with a raised forefinger while tending to his phone in his other hand. A number was dialed, and soon, Deputy Chief Anderson was on the phone.

“Hello, sir? Yes, yes. Everything went pretty much as we expected. Put me through to Senator Williams, please.”

A few moments would pass before another voice was heard on the phone, warm and welcoming.

“Bradley, buddy! How have you holding up, sir? It’s been a long time! How’s the family?” The way they were chatting it up, Senator Bradley Williams and Agent Charles Brock must have been good friends for a long time. There was guy talk for fifteen minutes, spanning everything from the latest superhero movie to tentative plans regarding their next cookout. To Kelyn, this must have been an excruciating intermission.

“Yes, yes, ha ha ha. That sure was one hell of a night.” Finally, the conversation seemed to be winding down, prompting an about-face in Charles’ tone of voice.

“Hey, listen, Brad. Regarding the Solstice case.” Bradley went quiet on the other line, suggesting he knew enough about the topic at hand.

“There were a few hiccups when we chatted with the local departments. I’m gonna need some kind of extradition agreement to be pounded out as soon as possible.” Mumblings about a rider to a bill about to be passed was mentioned, prompting Charles to gaze towards Kelyn with a look of accomplishment.

“Yes. Yep. Yeah. They said seventy-two hours. You’ll have it done in thirty-six?”

More chatter on the other line, seemingly to confirm the arrangement.

“Hey, Brad. Thanks. That really helps us a lot. Really, you’ve just saved our collective butts out here.” Senator Williams’ response was as clear as day. “Think nothing of it.”

“Listen, I better get Kelyn and I back on the road. I’ll call you if anything else comes up. Have a good one, buddy.” The click through the receiver concluded matters, and Charles turned his attention fully to Kelyn.

“Let’s change out this rental car,” Charles said with a tempered sense of urgency, “before we head to the forest. Just to be on the safe side.” He locked his gaze upon Kelyn’s now-enlightened eyes one last time before they were on their way.

There were a lot of things Kelyn expected from this Ireland Adventure. Being turned away at the door by Mr. Irish Spring was not one of them. Oh, she had smiled pretty and shook his hand, surprised at how small and delicate her fingers felt in his larger grasp. She had let Charles take point on this one – after all, he was the government appointed agent and while he had introduced her as a fellow agent (which would ease a lot of open doors on this investigation) she didn’t actually have a badge to back it up.

How he knew to nudge her sneaker with his own finer shoe right when she was about to say something that might not smooth their way, she did not know. Instead, she glanced for a long moment between the men, her lips pursed. She had nothing that would change the Captain’s mind and opening her mouth would only make matters worse.

However, she didn’t relish the flight back knowing they had gotten nowhere and unfortunately, because he had identified her as an agent (true or not) meant she couldn’t investigate on her own.
She wanted to ask him so many questions.

He kept stopping her.

She nodded in thanks to the Captain and strode out beside Charles, utterly confused.

That felt an awful lot like failure.

They climbed into the car, Kelyn’s lips already parted to barrage him with questions and again he stopped her.

This was becoming something of a habit.

And he was making a call to… a Senator?

She listened to the conversation, fuming silently at Charles. This was such a waste of time and they were no further along than they were. All the talk about movies and cookouts. This was bullshit.

What was he expecting, someone to pull an extradition treaty out of their…



Kelyn blinked at him, her features a study in surprise and… pleasure.

As he hung up the phone, Kelyn tilted her head just a bit, considering him.

That was… unexpected.

“Quite,” she offered, pulling out and heading back to the airport so they could change out the car.

For a long time, Kelyn didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure what to say.

That was impressive.

Kelyn wasn’t used to being impressed, especially by… normal people, and yet Agent Brock just kept impressing her.

The black sedan was traded for a sport little green coup and seated in the airport rental parking, Kelyn pulled up her phone and Navi-ed their happy way to Tollymore Forest.

It was a good hour and a half drive, but ‘Agent’ Kelyn Sinclair didn’t mind and instead hooked her phone to the car’s bluetooth and fired up her Pandora. Music floated around them.

“Agent Brock,” she managed finally, as if it had taken her that long to cohesively construct her thought. “That was damn impressive.”

She meant it. He could hear it in her tone.

“So what do you think about this ‘Game of Thrones’ tour. I think we should book one or tag along if we stumble across one. As ridiculous as it seems, I can’t help but think something about the show is intertwined with the case.”

Outside, the city fell away, the countryside rolling along to the crooning Cranberries.

Charles couldn’t help but smile at Kelyn’s compliment. “Impressive, you say? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, galpal.” His subsequent moment of self-reflection flowered a mild epiphany, as Charles realized he was possibly more resourceful than he gave himself credit for. Senator Bradley Williams had come through in the clutch after a substantial amount of bro-chat, with Charles quietly relishing Kelyn’s impatience as she squirmed in her chair. It simply made his ultimate success much more gratifying and perhaps solidified their trust in one another more than ever before.

The decision to swap out rental cars didn’t originate from any frivolous reasoning. Charles suspected that the local police would be keeping tabs on a pair of renegade detectives desperate to make headway on a hot case, and had likely jotted down their license plate number. A simple exchange of cars could make their stealthy endeavors easier to facilitate. As they whizzed along the freeway towards Tollymore forest, Charles wholeheartedly agreed with Kelyn’s suspicions.

“Yeah. This Game of Thrones show is integral to the case somehow. I regret not having watched a few recent episodes before crashing last night to better prepare myself to deal with any characters we might come across. I was just too beat to do anything but sleep.”

He was also much too tired to bother being discreet with his clothes-changing, but he figured Kelyn accepted his unspoken apology.

The outside scenery became more and more scenic as they approached their destination. Irish air cleansed their lungs as Kelyn supplied a pleasing arrangement of alternative rock songs, half of which Charles recognized. Before long, a building which must have been the forest’s entrance for tourists appeared at the end of a long, winding road across a mountainside. A stout Irish gentleman was waiting to wave in their lumbering vehicle and greet them.

“Hello, sir and madam. May I see your identification cards, please?”

Charles nipped any complications in the bud by carefully leaning over Kelyn’s lap with his badge at the ready.

“Good afternoon, sir. My name is Agent Charles Brock and this is my partner, Agent Kelyn Sinclair. We’re with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Chicago, Illinois. We’ve actually been dispatched by the local precinct to conduct an investigation in Tollymore forest regarding a criminal case. It won’t take long and we’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible.”

The Irish forest ranger looked perplexed and slightly overwhelmed. He studied the badge and it looked official, and the pair of detectives certainly looked the part. After a moment, he seemed to respond to Kelyn’s well-timed smile and waved them through the gate.

“All right then, everything looks in order here. The park area closes in four hours, just so you know.”

The rental car lumbered forward and towards a carved patch of forest which quickly tapered in and closely flanked the asphalt road. Charles put his badge away and turned his attention to Kelyn.

“You aren’t bothered by me referring to you as an Agent, right?” He pulled a smile into his left cheek, watching her reaction closely. “Because any time I can use that distinction to our advantage, I plan to do so.”

Oh, Kelyn had understood exactly why they had swapped cars. In fact, she had pulled just such switches in the past back home, except she had actually paid someone to continue to drive her car and once even left her cell phone in the offending car because she knew it was being tracked.

Charles’s steal was not lost on her, but she didn’t feel like sharing that tidbit at the moment. Instead she nodded softly. “I wish I knew anything at all about the show. I read the wikipedia, but I am pretty certain something was lost in the translation between major hit drama and plot summary because I don’t see either the appeal or why in the world this ties to the case.

“I just know that it does.”

They turned down the final curve and up to the park entrance, an archway different but similar to the one Charles had drawn. Kelyn blinked softly as Charles leaned across her to greet the forest ranger, surprised by the little ripple of electricity that sparked at the base of her neck and rushed outward along her arms, goosebumps hidden beneath her long sleeves.

That was… new.

She stared for a moment at his features in sharp profile against the daylight streaming through the windshield.

Very new. Her features were a study in thoughtfulness when he spoke her name. Kelyn turned to smile at the ranger, her expression bright and winning and after a moment of hesitation, he allowed them in.

She continued along the winding lane, searching for a good place to park and his question caught her off-guard. “The first time, it surprised me. I have had the offer but never really considered the possibility. You have, I am sure, discerned that I am not very tolerant of the red tape and bureaucracy that comes with job. But I don’t mind if it gets us where we need to go expeditiously.”

She found a lot littered with cars and – even better- tour buses. One of them was emblazoned with the words “Game of Thrones Tour” with what she assumed were a few of the main characters looking quite stoic. They were still unloading.

Pulling into a spot, she nudged Charles gently. “Lucky us.” A quick hop out of the car and the pair seamlessly joined the mass of tourists snapping pictures and dressed in various degrees of fan gear.

Kelyn heard a few different languages from Spanish to Chinese to what she thought might be Swahili. Diverse fan base.

The tour plunged into the forest, leading them along a wide and well kept path that wound between ancient and massive trees. Everywhere greenery spangled the starlight, giving it a verdant hue as it poured through the canopy.

Everything looked so healthy. So lush.

It was actually spectacularly beautiful. Man-made and natural waterfalls, stone and wood bridges, a bubbling river, quick and leaping in places, wide and sedate in others.

Kelyn took a few pictures that had nothing to do with the case.

And she listened.

Listened to the tour guide drone on and on about this scene in the show where that character did… whatever.

Over and over, on and on. The tourists were eating it up.

Then they found the archway. It was bigger than Kelyn had thought and felt… old.

Not ancient in the way a place like Stonehenge might, but… old.

But this wasn’t it. She didn’t know how she could tell, she just knew. They were on the right path, but the Archway was the beginning, not the end.

“I heard that a number of the stars are in town,” one of the tourists chimed in.

“Yes,” the guide answered. “There is a gala tomorrow night at the Culloden Estate. Very exclusive. Plates were upward of $50,000.00 a piece. Supposed to be a very intimate affair with the cast and crew.

Kelyn glanced at Charles.

The guide droned on at the location of a particular pivotal scene, but Kelyn kept glancing over her shoulder.

Down there.

She twisted, sighting a tiny and overgrown path down a short ravine.

It’s down there.

She couldn’t explain, couldn’t even verbalize it. Instead, she tugged at Charles’s sleeve and as the group moved on, she started down the ravine.

It was rocky going, but the woman always wore sensible shoes and her sneaker-clad feet found easy purchase.

Branches tangled in their hair and bushes snagged at their pant legs, but Kelyn pushed forward.

She could feel it now, a some thrumming, a constant beat on the air.

It took ten minutes to find the cave entrance, tucked behind a pair of massive standing stones, weathered and mossy.

“Found you,” she whispered softly.

In retrospection, Charles’ conversation with the Irish gatekeeper should have lasted much longer than it did. He quietly cursed himself for not having prolonged it with aimless pleasantries, all the while steadying himself before Kelyn’s ethereal gaze. The intention of his lean across her lap rose from simple necessity, but the fleeting moments which followed were brimming with unspoken revelations. One of Kelyn’s breaths caught along the collar of his shirt and rolled towards his ear, prompting an awkward swallow along the flank of his neck. His mind held fast to one word which burned hot and bright within its grasp.

Was there a possibility for the pair of detectives following the conclusion of the Solstice case?

Perhaps there would be an encore of Kelyn’s breaths on his neck at some point in the future, but Charles refused to dwell on such possibilities unless sleep followed close behind.

The Game of Thrones bus was a welcome break, but Charles quickly found himself at a loss as he listened in alongside Kelyn, picking and placing tidbits of information from the tour group. He knew next to nothing of the show, aside from the sporadic episodes he watched with his ex which his brain only half-tuned in for.  Try as he might, he just wasn’t a TV guy beyond war footage programs and space documentaries on the History channel. But he filed away as much as he could, with the announcement of a forthcoming gala being the most tantalizing prospect.

The archway was a sight to behold. The pictures on the internet didn’t do it justice in the least, at least from Charles’ perspective. A casual survey of the stoned behemoth was meant to ingrain specific details for a future drawing, but Charles was stumped as to where to go from there. He stood quietly and pulled a half-hearted frown into his right cheek before feeling Kelyn tugging at his shirt. She was beckoning him to join her down a nearby, overrun trail which looked no fun at all for a guy with dress shoes on. A quick study of her eyes, however, would widen his own with dawning revelation. He had seen that look before. Kelyn was on to something, and he’d be wise to follow without hesitation.

The path through the ravine was inconvenient at best. Thorny bushes kept sweeping across his calves, drawing lines of red irritation through his tailored pants. A low-hanging branch almost knocked him on his ass, and an insect flew right into his mouth, prompting a spitting fit. It wasn’t too long, though, before Kelyn would abruptly stop in her tracks, seemingly to signal the end of their journey.

A few moments later, Charles would huff-and-puff himself beside Kelyn’s side once more. A quick study of her face seemed to suggest that she some kind of daze or trance. Charles would gently turn her by the shoulders and lock his eyes upon hers.

“I’m going in first. If things get hairy in there, get the hell out. I’ll be right behind you.”

A few grunts and groans later, the stones were moved and they were inside the cave. Charles had to squat down a bit just to fit himself through, but the interior quickly accommodated his height. The passage inside seemed naturally made but oddly symmetrical. A pothole filled with water caught Charles’ shoe after a few steps, prompting an echoed curse before he turned back towards Kelyn.

“Watch your step,” he advised before trudging forward.

Minutes would pass as the pair of detectives pressed forward for whatever awaited them. The guidance of the light from the entrance was quickly losing its influence against the swallowing darkness. Their trajectory was mostly straight, however, encouraging Charles’ and Kelyn’s chances in case they needed to make a quick getaway.

Finally, just as it seemed they were fully immersed in murky blackness, slivers of leftover light would trickle against the edges of a spherical room and the items within it. An altar, the features of which could hardly be discerned… a cauldron which seemed to be rusted through from either side… and a small, circular trinket with a spiral design. Charles would shift and allow Kelyn room to observe the items for herself.

“Well, it looks like we’ve found something, finally. What are your first impressions, Agent Kelyn?”

It took some ducking and squeezing to get through passageway and Kelyn felt a little odd standing by while the gallant Agent Brock moved the stones and put himself to the hazard for her protection. It wasn’t something she was used to and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

It didn’t matter though for once she ducked inside, everything changed.

It was dark, damp, and musty and as the pair pressed forward, at times stooped so as not to hit their heads and at other times basking in sweeping open spaces, they followed the simple and generally straight trail to its end.

It was very dark here, the meager light offering little in the way of details, but Kelyn’s eyes narrowed in the gloom.

Was that a…

She pulled out her phone and flipped on the flashlight, illuminating the ancient place with the bright and modern light.

The altar, the cauldron, the triskellion.

She lowered the phone slowly, throwing everything into sharp relief. The feel of the place.

The smell!

“Do you smell salt water?” It did, the aroma of seaweed and old fish, of salty sea breezes on the stale air. “We are too far from the coast but I smell it.”

It wasn’t all Kelyn was aware of but how could she explain the sensation pulling her to the altar, the glow lighting it with a dull blue phosphorescence.

“That is a triskelion, a symbol most often used in ancient druidic traditions. Considering the history, the area, the cave and the other artifacts, it makes sense. This could easily have been sacred place of worship for the ancient druids. Kelyn crept forward slowly, flashing the light pouring from her phone along the various items and artifacts.

She moved among the artifacts, careful not to touch anything. The smell was stronger here and completely at odds with the dank smell of the cave.

Kelyn stared down at the altar, then leaned in close. “Come look at this.” The altar was covered with mossy overgrowth except for a strangely shaped hole in the center where the moss was much thinner.

“I think there was something on this altar, which is obviously no longer here. I think this cave was a sacred place to the druids who may have left an artifact here and I think said artifact is now missing.

“How that ties into the disappearances I don’t know, but the solstices are very important to the druidic tradition.”

She rose, shining the light about.

Was that a shadow at the entrance?

The overwhelming smell of rotting fish, low tide, and fishing wharf washed over them.

The shadow spun and bolted, racing along the entrance.

“Stop!” Kelyn howled, leaping over the jutting rocks and slipping on the damp floor, her flashlight jumping and bobbing after the perpetrator.

The shadow disappeared through the brilliant sunlight at the end of the tunnel and then, to her horror, the light began to disappear.

A sharp rumble sliced through their world and all at once, the tunnel’s mouth collapsed, raining pebbles and boulders and dust. Kelyn threw her arms over her head, skittering to a stop before the pile of rocks.


No no no…

Charles was relieved that the dark would mask the look of his eyes glazing over at Kelyn’s explanation. Triskellion? Druidic traditions? He applied a colossal effort towards applying the information towards their clues thus far, but was mostly at a loss. At the same time, he was pleased that Kelyn retained such knowledge and was ready to utilize it when the opportunity presented itself. He scrambled across the confines of his mind to search for a question or comment that would serve to prove he was at least within Kelyn’s time zone of understanding.

Then things happened, fast. Much too fast.

Charles was slow to react and would only be turning his body as Kelyn’s flashlight slid and scraped across the rocky floor. He caught a glimpse of the shadowy character at the entrance, but only a glimpse before things went to hell in a handbasket. The unmistakable sound of rocks collapsing in upon themselves could be heard in the near distance before… silence. A tip-top-topping stone or two would drive the point of their predicament home. The pair of detectives were trapped.

Action always spoke louder than words in Charles’ mind, prompting his stride towards the entrance after helping Kelyn to her feet without any verbalized concerns. He’d near the pile of rocks that divided he and Kelyn from freedom before pulling out his ancient Razr phone to find that there was no reception. No bars. None.

Then, he was reminded of something, and managed a half-hearted smile. Could Charles play the hero again and impress Kelyn to the point of infatuation?

He had brought a signal-amplifying device which was purchased through ebay, $2.69 plus shipping, mailed via e-packet from China. His doubts about Ireland’s cell-tower capabilities had given him the foresight to bring it along for their exploits within the country, and it was now sitting in his pocket.

Untwist, discard. Twist, snap. Now hold up your stegosaurus phone as high as you can, Chuck… and let’s see.

Moments passed without any signal reception. Then moments more. Disappointment was now escalating towards despair.

Alternative possibilities began their climb to the forefront of Charles’ mind. They could perhaps begin the process of moving rocks and carving their way out, but such a process was likely to take hours upon hours. All the while, they would be eating up oxygen which was likely a precious resource, to be conserved at all costs.

Charles would walk dejectedly back towards Kelyn, only finding her by the sound of her breath. “I think we’re stuck,” he’d say with a hang of his head.

Soon after he said those dejected words, however, he was hard at work navigating himself around the altar room with his hand on the wall as a guide. Slow but sure footsteps would make the full circle around before he found himself before Kelyn again. No signs of a trap door or secret room were to be had.

“Well, at least if the cave paintings suck in here, we won’t know the difference.” Charles’ humor was likely lost on Kelyn but he felt the need to interject some lightheartedness into an otherwise dire situation.

Charles made his rounds in the altar room once more after a short while passed. Perhaps there was something he missed the first time, perhaps a switch or lever or…

The sound of running water?

Indeed, the faint sound of water could be heard from the northeastern corner of the room. Charles pressed his ear against the wall and was possessed to bang his fists against it as well.

“I think I hear something! I hear—“

Then things went to hell in a handbasket once more. Charles wasn’t ready for a portion of the wall to collapse inward a few feet, revealing an opening in the floor which he fell into without the slightest moment to prepare himself. A few loud thud sounds could be heard before a large splash preceded a return into relative quiet. Kelyn would find Charles in what appeared to be a nearby sewage tunnel with a rather large gash across the top of his head as he clasped his ankle in pain.

“I think I found our way out of here,” he groaned with a wrinkled nose and gnashing teeth.

Her breath came fast, her body tensed. Trapped.

Oh god.

She was back in that cheap hotel room, a pair of beds, the covers stained and threadbare. The clunky tv played Disney cartoons over and over, the cheerful theme song skittering over fast food wrappers and cold french fries.


Hands found her in the darkness, pulling her to standing and suddenly Kelyn was back in the cave.

In Ireland.

With Charles.

She crouched down, clamoring around for her cell phone and brought the flashlight to bear, illuminating tiny wedges of the cave one at a time.

There was a moment of hope, the signal-amplifying device torn from its packaging, such a modern device in such an ancient place. But… nothing.

She tried it on her phone, a slicker and far newer model, but there was no luck.

They were trapped.

Charles moved away and Kelyn faced down the pile of rocks.

There was no way of knowing how deep the cave in, how far from the entrance, but the lack of light creeping through the various cracks and wedges was not promising.

Kelyn had already seen the rest of the cave. She had looked. There were no secret passages, no hidden exits.

Which meant she had to do it.

Kelyn clenched her eyes shut against the darkness.

He wouldn’t understand.

He wasn’t ready.

Hell, she wasn’t ready, but there was no denying at this point. And there was no other escape.

He would look at her… that way, but it was better than starving to death. No one knew where they were. It would take days for his superiors to realize he was missing, even longer to mount a search party and then what? They would methodically search… Ireland?

No, the only way out was the way they came and that meant…

It meant…

She heard the pound of fist against wall, his words barely discernable and then the sound of shattering rock, a portion of the wall tumbling once more. Kelyn threw her arms over her head, fearful of another cave in and stumbled her way towards the sound, towards his voice.

“Charles?!” There was concern in her tone, clear and strident.

The smell hit her first and Kelyn skidded to a halt before the gaping mouth, the sound of flowing liquids echoing throughout the darkened expanse.



Kelyn pulled a face, but was silently relieved. Flashing the light through the hole, she pinned Charles with the beam, the blood on his forehead black in the odd light. She turned the flashlight off but left the phone with its screen illumination to cast a far weaker light.

He was holding his ankle. Shit.


Flowing on either side of him.

Training took over. Clean and bind in a toxic environment. Kelyn stepped cautiously through the gaping hole, sliding her cell phone into the space between her breasts to keep her hands free.

Useful storage space.

The smell was worse – something she should have assumed but couldn’t have prepared for. The scent whirled around her, making her momentarily nauseous. Her pack was in the car – that was stupid – and so were all her supplies. Kelyn crouched before Charles, pulling the hem of her shirt and tore it, the sound lost beneath the rush of liquid and solid waste.

Don’t overthink.

She tore the piece into two halves. The first she folded into a thick wad of fabric and leaned forward to press it carefully against the gash across his forehead. The light illuminated the pair at odd angles, carving the hollow at her cheek, her throat, the oddest highlights in her hair. She pressed the makeshift bandage against the wound, then took the other strip and tied it about his head to hold the bandage in place.

It looked ridiculous, but it did its job.

“Are you alright?” she questioned softly, glancing toward his ankle. She had to twist her body so the light followed, casting his injured limb in its light. She didn’t see any open wounds, which – considering the proximity to the waste – was one good thing.


Everything was in her pack which was in the car.

Damn it.

“We don’t have a choice,” she offered calmly, helping the man to standing and sliding beneath his arm to help keep him steady. Between the ankle and the head wound, she was worried he would pitch face first into the ankle deep sewage.

She felt soft yet steady against his side, her own arm around his back and hooking his opposite shoulder. Like a flowing stream, constant and relentless. Gentle yet oddly strong.
They had to move forward.

Step by slow and tortuous step they moved away from the cave and along the tunnel. Smaller pipes joined to the larger main, the flow creeping higher and higher until they were calf deep, knee deep.

