~~~

After escaping the farmhouse, Russell and Gina fled northeast into the forest for about half-a-mile, dodging the dead, before reaching the top of a tall ridge that plateaued out before an ancient stone foundation—the remnants of a house from another time, hidden in the wilderness. The only other structure still intact was the bottom portion of an old stone fireplace—everything else had been reclaimed by nature.

Russell helped Gina into the foundation and laid her down beside the raised hearth. She tried to get up but was overpowered by exhaustion and passed out almost immediately. Since leaving the farmhouse, Gina had pushed with all the strength she had left to help Russell manage, struggling in and out of consciousness several times on the ascent up the ridge. But now, she was spent.

Russell examined the surrounding area. The top of the ridge afforded them excellent cover and the advantage of higher ground on two sides. They would be safe up here… for now.

What do we do now, boss?

For once, the other one wasn’t demanding Gina’s immediate slaughter. Clearly, what they both witnessed last night left as much an impression on the savage as it did Russell. Gina had brutally murdered a man. This changed the game considerably. Russell was just grateful to have the beast under submission for the time being, but he knew that wouldn’t last. He needed to know what the Lady wanted him to do now… and he needed to know quickly.

“We’ll stay up here tonight.” Russell kept his voice down while gathering branches to make a fire. “We’ll do what we’ve always done and keep Gina safe. The rest will reveal itself, I’m sure of it.”

It felt wonderful slashing up that family of little piggies, boss. Did you see the look on the mother’s face when we-

“We did what was necessary to keep Gina safe,” Russell interrupted. “Besides, they let that little girl die in the field when they should have been watching out for her.”

The other one laughed. My, oh, my, boss. I’m always forgettin’ that soft spot you have for the kiddies. If it didn’t infuriate me so damn much, I might find it endearing.

“Just… revel in your bloodshed privately, savage. I need time to think this through.”

Anything you say, boss. I’m full for the moment. But don’t take too long. You know what kind of appetite I have.

Indeed, he did.

~~~

Gina sluggishly opened her eyes and felt the warmth of the fire coming from the fireplace. It was night. She sat up with alarm as disorientation set in.

“It’s okay, Gina. We’re safe.” Russell approached from just outside the stone foundation carrying a bundle of dead tree branches. He set them down near the hearth and then sat down across from Gina.

She ran a hand through her mangled hair and yawned. “Fuck me, how long?”

Russell smiled. “You’ve slept the whole day away. Sun just set an hour ago.”

“Sorry. I… shit… I feel like a fucking idiot.”

“No apology needed. You were exhausted and pretty banged up, especially judging by that nasty bruise on your side. I’m surprised you made it this far. Your pain threshold must be considerable.”

“And… where are we?”

“Not too far from where I found you,” Russell said. “We climbed up this ridge and found this old place. It’s safe, unless the dead-heads have evolved into better climbers.”

Gina laughed. She felt pain in her side, but it was not as bad as before. “I thought I’d broken a rib or two. Guess I caught a break for the second time today.” She then looked at her old friend and smiled. “Thanks for saving my ass… again.”

Russell laughed. “I think I’m getting really good at it. Lots of practice.”

Gina frowned. “I thought… shit… I thought you were dead. After everything else that’s happened, I left you behind in those burning woods, too.”

“Not your fault, Gina. It was a crazy time. You had every reason to believe I was dead. As I recall, the forest was on fire at the time. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that the thought crossed my mind you all might have perished, as well.”

“What happened to you?”

Russell smiled. “I ran right off a cliff… and lived to tell about it.”

“How the hell did you survive that?”

“I landed in a tree. It broke my fall… mostly. Then someone found me, a woman, she brought me back to her cabin, and nursed me back to health. Unfortunately, she died afterwards.”

Yeah, it was fucking Disneyworld, the savage injected. As she fed me magic mushrooms—the ‘not fun’ kind—she tried to mind fuck me and ride the wild pony at the same time!

You’re not helping, Russell fired back.

