~~~

Alysa completed her three days of Isolation without incident. She had not heard from Christina again in that time. When she reached the recruit cafeteria for breakfast, she sat down at her and Christina’s usual table, prepared to let the obnoxious young woman ramble on about everything irrelevant, but Christina was still absent.

Stupid girl. Probably got herself killed with her foolish plan. Alysa was surprised at how much the thought of Christina’s death troubled her. They were not friends. What did it matter?

She didn’t have long to ponder the foolish girl’s fate.

Donovan entered the cafeteria wearing his usual dark hoody which concealed his unshaven face.

The unexpected arrival of one of their lead instructors caused a minor panic as all the recruits scrambled to stand at attention, including Alysa.

“At ease,” he said, ignoring them, and walking directly over to Alysa.

The others sat down promptly and pretended not to watch his every move.

Alysa also sat down and started eating.

Donovan stopped at her table and waited.

Alysa pretended he wasn’t there.

“Why am I here?” he finally said.

She looked up from her meal and glared at him. “To take me on another swimming lesson, I suppose,” she answered sarcastically, being mindful to keep her voice down. To publicly disrespect an instructor was met with harsh consequences.

Once again, Donovan regretted their familiarity. He smiled down at her and said, “You’ve been summoned to the Kill Room. Breakfast is over.”

Many of the recruits overheard this and tensed up immediately.

Donovan’s tone left no room for disobedience. Alysa could clearly tell that her instructor was here on official matters. She quickly rose to her feet and stood at attention. “I await your orders,” she said.

“Follow.” Donovan turned toward the exit with Alysa right behind him.

When they reached the hallway, he said, “I’ve warned you about speaking out of turn when we’re around others. Do that again and I’ll have your head removed. Understood?”

She wisely remained silent and simply nodded. Alysa stole a glance into her instructor’s face. She’d never seen him so uptight when they were alone. After a long silence, she asked, “Permission to speak?”

“No,” he said. “Clear your head. Much will be expected of you today.”

She stared at him. It’s time, she thought. My second trial has begun. From all she’d learned, it was unusual to face back-to-back trials so quickly, but it wasn’t unheard of. She thought of the Kill Room and smiled. Trial by combat. She stood up straighter as they walked, chin held high. Although not at a hundred percent, she felt confident that she was up for the challenge. Combat was something she understood well.

They turned left at the next corner. Two large steel double doors appeared at the end of a long dimly lit hallway.

Donovan stopped them before the door. He turned to face her, placing his hands behind his back. “Ready?”
“I am always ready,” she responded defiantly, locking gazes with her instructor.

He grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “An adversary has many faces. What lies beyond this door is a face you’ve not seen. That is all I can tell you.” He moved to the side, waving her forward.

Alysa nodded and stepped up to the doors. She opened one steel door. The Kill Room was pitch black within.
“I will miss you, recruit,” Donovan said.

She turned, puzzled by the strange comment.

Donovan started walking away. He never looked back.

Alysa turned back toward the dark room. She took a deep breath to steady herself, and then entered, closing the door behind her.

When she reached the center of the large, dark room, Alysa stopped, took up a fighting stance, and prepared herself for an attack from any and every direction. They’d often trained in this gymnasium sized room in the darkness, fine-tuning their other senses when the eyes became useless. But this somehow felt different. The silence was unnerving.

“Who are you?” someone whispered in her right ear.

Alysa spun around, crouched low in the dark, and swept her leg in an arc toward an adversary who wasn’t there.

She was alarmed. None of the other recruits were ever able to sneak up that close, and then slip away just as quickly… and without making a sound.

That was not a recruit! That was something else!

Cold metal slashed across her right arm.

Alysa recoiled in pain, covering a shallow cut with her left hand. She turned, but was met with silence.

“Who are you?” This time the whisper came from behind her.

Alysa turned in time to receive another quick slash across her left thigh.

She did not dare cry out. The pain only infuriated her. “I am Alysa!” she answered. “Born of fire and blood. Face me!”

Suddenly several overhead lights came on, lighting up the Kill Room.

Alysa shielded her eyes with her hand, until they adjusted. She quickly took advantage of the light and gasped.

Surrounding her at the edge of the light, were twelve masked Ama-Eskua warriors, in full light armor, standing twenty feet away from her. They all carried various weapons and stood as still as statues.

Alysa felt intimidated but refused to let it show. She stood up straight, releasing pressure on her wounds, and scanned the elite fighters’ faces.

What an honor! she thought, excitedly. I get to prove myself against the Ama-Eskua! She clearly understood that she was no match against all twelve at once, but she could challenge each one separately, which she assumed must be her second trial. The only question was whether she would have to face all twelve of them, one at a time, or just the strongest one among them, as was their tradition.