And they thought combing through a week old dumpster was bad. Kelyn breathed through clenched teeth, her nose blatantly refusing any other option. The ground grew all the more precarious, the coating of waste making every step slippery. More then once they almost slipped and more than once, it was only the stable wedge their bodies created that kept them standing.

She was so focused, eyes forward and constant, one steady step after another, but every once and awhile, she would look up to him, cellphone light, showing a mixture of determination and concern across her features.

They trudged for what felt like hours, days, the featureless interior of the sewer main broken only by the occasional additional pipe, the sewage creeping all the higher and no end in sight. Waste splashed and splattered, soaking their clothing and filling their shoes. Kelyn felt infused by it, soaked through until she was sure she would never be clean again.

How far could this pipe go?

Where did it possibly empty and how could they not see any hint of light?

Her back ached from her slightly hunched position, her leg muscles burning from constantly fighting for stable ground.

It was the first tendrils of fresh air that brought Kelyn to a halt, her breath catching and suddenly hopeful. Bad idea. The stench rushed in and she gagged, swallowing acid.

There was literally no light at the end of this tunnel because night had fallen.

They trudged for what felt like another half an hour before the pipe opened, the sewage tumbling into a massive vat before heading for treatment.

To the left, were the sewage sped up before tumbling into the vat, a rickety and rusted ladder promised escape.

A ladder.

Kelyn glanced to Charles’s injured ankle, hidden beneath the flow of sewage.

Navigating cautiously to the ladder was hard. She wanted to spring forward, to be done with this feces-encrusted nightmare but one wrong step could send them both into that vat and Kelyn couldn’t imagine worse than that.

Closing the distance to the ladder took them ten minutes and when Kelyn grabbed the rungs, she felt a rush of relief.

Almost over.

It was almost over.

“You should go first… just in case.”

Retrospectively, Charles’ own reflexive reactions during dire situations were amusing to him on a subconscious level. He often recalled the time a few years back when he was cornered in a warehouse by two suspects wielding automatic rifles. Despite his critical situation, Charles felt as though he had an out-of-body experience of sorts, as if he was watching himself play a role in a movie… one where the good guys always won, no matter how much trouble they find themselves in. And somehow, some way, he did win, weaving through stacks of boxes and rounding corners at just the right times to turn the tables on his pursuers.

And now, even as the crumbling wall and floor sent Charles tumbling towards a debilitating injury or worse, his detective mindset was hard at work. Ah ha. So this was the joker’s back door out of here, should he ever get cornered within his creepy abode. I guess the thought of escaping through a thick pile of crap isn’t appetizing, but I’m sure it beats getting arrested for multiple counts of kidnapping. His unflappable analysis, however, would eventually give way to the pain of his turned ankle and the throbbing cut of his forehead. A sobering acknowledgement of his situation would seep into his mind all at once.

Oh, shit. I’m actually in shit.

Charles was pretty sure his ankle wasn’t broken, but it hurt like hell all the same. A trickling bead of blood found its way from his forehead to his left eye, forcing it shut. He was a mess, flowing shit-stream notwithstanding. The urge to force himself up with soldier-esque bravado was tempered by a sudden bout of exhaustion as his body processed the extent of his injuries with pulses of pain.

Kelyn would rush to his aid and finally get him back to his feet after a series of maneuvers within the shit-slop. They had found their way to freedom, but they weren’t out of the woods yet… or more accurately, out of the pipe. Charles tried extremely hard to refrain from any humor regarding the ridiculousness of their situation, but the occasional glance towards Kelyn’s ruggedly determined eyes suggested that she wouldn’t have heard him anyway.

Every step along their route would shoot a miserably intense, stinging sensation from Charles’ ankle throughout the rest of his body. Charles, however, simply refused to show any signs of discomfort and scrunched his facial features in an attempt to dull out the pain. Their journey was long and arduous, but the pair of detectives would eventually be rewarded for their persistence. A ladder offered itself as a beacon of freedom, teasing Charles and Kelyn with its vertical ascension.  

Charles nodded at Kelyn’s suggestion that he go first. He would climb the ladder with a series of ‘hops’ upon its rungs – neglecting to apply any real pressure on his bum ankle. He scaled it after an agonizingly long period of time, finally reaching the top to muster his strength against what appeared to be a manhole cover. Another long series of grunts would be heard before a trickle of light seeped down towards Kelyn’s eyes from the world above.

It would be another series of carefully-executed maneuvers until Charles found himself on the surface. A few heavy pants of exhaustion would precede a survey of his surroundings. It seemed as though he was in the middle of a desolate street with dusk close at hand, but a look to his left revealed a gas station within yelling distance. There was someone filling up on gas, seemingly unaware of the shit-covered stranger which had climbed his way to freedom.

“Sir! Sir!” Charles called with a strained voice, stumbling to his feet. “I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and we need to commandeer your vehicle at once to aid our pursuit of a suspect.”

The man reacted adversely to the sight of Charles, widening his eyes before climbing into his car and speeding away with a screech of his tires.

“God damn it,” Charles sneered, but his voice lacked any real disappointment. He recognized the inherent silliness of his demands and shrugged off the setback. A payphone booth was visible, but certainly no sane cab driver would accept a pair of feces-covered detectives in his back seat, would he?

Then Charles saw it. A self-serve car wash, attached to the side of the gas station.

“Get up here, Kelyn!” he yelled down below into the sewer with renewed vigor. “It’s time to get cleaned up and on our way.”

Of all the things she expected, hearing Charles’s more upbeat call which tumbled down the ladder into the darkness that surrounded her was not one of them.

Exhausted, her back and arms and legs aching, Kelyn hauled herself up the ladder. It was only in this moment, while he waited above and she was alone in the wafting stench and darkness that she allowed herself to feel the frustration, the fear, the disgust and the anger.

Five rungs to go.

This was a literal nightmare, wading through untreated sewage.

Four rungs.

Hauling the pair of them through various tunnels for hours.

Three rungs.

The fear when the cave collapsed. The memory of a room, all pale gray stone. Locked in at night in a ten by ten cell.

Two rungs.

The cheap hotel room, too short to reach up and flip open the safety lock, even standing on a chair, her tiny child’s fingers reaching… reaching.

One rung.

Fire all around her, staring out the window to see her mother, clutching her baby brother, her expression horrified.

Kelyn emerged from the hole in the ground and hauled herself onto the empty roadway.

She took two breaths, one to clear her nose of the stench that had infused her and the other to clear the rush and clatter of memory.

Then she rose to stand at Charles’s side, watching sardonically as the driver all but peeled away.

Well, she didn’t thinks he would have stopped either.

The gas station was a welcome sight and Kelyn helped Charles towards it, digging through her pants to find a couple dollars.

But the symbol on the money slot of the carwash didn’t say dollars, it said euros.

Of course it did.

And the euros were in the car.

Along with everything helpful or useful or necessary in their lives.

“I have to change some money. I’ll be right back.”

She left Charles sitting at the curb and stepped into the gas station.

The smell of air freshener and the bright fluorescent light seemed almost alien after so long in the sewage.

The clerk, a young man about her age glanced up as she approached, grinned softly at her, and then was hit by the smell.

His eyes actually watered and he slid back a bit.

“Canna help you?” he questioned tightly.

“A first aid kit, some beef jerky, two bottles of water, and enough change for the car wash. Do you take Visa?”

There was one thing on their side, the card went through with no issues and Kelyn sprawled her signature across the digital pad, took the plastic bag with the items, the little thermal paper that gave her the carwash code and returned to Charles.

She was thirsty and hungry.

She needed to see to his head wound and likely splint or at least wrap his ankle…

…but if she was this filthy for one more second, she would loose it utterly. Kelyn laid the bag down on the curb beside the car wash, placing her phone (and his) in the bag, then tucked it in the bushes.

She punched in the code, pushed a few buttons, and the water came streaming out.

Clean water.

She wanted to run to it.

To drown herself in it.

Instead, she helped Charles stand and the pair of them moved cautiously across the slippery blue tile.

The water was chilly bliss and while she only intended to rinse off her legs, Kelyn couldn’t get the smell off her. Too much waste had splattered her entire body. She ended up drenching herself, soaked from head to toe, her hair hanging in dripping scythes, her long sleeves shirt clinging to arms and shoulder and chest and waist like a tired child.

It was chilly.

She didn’t care.

The water tasted of chemicals.

She didn’t care.

Kelyn washed herself and helped Charles in whatever way he needed – whether he wanted only his legs washed or wanted to drench himself as she had.

Again and again, she soaked herself, unable to get the feeling of slime and dirt and waste off her.

The water turned off before she was done, but then, she would have stood under it for hours if she was able to, certain she wasn’t clean.

In the end, she settled him back on the curb, both of them as clean as they could get given the circumstances, sat dripping beside him, and offered him a water bottle.

“Well… that sucked,” she offered softly, gulping down half the bottle before tearing into one of the sticks of jerky. It was awful stuff, salty and chewy, but it was high protein and would get them through until they made it back to the hotel and could get some real food.

Once she wasn’t dying of thirst and her stomach temporarily satiated, she pulled out the first aid kit.

His ankle wasn’t going anywhere, so with cell phone flashlight in hand, she knelt on the roadway beside him, dusk falling to darkness around them and checked his head wound.

Nasty gash, bleeder – all head wounds are – and she leaned carefully close to him, cleaning it gently.

It was as if they each offered up a slightly magnetized field and coming within a certain proximity triggered the reaction: this close, a soft flutter of electricity rushed from the back of her neck, skittering down her spine and out to her arms. She shuddered softly (from the cold – naturally) but her hands were steady.

The isopropyl alcohol stung something fierce, but she had to make sure the wound was clean. More than once she whispered a soft ‘sorry.’

More than once, she glanced down to him, but this close, she couldn’t hold his gaze for more than an instant, that magnetism, that electricity pulsing through her, as if in time to a steady if rapid heartbeat.

And just barely, as if in the distance, that deep thrumming bass began.

Kelyn actually started when she heard it, seeming utterly shocked. It was the first time he had ever witness her acknowledging the sound.

She paused for a moment, her fingers curling into fists to clench and then unclench. When she leaned forward again, the bass rumble was gone.

He was so close, if he turned his head just a bit, his cheek would brush her collarbone, and she could feel the gentle heat coming off his body.

She was so cold.

He was so warm.

Again that skitter of sensation, of electricity.

Kelyn crushed it ruthlessly.

She gently pressed the edges of the gash together and laid a trio of steri-strips to bridge the distance.

“All set,” she offered softly, her eyes meeting his again, her own exhausted features just inches from his.

The heat, the electricity spiked and Kelyn drew a long, soft, and breathless gasp.

One instant.

That was all she could risk.

She broke away, kneeling to sit on her ankles, her fingers soft on his leg. She carefully pulled off his soaked shoe, his soaked sock.

There was something oddly intimate about the gesture, though there was nothing intimate about the circumstances and again that soft shudder raced through her.

Kelyn showed none of it, the absolute professional.

In fact, she moved so cleanly, so confidently, and yet so carefully, it begged the question if she had medical training.

She checked his ankle gently, prodding here and there, and though it was moderately swollen, there were no black and blue marks. She could check it more once they were safely ensconced in their room.

Splint it.

Wrap it.

Get to the car.

Get to the hotel.

She repeated the mantra over and over as she pulled a pair of oversized and thickened popsicle sticks and with the ace bandage she wrapped his ankle until he couldn’t flex or extend it.

It actually felt better.

Once done, Kelyn settled on the curb again, a careful distance between them. She pulled out her phone, launched Uber and requested a cab.

“Ten minutes,” she offered softly, taking another swig of water. There was a moment of silence before she offered. “That was pretty Indy Jones of you, crashing through the wall like that. I might have preferred the big ass boulder though… for next time.”

Bag and Tag

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions

The ghost town of Bretham stood as a dilapidated monument of wells, wagons and dusk-lit showdowns. A convoy of jeeps—camouflaged with military patterns of beiges and ochres—approached from the west, traversing a forgotten road which carved through a sun-bleached desert that stretched for miles in every direction. Sergeant Brock sat quietly amongst a row of soldiers flanking him on either side within the canopied bed of the foremost jeep. His nose twitched as he sensed the transmission shifting down a gear—the objective in question was close at hand. He was rarely nervous during routine Bag-and-Tag operations, but his recent promotion was a game-changer, potentially setting the groundwork for a high-ranking government position in the future. An entire platoon was now under his command, and beads of sweat jostled upon his brow in accordance with the heavy bumps of the road. With a heavy exhale, he forced his mind to wander. His thoughts routinely drifted towards his small circles, and those circles almost always seemed to involve Jordan.

It was just a week’s time before their mandatory deployment to the Dravouth campaign, and Jordan had the bright idea of visiting the Claim Exchange as a sort of motivator to ensure their safe return. Jordan flashed his infectiously toothy grin at Charles as they casually strolled beside the gallery of Braces which were presented behind a vertical plate of one-way glass at the Claim Exchange. “Braces”—improvised vernacular for breeding sows—were prisoners volunteered for the various propagation programs that were offered to long-tenured soldiers.

There was never any shortage of Braces to choose from, since that was the only recourse for female captives to avoid relentless propaganda and sixty-hour workweeks at the Reeducation Camps. One particular prospect stopped Jordan dead in his tracks, and he’d approach the glass with hungry eyes while folding his arms behind his back. “I’ll be having one of those firecrotches under my thumb and in my bed every night after our dues are paid, Chaz. Just you watch.” Redheads always seemed to make him giddy, prompting him to jot the Claim number for each within the small black notebook that he always kept in his back pocket.

The odds of a soldier obtaining his number one choice were very low, of course, since Officers and MPs always enjoyed first selections, but it seemed any redhead would do for ol’ Jordy. He was a horny bastard, in spite of the mandatory anaphrodisial injections for enlisted soldiers, and this was always a topic of jest exploited by friends and foes alike. “I’ll never be doused,” Jordan would boast with an exaggerated wink worthy of a Warner Brothers cartoon. “Let it be known to every man, woman and child that I like to fuck.” Charles had a new set of responsibilities to uphold, since he was now an Officer in training, but he volunteered for the injections anyways. It was implied that claiming a Brace could hinder your chances at promotion, so he fulfilled his infrequent needs at the local whorehouses which were common on the outskirts of the barracks.

“Let it be known to every man, woman and child that I like to fuck.” Well, maybe just the women, Jordan might add as a humorous addendum, if he had it to say all over again. He was dead now, claimed by an artillery round fired from an insurgent’s bunker. It wasn’t until after he saw Jordan’s name flash across the KIA marquee in his visor that Charles realized that Jordan was his best friend… maybe the only real friend he had. Ol’ Jordy, who could make dead babies funny. Maybe there was a personal bordello of redheads waiting for him in heaven.

Charles took it upon himself to inform Jordan’s family of the tragedy. As gray streaks of light from nearby window blinds slid across his face, he barely mustered the news with a gravelly, dust-choked voice. Jordan’s father and mother sat stunned, but Jordan’s sister Andrea took it the hardest. There was yelling and screaming before she bolted out of the house, tears streaming down her cheeks. Andrea’s name was mentioned during a missing person’s broadcast a week later. A year after that, his parents were suspected to be rebel conspirators, tried, and hanged. It seemed that Jordy’s death would magnify its own misfortune tenfold in its wake.

Charles’s mind snapped back just as the jeep’s hatch swung open. Soldiers filed out and quickly claimed strategic advantages throughout the perimeter, reacting to Charles’ hand-gestured commands without hesitation.

Colonel Emmerson was already at work with his bullhorn, barking threats and ultimatums through a mechanical screech which seemed to disturb lines of dust from windowsills. “Attention, attention. This area is now under State control. Any insurgents are to surrender themselves immediately or risk being fired upon.” It wasn’t long until a response echoed between the rows of buildings which flanked the main street. Scattered pops from small arms were soon followed by sputterings of machine gun fire. Well, well,Charles thought to himself as he rushed for cover with the click-clack-click of ammunition belts on dust-colored fatigues. It would seem that intelligence was right about this one, after all.

All in all, it was a successful, if not dull operation to claim under his belt. Eight rebels were killed and another six were apprehended…in total, ten men, three women and a child, with no internal losses or injuries. Once they were rounded up and carted away, Colonel Emmerson assigned Charles and three other soldiers clean-up duty and final inspection as the rest of the platoon pushed onwards towards the rendezvous point. It was a duty which he hated, but he’d grit his teeth and take it. He was platoon leader, after all. The trio of grunts would engage in small talk as they dragged bodies out into the open street, but Charles quickly grew bored of supervising, letting his curiosity pull him away towards the opposite end of town.

The saloon offered a decent amount of shade from the relentless afternoon sun, and Charles would naturally roam around with curious eyes at the timeless relics which seemed to beg his attention. There was an upstairs floor, so he slowly climbed the creaky steps to investigate what it had to offer. One particular room caught his attention, as it offered a particularly deep recess of shadow, so he slowly approached the doorframe to enforce his position before taking a sideways lean for a look inside.

The sound of a shuffle would surprise him into immediate action. “You there!” Charles barked, readying his rifle towards a pair of legs emerging from a shadow in the corner of the room. “Hands up, now! Comply at once or…” The spotlight on his weapon revealed a pair of terrified eyes which quickly locked themselves upon his own. “Andrea?” Charles asked with an incredulous whisper as he lowered his gun to the floor.

Andrea is a placeholder name. Feel free to PM if you’d like me to change it. I intended your character to be feisty and strong-willed, at least in the beginning, despite her obvious disadvantage. She’d be taken as a Brace (after some red tape, of course) by Charles and the story would develop from there. I know this intro is fairly long, but I wouldn’t expect our responses to be nearly as intensive from this point forward. As always, I’m open to any other ideas you might have. Have fun!

In a message dated 5/4/2016 11:22:33 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

((Here we go.  I hope it’s good enough for your enjoyment.  I’m still feeling out a bit of the setting, so my quality will likely go up as I get a better feel for the character.))

She should have waited another hour.  Waited until it was fully dark, even.  The room’s secret little panic room was crowded and stuffy and uncomfortable, but at least it was relatively safe.  Nope, she had been lured out by the sounds of those military trucks leaving, baiting her into thinking it was safe to get moving again.

That was what Elise had been reduced to these days.  Not really part of one world or the other, but a shattered soul running around trying to avoid oblivion after her entire way of life had fallen apart.  Running, ever running.  Her brother, dead in the line of ‘duty’.  Her parents, labeled as traitors and murdered by the State.  Elise knew what that would mean if she was ever caught.  Guilty by association.  Whether she was a rebel or not in truth, she’d be considered one by the oppressive regime and treated as such.

Truthfully, she was tempted.  Tempted to join the rebels who fought back against a State that seemed ever more determined to stomp its own people out under its heel, when they dared to voice an opinion that wasn’t sanctioned or ‘correct’.  It wasn’t right.  It couldn’t be right.  Wasn’t humanity stronger when it listened to a plethora of different ideas, and discussed them like rational beings?

That was what those rebels she had met had been saying, had been asking, and it made sense.  Elise hadn’t committed to much of anything yet, because it was all so big, so over her head.  What could SHE really do?  On the other hand… she knew she was already damned in the eyes of the State.  No matter what she chose to do, she’d be tried and murdered if they ever got ahold of her.  That in and of itself was almost enough to decide her.  If you already carry a label to those in power, why not just grab the bull by the horns?

But now, it seemed like she’d not be given the chance to even make up her mind which side she was on, because her own moment of stupidity and flight response had led to now.  And now was a soldier’s booming voice calling out for her to stop and comply, as she’d been creeping from the panic room and across the room above the saloon, intending to be on her way before more soldiers arrived.

Her jaw clenched as the bright light of the spotlight splashed across her face, caught between terror and indignant anger.  She’d heard the trucks leave!  It should have been safe now!  Her emerald green eyes flashed as without realizing it, her chin rose a bit in almost a defiant arrogance.  Their fault.  Always making her run, flee, and fear for her life.  And then they had the audacity to trick her too.

Standing there in the dark room, highlighted only by the dimming light from the single covered window and now the spotlight of Charles’ weapon, Elise was a rather sorry sight.  When he’d met her briefly during his excursion to inform Jordy’s family of his death, Elise had been a very pretty young woman in her early twenties.  Long luxurious mahogany brown hair, sparkling green eyes, and an hourglass figure that was equal parts voluptuous with feminine curves and delicate in bone structure, standing an elegant five foot eight inches tall in bare feet.

Her year plus of disappearing off the grid had left her looking rather bedraggled.  That gorgeous long hair was now held back in a messy unwashed braid.  She’d lost weight, leaving her previously lovely natural curves somewhat diminished in the ragged utilitarian pants that cinched at her slender waist with an over-long belt.  The long-sleeved shirt she wore had a rip in the side that exposed a hint of too-thin ribcage, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows to keep them out of her way. 

And as she took a small step to the side, trying to put a table between herself and her aggressor, the thud of tread on the floor was telling that she was wearing sensible hiking boots.  Her hand, trembling hard, was tugging at the pistol she had stuffed in the wrapping of her belt.  Didn’t really know how to use it, but somewhere along the line she’d picked it up and it had worked wonders as a deterrent against less-desirable elements.

The fumbling half-draw of her weapon stopped short when she heard the surprised whisper from the soldier in the doorway crossing the dim gloom of the room.  Was that… had he said her name?  Emerald eyes squinted in the dim, but she was unable to really see past the lingering dots and dimples the spotlight had left clinging to her retinas when the man had shone the light into her darkness-adjusted eyes.

She couldn’t really see him, still half-blinded.  But she could somewhat tell that he had lowered his weapon, which didn’t make sense.  Soldiers just loved to point their weapons around directly at people.

“How do you know my name?”  Her voice echoed across the space between them, the same rich smoky tone he’d remember from so long ago.  Deeper than a typical female, a touch throaty but still exquisitely feminine.  And it only trembled ever so slightly, despite how badly frightened she was.  A show of strength.  Fuck him.  Maybe she could figure all this out.

A shift to bend her knees slightly, trying to let the table between them disguise the way she was once more trying to get her pistol free of the belt that held it.  Was the damned thing even loaded?  She couldn’t remember.

In a message dated 5/9/2016 10:58:59 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

(sorry for being a day and a half late, but here we go. I hope you’re still interested in pursuing this!)

An overlapping jumble of considerations flooded Charles’ mind as the situation unfolded before him. One of which being… if he was forced to kill the stray before him, then he most likely would have to write a lengthy report regarding the incident and submit it to Tactical Affairs for procedural analysis. He presumed that the prospect of losing half your next day off to paperwork was the State’s half-assed deterrent for the average soldier with an itchy trigger finger. His hopes were high that Elise would simply submit herself into custody without a struggle. His report to Colonel Emmerson could be sweet and succinct, and life could go on without a hitch after she was detained and carted away.

There was also the fact that Charles tried very hard to be a decent human being, of course. There were inherent limitations to when and how he could apply his generosity, but sparing lives whenever possible helped Charles to sleep better at night. His experience was that if the right peacekeeping tactics were properly implemented, killing could be avoided in the majority of close encounters. This would be the first time in Charles’ line of duty that he had an exchange with someone he actually knew, which strengthened his hope that no rounds would be fired between them.

