~~~

A gusting wind coming off the lake violently rustled Gina’s shoulder-length red hair. She lifted her face toward the noonday sun, closed her eyes, and let the warm breeze strike her cheeks. She felt nothing inside—nothing she would allow. The loss of too many people she cared about was not something she could afford to let invade her thoughts or allow the grief to come out.

An old wound started to itch. She lifted her hand and traced the narrow scar that started just beneath her right eye, extending downward to the bottom of her cheek.

Some fucking ‘badge’.

She absently dropped her hand, opened her eyes, and stared down from the edge of the steep cliff, overlooking the strong lake currents as wave after wave crashed against the rocky northern shore of the island. She felt like that stony shore as the hell of this world continued to assault her heart with all that cold indifferent darkness.

She slowly turned in her dull gray uniform and caught a glimpse of the red-robed woman approaching from the other end of the peninsula field behind her. She grimaced in pain while turning around but hid it as best she could. After three weeks on the island, she still felt tightness in her chest where Alysa’s arrow had struck her. The wound in her left thigh was all healed while the missing piece of her right big toe had become a permanent annoyance when she leaned forward too much on that leg.

Gina placed the baseball bat sized wooden stick, shaped like a slithering snake, out in front for support. She stabbed the grass with her makeshift cane and stepped away from the cliff and into the field, using the stick to reduce her weight on the right side.

“You know, there are several fantastic overlooks much closer to the training facility,” Lady Clementine said with annoyance, surprising Gina with how fast the old woman had closed the distance between them.

Gina stopped. “I like this spot. No one bothers me out here.”

Clementine removed her red hood, smiled at her guest, then stared down at Gina’s cane and frowned. “Why do you still have that? And what possessed you to choose the Balato for a training weapon? You do remember what I told you about it, right?”

Gina examined the stick with a look of satisfaction on her face. “Yes. You told me the Ama-Eskua only use this to inflict pain on their recruits… and that it’s not considered a weapon.” She glanced over at Clementine with her intense green eyes, flashing a wicked little smile, and finished, “The pain part sounded perfect.”

“You misunderstand. The Balato is considered a lowly instrument… an insult. The Ama-Eskua are already displeased with your presence here, and your new approach toward training the recruits. Why make things worse?”

Gina’s face grew hard. “And yet they remain absent while this fucking island falls apart. If all I thought it took was an insult or two to get their attention and finally force them out of hiding, then I’d be carrying a much bigger stick.”

Clementine put a hand to her mouth to hide her amusement. “I like your spirit, Gina. What you’ve done with the recruits, turning them around and giving them purpose, has not escaped my notice, either. I’m just sorry I haven’t been around much to help.”

“How goes your negotiations?”

The old woman sighed and placed her hands to her hips. “They are stubborn and resistant to change, although the state of the world now demands that we all change.”

Gina shook her head. “Sounds like those Ama-Assholes are unwilling to yield control of this place, even though they do nothing with the power but hide away in their dark corner of the facility. Why do you tolerate them? Can’t you just… I don’t… take back control? I still remember what you did to that horde on the mainland, parting them for the convoy to pass.”

Clementine flashed a weak smile. “If you mean take back control by force, then yes, I could. But what would that accomplish? We would still be divided and achieve nothing.”

“Then let me go talk to them,” Gina pushed, and not for the first time.

Clementine frowned. “Do you think they find me a feeble old woman they can push around? And that you could handle these delicate talks so much better than me?”

“I didn’t mean-”

“The only reason the Ama-Eskua have not come out of their sanctum on the north end of the facility and personally dealt with you is because they’re smart enough to realize what I would do to them. They know you are my responsibility, and an attack against you, would be the same as a direct assault on me.”

Gina wisely kept her mouth shut and nodded.

Clementine walked toward the overlook and shook her head. “Sorry, Gina. I don’t mean to be cross. Nothing is as I’d hoped when I came back here. And I shouldn’t be surprised, considering all the political tension and bickering I left behind when I last departed this place. I just never thought everything would escalate so fast after The Change. I assumed the Lions would reunite us and make us stronger. But it has done the opposite.”

Gina stared at the old woman, searching her mind for anything encouraging to say. “The recruits will fight for Mother. In fact, I think they’ve been itching for one for a long time. They understand what it means to have their hope dragged through the mud and put on display to be humiliated in front of this merciless world.”

Clementine turned.

