~~~

Tony entered the control room with Diane and Nine right behind him. Stephen, Logan and Meredith were all there, still staring in disbelief at one of the strangest members of their community.

Marcus was sitting in a chair with his leg propped up as Dr. Cooper tended to his sprained ankle. When he saw Tony, he attempted to rise, but Coop gave him a stern look, and he simply smiled at the big man instead. “Tony, it’s good to see you,” he said and then laughed. “Sorry I’m late. I got a little held up in those woods the other night.”

Tony let his arms fall to his side, his shoulders falling limp as he let out a big sigh of relief. He laughed and shook his head. “You, my friend, are the best piece of news we’ve had in a while. I would come over there and kiss you if the Doc wasn’t there fixing you up.” He eyes began to tear up. “Damn… it’s just good to see you.”

Marcus looked embarrassed by the big man’s display emotion. “Please, no kissing. I’m in no shape for any foreplay at the moment.”

This made Meredith giggle uncontrollably as she covered her mouth.

Nine jumped up and down like a fan at a football game. “Yes! I knew it! Way to go, Marcus!”

Diane simply smiled and shook her head. “You are just full of surprises,” she said. “Welcome back from the dead.”

Marcus nodded, feeling more thrown off by the hunter’s relief than anyone else’s. “It’s good to be… home,” he said.

Stephen stepped forward to beat the obvious questions, addressing Tony directly. “That night you were all attacked by those red-eyed savages with that fire blazing all around you, our resident hero led them in the opposite direction to allow you a chance to escape.” He looked over at Marcus like a proud father bragging on his son.

Marcus stared at his feet.

“And after getting those beasts to chase him, Marcus ran right off the top of a quarry cliff and managed to survive the fall.”

“Shit!” Nine said.

“Praise God,” Logan chimed in, shaking his head.

Marcus laughed. “I didn’t plan to do that… really. Heroism’s just a short word for stupidity mixed with a bit of luck. Damn tree saved me in the end, or so I’m told. There was a woman who found me all banged up and unconscious. She was the real hero. Anyway, long story short, this woman took care of me. She had a cabin and tended to my wounds until I was fit enough to leave. That’s where I’ve been these past weeks.”

“And this mystery woman,” Tony said, “what happened to her?”

Marcus put on his best sad face. “She… Alison, was her name… she died trying to get me back here. We were attacked by the dead. I was in no shape to help and she fought them off while I hobbled away. She’s the real hero.” Marcus looked away, pretending to wipe tears from his eyes. The sooner they moved away from discussing his captivity the better. Alysa was someone he never wanted to discuss again.

“That poor girl,” Meredith said. “We owe her our thanks for bringing you back to us.”

“Yes,” Stephen said. “Maybe we should go back to where you-”

“I took care of it,” Marcus quickly said. “After the attack, I went back to find her… body… or what was left of it. I buried her before I came back here.”

The room was filled with an uncomfortable silence.

Marcus lifted his head and smiled. “But enough of that. I hear there’s been a lot of changes around here since I’ve been away. Stephen’s been filling me in on all the details.”

Tony frowned. “Then you know what happened to Gina?”

Marcus’s face was stone. “Yes… that’s rather… unfortunate.”

Stephen let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t mean to cut you short, Marcus, but please, tell them what you told us. Tell them what Alison said about the Shadow Dead.”

Marcus nodded. “When I told her where we lived, about this wilderness preserve, she got all distant. So I pressed, because it seemed like she knew about us. That’s when she warned me about the Shadow Dead. She said that they would come for us now that the winter had passed. She wouldn’t tell me anything else, and I was too concerned to get back to push the matter. That’s when we left the cabin.”

“And you believed her?” Tony said.

Marcus gave Tony a grave look and then spoke with no further need to lie. “It’s the one thing she said that I have no doubt about. I believe her warning was valid and we should get the hell out of here.”

Diane looked pleadingly at Tony. “Tell them what we found.”

Tony nodded and looked to Stephen. “We visited the ruins today. That’s why it took so long to get back.” He looked at Marcus. “We found that old tree where Gina was hanging. Someone had stuck Copperfield’s sword in it. We don’t know what to make of it. Diane found no tracks and we didn’t see anything-”

“But we felt like we were being watched,” Nine chimed in.

Tony gave him a stern look and then finished. “Yes, it did feel like that. But we saw nothing to prove that we weren’t just letting our fear get the best of us. That place leaves an impression.”

“It was another warning,” Marcus said, stealing their attention. He smiled and clarified, “I mean, that’s what it seems like to me. Why else would anyone give up the advantage of secrecy to place that sword in the tree… unless they wanted us to find it?”

“Agreed,” Logan added. “Maybe we aren’t the only ones who survived the explosion. Sure sounds like something the old gangs I used to run with might do to let a rival gang know they’ve been… ‘marked’.”

Stephen turned. “‘Marked’?”

