~~~

The knock on her door was expected this time.

Gina was sitting on the edge of her uncomfortable bed, looking over some notes she’d scribbled and placed on the small table she had moved there. After the incident in the Kill Room, she’d showered, ate, and then got some remedial rest after overexerting herself.

She tried her best to appear strong and in control, but on the inside, she still felt like shit. I can’t believe I agreed to this, she thought. I’m going to blame it on an overlooked head injury.

Gina waited for a second knock, but there wasn’t one.

She smiled at the door, and then took a slow sip from her coffee cup. “Come in,” she finally called out.

The door to her small isolation room opened. Julianne entered, closed the door, then sat down in front of it. She kept her eyes averted and stared off toward the floor.

Gina studied the young woman over the top of her coffee cup. Julianne was still wearing her bloody clothes with a few more stains added. Give me a fucking break, she thought, rolling her eyes. She put the cup down and then pretended to mull over her notes on the pages she’d removed from the blank file Clementine had provided her upon request. She stared absently at some irrelevant doodles, wanting the young recruit to feel as uncomfortable as possible as she waited by the door. After Gina was finished stalling, she put the papers back in the file and closed it. Then without looking at her, she said, “Did you bring what I asked?”

The young Ama-Eskua recruit looked up with a look of disgust on her face. “Yes,” she said.

Gina finally looked over at the woman, noticed her empty-handed, and said, “Well?”

“I… I left it in the hall.”

Gina raised an eyebrow. “You… left it in the hall?”

“Yes.”

Gina laughed lightly. “I can see that we have resumed our fruitless discussion from earlier.”

Julianne wasn’t laughing.

“Okay,” Gina said. “And… why is it in the hall?”

“Because I didn’t want to bring you any further dishonor by bringing that… thing… into your personal space.”

Gina smiled. “Oh, I think we are well past the point of worrying about things that bring ‘dishonor’. If you and your recruits haven’t figured that out yet… then we will have a lot more work ahead of us.”

Julianne just gave her a confused look.

“Bring the fucking stick to me, please.”

With reluctance, Julianne stood up, stepped back out into the hall, then returned carrying a strange stick, curved like a snake, and about the length of a baseball bat. She held it out in front of her like it was a snake. “May I approach?” she asked.

“Yes,” Gina said. “Please, join me by the table.” She pointed to the opposite side of the small table. “I’m sorry about the lack of chairs. I’ve put a request in, but apparently it’s easier to get a cup of coffee around here than a fucking fold-up chair.”

Julianne approached the small table then stopped. “And… this?”

Gina shook her head. “Just give it to me.”

Julianne looked relieved when Gina took the stick from her hand. She sat down in front of the small table and kept her eyes down.

Gina placed the stick in her lap and studied it. “This is the same one I used on that big bitch?”

“Yes. The very same,” Julianne said. “May I ask a question?”

“If it will clear the air and help get that ‘I just shit my pants’ look off your face, then yes. Ask away.”

Again, the young recruit failed to find the humor. “Why did you have me bring that here?”

Gina laughed. “Of all the things you could have asked, like, ‘Who put this bitch in charge?’, this is what you want to ask?”

“Yes,” Julianne said. “I would not dare question Lady Clementine’s decisions. She has explained your position to us all… and that is enough.”

“Spoken like a good little soldier,” Gina said, bouncing one end of the curved bat in her hand.

Julianne stared at it like Gina had just insulted her mother.

“It’s my understanding that this is called the Balato, correct?”

“That is correct.”

“And it’s used for… punishment purposes?”

Julianne looked her in the eyes. “The Balato is a training device used to inflict pain. When an Ama-Eskua recruit falls into disgrace, he or she is taken to the Kill Room where the Ama-Eskua warriors form a circle around the accused, strip them of their clothes, and then complete their humiliation by… beating them with… that. It is also the first tool used on recruits before they are allowed to train with weapons. It is to teach them what it means to feel pain if they are expected to inflict it. Aside from that… the Balato is not considered a weapon.”

“That’s interesting,” Gina said, staring at the stick. “A bit fucking disturbing… but interesting. And oddly appropriate.”

“How so?”

Gina’s face lost all humor. “What I saw earlier today… what you all did in that fucking Kill Room… made me feel the way you feel when you look at this stick.” She held it up for emphasis.

Julianne frowned but said nothing.

Gina laid the Balato down on the bed. “I will carry this around while we train to remind you all that until I decide otherwise… none of you are fit to pick up a ‘real’ weapon. Is that clear?”

Julianne looked away and nodded. “Yes. I understand.”

“Do you?”

“I understand that your presence here was a test all along. A test none of us were ready to pass. That is all I need to know.”

“Violence is all any of you know!” Gina pushed. “And that’s fucked up! So, we’re going to change that.”

Julianne glanced up.

Gina leaned in. “Between your Ama-Eskua and whatever fucked-up, culty, Candidate crap that came after… it’s still the same. All of you are just weapons. But because you can’t seem to think—or were never allowed to think for yourselves—you’ve all become as worthless as this fucking stick!”

Julianne’s eyes were on fire.

Gina could see it. She smiled. “Oh, I know. I know. Everything inside of you just wants to jump up and ram this fucking thing down my throat for insulting you. Am I right?”

Julianne calmed down and averted her eyes.

“Doesn’t matter,” Gina said, leaning back. “You’ve all learned how to kill without conscience—without consequences. It’s fucking hardwired into your damn brains! Well, I’m here to tell you, that’s some fucking bullshit! None of you get to take a life as easily as you do… and not pay for it!”

“I… I don’t understand this… teaching,” Julianne said.

“And we’re going to work on that.”

The young woman nodded.

“From here on out,” Gina started, “there will be no more fucking alarms going off to send you all into a blood frenzy. The Kill Room—horrible fucking name, by the way—is off limits, which includes all the weapons within it. Are we clear?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, it gets better, Julianne. Get ready to squirm. Those nasty fucking bloody rags you are all so proud of… will be removed and burned. I expect all of you to be in fresh grays by tomorrow. And if I see one fucking blood stain on anyone, I will beat the living tar out of whoever I see it on with this stick, and then make them change their clothes after. Are we still clear?”