“You’re Jordan’s sister, aren’t you?” Charles’ voice was human now, losing its mechanical harshness after he deactivated the built-in amplifier in his helmet’s mouthpiece. The bio readings on Charles’ scouter read that Elise was malnourished and weak, but otherwise healthy. He took a step forward into the room, allowing the light from outside the room to trickle contours of reflection along the various planes of his silhouetted armor. Charles stood tall, well past six feet, with his eyes offering no reflection from the available light, suggesting that they were a deep brown. A small tuft of black hair jutted from underneath the open visor of his helmet, a juvenile peculiarity to an otherwise imposing presence of armor and weaponry.

“Listen, I don’t know if you’re with the rebels or not, but I’m technically supposed to terminate you due to your lack of compliance from the earlier ultimatum.” Charles hoped that his tone suggested a preference against any bloodshed, but tact wasn’t his strongest suit… and as his words lingered in the air for an awkward moment, regret quickly set into his mind. He actively fought against his first instinct, which was to ask Elise a slew of questions and hopefully receive a slew of answers. There was no going back now, but perhaps he could reconcile the situation another way.

“I’m going to leave this building now.” There was a noticeable shift in Charles’ voice, as if he was beginning a set of instructions. “I will rejoin my men outside and mention nothing of our encounter. Wait five minutes, then head outside and walk towards us slowly, with your hands behind your head. I’ll apprehend you and see to it that you’re treated as fairly as possible.”

He took one more moment to scan Elise from head to toe before turning to honor his end of the bargain. Before fully disappearing through the doorframe, however, he paused and glanced back at her. “If I don’t see you in five minutes,” Charles warned, the soldier returning in his voice, “then I’ll hunt you down and kill you.”

In a message dated 5/10/2016 7:46:12 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Fingertips slid over the handle of the pistol that may or may not be loaded as Elise tried to ease it slowly from the makeshift holster for which her belt was currently acting.  The table was shitty cover, but she certainly wasn’t going to stand there and be gunned down like a helpless animal.  If she went out, she wanted to face the afterlife being able to say she at least tried to save herself.

But all movement stopped, and her breath was held as the amplifier on the soldier’s mouthpiece was shut down, rendering his speech far closer to that of an actual living, breathing human.  It was so easy to forget the soldiers were men when their voices were mechanical and loud and booming with small cracks of static.  So easy to think of them as merciless machines of death and oppression.

His question reached her as he took a step into the room, Elise reflexively taking an answering step backwards without even consciously thinking about it.  Her hip bumped into the edge of an end table and she winced slightly, but didn’t take her eyes off the man who had just sparked a small flash of recognition in her memory banks by using her brother’s name.  Did she know this guy?

Her gaze narrowed in both suspicion and attempt to make out the man’s features as her thoughts ran quickly through possibilities. Who the hell had Jordy known that would also know her, and was a soldier to boot?  She’d never met any of his soldier friends.  A moment later, even as the guy continued to speak, throwing out a sort of veiled threat about proper ‘protocol’ for finding her?  It clicked for her.

He must be the one who had come to their house, who had told her parents about how their son was dead, about how she would never ever see her brother’s laughing face again.  It really wasn’t technically the messenger’s fault, and there were all sort of proverbs about not shooting the messenger, but right then Elise wanted to do it anyway.  She might have tried, if she could have been certain the damned weapon she had was loaded.

What was the guy’s name?  What was it?  She’s not exactly been in the best frame of mind when the news had been delivered, and names tended to be the first thing to flee her head in times of stress.  Carl?  Harley?  Charlie?  Even as her mind fumbled for the fragmented memory, she kept watching the man in utter silence.  Really, what the hell was she supposed to say?

“What?”  Popped out of her mouth before she could stop it, when Charles suddenly informed her he was going to leave the building.  Was he… going to let her go?  She didn’t even really notice the shift in the man’s tone in that moment, a sudden flare of hope swelling heat through her chest.  “Because… of Jordy…?”  The question that emerged breathily from her lips essentially answered Charles’ first question for him, and solved the mystery of her potential identity, even if she hadn’t really meant to be all that informative.  Hope softened her briefly, a quiet breath drawn into her lungs.

Then his real purpose for saying such a thing became crystal clear as he continued his ‘instructions’.  He wasn’t letting her go.  He was just allowing her the chance to get out of this alive and instead turn herself in… where a fresh sort of hell awaited her.  As hope died in her emerald eyes, Charles’ final look would see her body language shifting towards something harder, distant and insulted.  Her chin lifting in a prideful gesture as her back straightened ramrod straight.

His final warning was delivered, hard and cold as soldiers so often were, and Elise suppressed an urge to scream, launch herself at him and claw out his eyes.  Bastard.  Cold-hearted bastard.  He’d given her hope and then smashed it into pieces.  She HATED him.  Instead, she simply lashed out with words as he turned to go, her fiery temper that had always gotten her into trouble before shredding her better judgment. 

“What wonderful fucking choices.  Thank you soooooo much.”  Anger, disdain, fiery frustration flung at him as her hands curled into fists, though she held her ground like a snarling cornered cat… and had also entirely taken her hand away from that pistol at her waist.  “Any chance I can get some tea to go with my shackles?”

Shut up, Elise.  Shut up.  She knew she was being stupid, stupid and childish and was likely to end up with a bullet in her eye.   But she couldn’t manage to hold her goddamned tongue, though now she reined it in and just stared at him, waiting for him to actually leave.  Visibly shaking in her boots with the expectation of being gunned down for being a mouthy bitch, but determined to at least stare the fucker in the eye when he did it.

Leave.  Please let him just leave like he said he would. Then she could figure out what to do.  Captivity or death.  Which was preferable?  It was a hell of a thing to decide in less than five minutes.

((Enjoy!   If you can get a response to me sometime tonight, I can probably at least begin another reply of my own before I go to bed later tonight.))

—–Original Message—–
From: propagandapiece <>
To: TellingofTales <>
Sent: Tue, May 31, 2016 3:05 pm
Subject: Re: Post #3

Elise’s bitter sarcasm was hardly scathing; Charles had been subjected to much worse during previous military excursions. He wouldn’t actually kill her, of course, but the possibility remained that she’d be dragged kicking and screaming back to his outpost. Sometimes, acting like a hardened, blood-lusting warmonger was necessary to drive a point home. He could only hope that Elise would follow his instructions and choose surrender, if only to put him in the best position towards helping her make the most of her future.

He approached his squadron out in the dusty street as they were finishing the last tally of their corpse inventory. Their collective gaze upon their approaching commander was one of quiet curiosity, quickly alerting Charles that he was visibly reeling from his encounter with Elise. He obscured his wearied eyes and flushed face underneath a sheet of shadow with a casual tip of his helmet, and ordered for one last scan of the surrounding area before the final haul of bodies upon the bed of their canopied jeep.

Minutes passed. The soldiers were busy, and Charles kept scanning the area where he emerged from the saloon. His mind was pleading with fate regarding the eventual outcome of his tense exchange. Please, Elise. Make the right decision. I’m imploring you. Otherwise, I seriously cannot guarantee your safety. His loyalty to Jordan seemed to stretch from beyond his friend’s grave. Charles would not… could not have been as lenient with a stranger in that darkened room moments earlier. As the time limit approached and elapsed, Charles forced his gaze once more towards the bright orange streak which was hazing the horizon, hoping against hope that he’d find an approaching silhouette.

In a message dated 5/31/2016 9:27:50 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

As soon as Charles had left the room, Elise could feel the countdown starting.  Five minutes had never felt like such a long time, and paradoxically like no time at all.  The first thing she did once she knew he wouldn’t see was to drop to her knees and let her face fall into her hands.  A rock and a hard place.  That was now her life.  Capture or death.  There was no longer anything else she could aspire to achieve.  She had believed the soldier when he said he would hunt her down and kill her.  That was what soldiers did, especially those who worked for this regime.  Even if this one had known her brother, why should he be any different?

For the next minute, various possibilities ran through her head.  Thoughts of trying to flee anyway, a cycling of different strategems to try to make it work.  But it was fruitless.  Soldiers were still around the town, and she would be seen if she tried to slip away now.  She couldn’t stay here either, because Charles would just find her again.  Now that he knew her face, she might be put on a list of fugitives.  And being hunted like an animal was really not high on her list of things to do in this life.

The next minute was spent being absolutely enraged at the world.  The table was turned over and kicked soundly with the toe of her boot.  The wall was punched and a string of curse words escaped her lips that no proper lady should ever speak.  She was likely to have to control her fiery temper from here on out, so she might as well get it all out of her system now.  A loud crash as dishes went flying from the cupboard, smashing against the opposite wall, until Elise was left panting and breathless. 

Minute three had her preparing for her ordeal.  She was going to have dignity for it.  Screw them all.  She’d hold her head high and stare defiantly into every last pair of eyes who wanted to condemn her.  Water still ran in the kitchen area, so she took a few moments to wash her face.  The messy braid that kept her hair out of her face was quickly unraveled, and the long mahogany brown locks were brushed out as well as she could manage with her fingers.  They needed a good wash, but they hadn’t lost all of their shine.  A rough shake of her head let them spill more freely around her shoulders and down her back to their full length, which brushed just above the curve of her backside.  There was little she could do about her bedraggled clothing, so she didn’t bother.  The pistol (which upon inspection, did turn out to be empty and unloaded) was tossed across the room into the wall in her final act of temper.

Minute four had her descending the staircase of the building and walking out the front door into the failing light of the early evening.  Now that she had made up her mind, she did not drag her feet or draw it out.  Her head was held high, emerald eyes sparking with spirit and the promise that while they could capture her, they could not break her.

And as the fifth minute dawned, she appeared on the horizon that Charles was watching, walking with a stride that belied the way she was surrendering herself to capture.  She could have been prowling freely like a jungle cat in its domain for all the fear she showed.  One might almost think she was the predator here… until she came to a stop a short distance away, raised her hands and laced her fingers behind her head.  The fading sunlight caught in her dark tresses and almost gave her a halo as she remained where she was, and spoke firmly.

“I surrender.”

In a message dated 6/3/2016 7:14:23 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

(Again, sorry for the delay but at least you didn’t wait as long for this one. :))

Upon hearing Elise’s words, Charles quietly closed the distance between her stationary body and frisked her from head to toe. The soldiers, returning from their brief excursion around the perimeter of the town, had bewildered looks on their faces, possibly from the lack of Charles drawing his weapon as Elise approached. He’d wave them off after a satisfactory inspection before speaking. “This one is clean. Corporal Davenport, please get Emmerson on the horn so he can personally approve a direct transport to the camps.”

As the soldiers busied themselves once more with menial taskwork, Charles whispered into Elise’s ear while standing behind her. “Don’t worry. I’ll see to it that you are rerouted and processed at a recruitment depot, where we’ll explore our options. Take a deep breath and relax, we’ll be on the road soon.” Her smell, which caught his nostrils as he leaned in to utter his reassurance, was strangely alluring. Truth be told, he hadn’t been this close to a live woman in months. A juvenile part of his brain craved another frisk with more emphasis on particular parts of her body, which forced a slight smile upon his face. It was thoughts like these which he filed away as evidence that he was still human, at least for the most part.

Colonel Emmerson would arrive twenty minutes later on a jeep, flanked on three sides by soldiers who were obviously meant to shield him from any attempts on his life by snipers or shrapnel. He quickly jumped up and dismissed the grunts under Charles’ command before joining him and Elise in the middle of the street.

“Well, looks like you caught a fresh one there,” Emmerson began, smiling as he eyeballed Elise from top to bottom. “Good lookin’ one, too. Let’s take a closer look, hmm?” He gently seized her chin with his thumb and forefinger, guiding her face from left to right as he peeked in close on her features.

“Nothing obvious as far as viral infections… good, good. Open ‘er up, then.” He motioned for Elise to open her mouth and scanned top to bottom before humming his approval. “We’ll have a dentist take a profession look-see, but everything seems fine to me. Well then, friend. Shall I turn you over to the authorities as a criminal, my dear?”

Colonel Emmerson smiled at his own sudden inquiry with a focused gaze upon Elise’s face. Charles clasped her wrist firmly, a signal for her to keep her mouth shut. The silent moment which passed was likely delicious in Emmerson’s own demented mind.

“I’ll have my own favorite Commander make that call,” he finally snorted, shifting his eyes towards Charles behind her. “Cart her off and make sure she gets a Phase-B analysis. We’ll see if she’s any good to us as a breeder.”

One final nod from the Colonel seemed to finalize matters. “After dealing with this one, take the rest of the day off, Commander. You’ve done some good work today.” With that, the Colonel and the soldiers relieved themselves from the vicinity, leaving Charles to snap restraints on Elise’s wrists before gently guiding her to the idling jeep waiting for their own departure. Charles would whisper in her ear one last time before climbing in the driver’s seat beside her. “We’ll get you fed and we’ll get you safe. This I promise.”

In a message dated 6/4/2016 6:58:47 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

As Charles approached her, Elise’s emerald eyes focused on him intently, meeting his gaze without the slightest hesitation.  Chin held high and proudly, even as she held the standard surrender posture that was expected of her, fingers laced behind her head and elbows fanned out on either side of her.  There was almost a sort of challenge in those green eyes, that dared him to try and get away with anything she didn’t really want.

She had to be here, but she clearly didn’t think she had to behave like a victim. As his hands patted her down, she stood rigidly but did not flinch.  It was hardly pleasant to be frisked by a near-stranger, especially in such a situation, but she held her ground.  Inside, her stomach was knotted, and she had set her jaw so she wouldn’t tremble.  But she wasn’t going to break, or show weakness.  Not even a little bit, not even when his hands got a better feel for the curves of her body as they learned she did not have any weapons on her.

The whisper he murmured into her ear wasn’t what she had expected.  It wasn’t cold, or rude, or demeaning.  It was almost.. .compassionate, and it had her raising an eyebrow briefly, though she did not otherwise react.  The evening breeze was causing a few tendrils of her dark hair to flutter back against him, carrying the faint scent of her unique personal pheromone signature.  It’d been days since she’d had a chance to wash her hair properly, but it still carried a faint hint of warmth and sunshine to it.

Elise was quiet as they waited for this Colonel Emerson, not speaking a single word and maintaining her standing position without the slightest indication of fatigue or strain.  The only telltale sign that she was tiring was the slight droop of her spread elbows as the minutes ticked by.  Breathing was regular, slow and even.  But anytime one of the soldiers looked her way, he’d be greeted by a fierce glare of defiance from her otherwise statuesque stillness.

The arrival of the Colonel finally came to pass, and Elise knew she hated that man as soon as she saw him.  There was no stopping the angry flare of her nostrils when the military man eyed her like a piece of meat, and when his filthy hand came close enough to grip her chin so he could get a better look at her, it took every ounce of Elise’s self-control not to spit in his face. 

As it was, if looks could kill, the Colonel would have been laid out before her.  Her loathing was clear even as she submitted to his little inspection without a fight, obediently opening her mouth when he insisted so he could look into her mouth like she was an animal.  But her eyes… her eyes continued to wish Emmerson death and pain throughout it all.

She nearly lost it when the Colonel asked her if she should be processed as a criminal.  Her full lips parted and she was already drawing in breath for a sharp retort when she felt the press of Charles’ hand on her wrist, entreating her to silence.  Her wrist within his grasp tensed, twisted smooth skin through his fingers ever so slightly as if testing the strength of his conviction.  Then with a slow, slow exhalation of breath through her nose, Elise submitted once more to her captor, and remained silent.

If Charles had not given her pause before with his vaguely kind words, she would have likely gotten herself into a load of trouble right there.  The Colonel repulsed her, angered her, frightened her.  Men like that were monsters, and it was never proven more true than when the word ‘breeder’ came out of his mouth.  A breeder?  Jesus Christ, that was true?  This fucked up government really did that?  She’d always convinced herself that had to be propaganda by the rebels, to stir up hatred and fear of the oppressive regime.  The more anger and fear, the more people were willing to fight, after all.  It couldn’t be true.  It just couldn’t.  

But here it was, being spelled out as clear as day.  She very well may be on her way to becoming some whore for some stranger, expected to pump out little brainwashed soldier babies.  It was worse than her worst nightmare.  And it was that, that made it impossible to miss the slight tremble in her slender wrists when the restraints were slapped onto her.

Still, aside from the small tells that betrayed her fear, Elise did not falter.  She did not make a fool of herself nor did she beg for mercy.  She walked for the Jeep that Charles guided her towards with her head held high, her eyes sparking defiance, and her steps steady.  Only the slight heightening of her breath, the small heaving of her ample bosom gave away the signs of stress.

And when Charles whispered those intended-to-soothe words in her ear as they approached the Jeep, she couldn’t help her smart mouth.  Her head turning to the side so she could glimpse him standing just behind her out of her peripheral vision, and murmuring back sharply in her smoky tone, “Right, because I’ll need my strength for all that fucking I’ve got to do as a breeder, yeah?”

Again, her inner monologue told her to shut the hell up.  But the stress of the situation was making itself known.  She stared straight ahead as Charles climbed into the Jeep’s driver seat, swallowing slowly as she promised herself she wouldn’t cry.  A small shifting and clinking of the restraints on her wrists, as if testing them, but she made no obvious move to try and break free.

It was only when they were on the move alone that she spoke again, still staring straight ahead.  “Breeders?  Are you all batshit crazy?  Breeders???  Am I even human to you, Commander?”  The title the Colonel had used for Charles rolling off her tongue in clear derision, but also charged with emotion.  The wind caught her hair and fluttered it alongside her face and across, and Elise lifted both hands in their restraints to brush it out of her eyes.

“You knew Jordy.”  It wasn’t a question, and it was spoken in a slightly softer tone, though still defensive.  “You’re the one who told my family he was dead, right?  Is that why you’re being nice?  Well… nice being relative, of course.  You could have just let me go.  That would have been a lot nicer.”  A pause.  “Breeders.  Jesus Christ…”

In a message dated 6/6/2016 4:07:49 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

(Hello there, friend. I wanted to say that I really enjoyed your last reply and apologize for my flakiness up until now. Sometimes I think I seem aloof or indifferent to roleplay and that is not the case in the least. I promise to keep up the momentum I’ve established thus far with my stream of replies.)

From a soldier’s perspective, the mandatory encounter with Colonel Emmerson was an uncharacteristically painless ordeal, so Charles initially found himself at a loss regarding Elise’s complaints. As he started up the jeep and began their rocky journey to the processing center, he did his best to assume a more sympathetic frame of mind. Elise was distressed and angry, which Charles felt the need to manage with a frank but forbearing conversation.

“Your participation in the Propagation Program is a far better fate than the alternative,” Charles began, trying to voice his argument as matter-of-factly as possible. “Would you rather spend sixty hours a week in poor working conditions building weapons or digging tunnels? With plenty of mandatory films to watch about the State’s altruistic intentions?” As he explained Elise’s options, his voice trailed off in a moment of sobering enlightenment. It finally dawned upon him that she was truly jammed between a wall and a hard place. Women really were only objects meant to be utilized by the State for breeding purposes. They had next to no rights, especially the ones which were captured or uncovered during expeditions.

The town was now far behind them, and Charles fielded Elise’s frustrations as best he could. Every now and again, he turned his head and nod to acknowledge a particular remark, quietly seizing the opportunity to take her in with his eyes. A strange sensation was consuming his body… a warm, mild euphoria which fluttered across the surface of his skin. He was enjoying Elise’s company despite her verbal misgivings, and his mind began to tempt and tease.

He fantasized of a bold mutiny to divert the jeep from its current course to the forbidden zones which lay far beyond the State’s expansion territories. The pair of deserters would learn to live off their land and build their own shelter, far from the State’s influence. Children would be had after a countless number of sweaty, passionate nights. He would protect his companion and kin from all threats with the determination of a devoted father and lover. Life would be simple, satisfying, and free.

A snide inquiry from Elise snapped him back from his own self-indulgent fantasies. The processing center was dead ahead about a half-mile away, and several soldiers in white fatigues were preparing for their arrival atop a large retrieval bay. Their time together was coming to a close, which distressed him to the point of desperation. It was then that something possessed him, some primal craving that pulsed through his loins and emboldened his lips.

“Elise, I’m telling you that your agreement to be circulated with the Propagation Program is your best choice from an admittedly bad list.” A sputtery exhale whistled through Charles’ lips as he gathered the courage to press forward with his recommendation.

“There is one thing you can do to make your situation just a bit better. If you choose to waive your entry into circulation, you can instead nominate me as your benefactor.” He locked his eyes upon Elise’s own, unable to determine whether her gaze expressed interest or contempt. His mouth kept moving regardless.

“You’d be able to skip the physical tests and other red tape as you make your way through the system. And after two years of living with me, you’d earn basic privileges that you wouldn’t have otherwise, such as unsupervised excursions through market and recreational zones.”

Charles hoped that his last selling point didn’t do more harm than good. If Elise would only agree to these terms, then the road ahead would be relatively simple. Arrangements like this were frequently approved by the State without a bat from its collective eye. High-ranking officials rarely denied themselves the chance to portray rebels and their sympathizers as lost souls who only need a compassionate soldier to help them ‘see the light.’ Positive PR was a way, it seemed, to justify certain atrocities and pave the way for conquest.

Their destination loomed ever closer, forcing the discussion to its inevitable head. “I promise to help you live as normal a life as possible,” Charles said with as thawed a voice as he could manage. “And I’ll never take advantage of you.” He swallowed hard, an obvious nervous habit, as he anticipated Elise’s answer.

In a message dated 6/7/2016 12:08:34 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

((Hello!  I’m also really enjoying our back and forth.  I’m glad you aren’t annoyed by my playing Elise as rather unhappy about her situation.  There will be lots of time for attraction and softening once she’s had a chance to breathe and settle slightly, lol.  Also, I have never gotten an air of indifference or aloofness concerning RP from you.  I more get a vibe of dislike of/irritation towards OOC chatter.  I personally enjoy bring friendly and chatty with people I RP with (I’ve made a few life-long friends that way), but I also understand that some people prefer to remain more detached and businesslike, if you will.   So I don’t take offense.))

Elise was not privy to Charles’ thoughts on the matter concerning her choices in where she ended up.  She was oblivious to his little mental revelation about how much of a quandary she was in.  So she didn’t hesitate when her eyebrows shot up in clear disbelief of what he was saying.  And her smoky vocals rang back rather forcefully, “I’d PREFER having the freedom to choose something better for my life than breeding whore or labour slave, thank you very much!”

She really had no particular desire to look his way after that, and stared straight ahead at the road as they drove along.  Every now and then, the restraints about her slender wrists clinked as she sat quietly, her limbs twisting slightly as if secretly trying to determine if she might be able to slip them off.  She wanted nothing more than to slip those cuffs and make a break for it, as foolish as that would be.

The very idea of being passed off to some strange man and used for sex like some toy was nauseating.  She’d have preferred to break her neck trying to take a dive out of the running Jeep.  Every now and then, she did glance at Charles from the corner of her eyes, and she couldn’t help wondering how he had gotten to where he was. 

He didn’t strike her as an evil man, and he had shown bits of kindness and empathy now and again, sandwiched between his rather disturbing allegiance to a government that treated its citizens like so much cattle.  But whether he was a good man or not deep down didn’t much matter as long as he was taking her to be ‘processed’, as they had put it.  Action spoke louder than words or thoughts, after all.  So even if she couldn’t find it in herself to hate him, she wasn’t exactly swooning for him either.

And that meant he did get peppered with sharp, disdaining remarks every once in a while as the drive continued.