Logan explained. “You know, like when an offended group wants to let the other know that payback’s coming. That sword feels an awful lot like someone saying, ‘Blood for blood. Your day is coming’. That kind of thing.”

“It was aimed at Gina,” Tony said. “That’s where we found that sword.”

Everyone’s eyes were suddenly on Stephen.

Well, of course! he thought, as he started pacing across the room. This is the last damn thing we need! If Gina were here, she’d know how to handle this! The Shadow Dead was all she talked about. He already had enough to deal with after the discovery of Nicole’s new diary… and all that it contained. Fortunately, she wasn’t here now to distract him. He turned and looked into all their faces. “Nothing’s changed,” he finally said. “The threat of an attack has always been there, Shadow Dead or otherwise. We were planning on leaving anyway. This just speeds up the time table.” He said to Logan, “The scouting party, are you sure Frederick’s the man for this?”

Logan smiled. “Trust me, Frederick’s been looking for anything he can do to make up for our… misunderstanding… with all those guns pointing around in Cubicle City. He’s a good man, Stephen. Even good people can be led astray. He’s ready to lead that scouting party, and so are the others who want to go with him.”

Stephen nodded. “Well, you vouch for him… that’s good enough for me. Can they be ready to leave in under an hour? I want them out of these woods before nightfall.”

Logan’s eyebrows shot up. “Yes. He’ll want to know why, but given the current situation, I’m sure that will be all the motivation he needs.”

“Good. You tell him the stakes, and then get them moving. We’re going to be following behind in the morning. I just don’t want to lead an entire community out of here without knowing what’s in front of us. You tell Frederick that the mission’s changed. We’re going to be following their scouting route south out of here and that his group is to head for the first Pennsylvania town unless they run into trouble. Either way, they’re to check out the town and then meet back up with us after we get out of the Wasteland. We’ll just have to take our chances out there. I want all of us long gone from this hellish place by noon tomorrow.”

“That’s going to complicate the work topside,” Logan said. “There’s still a lot of provisions to move.”

“We’ll just have to move what we can this afternoon. Essential stuff only. We’ll leave the rest. Can Bear and Barney handle picking up the pace?”

Logan laughed. “Barney’s going to swear me a new asshole… but he’ll be okay.”

“Then it’s settled,” Stephen said. “We’ll take the warnings seriously, double-up the watches tonight, especially around that damn mystery door, and hope that tonight is no different than any other. By this time tomorrow, the Shadow Dead can have this damn place. We’ll be gone.” He looked around the room. “Does anyone have any objections?”

Tony stepped forward. “And what about Gina?”

Stephen sighed. Yes, there’s that. He looked at the big man and said, “There’s nothing we can do for her right now, Tony. With any luck, she’s already clear of these woods.”

“But… she’s alone. Exiled or not, if there’s a real chance that those fuckers are coming back… she has no idea they’re out there.”

“‘If’ they’re out there,” Stephen said. “All we have is a sword in a tree and the words of a stranger, no offence, Marcus. For all we know, if they are planning an attack, it might not be for a while yet. Or, not at all because the Shadow Dead are long gone. Either way, we must look at the bigger picture now. There’s a lot of people who could die here if we don’t get them out. There’s no time to search the woods for her, as much as I want to. If Gina were here, you know she’d agree with me.”

Tony looked like he wanted to object, then shrugged his shoulders. “Of course. You’re right.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do this afternoon. I’ll need all you’re help to get us ready by the morning,” Stephen said. He looked to Marcus. “And you, just take it easy and rest. You’ve earned it.”

Marcus nodded with a half-hearted smile.

With that, Stephen dismissed them, leaving Marcus, Meredith and Coop in the control room.

“The leg looks good, and I did what I could about the other wounds” Coop said. “Your friend did a good job patching you up. You just need to keep the weight off the leg as much as possible and let it finish healing. Now, let’s have a look at that hand.”

Marcus pulled his bandaged hand away and said, “Not this, Doc. I’ll take care of it.”

Coop and Meredith gave him a puzzled look.

Marcus smiled. “It’s not that bad… trust me. Besides, the wound is a bit… personal.”

Coop shook his head. “Alright then. Just rest, my friend. Sounds like you’ll be doing a bit more hiking tomorrow.”

Marcus nodded. “Thanks, Doc.”

“There’s something different about you, Marcus,” Meredith said.

Marcus smiled at her. “How do you mean?”

“I don’t know… just… different.”

“Maybe all that fresh air outside of this place has added a little color to my face,” he added with a laugh.

Meredith laughed. “Maybe. It’s just good to have you back.”

“Thanks.”

Aren’t you tired of women prying into you lately like a fuckin’ crowbar, boss?

Be still, Marcus thought. We’ve more important things to think about right now.

Sure wish we had a crowbar now, boss… just sayin’.

Since his absence, everything in the compound had changed, and he was still trying to wrap his mind around it all. But Gina was gone… and that was a problem… a very big problem.

He started calculating.