Julianne was trembling. Her fists were in tight balls. But she managed to hiss, “Yes.”

“Look at me,” Gina demanded.

The young recruit made eye contact.

Gina pointed to her scar. “If I’m recalling correctly, you seemed very proud of my face disfiguration, as if it were something to brag about.”

Julianne’s eyebrows went up. “I… I never meant that.”

“I know what you meant,” Gina said with a sigh. She lowered her hand. “Now’s the time to be silent and listen.”

Julianne nodded.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s blood stains on clothing or a fucking scar. None of that is anything to be proud of. If anything, the marks we bear should sober us the fuck up and let us know how very close to death we came. Understand?”

Again, Julianne nodded.

Gina pointed to her chest. “The real scars that matter are in here, Julianne.” She then pointed to her temple. “And in here.” She put her hand down. “Every time we’re forced to take a life, that memory should haunt the hell out of us, and the heaviness in our hearts lets us know that we’ve lost a bit of ourselves every time we’re forced to kill. We become a little less. Understand?”

Julianne looked confused. “Are… are you saying that it’s wrong to kill our enemies?”

“It’s always wrong to kill.”

The young recruit stared down at her hands, clearly having difficulty grasping Gina’s words.

“But when we must,” Gina continued, “we live with the lives we’ve taken. And maybe, we learn from it and find another way to avoid it the next time.”

Julianne looked back up. “I… I think I understand. I will reflect on this.”

“You do that,” Gina said, leaning back and running a hand through her hair. “Moving on. We will no longer be separate cells… but one. Has that also been explained to you?”

“Yes.”

“No more killing, Julianne,” Gina said. “I mean it. I am holding you accountable for this. Make them understand… or that shame will be yours, as well as mine, to bear.”

“I will… make them understand. Will there be anything else?”

“Yes,” Gina said. “You and I will be spending a lot of time together so whatever you have to do to swallow that offended pride of yours… then do it.”

Julianne nodded, then waited for clarification.

“I’ve seen you fight. You’re going to teach me as much of that shit as I can absorb. And when we’re not training together, you will be teaching me everything about the Ama-Eskua. Clear?”

“Yes. But… I am not worthy of this honor.”

Gina laughed. “You’re all I’ve got, Julianne. I may be coming down hard on you right now… but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like you.”

“‘Like’… me?” Julianne said the word as if tasting it on her tongue for the first time.

“Never mind that,” Gina said. “Maybe you’ll figure it out later. Point is, we have a real enemy out there to prepare for. The Shadow Dead. They used to be Ama-Eskua, so I want to know how many enemy thinks.”

Julianne smiled this time. “This I understand.” Her face suddenly changed. “You mentioned preparing for the Shadow Dead. I assume you mean we will train to stand against them.”

“Correct.”

“But… how will we train without the use of weapons?”

Gina smiled like an idiot, then raised up the Balato. “I understand that as much as these things are despised around here… there’s a whole storeroom full of them.”

Julianne looked shocked. “You can’t possibly mean-”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” Gina finished. “Everyone will train with these until I say otherwise.”

This time the young recruit sighed with frustration, letting her shoulders drop.

“You don’t have to like it, Julianne. But this will happen.”

Julianne closed her eyes and nodded.

Gina ran her fingers along the curves of the wooden stick and smiled. “So, am I correct to assume that if we brought these into battle against the Shadow Dead that they would be extremely offended?”

“With certainty,” Julianne said. “They might also consider us a joke.”

“Good. That means that while they’re busy being bent-out-of-shape or amused, they won’t be at the top of their game.”

Julianne just stared.

“How about the rest of the Ama-Eskua? Think training with these will get their attention, too?”

“I am not qualified to speak for the Order.”

“But you can speculate, can’t you?”

Julianne nodded. “I suspect that the Order would be most displeased.”

Gina scoffed. “And yet none of them gave a shit about any of you after The Change. They’d let you all kill each other off and not bat an eye. How does that sit with you, former Ama-Eskua recruit?”

Julianne’s face was stone. “I am… unfit… to judge the Order.”

“Fine,” Gina said. “I’ll stop with the uncomfortable questions.”

“Thank you,” Julianne said.

“Can I trust you, Julianne?”

The question made the young recruit’s back stiffen up. She glared back.

Gina laughed, holding out her hands. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “Truth is, I don’t know who to trust right now. At least with you, there’s loyalty, even if you might be on the wrong damn side.”

“What does that mean?”

“Doesn’t matter. I know that you will not betray the confidence of your Order, or Lady Clementine, so I assume you will not betray mine.”

“You assume correctly,” Julianne said firmly.

“Good,” Gina said. “Between you and I… I do not trust the Ama-Eskua or your Lady Clementine. I believe something very bad is happening in this dark place and I will endeavor to figure that out.”

Julianne wisely remained silent.

Gina smiled to lighten the mood. “But enough of that dark conspiracy talk. For the moment, I will deal with all of you. Have you any questions for me?”

“Why did you… interfere… with the ‘big bitch’ when she moved to eliminate the Fodder?”

Gina scowled at her so intensely that Julianne expected to be struck by the Balato.

“New rule,” Gina hissed. “No one says another damn word about fucking ‘Candidates’ or ‘Fodder’. Is that understood?”

“Yes. I will make everyone aware.”

Gina calmed down and took a breath. She stopped when she felt Julianne’s eyes lingering. She looked up and raised her eyebrows. “You’re still waiting for an answer? Why I ‘interfered’?”

“Yes.”

Gina sighed. “Tell you what, ask yourself why you ‘didn’t’ interfere. Because if I still need to answer your question in a few days… I’m gonna start swinging this stick around until all your fucking heads have been adjusted. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” Julianne said.

“Anymore stupid fucking questions?”

“No.”

“Good,” Gina said. “Now, go take off those disgusting clothes, discover the meaning of a shower, and have yourself and the others looking presentable by tomorrow morning.”

“As you wish.” Julianne got up and promptly exited the room.