“Careful with the bumps in the road.  Don’t want to bruise the merchandise, right?”

“What a glorious master you serve.  How proud you must be to round up people like animals.  Such distinguished military service.”

But mostly, she was tired and frustrated, and was quiet.  There was only so much satisfaction to be had in throwing her barbs, and it wasn’t going to help her be any more free.  So after a while, she pretty much stopped altogether and just played with the restraints to the point of making her flesh red and irritated.  Sitting so docilely while being taken like this was making her slowly lose it.

She’d offhandedly made another remark about wondering how much really good pussy went for on the government market when the sight of the installation ahead came into view, and her stomach immediately tied itself into knots again.  Without even realizing it, she tugged futilely at her restraints once more and pressed her thighs tightly together in her sit, as if already fighting the ‘tests’ she was going to have to go through.

Then Charles suddenly started speaking, sounding distressed in a way and rushed, and that was enough to make her look at him more fully.  Green eyes fastening on his face and meeting his gaze went he sought to lock them.  But she wasn’t going to let him see what she was thinking, and her expression was unreadable as he laid out this new possibility. 

Make him her… benefactor?  He would see her lovely green eyes narrowing slightly as if looking for the trick he was trying to pull, though beyond that, she remained inscrutable.  Her mind was racing though.  So… she’d still be a breeding whore, but to him instead?  Her eyes broke from meeting his in order to glance over the details of the man’s face, as if determining whether he was worthy of such consideration.

He wasn’t terrible-looking, and she was relatively sure he wasn’t an evil monster.  For the moment, her sex drive was essentially null and void in the face of what she was about to endure.  But perhaps… if she was going to have to… it would be better to give into someone who at least didn’t seem inclined to treat her like a toy and who wasn’t utterly repellant?  Of course, he could change his tune the moment he had her truly alone and at his whims legally.  A risk.  A big one.

Her hands closed into fists and she flinched with a clench of her jaw when he mentioned her having such special privileges as market visits after two years.  Another reminder that she was essentially going to be a slave now, no matter what choice she made.  All that remained was exactly how cruelly she’d be treated, and by whom.  For a moment, Elise almost gave into the urge to punch him.

It was his final statement that decided her.  He said he would not take advantage of her.  She wasn’t sure she believed him… but she didn’t immediately NOT believe him either.  He’d known her brother.  He might have some sense of honor that extended that far, to not treating his ex-comrade’s sister like meat.  It… really was her best chance.  She hated that he was right.  But he was right.

And that was when she leaned in slightly, bending just a little across the gear shift of the Jeep so she could fix her emerald gaze firmly upon Charles’ own.  Challenge and spirit blazing within her as she spoke to him very quietly, a touch of her breath washing over his face from the nearness she had created.

“You will NOT take advantage of me.  I won’t let you.  I’ll kill you first.”  He’d threatened her life once already.  It was fair turnaround.  Her nostrils flared slightly as she inhaled sharply and lifted her chin proudly, then sat back once more in her seat and faced forward.  He didn’t have a terrible scent either.  One more minor positive in a world of shit.

“If you accept that, then fine.  You can be my benefactor.  Let’s get this over with.”

In a message dated 6/10/2016 11:07:28 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Charles had no physical reaction to Elise’s warning as he downshifted the jeep a gear, mirroring the ebbing concern in his mind. Elise could talk the talk, certainly, but was she really as violent and unpredictable as she tried to portray herself? Somehow, he doubted that she’d committed any atrocities, regardless of any ties she may have had with the rebels. Charles supposed that he’d never truly know whether she was dangerous because he intended to avoid pushing her buttons as much as possible.

They were now seconds away from arriving at the processing plant, which on the surface looked very much like a small hospital. All the soldiers and personnel wore various arrangements of predominantly white attire with blue and yellow accents. The soldiers wore gas masks, which heightened their intimidation level just a tad, but otherwise had no weapons other than batons that were strapped to their belts.

Charles’s jeep sputtered slowly as it found its way upon a large steel platform with various markings indicating the precise area where it should stop. A sleek, crane-like machine jutting from the floor slowly encircled them, apparently scanning for something. A strange beeping sound seemed to indicate they cleared some kind of inspection.

Three soldiers then approached but seemed to hesitate when they were close enough to realize Charles’ rank. “I have this one,” he instructed with a wave of his hand which immediately resulted in their dispersal. “Leave us be.”

Charles exited the jeep and slowly made his way around the front towards Elise, gently lifting her from her seat by her shoulders. He then latched on her neck a sort of leash which was strapped to his wrist after retrieving it from a pouch on his belt. She certainly didn’t seem pleased with this new hindrance, but Charles tried hard to temper her anger with reassuring eyes.

“Just for a little while,” he explained quietly while testing the chain with a series of benign yanks. “It’s a protocol measure.”

Charles guided Elise through a revolving door leading into the main lobby of the facility. It certainly seemed to be a busy afternoon, with lines of detainees being escorted to and fro across various areas of the building. The prisoners, as they certainly seemed to be, were easily identified with their orange fatigues screaming out against the otherwise colorless surroundings. Soldiers occasionally hastened their march by using electrically-charged batons upon stragglers.

Charles was well-practiced in hiding his discontent as the other personnel in the building were no kinder than their gas-masked compatriots, shoving lines along while barking instructions. Despite his doubts that she’d believe him, Charles leaned in and whispered into Elise’s ear. “I loathe them as much as you do.”

Finally, Elise and Charles arrived at a small office where a plump woman with large spectacles greeted them behind a computer desk. “Hello, Officer Brock. How may I help you today?” Her lack of acknowledgement regarding Elise’s presence would have been unbelievably rude under socially normal circumstances.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m here because my companion was adamant about making a statement.”

Elise grudgingly recited the terms that she and Charles had agreed upon earlier, prompting the desk woman to look up and study her with mild, narrow-eyed curiosity. The silent probe lasted a few moments before she withdrew her eyes.

“Requests for assignments like these are usually reserved for higher-ranking officers,” she remarked with a flat voice as her attention returned to the computer on her desk. Despite the rebuff in her voice, she typed away at her keyboard before printing a sheet of paper and presenting it to Charles.

“You do understand that this woman’s welfare is now completely under your supervision, Officer Brock?” He nodded his answer to the desk woman’s question and followed her instructions on where to provide his signature on the sheet of paper. It would be a series of forms later before the desk woman finally got around to creating Elise’s identification card. Not surprisingly, Elise didn’t smile for her picture.

“Your partner has now been assigned a designation number. There will be periodic inspections to ensure PA-4732‘s voluntary compliance in the Propagation Program,” the desk woman explained. “We’ll go ahead and suspend your monthly agamic injections to get your reproductive system back on track.”

A flash of embarrassment burned across Charles’ cheeks, as Elise now knew something about him which he tried hard to keep private. The thoughts in his mind recoiled before pushing forward towards the evening ahead, which was sure to be awkward at best. He regretted the inevitable discussion with Elise regarding the impracticality of not sleeping together, due to the fact that surveillance bots occasionally combed random domiciles and would find separate beds highly unorthodox, potentially placing their arrangement in jeopardy.

Once all the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed, a soldier escorted the pair to the entrance of the facility where a shuttle was waiting for them.

“We’re being taken to the train station so we can go home,” Charles casually informed Elise as they situated themselves on a pair of leather seats near the front of the idling transport. Acting promptly within their newly-acquired privacy, he unfastened the brace from Elise’s neck and tucked it away with a look of apology.

Charles’ mind then explored the possibilities before him. He was seriously considering putting in a request to take the next few days off in addition to the evening which lay ahead. Furlough approvals for soldiers were few and far between, but Charles was long overdue for some personal time… and he assumed he’d need all the time he could get to tame and temper Elise’s frustrations.

In a message dated 6/12/2016 12:37:08 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

 ((The revised version is excellent.  Thank you again for being so gracious about it.  I replaced the original version with the revised in this email thread, so that we still have a consistent log flowing in one thread.))

The entire world became a fresh new sort of hell as the events began to play out upon arrival to the compound.  Elise had ceased talking in any way at all as soon as they had pulled onto the strange scanning machine, her jaw clenched tight as she adopted a rather distant, detached expression.  She didn’t want anyone knowing just how badly rattled she really was.  And she’d be damned if she gave ANYONE the satisfaction of seeing her tremble or cry.  Better to block out as much of it as possible, and simply endure.

As long as she was alive, there was hope.  She had to remind herself of that.  She’d get out of this eventually.  She’d find a way.  Though it was hard to keep such hope alive when Charles lifted her up out of the jeep and then snapped a goddamned COLLAR around her neck like she was some sort of animal.  Her green eyes burned angrily at him even as he tried to reassure her about it, and she had to fight back the urge to spit more verbal vitriol at him.

But to her own credit, she was once more unreadable and distantly cool as they entered the compound.  Everything Elise saw there was filed away in her head.  She would never forget it; it would haunt her at night.  But she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.  NEVER.  And when Charles murmured to him about his apparent loathing of the situation, he would simply be rebuffed by a brief stare deeply into his own gaze, before the quiet brunette rather pointedly broke the eye contact and stared straight ahead, ignoring him entirely.

Her stomach was churning with nausea, but Elise remained utterly composed and outwardly indifferent to everything that happened during the booking procedure.  She spoke the words Charles had instructed her to say utterly deadpan, inwardly wishing pain and suffering on the receptionist who didn’t even seem to recognize that the prisoner was a living, breathing person who might appreciate being acknowledged as such.

But one thing broke Elise’s mask, if only for a second.  It was when the receptionist said, “There will be periodic inspections to ensure PA-4732’s voluntary compliance in the Propagation Program”.  What was said after that was actually lost in the shuffle of the sudden spasm in Elise’s thought process.  So she actually didn’t catch the part that embarrassed Charles and made him blush. 

Maybe he’d take some comfort in that down the line.  Because even as he was blushing about the personal detail being leaked, he was briefly being fixed with  a look of abject, utter hatred and horror in equal parts from his new acquisition.  Inspections?  Voluntary compliance???  What was that he’d said about not taking advantage of her?  Suddenly his lack of any real reaction to her defiance about not allowing him to do so made perfect sense.

He’d known.  He’d known all along that he wouldn’t have to take advantage of her directly.  The system would do it for him.  The threat was inherent right there in the words the receptionist spoke.  Without voluntary compliance, there would be consequences, probably awful ones.  Inspections to ensure she gave it up regularly, without him having to do much to dirty his own hands in the process.  He’d played her.  Utterly and completely.

It took every single ounce of self-control she possessed to not try to throttle the man right then and there.  After letting slip that brief harsh glare in his direction, Elise forced her features back into that cold detachment of before.  But now her jaw was clenched so tightly it ached with every step she took as she was led back out towards the transport that waited for them at the front of the facility.

Charles was not the only one to take advantage of their new-found privacy as soon as they were alone and away from prying eyes.  He reached to remove her collar, and she let him do that.  But the instant his eyes lowered so he could tuck away the restraints, Elise lashed out.  Unless he somehow managed to anticipate what she was going to do or stop it in some way, Charles would find himself the recipient of a rather hard punch right to his jaw.

She swung at him with every intent of cold-cocking the bastard right in his falsely apologetic face.  If the shot connected, he’d find that she had a good punch on her too.  This was no girly open-handed smack, but the solid strike of a woman who’d been in a few fights in her time.  And even as it (hopefully) landed, she was spitting words at him, the first tears she’d been unable to hold back in front of him sparkling in the corners of her eyes.

“You son of a bitch!  You knew, you KNEW about these ‘inspections’, the goddamned Big Brother boot on my back!  You knew all along and you let me think you might not be so bad, that you’d not take advantage!  You fucking COWARD!”

In a message dated 6/13/2016 12:29:52 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Charles managed to catch Elise’s fist with the reflexes of a trained soldier, but the strength and momentum behind her punch propelled his own knuckles against his nose and upper lip. A strong tingling sensation immediately overwhelmed his sinuses, along with a small amount of blood which collected around the base of his nostril. For the briefest of moments, he look dazed and overwhelmed. He reacted quickly, however, with the realization that Elise could be preparing another blow as an encore to her first, prompting him to speak in a firm, methodical voice which was bolstered by desperation.

“NOTHING. NOTHING is going to HAPPEN. There are WAYS around this. Please, STOP.”

The initial result from Charles’s proclamation was positive, as Elise hadn’t raised another fist, but the look on her face refused to disclose its origins. His eyes began to water from the blow he absorbed, further obscuring the features on her face which he learned to quietly adore.

As it was, Charles had been looking forward to sharing his queen-sized bed with Elise. The thought of an accidental brush of skin was enough to flutter pulses of warm anticipation across the surface of his skin. Perhaps they could have the occasional conversation, maybe even share a laugh once in a while. They could learn to respect and accept one another despite the madness which swallowed the world outright… and perhaps, just perhaps, deeper feelings could develop between them. But the way she was acting now, seemingly determined to reveal him as an untrustworthy monster, quickly evaporated Charles’ hopes of a peaceful night’s sleep with Elise at his side.

The matter at hand, however, snapped his mind from lingering upon any regrets. Elise had to be reassured somehow, and Charles’ lips acted accordingly.

“I know it seems hopeless. But I can adjust readings, exaggerate testimonies and forge documents. There are things I can do to make sure I keep my end of the bargain. I KEEP my PROMISES, Elise.”

This was a half-truth, despite another pair of emphasized words. Charles knew the vast majority of ins and outs of regarding the State’s surveillance tendencies, but the Propagation Program was rather obstinate in ensuring the full dedication of its participants. They could possibly skirt and fudge for a few months at best, but sooner or later, after the inevitable sperm count and fertility test, tough questions would be asked by pushy personnel in white clothing. Elise would have a choice to make, and even if she decided to continue their arrangement, the mandatory consummation of intimacy that would soon follow didn’t interest Charles in the least.

As far as their conversation was concerned, there was momentum, rolling in some sort of direction, but Charles still felt he hadn’t satiated Elise. Perhaps she would never trust him, regardless of what he said or how he said it, and simply assume the worst under any circumstance. A thought entered his mind, one which beckoned forth another strategy that scraped its intentions from the bottom of the slimiest barrel.

“Listen. I wouldn’t be able to do anything to you anyway. The injections would take a week or two from now to wear off. That should give you enough time to plan the where, when, and how you’ll bonk me on the head and make your escape, right?”

He didn’t like the way that sounded, lingering in the air like some juvenile’s hostile attempt to push a parent’s buttons. But perhaps his comment would resonate alongside Elise’s cynical assumptions and calm her down. At this point, that was all Charles truly cared to accomplish. He was suddenly tired and weary, yearning for the sanctuary of home.

In a message dated 6/13/2016 3:47:17 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Elise hadn’t intended more than one blow.  She just wanted the one, because she felt it was owed her after everything she had gone through.  After feeling like she had been lied to in order to coerce her into a terrible situation, surely one hard clock to the jaw was a reasonable penance?  She wasn’t by nature a terribly violent woman, but she also wasn’t a doormat to be kicked around.

So she simply sat and glowered at Charles as he implored her to calm herself, and said once more that he intended to keep his word to her about not taking advantage.  The look on her face, partially obscured by his watering eyes, was full of suspicion and a measure of disbelief in his claims.  But to her credit, she didn’t attempt more violence or call him a liar outright. 

A brow rose when he spoke of altering readings, forging things, and so on to fool the system.  Sitting back a little in her seat, Elise raised a hand again, but this time only to rub at her own face in frustration and a measure of her own weariness.  He was tired.  She was tired.  The fatigue was clear in her voice when she spoke more quietly this time around, and said simply, “You should have just let me go.  Why didn’t you just let me go?”

Slowly her hand came away from her face and she let it drop once more into her lap, closing her eyes and leaning her head back on the headrest of the seat.  She had to pull it together.  She was coming apart at the seams, and none of this was helping.  She really wanted to sleep for about a month, then try tackling all this again.  Could that be arranged?  She wanted to get off this ride now.

It was Charles speaking about her potentially ‘bonking him on the head’ and escaping that finally had her emerald eyes opening and looking his way again, again with a measure of exasperation.  She let it slip by that he supposedly couldn’t do anything to her anyway.  For the moment.

“Give me more credit than that, please.  I’m not stupid.  Trying to escape would only get me killed even faster, and even if I did somehow luck out at first?  I’d be on a list.  You have my picture.  I’d be hunted down like an animal.  I know the reach of your precious military.”  Her gaze fixed on him more solidly, and she continued.  “If I’m pushed far enough, I may just kill us both instead.”  An almost derisive little chuckle, a hint of a smirk on one corner of her mouth.  Had she just made a really dark joke?

It was impossible to figure the man out just yet.  He could be a lying monster.  He could be a decent person simply brainwashed by the regime.  She wasn’t going to take any chances either way.  Though she did have to admit that aside from keeping certain things from her knowledge until it was too late, he HAD been less brutish than he could have been. 

In this sort of situation, there was little reason for him to hide his true nature.  He already had her entirely within his power.  Unless he simply enjoyed that kind of mental torture, making a person have hope only to yank it away.  That would remain to be seen.  She… really did hope that maybe he wasn’t so bad.  It would make the coming days far easier to endure.

Glancing over at him again, she sighed and offered a tiny olive branch of her own.  Not much, but it was something.  “What the hell is your name, anyway?  Because I sure as hell am not calling you Commander Brock.”  And she still couldn’t quite remember what his first name was.  It’d been too long, and too much had happened.

—–Original Message—–
From: propagandapiece <>
To: TellingofTales <>
Sent: Fri, Jun 24, 2016 6:28 pm
Subject: Post #8

(Sorry for the delay! Things got in the way this morning but I punched them in the face until they moved!)

A thin trickle of blood trailed its way down from Charles’ nostril, which he wiped away with a nudge of his glove. He then turned his attention to a pouch which was strapped to his belt and pulled out two bars wrapped in wax paper, with the words Supplemental Meal Bar – For Field Consumption Only printed on its side in stenciled lettering. He placed one on the armrest which divided them upon their cushioned seat, with the assumption that Elise would eat on her own terms, before slowly beginning to unwrap his own.

“Charles,” he’d say after a moment and before a bite of his bar. “My name is Charles.”

The sound of an engine starting would accompany a stiff shake of the shuttle before fading towards a faint rumbling. Charles took another bite and sighed, squinting his brow above the bridge of his nose to help with tingling sensation that still lingered. He swallowed a little blood down his throat before addressing Elise’s other concern.

“I couldn’t just let you go, Elise. Even if I wanted to. There were surveillance bots everywhere, and if you decided to run, you would have been captured by another soldier or worse. Besides, there were orders to torch that place to the ground once all the once all the rebel bodies were accounted for.”

The full truth this time. Recent rebel victories had left a bad taste in Colonel Emmerson’s mouth, and after a period of intensive surveillance, he had finally located the hideout for a number of high-ranking rebel operatives. The State was determined to make an example and hit the objective hard, bending their own rules along the way if necessary.

The shuttle was pulling out now as all the passengers were situated, prompting Charles to close the door to their private compartment. The world outside through their window was beginning to move, offering promises of scenic vistas and other sights to behold. Charles finished his bar and turned towards Elise with a look of placation and an offer to make.

“What would you like for dinner tonight?” The bar only made him hungrier, and he licked the last of its taste off its lips before crumbling the packaging into a ball and discarding it into a nearby waste bin. Elise would not only receive a meal in the evening that lay ahead, but a shower and new clothes. Indeed, she would eat and sleep well as long as she was under Charles’ care, have access to adequate medical care, enjoying various forms of entertainment, and enjoy opportunities to visit exotic lands twice a year. That is, if she decided not to kill the both of them first.

She’ll live a decent life, Charles quietly justified in his mind. Better than most.

In a message dated 6/25/2016 11:48:14 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Elise took one cursory look at the supplement bar that Charles placed onto the armrest between them in clear offer to her, then turned her face away and proceeded to stare out the window.  She absolutely was hungry, so much so that she hoped her stomach wouldn’t begin to rumble just from the nearness of food, but she wasn’t yet ready to accept anything the man was offering.  Besides, a military ration was the last thing she wanted.  Anything that reminded her of soldiers and her predicament made her physically ill at the moment.

“Pleasure to meet you again, Charles.”  There was a sour sarcasm to her words as she uttered the old polite expectation for meeting someone again.  The world was so much different now than when such things had been commonplace, when manners and polite society still reigned supreme.  Her emerald eyes took in the world outside the window, the woman still stoically ignoring the sounds of the wrapper as Charles ate his own ration beside her.

He succeeded in getting her attention again with the full truth of what was going to happen to the town she had been within.  At first she wasn’t sure she had heard him correctly, and when he returned from closing the door to their compartment, he would find those deep green eyes staring at him in utter horror and disbelief.  The dark brown locks of her mussed hair framing her face as she repeated softly, almost to herself, “Torch… that place… to the ground?”  A few moments as it set in real deep into her head, something within her eyes beginning to die at the horror of it all.

Then she couldn’t help herself, ignoring his question about dinner.  Even if it continued a bizarre pattern of whiplashing back and forth between moments of fatigued calm and furious outburst, Elise grabbed the untouched ration bar and flung it at Charles’ head, rising from her seat and putting as much possible distance between herself and him as she could manage.  It really wasn’t much, but she no longer wanted to be anywhere near him and wanted as far as she could get.

Her voice barely remained below the volume of yelling, her voice strained as she fought to keep it in check and not draw unneeded attention to their compartment.  “Torch it to the fucking ground??? Are you utterly insane???  Oh my gods!  All those people!!!”  She wanted to strangle Charles right then, her fingers flexing before fisting at her sides in a trembling harshness.  Turning away sharply, she stared out the window again as if looking to see what was happening to the place they had left behind, even though it was miles away.  Maybe there was smoke on the horizon?

“Not just rebels live there, you know!  There are CHILDREN.  OLD people who cannot run or fight!”  Her legs spread slightly to shoulder’s width apart, the better to balance herself through the movement of the shuttle as she persisted in standing and keeping as much distance between herself and Charles as possible.  Her slender body with all its womanly curves swayed slightly with the motion of the vehicle, the long locks of mahogany hair spilling down her back nearly to the curve of her bottom as she refused to look at him.

“I’m not even a rebel, you know that?  Though I suppose that doesn’t even matter to your fucking overseers.  Since I wasn’t waving a patriotic flag and screaming support for the overlords, I’m still an enemy.”  A heavy snort of derision as she leaned forward slightly to press her forehead to the window, closing her eyes again for a deep sigh before once more watching the scenery go by as they re-opened.  “DOES it even matter that I’m not a rebel, Charles?  Or is the fact that I’m good breeding stock more important than the truth?”

In a message dated 6/26/2016 8:28:30 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

A strong sense of hopelessness swept over Charles’ mind, which took him a moment to process with slumped shoulders and blank eyes. He shifted himself from his chair to reach for the meal bar which now rested across from his feet and placed it back in his pouch. His thoughts offered their last motions of rebuttal soon afterward. Should he make the effort to disclose the fact that the State did its best to round up any and all survivors before extreme measures were taken? Would Elise even care? Perhaps she shouldn’t, since there’d likely be casualties regardless of intent, if civilians were well-hidden and didn’t anticipate the peril of staying in their shelters.

With closed eyes and a shallow breath, Charles provided his stale reply. “I really don’t know what to say, Elise. Let’s just stay quiet until we get home.”