She waited for the warriors to make the first move while scanning the Kill Room. Displayed along every wall were various weapons. She’d used many of them and had trained hard in this room, earning her bloody uniforms. She looked toward the blood-stained hardwood floor and smiled. Yes, the Kill Room had earned its name.

Alysa knelt down in the center of the circle to clear her mind and conserve her strength, while waiting for the combat to commence.

At the other end of the room, another door burst open. A short bald man entered wearing Ama-Eskua armor, but with no mask. He wore a recognizable katana blade sheathed to his side.

Copperfield, her primary weapons instructor, stopped at the edge of the warrior circle.

Alysa was already on her feet, standing at attention.

Copperfield’s eyes bore into her with such intensity that Alysa almost looked away… almost. He was a man of few words in normal circles, but when he assumed his role of Combat Instructor, especially in this place, the quiet man had plenty to say… and the wise listened.

“Who were you?” he suddenly asked.

“I was a victim,” she answered immediately. “Dead in a dying world, destined to perish.”

Copperfield mercifully looked away, satisfied with her answer. He stared up at the closest wall of weapons. “Choose.”

She nodded, understanding what was expected. She turned to look along the walls of weapons until she spotted a long black bow with a loaded black quiver mounted next to it. She smiled at the weapon like an old friend. Not today, she thought. The bow is my favorite, and they know it. They will think me weak and incapable of fighting without it. She deliberately looked away from the bow, scanning the weapons until she found a katana sword, much like Copperfield’s. She didn’t pick the weapon to please Copperfield. Of all the weapons she’d mastered, her skill with the katana made it her least efficient weapon. Choosing the sword over the bow would send a loud and clear message: I am a strong warrior, and can defeat my foe with my pinky.

“Choose,” Copperfield repeated.

Alysa pointed toward the katana.

The hint of a smile broke through his stone face. “Very well. Prepare yourself.”

Alysa nodded and turned to retrieve the katana from the wall. When she neared the ring of Ama-Eskua warriors, she stopped, waiting for the closest one to stand aside.

The warrior towered over her, holding a long black spear. He refused to move and allow her access to the weapon.

Alysa looked back toward Copperfield, confused.

The little man said, “Today… I choose for you.”

She was surprised by the unorthodox breach in protocol. Alysa had every right, before combat, to select her own weapon. To choose one’s path toward Death by electing the weapon, a symbolic gesture of the warrior’s first steps to meet Death, herself, was how they trained, lived, and died. But to have one choose a weapon for you… especially during the trials… was… humiliating.

“No!” she protested. “I have chosen!” She turned back toward the Ama-Eskua with the spear. “Stand aside… now!”

The warrior would not budge.

Copperfield sighed impatiently and commanded, “Down.”

The warrior with the spear moved quick. The spear whirled around in a flash, knocking Alysa right off her feet.

Before she could react, he had the tip of his spear aimed an inch from her neck.

Alysa fought with all she had to stay calm. She wanted to tear the warrior apart. Instead, she looked back at Copperfield. “I… I don’t understand! Why do you shame me, teacher? By right, the choice is mine!”

Copperfield pointed at her. “Only warriors get a choice!” he shouted. “Today… in this place… you are the Accused… and we will discover just what you really are!”

Accused? Alysa’s mind was spinning. What the hell is happening?

“Up!” the little man commanded her.

The warrior with the spear stepped back into position, removing the spear from her neck.

Alysa got to her feet and returned to the center of the circle. She had no idea what to expect now. Perhaps that’s the point of this trial, she reasoned. They want me confused, angry, and off-balanced. She tried to steel herself with this knowledge, but nothing about this trial felt right. She couldn’t help thinking about the last words Christina said to her:

“These fuckers don’t have your back. They never will.”

Copperfield stared at her blood-stained uniform in disgust. “You are unworthy to stand among the elite looking like that. Remove those rags… immediately,” he ordered.

She was shaking with anger now. “How fucking dare you speak to me like that! After all I’ve given! After all the blood I’ve spilled to be here!”

“You’re mouth reveals your insolence,” Copperfield said. “What else will we learn when the Truth is done with you… hmm?” She looked toward the Ama-Eskua with the spear and nodded.

All at once, the twelve armored warriors turned and replaced their various weapons along the wall. They then walked over to a rack in a dark corner of the room behind Copperfield and retrieved what looked like long narrow wooden bats.

Alysa immediately recognized the weapons. Her face went pale. She had not seen such weapons since the beginning of her training, when pain was her first adversary. She tensed up immediately.

The Ama-Eskua returned to their position, each holding a wooden stick that was shaped like a slithering snake. The curves in the wooden weapons were designed to inflict the most pain to the muscles, inducing heavy bruising, but not breaking the skin. Every first month recruit knew this weapon well. It was a torturer’s weapon used to extract the truth from an enemy… or for disciplinary actions. It was simply called, the Balato, which loosely translated, meant ‘Broken Soul’. It was a weapon, not considered worthy of being called a ‘weapon’, reserved for the unworthy who were considered too inferior for real combat.

