~~~

The three-foot swells rolled beneath the yacht. Waves reached up like large white hands and crashed against the bow, causing the vessel to seesaw across the rippling dark water.

Alysa grabbed on to the port side railing, struggling to maintain her balance on the small four-foot walkway of the main deck as both the gusting wind and splashing water conspired to bully her off her feet. “I hate this shit,” she mumbled, trying to ignore the knife in her stomach and the brick strapped to her head. “There’s nothing natural about traveling over water.” The motion sickness was kicking her ass, but she wouldn’t dare throw up, not in front of him, although her pale and sweaty face betrayed her need.

A hooded man chuckled from just within the ladder well alcove leading up to the second deck. He took another hit from his cigarette, briefly lighting up his beard stubble and amused expression. The man was leaning up against the stairs, arms folded across his chest, and appearing to have no problem adjusting to the moving ship. He stared at the dark-skinned and slender young recruit, her once tightly braided long hair, now a disheveled mess due to the wind. The man stared at her ass fondly. He was foolish to have slept with the woman, even if it had only been once. Ever since, there was a familiarity between them that shouldn’t be there, making it harder for him to teach her with the strictness her other instructors benefited from. Not to mention his transgression gave her leverage should she ever decide to use it against him.

She turned and glared at him, her sharp dark brown eyes never losing their edge.

Yes… foolish and stupid, he thought with a smile. Once she realizes what her deadliest weapon is, nothing will stop her from getting what she wants.

“Enjoying yourself, Donovan?” she asked. “Is that why you asked me to come out here, so you could observe my love of the fucking sea?”

He took another drag off his cigarette. They shouldn’t be on a first name basis. Again, that annoying familiarity… but he allowed it, when they were alone. He smiled and said, “It amuses me… a little. But no. And it’s a lake, albeit a rather large one.”

“Figure of speech.”

He moved out of the alcove, removing his hood to reveal his thick brown air, and flicked his cigarette butt into the darkness of Lake Erie before joining her at the rail. He stared out at the shimmering lights they could just make out along the coastline. “I like it out here,” he said. “We’re totally at the mercy of a force that could immediately kill us, and yet, here we are… floating peacefully in the darkness. I find that contradiction comforting.”

“You have a strange notion of ‘peaceful’,” she snapped. Alysa stared out toward the coastline. “It’s hard to believe that all those lights will go out once the Lions arrive.” She turned toward Donovan. “How much longer?”

“Not long,” he said. “Perhaps two years, maybe three. Mother will show us signs as the time draws near.”

“And… this will all be… gone?”

Donovan turned to her with a smile. “Will you miss them, recruit? Perhaps you’ve already forgotten the state these pathetic creatures left you in before Mother found you… hmm? Have you come so far these last two years just to forget who you were… and your… incarceration?”

“Fuck them,” she said. “I was only curious.” She stared back out at the lights. “It’s just hard to fathom death on such a massive scale.”

“Yes… and we will not be immune from it, either. The Lions will come to devour us all. Only the Chosen will be saved.”

“The Chosen?”

Donovan refused to elaborate. “You ask too many questions before their time, recruit. Stay focused on your training. Mother has huge plans for us.”

“And the Lions… will Death devour all of them by the sword?”

Donovan laughed. “Spoken like a true warrior. No. Not by the sword.” His face went grave as Donovan drifted. “The Lions will come and tear up the unworthy from the inside out.”

“Explain that?”

Donovan turned to her. “I wish I could. But knowing will not matter. We will all be judged… and then we will either be cast out into the coming darkness, or delivered. Time will tell all.”

