~~~

After working out the details of a desperate plan with the others, should the good sergeant be discovered working against them, Alysa was quick to excuse herself, volunteering to take the first watch out in a small reception area just across the hall. This allowed her to keep an eye on the hallway, unseen, should the others receive an unexpected armed visit outside their hospital room doors during the night. But more importantly, the former Shadow Dead warrior needed space and some time to clear her head of all the unwanted memories and the conflicting emotions that were surfacing because of them.

Alysa slowly paced at the back of the reception area, along a large window that offered another useless view out into the darkness beyond. Her own low-lit reflection stared tauntingly back at her. She wore out the floor behind two long couches with a small coffee table between them. There were several obsolete fashion, sports, and gossip magazines fanned out across the table like ancient relics from a commercialistic society long gone. Those plastic smiling faces on the covers now seemed alien and out of place.

She stopped and smiled at the frivolous magazines, imagining the voice of Donovan responding to such vanities:

“They have been asleep for a very long time. When the Lions come for them, they will meet their end with an oblivious look of terror, lying in beds of their own blood, as they are finally consumed by the truth of their meaningless lives.”

Yes, what had been generically referred to as, The Change, had arrived and wiped out that self-important world very quickly—and only Mother had known it was coming… and her children who had been preparing for it. They called it The Change. She knew it for what it really was… The Lions.

Alysa turned back toward the window, catching a glimpse of her frail ghost image—those dark eyes reflecting the hard, exhausting truth of this uncertain new world. She was not among those who had been asleep, although The Change might have claimed her just as easily since it did not discriminate between those who were prepared and those who were not. She was simply one among the Chosen, as were Tony and her traveling companions, as were Hash and his men, even that sadistic Thompson. But what did any of that mean now?

There were few left who could answer that question.

As she’d been trained, it was not her place to question the wisdom of Mother. All would be revealed in its proper time… and those who persevered… would bear witness, partaking of the fruit of that glorious transformation… whatever the hell that meant.

She shook her head in disgust. Since the Lions had arrived, there had only been darkness followed by the promise of death. The only thing that Alysa was certain of now was that this new world, or the transitional world as she heard it referred to, was much quieter, making it almost impossible to fight off the maddening introspection that accompanied the so-called Chosen, who were merely exiles from the old world, forming a small race of humans called, Alone.

“You look like you could use some company.”

Alysa turned and found the big man staring at her with a tired smile.

Well… not alone yet, she thought with a smile.

Tony Marcuchi, the big man with the big heart and compassionate eyes. According to her former training, his kind should have gone extinct within the first few months after the Lions devoured the world.

Perhaps Mother does not know everything after all. She allowed the blasphemous thought.

“Are you… okay?” he asked, feeling like he’d caught her off-guard. “Maybe you need some alone time?”

“Hell no,” she quickly blurted out. “I was just…” she stared back to the window, catching her ghost image staring her in the face. “…reflecting,” she finished, spitting out the last word with contempt. “Apparently that’s what a warrior does with these annoying long silences between battles.”

Tony laughed. “I get it. I think it’s the lack of chitter-chatter I miss most about everything that’s gone now.”

Alysa raised an eyebrow at him. “Explain?”

He walked over to the table, picked up a magazine with an amused expression. and repeated, “Chitter-chatter.”

Alysa laughed.

He dropped the magazine on the table and shook his head. “Back in the old days I always bitched about how much distraction polluted the world. But now, there’s way too much fucking ‘me’ time… and I’d kill for a distraction or two. Know what I mean?”

Alysa nodded with a smile. “Yes. I know exactly what you mean.”

“May I join you?”

“Of course.”

Tony walked up next to her, crossed his arms, and leaned back against the window. “I guess we’re as ready as we can be. There wasn’t much, but we stripped the base of one of the beds for a few flat pieces of metal to use as weapons. Hopefully, it doesn’t come down to using them.”

“And if it does,” Alysa finished, “then we take Hash hostage, assuming he comes alone and unarmed again, and we use him to bargain our way out of here.”

Tony didn’t like the look on her face. “What? You don’t like the plan?”

“No more than you do, but for different reasons. Are you still counting on a little light left in the good sergeant?” she asked.

“Yes. I still have hope that Gina didn’t misjudge the man.”

“Gina,” she said, as if not enjoying the taste of her name in her mouth. “The woman you, yourself, misjudged.”

He scowled at her. “Back when she told me about Hash, Gina was still… herself,” he defended.

“And yet, she became… dark. Why her, and not Hash?”

Tony nodded. “I see your point. But I think this is different. I can’t explain it, but I could just see it in his eyes. I can tell the man was thrown for a loop when I mentioned Gina… when I brought up the power plant. If there wasn’t something there to reach out for, he would’ve just given us that cold, blank stare… you know… like the one you sometimes have when I try to reach out to you.”

