~~~

Russell Bower pushed through the thick forest brush with his good shoulder. His hands were still zip-tied around his back. He made no effort to shield himself from the prickly branches that whipped across his face. His oblivion-filled dark eyes stared dejectedly past the monotonous trees, into the void that only he could perceive.

“How’s the shoulder?” his captor asked from ten feet behind him. Alysa kept her bow notched but held it low. “We could stop if you need to rest.”

Russell was unresponsive. He just continued walking, eyes forward, detached from everything around, including Alysa and the pain throbbing throughout his wounded and exhausted flesh.

Alysa, who usually appreciated the lack of conversation, was unnerved by this predator’s silence. They had been pushing hard, heading north through the forest since early this morning. It was now midday and Russell had not spoken a word since last night, after witnessing Gina’s death. He wouldn’t even acknowledge the warrior with a murderous glare. To Russell, the woods and everyone in it, had ceased to exist. To her, Russell seemed content to just keep walking until his body gave out or until he walked off the edge of the world.

Alysa scanned the surrounding forest for signs that they were being watched. They were still miles away from Shadow Dead country, but just heading in their direction filled the former Ama-Eskua warrior with trepidation.

“If it’s any comfort to you,” Alysa started, hearing the strain in her own voice, “we are both prisoners today. Where we’re going is the last place I ever wanted to go.” She waited for a response of any kind and received nothing. “Do you even care about anything other than your precious red-headed dead girl?” She’d hoped poking at the bear might provoke a response.

Russell continued to ignore her.

Alysa was getting frustrated. “Is this all you are now? Just some hollowed out tree waiting to collapse in the forest? When we first met, I had no idea your entire purpose for living revolved around that broken woman. Perhaps I overestimated you.”

Russell continued to shamble forward like one of dead.

The warrior shook her head in disappointment. “Not that you care, but I put my ass on the line for you. In fact, you’re the reason I’m in this fix now. Not that I expect your damn gratitude, but a word or two showing me that I still exist in your disturbed little world would be acceptable. I’m the only reason you’re still alive.”

Still nothing.

She tried something else. “They’re all dead, you know. Your friends at the compound. The Shadow Dead attacked shortly after you ran after the red-headed cunt! They slaughtered every-”

Russell finally stopped. He turned, gave Alysa an icy glance, then said, “It can all burn. You… your Shadow Dead… my friends… none of it matters. It’s all irrelevant.”

“All except your precious Gina, right?”

Russell turned away. He started to walk again, then lost his balance as he collapsed, falling forward on his face.

“Shit,” Alysa hissed. She rushed over to attend to the wounded serial killer.

She retrieved her knife, hesitated, then bent down to cut his wrist restraints. As she cautiously turned him over on his back, she hissed, “If this is a ruse, it’s a foolish one.”

The warrior was not prepared for what she found on the killer’s face. She stood up as if just discovering a poisonous animal and then took a step back, feeling suddenly ill-equipped to handle her prisoner.

Russell Bower was weeping.

~~~

Alysa took advantage of Russell’s breakdown and decided to set up camp. They both needed the rest, but she wanted more time to prepare her mind before the undesirable reunion with her former Order. If Lady Clementine’s directions were correct, they would reach the Shadow Dead camp by noon tomorrow, which meant, they would have eyes on them sometime tomorrow morning.

She made a small fire just a few feet from where Russell had collapsed as nightfall moved in abruptly within the dense forest. Alysa stared over at the sleeping man as the last of the day faded. She could see the slow rise and fall of his chest, proving he was still alive… if that was the word for it.

Alysa stared into the fire, her own tired thoughts beginning to drift. She thought of Tony and the others back in New Cleveland as a frown formed on her face. A part of her that still felt foreign regretted leaving them there and she wrestled with the ashes of guilt that remained. Like Russell’s tears, these unaccustomed emotions were also difficult to manage. What have you let them do to you? she silently wondered. These thoughts are folly, just a new weakness to exploit that you better have resolved before tomorrow. If the Ama-Eskua—no—Shadow Dead is a better name for these beasts with no honor. If the Shadow Dead discover your new vulnerability-

Her thoughts were interrupted by the weak laughter of her prisoner.