~~~

The old woman in the red robe watched the recruit leave Gina’s room. She raised her withered hand to turn off the monitor to the hidden camera.

Clementine leaned back in the rusty control room chair and folded her hands in her lap.

Okay, that fire’s been lit, she thought. That should keep the mouthy bitch adequately distracted and out of my hair for a spell.

She stared at the one-monitor station in front of her, along with the small console beneath it. This was the only station she’d become acquainted with over the years. She smiled at the efficient controls. One large black dial, turned clockwise, clicking through various isolation room cameras within the training facility. Each click had a number designation attached to a specific room. All she needed to do was match the room number with the numbered room on the large map above her head to identify the occupant.

In this case, she didn’t need it. She knew this isolation room well. Gina wasn’t the first angry young woman to occupy it. Alysa had once sulked in this very room.

Oh, my temperamental pawns! she thought with bemusement.

Clementine scanned to her left along the console until she found three illuminated switches, each marked with old scotch tape labels beneath them. In black marker, a red illuminated switch read: AUTO. A second green illuminated switch was marked: MANUAL. And the third illuminated switch, which was flashing red, was marked: ALARM.

Clementine reached for the MANUAL button and clicked it. It turned red. She then clicked the AUTO button back on. It turned green. This was the original configuration she’d found it in this morning before switching it to manual mode to generate the Kill Room alarm. She reached for the flashing red ALARM button, let her finger playfully hover above the switch, and then laughed lightly, removing her hand. “Now, Clem, don’t you go putting that auto-god back online, you naughty ‘ole girl. There’s been enough bloodshed… for the moment.” She left the automated alarm in standby mode, honoring Gina’s request to silence it.

The old woman stood up and started walking with her hands clasped together behind her back. She opened a door in the wall, then stepped out of the hidden room which emptied into the main hub. Headquarters was in ruins, and everyone in charge of operations was either dead or long gone. Clementine continued her stroll through the wreckage, thinking about events in recent years that had culminated toward necessary changes that she had either influenced or directly caused.

“This is nothing more than a hall of ghosts now,” she whispered, staring up from the bottom of the hub to where she and Gina had stood earlier. “I wonder what they have to say,” she said with a smile. Clementine looked around. “Any of you ghosts have something you’d like to add? I still remember all your dull, terrified faces before the end. Perhaps you’d like to betray a secret or two… hmm? No takers? I didn’t think so.” She laughed, amused with herself.