Sorry, boss. But if anyone ever offers us a goddamn cup of chicken noodle soup ever again—I’m going postal. Just sayin’.

Russell covered his mouth to hide a smile.

“That sucks,” Gina said. “I’m sorry for your friend. But I’m glad she found you. So, what happened after? Did you make it back to the compound?”

“I was held up for three weeks at that cabin… but yes. You were already… gone… when I got back.”

Gina averted her eyes. “You can go ahead and say it. I was ‘exiled’.”

“Yes, I’d heard that. Something about those men you sent away over the winter?” Russell baited.

“I… shot them,” Gina said. “And… I wanted to.” She was surprised by the admission.

Damn, boss. She’s a stone-cold killer. How did we miss the memo?

“Well, enough of all that,” Russell said. “I don’t care how you ended up out here. We go way back and I’m sure you had your reasons. I’m just glad I found you.”

Gina looked up and smiled. “I’m ecstatic to see you… and that you’re alive. It’s been difficult out here alone. I can’t even remember how long I’ve been gone.”

“Eleven days now,” Russell said. “As soon as I got back and found out what happened, I came after you.”

Gina’s eyebrows went up. “Eleven days. It feels so much longer. I guess time changes out here.” She drifted back. “And… how was everyone? Did you see… Tony?”

Russell looked away with a frown. “Yes, I did. Right before I left, in fact.”

“So, he sent you after me? Is he out here somewhere, too? And how’s Meredith? Stephen? Damn—I’m babbling. I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed you all.”

Russell said nothing.

“What is it?” she said. “Is everyone okay? Is… Tony alright?”

“We talked. Tony seemed… upset.”

Gina shook her head. “Yeah, he blames himself for turning me in. But I talked to him afterwards. He knows I don’t hold it against him. I was pretty fucked-up at the time. He did the right thing.”

“That’s not why he was upset,” Russell lied. He shifted uncomfortably to support the lie.

“What is it, Marcus?”

Russell sighed. “He… I think he needed someone to unload on. I just happened to be there. He was concerned about what was happening to you… and how ‘dark’ you’d become.”

“He said that?” Gina shifted. “He actually said, ‘dark’?”

“In so many words, yes. I tried to console him and let him know that the world was different now, that we all had to adapt to that world, but he still seemed… disquieted.”

“So… what? He’s worried that I’m getting… worse? Is that why he sent you after me? To bring me back?”

“He didn’t send me, Gina. In fact, none of them did. They all believe your dangerous.”

“No… no, they wouldn’t believe that… they couldn’t… could they?”

“When I talked to Tony, I got the impression that they’d all been talking about what to do about you, especially since they were leaving.”

“Leaving? Where are they going?”

“I think they finally believe the Shadow Dead are a serious threat, especially now that the winter’s over.”

“I’ve been telling them that since we fucking moved in down there!”

“Well, Gina, they’re finally listening. I believe they were talking about going into Pennsylvania… I’m not sure. I’d just returned. But I do know they are definitely leaving the compound.”

“Well… good,” she said indignantly. “I may have done some shitty things, but I did try to warn them… prepare them… even if they all think I’m fucking ‘dangerous’.”

“I believe Tony was wrestling with the decision the hardest, but in the end, even he decided that leaving you out here was for the best. Especially after finding out what happened in Andover… when we killed those kids that shot Greg.”

Gina was stunned. “He read it? He read my letter? I never knew he did that.”

“Yes, I believe he did,” Russell lied. “He spoke about it for some length. Of course, I didn’t help matters when I opened my big mouth trying to defend your actions.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Honestly, Gina. I thought he already knew. When he kept talking about your ‘darkness’, and all those things you did, I tried to explain that you had a rough go of it after being raped at the beginning-”

Gina covered her mouth and gasped. “You talked to him about that? Fuck!”

“Sorry, Gina. Again, I thought he already knew.”

Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “And… and what did he say when he found out?”