Charles would remain quiet for a long while, resigning himself to hear or not hear what Elise had to say or not say. Regret made its climb to the forefront of his mind. Perhaps he didn’t deserve a normal life. If Elise was simply going to hate him regardless of his efforts, perhaps he should have just let her go and seal her own fate. Deep down, though, Charles knew he was trapped either way. The thought of somehow betraying Jordan would have haunted him for the rest of his days, had he at least not tried his best. He’d drive himself mad every night, dwelling on the possibilities that were now unfolding before him.

There were other concerns as well, especially if Elise ever accepted her situation to the point of submitting herself to bearing children. The worry that something would set her off to flee during the night with their offspring would weigh incessantly on Charles’ mind. Or perhaps she would simply use the child as leverage for negotiations involving their escape or otherwise. These measures forced a heavy exhale through Charles’ nostrils and a subconscious shake of the head that he hoped Elise wouldn’t notice.

His mind explored every advantage that he could utilize regarding her situation. The State only required a minimum of one child every one-and-a-half years, so with proper testing, Elise could enjoy the majority of her nights not gritting her teeth underneath Charles’ panting weight. Perhaps they could even take things further and have Charles relay the necessary fluids to artificially meet their obligations and save at least some dignity on Elise’s behalf.

No. It was impossible. A surveillance bot would undoubtedly reveal such transgressions and immediately disclose them to the proper authorities. Elise would be removed from the Propagation Program in a heartbeat and made to sacrifice her body in other ways to other men.

Time passed. A stewardess was approaching down the center aisle with a trolley, waking him from an introspective daze. There were bottled drinks available of different varieties, and Charles would choose one bottled water at first, but double his request after a moment’s hesitation. Once again, a gesture of diplomacy was made by placing a bottle in the cup holder that was integrated into the armrest between them. His mind, as resolute as ever, was determined to try.

In a message dated 6/27/2016 1:24:32 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Charles’ reply to her questions and fired vitriol was pretty much what she expected.  He had no answers, no justifications, no good reason for the horror he’d just spoken about.  Though, to her credit, Elise did acknowledge that he at least didn’t try to justify it any further.  He didn’t try to paint the regime as the good guys or excuse their behaviour, and that did actually mean something to the brunette.

For a while, Elise remained standing in silence, only shifting a bit to bend her forearm against the glass of the window so she could press her forehead to the opposite side of her limb, gazing dully out at the scenery as it flashed past.  Much as Charles was, she was lost in thought, though her thoughts had much less to do with trying to game the system, and more with analyzing what had happened thus far.

And she had to admit… he had been remarkably patient with her so far.  She knew plenty of men who would have lost their temper by now and smacked her around for acting out as much as she had.  Hell, she knew some who would have already tried to rape her within this very compartment.  Was she really being overly critical?  Could she really be blamed if she was?

Not for the first time, Elise had to fight back exhausted tears during the stretched out silence.  Part of why she remained turned away from Charles even after her rage had smoothed away once more into resignation was to keep him from seeing the pain on her face.  Though every now and again, she snuck a brief glance at the man out of her peripheral view, examining his own tired expression and worried demeanor.

The arrival of the stewardess with her trolley finally snapped both of them out of their dazes, though Elise remained where she was until the other woman had left again.  The movement of Charles placing the extra water bottle in the armrest between their seats was what finally prompted Elise to move herself.  With a heavy sigh, she stood up straight once more and shifted back to sit in her seat once more, avoiding direct eye contact with Charles as she did so.

Her hand reached for the water bottle he had offered and then opened it, her head tilting back as she took a long swig of the cool liquid.  It soothed her throat, and she swallowed slowly before lowering the bottle in her hand down to her lap.  Throaty voice murmured a quiet, “Thank you” as gratitude for his small kindness.

A moment of silence as she weighed her words, then decided against saying anything more.  Instead, she just closed her eyes and tried to relax.  Considering how the man had behaved thus far, he really didn’t deserve to have anymore attitude thrown his way, and while Elise certainly had a hell of a temper?  She did try not to take it out on people unnecessarily.  He’d been pretty patient, and she was more angry at the situation than him.  And it took energy she just didn’t have right now.

Time began to pass again, and soon enough Elise’s breath began to smooth out and soften as the exhaustion took over.  Unless Charles said or did something to stop the inevitable, the brunette soon fell into a fitful nap beside him.  She didn’t snore except for an occasional soft deeper inhalation, and gradually seemed to relax as her mind began to force itself to rest.

Eventually, a small bump in the compartment from the motion of the shuttle had her head turning towards Charles in her sleep, and as she shifted a bit in her seat to accommodate her muscles’ need to stretch slightly, her cheek came to rest on Charles’ shoulder as if it were a pillow.  Certainly not something she would have done while awake, but awkwardness happened when people sat next to each other and fell asleep.

In a message dated 7/2/2016 12:24:24 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Elise had calmed herself after a look on her face suggested she had come to terms with something in her mind. Charles would mask his relief with the same blank eyes he offered during his dejected proposition. He really didn’t want to resort to raising his voice or physically imposing his will upon her, as his assumption was that such actions would only serve to make her angrier and the situation worse. His prevailing fear was a knock at the door of their private compartment by a shuttle conductor to ask what the noise and commotion was about. Attention was something Charles secretly deplored, a trait of his personality hammered into him by years of training within structured platoons that sought to diminish any sense of individuality amongst its soldiers.

She sat beside him once more, and time passed just the same. Charles would find himself almost afraid to say anything to Elise, lest he incur her wrath once more and ride the possibility of being investigated by a third party. So he stayed quiet and allow his mind to roam.

The sight of a checkpoint in the distance reminded him of the progress being made towards their destination, and Charles’ thoughts settled themselves on the near future. He reflected on the promotion that resulted in his acquisition of a domicile that was a staggering upgrade from his life in the barracks. Three bedrooms that he could claim as his own, a deluxe-sized shower, king-size bed, a living room whose north wall was entirely devoted to a high-definition telescreen. He was privy to services which supplied him with music and movies from eras past, at least those that were approved by the State’s Cultural Adherence Commission.
At first, he had no idea what to do with all the extra space, but soon found a hobby as a collector. He would visit quarantined areas outside of the State’s borders with special permission and collect artifacts. He had a fascination with the past and enjoyed piecing together trends within various cultures, before the Great War changed the landscape of everything.

At one point during their journey, Charles actually looked forward to sharing his hobbies and interests with Elise. Perhaps they could somehow bridge any lingering gaps between them and aid in the ease of her transition. But with the way she had acted since their arrival at the processing station… he wasn’t sure if she could reached with any means of hospitality at all. A reminder of the fact that a large State flag was hanging wide and proud within his bedroom would further dampen his spirits with a heavy sigh and furrow of his brow. Elise would almost certainly react adversely to that decoration, and Charles was not looking forward to managing that situation.

Tall, white buildings in the distance with layered patterns of glass were visible through the window now; Charles turned his head after waking and recognize that they were very close to their destination. He had somehow missed Elise’s head finding its way to his shoulder, which was a fascinatingly pleasant development that he dare not disturb with a jerk of his body. The shuttle was noticeably slowing along the route of it tracks, and would finally come to rest at a station ten minutes later after Charles opened his eyes. People could be heard shuffling outside of their private compartment in response to the conductor’s announcement of the shuttle’s arrival over the intercom.

With a gentle nudge, Charles rolled his shoulder to try and wake Elise. “Hey,” he said with a breathy voice and a warm smile. “Hey, Elise. It’s time to wake up and get off the shuttle. We’re here.”

In a message dated 7/5/2016 6:34:21 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Elise dreamed as she slept against Charles’ shoulder.  Her tired mind and stretched nerves dreamed of happier times and places, took her for a stroll down memory lane when life had been simpler and more pleasant.  When her brother was alive and still teased her about stupid things, when her parents could still be counted on to gross both of the siblings out with open displays of affection.

Every now and then, there was a small twitch in her form as she napped next to her new companion, or a soft murmur of response to something happening in her dreamscape.  But overall, Elise was proving to be a relatively quiet sleeper, and didn’t stray too far into any of the more annoying habits that sleep could bring about.  There was only occasional soft snoring, and she didn’t flail or thrash.

If anything, there was a sort of peace to the woman right now that Charles had never seen before in her, the fire in her soul and temper smoldering beneath the quieter surface of her sleep rather than openly flaring up in his face.  Her dreams were taking her back to more pleasant times and places, and that reflected itself in the quiet persona she now adopted, with eyes shut and breath steady and even.

Finally, the shuttle seemed to arrive at their destination, and Charles’ shoulder rolling beneath her head was the first thing to make her stir slightly.  But it was only for a soft little sleepy groan at first, a sound that was quiet and exquisitely feminine in delivery as her mind fought against being awakened.  Some might even call it sensual, with the extra breathiness given to it by her current state.

His words finally had her stirring more completely however, and with a slow blink and another throaty groan, Elise lifted her head partially off his shoulder and murmured a quizzical, “Hmmm…?”  In this moment, it seemed as if she were a different person, someone less angry and defiant, less of a dangerous hellcat and more a sleepy kitten.

Then the first grasps of reality once more seeped into her mind, and her eyes opened more fully.  With a sudden inhalation of breath, she realized that she had somehow let her head drift down onto the soldier’s shoulder and she immediately rectified the situation.  A sharp jerk of her head lifted it sharply until she was sitting up straight once more, blinking rapidly to get the fuzziness out of her vision.

To her credit, she didn’t seem inclined towards getting angry at Charles for the sleeping arrangement, the more logical side of her mind recognizing that it wasn’t exactly his fault she’d drifted off into the position she’d adopted.  Instead, her emerald eyes simply looked him over with a guarded expression, trying to ascertain his intentions now that they had arrived at the station.

Her gaze locked with his for a moment, as if she were trying to read his mind, trying to see deeper into the truth that lay behind his eyes.  Finally, her gaze dropped and flickered towards his belt where he had previously stashed the collar apparatus he had used on her before, and she frowned slightly before speaking in a soft undertone.

“You’re not putting that collar on me again.  Don’t even think about it.  I don’t care what protocol or rules say about it.  I’m not an animal.  You can… you can hold my arm or something if you absolutely need to do something to show that you… I don’t know… claim me or whatever the hell your Overlords call it.” 

It hadn’t taken long for the defiance to flash back into her expression, especially concerning the matter she spoke about.  But for all her insistence, she didn’t seem on the edge of attacking him, either.  There was a sort of wary desire to get this all done with and get to their destination as seamlessly as possible.  She just really, really didn’t want to be leashed again, if it could be helped.

In a message dated 12/9/2016 11:30:35 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, writes:

(Whoooo-wee! Back on the saddle. It took a while to get back into the groove of writing, but… here it is. I hope you enjoy and cross my fingers that the rust isn’t too obvious.)

Charles curled a soft smile into his right cheek before offering his answer to Elise’s demand through a patient breath. “No leashes, I promise. Not here. No cuffs either, though you’ll have to stay within a few footsteps of me wherever I go.” There was a bit of emphasis on the latter end of his remark, because Charles knew all too well that there were security personnel chomping at the bit to apprehend and interrogate anyone remotely suspicious. Isolated women were, of course, the most common targets. Charles’ newly-acquired rank mitigated most, if not all of that possibility, but one could never be too careful underneath the State’s all-encompassing eye.

Charles and Elise’s exit from the sleek, white shuttle would unveil a broad, paved concourse which tapered off in the near distance towards a series of checkpoints and revolving doors. A tiled design depicting the State’s emblem of an eagle snaring a snake was on prominent display underneath a shallow, circular pool carved into the eggshell concrete. A marble statue of the Overseer floated about ten yards above the emblem, with no visible means of suspension from the ceiling or otherwise, wearing a soldier’s fatigues while having a rapier drawn and stretched to the heavens. Bronze figures of a man, woman, and child stood within its shadows near the pool, staring upward in wondrous contentment at their aerial savior. It was a strange monument, since it exhibited cultural characteristics of the past; the Old World’s traditions of family were methodically being replaced as thoroughly as possible by the Cultural Adherence committee.

Elise was led out onto the concourse and towards the bustle of travelers who were vacating or boarding their own shuttles. There were various personnel in white garb moving to and fro between bordering turnstiles, their minds numbly focused upon their forthcoming destinations. Soldiers were also present amongst the crowd; some alone, some with their Braces and some in groups. One seemed to be shoving his female partner by her backside as tears trickled and dried along the contours of her cheeks. Another Brace was being led along on a leash by her partner, and both seemed happy with the arrangement as they strolled towards a stairwell which descended into an underground level. Yet another gave Elise a hungry look before recognizing Charles’ rank and forfeiting his pursuit.

“The State welcomes your arrival to Zone 7-58A. Please have your papers or valid identification ready to be scanned and verified by the Authentication Officer. We appreciate your patience.” A pleasant, female voice chimed in proper protocols from overhead intercoms as Charles and Elise took their place in the shortest of a number of long lines leading into the province. Security personnel stood poised and primed to pounce at a moment’s notice along a nearby wall. It wouldn’t be long until a young woman fumbled a question at the front of the queue, prompting the zealous guards into swift action. They quickly converged even as her voice pleaded with the officer who refused to authenticate her. “No, please! These papers are good, they were issued yesterday! Please, let me THROUGH!” Her protests fell on deaf ears as the sound of dragging feet rounded past a corner before the sound of a door being shut ended the interruption. No one seemed to bat an eye at the occurrence, staring blankly ahead as the Authentication Officer continued with his stamps and scans.

Finally, after a time, the line ahead of them dwindled until Charles would approach the AO with a slight lean of his torso to present the military decorations that distinguished his rank. Everything seemed routine as a hand-held device verified as an officer of the State’s Republic with a series of beeps and a greenish color. However, the AO would halt any progress Elise might attempt.

“I’m sorry, I’ll need to see some sort of verification for this one. The bioscan is showing nothing as far as her registry and travel permissions.” A series of red lights flickered and flared underneath a thin, plastic archway which framed itself outward from the turnstile by several feet. Two guards who had replaced the earlier group tensed at the development, but Charles stared them down with a steely gaze before turning his attention to the Authentication Officer.

“Ah yes, my apologies. She is a recent registrant for the Propagation Program and probably hasn’t been circulated within the network yet. I have the paperwork here.” The AO officer nods after a moment’s contemplation in regards to Charles’ claims, accepting a paper from his hands which was acquired at the Processing Station.

After a moment to adjust his follicles, the Authentication Officer studied the paper with discerning eyes before scanning a thin barcode at the bottom of the page, shifting the red lights on the archway to a solid green.

“Schedule an appointment with the Registration Office before her next checkpoint so that she can be ran through without any hiccups,” the AO explained with a bit of impatience before waving both Charles and Elise off with his hand. “Next, please.”

With the checkpoint behind them, Charles casually lead Elise towards a shuttle bay not unlike the one which greeted their arrival. There was the picturesque visage of a city past a wide, shallow track meant to coordinate the arrival and departure of driverless taxi vehicles. They were sleek and white, similar in appearance to the bullet shuttles but much smaller and compact, floating along the same types of invisible track lines as their longer, bulkier cousins.

One taxi announced with a robotic voice, “Sector nine, complex thirty-six. On route to sector nine, complex thirty-six.”

“Here,” Charles called towards the taxi with a wave, prompting a light fixed into its side to shift from green to orange. Charles led Elise towards a vertically-latched door which opened as they approached, helping to place her upon a padded booth-like seat before he followed suit.

“Third quadrant, floor seventeen, please.” Charles spoke into a small microphone mounted into the wall ahead of them while sliding a State-sponsored identification card into a slot reader. A few seconds passed before the robotic voice acknowledged its approval through a speaker system. “Voice authentication complete. Welcome, Commander Brock. Travel time will be approximately thirty-seven minutes.” Charles would then turn towards Elise, taking the time to temper his excitement before speaking. “We’re almost home.”


Sent: 1/2/2017 10:49:59 A.M. Eastern Standard Time
Subj: Re: Post #11

((I am so very sorry about the looooong delay in getting my post to you.  The holidays were crazy.  From now on, I should be good to get back to my usual quick turnaround of a day or two!))

As soon as she was reassured that she would not be leashed like some kind of animal once more, some of the tension went out of Elise.  She was still far from relaxed, but it seemed her situation was slowly becoming accepted in some manner, so that she recognized that the courtesy of not being leashed was a good thing.  What sort of regulated Hell did she now exist within, she wondered.

when they exited the shuttle and began their walk through some of the Interior of the State’s grasp, the brunette was as good as her nod of acceptance to his condition that she remain close by his side.  As much as she despised all of this, and still to a large degree Charles himself, Elise did stay within a step of the man.  There was a difference between being defiant and being stupid, and all outright defiance would get her here was further punishment, degradation, and potentially death.

When she caught sight of the poor brace being shoved ahead by her… Owner?… in such clear trauma for the experience, Charles would feel a sudden pressure on his arm as Elise wrapped one delicate hand around his forearm as if to reassure everyone around that she did indeed have a place here.  Charles would feel the harsh bite of nails through his clothing as her grip was strong and agitated.  It was almost as if she wanted him to feel some physical pain as the other Brace was feeling emotional pain. 

But her mouth remained shut through all of what she observed.  Not a word was spoken, but Charles could so easily see that her quick, intelligent gaze was taking in every bit of what was around her, storing away the information for future reference.  She wasn’t cowering within herself and blocking it all out.  No, she was taking it all in, every disturbing moment of this pristine authoritarian society she now found herself in. 

Every now and then, her jaw tightened in clear unhappiness when people were dragged away or otherwise subjugated and abused.  But she also took in the sight of those Braces who seemed happy in their place, which lent her gaze a quizzical shift.  How could anyone be happy in this sort of place, under the heel of their oppressor?  Clearly it was Stockholm Syndrome in play here. 

Thoughts ran through her head quickly, mulling over numerous possibilities as she cast a sidelong glance at Charles’ profile.  He’d seemed rather harmless thus far, even kind in a way.  But would that persist?  Would he remain kind and amiable once he grasped exactly what sort of position he was in?  It was so easy for power over another to go to people’s heads.  Regardless, she had no intention of being a complicit victim, nor begging him for scraps.

The turn through the checkpoint was rather harrowing, and when it first looked as if there might be an issue, Charles would feel that hand on his arm once more, digging fingernails into his clothed flesh beneath as if she were silently telling him to FIX IT, in no uncertain terms.  Deep inside, however, that moment of uncertainty had Elise feeling her insides turn to jelly and a true wave of terror wash through her.  Was she going to be yanked away from Charles and sent elsewhere, somewhere worse???

Finally, they were through.  Her nerve endings felt like they had been strung tighter than those on a guitar, and the perpetual state of nervous readiness she’d set herself in was becoming rather exhausting.  She’d felt a bit refreshed after her nap on the shuttle, but all it had taken was a walk through this regulated dystopia to drain all the energy out of her all over again.

By the time they’d gotten onto the smaller travel apparatus, Elise allowed herself to be guided to the padded bench and slumped down onto it with all the grace of a sack of flour.  There was no attempt to be feminine or proper at all, her knees parted and her body slumping in the seat as if she were a guy sprawling in his favorite chair, though without the aura of comfort and relaxation. 

Leaning forward, she pressed her head into her hands and groaned softly, hiding her face behind the tousled sheet of her long mahogany hair as it flowed in front of her shoulders.  She heard Charles speak about them almost being home ,and she had to bite her tongue to keep from snapping at him about how this was not her home.  Seeing the reality of how precarious her fate was had at least temporarily, sheathed her sharp tongue.

Instead, all she had the energy to say, “When we get there, I want a shower and to sleep for a week.  And both of them WITHOUT COMPANY.”  Just in case he had any ideas of getting into her personal space.

Incubii’s Order

With one final, visceral thrust, Ohmon emptied himself into the woman pinned beneath him. A groan would climb it way from his lips, deep and primal, cut short by a heavy pulse from his exhausted loins as he looked down upon the extraordinary sight of whimpering royalty. Lady Hawke, heir to the throne of the Hawke Dynasty and braggart by nature, had encountered Ohmon by chance during an expedition to the lost mountains of Dratharan, where her sexual fate was sealed. She willingly supplied her thighs to Ohmon’s whims from then on, partially due to her own infatuation but mostly because of Ohmon’s meticulous incantations. She had already bore six of his children, and now there would be a seventh to carry on the necessary task of expanding his legacy.

With an effort, Ohman shook off the last remnants of his satisfaction and reach to reclaim his discarded clothes that lay haphazardly on the floor beside the bed. The surrounding visage of an extravagant suite was already beginning to trickle itself from the plane of existence, as if to mimic the receding tides of ecstasy ebbing from the Master who willed it into being. Exotic linens, flowing drapes, and finely-carved furniture were dissolving against the simple wooden cabin that lay underneath it as misty blue lines of energy crissed and crossed, claiming vibrant details from their place in reality. Even the bed soon disappeared as Ohmon stood beside it, with Lady Hawke still laying in a dreamy daze as her fingers set about caressing her bare breasts. She would float in space until Ohmon lowered her gently into a cot with a downward wave of his hand. Sleep, Ohmon would say with a voice that was out of place for the realm which he now prowled. Sleep well, Kelona Hawke, and accept my seed once more into the womb which has done me much service.

Ohmon stood tall at 6’5”, with piercing blue eyes, flowing black hair, and bronze skin which seemed to glow against its surroundings. Strong, sturdy shoulders tapered down to a softer midsection which had lost a bit of firmness due to many decadent dinners and leisurely sex-fests. Various tattoos were scrawled upon his flesh here and there, mostly related to the tenets of the Incubii order. A pair of wings were tucked tightly against his upper back, as if he was afraid or ashamed to disclose them unless absolutely necessary. His attire was always simple, by taste and by design, and rarely deviated from a blue button-down shirt which matched his eyes, a pair of black jeans which seemed to blend with every shadow, and leather boots that were strapped almost to his knees.

Once he was fully dressed, Ohmon exited the now plainly-decorated cabin of Lady Hawke and make his way to the deck of the airship. Dusk was falling outside, with broad strokes of pink and orange painting themselves near the horizon before fading quickly to a bluish black. The captain and several deckhands were tending to navigational coordinates near the ship’s wheel. Their collective hairs would stand on end, with one hand turning his head towards Ohmon as he walked leisurely by; nothing would be seen, prompting a shrug and a return to business. Ohmon smiled, an impossibly seductive smile, before he stopped himself at the bow of the ship. With a sigh that offered no contentment nor displeasure, he looked out towards the land which scrolled languidly, far below.

Oh father, dear father. Why won’t you accept my withdrawal from the Incubii Order? The last few years of Ohmon’s life had been a blur of disillusionment and despair, tempered only by the promises of his newfound quest. He was actively fighting against a fate which seemed so sure to claim his life and soul until the end of time, all the while indulging in urges which offered no solace to his dilemma. Old habits died hard, it seemed, but a wise old prophet at a temple would provide him with a tantalizing hope. If only he would discover a long-lost artifact and perform a long-forgotten ritual, Ohmon could possibly neutralize his need to seduce every woman that crossed his path. The concept of being sated by one, and only one lover was almost beyond his comprehension, but filled him with a burning desire to cull his desires just the same. And now, Lady Hawke’s ship was taking him to the next in a trail of clues which were escalating with trials and puzzles.