~~~

Logan caught up with Stephen in the hall. “Little brother, I’ve got one more concern to address… and I know you don’t need to hear it… but…”

Stephen stopped. “What is it?”

“With all our eyes aimed outside at this Shadow Dead possibility, it’s easy to forget about the threats from within… and I think you know who I’m talking about.”

Stephen frowned and spit out the name. “Lannister.”

Logan laughed. “You know he’s still a problem. Even though we’ve stripped his power away, just having that little shit around causes division. Short of taping his mouth shut, he’s always going to stir up the pot around here.”

“Yes… I know. Hell, he’s my biggest fan right now… and he lets everybody know it. The community decided to keep him around while I wanted him gone. But it’s irrelevant now. One problem at a time. We’ve got a pretty full plate and-”

“Oh, I completely understand,” Logan clarified. “I just felt it was my responsibility… as your second in command and all… to just point out that snakes like that have a way of taking advantage of stressful situations, like the one were about to enter into, and I’d hate to see him get in the way of a smooth exodus tomorrow morning.” He patted Stephen on the back and finished, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m handling it, so don’t you give it another thought.” Logan started to walk away.

Stephen stared after him. “Logan, should I be worried?”

The preacher laughed. “No worries, little brother. I’ve got your back.”

~~~

Stephen had lost plenty of sleep during the deliberations in deciding Gina’s fate. This was not the case with Carl Lannister. After forming the various committee groups, it took only two days to decide what to do with the former loud-mouth leader of the uprising. Much to Stephen’s surprise and outrage, the community had decided to show leniency toward Lannister and let him serve out his punishment within the community.

After Stephen’s famous speech, Lannister had become the former school teacher’s greatest supporter, telling as many people who would listen how his motivations were only to get Gina removed from leadership, who was the real problem, and that he never had any intentions to hurt anyone. He repeatedly shamed the actions of his man, Sabastian, who acted on his own in his attempt to murder Meredith, while he praised Stephen for his wisdom in showing mercy toward all involved in the uprising.

When Stephen wanted to object to the community’s decision, it was already too late. Lannister’s displays of humility and shame for his actions, his pleading to be allowed to remain and atone for his foolish mistakes, and his endless verbal endorsements for their new leader, made it nearly impossible for Stephen to stand against the community’s decision without looking like a hypocrite for pardoning everyone else except Carl. What made matters worse was when Gina refused to defend herself, Lannister joined in to point fingers at her for forcing his hand and starting the uprising, swearing that he never would’ve done it if he hadn’t feared for the community under such a cruel dictator. Stephen had no choice but to abide by the community’s decision. He had learned two important lessons that day: Lannister knew how to play upon the politics surrounding his leadership, and that Carl excelled in self-preservation.

It was left up to Stephen to decide how best to punish the newly repentant Lannister. So he had decided to publicly humiliate him, assigning him to cleaning toilets, washing dishes after meals, cleaning dirty laundry, sweeping and moping the hallways… anything that would reduce him to the community janitor in everyone’s eyes, hoping that Lannister would cause a stir and show his real face. But the cunning little snake played his part perfectly, gladly accepting his fate with gratitude and false humility while he became the butt of every joke around the community.

Stephen had given up, leaving Lannister under the supervision of Logan’s fallen guard force. This was part of their punishment for following Lannister’s madness. They were assigned to watch his every move and report back if Lannister showed any hint of retaliation. They pushed Lannister hard, mocking him, spitting on him, and occasionally roughing him up when no one else was around. Although Stephen never encouraged this, he never stopped it either, still hoping Lannister might eventually break and show his true intentions, allowing Stephen a chance to expel him from the community.

“Let’s go, shithead!” A bearded man named Wigren snapped at Lannister when he dropped a box of supplies. Wigren, as well as the others charged with watching Carl, had not appreciated becoming this failed uprising leader’s babysitter after all his worthless promises. “Everyone has to pull their weight around here right now… even shitheads like you.”

Carl gave Wigren a nasty look, then smiled. “Of course… I completely understand. Sorry for the delay.”

“Save the ‘kiss-ass’ crap for someone who gives a shit, Lannister. I know who you really are.”

“Anything you say. I’ll get the box.” Lannister bent over to retrieve it.

Wigren placed his boot on Lannister’s ass and pushed, knocking Carl on his face.

Three other fallen guards laughed.

Wigren just stood there, shaking his head in disgust as Lannister slowly got up and picked up the box. “Pathetic,” he said. “And to think I fell for your bullshit. Look at you, groveling to anyone who will care. You’re disgusting, shithead!”

“Anything you say,” Carl said, grinding his teeth. “Where would you like the box?”

“Topside, asshole!” another guard yelled. “We need to get as many of these supplies above before the sun goes down. So shut your pie-hole and get moving! You’re holding up progress.”

Lannister nodded and carried the heavy box toward the hatch where a line of workers formed a relay going all the way up the ladder. He joined the line and started passing supplies while the guards watched and laughed at him.

One day, he thought, maybe not today, or tomorrow… but soon, I’ll get my payback. Keep laughing, assholes. I’ve got my list and I’m taking names.

Lannister remained on the supply relay detail for the remainder of the afternoon. He ended up topside, near the front of the line, moving materials down the narrow path from the hatch to the outdoor staging area. It was the first time he’d been outside since moving down below, and he enjoyed the fresh air, shutting out the snide remarks from other community members in the line, or the constant jabs of the guards who continued to watch him. He knew he was hated by most… but not everyone despised him for his failed attempts at taking over. Some could appreciate what even his misguided uprising set into motion. Gina was still removed from leadership, Stephen was put in charge, and things were still definitely changing for the better.

That was my doing, you ungrateful assholes! I was the one who started the wheels of change and progress… and you should all be thanking me for it!

An hour before sunset, Barney and the biggest man anyone had ever seen, named Bear, were finishing up overseeing the supplies stored at the Relocation Pre-Staging Outpost. The old guard dismissed the workgroup, all except for Lannister.

“You… stay put, asshole,” Barney said. He addressed Lannister’s babysitters. “I’ve got this one. Head on back with the others.”