She turned toward Russell. He was staring at her.

“You find something amusing about all of this?” She quickly reeled in her anger and the rest of her unwanted emotions.

Russell ceased laughing and turned his face toward the tops of the trees. “Your eyes betray you. You’re as lost as I am,” he said with a wicked smile.

Alysa scowled at him. She’d left herself vulnerable and he knew it. Since this morning all she’d wanted was for this man to talk, but now, he could remain silent forever. “At last, he speaks. Please… elaborate. Why am I lost?”

He turned back. “At the cabin, you were dead inside. It provided you with an illusion of strength, I suppose. But since then you’ve found something vital.” He turned away and laughed again. “Of course, you’ve lost whatever that is, and your eyes clearly show the absence of it.”

Alysa’s face was stone. “You speak nonsense. You’re just a broken man with a fragile dream… shattered with one damn arrow. You’re the one who is lost. You just want to take me down with you. I assure you, I am aware of how lethal the tongue can be when sharpened and placed in the appropriate place.”

Russell’s smile was unnerving. “Even now, your abundance of words betrays you… and deep down, you know it. Yes, I am lost. You’ve made sure of that… but so are you.”

“And you find… what… something rewarding in that?” Alysa gave up guarding the obvious. “Are you seeking a little payback on the way to hell… is that it?”

Russell’s smile faded. He looked away. “No. I don’t care about revenge. What would I possibly gain in your death? You are as much a tool in this world as I’ve been.”

“And yet, you weep,” Alysa pushed. “You weep for the woman you tried to murder… the woman that I mercifully put an end to with one arrow. And by doing so, I attempted to put a merciful end to your delusional quest, as well.”

Russell’s smile returned. “My failures are my own. That is something you and I do not share when it comes to loss. You search for blame. I accept my fate. I weep for the disappointment I’ve caused.”

“What… to your precious Lady Death? Is that it?”

“Yes.”

She shook her head. “Rubbish! Even if Death gave a shit about you, it’s only to serve her own ends. Even you must understand that.”

Russell let that go. He shifted gears. “I did not laugh to spite you. I’m just surprised that you found… life… now that we’re both close to the end of it. I laugh because Irony tells the best jokes.”

This made Alysa chuckle. “Yes, on that we wholeheartedly agree.”

Russell gave her a puzzled look. “Curious. What was it that made you lose everything you’d gained to be out here with me now?”

Alysa laughed. “That’s a complicated question.”

“Not really. However you and I see Death differently, you have to hand it to her, she makes everything plain as the end approaches.”

“Okay,” Alysa said with a nod. “Then I suppose the short answer is this: It’s the past that has me out here… in part, anyway.”

“Ah… the unresolved.”

“Yes,” she said. “That may not be relevant to you, but it is to me.”

Russell nodded. “Fair enough. But still, your god is behind us, while mine is just up ahead. How do our deaths reconcile matters between you and The Past?”

“That’s a good question, Russell… or do you prefer Marcus?”

Russell ignored that.

“Fine,” she said. “I guess the truth is, I don’t really know yet. I’m hoping that your god shows mercy, or at least stays the fuck out of my way long enough to figure it out. Either way, when we meet up with the Shadow Dead tomorrow, your god will have ample opportunities to snuff us out.”

“Yes, there is that, at least.” Russell laughed again. “Perhaps, this is what she always intended… for the both of us.”

Alysa smiled. “It’s good to see you back, Russell. I was starting to believe you’d died with Gina.”

Russell’s face grew grave. “You misunderstand me. Doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow. I am already dead. Dead to this world. Dead to my futile quest. Dead to any need to seek vengeance on you or anyone else.” He leaned in, causing Alysa to shift uncomfortably. “It took me a while to understand… to process the events of last night… but I’m starting to see the bigger picture.”

“And what picture is that?”

Russell smiled like the devil. “You may have inadvertently brought me closer to my god than you intended with your arrow. I don’t fear Death. I embrace it. And if tomorrow places us on the edge of it… then so be it. I will be closer to the Lady than I’ve ever been… even if I don’t know what that means anymore, or if I’m found unworthy to gaze upon her face.”