Alysa stopped there. She looked down into the dark waters as a chill seized her, causing her to grip the rails a bit tighter. “Why are we out here?” She was out of patience.

“You know I can’t tell you about The Trials,” he said. “And you should know better than to ask. I’ve trained you better than that.”

“I’m not asking about that… I just want to know where we’re going.”

“Are you in that much of a hurry to face Death?” Donovan asked. “Relax. Enjoy the moment. You never know when it will be your last.”

“Was that a threat?”

“You tell me?” Donovan teased. “Haven’t you learned to recognize them yet?”

She smiled and shook her head. “You have an annoying habit of answering questions with questions.”

“And you should stop fishing with them. Ask the wrong thing at the wrong time with the wrong person… you’ll never know what you’ll catch.”

“Understood.” Something caught her eye up ahead. Alysa strained to see what it was.

“What do you see?” Donovan was leaning forward against the rail, staring into his hands. He tried to conceal his frown.

“There’s a flashing red light. It’s faint… but I can see it.”

“Distance?”

She took a moment. “Quarter-mile… maybe. It’s hard to tell. I keep losing it behind the swells.”

“It’s a hazard buoy,” Donovan said.

She looked at him for clarification.

“Sometimes they’re lit up. Sometimes they have a bell attached. They let mariners know when there’s something just beneath the water they could possibly run aground on.”

“Wonderful,” she said. “Like the shit above the water wasn’t bad enough.”

“How long did you think you could keep it from us?” he asked abruptly.

“Excuse me?”

He turned to face her, all humor gone. “By not being upfront about it at the beginning, when you tried to hide it and hope it would just… go away… you showed us your fear of having us exploit it early on… as we should have.”

“What are you talking about? I fear nothing!” She shuffled her feet slightly.

He shook his head, clearly disappointed. “Even now… the fear of it makes you lie to my face. In fact, you’ve probably lied to yourself about it enough times that you’ve convinced yourself that the lie is true… and now… the fear has gained a foothold… and it makes you weak. And Ama-Eskua will not tolerate weakness.”

Alysa stood up straight, hearing the name of their Order spoken in the old tongue, and lifted her chin proudly. “I’ve nothing to hide,” she said confidently. “I am not weak… you know this more than anyone. I have trained hard and long and-”

“YOU LIE!” he shouted into her face.

Alysa stumbled back as another wave struck the bow.

Before she could right herself, Donovan moved in quick, quicker than she thought him capable. He backhanded her across the face, causing her to stumble toward the rail. She reached out to catch it, but Donovan grabbed her from behind and pushed her over the railing.

Alysa fell into the cold water and immediately started to panic.

Donovan looked over the railing and shouted over the wind, “Death has named you this night! She desires to claim you for your arrogance! Defend yourself! You have all the training you require to face her… unless the fear is stronger!”

Alysa flailed her arms in a panic as the waves came crashing down above her. She started to sink beneath the cold waters as she exerted far too much energy fighting the cold… and herself.

Donovan continued to stare at her from the rail, the vessel getting smaller as it moved away.

“Wait!” she cried out. Another wave crashed down over her head, pushing her back down into the cold, wet, blackness. As she struggled to breathe, water filled her mouth, burned in her nostrils. She surfaced again, spitting out water. Her arms were getting numb and tired. Another wave came down. She sank again. She tried to scream into the blackness, but there was no sound, just air bubbles, as she felt her chest get tight from lack of oxygen.

“…the fear has gained a foothold… and it makes you weak.”

Understanding came much too late. This was the first trial.

She started swallowing water. She closed her eyes as she sank deeper. Her lungs were about to burst…