Lannister, who was a sweaty mess, watched as the guards who were assigned to watch over him nodded to Barney and then smiled at him, whispering among each other like a bunch of school yard bullies planning their next assault. They turned and followed the rest of the work force back toward the hatch.

“So, what I’m supposed to do with you?” Barney asked.

Lannister was sitting on the ground, back up against a tree, as he tried to catch his breath. “Excuse me?” he said. “You told me to wait-”

“Rhetorical question, asshole,” Barney said, shaking his head at Bear.

Bear simply scowled at the little man, his arms folded across his chest.

Lannister averted his eyes and wisely remained silent. Ah… a changing of the guards, he thought. Probably their turn to give me shit and get me in trouble. Not going to work, Eddington. I’ll just take the abuse and use it. One day, when I’ve found my ‘out’, I’ll hold these… abuses… over your head, right before I remove it.

Barney stared at the little man in disgust. He finally said, “Go. Get out of my sight, you piece of shit.”

Lannister sighed and then nodded. He got up and started back toward the hatch.

“Not that way, asshole!” Barney said. “Turn around.”

Carl was confused. He stopped and turned. “Is this the part where you two fuck with me before we head back. Well… go ahead. Do your best. I’m tired and I smell like shit, so please forgive my irritation and impatience toward your immature name-calling and mind fucking.”

Barney laughed and turned to Bear. “Can you believe the nuts on this guy?”

Bear shrugged his shoulders. He was a man of few words.

The old guard clarified. “We’re not here to reward you with another beating… although it might be fun. No… we’ve got different plans for you.”

Lannister’s eyebrows shot up. “Okay… something new to rile me up, then? Well… go ahead. I’ll not resist. Then you boys can go back and have your laugh at my expense later. Just please… get on with it already.”

“Did you not hear me, boy? I said, ‘Go’.” Barney’s face became stone.

“Go where?”

“Doesn’t matter to me, just as long as you’re out of my sight in the next two minutes,” Barney looked up at the trees. “Gonna be dark in an hour, so you best get moving.”

Lannister was catching on. He looked around at the forest with anxiety. “You can’t be serious? It’s a trick, right? You tell me to run and then catch me and tell your boss I tried to escape. Well, I’m not doing it.”

Barney rolled his eyes and spoke in a voice reserved for stubborn children. “Look, I get it. You’re trying to behave yourself for fear of looking bad in the eyes of these folks. But what I’m trying to tell you is that you have a few friends that are trying to do right by you, especially considering that a lot of folks are leaving this hell-hole tomorrow morning.”

Lannister got serious. “Explain? What ‘friends’ are you referring to?”

Barney smiled. “I guess ‘friends’ is a bit too generous. Let’s just say that your ‘supporters’, you know, the ones you’ve managed to win over with your present long con, have no interest in leaving this safe little place.” Barney looked to Bear and said, “We don’t want to go either. The grand exodus that the current leadership has in store feels very dangerous. So… after everyone leaves… some of us want to part ways and take this compound for ourselves. Since most of the others who feel the same don’t want the responsibility that goes along with it, they’ve all decided to hand it back to you… assuming you still want to call the plays.”

Lannister smiled. “You can’t be serious? What about the big bad Shadow Dead threat? Aren’t you afraid they’re coming to retake this place?”

Barney laughed. “That’s a bunch of horseshit. You know as well as we do that Gina played that card to keep us all in line. Stephen’s using it now to get us to do what he wants. They’re just a scary little fiction created by management to get us pawns to move around the chessboard. That’s all the Shadow Dead really are. In fact, we don’t think there ever were any damn Shadow Dead. I suspect you know that, too, or else you never would’ve fought so hard to kick Gina out. Tell me I’m wrong.”

“You’re not wrong,” Lannister said. “I’m just surprised that everyone isn’t falling for it.”

“Look,” Barney said with impatience. “This little meeting has been arranged. Your… supporters… approached us and made a strong case to help them keep this place. We know, as well as they know, that Stephen’s going to be leaving a lot of supplies behind in order to rush his exit out of these woods. We’ve already squirreled away a cache of firearms and other supplies that no one knows about… enough to keep things just the way they are. So let them idiots leave to God-knows-where. They’ll probably get themselves killed inside of a week. The rest of us just want to stay here where it’s safe. What’s the matter with you? We thought you’d jump all over this opportunity.”

“Can you blame me for being suspicious?” Lannister said. “Although, it does my heart good knowing that some people here aren’t complete idiots. You’re right, of course. Leaving here would be a death sentence. But I still don’t know what that has to do with me.”

“Asshole or not, you have that natural ability to lead people. You have that devil’s tongue that you’ve been wagging around since the beginning, getting people to buy into whatever bullshit you’re peddling. We’ve seen it. Hell, you’re little uprising proved it. That’s not something any of us left can pull off. We’ll need that golden tongue of yours to keep this place civil after the others depart, or else, we’ll all just be going at each other’s throats. No one wants that. And no one wants to be that, either. You fit the bill. You’re ambitious enough to do right by whoever stays, but you’re smart enough to know who put you there… if you catch my drift.”

Lannister laughed. “I understand completely.” He nodded as he saw the beauty in what was being proposed. “So, if I’m seeing the big picture correctly, my so-called ‘supporters’, sensing Stephen’s urgency to leave, will simply choose to remain. Since Stephen can’t make them leave without looking like that bitch, Gina, Stephen will have to abide by their decision and leave without them. Naturally, me being their prisoner, they will take me with them, thus, keeping me on their leash, while sadly wishing the others ‘good luck’ and carrying on with their exodus.”

Barney nodded. “See… you’ve already figured out the playbook. Stephen can’t make us do anything we don’t want to do. Bear and I will promise to watch over them and we’ll all part ways peacefully. Stephen won’t like it, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it. And that’s where you come in.”

Lannister nodded, anticipating the rest. “So after my convenient ‘escape’, followed by what essentially resembles a ‘strike’ of sorts, I’m to return after the others are long gone and take over management.”

“You got it… if you still want it, that is.”

Lannister stared into the forest. “I assume you have some accommodations for me out here somewhere?”

“We’ve given you a tent and some supplies for a day or two, just long enough for the others to be long gone from these woods. The place we’ve picked out for you is just a half-mile west of here. Just follow the river and you’ll find the campsite… unless you’re afraid of the dark or something.”

“Please,” Lannister said, trying to appear brave. “I’ve nothing to fear in these woods. We’ve been by ourselves out here for a long time now. If I can’t even camp out a night or two, then we have no business staying here to begin with.” He looked at Barney’s weapon. “I assume I’ll be armed, at least.”

