~~~

Exiled – Day 20

Gina quietly advanced through the valley north of the ruins camp following an old dried up river bed. A mist had settled in all around her as the last traces of twilight began to fade before her twentieth morning in exile.

The air felt thick down in the valley as she adjusted her breathing, keeping her bodily sounds at a minimum. She stopped behind a large rock, placing it at her back, and crouched down to listen to the trees, the wind, and the ghost whisperings of the river that once flowed through this area. She laid her sword-length training stick beside her and closed her eyes, using her ears to search the area for her elusive prey and any dead-heads that might have wandered into the area. So far, everything sounded as it should.

“Where are you, fucker?” she whispered to herself, opening her eyes and scanning the area. “Okay… don’t let your frustration get in the way,” she reminded herself. She closed her eyes again and waited, reaching out with all the rest of her senses to locate the anomaly that would give him away.

And then she heard it. It was very brief—a slight break in the collective rhythm that made up Mother Nature’s pulse… but it was there… coming from directly behind her.

She opened her eyes and smiled as she slowly reached down for her weapon. I’ve got you this time. She remained calm, patient… ready.

Russell came up over the top of the rock and swung his stick directly down toward her head.

Gina rolled to the left, barely avoiding the blow. She quickly rose to her feet and swung her wooden weapon at Marcus’s exposed legs. He jumped over the sweeping stick and off the back of the rock as easily as a cat.

He was already charging toward her from around the blind spot side of the rock, lunging his stick toward her chest. She deflected it with her stick and then countered by swinging toward the side of his head. Marcus blocked the attack with his stick and stepped back three feet.

They both stood there for a moment, breathing hard, and holding their wooden weapons up like lightsabers.

Russell nodded with a smile. “Very good. You heard me coming this time.”

She smiled back, wiping sweat from her brow. “You were fucking loud enough,” she teased.

“Again,” he said, and charged straight toward her.

Gina was caught off guard by how fast he moved—faster than before. He ducked right beneath her late swing and brought the blunt ended weapon straight up into her stomach.

Gina felt the wind get knocked out of her as she went down to one knee, using her stick to support herself. “Shit,” she hissed, struggling for breath. “I should’ve seen that coming.”

Russell stood up. “If you’re looking for it, it’s already too late. All you can do is respond and adapt.”

“Yeah… so you keep telling me.” She slowly got to her feet. “But I lasted much longer this time. That has to count for something.”

“Dead is dead,” Russell said coldly. “You are getting better, faster, stronger… smarter. But as long as you keep holding back, I’m always going to have the advantage.”

“I’m not holding back,” she defended. “You’re just way better at this than me.”

Russell stared her down. “You need to stop considering who I am while we’re training. Out here, there is no Marcus, no Gina. There’s only the battle and the blood. Stop worrying about what might happen if you actually land one of your blows to me. You do that down at the airport, someone’s going to kill you.”

Gina sighed, lowering her weapon. “I get it, Marcus. But it’s one thing to fight against a real enemy, and another to attack your-”

Russell cut her off with a sweeping kick to her legs, knocking Gina on her ass. She had just enough time to lift her stick and block his downward swing toward her face. With their sticks still connected, she barked, “What the fuck?!”

Russell backed up, allowing Gina to get to her feet.

“You cheated, asshole!” she said, wisely keeping her weapon up this time. “We were talking just then, not fighting!”

“There is no such thing as cheating in combat,” he said. “It’s not my fault that your ever-flapping jaw provided me an advantage.”

She smiled wickedly as her temper sparked. “Oh, you’re a fucking dead man, dickhead.” She charged toward him swinging repeatedly toward his head with much more intensity as Russell blocked each blow. She backed him up against a tree and she stopped.

“Good,” he said, staring into the blaze within Gina’s eyes. “I’m actually starting to break a sweat now… now that you’re really trying.”

He countered, taking the offensive and pushed Gina back toward the rock, delivering several swings at her face, arms, and lower body. She just managed to block them all.

Russell stepped back, allowing her time to gather herself. “That’s much better.”

Gina was breathing rapidly, trying to catch her breath. “You pissed me off… on purpose.”