Russell’s shoulders dropped. “At first, he was angry at himself, then… well… I think he was angry with you. I believe he felt betrayed that you didn’t share that with him. He started wondering how many more secrets you were keeping and-”

“Betrayed! Are you fucking kidding me?! I get gang raped and he’s angry… with me? I kept that from him to protect him!”

Russell held up his hands. “Please, Gina. Calm down. I believe he was just in shock. He never knew. Hell… he almost attacked me after I told him. Anyway, he started questioning everything after that. I believe he feels betrayed because of all of it. Andover, how you made him cover for you, finding out about the rape from me when he feels like you should’ve come to him… Before I left to find you, he told me to ‘leave it alone’, his exact words. When I asked him what he meant, all he said was, ‘We can’t afford any more secrets. Gina’s where she belongs now. It’s safer for all of us this way’.”

Gina was speechless. She sat motionless, staring into the fire, her thoughts a million miles away.

Damn, boss! I thought you said we weren’t gonna cut this bitch open. But here you are, rippin’ her fuckin’ heart right out of her chest!

She needs this, Russell thought back. Gina needs to believe that there is no going back. She must move forward now. It is her destiny. It is ‘our’ destiny to see this through to the end… as the Lady demands it.

Whatever you say, boss. Dress it up any way you want, but I know a slaughter when I see one.

“He’s right,” Gina finally said. “Tony’s right. They’re all right. This is for the best. I knew this before you found me, Marcus. I guess seeing you brought it all back… all that I couldn’t have… all that I didn’t know I still wanted. I am dangerous and full of secrets.”

Yes, you most certainly are, and you most certainly do, Russell thought.

You two ‘are’ the same, boss. Hell, I’m startin’ to understand what makes this piggy so damn glorious! It’s like lookin’ into a goddamn mirror or something! Except she’s got better tits.

Gina turned and looked at Marcus. “Well, I’m glad you’re here, Marcus. You’ve never judged me. Perhaps it’s fitting that you’ve arrived to save my ass this final time. I can’t think of anyone better to have at my side for what’s coming next.”

Russell was genuinely surprised. “And what’s that, Gina?”

She looked back toward the fire. “I think we were both destined to be in these woods. Until you showed up, I thought this was my punishment… but now… I’m seeing the bigger picture.”

Fuck, boss, did she just say ‘destiny’?

Russell waited.

Gina continued to stare into the fire—half her expressionless face illuminated by the flames, the other half, hidden in shadow. “I murdered a man last night,” she finally said.

Oh, we know, you fuckin’ psychopath… we know, the other one laughed.

“Go on, Gina,” Russell calmly prodded. “Like you said, I’m not here to judge you.”

“I’m not going to lie to you, Marcus. It wasn’t in self-defense. I think… I think I always intended to do it. That’s why I knocked him out and dragged him up the river with me. Maybe I didn’t know at the time… but I’m pretty sure of it now. And after… after this man said what he said to me… part of me felt like I was supposed to kill him… that it all made sense… somehow. I blamed it on the rage… but I know better.” She turned to Russell and finished, “And you know what, Marcus… I don’t feel bad about what I did.”

Russell treaded carefully. “Do you… do you think it was your destiny to kill this man?”

“I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not done killing.”

Russell’s eyebrows shot up.

Gina continued. “I can’t live in the past… I know that now. There’s nothing left for me there. There’s only this moment, followed by the next, and the next one after that… and somewhere in one of those moments, I’m quite certain I’m going to reach my end.” Gina eyes lit up. She smiled like the devil. “But I also know that you and I have been brought here to end something first.”

Russell smiled back. “And what’s that, Gina?”

“We’re going to end all this bullshit once and for all, and make sure our friends, our family, have a chance to survive in this shit-hole world.”

Russell waited.

Gina glared at him and finished, “We’re going to assassinate the queen bitch herself—the fucking leader of Mother.”

~~~

Next Episode 45-5

Previous Episode 45-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-4: Predators” 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.

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