Clementine had murdered most of them—from right down here—during the busiest part of the day.

She sighed at the indifferent silence. As much as she had enjoyed bringing that obsolete regime to a close, there was no one left who could appreciate all she’d done… for Mother. The old woman was beginning to lose patience. He knows that I hate this place… that this is where everything ended for me… my usefulness. Clementine balled her fists, wanting a target—any target—to lash out at. She could feel the ghosts… gloating.

On the island, Toby only spoke with her in this dead hub… and he always made her wait.

Perhaps he’s hoping the dead will finally show up and devour me for all my sins? she thought. Clementine stopped, looked up, and corrected, “Of course, they never were my sins, were they, Toby?”

No answer.

That fucker! If I were the ‘chosen one’… he’d never make me wait like this!

She stopped abruptly. She could feel him, attempting to dig beneath the barriers of her mind.

Hello, my child.

Clementine said nothing.

I am so delighted that you have finally come home… where you belong.

The old woman laughed. “I’ve spent more years here in a cage than anywhere else on this fucking island. You have a strange notion of ‘home’, Toby.”

Come now, my child. Let’s not fight. I have missed you.

“Why did you summon me? You know I despise this island?”

Yes, but having you here brings me comfort. You have been away for far too long, my child.

Clementine rolled her eyes. “Must you continue to call me your ‘child’? These tired bones and withered flesh feel like I’ve lived two lifetimes in it. I have not been a ‘child’ for a very long time.”

Toby laughed inside her head. Oh, my child, we have come a long way together. The time is nigh. Soon, we will be together, and I will reward you for all your sacrifices.

A part of her, the needy misunderstood girl within, wanted to believe him. For many years, Clementine had sought Toby’s approval and love… but now… it was all a joke.

She sighed and said, “What do you want from me?”

Aside from spending time with my daughter… must I need another reason?

Clementine closed her eyes. Her ancient flesh started to tremble. Deep inside of her, in the place she kept guarded from Toby’s prying eyes, she wanted to scream and light the world on fire until everything burned. She maintained her calm, opened her eyes, and said, “I have brought you a carrot to entice the ‘daughter’ that you truly seek. If I had known much sooner that Meredith was alive-”

If you had known you would have destroyed her, my child. You may hide your thoughts from me, but your emotions speak loud and clear. I have shown you much over the years… but not all. And for good reason. Must I now explain myself?

She could sense Toby’s impatience and dared not push. “My apologies,” she said. “I am… grateful.”

There’s the girl I remember. You have always been my favorite.

“Hah!” Clementine could not stop herself. “That is such bullshit!”

Toby’s silence was nerve-wrecking. You have always doubted my love for you. You never needed to compare your gifts with anyone else, but you could not get past it. You have become so strong and powerful… and yet… so very volatile… and petty.

The old woman started to sulk.

No matter. I have tolerated your insolence, like a good father. In time, you will come to appreciate everything I withheld from you… and why. Toby shifted gears. I am close to finding Meredith. When I do, I will require your… ‘carrot’.

“What do you require from me?”

When the time comes, I want you to meet with her. I want you to embrace your lost sister and put an end to all this foolish behavior. I need her to do what you cannot. And I need for you to finally accept your limitations, my child. Can you do this for me?

Clementine knew this was not a question… but a warning. “Yes. I can do what must be done… as I’ve always done. I have made many sacrifices for you, Toby. What you ask now is a trivial matter in comparison.”

That is good to hear, my child. I will hold you to it.

“Will there be anything else? Something more that I can do for you… that she cannot?”

I will let you know… when you need to know, my child. We’ll talk again soon.

Toby abruptly severed their connection, leaving her alone and discarded.

Clementine’s face turned dark as she battled against the building inferno within.

Patience, old girl, she reminded herself, slowly stepping away from the edge. Don’t you dare let him upset you. Not now. Just stay focused. It’s time to move on with the next phase of the plan. Everything is moving forward exactly as expected.

Clementine smiled and crossed the dead hub toward the north end of the facility.

~~~

Next Episode 54-4

Previous Episode 54-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-3: Treachery” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. 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.

Comments
  1. Bdubz says:

    I felt like the end of chapter 53 was starting to drag, then you started chapter 54 and had me glued to the screen again! Can not wait for more!

    Liked by 2 people

    • sscherr says:

      That’s good to hear, Bdubz. Sorry about the bits that drag. There has been a lot happening behind the scenes in this book, which leaves a lot to cover, and I’m trying my best to balance it all out. I’m hoping this final chapter to Book Six will be the big finale ‘payoff’ for all that’s happened… and for all that’s coming in the next book. Thanks for reading ;)

      Like

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