Alysa looked toward her feet with an equal mix of disgust and horror. She could still remember the pain inflicted on her by such base weapons.

Why are they doing this to me! I am scorned at every turn!

“I said remove them!” Copperfield demanded, dropping his hand to the hilt of his sword.

She looked at the little but lethal man, understanding that he would not repeat this command again. When he spoke next, it would be to command someone else to clean up her headless remains.

Her eyes were on fire as she stared at Copperfield with more defiance than she thought capable. Whatever trial this was, she had to dig deep and endure every humiliation. Perhaps that was the point.

She wisely averted her eyes and started removing her uniform until she stood naked.

“Prepare yourself for… combat,” he said, mockingly putting emphasis on the final word as if it disgusted him to even say it. As a final insult, Copperfield turned his back to her, making it clear that what occurred next was not fit for his attention.

She wanted to murder her former weapons instructor. And that was the kindest thought that ran through her mind.
The Ama-Eskua warriors raised their wooden weapons toward her.

Unarmed and completely stripped of her honor, Alysa raised her fists at them, understanding that she had no chance to survive this battle. But what she had left burned behind her eyes as she gazed around the circle, making sure each warrior knew who she was before they beat her to death… and without a single drop of her blood spilled, they would remove all memory of her demise from the Kill Room as if she never existed.

She braced herself for the pain. She would not cry out for mercy as she did when first tortured by the Balato, and that had been just one of them, wielded by Copperfield himself back at the beginning of her training. This would prolong her suffering before her body gave in to the pain… eventually… but to beg for mercy would complete her shame and was considered unworthy for any Ama-Eskua.

“Finish,” she hissed over at Copperfield. “I am owed that much.”

Copperfield looked over his left shoulder, but not at her, and laughed. “Very well.” He finished the three-part question. “Who will you be?”

She smiled, raising her head proudly. Before she could answer, she was struck on the right side of the face, knocking her to the ground. She immediately rose to her feet in time to receive eleven more blows in rapid succession. Three across the legs, three on her arms, two to the back, two more across her bare chest, and then a final blow across her left cheek. The pain was almost unbearable as Alysa collapsed to the ground, refusing to cry out. There was a slight pause as the twelve warriors waited deliberately for her wounds to throb so intensely that the next round would either force her to scream for mercy or cause her body to shut down, going into shock before death.

She tried to get up but failed. She started crawling instead, anything to avoid giving in to the pain.

The Ama-Eskua moved in to finish her off.

“Stop!” Copperfield commanded.

The Ama-Eskua immediately retreated to their positions in the circle, awaiting instructions.

Alysa was in too much pain to question the halted attack as she barely registered the sound of two men rushing into the room, raising her arms, and lifting her up. The facility medics dragged her to a wheel chair that a third medic had rolled to the center of the room. They lowered her roughly into the chair and bound her wrists and ankles to the chair with zip ties. The medics immediately departed, leaving Alysa’s swollen naked body slouched in the chair. Her body slumped to the right like liquid as she started to black out, but she managed to stay conscious and sit up straight.

After a few minutes, the pain started to pass. She wanted to ask why she was not allowed to die, perhaps even that dignity being stolen from her, but her bruised and swollen face made it difficult to speak. She focused on staying alive instead, forcing the air in and out of her lungs, feeling like someone had permanently strapped an anchor to her chest.

Her mind and vision were blurry from the attack. She blinked rapidly and tried to focus on Copperfield’s position but was surprised to find another occupied wheel chair instead, twenty feet in front of her. When she regained focus, Alysa stopped breathing for a moment.

Christina, or what was left of her, sat naked and strapped in the chair, a bloody mess. Her face was so bruised from multiple punches that she was almost unrecognizable. Alysa could tell that she’d been tortured for at least two or three days. Numerous lacerations and puncture wounds ran down her arms and legs, the finger nails on her right hand were completely ripped out, and she was missing three fingers on her left hand. The nipple on her right breast had been sliced off, causing Alysa to shake involuntarily. There was a large amount of dried up blood on her inner thighs.

Why did you try to run? she thought. Stupid fucking girl!

Copperfield stepped out from the behind Christina, his katana drawn, as he circled around the tortured woman, staring down at her like a vulture before the kill.

Christina was clearly terrified. Her chest rose and fell rapidly. Tears streamed down her bruised and bloody cheeks.