“Of course,” Barney said. “We’ve left you a rifle at the campsite. But you need to get your ass over there while you’ve still got light to find it. Besides, we still need to get back and tell the boss man some bull about how you escaped. Stephen won’t like it, but he’s got more important things to worry about then chasing the compound janitor around the fucking woods. Eventually he’ll realize that you saved him the trouble of trying to get rid of you later on, if and when they find some new place to hide.”

“That’s smart,” Lannister said. “Sounds like a solid plan… if you could convince me that any of it was true.”

Barney frowned and gave Bear an impatient sigh. “Told you he wouldn’t bite,” he said to the big man. “Man’s too paranoid or too stupid to see the fucking gift horse.”

Bear shrugged his shoulders again.

Barney tuned back to Lannister. “Look, I’m not going to waste my time convincing you of shit. This is the best play we have, and if you’re too stupid to see that it’s your option as well, then good luck to you. We’re twenty strong right now. In time, we’ll find others who want what we want. And all we want is to live without risking our asses on someone’s misguided notions that the world will get better… that there’s anything better than what we already have. And we’ll protect our right to keep it. But if you think I’m yanking your chain, just head on back like a good little janitor and you can leave with the rest of them fools. It will be too late for you to change your mind when you realize that we are staying… and you won’t be. They’ll probably need an extra pack mule to carry all that shit across the Wasteland anyway. And if you don’t get massacred by the dead, or whatever else is out there, in the end, you’ll still just be Stephen’s bitch. Why don’t you take a moment and let that shit sink in.” Barney turned back to Bear as they began securing the supplies.

Lannister stared at their backs. What if they’re telling the truth? This might be my ‘out’. Makes sense. They’ll need someone like me to lead them. This is obviously not the brain child of these two morons. Others had to be involved to plan something so… brilliant. But what if it’s all bullshit? What if this is some elaborate set-up designed to tempt me into running? Stephen will finally get his reason to be rid of me. The community will never let me come back. Lannister sat back down. His mind was spinning. Think! Reason this through! No… Stephen’s smart, but he’s not devious. Hell, the fucking man wears his damn heart on his sleeve. In good conscience, he’d never be able to pull this off.

He thought about the people he’d seen during his rounds, the ones who nodded to him in the halls and still appreciated him for who he was, and not for what Stephen had reduced him to. Some still went out of their way to speak with him, treating him with the respect he deserved, although he couldn’t remember their names. There were still enough of them who probably felt bad for him, leading the ones who saw Stephen’s plans as madness to make him their obvious choice to lead them. They would be afraid to stay without guidance. They were sheep without a shepherd and they needed someone to tell them what to do while they continued to live oblivious to the horrors waiting above in this decrepit world.

“Okay,” he finally said, standing up. “I’m in.”

Barney turned and smiled. “Good. Now let’s get-”

“But let me make one thing perfectly clear,” Lannister interrupted. “I will not be anyone’s ‘bitch’. Not Stephen’s, and certainly not your bitch. Are we clear on this?”

Barney nodded. “See… that’s why you’re the leader. No one’s looking for someone we can manipulate. Fuck all that. You lead us and keep everything the way it is… and we follow. We all just want to remain fat, dumb and happy. All that ‘big’ decision-making stuff… well… that’s on you.”

“And you’ll follow me without question?”

“As long as you don’t start talking about doing stupid shit that will get us killed, then we’ll follow you,” Barney finished. “Again, none of us want to leave for good reasons. We’re safe. We’ve been safe. And we don’t see the point in risking our lives on a bunch of fucking ‘What-if’s’ out there.”

Lannister laughed and walked up to them confidently. “Then I suppose this is goodbye while I resume with my escape.” He walked in between them. “Excuse me, gentlemen, it’s getting late and I’ve got a campsite to set up.” With that, Lannister headed northwest through the forest, following the sound of the river.

“We’ll send someone tomorrow, after the others are long gone,” Barney called over. “Just lay low until then.”

Lannister didn’t look back. It feels damn good to be appreciated… finally. It’s about time someone saw the value in everything I offer this community. Yeah, we’re small now, but we’ll expand, find more people… and live like kings! He laughed at his good fortune and said out loud, “Fuck Gina! Fuck Stephen! It’s finally time for someone to step up and do this the right way. Good luck dying for your lost causes. At the end of the day, we’ll be safe and you’ll all be fucking dead. Good riddance!”

Barney and Bear watched Lannister disappear into the distance.

“That’s one arrogant dumb-ass,” Barney whispered. “Just look at that peacock fluffing his feathers.”

Bear laughed.

“I assume he accepted your offer?”

They both turned as Logan approached.

“Had to do a bit of selling, but he bit that damn carrot… hard,” Barney laughed.

“Praise God,” Logan said with a laugh, stepping in between them. “Did you leave him enough supplies?”

“Yeah, he’ll be set up for a while,” Barney said. “I wonder how long he’ll sit out there before he realizes he’s become the king of jack-shit.”

“Indeed,” Logan said. “I imagine he’ll be sulking like a child long after we’re gone. Let’s just hope he doesn’t run into any problems out there.”

Barney turned. “You mean them Shadow Dead? They’re not really coming, are they?”

Logan smiled. “That is a mystery we all hope remains unsolved by our departure. I was thinking more about Gina.”

“Shit… I didn’t even consider that.”

Logan patted them both on the back. “Well done, boys. You brought us back some honor that despicable little man stole from us. This will go a long way in helping Stephen trust our boys again… eventually.” He turned and started heading back. “Finish up, and get inside before dark.”

Barney turned and said, “You know, for a preacher, that was a pretty dirty move you came up with.”

Logan turned. “I wasn’t always a preacher, Barney. You know this well.”

“That I do,” Barney said with a laugh. “You gonna tell the boss man what we did?”

“Stephen’s a good man with a lot on his plate. I’ll tell him… eventually.”

“He won’t like it,” Barney said with a sly smile. “Especially if something happens to him out there.”

Logan smiled back. “Yes… he certainly won’t. But the alternative in what that little snake might eventually do to spread his poison again is worth risking Lannister’s life. And that’s why Carl never saw this coming. He knows Stephen’s incapable of carrying out a plan like this. Good men are predictable, to a point, and are dictated by conscience. Unlike lowly preachers who resort to a little devilry to see that a good man’s dream is permitted to proceed without incident.”

“So, what does that make you then, preacher?” Barney teased.

Logan’s smile faltered. “I’m just a man, Barney. Good, bad, or otherwise. If this comes back to bite me… well… may the good Lord have mercy on my struggling soul.”