“I am a warrior. That may come off as cold detachment at times, but that doesn’t mean I don’t bleed like the rest of you.” Tony’s redirection caught her by surprise, as did her own emotional response.

Tony frowned. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I’ve gotten used to speaking to you so bluntly… that I forget that you still have feelings.”

Alysa raised her eyebrows at the comment.

“And that didn’t sound any better,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I have been… emotionally distracted… a lot as of late. My past has made frequent visits, forcing me to… deal with it.” It continued to surprise her how vulnerable she allowed herself to be with Tony. She would have to remedy that very quickly.

Tony nodded with a smile. “It’s a real sonofabitch the way fucking memories just invade at all the most inopportune times.” He gave her a thoughtful look. “Anything you want to get off your chest?”

“I tried that already. But you showed no interest in the removing of my clothes.”

Tony squirmed until he saw her wicked little smile. He shook his head. “You enjoyed that.”

“Yes… I did.”

“Seriously, what’s on your mind? Sometimes, just talking about the past might help those pesky visitors from showing up so often.”

Alysa considered this and nodded. “I have been thinking a lot about my trials, prior to becoming Ama-Eskua.”

He gave her a confused look.

She smiled. “That is the true name of my previous Order. It means, ‘Mother’s Hand’.”

Tony smiled. “I guess ‘Shadow Dead’ sounds more terrifying.”

“Yes. It served the purpose,” she said, dismissing the matter with a shake of her head. She changed subjects. “You did very well down in the basement. You looked Death in the eye and held your ground with that worm, Thompson.”

The compliment surprised him. “This wonderful new world of ours has given me plenty of practice to warm up to the idea of dying. I guess it’s getting easier to accept the possibility, especially when all my friends keep dying around me.”

She considered this for a moment and stared at the floor. “If Hash had not shown up… I would’ve let Thompson kill you rather than give him what he wanted. I suppose that doesn’t make me much of a ‘friend’.”

“It wasn’t your choice to make,” Tony said. “You made that very clear when you refused to play Thompson’s game. I thought you handled yourself… admirably… considering the circumstances. You and I know there was no good outcome downstairs.”

She looked back and found no blame in Tony’s eyes. She smiled and said, “For a foolish man, you sometimes surprise me, Tony Marcuchi.”

“I try,” he laughed. “Truth between us though, after I stopped being angry down there, I was terrified. But when I looked over at you… well… I forgot that I was afraid. You were the one who inspired me to be brave in the end. If I’d been alone down there, I don’t know if I could’ve handled myself so well.”

She shook her head. “No. I believe you would’ve died well. Your compassion for the people you care about… I once considered it a weakness to exploit. In many others it would be. But not for you. For you, it becomes a fire, and one should wisely mind their distance when it blazes up. You were prepared to die for us without question. I consider that… honorable.”

“Well… I like the sound of that,” Tony said, scratching his head. “And… thank you.”

She nodded. “Anyone can kill with the proper conditioning. Some are drawn to it like a moth to a flame while others must learn to live with the blood on their hands. But, it is another thing entirely to know how to die.”

Tony didn’t know how to respond.

“Forgive me,” Alysa said, feeling like she’d spoken out of turn. “I must be catching your disease.”

“And what would that be?”

“Your ‘wagging of the tongue’ disease,” she said with a smile.

This made Tony laugh hard. “Well… I must inform you… there’s no fucking cure for it once you start talking. It’s best just to let it run its course.”

“Apparently.”
He stared at the Shadow Dead warrior and said, “I almost forget sometimes who you are when we’re like… this.”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“I meant that in a good way,” he clarified. “So, don’t get your warrior side all bent out of shape. All I meant was that’s it’s good to find the woman behind the warrior… and she’s not that bad. I’d normally say, you should let your hair down more often and let the others see it, but in your case, I’ll settle for your shield.”

Alysa laughed at the analogy. “Well, it’s been a long time since I was accused of being a ‘woman’. I must confess, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, providing you don’t make a habit of it.”

Tony raised his hands in mock surrender. “I’m not that foolish,” he said with a teasing smile.

Alysa laughed.

Before Tony realized he was doing it, he reached over and gently touched Alysa’s left cheek, causing her to turn and look at him.

Her face changed immediately as she tensed up.

He lowered his hand, recognizing that he just crossed some invisible barrier between them, and said, “I’m… I’m really glad you’re here.”

She eased up. Their eyes continued to test that barrier, lingering just long enough to become dangerous.
They both looked away.

“I’m… I’m going to go check on the others,” Tony said. “Unless you need me to-”

“No. I’m fine,” she quickly blurted out. “I’ll just finish the watch. I’ve still got some… I need to get my mind clear for the morning.”

Tony nodded and walked off.

Alysa watched him go. She was trembling. What the hell is this?

She turned back toward the window as her ghost reflection betrayed her. Her face had changed to one she had not seen in a very long time. It was a face full of uncertainty and doubt. A face filled with emotional turmoil that immediately brought into question everything she believed, as it had done only one time before…