The little man finally turned to Alysa with an unreadable expression on his stone face. “This traitor broke down shortly after we captured her trying to escape. She told us everything immediately, like a babbling brook… even begged us to kill her before we began our interrogation.” He shook his head, looking at Christina in disgust. “I believed everything she said, of course… it was pathetic… so I insisted that the interrogators not believe a word of it for two long and grueling days. By the end of it, she would’ve said anything we wanted to get them to put her down.” He looked back at Alysa and asked, “Were we… cruel… in our punishment of this traitor… hmm? Perhaps if we showed you what we did to the traitors who helped her, you might not think so.”

Alysa waited for the tortured woman to look at her, and when she did, and then quickly looked away, Alysa understood her own harsh treatment. It was clear that Christina had implicated her, as well as the men she’d fucked that helped her escape.

By just confiding in me, she’s killed us both, Alysa thought. She wanted to be angry with Christina, but all she felt was pity. The girl had clearly suffered enough.

“This worm,” Copperfield continued, “betrayed you, recruit, by the end of the first day. Told us everything about your… conversation. It’s sad really. She had nothing to gain by throwing you under the bus… but she did it anyway, perhaps hoping we’d focus our attention on you and end her miserable existence. I suppose, in a way, it could be considered commendable that she used her own fate to try and take down another adversary… if not for the sad fact that there was nothing cunning in her calling you out. It was clearly the fear of torture that drove her to it. And that is a despicable and unforgiving act.”

Alysa remained silent. Where is this going? They already know everything. Christina made sure of that.

Copperfield read her mind. “So why are the two of you here, in this room, when the both of you have clearly betrayed your own? I’m sure that you must know that keeping this worm’s futile plan to yourself, instead of coming forward with the truth immediately, makes you just as guilty as those who actively participated in her failed escape? Wouldn’t you agree?”

Alysa nodded.

“Then you do not deny that this worm confided in you the night before her escape?”

Alysa was about to confess but stopped. Christina looked up, her eyes full of pain and regret. She silently mouthed the words, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then quickly looked away.

Alysa closed her eyes and let out an exhausted sigh. The only reason we’re here, now, is that Copperfield wants me to confirm the deeper treachery… that Christina gave me up out of fear. If I give them that, they will never let her die. They’ll torture her again and again, keeping her alive, rolling her out of some dark hole where she’ll clearly succumb to madness, as they parade her around as an example of the price of giving in to fear.

Copperfield was getting agitated. “Speak up! Did this worm confide in you of her plans to escape?”

A part of her wanted to give Copperfield the truth. Christina deserved whatever happened to her, especially after the disgrace she suffered because of her foolish plan. But, whether it was from the weakness of just being beaten, or that some part of her did consider Christina a ‘friend’, Alysa hesitated. If she didn’t give Copperfield the truth, they would probably torture her far worse than what they did to Christina. One way or the other, one of them was going to die, while the other would suffer for years.

And then a light came on. Alysa smiled as she understood what to do. There was only one choice to make. The honorable one.

She struggled to get the words out. “The worm lies,” she said. “The plan was mine. I knew she was weak and wanted out, but I also knew that she was cunning and manipulative. That’s how she’d survived this long. So, as a way of removing a cunning opponent, I carefully planted the idea into her brain. The inception of escape was mine. She simply ran with it, believing it was her own idea.” She turned to Christina. “She implicates me only to protect me, when she knew that I was the one who suggested it.”

Copperfield’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “So, she withheld the whole truth, giving the torturers just enough when she knew she could no longer resist not naming you?”

“Yes,” Alysa said. “Christina did not give in to fear. She was only trying to uphold her honor and take responsibility. The plan was originally mine.”

“If what you’re saying is true, then it is you who deserve her fate… and those we emasculated who helped her,” Copperfield said. “Mark your words carefully. If what you say is the truth, then you will not be allowed to die, and we will make you suffer in her place.”

“It is the truth,” Alysa lied. “Christina has suffered enough. I am responsible for the root cause of this betrayal. It is mine and mine alone to endure.”

Copperfield stared long at Alysa, and then finally nodded. “So be it.” He lifted his katana and placed the tip inches from Christina’s neck. He said to her, “You acted honorably by not giving in to fear and betraying one of your own. To protect your brothers and sisters at the expense of your own life, is redeemable. For that, you will be granted the mercy of a swift death for your previous actions,” he told her. “For the crime of treachery, which was prompted by another, you will die immediately,” he declared.

Christina looked at Alysa with immense gratitude and respect.

Alysa nodded at her. Go on, finish this. Before I regain my senses, she thought.

“Commit to the truth now.” Copperfield said.