Ohmon’s father was having none of this, of course. Agents were being sent to intercept his progress, though they offered no physical resistance. Instead, pleas for his return to the Order were presented with intensifying robustness. Ohmon knew it would only be a matter of time before his father brought forth more drastic measures. In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if…

His wandering thoughts would abruptly cease. Ohmon turned his attention sharply to the multi-leveled cabin area of the ship and narrowed his eyes. A series of lessons with a psychic had made more receptive to empathic changes in his environment. Someone… or something was waiting for him there, waiting for him to make a move. He didn’t know who, or what, or where, or how… but it wasn’t sent by his father, and it wanted him dead.

Slowly, surely, he reached a small dagger upon his belt and claimed it into his right palm. The feeling was getting stronger now, and Ohmon braced himself for the inevitable. Come out and face me, he growled with steely blue eyes that were ready to bore holes into his new enemy.

Main Page

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One Disillusioned Hero

■ My submissions  

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Charles’ knees throbbed their familiar aches as he trudged doggedly towards the end of Sa’avs Pass. His boots greedily clung to mud and clay as an animated crosshatch of rain traced the contour of his cloak. He had been travelling for days, stopping only to fetch water and relieve himself, and fatigue was finally displacing his perseverance. The weight of the cargo snugly strapped to his sides proved to be every bit the nuisance that Charles had expected. A tall glass of ale will be your reward once the transaction is complete, he reassured himself, and the promise of a warm bed at an inn fueled him for the last leg of his journey.

Crossing paths with nameless travellers became a more and more common occurrence as the town of Chuthan drew nearer. His thoughts drifted aimlessly, as they often would during long journeys, until the approaching sound of clacking hooves focused his senses with a jolt. His hand gripped tightly around the hilt of his concealed rapier as the silhouette of a horse-drawn carriage appeared against the lingering fog. It slowly lumbered past until the sound of rainfall overtook its creaky wooden wheels in the distance behind him. With a breath, he relinquished his weapon and allowed himself to relax.

How did things ever come to this? Charles often wondered, but never in a resentful way. It wasn’t much too long ago that he was dubbed the Shining Savior. Charles the Invincible. The Chosen Champion. These were the titles which helped to forge the path of his childhood towards his final confrontation with the evil Emperor Raven Da’Routh as a scant seventeen-year-old. He was victorious in the end, as prophesized. Bloodied but victorious. He observed with introspective analysis that his journey had almost felt at times like he was going through the motions. With the world’s confidence backing him, how could he fail? The celebrations were long and joyous, the erected statues grand and visionary, the women loose and insatiable. Yet his mind drifted even as his desires were thoroughly quenched, comparing the befores and afters of a world where ‘good’ prevailed and seeing no discernable difference.

What were you truly fighting for, oh Great Defender? His father might ask if he were still alive, the same bureaucrat father who wholeheartedly rejected his son’s predestination. The opportunity for people to govern themselves? Surely now you see how unruly the common masses are on their own. He shook his head with a snort, conceding a half-hearted agreement with the flesh and blood which abandoned him. The world was quick to dismiss their hero, of course, when Charles cynically exiled himself from the public eye. Now, many years later, he was smuggling drugs across arbitrary borderlines, earning his keep by ensuring the availability of a synthetic drug for wealthy socialites to douse away their sorrows. An honest dishonest living, he reconciled with quiet justification.

The unmistakable rumbling of a gas-powered engine tensed the air once again. A merchant’s motorcar this time, parting its way through the incessant mist. It carried a sense of looming confrontation, even as it disappeared behind Charles’ peripheral vision. His eyes and ears steeled themselves for the inevitable.

“Halt!” A voice commanded, disregarding the fact that Charles already stood frozen in his tracks. “Surrender yourself now. Forfeit your goods without delay and forego your death!” Charles’ shoulders rose and fell with a heavy sigh, prompting two cloaked bandits to rapidly converge upon his position with their weapons drawn. He sidestepped them easily and made light work of them with his rapier, their bodies collapsing upon the rain-soaked earth with a soft thud. He swiftly turned to meet the motorcar and was faced with a large cannon, still mostly covered in tarp, aimed at his center mass.

“Last chance!” the voice called again from somewhere within the humid dark. A grunt escaped Charles’s lips before he unsheathed his sword and swiped upward with one fluid motion—the same motion which felled the Emperor endless years ago—and the motorcar split into two with a smoldering crack. The scamper of footsteps fleeing into the woods finalized his victory, and Charles reassigned his focus while retiring his sword. The beady yellow lights from the approaching town beckoned, and his weary legs eased their demands. He sifted through the empty square towards the local saloon, passing a defaced, moss-ridden equestrian statue of himself without a second glance.

As a male in Rahven Rahz, you have the choice to be perpetually aroused, or not at all. Charles was reminded of his father’s narrow-eyed observation as two bubbly, scantily-clad waitresses flanked him in greeting within the saloon. Even as their breasts happily bounced against his shoulders, he maintained his blank, unrelenting stare. They asked in unison if they could tend to his cloak, prompting a slow nod of approval. His modest attire saw light for the first time in days—a faded plaid shirt, jeans with patches of discoloration, and brown boots cracking down the seams. Charles’ dark hair and eyes seemed understated against the wash of color prevalent amongst the other patrons of the saloon. Even his 6’2’’ frame was meager compared to other humans—and he preferred it that way.

He surveyed the area and made quick mental notes of his surroundings. A piano player in the corner. Two large ogres cornering a woman with ominous intentions. A large gathering of patrons, hooting and hollering around what seemed to be a sex show. Eventually, he spotted his contact. Charles nonchalantly seated himself at the bar beside a green-skinned Jhenaf, waving off a greeting from the bartender.

A moment passed, then another.

“You have what I need?” Finally, a gruff voice from the Jhenaf before he methodically lifted his glass to his lips.

“Yeah. You have my money?”

Slowly, the Jhenaf guided his hand towards a pouch strapped to his waist. He unzipped it slowly, pulling out what looked to be a bag of coins. Of course I have it, his glance seemed to say as he placed it resolutely on the counter between them.

Taking his cue, Charles loosened the straps around his chest and let the bags of pure Molly drop into his hands. He subsequently placed them beside the coins, on the side closest to the Jhenaf. “I guess that’s that,” Charles muttered, reaching for the coins before a firm shove interrupted his acquisition.

“No payment for you today, boss.” A weapon jammed against Charles’ back made its intentions irrefutably clear. The voice was quickly assessed and determined to be either a cyclops or an intelligent sasquatch. “Now leave and don’t look back.” Charles’ posture sulked, as if to prepare his meek departure from his chair and the premises. He then slammed his fist against his chest, causing a small, rippling explosion to flare out from his back, startling his assailant backwards a few steps. He swiveled hurriedly in his stool, prepared to engage his attacker before a compelling female voice commanded the attention of the entire saloon. “Stop right there,” it ordered emphatically, persuading Charles to lower his sword as a woman emerged from the shadows of an adjacent room.

(Here’s where you take over. Develop your character’s backstory as you see fit… gangster, law enforcement, saloon owner, fair maiden, anything you like. You definitely don’t have to write as much intro as I did. I admit I had a little too much fun with mine. Thanks for taking the (long) time to read, and I look forward to your reply!)

Half of the room looked her way and froze.  The rest clued in when the music stopped.  She had the half-man, half-beast dead in the sight of her mini crossbow.  Emi was much more comfortable with the accuracy (and more importantly the range) of her longbow but for an indoor job like this the piece of craftsmanship pre-loaded with four bolts and strapped to her right forearm was ideal.

“Keep playing,” she told the piano player without taking her narrow eyes off of her target.  “I like that song,” she said.  The music resumed but the chatter did not.

There was a curtain maybe ten paces off to the wet and well traveled human stranger’s right.  Emi had stepped out from behind it.  She was at a good safe distance with a table hosting two card players in between.  Standing rigidly braced with feet shoulder width apart, she wore dirty but well kept knee high boots and faded jeans.  A cropped jacket was buckled tight around her figure, neither fat nor slender.  A brown headscarf wrapped about her concealed her hair and neck, and black grease smeared across her high cheek bones and thin pointy nose.  She was all business.  On the other side of the drug runner was his customer, Zaanad, the Jhenaf.  Standing behind the two at the bar was the brute in the crosshairs.  It had removed its blade from the stranger’s back once she had got its attention.

“Go outside and count to infinity,” she told the man-beast.  “Oh wait, never mind.  How many fingers and toes do you have again?”  She took in a breath.  “My point being, get lost.”

“Stay out of this you little twat!” growled the whatever-it-was.  “It’ll take more than that puny thing to put me down.”

“I’m a pretty good shot,” she told him with utmost sincerity.  The brute produced a knife by its tip and the two card players dove away to either side as Emi kicked their table up and over.  The blade thunked into the wooden top as she pointed her weapon at the bulk of its body and flicked the latch with her left hand.  The first bolt buried into its lower abdomen causing it to grunt and wince.  Resetting the bow mechanically fed the next bolt automatically into place.  With the beast slowed by the wound, she took an extra couple of seconds to aim proper and put the next shot through its larynx, collapsing it into a heap on the dingy floor.  The faint of heart began to scatter and leave the room but a few remained.  With the third of four bolts now loaded, she turned her sights to the bar, hoping that no more ammo would be needed.

“Go ahead,” she nodded.  “Finish your transaction.”

Without taking his eyes from Emi, Zaanad slowly slid the money sack further towards the stranger and then at the same rate of speed pulled the dope towards himself.  Either the money or the drugs would have come out the same but Molly didn’t come in different currencies nor denominations, and also had the added bonus of being significantly tougher to counterfeit.

“All right, now that that’s done.  You.  Green guy,” she called to Zaanad.  She knew his name and he knew hers but Emi refused to show the two-bit criminal the dignity.  “I’ve come to collect.  Toss it this way.”  He complied with an easy underhand lob.  The sack, perhaps twice the size of her fist landed at her feet.  The impact popped open the threading at the top and a small amount of the fine beige-grey crystal spilled out.  Kneeling down, she dabbed her pinky in it and held it to her nose.  It smelled right, like burnt honey.  It was good shit.  Emi undid the top two buckles on her jacket and stuffed the sack inside giving her the appearance of having one large right breast.  “The other one,” she urged him, weapon still aimed at him.  Extending his skinny arm again, Zaanad tossed the next one and she stepped forward and caught it before it hit the ground.  It went into the left side of her chest evening out her now full and potent bosom.  A wolf whistle came from the other side of the room, causing her to smirk.

“As if.”

“Run if you want,” warned the Jhenaf in his gargly voice.  “But you know you’ll never get away.”

“You can keep the money,” she told the stranger, snubbing Zaanad completely.  “Buy yourself a new pair of boots.”

Emi’s eyes darted around for a moment.  No one was moving.  Even the sex show had paused.  Then she reached into her back pocket and pulled out a capsule.  “Bye,” she whispered and cracked the little smoke bomb on the floor at her feet.  Behind the white shroud she disappeared behind the curtain from whence she came.

It was a small store room, dimly lit.  She had left the cellar latch open for her hasty escape.  Skipping the ladder altogether, she sat on the edge of the hole and dropped herself down.  It was a maze of kegs and shelves of bottles and Emi zigzagged her way between to the four foot metal door in the back corner.  Pushing it open, she stepped into the pitch black of the sewer tunnel and closed it behind her.  Then feeling for where she had left the old rusty piece of re-bar, she stuck it in the crack at the base of the door to jam it shut.  If any pursuers were determined enough it would not hold, but it would easily afford her enough time to vanish.  With one hand she felt her way long the wall while she re-fastened one of the buckles to hold the goods in her chest while she moved along the narrow ledge above the slimy water.  After a few yards she could hear the drip-droop-drip trickling and then soon around the corner saw the faint grey light from the drain above.  Past the dripping water and the footstamps of the oblivious pedestrians on the metal grating above, the tunnel became a small squarely shaped cement pipe, forcing her to crawl.  It would be another forty yards in the pitch dark but she knew where she was going as Emi had the route pre traced several times.  The ground was wet and grimy under her hands and knees.  Soon the dim red glow from the open trap door was visible.  Once under it she could stand up through the hole and lift herself up, shutting and bolting the trap into relative safety.

The concrete room was tiny, about six feet by eight feet by six feet high, plenty tall enough for her five-foot-two stature, with no windows.  There was a bunk and a couple of stocked shelves mounted on the wall above it.  In the corner was the small lantern tuned to red.  Wiping the muck from her hands onto her jeans, she turned the dial to tune it light blue.  That was the signal.  Emi put the drugs down on the mattress next to her pre made pack, bow and quiver, and unstrapped the crossbow from her forearm.  Unwrapping the headscarf revealed a dusty blonde fringe that hung just above her amber eyes.  The rest of her locks fell down her back in a braid.  There was no telling how much time she had.  Zaanad may never have found her, or he could just as easily be crawling right below her with extra thug power in a matter of minutes.  She had to move quickly.  Removing all her clothes including her sweaty socks and underthings, right down to her bare nothingness, she pushed through the only other exit, the side door into the commode.  Emi washed the the remaining sewer grime from her hands in the basin and then scrubbed the grease paint from her face.  A brief shower would have been nice but it was just not safe to stay any longer than she had to.

Returning to the bunk cubicle, Emi gasped in wide-eyed surprise, crossing her arms over her small bare breasts and turning her hip to hide her bush.

Charles happily welcomed the exercise in restraint as the brazen newcomer introduced herself and assumed control of the fracas. He always appreciated diversions, especially those with inherent benefits, and his sword was respectfully re-sheathed even before the brute beside him was neutralized. A wry smile greeted the increasingly-attractive stranger’s suggestion to invest in new boots with the money she allowed him to keep. Had Zaanad’s forceful glare not prompted him to action, he would have allowed the smoky remnants of her escape to envelope his quiet commendation. She clearly was no slouch at covering her tracks, and Charles viscerally applauded the challenge as he sprinted forward to begin his pursuit.

The raucous saloon with its smell of stale smoke was quickly swallowed away as Charles descended the ladder into the cellar within the store room. After a cautious analysis of the small metal door in the rear corner, he dislodged the rebar after several attempts with a fierce ram of his shoulder. Charles took in the dank smell of the sewer with a slow breath, thoughts hazily drifting towards the dark tunnel before him.

Always the ears and nose, young one. In lieu of your eyes, these are your greatest tools… The teachings of his mentoring Uncle always seemed to apply themselves to the variety of challenges he often faced. Memories of hedge mazes remained constant within his mind, those courtyard labyrinths from his youth which were navigated with bound hands and blindfolded eyes, boots desperately skirting obstacle after obstacle, having no choice but to hone the pair of senses which were so ruthlessly advocated… Charles paused in the tunnel several times with an upheld nose, nostrils flaring to acquire the scent of Molly as his ears focused upon the after-echoes of the stranger’s footsteps. Before long, he discovered the trap door which harbored his quarry and focused the newly-acquired rebar on the appropriate pressure point, bursting it open with an upward thrust. Lifting himself into the small concrete bunker, he briefly surveyed the quarters before readying himself for the looming confrontation.

Charles patiently waited with both arms folded behind his back, his rapier slung harmlessly across his shoulders. A mild blush swiftly rose and fell upon his cheeks when met with the emergence of the unclothed stranger. His eyes focused towards the ceiling as a courtesy. “Hello again,” Charles said with the faintest suggestion of a smile. “Before I begin, I’d like to thank you for the help back there, even though I suspect it was an incidental aspect of your objective.” His face soured a bit, looking almost apologetic. “Unfortunately, I’ll need to ask for that merchandise back. I’m not the biggest fan of Zandoff myself, but he is one of my major suppliers of income.” A rumbling exhale hinted at his own reluctance in his demands. “You can have a moment to, uh… put something on before you hand over the stuff if you’d like.” Charles’ body tensed for a moment after his offer. Even in her compromised state, he sensed that the woman before him was still a threat to be reckoned with.

How the hell did he get in without her hearing?  He stood there before her backlit with an aura of aqua blue lantern light.  Speaking so casually, his air was blatantly smug as he asked for the dope as if it was his to take.  The two sacks were sitting there on the bunk next to her equipment.  He could have just lifted them and have been gone before she even exited the commode, unless he had missed seeing them, but she doubted that if he was observant enough to follow her that he wouldn’t be so blind.  Instead he stayed to tease her in this most vulnerable of states.  He probably wanted more than just the drugs.

“It’s not yours,” she told him flatly.  “You sold it to Mr Lizard and he paid you.  You’re out.”  Emi needed to stall while she thought of a course of action, still standing askew, shielding her privates.  “He owed me and I collected the debt.  So now that everyone’s square, you can all go home.”  She wanted to add ‘… and jerk off,’ but decided not to antagonize him while he had the upper hand.  She did everything she could to steady her breathing and at least appear calm even though on the inside she was ready to leap around the room like a cat on the slightest of notions.

Naked or not, Emi wasn’t handing over anything, her body nor the drugs nor any other shit he might feel like adding to the list.  She didn’t give a damn about the Molly itself.  The saloon wasn’t even some simple heist.  Zaanad had fucked her over and she just evened the score.  At this point the dope was leverage for something else.  Emi could not afford to lose it now, certainly not to some two-bit drug mule of that scumbag Zaanad.  The bow would be useless in here, but her sister had always kept a knife under the mattress.  Emi hoped that it was still there almost as much as she hoped that she wouldn’t need it.

“So do you want to use the back door,” she nodded to the trap in the floor, “or the front,” she asked as she stepped aside to give him a free path to the commode and the ladder upstairs within it.

Charles studied the stranger’s eyes carefully. He desperately wanted to avoid a confrontation, and her glare suggested that she was interpreting his attempt at cordiality for arrogance. He took one final glance at the Molly situated nearby on the bunk before finding the stranger’s eyes once more. “Very well,” Charles submitted with a slow nod. “It’s yours. I’m not going to risk getting either of us killed over a mere associate of mine. I’ll just report that you were too much to handle and sent me packing.” The corners of his lips twitched as if to fight off a smile before he shifted his focus towards the trap door, carefully avoiding the stranger’s bare body. “I’ll leave the way I came, thanks. Take care.” Charles withdrew slowly, kneeling down before disappearing into the sewer below.

A few moments passed. Then, with a look of alarm on his face, Charles reemerged through the trap door. “Someone followed me,” he confessed while hastily climbing back into the room with a grunt. “They’re almost here, and I’m sure they’re not friendly.” He quickly brandished his rapier and readied it ahead of his chest, assuming a wide stance between the opening in the floor and the nude stranger behind him.

A series of disconcerting noises clustered beneath the trap door before ceasing abruptly. Charles awaited the threat with a silent, fixated stare as it undoubtedly prepared to reveal itself. Without warning, an amorphous, purplish blob began to rise from the entryway, with several loose tendrils flailing themselves haphazardly along its flanks. “Charles the Champion!” A deep, gargling voice emerged from the creature’s center mass, ricocheting off the walls with a grotesque echo. “It’s certainly a surprise seeing you alive. I’m here to rectify that.”

The creature’s tendrils formed a pair of hands on the ends, clasping themselves together as a makeshift mace to knock Charles off his feet, careening him backwards towards the bunk with a crash. The sword was dislodged from his hand and flung toward his left shoulder, impaling it against the collapsed bunk beneath him. A cry of pain shot from his lips as his eyes clenched shut with a sharp wince. The hostile creature furthered its transformation, shaping a dragonesque head with a large set of teeth which grinned its barbaric intentions. Charles busied himself with a small pouch on his belt as the creature shifted towards him, sliding upon the concrete floor with a snake-like crawl. “Your time has finally come, hero,” it growled as it cast an ominous shadow upon Charles’ awkwardly splayed body, winding its arms towards another debilitating blow. With defiant eyes, Charles hurled a small grenade-like projectile towards the sardonic smile bearing down upon him. It unleashed an expansive net on contact which engulfed the creature, causing it to retreat with a surprised snarl.

Charles watched as the creature preoccupied itself with the net while collecting his mind. A brief moment of hesitation ensued as he clenched his right hand around the hilt of his sword, grinding his teeth before he removed the protrusion from his shoulder. “Jesus…Christ,” he yelped, tossing the blade aside for a moment before claiming it within his hand once again. “I hope you weren’t lying about that way out in the bathroom,” Charles spouted towards the stranger while stumbling to his feet. “Because we need to leave. Now.”

That was too easy.  The stranger went from cocking his head aside to fit himself under the low ceiling, to kneeling down and crawling back into the sewer.  His agreeable exit did not do anything at all to gain her trust.  Tracking her all the way through the dank underground, risking his personal safety only to turn back empty handed without a fight did not add up.  As soon as the lid closed Emi tossed her pack onto it, cursing that it wasn’t heavy enough to ensure his non-return.  Shoving the drugs into the top of the pack, she began to dress herself in a frenzy.  There was no time for underpants nor socks.  She slipped into black rain slick pants and pulled her arms quickly through the sleeves of the same buckle jacket.  Then grabbing a haphazard pile of clean garments already laid out, she stuffed a fistful on top of the drugs and clipped the pack shut.  Emi sat down to slip her boots back on but left them unzipped in her haste.  The quiver went over one shoulder and the bow over the other.  A tremendous urge to just grab the pack and start moving smothered her, but the crossbow still needed to be strapped on.  She could just carry it and strap it later.  No she couldn’t.  She needed both hands to climb the fucking ladder!  Then there was the poncho.  She should just leave something behind. “Fuck!” she cursed with a huff.

Everything had been ahead of schedule until this asshole had popped up through her trap door.  She cursed herself again for letting her nerves get into such a frazzle at the worst possible time.  She strapped the crossbow onto her forearm and reached for the pack.  Just as she lifted it, the trap opened again.

“Someone followed me.”

His re-emergence was the last thing that she needed.  He hunched over the hole in wait, but Emi wasn’t interested.  This was no time for someone else’s bullshit.  She had her own trouble to deal with.  Hauling the pack over her quiver shoulder and folding the poncho over her non-crossbow arm, she backed though the doorway into the commode.

The blob burst upward into the tiny room, knocking over the lantern.  Someone had not followed him.  Something had followed him.  The blue glow flickered out but was replaced by the creature’s own creepy fluorescent violet radiance.  From a larynx and orifice unseen, it uttered it’s sarcastic and ominous threats before quickly shapeshifting limbs into appropriate implements for knocking the man crashing back onto the bunk.  Emi heard his cries of pain on her way up the ladder and assumed that he was as good as dead.  Heaving herself up onto the floor above, she stood up straight and pulled her jacket closed to cover her bare chest but before she could start running she heard his voice again amongst the violent echoing racket below.

“I hope you weren’t lying about that way out in the bathroom.  Because we need to leave.  Now.”

She was already leaving and neither was she standing in his way to leave.  At that point it did occur to her that he wasn’t dead yet and she paused in assessment.  Stop getting sidetracked, Emi scorned herself.  Other people’s problems were other people’s problems and should stay that way.  Besides, this guy had been nothing but trouble from the moment that she’d set eyes on him.  Why should she give the slightest fuck?  That purple thing was doing her a favor.

“The ladder works!” she called down.  “But you’re on your own!”

Then she stepped through the doorway into the small abandoned storefront of her sister’s former enterprise.  The only light was the dull grey that seeped between the edges of the window boards.  Three quick strides between the half-empty merchandise shelves brought her to the front door.  Emi tossed the bolt aside and stepped out into the drizzle of the street.  She would not be coming back.  The cold wet draft on her chest gave her shivers and she clutched the jacket shut with a clenched fist.

“Hey baby, wanna party?”