~~~

… Morning twilight bled across the eastern horizon. A light breeze waved its hand across the tops of the tall grass where the Ama-Eskua recruit and her instructor hid silently in a large field, lying on their backs, head to head, with both their black bows notched and resting on their chests.

“I can hear your erratic breathing,” Donovan whispered. “Is it the anticipation before the kill, or being in my presence that excites you?”

Alysa frowned. “You talk too much. It’s no wonder I’ve surpassed you with the bow.”

Donovan smiled. “So serious all the time, recruit. And… no… you haven’t bested me… not yet.”

“Stop wagging your tongue and we’ll find out,” she teased.

He closed his eyes and retrieved a small whistle from his breast pocket. “Slow it down, Alysa. You make far too much noise on the inside. That’s always been your disadvantage.”

She ignored him.

Donovan blew on the small whistle which made no sound the human ear could pick up.

A large flock of ravens scrambled out of the tops of three large oak trees to the west, flying directly over their position.

Both archers immediately bolted up above the tall grass, loosing several black arrows up and into the startled birds.

When the ravens departed, Alysa and Donovan moved toward their kill zones, counting and retrieving their black shafts from the dead birds.

“Twelve,” Alysa called over with confidence. Her long hair was braided back, hanging over her broad shoulders covered in a loose, long sleeve blouse. She turned, the breeze blowing against the unbuttoned v-line of her shirt, displaying a gracious view of her cleavage. Her skin-tight black pants accentuated her tall and slender form.

Donovan smiled. “Very good, recruit. That’s three more than last time. You’re getting much more efficient… but you could do better.”

“That’s two more than the ten you brought down last time,” Alysa defended.

Donovan laughed. “Yes, you are correct.”

She placed her hands to her hips and stared at him. “Well? What’s your count, teacher?”