Christina swallowed hard and lied. “Yes, it was Alysa who first approached me with the idea to escape. When I knew I couldn’t hide her name from the torturers any longer, I confessed, but took responsibility for her plan, to grant her an expedient death.”

Alysa closed her eyes again. There. It’s done. I will retain my honor and take the punishment she deserves, and she will be granted my honorable death. She started preparing herself for the long days and nights of torture which would follow, trying to get used to the idea of losing various body parts.

Copperfield retracted his sword for the fatal blow that would remove Christina’s head.

Alysa wondered, Is this what mercy feels like? To shield the dishonor of another with your own honor? Is this what protecting a friend means? She smiled at the thought, surprised by her own ability to show… what… compassion? She did not know. It was a foreign sensation that she would simply enjoy in the moment. There would be no time for reflection once her suffering commenced.

Alysa waited for the sound of steel slicing through flesh, and the single thud of her head striking the floor, as Christina would finally get what she wanted through death… her freedom.

Those sounds never came.

Alysa opened her eyes as Copperfield sheathed his sword.

Christina looked up at him, confused.

Copperfield looked down at her in disgust. “Even now, worm, with a final chance to come clean and face your fear, you choose to let Alysa die for your crimes. We’ve known all along why you gave her up. We’ve known about your meeting with her, and that it was you who approached her with the suggestion of leaving.”

Christina looked to Alysa and then back to Copperfield. “Please… No more! I just want to die… please…”

“Take this disgusting thing away,” he said, as the medics appeared and started rolling Christina away. “And resume her suffering immediately… staring with the removal of her tongue.”

Christina screamed all the way out of the Kill Room.

Alysa could do nothing but watch. Her heart sank. It was all for nothing. They’ll make her suffer worse than before… and me along with her.

Copperfield approached, his hands behind his back.

Alysa looked up with tears she could not fight back. “Why?” she asked. “Why… if you knew the truth all along?”

Copperfield smiled. “She was only here for your benefit, recruit. Yes, we knew that you kept her secret, that you even tried to talk her out of it… and that’s why you suffered today for your inaction to come forward.”

Alysa waited, stunned.

“The rest was about what you would do if faced with a chance to prolong the suffering of another, and give in to anger. You chose mercy, at the expense of suffering in her stead.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

“Anger… is another face of fear. We have had that problem with you since the beginning. But you overcame it in this moment, sacrificing yourself for one of your own. And that is a redeemable quality that can’t be dismissed so easily. To be Ama-Eskua means to die for your brothers and sisters, even under the worst conditions, whether you are being tortured, facing extermination… or dishonor. To die alone, at the expense of a lie, to save the whole… is honorable. To know when to grant mercy to your brothers and sisters… is also honorable.”

Alysa looked past him, toward the door where the medics were rolling the screaming woman away. She looked back and said, “But… but she will suffer anyway. It was for nothing.”

“No,” he corrected. “That worm is not your sister any longer. She is a slave to fear, and all the worms of the world will suffer. It has been foretold: ‘For the unworthy, the Lions bring death’. She will pay severely for the price of her treachery… and yours.”

“But you just said-”

“You redeemed yourself… and passed the second trial. But you still withheld the truth from Mother when you should have come forward. But as you have shown, Mother has also shown mercy to you.” Copperfield looked back toward the door and finished. “But mercy has its limits… and treachery demands payment.”

Alysa said no more.

Copperfield drew his sword like lightning and cut her restraints with three quick slices before sheathing his katana again. “Now, go see the medics and have them tend to your injuries.” He turned to leave. The Ama-Eskua broke ranks and started to follow.

“May… may I ask one more question?” Alysa dared.

Copperfield turned, surprised. “Is not Mother’s mercy this day enough for you?”

She immediately looked down.

“Yes… ask your question,” he said impatiently.

“If I had told the truth from the start, giving her what she deserved… what would have happened?”

Copperfield laughed. “It’s best not to dwell on such matters. But I will tell you one thing, and take this to heart.”

She waited.

“Anger, like a double-edged sword, can be a very destructive force if wielded with skill and cunning. But it can cut just as deep into the one who wields it, revealing the truth of who we really are. And fear has many faces, such as anger, madness, and an uncontrollable thirst for blood.”

Alysa wished she had not spoken.

Copperfield smiled, placed his hands behind his back and then asked, “Who will you be, recruit?”

She opened her mouth to speak, surprised by her own hesitation.

He laughed again and turned to leave. “Very good. It is not a question that should be taken lightly, or easily answered. There may be hope for you,” he called back. “Perhaps you’ve seen more within yourself today than just an ability to express mercy… perhaps you’ve caught a glimpse of the monster, as well.”

When everyone left, Alysa sat alone in the Kill Room for a long time…