~~~

… Alysa’s eyes shot open. Suddenly she could breathe again as the Pendleton son removed his strong fingers from around her throat, the precious air fiercely filling her lungs. She started coughing violently.

She looked up into the pale face of the young man who sat on her thighs. He was sweating and breathing heavily from his efforts to choke her. His once empty eyes were filled with something new… something frightening. He was excited.

Alysa immediately tried to move her arms and discovered that they were bound behind her back. Her feet were also bound together.

The young man smiled down at her like a maniac. “I’m glad… I’m glad you’re not dead yet.”

Her eyes shot fire. “You’re going to wish I’d broken my neck from the fall after I’m done with you.”

The young man laughed. It was an eerie strained laugh, sounding like someone who was trying it for the first time. “I like you. I like you… a lot.”

“Fuck you, creature. Get off me before-”

His hands found her throat again. He choked her until Alysa’s face turned red, her eyes glazing over. He started rocking back and forth while humming something indistinguishable. Then he stopped again, allowing her to breathe before she passed out.

After another coughing spasm, she managed in a cracked voice, “Please… just stop. I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Oh, you will,” the young maniac laughed. “I’m gonna do this all damn day! Watch you die again and again.”

Alysa only had a moment before the Pendleton son started choking her again. She scanned her surroundings for anything she could use. She could see the battery-powered lantern sitting on the floor to her right. The basement was cluttered with toppled furniture and various relics from a family doomed to extinction. The smell of moth balls and the coppery taste of blood that had dripped into her mouth from a gash to her forehead dominated her senses. The back of her head throbbed. She’d struck something on the way down through the floor trap that had knocked her unconscious. But she didn’t know how long. Without anything presenting an opportunity, she knew she had to create one.

“Stay calm. It is only the fear of death that can hurt you. Your adversary is powerless without it.”

Where had she heard that? Copperfield? Donovan? It didn’t matter. The advice from her distant past was the only thing that could save her now.

Alysa closed her eyes and slowed her breathing to stall for time… and to create an opportunity.

The young man slapped her hard across the face, causing her eyes to open. “Don’t you dare! You don’t die until I let you die!”

“Okay,” Alysa calmly said. “Just… just please… let me catch my breath first. I feel… faint. After that, I’ll do whatever you want.” She stared down at her chest and then smiled at him. “Could you… take off my shirt? I’m feeling overheated.”

The young man gave her a disgusted look. “Dirty whore!’ he shouted. He started rocking back and forth again. “Dirty… filthy… dirty… WHORE!”

Shit. There goes that route, she thought. Think. Observe. Discover the advantage.

Before she could do anything, the young man’s fingers were around her throat again. He choked her so hard this time that she believed he was ready to finish her off.

Rather than struggling against her attacker, she remained calm, forcing her body to bypass the normal survival gag reflex and the surge of adrenaline coursing through her body that accelerated the panic. She simply forced herself to go limp, letting her muscles relax in his tight grip, imagining herself drifting away toward her death rather than drowning in it.

The look on the young man’s face changed as he relaxed his grip. To Alysa, he looked like a sadistic child who had been torturing the family pet too long, and then realizing he may have taken it too far after killing the animal, he looked immediately remorseful.

She considered letting go. She knew that she could. But her anger demanded this monster’s blood.

Once more, she sucked in the stale air, causing the young man to smile, his alarm turning to delight.

Alysa, who was no stranger to both ends of torture, started imagining the multitude of ways she could prolong this monster’s death to maximize that amount of pain he would feel.

“Water,” she whispered.

“What you say?” The young man scratched his head.

She repeated the request, much fainter this time.

The maniac looked irritated. “Can’t hear you, whore.” He leaned over to listen. Alysa now had him unbalanced. She could feel his weight shifting forward and off her legs.

This time she only mouthed the words and then feigned like she was going to pass out again.

“Hold on,” he said impatiently, turning his ear toward her mouth. “Just don’t fall asleep again.”

She waited.

Closer… closer… closer…

Alysa raised her head with whatever strength she had left, opened her mouth wide, and then bit down hard on his right ear, managing to put the entire thing in her mouth.

The young man screamed in pain as Alysa jerked her head to the left and then to the right, like a dog with a chew toy, until she’d bitten clean through the entire ear as it came off into her mouth. She spat it out.

When the young man turned to face her, she aimed, and then forced her head up fast and hard, connecting her forehead with the cartilage of his nose. She smiled when she heard the satisfying crunch of his broken nose and saw the amount of blood that quickly ran down his face.

The immense double shot of pain from both the ear and the nose proved too much for the young man to handle as he collapsed on top of her, passing out.