~~~

Tony stood just outside the hatch, staring into the western twilight sky. This was where he and Gina sat, just before the winter, watching the sunset together, as it had seemed like they’d finally found a moment’s peace from the hell that had been let loose in their world. They had gone through so much separately, just to finally find each other again, against the odds. They had once called this place their new home, back when being together more than compensated for this strange underground refuge, back when there had been a shred of hope within their view. But now… everything was uncertain. They were about to leave these woods, and Gina was out there, alone in the darkness, because he’d put her there.

She’ll come back, expecting to find me, and I’ll be gone. We’ll all be gone and she won’t be able to find us. He hadn’t told anyone that he’d caught up with her after her sentencing, made her promises he couldn’t keep, before handing her a bag of guns.

He closed his eyes and balled his fists. I can’t do this to her again! I’m already responsible for her exile… will I abandon her, too? She’ll come back… I know it. And when she does… God-only-knows what will be here waiting for her.

His decision had already been made down in the control room. He just needed a way to appease his guilt for leaving the community, now, when they needed him most.

She needs me more.

“You shouldn’t be up here alone, Tony.”

He turned, finding Marcus standing within a shadow near the hatch. Tony laughed. “I’ve forgotten how good you are at blending into the dark. I used to find it… unsettling.”

Marcus smiled and stepped out, struggling a little with his leg. “It’s amazing what we get used to these days.” He stood next to Tony and stared into the sky. “I suppose we’ll never take sunsets for granted… not anymore.”

Tony smiled. “You got that right. Each one we get to see now is a damn blessing. How’s the leg?”

“I’ll manage.” He took a moment to admire the view. “The sentries are ready to come up. We doubled the guard, as ordered. Should I have them wait a few minutes, allowing you time to run?”

Tony turned. “Excuse me?”

“That is why you’re up here alone, right? You’re going after her.”

Tony laughed. “I was about to ask you the same question.”

Marcus smiled. “You were right down there. Gina needs us. Or I should say, Gina needs someone to go and make sure she steers clear from here… just in case. We both know she’s quite capable of handling herself against the dead… but these men dressed in shadows… well… they’re something else entirely… and they’re very dangerous.”

“Yes, they are.”

Marcus sighed. “It would be a real disadvantage if you left, considering that only you, Diane, Stephen and Meredith are the only ones here who have fought these creatures… and survived.”

Tony turned. “Are you trying to talk me out of going after her? That’s not going to happen. She needs me.”

“Does she? Does she really need you, Tony?”

Tony was getting angry. “Speak plainly. What are you getting at?’

Marcus raised his hands. “I’m not trying to upset you. I just know that Gina needed to leave this place. There’s a darkness in her. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean.”

Tony said nothing.

“I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. The others… well… they’ve chosen to look away from it because it’s Gina. But I know it has been eating away at you. Am I wrong?”

Tony looked away. “No. You’re not wrong. That’s why she’s out in those woods right now. I had to… I had to stop her from killing people. I saw it in her eyes when we got back here. She was… dangerous.”

“Of course,” Marcus nodded. “I saw the same signs you did, from a distance. But they were there for anyone who wanted to see them. The premeditated deaths of those men she forced out into the cold was not the first time she desired blood.”

“That’s a bit extreme. I wouldn’t call it-”

“In Andover, after those snipers shot down Greg, I tried to talk her out of it. Even knowing we could’ve escaped, she insisted we kill them all.”

Tony looked confused.

Marcus frowned. “She didn’t tell you about that?”

Tony thought about the note she’d given him, when Gina thought her visit to Micom’s camp might be a one-way ticket. He’d never read it. “What happened?”

“Maybe it’s not my place to talk about it. I just assumed she’d told you.”

“What did she do?”

Marcus sighed. “She wanted blood, Tony. She wanted them to die for what they did to Greg. So we went in and… executed those kids. Sure, they fought back, but we provoked it. Again, I tried to talk her down, but it was too late.”

Tony shook it off. “Well… that was different. They attacked you in the street with snipers. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done anything different.”

“I watched her gun down a kid… I think his name was Dwayne. He was terrified, trying to get away. Gina unloaded on him and shot him in the face without hesitation. It was… (‘magnificent’ was the word he wanted to say)
shocking. I never knew she was capable of such brutality until that moment.”

Tony didn’t know what to say.

“I only mention that day, because it was the first time I realized how truly frightening she could be… if the darkness within her took over. I imagine those two in the woods faced similar brutality by her hand.”

“What are you trying to do?” Tony asked, obviously shook up. “I’m aware of Gina’s… problems. But that doesn’t matter now. I need to find her and keep her safe.”

“Has it occurred to you that she might want to be alone… to keep the rest of you safe?”

“That’s crazy! She’s not a monster.”

“Tell that to Marvin. You saw what she did to that sick soul.”

Tony shook his head. “Again, they attacked us. Gina may have gone a bit overboard… but she stopped herself.”

“And when she burned down the bad man’s house with Marvin still bleeding out in the basement, would you consider that ‘stopping herself’?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“She didn’t go back inside to destroy the radio. She set the house on fire. I saw the smoke before we cleared the fields.”

“No… you must have seen something else. She wouldn’t do that.”

“I bet she locked that basement door, just in case poor Marvin smelled the smoke and tried to get out. She wanted that boy dead. That’s where Gina’s head is now. That’s where it’s been for a long time.”

Tony shook his head. “Did you really see the smoke?”

“Why would I make something like that up, Tony?”

“None of it matters,” he said. “It just means she’s a lot worse off than I realized. All the more reason to find her and…”

“She blames you.”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “What? What do you mean?”

“You’re the reason she can’t accept what she’s become,” Marcus explained. “You’re… light… for lack of a better word, makes her see all of it… all that darkness inside of her. I think a part of her resents you for it. Another part of her clings to that light, that good, noble soul that you possess which keeps you far from the dark. She loves you for it… but can’t survive in it… not without seeing how dark she’s become.”