~~~

… “I think we started on the wrong foot. Let’s try to put some of this unpleasant business behind us, shall we?” The lead captor walked between them, twirling the hunting knife through his fingers. He looked over at Tony. “I assume that you are the leader of this group. Would that be correct?”

Tony glared at the man and reluctantly nodded.

The lead captor laughed. “It’s alright. You have my permission to speak. And your name is?”

“Tony.” He stared over at Alysa. “Are you okay. Did they… hurt you?”

Alysa stared at the lead captor who was patiently allowing their exchange.

He stopped twirling the knife and said, “Well, go on… answer the man.”

“I’m fine,” she said. “They haven’t asked me anything. The only point to this-”

“Okay… that’s enough,” the lead captor said. “And what is your name?”

“Alysa.”

“Very good,” he said. “Now that I know who I’m speaking with, you may both refer to me as ‘God’. Now… I know that may seem egotistical or sacrilegious, depending on your beliefs, but I’m here to inform you both… Tony, Alysa… that whoever you were, and whatever you believed, ended the moment you arrived here. The sooner you both understand this fact and cooperate, the easier this will all be. Whatever remains of your lives, as well as your friends lives in the next room, will depend entirely on your acceptance that I am in complete control, hence, the term: God. Have I made myself clear?” He looked to Tony.