Alysa nodded. “Then we’re both headed for our uncertain destinies.”

“Yes. It would appear so.”

“Then perhaps you could put a good word in with your god and maybe she’ll grant us favor,” Alysa kidded.

Russell laughed and shook his head. “No. I wouldn’t dare ask for leniency, not for myself, and definitely not for you.”

“Well, then prepare to die a most horrific prolonged death at the Shadow Dead’s hands, because if things go badly, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Russell rolled back over, turning his back toward the warrior. “That’s fine. I wouldn’t have it any other way… especially for you.”

~~~

They started moving again at first light. After two hours, they entered an unfamiliar pine forest, farther north than either had been before. There was very little light that broke through the canopy above, keeping the dense forest dark. An unsettling silence seemed to close in on them with each reluctant step forward. Conversation had ended between them as both killer and warrior understood the need to remain invisible for as long as possible.

“They’re here,” Russell whispered. He continued to push forward unconcerned.

Alysa gave him a sideways glance as her muscles tensed. She knew he was right but was surprised that he’d realized it. Perhaps her former brothers and sisters had grown complacent and careless out in these woods for so long. Or, maybe Russell was just-

The former Shadow Dead warrior reacted with a speed that even surprised Russell as she quickly charged toward him.

Before Russell could turn, Alysa was tackling him to the ground.

Three black arrows whizzed past the killer’s location, striking the nearby trees.

Alysa was on Russell’s back. She hissed, “Stay down! Don’t move… or you’re dead.”

Russell simply shrugged his shoulders beneath her and responded, “Okay… but don’t expect me to cower before these pitiful people hiding behind masks.”

She shook her head at him. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Just… be still.”

Russell relaxed beneath her and said no more.

By the time Alysa had risen to a crouching position, she had already located several of them as she appeared to aim her bow at nothing and everything. They were surrounded by at least twelve Shadow Dead. We’re already finished, she thought, not out of fear, but as a fact. She acted quickly. “Hold!” she yelled into the forest with as much authority as she could muster. “I am Alysa Monroe of the Ama-” She quickly caught herself. “I am here under the direct orders of Lady Clementine, herself… and under her protection! You are bound by honor and sworn by Mother to lower your arms and allow me safe passage! I will not repeat myself! Harm us… if you dare… and face the consequences for your actions!”

Russell snickered to her left. “This should be interesting.”

“Be still,” she hissed, refusing to look at him. “They will stand down.”

“Unless your precious Lady Clementine ordered them to kill you,” Russell added. “Bet you didn’t consider that one.”

Alysa ignored him. The truth was, she had. The former Shadow Dead warrior wouldn’t put it past Clementine to dispose of her… but she didn’t believe the old witch would need to go to all this trouble to do it.

Here’s to hoping I haven’t worn out my usefulness yet, she thought, and then lowered her bow. Now we see if Russell’s god has it in for me or not.

After an unnerving two minutes of silence, the Ama-Eskua stepped out from the cover of the trees. They were dressed in their familiar armor, layered in bones and blood—their cow mask helmets hiding advanced electronics within, completing their grotesque and horrifying appearance as the dead creatures closed in around them. Several were carrying black long bows, others were brandishing spears. Some opted to stay traditional, revealing their clawed gauntlets.

All twelve beasts stepped within ten feet, stopped, and formed a circle around them. None of them spoke.

Alysa slowly stood. She stared into each of their faces, chin held high, eyes fiercely locked in on each of their faces to let them know who she was… and that she did not fear them, but respected them, and demanded the same in return. Finally, she said, “You are ordered to take me back to your camp. We’ve much to discuss. I bring plans from Lady Clem-”

One of the tallest beasts raised his spear toward her and brought it within an inch of Alysa’s face.

She did not flinch but continued to stare beyond the sharp spear and into the Shadow Dead’s eyes. “As I said, we’ve much to discuss. Do that again and see what happens.”

The Shadow Dead withdrew the spear and then turned to look at her prisoner on the ground. He pointed toward Russell and stared at Alysa.

“No,” she said, taking a defiant step forward. “You will not harm him.”