“What kind of bullshit is this? You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!” Tony took a threatening step toward the smaller man.

Again, Marcus raised his hands. He took a step back and said, “Please… just hear me out. I’m trying to tell you that if you love Gina, then you need to stay away… for her sake. Every time you’re around, she’s distracted and feels the overwhelming need to protect you… at all costs. Even if that means excusing the darkness and making you her sole reason for staying alive. She’ll never be able to look at it… and change… as long as you’re there.”

“What kind of fucked-up logic is this? You’re saying that I’m making her worse?”

“In a manner of speaking… yes. She needs to face this darkness on her own terms, without you there to distract her from the truth. As long as she has you, Gina can fool herself into thinking she’s doing good by protecting you… by protecting your goodness… and then justify whatever dark actions she takes by telling herself she does them to save you. Don’t you see?”

Tony calmed down. “So I should just… what… let her go? For her own good?”

“If you love her… then yes.”

“I can’t do that,” Tony said.

Marcus sighed. “You know, I hadn’t really considered it until now, and if you’ll permit me to touch on a sensitive subject, perhaps I can shed some further light on Gina’s… issues.”

“Go on.”

“Well, ever since she was brutally raped that night you two were in Geneva-”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Marcus hesitated. “She… she didn’t tell you?”

Tony’s face went pale.

“Oh… fuck… that’s… I didn’t know. I’m sorry, Tony. If she kept that from you… well… there could be a lot more going on inside of her than I realized.”

“Raped?” Tony asked weakly. “You’re telling me that she was…” He started to weep.

“I don’t think she ever intended to tell us–myself and Frank. She was… not herself then, too. She… Gina had a moment where she just let it all out… maybe she finally had to get it all off her chest. I don’t know. But that night you two were separated, shortly before The Change occurred, she was drugged, gang raped, and then left to die, handcuffed naked to a bed. I can’t imagine what that kind of trauma does to someone. Perhaps, it’s the root of all that darkness. Again, I’m so sorry you had to find out from me.”

Tony fell to his knees, broken. “She blames me. I wasn’t there to protect her. That was my only fucking job that night! But I took those fucking drugs, too, and ended up chained in some lunatic’s basement while she was all alone and…”

Marcus bend down and put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Perhaps she felt that no one could protect her ever again afterwards. Something like that must change a person… make them dig down deep, and turn to anything that might give them strength… even something dark… if it meant never being vulnerable again. It’s not your fault, Tony. But perhaps that’s another reason you need to stay away. Seeing you, on some level, must bring it all back. The helplessness, the fear… the inability to trust anyone… after that.”

“I tell her that I’ll keep her safe, while all this time she’s been holding back that I failed her while she was raped and left for dead,” Tony said through tears. “I had no idea. She couldn’t even trust me to tell me, after all this time.”

“Perhaps Gina kept it from you, and herself, because she feared that she might hate you for it… or worse… let loose her anger, and all that darkness, on you.”

Tony put a hand on Marcus’s shoulder and pleaded, “You have to go, Marcus. You have to make sure she stays safe. Only you and I understand what she’s going through… but I… I can’t go. You’re right. She must hate me as much as I hate myself right now. God! She needed me that night… and I failed her!”

“Get up, Tony,” Marcus said. “Shake this off, for her sake. You need not fail her again. There will come a time when you two will need to work through this and you need to be ready.”

Tony stood up and wiped the tears from his eyes.

Marcus nodded, offering up a reassuring face. “I’ll go and watch her back. She’s trusts me and you know that I’ve saved her life countless times before.”

“Keep her from the darkness, Marcus,” Tony said. “Just… whatever it takes.”

Marcus smiled. “You have my word, Tony. I will keep her from the darkness… whatever it takes. Now, get inside, and get some rest. These people need you strong right now… as does Gina. You can do right by her by taking care of the people she fought so hard to protect.”

Tony nodded. “Thank you, Marcus.” He took his hand. “I owe you big time for this.”

“You owe me nothing. Gina’s my friend. You are my friend. I will keep her safe.”

Tony walked back to the hatch, desperately trying to collect himself.

Damn, boss! You destroyed him! the other one chimed in. And here I thought a nice blade to the throat would’ve been preferable. But you cut that big piggy up with a sharper blade than we’re presently carrying around. You damn near cut his heart out… from the fucking inside!

I had to make sure he stayed behind, Marcus thought. He would only slow things down now.

Why not just gut the piggy on the way, boss? You coulda’ been finally done with this one.

Because Gina still needs him… alive, he thought, tiring of always having to explain the obvious to such a single-minded nuisance. She’s tethered herself too tightly on Tony’s survival. His death gains us nothing. But his presence also gains us nothing. This is for the best.

Smells like more bullshit, boss. Just another excuse to get out of skinning some of your precious friends.

When Tony descended below, Marcus turned and retrieved his pack from the shadows. He put it on his back and placed some weight on his sprained foot. The pain was considerable, but manageable. He would have to move slowly for a while, but he could catch up with Gina in a few days.

Marcus inhaled deeply, relieved to be back topside and surrounded by night. He smiled and said, “And here I thought even you with your constant need for bloodshed would be much more excited, especially since we finally get some time alone with The Prize.”

You mean… you mean it’s time?

“Yes, savage, it’s time. It’s time for the hunt we’ve been waiting our whole lives for.”

Oh, dear God, YES!!! We’re finally going after the fucking golden goddess! It’s been so damn long, boss. Too long. Tell me, what color will her blood be when it’s all over our hands? I hope it’s warm liquid gold oozing out of every precious slice! Will it be gold, boss?

“It will be glorious, savage. And the Lady will be there to watch and welcome us with open arms as she is pleased by the pleasant aroma of such a worthy sacrifice.”