“Yes,” he said.

The lead captor walked in front of Alysa, waving the hunting knife in front of her face. “What was that?” he asked Tony.

“Yes… god,” he finished, staring at his feet.

The lead captor turned to Alysa. “Very good. And now you, Alysa. Do you have something you’d like to say to me?”

She stared over at Tony. He looked like he wanted to crawl out of his own skin as he struggled to keep his temper in check. His hands were balled up into tight fists. When he looked up into her eyes, Alysa saw a deep pain mixed with compassion there that immediately made her uncomfortable.

If I give this monster what he wants, and speak his lies, he’ll take Tony away believing that they’ve broken me. Everything that will follow will crush him and the others into submission. My slow death will destroy their spirit… but spare their lives.

She thought about Christina. She’d tried to protect her friend and failed by choosing to take her place, to live her agonizing existence without honor, without meaning, so that Christina might die honorably… and it was all for nothing. Her mercy… her compassion for her friend… had betrayed them both.

“Knowing when to engage in a battle, when it is advantageous to wage war, is easy for any warrior. But accepting that some battles guarantee defeat, and resisting the need to engage, has mistakenly been called… Cowardice. The wise know when not to fight, and achieve another kind of victory.”

Copperfield had said that a long time ago, at the beginning of her combat training in the Kill Room, before a drop of her own blood, or the blood she would spill later, ever touched the floor. She never understood it… until now.
“You’re wearing down my patience,” the lead captor told her. “As we’ve discussed, I can make life extremely difficult for one of you. The choice is yours. But make it… now… or I will execute every one of you, starting with your leader, Tony.”

Alysa looked at the big man across the room. She was startled by a new look in his eyes. It was something she couldn’t put into words, other than she felt like she was staring into two precious mirrors. He sees it, too! He understands how hard this is… that I… care. And he’s trying to share the load with me… to ease my true suffering… and… help me choose…

Not to engage.

“Last chance.” The lead captor walked behind Tony and put the knife to his throat. “I’ll skip the whole torture thing with this one, let you watch his blood spill, and then we’ll try again with another one. Is that what you want?”

Alysa felt a sharp foreign pain rip through her heart, seeing the knife at Tony’s throat. And yet, his eyes never wavered—there was no condemnation found there, no pressure to comply and save them all… and no fear.

Finally, she tore herself away, looked defiantly up into the lead captor’s face, and said, “Go ahead. Slit his throat. Then kill the rest and get your violations on my flesh over with. None of it matters. I… we… will not play this game.”

The lead captor was finally caught off-guard. Even the other captors stared at each other, clearly confused, and betraying their hands.

Alysa wanted to laugh. They never intended to kill any of us, she thought. It was all a ruse.

“I warned you,” the lead captor said.

Alysa could see the masked man’s hand shake.

She frowned. I called his bluff in front of his men. Now, he’ll have to kill Tony just to save face.

She closed her eyes and said, “Do what you have to do… monster. This ends now, on our terms, not yours. We will not submit to your control. We will leave this place, dead or alive, doesn’t matter… because our lives are still our own.” She took a deep breath and finished, “You’re just going to have to kill us all, or let us go, but I’m not going to be coerced into making any choice. I choose nothing. My conscience is clear.”

She took one last look at Tony.

He was actually… smiling.

Alysa turned away, refusing to acknowledge the lead captor, or any of them. She was no longer there, in this new Kill Room, or the one from her past, because she chose not to be.

“Stupid woman!” the lead captor shouted. He tightened his grip around the hilt of the hunting knife. “You think I’m playing games? I warned you! Well… this man’s blood is on you, bitch!”

Alysa closed her eyes. She thought about their deaths and looked forward to seeing them all on the other side, especially the big man sitting across from her in the wheel chair who smiled at her.

That fearless smile which released her from the fight, her honor intact.

If she were capable, Alysa believed she could’ve loved that man in that one fearless moment.

~~~

Next Episode 42-5

Previous Episode 42-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 42-4: 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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