“Fuck off!” she scowled and kicked the gnome swiftly in the groin.  Leaving him to double over in agony, she ran head down into the alley across the street to zip her boots and buckle up her jacket.

A trail of crimson began to trickle down Charles’s shirt and pool along the lip of his belt. He clenched his left shoulder gingerly with his right hand, watching as the strange creature before him cursed the net which seemed to tighten and expand defiantly against its struggles. Nuisance net, Charles confirmed with a reminiscing smile. You’ve bought me time many times before, and I better make the most of it now. He scuttled towards the commode, dodging a flailing purple appendage along the way, and hoped that the stranger’s words from above rang true.

The ladder didn’t ascend too high, but Charles’ injured shoulder refused to lift his left arm up past his ribcage. He jumped as high as he could and grabbed a rung with his good arm, pulling himself up with a heavy grunt before securing his feet and repeating the process. He eventually reached the top, bracing his torso on the floor of the room above as his legs dangled against the adjacent ladder. Before he could muster one final push, a searing arm latched onto his right calf and yanked downwards. He growled in agony as his hands clawed against the floorboards, slowing the creature’s pull, but not for long. “Where… do you think… you’re going?” A hellish voice inquired from below.

Acting quickly, Charles reached for a small vial on his belt, almost losing his grip in the process. He unscrewed the cap and tossed it haphazardly behind him…. and waited. An irritated shriek was enough to verify his success. The net which was still draped around the creature was dissolving into a glue-like irritant, an obvious chemical reaction to whatever was in the vial. The grip around his leg weakened, and Charles hauled himself completely over the edge with one final, desperate lift. His pant leg tore from the knee, and his boot slid off his foot, joining the purple beast beneath him. He laid upon his belly, grinding his teeth at the burning sensation around his calf.

It won’t be long until that creepy asshole comes at me again, Charles thought grimly. He willed himself to his feet and scanned the abandoned shop. Glints of light reflected off of bottles which must have been potions, prompting him to stuff several into his pockets in quiet hopes towards their antiseptic properties. He limped through the front door and took in the buildings around him for a brief, serene moment… this must have been the neighboring town of Luda.

A nearby gnome caught his attention soon after, one who was cradling his crotch and angrily limping towards a shadowed figure in the alleyway across the road. What happened next almost sent Charles into a state of shock. A feathery blur swooped onto the empty street just a few meters ahead, and the gnome was gone. Instinctively, Charles looked up in the sky just in time to witness two large, nebulous shapes, one rejoining the other as they streaked against the matte black sky. His eyes slowly widened with dread.

“Oh no,” Charles muttered to himself. “No, no, no.”

A sharply curtailed scream from above confirmed his fears. “Hellbirds,” he unconsciously whispered aloud. This must be Zanaad’s doing. Charles narrowed his eyes. Or one of his superiors. He shook off thoughts from his past involving the deadly creatures and turn his head towards the alleyway. “Take cover!” he yelled at the might-be stranger before stepping back into the shop behind him. A flash of feathers burst past his peripheral vision; he realized with sickly horror that had he waited a moment longer, he would have been seized by impossibly large talons and torn to shreds.

The birds were undoubtedly circling around in preparation to double back. Without a moment’s hesitation, Charles bent over to unlace his left boot as quickly as he could.  He unfastened his belt and pressed a button near the buckle, rigidizing it with a sudden snap. The ends of the lace were tied on opposing ends of the belt, creating a makeshift bow. He then focused on his rapier, hastily unscrewing the blade from its hilt.

The rapier blade was pulled tautly against the lace and stabilized against the solidified belt. Charles listened carefully to the noises in the sky above and made a few mental calculations. After a long, slow breath, he emerged from the shop and fired the blade which arced gracefully through the air before dissolving against the dark. A moment passed. Then a loud, animalistic screech. One dark shape in the sky dominoed against the other, careening both into the hillside just beyond the town’s skyline. He dropped his improvised bow to the ground and exhaled deeply.

“This isn’t the end of it,” Charles called towards the darkness of the alleyway where the stranger might still linger. “There’s more coming. A lot more. They’re definitely after me. I suspect they’re after you as well. If you follow me, I can take you somewhere safe.” And with that, he collapsed onto his right knee, panting heavily. You’re not in any shape to take anyone anywhere, he admitted to himself.

Even on such a miserable grey day the massive bird still cast a shadow on the street.  It caught her attention before the thrash of the wings gusted a breeze down the lane and the pervy little squat was snatched up in the talons and carried away.

One moment’s peace – that’s all she wanted – forty seconds or so to get herself prepped for the road.  She couldn’t even have that.  First this weirdo tracking her down for no apparent reason and now the birds.  She didn’t think that Zaanad had the clout to call them, although his boss did.  If they were to come after her she would have expected them miles down the road or maybe the next day.  Less than ten minutes of response time wasn’t right, unless they were after someone else.  In any case she needed them about as much as a cattle prod in her panties.  Speaking of which, she still wasn’t wearing any under her clothes.  Fucking hell!

They alley of refuge was too narrow for the hellbirds to reach her, unless they landed in the street (which was likely barely wide enough for that itself) and pecked their way in with beaks.  Emi had hoped to take a moment to throw on a sweater, but instead just rebuckled the jacket, slung her arsenal over appropriate shoulders, packed up and tossed the grey poncho overtop of everything. 

“There’s more coming.  A lot more.  They’re definitely after me.  I suspect they’re after you as well.  If you follow me, I can take you somewhere safe.

Somewhere safe?  Nowhere was safe with him.  This should have been so simple.  Get on a bike and take the dope down the road to Hainburn.  She’d be there within an hour and have herself a warm room at the inn.  Now with birds in the sky, the road was not an option.  Even if they weren’t sent after her, they were quite difficult to control once unleashed as their bird brains often tended to have minds of their own.  No one was safe.  She would have to trek it through the woods on foot and would hopefully be there before dawn.

Without a word Emi set off down the lane to ditch the guy for good.  The hellbirds could have him.  She had more important matters to take care of.  The narrow strip of clouds between the rooftops above were clear of birds even if the air was filled with their not so distant cries.  After a quick check that all was clear she dashed across the next street and into the next lane.  She knew it was there somewhere in the shadows, an open grate back into the sewers.  Two dirty scruffy humans crouched low scurried before her and disappeared into the dark.  The street people seeking shelter from the hellbirds above revealed the hole to her.  The metal rungs embedded in the concrete wall descended several feet underground.

She knew the way and had traversed it many times.  This was a common tunnel that stretched for a few miles with side ledges nearly three feet wide.  It was heavily inhabited and as such was periodically lit by small lanterns.  Voices chattered here and there.  People, human or not, made beds along the edges of the walls or in alcoves.  Now and then materials such as wood or metal plates were laid across from ledge to ledge forming dwellings bridged over the current in the trough beneath.  Emi moved quickly, resisting the urge to run as she needed to pace herself for the journey ahead.  People usually kept to themselves but sometimes there would be the odd pickpocket or once in a while someone would block the ledge and want to collect a toll to pass by, so she had to keet her eyes sharp for trouble.  Stepping over sleeping bodies and briskly passing panhandlers with a cold glare she kept moving on the slight downhill grade.

The dim glow of daylight and the source of the cool breeze drawing in, considerably fresher than the air inside the tunnel, was near.  A few more yards and she stepped her way through the loitering crowd at the opening to the outside world.  There were no hellbirds, just clouds darkening into night.  There was no following stranger, just several hours of wilderness between her and her destination.  Garrn was waiting for her at Hainburn.  ‘Just go’ she thought to herself.  ‘Just go’.  She needed no more interruptions nor delays.  There was too much at stake.  Despite the setbacks she was still going to make it.  Emi strode along the path stamped into the garbage of the waste yard and off into the sheltering trees at the other side.

His shoulders slumped as he watched her go, mirroring the defeat which was painted in broad strokes across his face. His bluff was an obvious dud, and now half his limbs were useless as the chances for escape rapidly spiraled towards hopelessness. “This is shaping up to be some kind of night,” he muttered to no one in particular, standing himself up with a near-colossal effort. Fate, it would seem, was bearing down fast, and he turned to meet the purple shadow bearing down upon him with a shrug of his shoulders as if to say,ya got me. The purple beast-thing swiped angrily with its arm and sent Charles flying towards the wall of a building across the street, slamming him awkwardly before he fell to the ground with a sickly crunching sound. Two Jhenafs waiting in the shadows of nearby alleys quickly approached his defenseless body, brandishing their guns at his head with satisfied smiles. “Not even a chance for some epic last words,” he regretfully thought as his vision faded towards an enveloping shroud of matte black. “Maybe next lifetime.”

Charles would wake up with a massive headache and sharp pain in his ribcage, strapped to a chair with his arms firmly secured behind it. His eyes adjusted themselves to a lone bulb hanging from the ceiling of a room with sharp yellow light that bled in through his eyelids. There were thick sheets of shadows surrounding the bulbous beacon of vision, and he sensed beings within them, squinting his eyes to try and distinguish their silhouettes. There was no way to determine how long he had been out; Charles’ mind was too groggy to theorize the whats, wheres and whys of his situation. He did, however, find that his ribcage was wrapped with bandages, as was his calf and shoulder. A door opened and closed behind his field of vison, giving Charles a strange wave of relief as he was happy to forfeit his attempts at playing detective. Footsteps approached, slow and methodical, until what appeared to be a well-dressed, humanlike figure with albino snake-like skin and beady red eyes revealed itself against the light.

“Charles the Champion! Finally, you’ve returned to us from your little nap.” Its voice was jolly and personable as a slithery smile spread across its face. Charles lifted his eyes to meet the creature’s arrival, then weakly shook his head in defiance. “Stuh… stop. Calling me that.” His voice was a gargle, somewhat choked in dried blood. The classy snake-thing smiled ever wider at his response and continued. “Ah, but you see, that is why you are still alive, my friend. We need someone with a sterling reputation, someone with many a battle under his belt who can help us achieve our ends. Someone who has experience with a wide variety of weapons and martial arts, someone who is perhaps looking for purpose after freeing the people from their oppressive tyrant…”

Charles shrugged. He didn’t know who the snake-thing was talking about.

“YOU!” The snake-thing bellowed in wide-eyed exasperation. “We need YOU. Believe it or not, even your most zealous enemies have an immense respect for you. Now, I wouldn’t call myself your enemy, but I couldn’t resist the chance to employ your services.”

The obvious question climbed out of Charles’ mouth rather easily. “What makes you think I’d be willing to do your dirty work for you? Even for a price?”

There was a nod from the snake-thing towards a corner of the room behind Charles, and a Jhenaf took his cue to emerge from the shadows. “I apologize in advance,” the snake-thing said with a half-hearted frown. Charles had no time to react before the Jhenaf placed something slimy, something… living on the base of his neck. “We can only conduct this procedure if you’re conscious, and I’m afraid it’s rather unpleasant at first. But you’ll get used to it, I promise.” Charles saw the wide, jolly smile of the snake-thing one last time before he felt… something… melt into his spine. Soon it felt like his consciousness was being cascaded by streams of foreign thoughts, and he realized in horror that these thoughts were in fact… instructions. There was no time to fight or struggle; his mind was quickly swallowed up with a will that wasn’t his own.

“Now, then. We have a great many tasks for you to complete… but. That woman you were fraternizing with earlier. I’ll peg her as your first objective, since she is fresh on our minds.” The snake-thing folded its arms, and the first true emotion of displeasure appeared on its face. “NO ONE steals from me, not the slightest bit of merchandise. An example must be made post-haste. You are to find her and neutralize her on sight. Retrieving the stolen goods is preferred but not necessary. Understood?” Charles nodded his head with a motion that indubitably expressed his full compliance.

The snake-thing reached into his overcoat and pulled out a small vial with bright-green contents, offering them to Charles which he readily accepted into his mouth. “That’s a healing potion. You already probably feel your pain fading away, but give it an hour or so to fully work its wonders.” With that, the Jhenaf released him from his binds, and Charles stood up from his chair with steely-eyed determination. “We also have something to accompany you. A bloodhound of sorts.” The snake-thing grinned as a small, orange, bat-like creature flew down from the rafters above and hovered nearby. “This little guy has an impeccable sense of smell. He should be of some use in your hunt for the woman.” Charles saluted his acknowledgement before inviting the bat-thing to perch on his shoulder. “Yes, Master Raleth. I live only to serve you.”

An hour later, Charles was revitalized, resupplied, and repurposed, slipping back into the night with grim intentions.

She trudged on through the night, over knolls and across gullies and ravines.  There was moonlight when it found its way through the foliage or when the route traversed sections of dead barren branches scorched by the chemicals and fires of various conflicts and enterprises over the years, but it did help that Emi knew the way.  For the first couple of hours she periodically checked over her shoulder for signs of a tail, even stopping briefly to listen for the rustling of footsteps that weren’t there.  Each time she noted no evidence and grew more and more confident that she had given him the slip.  The absence of hellbird cries was also a relief.  Pushing onward she had no time to lose.  There was no sense in rueing her detour.  All would work out in the end so long as she persevered.  Just one night of this would be worth it.  She would deliver the goods and it would be over.  It had better be over.  Emi wasn’t sure if she could take another twist in this unwelcome plot that she had been thrown into, so she forced herself to believe that the epilogue was finally drawing near.

Sometime around midnight she sat for a rest and to eat.  The clouds had cleared away and the rain had stopped and so setting down her packs, she discarded the poncho, escaping its sweaty confines.  Resting her bum on a fallen tree she tore off a bite from a protein bar and chewed quickly.  The rest of the bar didn’t last long and she washed it down with a long drink of water.  Her crotch had been chafing in the rain slick pants and she had spent the past hour or more constantly readjusting the chest of her jacket.  It was uncomfortable trekking through the woods with no underthings.

Unbuckling the jacket, she laid it on the log.  Then she leaned down to unzip and pull off her boots before standing up to slip off the pants.  With firm and sturdy thighs stark naked in the moonlight, she bent over to retrieve bra and panties from her pack and quickly stepped into the panties, pulling them up her thighs and over her hips and wiggling her bum into them.   Then she slipped the bra, a comfortable stretchy top, over her head and straightening it into place around her ribs.  Her breasts were not large enough to really warrant the support, but the covering would keep them from rubbing around in her clothes while on the trail.  In the distance was the chirping of a bat.  It came closer and circled around.  She looked up but could see nothing.  The chirping circled once more and then faded away generally in the direction that it had come.  Emi undid her braid and picked her dark gold locks loose with her fingers.  Then she took another drink of water, pulled on the pants and returned her bum to the fallen tree.  The fresh night air was soothing.  Her legs were tired and were content to be still.  Relaxation began to set in.  Shutting her eyes brought serenity.  Just a couple of more minutes wouldn’t hurt anything.  Perhaps she could even lie down.

Emi suddenly awakened with a chill.  It was cold out half dressed in the wilderness and she had nearly dozed off.  Sleep was the enemy.  She had to keep moving, keep the adrenaline pumping on until Hainburn.  She could do it.  She could suck it up.  She could rest when it was done.  Standing up straight, she tied her hair quickly in a knot bun.  Then she slipped her boots back on and buckled up her jacket.  Reshouldering her packs, she left the poncho behind and started moving.

A couple of hours later, scurrying down the slope of a dry ravine, she heard the chirping of another bat.  It circled above a couple of times and faded away just like the one before.  The moonlight softly crowned the round stones in the dead creek bed showing Emi the best footing.  She stepped her way across and clambered up the far bank to pick up the trail on the other side.

Hunger was beginning to rear its head once more but Emi didn’t want to stop.  She was making good time and was not interested in losing any momentum.  The trail was gently rolling downhill by then, which meant that she was within a couple of miles.  The orange glow of pre-dawn was in the sky to the left.  Her thighs burned and her feet ached but she didn’t care.  Eventually topping one of the knolls revealed a treeless dry plain with a silhouetted spire in the middle of the horizon against faint morning pink.  The sun was rising and she had made it.  Hainburn was dead ahead.

Picking up her pace, she could hear wheels and engines on the road coming and going from the town.  The sun, a stark orange ball of fire, rose to the east and Emi reached into her pack for dark shades.  As the town grew closer she could identify the buildings, and even hear the bustle.  Hainburn never slept.  There were no gates and there were no rules.  Emi maintained her determined pace straight into the square.  Humans, monsters, aliens, all kinds crossed from one establishment to another, in cars, on bikes and on foot, from tavern to whorehouse to casino and back again.  Off to her left two frogmen were wrestling an orc to the ground.  On the right a gnome and a human were engaged in hysterical laughter as they urinated on each other from about five paces.  Up ahead a jhenaf sat on the tailgate of a truck and facilitated a drug transaction as a human girl fellated him from the end of a collar and chain.

Directly ahead was the spire, a tall pointed monolith erected at the face of the cathedral beneath it.  Hainburn, once a center of virtue, was now a mecca of sin.  The stone beneath her feet was marked with huge arcs, once revered but now merely mostly legible.  There were thirteen of them, once for each lunar cycle of the year and as the sun passed over each day the point of the epic spire would cast its shadow along the arcs and tell the date and time.  The town square was a great clock and calendar.  It had become popular culture to deface the arcs, tagging them with personal events, birthdays, death days, rapes and other triumphs.  Historical events were easy to spot and always drew large gatherings upon their anniversaries.

Emi was there for none of that.  She had one piece of business to take care of.  It was all that mattered.  The cathedral and its thirteen steps stood just a few yards before her.  It was the destination.  Garrn was there.  He ran Hainburn and he had what she needed.

The frayed landscapes of war which bled out from Luda’s limits pushed outwards against the thickened shroud of night, presenting deep pockets of forest on a whim. Charles shifted and contorted his body with uncanny foresight to avoid the fallen branches which flanked his swift pursuit like outstretched arms. His black fatigues offered nothing to the moon in terms of reflection, save for two fastened rows of daggers trailing down his obliques, complementing the rapier strapped to the side of his hip. Four pairs of pockets also concealed trios of poisoned darts along the seams of his pants. His jet-black hair was neatly slicked back, and the sides of his face were freshly shaven, with a patch of beard on his chin as a soldier’s distinction. All in all, Charles was certainly dressed to kill.

His keen ears kept their focus upon the bat-creature whose chirp managed to carry from a considerable distance ahead. He kept an appropriate separation, knowing it would be key towards maintaining his strategic advantage. The girl he sought had business; of what sort, Charles didn’t know. But the closer she was to completing it, the more vulnerable she would be. 

After approaching a small clearing, Charles’ tenacious pace abruptly ceased. Raising his nose to the sky, he focused himself upon a particular fallen tree and paced its perimeter like a wolf encircling its prey. Eventually, Charles sat himself down with a look of satisfaction as he huffed and snorted the air around him. The conquering force which pulsed between his ears seemed to implement a strange set of enhancements to Charles’ inherent biology. Yes, yes. She was most certainly here. She exposed her flesh to the air. Such a sweet scent, she has. The consciousness of Charles’ true self, thoroughly oppressed to this point, suddenly swelled against his occupied mind, riding a wave of ravenous lust. No. We mustn’t find her. We mustn’t kill her. Turn back. We must turn back. With some effort, the foreign presence reasserted its control, quelling the last rebellion that Charles’ primal instincts could muster. Her death is necessary. Her death is imminent. It is all that matters. To us. To me.

The orange bat-creature finally returned over the treelines with erratic flaps of its veiny wings, spiraling its descent onto Charles’ left shoulder. It chirped and squeaked against its master’s ear, relaying the details of its investigation. Charles processed the information with a meditative thought before nodding his approval. “Excellent. We know now of her final destination. Our pursuit must be carefully coordinated to avoid detection.” The sun was beginning to rise against Charles’ back, causing bluish shadows to sift into existence amidst the muted colors of daybreak. He casually lifted himself from his seat, completing a few calisthenic exercises before setting back on the chase.

Charles emerged with tired legs from a thick morning mist towards a worn, faded sign which declared the outer limits of Hainburn. A drunken harlot lay sprawled upon its large wooden frame, limbs dangling towards the clayish mud on the ground. She would eye Charles’ approach and hiccup before rolling upon her side to lazily improvise a seductive pose. “Care t’ave a go, govnah?” she suggestively slurred, lifting her lacy dress past her belly button to reveal a slick fork of lines which contoured her loins. Charles continued past without a second glance and took position atop a nearby cliff which overlooked his objective in the distance. A downhill climb of a mile or so was all that remained before he would find himself within the center of town. The scent of debauchery was strong even from where Charles stood with blank, determined eyes as he surveyed the structures and landmarks. But the girl’s scent was stronger. She was close. Very close.

It wasn’t long until the raucous saloon of Hainburn beckoned. The sun hung just above the outstretched rise of buildings, casting a deep pool of shadow below Charles as he approached the hinged bat-wing entrance. He emerged inside to witness an ogre pinning a woman halfway up an adjacent wall with his crotch, finishing his business with a climactic groan that rippled down his back like a slithering watersnake. In fact, almost every square inch of the place was engaged in some lecherous or illegal activity, making Chuthan seem like a child’s playpen. After a quick inspection, Charles carved himself between two elves doing lines of pinkish powder on the bar counter, yelling towards the tapster who was himself zipping up the front of his pants.

“I need your help,” Charles stated impatiently, placing a tall stack of gold coins next to a forgotten glass of half-finished mead. Money certainly seemed to speak volumes here, as the tapster dropped everything and turned his full attention towards the stranger before him.

“I’m looking for someone, a woman. Jeans, boots, coat, gold hair. Seen anyone of the sort?”

The tapster’s eyes darted from the coins to Charles’ eyes as he offered a slow nod. “Yessir. My boys always keep tabs on who comes and goes. She was seen, all right, but can’t say where she ended up. It’s a big town, plenty of nooks and crannies, y’see.” The way his voice trailed suggested he had more information that could be bought, but Charles dismissed the bait. Instead, the bat-creature would depart from his shoulder yet again towards the world outside.

“My winged friend will find exactly where she is. In the meantime, those coins are for your ‘boys’ to pass the word along. I am not to be bothered during my business here… be it blood, sex, or death. Understood?” Charles left the tapster with a burning gaze before calmly retiring himself towards a darkened corner to wait for the bat-creature’s report. The game, it seemed, was quickly racing towards its end.

Ascending the steps to the cathedral, the chirp of another bat circled overhead.  Emi paused a moment to look skyward with a smirk but saw only the glare of the morning sun.  What were bats doing in town, and in daylight hours?  Continuing on, the large right side copper door was propped open for business. Emi entered into the front hall beneath the spire.  Gaudy artwork hung on the walls.  A prostitute was passed out on a dingy sofa to the left.  On the right was a counter top and several heavies stood guard at the door to the inner auditorium.

“I’m here to see Garrn,” Emi approached the scarred slab of a man behind the counter.

“You and half of Raven Rahz,” he growled back.  His dark hair was greying and was pulled back and seemed to be the same length as his well kept beard that hung to his belly.

“He’s expecting me.”

“He’s not here.”

“No bullshit,” she said tersely.  “I need to see him.”

“No bullshit.  He’s not fuckin’ here,” the man croaked without the slightest flinch.  “He’s at The Dom,” he said as he nodded towards the door.

“At this hour?” she prodded.

“His new ogre is fighting tonight,” he answered.  “He’s making preparations.”

“When is he coming back?”

“Garrn comes and goes when he wants,” he shrugged.  “Could be there all day.”