“That is how they feel about the current state of Mother. They came here for something better, after this new world shit all over them, and they don’t like what has happened any more than we do.”

“What have you told them, Gina?”

“The truth.”

Clementine looked like she was about to protest, then stopped, and let out a heavy sigh. She nodded. “Why not,” she said with resignation. “Perhaps before the end, the recruits will be all that’s left of Mother’s ideals.”

“Is it that bad?”

Clementine looked away. “The Ama-Eskua, the once powerful right arm of Mother, is in turmoil. They do not own up to what the Shadow Dead have done. To do so would mean admitting weakness… in an Order that punishes the weak and honors the strong. So, they do nothing. Meanwhile, everyone else sees it. The workers, the regular militia, the recruits… they’re all expressing doubt where there was once only hope.”

Gina grew concerned. “You don’t sound very optimistic.”

“I am not, Gina. I’m afraid to take over by force, which would make me as wrong as the Order, as I muddy Mother’s name further by making it a dictatorship.” She looked at Gina with a sad, faraway expression. “But I’m also afraid to do nothing and idly watch the rest of Mother collapse.”

Gina nodded, stepping up beside the tired woman. “What… what can I do to help?”

Clementine turned and smiled. “You are doing more than enough, Gina. You have already provided me with a spark of light in a very dark place.” She shook her head in frustration. “I never should’ve left. I was called upon to lead, but I was selfish and wanted to live my life away from the politics of governing.”

“You can’t blame yourself,” Gina said. “You’re just one person. I’m sure you would’ve done the best you could in the governing capacity, but in the end, it wouldn’t have been enough.” She paused and frowned. “When I was reluctantly put in charge of my group, I had nothing but the best of intentions. I wanted to protect them, make them strong. But I failed miserably because I wasn’t leading a group of clones who thought and felt like me. I never even considered what others thought… not really. I suspect you would’ve had the same issues if you’d stayed.”

Clementine shot her a sideways glance, careful not to let Gina see the brief smirk on her face. Like a well-trained actor responding to the next verbal cue, she said submissively, “Thanks for sharing that, Gina. I carry a very extensive load on my shoulders, perhaps too much. I’m just… exhausted… and need to approach matters with a fresh perspective. Please forgive my moment of weakness.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Gina said. “We all have our less-than-stellar moments. Well, myself excluded, of course.” She added a smile.

Clementine laughed hard. She placed a hand on Gina’s shoulder and said, “I am glad you’re here, Gina. This would all be so much more difficult without a friend around.”

She smiled at the old woman, feeling surprisingly comforted by Clementine’s presence. This immediately made her put her guards back up as Gina got tense and took a step away from the robed woman.

So much has changed… and keeps changing, she thought. This woman, and this organization, was my enemy… and now… I’m not certain who my real enemies are… or my friends.

She thought of Marcus and the Shadow Dead and felt some of her doubts dissolve.

“What is it?” Clementine said, noticing Gina’s distant expression.

She turned and shook off her thoughts. “Nothing. I’m just… well… I’m still blown away with how I ended up here.”

The old woman laughed. “I have often felt that way. If I’ve learned to trust in anything, it’s this: Nothing is ever what it appears to be… especially these days.”

Gina nodded wholeheartedly.

“I have to leave the island,” Clementine abruptly said.

“What?”

The old woman sighed. “I’ve been wrestling with this since last night. I believe my presence here, as far as the Ama-Eskua is concerned, is keeping them restless and defensive. We’ve reached a stalemate in our negotiations and I need to attempt another approach.”

“So, you’re just going to leave!” Gina was up in arms. “How does that help our situation?”

“Don’t get me wrong, Gina. I’m only talking about a boat ride across the pond and back,” she said. “I’ve received word that Alysa has spoken with the Shadow Dead… and that they wish set up a meeting with the Order.”

Gina laughed in disbelief. “You’ve got to be shitting me! Are you telling me that they now want to come back to the Order? After everything those murderers have done in Mother’s name?”

Clementine gave her a grave face. “No, Gina. They do not seek an alliance. The Shadow Dead believe they are now what’s left of the real Ama-Eskua. According to the message I’ve received, they wish to discuss terms of surrender.”

Gina was shocked. “Is the Order aware of this?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m going to meet with Alysa. She is loyal to the Shadow Dead, but she is also loyal to me, acting as my ambassador.”

“Sounds like a great way to get you somewhere exposed so they can eliminate you,” Gina said.

Clementine smiled. “Yes, I am aware of the risks. But I believe the Shadow Dead intend me no harm. In fact, I believe they wish to align themselves with me to force the Order into submission.”

Gina threw her stick to the ground. “That’s bullshit! You know you can do that, right?”