“Of course,” he said. “I already know you can fight. I’ve seen your intensity against the dead. They’re no match for you and your fire. But, against a thinking foe, your emotions make you vulnerable.”

“My emotions are what drive me, Marcus. I feel intensely and react accordingly.”

“Yes… you do. But you also have to learn how to feel nothing… and react very violently.”

“I don’t get that,” she said. “If I didn’t feel what I feel… then how could I defend the people I care about?”

Marcus paused and nodded. “That’s the part your failing to understand here, Gina. We’re not on the defensive this time. We are planning on invading an unknown camp to assassinate their leader. We’re the killers, not the defenders. Your emotions won’t be able to help you, they’ll only make you hesitant… and then dead.”

“We’re not ‘killers’,” Gina said. “That’s a bit harsh. They’re the enemy, remember? We’re not just attacking a random group of survivors. This is Mother’s people!”

“Yes. But they’re still human beings,” Russell said. “And they will act just the same as all human beings do when death comes for them. You will see it in their eyes, Gina, and it won’t matter then who they serve or to what evil end. Make no mistake. We are the killers, the predators… and they are the prey.”

“Well… let’s not forget that we’re still the good guys,” Gina protested. “I’m not doing this because I’m a… killer. I want to stop Mother, and ending that woman is a step toward doing so.”

Russell shook his head and stared at her. “Remember that when you appear before the foot of this woman’s bed in the dead of night, a woman you’ve never met. She will be vulnerable. Her eyes—full of fear. She’ll be pleading for her life, weeping to whoever god she serves, right up to the point you slit her throat and watch her bleed out.”

Gina had no response.

He sighed, lowering his intense gaze. “I apologize for putting it so bluntly, but you need to understand exactly what we’re up against down at that airport. We will certainly not be ‘the good guys’ when we set out to do this dark deed. Most of them will defend what they care about with the same emotional intensity you speak about. How could they not? But a few of them will be better than that. That’s why you can’t bring your emotions into this. You will see yourself in their eyes and falter. If you can’t be cold, calculated, calm, clear… then we should call this off now, rather than show hesitation when it’s too late to turn back.”

“No way. Fuck that!” Gina sighed heavily. “This is bad, isn’t it? What we’re about to do?”

“This will be brutal… and bloody,” he said. “Good, bad, right, wrong… all irrelevant. I’m not out here to make you feel better about what we’re preparing for or justify it. I’m trying to help you not feel anything. That slight advantage may save your life when faced with a physically superior, or more skilled foe.”

“How do you do it, Marcus?” Gina said, shaking her head. “How do you just… turn it all off?”

“Death is not the end result of some inexcusable act where conscience and morality are threatened. Death… is beautiful. When you realize this, you’ll understand that it is your emotions that wrestle against this truth because your mind has been taught and hard-wired into believing that Death is something frightening and final… and that could not be any further from the truth.”

Gina considered this. “So… what… in order to turn off my emotions and ‘kill’ without conscience getting in the way… I need to… redefine what I’m doing? Instead of murder… it’s-”

“Salvation,” Russell finished. “You are not taking anything away from those you put down… you are simply delivering them from this life… into a better one.”

“That’s fucked-up, Marcus,” Gina said nervously. “Sounds like you want me to develop a ‘god’ complex. How the hell does killing people save them? That’s crazy!”

“We all serve someone or something greater than ourselves, Gina,” Russell said, losing interest in the conversation. “Whether you want to admit it or not, Death is one of those things. I’m not telling you to ‘play god’… but to serve one… at least, for the time being.”

“What are you saying? Serve… Death?” Gina couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“You don’t understand… yet. Let’s get back to training,” he said, abruptly ending the subject and turning his back.

“No,” Gina pressed. “Explain what you mean?”

Russell started walking off.

“Hey! Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you!” Gina raised her weapon and charged him from behind. She swung her stick at his back.

Russell turned quickly, blocking the blow with his stick. He then struck the hand holding her weapon, causing Gina to cry out and drop it. He then charged in striking Gina several times on the arms, legs, chest, and once to the face, causing her to fall backwards to the ground.

“What the fuck, Marcus?” she said, staring up at him while wiping blood from the corner of her mouth.

“Get up,” he said coldly.