With most of the maniac’s weight now on her chest, Alysa was able to lift her legs upward, in tandem with her pelvis, and effectively bumped the fucker off of her, as he fell limp beside her.

She quickly rolled to her right and on to her belly. She shimmied back with her shoulders while drawing her knees in until she was in the kneeling position.

Alysa felt dizzy. Her head throbbed. She could still feel the Pendleton boy’s fingers around her throat and blood dripping down from her forehead.

“Control the flesh. You are its master.”

Yes. She knew that voice well. Copperfield had always told her that after they’d trained, after beating her to within an inch of her life and leaving her a bloody mess sprawled out on the floor in what was commonly referred to as ‘The Kill Room’. Many promising candidates had perished during combat training, and if they survived, it was only because they could still get to their feet before bleeding out in that horrible place.

She closed her eyes to steady herself, took a deep breath, and then regained control. Alysa glanced at the enemy. The Pendleton boy was still unconscious. His wounds, though serious, were not severe. He wouldn’t die from blood loss… not yet. She examined her restraints. Her hands and feet were fastened together with a thin nylon cord—her hands still secured behind her back. Alysa scanned the room. She found her discarded bow, quiver and her boots in front of a tall ancient vanity mirror.

That’s it.

Alysa gathered her strength, waiting just long enough to regain feeling in her legs, and then leaned back on her toes while pushing upward with the agility of a cat, until she was standing on wobbly legs, like a tightrope walker. She steadied herself and then hopped over to the large mirror. Alysa used her right shoulder to knock the mirror forward. It fell with a crash, leaving sharp shards scattered around her feet. She bent down and picked up one of the shards and then began cutting the nylon. Her hands were free in moments.

She cut her feet loose and then stood there over her attacker with an unreadable, emotionless expression on her face. She was holding the sharp shard in her right hand so tightly that her hand began to bleed.

If the Pendleton son had been awake, Alysa would’ve lost control. She was already picking the places on his body to cut that would prolong his death and cause the most pain.

“A savage has no place among us. We train to be fearless, ruthless, merciless… but not without purpose. A savage serves the baser impulses to kill… and a beast has no purpose but to be put down…”

Those were Donovan’s words. He knew her more than most… and what she was when they first recruited her.

She quickly turned away, disturbed by her blood-thirsty impulses.

Alarms were screaming inside her head now. This was a trap designed to remove her from the equation. And it was Annie Greenman’s math that was now laid bare: Deception + Complacency = Treachery.

Alysa grabbed her bow and quiver, not bothering with her boots, and quickly fled the Pendleton basement.

Once back outside in the comforting darkness, she could already hear what sounded like power tools coming from behind the Greenman house.

The bunker, she thought, as she sped across the night, throwing all stealth aside. Her discipline took over as she loaded her bow and scanned the darkness on the run.

She found the old woman standing just outside the bunker entrance wearing a bloody apron and gloves. She was drinking water from a tall glass container. Nearby, the archer located a chicken coop. Tony, Nine, Mark, Matt and Wendy were lying bound and unconscious inside. They appeared to be drugged… or dead. The fact that they were bound suggested the former.

Whatever this is, ends now, she thought.

Alysa came out of the shadows like a wild animal. Before Annie could cry out in surprise, the Shadow Dead dropped low with a sweep kick, easily knocking the old woman off her feet. By the time the glass shattered on the concrete before the bunker, Alysa had stuck Annie in the back of the head with her bow until the old woman lay still.

Alysa did not hesitate. She immediately moved down the bunker steps, bow back up and loaded.

“Get the fuck out of here!” Wayne Pendleton cried out when the crazed archer burst into another ‘Kill Room’. He tried to reach for Annie’s shotgun. The archer put an arrow in his head, pinning him to the wall.

Alysa did not react to the grim scene around her. She simply targeted her enemies, found the four dead things chained up against the back wall, and sent four arrows with deadly accuracy into their skulls. Only after her enemies were destroyed, did she begin to process her failures. Diane lay on a bloody gurney. Her right arm was gone. She appeared to be drugged, like the others. On a bloody picnic table before the four dead monsters… there was just enough of her remains left to identify Beverly.