“What would you like it to be?” he answered, pulling the hood of his ancient dark hoody over his head. He always wore the same hoody and jeans. Many believed Donovan owned no other clothing. He swung his bow around his back and placed his hands in his hoody pockets, nonchalantly walking back toward the expectant recruit.

Alysa tried to gleam an answer from the unshaven man’s unreadable face but gained nothing. Donovan never gave up anything until he wanted to, and then, only to leave you questioning why he did so. She tried to hide her frustration. “You’re right, of course. I could be much more efficient in the future.”

“You’re far too competitive for your own good,” he said with a smirk.

“No, I’m not.”

Donovan laughed. “And if I told you that I killed eleven birds, can you honestly say that you wouldn’t be delighted?”

She hesitated and then answered. “No. It wouldn’t matter.”

Donovan raised an eyebrow.

Alysa smiled. “If you caught me gloating, then you’d just say something like ‘I stopped just shy of twelve to make you feel better’.”

Donovan nodded with a devilish grin. “You are learning, Alysa. Truth is, nothing is as it appears to be. I could be holding back to give you false confidence, never betraying the limits of my skills. Who do you think would have the advantage in combat if I allowed you to believe that your skills with the bow far exceeded mine?”

Alysa nodded. “You would, obviously. My overconfidence would leave me exposed.”

“And if you really were the better archer?”

She smiled. “Then I would never know for certain… which is also to your advantage.”

“Correct,” he said. “That is why you always assume that your adversary is neither the better warrior, nor the worst. It is enough to know that your enemy is dangerous, and not to be underestimated. Forgetting that is how a good warrior dies before her time,” he added with a wink. “Where one’s skill may outweigh another, there is always cunning, perseverance, and treachery that can be used to even an unworthy opponent’s advantage.”

Alysa sighed heavily. “There just stupid birds that can’t fight back. None of this matters.”

“Everything matters,” he quickly corrected. “Every moment holds meaning. Revelation to some who can perceive it. Even the dull of mind can learn something from his or her own ignorance if they’re aware of it.”

Alysa let loose a wicked little smile. “Just tell me we’re not eating these fucking things, because I need no further enlightenment on the simple fact that crow tastes like shit.”

Donovan laughed hard. “Oh, I do like you, Alysa. In our time together, I hope I’ve made that much plain.”

“That’s just the sex talking,” she teased, swinging her own bow around her back.

Donovan shook his head and laughed. “That, right there, is exactly why we never had sex again.”

She gave him a puzzled look.

Donovan let his comment hang, as was his irritating way, and changed gears. “You’ve come a long way since that day I got you out of prison. Do you remember?”

“Of course,” she said, feeling immediately guarded.

“What was it again?” he asked himself. “Ah, yes, I remember. You stabbed a man in a bar with a broken bottle of beer. Multiple times. Scared the hell out of everyone, too, when you opened that pig’s throat, and just… kept… going.”

Alysa turned away. Most of the time she loathed this man. But when he picked at the scabs of her old life, and always out of the blue like now, she wanted to put an arrow through his cold, dark heart.

“You were covered in that man’s blood when the police took you away. I imagine that was quite a gruesome sight to behold.” He paused deliberately, then continued. “What was it again? Something about your mother?”

“You know it wasn’t,” she hissed.

“Yes… that man… I remember now. He was your stepfather. A drunk sonofabitch who always beat your mother, and sometimes he beat you.”

Alysa remained silent.

“But what was it that sent you over the edge? What made you follow him to that hole-in-the-wall and butcher him in front of all those people? What sort of trauma could push someone to uncontrollable rage like that, regardless of the consequences?”

Alysa clenched her fists and closed her eyes. Don’t let him push you, she reminded herself. You know that’s what they all want to find out. After three long years of bleeding to prove I belong, they all still have their doubts about me. ‘Can we tame this poor abused recruit, make her our killing machine, or is she just a rabid beast, beyond control?’