“No.” Gina started rubbing her sore arms. “We’re done for the day, asshole. You win… again. That shit was really starting to hurt!”

Russell bent over and picked up Gina’s stick. He then tossed it at her feet.

She stared at the stick and then back to Russell questionably.

“Pick it up,” he said.

“No.” She glared at him. “I said we’re done today, Marcus. Deal with it.”

He nodded and then walked toward a tree. “Death is not a game. No one ever wins or loses. She is strong and powerful, wise and beautiful.” He slammed his stick hard against the tree until the end snapped off, leaving a jagged tip. “When she calls, you don’t just get to lie there and call ‘time out’.” He turned to her with a face of stone.

Gina saw the dark look in her friend’s face, then looked to the jagged stick. “What are you going to do with that, Marcus?” She reached for her stick.

Russell smiled. “There. I see it now. Death has gained your complete attention, now that She’s right at the door. The question is, what will you do, now that Death has come for you.” Russell immediately charged Gina with the sharp end of his stick.

Gina deflected Russell’s blow before the sharp end pierced her throat. She rolled to the right and got up quickly.

Russell immediately backed up, looking shocked by his own actions.

She wiped blood from her neck and stared at him questionably. “What the fuck, Marcus! Have you completely lost it?” Gina held her weapon up and slowly backed off.

Russell looked at the sharp stick in his hand, as if realizing it for the first time, and then immediately dropped it to the ground. He looked at her. “I’m… sorry, Gina. I think I got a little carried away.”

She pointed at him. “You broke that fucking stick and charged at me! You could’ve killed me just then!”

He quickly regained his composure. “I only wanted to make you feel threatened… as part of our training. I’ll admit… that was a little closer than I intended.”

“Well… we’re fucking done today… alright?”

Russell smiled. “Of course.”

Gina finally lowered her weapon. “I think we’ve both been pushing a little too hard lately. Time for some rest.”

“Agreed.” Russell put his hands in his pockets and let his shoulders drop. “Again, I didn’t mean to be so… aggressive. I never would have harmed you. I knew you’d deflect the blow.”

She gave him a suspicious glance then softened up. “Okay. All’s forgiven. Let’s just get back. It was a good day of training… except for that sharp-ass shit at the end.”

Russell laughed. “Yes. Except for that. I’ll not do that again, Gina.”

She smiled and then turned south toward the ruins camp. “I’m so fucking hungry I could eat a zombie right now… and I’m talking about one of those big, smelly fat ones…”

Russell let her go on ahead a bit as he turned his face down and gritted his teeth. “That was uncalled for!” he hissed towards his feet.

Just wanted to let ‘ya know I’m still here, boss… and that I can step in any damn time I want and end this bullshit. Ya’ better be makin’ my patience worth it with all this silly trainin’ crap—talk about getting the turkey fat before the fuckin’ slaughter.

Russell looked toward Gina. She was still rambling on about food. He hid his face and whispered, “You nearly ruined everything with that move.”

What… like when you nearly spilled the beans to that bitch about what you did to your family? Why the fuck are you talking to her about that?! That’s none of her fuckin’ business!

“She needed something real… something personnel,” he hissed. “Now… we’re even closer than before.”

Fuckin’ wonderful, boss! Really, I’m delighted. But don’t get too close. The golden goddess has an expiration date… real… fuckin’… soon. I won’t let you fuck this up again.

“I won’t. But you need to back off,” Russell nearly pleaded. “We’re so damn close… so close. If you could just… hold off a little longer.” His hands began to shake.

Gina turned back. “You coming?” she called.

“Be right there,” he called back. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up in a minute.”

She turned and continued south down the old riverbed.

I’ll hold off, boss… for a little longer. I can see how important this is to you, and since we go ‘way’ back and all, I’ll give ‘ya a little more time. But… just do me a favor first.

“What do you want?”

Answer me a question, boss.

Russell waited.

Who’s in control?

Russell wanted to reach a hand within himself and rip the little fucker’s head off… figuratively, of course.

I’m waiting…

He frowned and spat out the words. “You are.”

~~~

Next Episode 46-1

Previous Episode 45-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-7: 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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