Alysa dropped her bow and stood still, staring at the dead girl’s remains. She clenched her fists and tried to keep from shaking. It was not repulsion or shock that she experienced, but rather, a sickening excitement brought on by the sight and scent of all the blood in the room. She needed to kill… to keep killing.

She closed her eyes and let out a faint nervous laugh. ‘Kill’… what a nice, sane word that is… to kill… almost sounds reasonable. Alysa fought off the fever that attempted to consume her… control her… and resisted the impulse to turn and bash Diane’s face in with her bare hands until she was wearing the poor girl’s blood…

“Any… anyone… there?”

Alysa turned toward the whispering girl. The sound of Diane’s voice brought her back from the brink.

“A savage has no place among us. We train to be fearless, ruthless, merciless… but not without purpose. A savage serves the baser impulses to kill… and a beast has no purpose but to be put down… Are you still a savage, Alysa? Did we make a grave miscalculation with you?”

Alysa ignored the haunting voice of Donovan and stepped beside Diane. “Are you… awake?” she asked.

“Who… who was it?” Diane struggled to ask.

Alysa said nothing.

Diane nodded toward the table. “Nine?”

Alysa looked toward the dead and frowned. “No,” she said. She turned back and sighed. “Beverly.”

Diane started to weep. “What else… Am I missing… anything else?”

The archer was quick to respond. “No… just the arm… I’m sorry.”

Diane nodded. “Where is she? Where… is that evil old bitch?”

“She’s in custody. Don’t worry. She won’t hurt anyone else.”

“Wayne’s other son… he’s part of this, too! I heard them talking… he was still across the street…”

Alysa put a hand on Diane’s shoulder and nodded. “I took care of that sadistic shit. The threat is over. You need to rest, now. All of you do. Let the drugs wear off. I’ll keep watch.”

Diane tried to move but failed. She kept trying to use an arm that did not exist. “I need to… to get up… and kill that evil bitch! I need to be with… Nine…” Diane passed out.

Alysa stood over Diane’s vulnerable and broken body. I should put her down right now. She’ll never be the same after this… if she recovers at all.

She tried to rationalize her thoughts. Was this an act of mercy? Was it really? Or was she just looking for an excuse to…

Kill.

Alysa stepped away from the gurney, turned, and retrieved her bow. She quickly stepped out of the bunker to get some air.

Annie was still lying unconscious near her feet.

Alysa looked down at the pathetic old monster, and for a moment, she saw a mirror.

“I’m not like you, bitch,” she hissed. The words fell shallow and pointless before Annie’s feet. She wasn’t like this woman… she was much, much worse.

Alysa walked over to the chicken coop and examined the others. Everyone else looked okay, drugged, but okay. She did this while they all slept. Probably without much of a struggle. Injected them with something. She shook her head at them as if they were actual chickens rather than people. These are the faces of sheep waiting peacefully, blissfully unaware, for their turn to die at the hands of a world none of them we’re prepared for. They will all die… eventually… but not today.

She turned and reentered the bunker. In the first room were shelves of supplies. She found the drugs Annie used. They’ll be out for hours. She located a blanket and some zip-ties. Alysa went back outside, secured Annie’s hands and feet, and then left her there. She went back down and placed the blanket over Diane’s body. “Sleep well, hunter,” she said. “Your first real trial is about to begin.”

Alysa turned to leave, but stopped when she saw a table with bloody tools on it. There was an electric surgical saw that Annie or Wayne used to remove Diane’s arm. And to cut up the meat for easier consumption, she concluded. There was also a high-tension hand saw. She picked up the aluminum saw and stared at it. She was thinking about the Pendleton son she’d left alive.

“You apparently have some ‘time to kill’.”