The Shadow Dead pointed at Russell more fiercely, stepping forward with equal defiance.

“No!” She raised her voice and stepped in front of the pointing finger. “You cannot harm him!”

The tall Shadow Dead lowered his finger, then looked past Alysa toward one of the beasts with claws.

The clawed Shadow Dead quickly moved toward Russell… but Alysa was a step faster.

Before the clawed beast could reach Russell and rip out his throat, Alysa stepped in front of Russell, retrieved her hunting knife, and stabbed it in the swinging arm of the clawed creature.

As the others moved in to retaliate, Alysa quickly bent down, grabbed Russell’s right hand, and removed his glove. She raised his branded hand for all of them to see. The eye above a three-pronged symbol stared back at them. Alysa shouted, “HE IS MARKED! HE IS MINE!”

The charging Shadow Dead stopped. The last one with Alysa’s knife sticking in its arm almost struck them both down anyway, until the tall one with the spear pointed at him.

The clawed Shadow Dead stopped, then reluctantly backed off, glaring at Alysa with an intensity that rivaled her own.

She smiled at him and nodded. “You’ll get your chance… but not today,” she promised. Alysa turned back toward the tall Shadow Dead warrior and said, “It’s within my right. He is mine. He bears Mother’s Mark. You are sworn as her Hand… if you still have honor left… to leave him be. This one is mine. We are bound together in this life. And I am accountable for his death. He serves me… and I serve Mother… as do you all.”

The tall Shadow Dead stared at her for a few moments, then stared around at the others. He nodded once, and they all started to disperse back into the forest, quickly disappearing.

The tall one gave Alysa one last look, then pointed north. Then he, too, disappeared into the forest.

Alysa waited a few minutes then let her shoulders drop, letting out a heavy sigh.

“That was… intense,” Russell said with a smile, slowly putting his glove back on. “Does this mean we’ve been given a pass to continue, or should I expect another attempt on my life?”

She turned toward the amused serial killer. “I just saved your life… again,” she spat. “How about a little gratitude now?”

“Fuck you,” he said, refusing to look at her. “I’m alive because it’s not my time to die… yet. Perhaps that’s my punishment for failure. Close enough to smell it… but never being allowed to taste real freedom. Either way, I owe you nothing.”

Alysa retrieved her bow and aimed an arrow in his face. “Fine!” she said. “I owe you nothing… but you will show me respect!”

Russell finally turned, rolling his eyes. “Or what? You’ll shoot me? You’ll kill me?” He painfully got to his feet and took a step toward her arrow. “Do I look like I care about your threats? Shoot me, if you can’t control your primitive emotions, or if I’ve injured your equally worthless honor. Go ahead, Shadow Girl, be done with it.”

Alysa regained control and lowered her bow. She smiled and said, “Nice try, Russell. You are good at pushing the right buttons, but I’m better than that. You’ll not get your wish today.”

Russell laughed. “Oh, just give me time. I’ll find a better button to push. You can’t keep your guard up forever. One day, I’ll find a crack… and then you’ll wish you’d shot me today.”

“Promises, promises,” she said. She waved her hand north. “Shall we go, then?”

Russell gave her a final scrutinizing gaze, raised his gloved right hand, and then said, “Clever girl. You don’t play by their rules, but you made sure to study the playbook.”

“It comes in handy.”

“I’m sure it does,” he said with a laugh. “As you probably know already, I’m a bit of a rule breaker myself. You don’t get away with the things I’ve done in the old world without understanding how to play along with the other sheep.”

Alysa frowned.

Russell started walking north. He laughed again and finished, “Perhaps I’ll have a chance to sneak a peek into your Shadow Dead playbook, too. I’m a fast learner, especially when it comes to an advantage.”

Alysa Monroe silently stepped in several feet behind Russell. She had much to consider and prepare herself for once reaching the Shadow Dead camp. She would need to prove herself worthy of the Ama-Eskua again, and there would be blood… it was unavoidable. But for the first time she wondered if Russell Bower was really a kindred spirit bound by darkness, that she could mentor… or, if he had already evolved into something much darker than she ever could have imagined.

~~~

Next Episode 47-7

Previous Episode 47-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 47-6: The Enemy” 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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