“Gina,” the old woman added patiently, “what I know is that I need another option to force the Ama-Eskua toward giving up power without confronting them personally. I have no intention of joining the Shadow Dead.”

“Then, why are you leaving?”

“Remember what I just said about appearances?”

Gina nodded.

“If the Order knows that I’m going to meet with the Shadow Dead, it will force them to the negotiation table. I have no right to confront the Order, but the Shadow Dead have a legitimate claim. The Order will want to know what ‘deal’ they’ve offered me, fearing that I might support the Shadow Dead as a ‘back door’ opportunity to strip the Order of their power. Then after the Order has surrendered, I can confront the Shadow Dead directly for their crimes against Mother.”

Gina shook her head. “For someone who isn’t a fan of all that political nonsense, you sure have a head for it.”

Clementine smiled. “I never said I wasn’t good at it.”

“But you’re not really joining them, right?”

“Absolutely not, Gina. I only want to cast the appearance of such of a move. When I return, I expect the Order to approach me with a counter proposal to give up authority if they are permitted to remain Mother’s Hand.”

Gina laughed. “So, you’re playing one side against the other… and giving none of them what they really want.”

Clementine’s face turned serious. “I am only concerned with what is good for Mother. The Shadow Dead are traitors. The Order is out of line and need to return to their rightful place. I’m out of options. This move, albeit risky, is the wisest and least destructive move I can make to restore balance.”

“And if your ‘bluff’ doesn’t work?”

Clementine gave her an uncomfortable glance. “If this doesn’t work, Gina… If the Order sees right through my gambit, they might be encouraged to take advantage of my absence to make sure I cannot safely make it back to the island.”

Gina caught the unspoken concern. “The Order will eliminate anyone left loyal to Mother. Which means they’ll be coming for me, and my recruits.”

“Yes, Gina. If my ruse fails, then that is a real possibility. Once they kill everyone still loyal to what Mother once was… they can keep me from getting back to the island… unless I really do have the support of the Shadow Dead.”

Gina’s shoulders sank. “And there’s no other way?”

Clementine shook her head sadly. “No, Gina. I don’t believe there is… and I’m sorry to put you in this predicament. Of course, should you consider the risk to your own life too great, you may return with me to the mainland, and I would completely understand. That’s why I came out here to tell you before I left.”

Gina considered this. “And… the recruits? What would happen to them after both of us were gone?”

Clementine sighed. “Honestly, Gina, I don’t know. Best case scenario: Perhaps the Ama-Eskua would spare their lives and have them return to whatever was being done to them before.”

“Judging by your face, I don’t think you believe that,” Gina said.

The old woman shook her head. “It is more likely that they will eliminate them, Gina. Especially after what you’ve done with them… and I mean that in a good way.”

Gina closed her eyes and balled her fists. “So, I really don’t have a choice.”

“Of course, you do, child. They are not your responsibility. None of this chaos is. If you wish to leave, then I encourage it. But it will have to be now, before I set events into motion.”

“I’m staying,” Gina said.

Clementine gave her an astonished look.

“What kind of leader… what kind of person… would I be if I abandoned them just to save my worthless ass? Honestly, I’m running out of closet space for all my dark shit.” She shook her head. “No. Abandoning the recruits is something I can’t do.”

“Do you understand what will happen should the Order decide to attack? If any of you survive, it will not be pleasant. What they’ll do to you afterwards, will make the Balato look tame.”

Gina laughed exhaustedly. “I understand perfectly… and I’m still staying.”

Clementine gave Gina a proud look. “You are a very honorable person, Gina Melborn… and a hell of a good leader. I find it difficult to believe that anyone could ever exile the young, brave woman standing before me now.”

Gina averted her eyes. “Well… thanks for your vote of confidence. That means something to me. But… I’ve done some vile fucking shit, too. Perhaps this is a chance for me to break even.” She added a weak smile.

Clementine laughed. “Perhaps.”

“When will you leave?”

“Late this evening. I’ll meet up with Alysa on the coast in the morning.”

“Sounds like I need to let you prepare… and I’ve some preparing to do, too.”

“Good luck, Gina. I will return as expeditiously as possible.”

“Good luck to you, too,” Gina said. “Hopefully your plan works and we’ll all still be around to greet you when you return.” Gina picked up the Balato and started back.

Clementine watched her depart, gleaming like a proud parent. When Gina was far enough away, the old woman’s smile faded. “You’re getting to good at this, old girl,” she whispered to herself.

Clementine had no intention of sailing off to meet Alysa or the Shadow Dead. The only ruse planned was the one she just pulled on the determined red-headed warrior.

She was still leaving on the boat to the mainland.

Toby had used the ‘carrot’.

Clementine had turned the carrot into a ‘catalyst’.

The old woman had a lot to do before she departed.

Meredith would arrive at the marina in the morning.