She did not recognize the voice right away. It wasn’t anything any of her instructors would’ve said. Even Donovan, with his dark humor, wouldn’t dare make light of her previous… condition.

Oddly, it sounded like something Russell, or Marcus, might say.

“Enough,” she said, annoyed with herself.

She left the bunker, intending to move the others out of the chicken coop, and back into the Greenman house, but found herself walking toward the street instead… back toward the Pendleton house.

She found the Pendleton son conscious in the basement, lying and moaning in pain where she’d left him.

When he saw her, he raised his arms to defend himself.

Alysa gave him a curious look. She had not drawn her bow, and yet, he looked at her as if she were about to attack.

“P… please,” he said. “No… no more!”

Alysa look confused as she stared about the basement. “Why did I come here?” she asked. She saw the broken shards of glass lying on the floor, saw her fragmented reflection cast within them. The scattered bloody image of herself made her tremble, especially the way her eyes looked staring back at her from a large shard at the center of the monstrous glass puzzle. And that’s when she saw something else.

Alysa’s eyes went wide when she saw a reflected shiny object in her hand. She looked down and found the aluminum hand saw in her right hand.

The Pendleton son started whimpering again as she held it up. “Please… I beg you… I’ll do… I’ll do anything you want. I’m so… sorry. I’m not right… not right in the head. My… my mama always said so.”

Alysa’s hand began to shake. She suddenly needed to kill something again.

“… Are you still a savage, Alysa?”

She could not hear Donovan’s words this time… didn’t want to. All she knew was that it was this piece-of-shit who attempted to reduce her to a victim. If that had happened while she was still with her former people, they would have put her to death for such weakness. And for that violation, she needed to make this creature suffer in the most horrific ways her dark heart could imagine.

“I’m not a savage,” she told the blubbering monster. “Just know that what I do next… I do with sincere purpose.” She approached the Pendleton son with the hand saw as she let the blood lust consume her.