Here piggy, piggy, piggy! We’re comin’ for you, golden bitch. I hope it fuckin’ rains down gold by the time we’re finished! Here’s to the glorious bloodbath of all fuckin’ bloodbaths!

Marcus smiled and started down the path into the darkness.

It was time for the hunt.

It was time to finally discover what truths were hidden behind Gina’s dying eyes.

~~~

Midnight.

Diane continued to scan the surrounding darkness just outside the hatch door. The crescent moon hanging in a mostly clear sky provided some ambient light. She hadn’t decided if they possessed the advantage of higher ground, as she kept her eyes on the dark terrain below, or if the moonlight simply lit them up, their silhouettes giving away their position to anything watching for them.

Tony, Nine and Bear sat near the unlit small bonfire erected toward the top of the small path, the only clear route of approach, should the surrounding shadows come to life and attack. Everyone was armed up and waiting for the long night to be done.

The bonfire was Tony’s suggestion, remembering how they stood their ground on the rooftop in Andover when they had believed that Shadow Dead were coming. They had lit several bonfires surrounding the diner in the hope that the working theory still held, and that these deranged men dressed in monster attire did not like being exposed in the light. Perhaps this was their only real advantage in stopping them. Tony would light the fire as a last resort, not wanting to reveal their position until necessary.

Nine got up and joined Diane. “You’re missing out on some sensational conversation,” he whispered sarcastically. “That Bear guy hardly speaks anyway, but I swear Tony’s entered into a contest with him to see who speaks the fewest words. He’s been unusually gloomy all evening.”

“It’s probably because they want to hear our enemy coming long before we see them, Mr. Chatty Kathy,” she whispered back. “Let’s just finish our watch while we pretend we’ll actually get some sleep later.”

“Do you think what Marcus’s friend said is legit? Are they coming?”

Diane sighed. “Yes… I think it’s just a matter of time. Let’s just hope it’s not tonight.” She then frowned. “I’d say ask that strange man yourself what he thinks, but Marcus was in too big a hurry to leave us as soon as he got back.”

“He’s looking for Gina. Someone should be, right?” Nine said.

“Yeah… but he seemed a little too eager to volunteer for the job,” Diane added suspiciously. “I mean, I’m glad he’s okay. But that guy always gave me the creeps.”

Nine laughed. “You just hate it when he sneaks up on you and you never hear him coming. That must drive the hunter in you bonkers.”

“That and he’s always staring like he’s trying to read my damn mind, asking questions and throwing around that shit-eating grin.”

“Marcus is just curious like that. You’re not exactly the most open person, you know,” Nine said. “It took a book of failed conversations before you finally gave in to my charms.”

Diane snorted. “Please… you’re anything but charming. You pestered me so much that I had to talk to you.”

Nine smiled. “Yes… and I annoyed my way right into your heart.”

She smiled and shook her head. “You just keep telling yourself that.”

Something in the darkness from down the path moved as the rustling of leaves gave it away.

Tony and Bear were on their feet immediately, guns raised.

Diane and Nine moved in beside them.

Tony lifted his finger to his mouth, signaling for silence, as they all listened to the darkness.

They heard more movement followed by what sounded like… moans.

Diane moved up next to Tony’s ear and whispered, “Sounds like something… dead.”

Tony nodded in agreement. He tried to peer into the darkness at the end of the path but could see nothing. He turned to Nine. “Light the fire. Now!”

Nine bend down and lit an entire box of matches. He tossed it into the small bonfire which was saturated in cooking grease.

The others moved to the side of the blaze as the fire lit up the surrounding night.

Tony looked down at the base of the path and saw them… five dead things standing in front of the trees.

“Shit!” Tony cursed. “Watch out for more of them!” None of the dead were moving up the path yet. “As soon as they see the flames, they’ll be coming up!”

Diane stared at them through her rifle scope. “They’re… they’re tied to the trees!”

“What the fuck?” Nine said.

Tony turned toward her, his face revealing something horrifying familiar. “Do you… do you recognize them?”

Diane peered through the scope and shook. “My God,” she whispered. “It’s… Frederick!” She scanned the tortured faces of the suspended dead until identifying the entire scouting party. “It’s all of them, Tony!”

“They’re here,” Tony advised.

Those two words filled them with a stomach dropping dread, like the realization that every terrifying nightmare had just been confirmed real.

“Everyone back up, slowly,” Tony managed. “Watch everything. Stay in the light. Something moves up that path… light it up immediately.”

Diane desperately tried to keep her arms still as she continued to scan the shadows for movement. Then she spotted something in her scope that she’d overlooked initially. Something much smaller, standing directly ahead of the suspended corpses at the very bottom of the narrow path. She gasped and looked away, almost dropping her rifle.

“What is it?” Nine asked.

Diane’s face had paled. She looked like she was going to be sick. “It’s… it’s a pole… sticking in the ground at the base of the path! There’s a… there’s a head mounted on it!”

Tony looked like Diane had just stabbed him in the chest. “Is it… is it Gina?”

She tried to speak but forgot to breath.

“Answer me!” Tony said.

She violently shook her head. “Oh, God… no… I… I think it’s… Carl Lannister!”

The night suddenly erupted with the horrific cries of a thousand maniacs, rising up from all around them in the darkness.

(TO BE CONTINUED…)

~~~

Don’t Feed The Dark will return with Book Five in August, 2017…

Previous Episode 38-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-6: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Comments
  1. Chase says:

    Thanks for the chapter!
    Quiet an exciting scene set for the return. Looking forward to seeing how Russell plays this out now that he’s on the hunt.
    See you in August.

    Like

  2. […] Don’t Feed the Dark by Scott Scherr BOOK 4 FINALE […]

    Like

  3. alikolino says:

    Hell, you’re little uprising proved it.

    *your

    Like

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