“He never assaulted me sexually,” Alysa responded, void of emotion. “My mother and I were his punching bags. But after what he did to my sister… I had to… destroy him.”

“And after you ‘destroyed’ him, with all that blood on your hands, did you… enjoy it?”

Alysa stared hard at her instructor, who stared back with equal intensity.

This is the one thing he’s never been able to figure out about me. The one thing they all absolutely need to know before they let me complete my trials.

The recruit put on her best poker face and answered, “No. I am not the blood-thirsty animal you all think I am. Did I want that bastard dead? Absolutely. Did I lose complete control after finding out what he did to Eva? Yes. But I did not enjoy it. I was terrified at what I’d done, at discovering what I was capable of doing to another living being.” She stepped up to Donovan and continued. “The inability to stop, after the first thrust of that broken bottle into that man’s throat, will haunt me forever. That is not something I ever want to experience again.”

Donovan’s scrutinizing gaze lingered. Finally, he said, “I have vouched for you. I know that seems hard to believe at times, but I have. Even now, looking into your eyes, and discovering the truth behind your words, I still defend you. I know who you are, and you will always be a cold-blooded killer.”

Alysa was stunned by Donovan’s words. Partially because he’d seen right through her and discovered the doubt she wrestled with, but mostly because she knew… somewhere deep… she always knew how much she enjoyed killing her stepfather… and how she longed for that taste again.

She took a step back. “If you really believe that… then… why? Why not put me down like some beast and be done with me?”

Donovan sighed. “Because the time is short.”

Alysa waited.

“There are dark days coming, Alysa. Dark days requiring dark measures to be put in place to ensure Mother’s cause. There’s a darkness within you that will either consume you, and everyone around you, or, you will seize control of it, harness it as a weapon fitting for the long road ahead, and prevail. I am gambling on you, recruit. I’m gambling that it will the latter.”

Alysa’s shoulders dropped. “You… you don’t want me to get better. You want me to be… the monster?”

“Mother will need monsters to face monsters,” Donovan said. “I believe there will be others, like you, who will thrive in the days ahead. And, unfortunately, there may come a time when being an Ama-Eskua warrior will not be enough to survive… and that’s what it all boils down to: Survival.”

“Then… what’s to become of me now? Am I to be Ama-Eskua… or something else?”

“You will be whatever Mother needs in the end, recruit.”

Alysa nodded. “Of course.”

“You will leave here, today, and face the third trial,” Donovan spoke plainly. “It is designed specifically for you to fail. Do you understand?”

Alysa was horrified. “Yes. I understand.”

“But you won’t fail.”

“I won’t?”

“No, you won’t,” Donovan said. “But it will be the most difficult test you will ever endure. You will suffer. You will want to end your own life. But you will prevail.”

“If… if I’m meant to fail… then doesn’t that mean I’ve already been rejected?”

Donovan smiled. “Yes.”

Alysa was confused. “Then… how could I possibly succeed?”

“You will succeed because the Order, although considering you an adversary, has already underestimated the enemy.”
Alysa tried not to let the fear win, but she was struggling. “So… I’m being set up to fail… but you’re telling me that I won’t fail?”

“I’m telling you that you absolutely cannot fail. Mother needs you in the days ahead… even if the Ama-Eskua believe they do not. I’m telling you that you will find it within yourself to endure the third and final trial, no matter how devastated it will leave you.”

Alysa was at a complete loss. She felt confused, betrayed by her own Order, and completely alone. She only had one question left to ask. “You say the Order has underestimated me, and that’s why I will succeed, no matter the cost. But how can you know this?”

Donovan gently touched Alysa’s cheek and smiled. “I know because you have a weapon within you that they don’t yet perceive.”

“And that is?”

“You, and the darkness that comes, Alysa… are one.”

~~~

Next Episode 42-9

Previous Episode 42-7

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 42-8: 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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