He screamed continuously, the blood splattering Alysa’s face, as she slowly but violently cut him to pieces…

~~~

…Alysa bolted up from sleep, lying near the campfire, her hands immediately reaching up toward her face to wipe away the blood.

“Whoa! Calm down,” Tony said from beside her. “You were having one helluva dream.”

She looked up at the big man who sat cross-legged next to her with that unprotected smile lighting up his face. “You’re not… a nightmare version of yourself, about to transform into something that forces me to face some uncomfortable moment from my past… are you?”

Tony laughed. “Yeah… you must have been having one crazy dream. You were moving around so much I thought you might just get up and walk off… and no… I’m the real deal.”

“Good,” she said, her disorientation starting to lift. “In that case… stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“Staring.”

Tony shook his head. “I wasn’t creeping on you while you slept. I was just… concerned, is all.”

Alysa sat up and examined the area. The others were spread out around the fire, sleeping soundly. They were surrounded by a small bowl-shaped valley that steadily ascended upward toward the ridge where they’d entered. An abundance of tall maple trees also aided in hiding their location. They hadn’t had much rest since departing Mosquito Creek Lake three days ago, and it finally caught up with them. They were now west of that horrible place, somewhere in the middle of the Grand River Wilderness Area, camped in a protected valley just north of the main road that ran through the large forest. They had decided to risk a fire, believing they were hidden enough to avoid notice.

She stretched her arms wide and let out a long yawn. “You should have woke me up. We’re both supposed to be on watch, remember?”

Tony shrugged his shoulders. “I’m far from being tired and you looked like you needed to rest. Nothing’s happened. Believe it or not, I was able to manage our little camp without you.”

She shot him a look, then let it go. Truth was, she was exhausted. This was the first night she’d slept for more than a few minutes at a time since joining this group. Her hellish dream within a dream reminded her why. She hated having her past thrown into her face while she slept and was powerless to stop it. She looked over at Tony. He’d averted his eyes, staring into the fire, allowing her a moment to gather herself. She suddenly became aware of how much cleavage her black tank top revealed. She quickly adjusted her top and then brought her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs. This was the first time any of them had seen her without her usual dark fleece on since she seldom slept in front of the others. I’m getting too comfortable around them, she thought and then looked at Tony again. Especially this one.

Tony finally looked back at her, appreciating that she covered herself up. “Want to talk about it?” he asked.

Alysa raised an eyebrow. “Talk about what?”

“You know… whatever it was you were dreaming about. Sometimes it helps talking through it.”

“Were you hoping to gleam some deep, dark Shadow Dead secrets by listening to my dream babble?” she teased.

Tony laughed. “Damn… you’ve figured me out.” His face grew soft. “Seriously… I’m a pretty good listener if you want someone to vent with.”

Alysa smiled. “I’m not much of the ‘venting’ type.”

Tony nodded. “Okay, then we could just sit here and enjoy this long uncomfortable night together. The silence is the worst. I fucking hate it.”

“Obviously.”

After a pause, Tony started, “I’ve had some screwed-up dreams, too. One time, I was chased by this fucking bear that was dressed like my mother-”

“I never learned how to swim until the night I nearly drowned,” Alysa interrupted.

“Excuse me?”

“That was my dream… part of it, anyway.” She took a deep breath. “I was out on a boat with one of my instructors. I was on my way to face the first of three trials for initiation into the Shadow Dead. I’d survived everything that came before—the rigorous physical and psychological training—and it was finally time for me to prove my worth.”

“Kind of like graduating from Shadow Dead boot camp?” Tony teased.

“Something like that,” she said. “Anyway, they started figuring out my fear of the water when we first started travelling over the lake by boat. I’d completely forgotten.”

“‘They’? You mean your… instructors?”

She ignored the question, her thoughts drifting elsewhere. “In the dream, I was headed over the lake to endure my first test. Turned out that the lake itself was my trial. I was thrown overboard… and they left me to drown.”

“So, you’re saying that they, your instructors, knew you couldn’t swim… and they just tossed you into the lake to die? That’s fucked-up.”

Alysa laughed. “They accused me of hiding it, believed I’d tried to deceive them as I’d deceived myself into thinking that I was… fearless.”

“There’s no such thing,” Tony said. “We all fear something.”

She looked hard at him. “Yes. Alysa Monroe, a foolish girl who’d never learned how to swim, was afraid of the sea… but the Shadow Dead do not fear anything. One had to die to become the other. That was my first trial.”

“Why not just teach you how to fucking swim? Was it not part of the combat training curriculum?”

“I don’t expect you to understand,” she said. “You asked me about my dream… and I’m trying to share it with you.”

Tony nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry. No more judgment… I’ll just listen.”

She stared into the fire for a long time before speaking. “I’m still not convinced that I didn’t drown in the lake that night. Perhaps a part of me did. I remember sinking into that cold darkness, swallowing so much water that I thought I would just explode… and then, the panic ceased, and with it… the pain, the desperation, the fear. I thought: Is this what death feels like?”