“Thanks,” Emi said with a healthy dose of sarcasm as she turned to walk out.  Back on the thirteen steps, Emi had to maneuver around a dead body that had not been there when she had entered a moment before.  In Hainburn this was not entirely unexpected.

“What ya got in the bag, pretty thing?” a froggy voice to the right stopped her.  An orc stood at the foot of the steps, scaly squatty and wide and outfitted in torso armor and a long coat.  Another, similarly clad, closed in from the left.  This one was female as Emi discerned by the shape of the chest plate.

“The Emperor’s ashes.”  Emi could not have been less in the mood for confrontation.  The orcs snickered at her little joke.

“Bullshit,” the first one said.  “Why don’t you tell us what’s really in there.”

“Your ass!”

With that she engaged in a pre-emptive strike and drew her dagger with her left hand, staring down the male as she raised her crossbow arm across her body and fired at the female without looking.  The orc’s wince from her left confirmed the hit.  Then Emi leapt up onto the stone railing and jumped at the male lining up the heel of her boot with his snout.  The monster jumped back out of the way and rolled.  As he took time to recover his stance, Emi turned to the female and charged.  Due to her lack of careful aim, the bolt had only lodged in the creature’s upper arm.  The female turtled behind her shield but Emi kicked her tumbling over and pounced.  The orc’s thick skin made slitting the throat difficult but Emi was determined and finished her off before swiftly spinning around and pointing the crossbow at the male who stood at about ten paces with shotgun drawn.  He stopped in his tracks, lowered his weapon and backed away.  After a few steps he turned and ran to the smattering of applause from the onlookers.

“We should see her in The Dom!”

“A hundred creds on the chick!”

Emi straightened herself up and the small gathering parted to let her past.

In more enlightened times The Dom had been known as The Vardossian.  It was a forum in the round and was a center of the arts.  Drama and dance were commonly performed there.  These days it was a combat arena and the matches within drew heavy wagering.  The capacity was about 4000 and the building was easily recognizable by it’s limestone domed roof which had a hole caved in just to the left over the front entrance allowing a certain fraction of the elements to periodically influence the events within.  Previous proprietors had renamed and remarketed the venue simply as The Dome and as such had affixed garish purple neon letters above the front gate.  Some years later the E ceased to light and was never serviced and hence the venture was affectionately dubbed The Dom by the general public.  The crowds in attendance often fought amongst themselves and it was certain that a handful of spectators would not survive a main event.  Even the combatants were occasionally known to kill fans, inadvertently or not.

Emi approached the building.  She had to find Garrn and get this over with.

Charles brooded with silent intensity as he sat quietly at his corner table, in contrast to the gluttonous excess which swirled around him. His arms were rigid and exposed, palms flat to the wood, as if to pacify some unseen interrogator. He turned away several two-bit solicitors eager to sell him drugs or sex with eyes that burned like hot coals. Finally, his patience would be rewarded, as his heightened senses clawed through the noise to fixate upon the bat-thing calling him outside for a rendezvous. Charles overturned his table with a swift brush of his arm before rushing himself out of the tavern, hand steadied upon the hilt of his rapier. The chase was on again, as was the certainty upon his face.

As he followed the winged, orange beacon flapping an erratic trail several feet above, Charles would come across a cathedral a half-mile across town. The holiness of the ground it stood upon was obviously tainted through years of blatant desecration and abuse. There was chatter amongst a nearby group, praising the exploits of a human female who effortlessly slew one Orc and sent another fleeing with his tail between his legs. Charles postponed his pursuit to accommodate an impromptu investigation, and quickly deduced that the responsible party must be the girl he’s looking for. Unbeknownst to him, trouble was brewing near the opposite side of the crowd, as three giant figures hastily approached Charles with malicious shadows. The group of onlookers redirected their attention to watch and whisper as he slowly lifted his eyes to meet the new threats which glared down from above.

“There you are,” a Cyclops gleefully bellowed while snatching the bat-creature out of the air with its hand, crushing it to death with one firm, bone-crunching squeeze. It was soon joined by a species of Jhenaf, one that Charles had never seen before, standing three times taller than its cousin; as well as some kind of hulking, horned demon with weird mechanical augmentations protruding from its arms and chest. “You were so kind to provide us with a bribe before, but I’m afraid it wasn’t enough. We now need everything you have.” The trio of Giants joined together in a chorus of mocking laughter. “In exchange for your life,” the demon-thing added in addendum, as if their intentions weren’t already clear enough.

This was certainly an unexpected development, and there was no time to waste. “Enough of this horseshit,” Charles growled as he claimed two daggers into his hands. He lunged at the giant Jhenaf, still recovering from its guffaw, and quickly clambered up its armor towards an exposed area of its neck to carve a deep, crescent-shaped wound between two vertebrae. A piercing yelp pried itself free from its mouth as the giant stumbled forward before toppling to the ground with a loud thud.

Charles leapt away from the Jhenaf to reestablish his footing before narrowly sidestepping a large hammer which slammed down with murderous determination from the Cyclops. His battle-honed instincts took control, realizing that the hammer’s weight would buy at least a moment’s worth of time to bury two fistfuls of poison darts into its exposed forearm. The Cyclops reeled backwards with a beast-like roar of pain as it desperately yanked the needles from its flesh. A few moments passed before it collapsed to its knees, then to its side, desperately gasping through the foam which collected across its lips.

Two giants were already neutralized; the demon-thing was all that remained. It wouldn’t move an inch amidst the escalating carnage, slowly charging itself with a loud hum. A bright-yellow pulse of electricity would finally shoot towards Charles from its palms, hurtling him backwards into the crowd that conveniently braced against a crippling impact. Onlookers would observe that he drew his rapier just in time, seemingly to absorb and redirect most of the shock, though his body still smoldered with hazy plumes of smoke. A moment to recover was all that he needed; as the monster powered itself again, Charles readied himself by analyzing the creature’s weakest points. Three airborne daggers would quickly embed themselves into its various mechanics with devastating precision. The demon-thing mustered an incredulous look before a loud screech blared outward from deep within its chest. Its robotic features burst apart in chunks of shrapnel, followed by a strange churning sound as it seemed to deactivate, leaving it to stand while its eyes stared lifelessly towards the ground.

One final inspection of the three fallen giants emphasized their apparent defeats. The Cyclops gurgled helplessly while languishing upon its side, prompting Charles to finish him off with the last of his darts directly through its heart. There was one final spasm of life before the Cyclops’s haggard breathing sputtered to a pathetic halt. Charles basked across the massacre that lay before him, retiring his rapier as he sneered with spiteful eyes. “Behold my works, ye mighty…” He interrupted himself with an abrupt shake of his head. This was no time to gloat or get carried away. The girl’s trail was fresh, but alas, his bloodhound was dead.

Charles turned to the onlookers and queried with a loud voice, “The girl who was here before. Where did she go?” A sea of still, uncertain faces met his request before one response broke the silence. “Most likely the Dom,” a voice called from the throng’s rear by a disgruntled Orc. “Only logical place for someone like her, in my eyes.” The crowd parted to clear the space between them. Charles studied the Orc’s vengeful eyes with his own narrowed gaze before nodding his acknowledgement. This one wasn’t lying. And it was time to go.
It wasn’t long until he arrived at the Dom. There was a sea of spectators pushing and shoving their way through long ticket lines amongst the place-betters and sharks seeking to doom their unwitting customers. Charles would regretfully reflect upon the death of his winged companion as he navigated through the obnoxiously loud crowds. He couldn’t believe his luck, however, when he inadvertently spotted the girl from afar with wide, incredulous eyes. His first instinct was to reach for a poison dart, but a curse escaped his lips when he realized there were none left to use. This would have to be an intimate encounter. No easy task, especially given the environment they both were in and the skilled warrior she seemed to be.

Quickly, Charles assessed the situation. She was here on some kind of business—and if he was smart, he could use that to his advantage. But, there was one self-imposed stipulation that would take precedence in his strategy. The girl’s life must be claimed by him, him alone, and no one else. He must be the one to carry her lifeless body to the welcoming arms of his Master to do with as he pleased. No doubt she had ties to unsavory characters who were quick to violence and prone to ambush. He followed at a safe distance, watching carefully to ensure she never left his sight.

There was a rough hubbub in the place even at this early hour.  The lighting was dim and so Emi removed and pocketed her shades before shifting through the crowds.  Lines of bettors of all shapes sizes and textures jawed over who the best combatants were and argued over place in line.  In the booths, the agents of bookies sat behind protective cages and logged the names and amounts.  Wagering was not Emi’s business.

Through the vomitory the ring stood empty – a perfect circle enclosed and topped by cage to keep the combatants within.  Emi approached the iron barred gate and addressed the guard.

“I need to see Garrn.”

“Line up with the rest of whores at the cathedral,” he said.  The man (most of Garrn’s employ were in fact human) stood looming large in a long coat with a shotgun, a few days of dark greasy stubble and a hairline receding well back.  Behind him dust hung in the bold streams of sunlight cast diagonally across the seating bowl through the jagged hole in the roof.  “But I’ll say that his tastes are much higher than you, so your chances are low.”

“I don’t want his dick,” she spat tersely.  “This is business.  He’s expecting me.”

“He didn’t mention any appointments.”

“He gave me a deadline and I’m here,” she persisted trying not to appear too antsy.  The gate guard paused in contemplation.

“Who should I say is calling?” he finally relented.

“Tell him it’s the bitch from Luda.”

The guard nodded to a skinny hairless fellow with an extremely round skull and pointy chin behind the gate, who returned the nod and took leave.

She had thought him long gone, but there he was.  On the other side of the far betting lines he was standing there.  The black clothes were new and he had cleaned himself up and shaved, but it was definitely him.  She tensed up at the sight of him.  Why would he come all this way for two lousy bags of molly?  The bastard had to be working for Zaanad.

“He says to come back here in an hour,” said the runner with the round bald head who had returned.  Emi looked at the skinny guy behind the gate and then back at her stalking stranger, then back to the messenger again.

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth as her chin jutted out.  “One hour.  Right here.”

The guard nodded assuredly.

Emi exited the vomitory and returned to the concourse.  He was watching her.  He had to be even if he was acting as if he weren’t.  She felt confined.  There would be more space in the square.  There was always safety in the wide open.  Without breaking stride she made her way around to one of the side entrances, glancing once over her shoulder along the way.  Outside, she redonned the sunglasses and replenished the spent bolt in the crossbow.  Then she took to a quick jaunt out towards the summer solstice mark, turned and readied her longbow at ease.  She’d had more than enough of this guy.

Charles patiently gauged his quarry’s reaction after his position was compromised, and her response was indisputable in its intent. She was no doubt trying to lure him into an arena where she could secure some sort of advantage. In a way, Charles’ occupied mind regretted the inevitable showdown as he began to carve his pursuit through the mindless throngs surrounding him. So be it, then. Lead the way to your demise. I have no qualms with you dying on your own terms. It’d be a fitting end to such a worthy opponent.

As he approached the square near the cathedral, Charles noticed three horse-drawn wagons, one for each of the three giants he abolished earlier. Pairs of officers were systematically hauling their corpses upon the beds. Charles hastily took cover behind one of the wagons after taking note of his adversary’s relative position. A chorus of gasps and groans rose from the loitering crowds would command his attention as he contemplated his next move.

“The woman! There’s the woman who killed the orcs!”

Charles held his breath, anticipating the next inopportune announcement.

“Look! The giant-slayer! There he hides, behind the wagon!”

Well, there goes any hope of a surprise attack, Charles thought with a roll of his eyes while reassessing the situation. His quarry currently claimed an advantage with her long-range weaponry, and her proficiency would quickly unveil itself. The fluttery thwip of an arrow vertically penetrating the dirt several feet before him widened Charles’ eyes with incredulity. No fucking way. There’s simply no way that she could have arched that over the wagon with such accuracy. But there the evidence was, lethal in its implications. He had to move fast and think faster, or he was done for.

As Charles maneuvered towards another wagon with an approximate trajectory towards his foe, the fleeting sensation of pierced air was felt near his calf before he managed to climb into its canopied seat. Ignoring the commands of the officers, Charles snapped the reins, prompting the horses to gallop themselves forward. He had to dislodge her position and get her scrambling; somehow, someway. She was much too dangerous an opponent with a steady stance and halfway-decent line of sight.

Charles’ frame would be adequately concealed by a wooden lip as he leaned upon his side for cover. One final peek above his mobile foxhole would finalize his preparations as his rapier was drawn into his hand. He would leap out and rush her once she was forced to find cover and end this, once and for all. 

She saw him exit The Dom and the confrontation was obvious.  Even the onlookers knew.  Instantly he went for cover between the wagons so to keep him on the run she arched the first shot up and over, only missing him by a couple of feet.  Her second shot flung out as she caught a glimpse of his leg mounting one of the vehicles.  It was on the mark but she had failed to get the shot off quick enough for his dexterity.  Emi cursed her failure through gritted teeth.

He was aboard and soon he had the carriage stampeding her way, hastily lessening the distance between them and inconveniently providing him cover as well.  She couldn’t get a good shot at him, but she could hit the horse as easily as she could spit and hit the ground.  Emi drew and slung an arrow right into the muscle of its front right flank.  The beast reared up and neighed a hellish painful whine, spooking the other two horses as well.  The one of them jaunted a few strides away and rested but the other gave chase to the wounded steed, kicking up more dust.  The wounded horse bucked around wildly on three legs jerking its wagon and occupant about and Emi sprinted to her right to evade the chaos.  Then out of the dust of its hooves and wheels came the second charging horse galloping a straight line in a random course across the square cutting off Emi’s escape.  Lost in the dust cloud that overcame her she could see nothing but grey-beige haze that stung her eyes and forced forearm over her mouth and nose.

Sound was all that she had to go by so when she heard the hooves and wheels of the bolting second horse roll past and into the distance she headed into the direction of its wake until she could breath easier again.  Seeing her boots clearly under her dark lenses but nothing clearly through the lenses themselves, she realized that, much like the rest of her, her shades had been coated with a thick layer of the dust.  She took them off and squinted in the bright sunlight, then wiped them reasonably clear with her fingers and put them back on.  She turned to face the dust cloud churning behind her and heard her pursuers beast bucking in pain somewhere within it.  With a braced stance she drew her bow, but had no idea where her target was.

Charles was an unresponsive blank slate, staring ahead blankly as a cloud of dust danced around him. A trail of yellow-green ooze trickled down his left ear as he climbed with a concentrated effort to his feet. For the longest moment, he didn’t know when, where, orwho he was.

Slots of memories began to fill themselves in, one by one. In the bat of an eye, every memory since birth was sequentially realigned in its proper place, punctuated by his most profound experiences… such as the gaze of venomous hatred he witnessed while sliding his rapier through the Emperor’s heart, to a series of intensely passionate nights spent with a Healer named Andrea, to the time he was flung from a rampaging wagon onto the ground with an awkward thud.

Oh fuck, his mind would proclaim with an echo that tensed each muscle and tendon in his body. That just happened.

The protective cloud of dust which concealed his position was dispersing itself as quickly as it had formed. The sound of stampeding horses had by now became distant and inconsequential. Several yards away, he could see the muddled silhouette of the woman he was supposed to eliminate.

Now, why the fuck was I trying to kill her? Charles’ mind was scrambling to make sense of the black void that happened since…

Oh, hell. Oh, holy fucking shit. The snake-thing.

The sensation of something slimy slipping through the back of his neck clawed its way to the forefront of his introspective investigation. He had a hold of me, Charles almost said aloud in a flash of dawning comprehension. The snake-thing had a god-damned hold on me.

The dust cloud had now all but disappeared, and the archer woman would be pinpointing his position in a handful of seconds or less. Charles resigned himself to a series of arrows in his crotch and chest with a heavy, ironic sigh. The woman who was an integral part of his life since yesterday just didn’t seem the type to acknowledge the pleas of a desperate man who wasn’t under his own influence.

Then, he saw it. Someone, or something from the crowd had drawn a sword and was approaching the woman with a steady march. However, with the dust cloud’s dispersal, he didn’t exactly have the advantage of stealth. Charles was ready to witness the confrontation with a laugh, as the woman’s reflexes would undoubtedly kick in before he himself was laid down in a flurry of flesh-piercing arrows.

Something possessed him, however, some primal thing that could possibly be called pride, and Charles threw down his dagger defiantly into the ground behind him.

“Hey, asshole!” Charles called as loudly as he could through gritted teeth. “She knows you’re coming, and she’s too much for you anyway. Why not try me instead?”

The threat turned its attention towards the challenging voice with a frown. Charles could now see that it was a lanky Jhenaf with a pair of eyes that were controlled by something other than its own consciousness.

So, Charles concluded in his newly-freed mind. The snake-thing believed in insurance policies.

The pair of soon-to-be brawlers mutually closed the distance between each other, culminating in a piercing air attack which Charles side-stepped easily. He engaged an onslaught of blade attacks with a boxer’s stance, weaving and bouncing as the Jhenaf tried desperately to land a blow.

After a few exchanges, Charles saw an opening and landed a blow with his left fist on the Jhenaf’s temple. It immediately collapsed to the ground with a grunt of defeat.

Charles shook the pain from his knuckles while hovering over his fallen opponent. On its forearm was a tattoo that resembled the snake-thing which had claimed his mind the night before, confirming his suspicions.

“So, your asshole boss couldn’t trust me to do the job, huh?” Charles snorted his disdain as a drop of yellow-green slime fell from his ear upon the Jhenaf’s torso.

“The job gets done every time,” the Jhenaf muttered in his daze, sputtering bluish-gray blood through his teeth. “Every… single… time.”

With a sickly feeling in the pit of his stomach, Charles knew what was coming next. He saw that the Jhenaf was packing heat, confirmed by the cylindrical impressions underneath its cloak. He had a few seconds at best to do something before he and the archer woman were blown to smithereens.

The explosion happened in a series of pulses which sounded like lightning, leveling the nearby cathedral and clearing the area of onlookers in the process. There was a loud crack as the cathedral’s tower crumbled and snapped in two after hitting the ground. It took a minute for the dust and debris to settle and reveal the outcome of the hellbent Jhenaf’s suicide mission.

Charles and the archer woman were protected by a transparent bubble which could only be distinguished against the dust which circulated around it. With a sneer, Charles discarded a small metallic pouch from his hand displaying the words, ‘front toward enemy’ in stenciled lettering.

“He shouldn’t have supplied me with a damn disposable force field,” Charles muttered to himself with a shake of his head. “Villains, these days.”

“You’re both doomed!” A voice in the distance which couldn’t be immediately triangulated made itself known, as if the Creator Himself couldn’t stand one moment of looming peace in the restless town of Hainburn. “The Great One will hunt you both down, to the ends of the earth! Torture, pain and despair are all that you…”

The sound of an arrow launching and hitting its target cut the warning short. Finally, with a stiff exhale, Charles was able to face the woman who still held his life in his hands.

“Listen, I, uhm…” Charles’ voice was meek and heavy, knowing that this whole ordeal could still end with an arrow through his heart.  He offered a shrug as the trail of ooze along the side of his face glistened in the afternoon sun. “I, uhm, don’t want to kill you anymore.”

As the dust began to clear she spotted him and lined him up in her sight, but then to her flank was a new distraction.  Yet another jhenaf was making for her.  Emi turned to the threat but as she drew her bow taut the black stranger challenged him on his own.

”Hey, asshole!  She knows you’re coming, and she’s too much for you anyway.  Why not try me instead?”

He charged at the upright reptile and after a brief scuffle knocked him down into the dust.  They jawed at one another and then …


A series of massive blasts went off, the first straining her ear drums inward and just before the whirlwind of dust overcame them she saw the top of the spire tower tip and drop into obscurity, its own bulk shaking the ground again as it struck the earth.  Emi ducked down on instinct.  Then realized that she should not have been left standing.  Any shock that could knock down a stone tower that had stood for centuries should have wiped her puny flesh body right off the face of the planet.  Something must have protected her.

Emi uncoiled her prone self and looked up to a perfect opaque dome of smoke billowing around her and her unshakable pursuer, then heard the pattering of pebbles and debris as small bits of fallout dirt and shards of stone randomly and silently dotted its invisible surface and bounded away to strike the ground beyond unseen.  The persistent stranger himself stood at the edge of the newly formed crater.  He was short range, nearly point blank, so she raised her mini crossbow to him when she spotted his oozy ear and neck.  Then just when things could not be flung any further off the rails a deep voice thundered down from the omniscient shrouded sky.

”You’re both doomed!  The Great One will hunt you both down, to the ends of the earth!  Torture, pain and despair are all that you…”

The voice abruptly ended mid-proclamation.

After a moments’ silence the stranger began his weak explanation.  A purple shapeshifter, hellbirds, a night long trek through the wilderness, an orc ambush, a wagon stampede, a town-leveling explosion, and if that wasn’t enough, a foreboding threat from the beyond, and through it all being tracked down by this apparently reluctant bounty hunter.  At least the goo from his ear made sense.  She knew what it was, had heard of a handful of cases before.  At that moment she did not care.  Bewildered, Emi lowered her weapon as she rose to her feet.

“What … the … FUCK?” she screamed in complete frustration, a determined stride on each syllable, the last one punctuated with both fists hammering down in unison upon his chest, sending him tumbling back into the crater.  Then she peered down, ruing that the hole wasn’t nearly deep enough.

A thermal current of dust sucked towards the ground zero of the suicide blast.  It rushed past them as the protection of the force field began to fade.  Emi covered her mouth and nose with her arm once more and ran off into the cloud, trying to find the Dom – if it was still there, if Garrn was still there, still willing to see her – all that she had come for.  Panic set in.  The only bearing she had was general reckoning of her last sighted position in relation to the direction of the strong wind.  Emi staggered through the dust choking on the thick dirt being whipped through the air.  It was eerily quiet.  All she could hear was the sound of small stones dropping around her.  Emi cowered under her other arm praying that nothing big would land on her.  Her breath became ragged and she began to choke.  She was in hell and that voice must have been the devil, but she didn’t have time for that.  Her mission drove her on, kept her focused.  A few more steps brought on another coughing fit.  Her eyes felt sticky and dry from the dust.  A clump of dirt hit her in the back and a pebble struck her forearm forming a welt.  Emi forced her legs to press on.  The wind whipped at her hair and dust was so thick in the air that her surroundings were darkening.  She didn’t even see the stone wall that she had walked into.

She had found a building.  It was probably the Dom but there was no way for her to be certain.  Emi traced it with a palm along its surface and followed it.  There had to be an entrance somewhere.  Stumbling as she scurried and wheezed for breath she prayed to find an opening.  Another coughing fit forced her to her knees and she hacked up brown dust-thickened phlegm, wheezed and hacked some more.  Another small stone dropped onto her calf and she yelped out as it stung like an Ayndanarian horesefly.

In the silence there were muffled voices.  Emi scrambled to her feet and followed the wall a few more yards until she hit an abutment.  Around the pillar was an entrance.  Inside the air was more breathable but was still hazy and was terribly dark.  The voices were clearer but she still couldn’t make out any words.  They were shouts sounding like men taking bearings and barking orders.  Some voices were panicking while others seemed to berate the hysteria.  Emi stood still to straighten herself out.  Unbuckling her jacket she reached inside to clean the dust from her hand onto her shirt, then removed the sunglasses and with a fingertip carefully rubbed her eyelids clean so that she could try to see. 

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