Tony shifted uncomfortably. “How did you get out of it? Did they come back and pull you out of the lake?”

Alysa looked over at him and smiled. “No… not for several hours. I was on my own.”

“And yet… you managed to survive. That must have been terrifying.”

“No,” she corrected. “It was liberating. Once I knew… once I felt… Death… a calmness fell over me like a warm invincible blanket. Something new took hold inside of me and said, ‘Yes, you are drowning, and you will die. Accept it… and you will understand that it is only death, and without your fear of it, Death has no bite.’”

“But… you said you couldn’t swim?”

“Yes,” she said. “That was true. But I did learn how to float that night. All the dead know how to do that… and I was as good as dead, face down, arms outstretched across the water, for almost a minute. And then I came back, coughing on the surface, sucking down air as fast as I could. I started to sink, but then remembered how to float like I was dead… and so I did… on my back this time. The whole time, I retained that comforting blanket… and the fear was gone. After my head cleared, I remembered my instructor pointing out a hazard buoy before tossing me overboard. So, I started searching the darkness around me for red blinking lights. And then I found it, less than a quarter-mile away.”

“And you floated your ass over to that buoy.” Tony shook his head. “Damn, that must have taken a long time, too.”

“Yes. Several hours,” she said. “But I didn’t care. I’d already won. I’d already passed the test. Whatever happened after that, didn’t matter.”

Tony laughed. “I imagine you savored the shocked expressions on their faces when they finally showed up and found you clinging to that buoy.”

Alysa’s eyes lit up. “Yes. I did.”

“So, what were the other trials like?” Tony asked.

“Another time,” she said. “Perhaps when I’m in need of ‘venting’ again.”

“Fair enough,” Tony said. “Can I ask you something?”

“Haven’t I said enough to combat the silence?” Alysa responded wearily.

Tony laughed. “It’s more of a concern.”

“Go on.”

He looked back toward the fire. “Not that I was ‘staring’, while you slept, but I couldn’t help noticing the marks around your neck. If not for the firelight, I probably would have missed them… being you are of a darker complexion and all.”

“I’m fine,” she snapped. “Drop the matter.”

Tony couldn’t. Wouldn’t. “You’ve been wearing that fleece most of the time, or else I might have noticed it sooner.”

“Again, let it go,” she said.

Tony stared stubbornly at her. “Did that happen in Wick?”

She didn’t answer.

“Of course, it did,” he said. “Did… did the Pendleton son do that to you?”

“He’s dead. I made sure of that. The rest is irrelevant.”

“Fuck that!” he said.

Tony’s sudden outburst caught Alysa off guard.

The big man collected himself and calmed down. “He hurt you… Did he… how far did-”

“He tried to strangle me to death… repeatedly. There, you happy now?” Alysa was surprised by her own admission. She only hoped he wouldn’t ask about the young man’s death. That, Tony would never understand.

Tony’s whole demeanor changed. To Alysa, it looked like someone just told him his favorite dog just died.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Tony shut his eyes and hung his head. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you.”

She didn’t know how to respond.

“Did he…?” Tony looked at her with an intense sadness behind his eyes. And then she understood.

“No, it never came to… that,” she said with surprising discomfort. Alysa looked toward the others to make sure they were still asleep, and then finished, “He wasn’t into me… sexually.”

Tony nodded, embarrassment replacing anger at the word, and offered an awkward smile. He was having difficulty looking her in the eye. “Well… that’s good to hear… I mean… shit… not that your… not that it’s any of my business.”

Alysa smiled, touched by his genuine concern for her dignity, as if she still possessed such a thing.

And then he ruined the moment.

“Gina,” he said. “She was raped… and I never knew. She kept it from me and I… failed to protect her.”

Alysa sighed at the sudden heaviness in the conversation. Her shoulders sank. “Would you… like to ‘vent’ about it… with me?” she offered sheepishly.

Tony turned to her with tears streaming down his face.

She smiled. “I understand burdens. Tell you what… just say what you want, and I’ll listen this time.”

“I’m glad… I’m glad you’re alright, Alysa. I mean that.”

She nodded patiently. “Go on. The night is still long and the road ahead, uncertain. Perhaps this is the time and place for us both to forget the fight for the moment… and leave a few things here, beside this dying fire… before the next battle begins.” Her own words surprised her.

Tony nodded appreciatively, and started venting about Gina. He told her about the rape and everything Marcus had unloaded on him before the night of the Shadow Dead attack. And once the floodgates were opened, he told Alysa more than he intended about his former love.

She found herself enthralled by how passionately he spoke of Gina, or the ‘idea’ of her, and how openly he discussed his pain at dealing with his dark love.

As she let him talk through the remainder of their watch, Alysa discovered something else that disturbed her, brought out by this foolish man. It was an emotion she couldn’t easily pin down but later admitted, only to herself, what it had to be.

Envy.

~~~

Next Episode 42-2

Previous Episode 41-10

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 42-1: The Kill Room” Copyright © 2018 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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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