~~~

Gina entered the crowded meal hall with Julianne at her side. No one noticed them standing just inside the door. Julianne was about to say something, but Gina held her arm. “Hold on,” she whispered.

The young Ama-Eskua recruit flashed her a puzzled look, then relaxed when she noticed Gina’s smile. She took a respectful step behind her leader, then stood at the ready, her hands behind her and within easy reach of the Balato strapped across her back.

The sounds of laughter and relaxed conversations among the men and women, young and old, wearing their clean gray uniforms was refreshing. The red-headed leader just soaked it all in. Over the past few weeks, She’d caught bits and pieces of stories about their lives from before—who they once were, where they’d come from, their dreams, old romances, ancient jokes passed on and modified to fit their present circumstances, and the people they’d lost. She appreciated all of it.

Since Gina took over, bringing all the recruits together, they no longer saw each other as enemies, or cared about who were Candidates and who were the Fodder. They knew each other, now.

She turned to Julianne, who looked on with a face of stone to hide what she felt. Well, Gina thought. Most of them have lowered their shields. With some, old habits die hard. She was referring to the young warrior, as well as herself.

Julianne caught her staring.

Gina laughed lightly. “They train hard, Julianne. But they need to decompress, too. Without it… what we’re doing is all for nothing.”

“They are… vulnerable… like this,” Julianne said.

Gina had worked with the young woman to get her to open up more. “You’re right, they are. But believe it or not, there will come a time when we’ll need to learn how to be… vulnerable… again.”

Julianne just stared at her. “When will that be?”

Gina leaned in and said, “When the fighting is finished.”

Julianne laughed, believing Gina had just told a joke. “That’s ridiculous.”

Gina just stared sadly at the young woman. She really believes I’m joking. She looked at the rest. I hope it isn’t a joke. If we can’t look toward something better… beyond all this death and violence… then we might as well go back to killing each other and get it over with. She smiled at the thought. Now I sound like Stephen. Took long enough for me to finally get it. She shook all thoughts aside and raised her own shield. She nodded to Julianne.

Julianne nodded back. She stepped forward, turning her attention on the recruits. “What the hell is wrong with all of you!” she yelled. “On your damn feet! Lady Gina is present!”

Gina rolled her eyes. She hated the name, but after several failed attempts to get them to stop, she finally gave up, preferring ‘Lady Gina’ to ‘Ma’am’ or even ‘Sir’.

The recruits stopped talking, turned, and then noticed Gina standing in the shadow of the cafeteria doorway.

A chorus of metal chairs screeched across the linoleum as the recruits rushed to stand at attention in front of their tables.

Here we go, Gina thought, stepping forward. She placed her own hands behind her back and scanned the recruits with a look of satisfaction across her face. Except for the twelve recruits currently on rounds, patrolling the training facility in pairs, everyone else was present for lunch. Gina had pushed for meals to be shared together, sleep at the same times, and that they all trained together. She would not allow room for factions or division of any kind. They needed to be one.

That’s forty in here, another twelve on watch, plus myself and Julianne. Fifty-four total. It’s not an army… but it’s what we have. After Gina’s quick assessment, she smiled at them and said, “At ease. Please, sit down and finish eating.”

The recruits relaxed and sat back down.

Gina spotted the bearded older recruit, Hugh.

He squirmed under her intense gaze. Even after Gina had assured him that she’d forgiven his attempt on her life, Hugh continued to tread lightly around her.

And she constantly enjoyed picking on him.

“Hugh.”

“Yes, Lady Gina.”

“Who are you?” she said.

He raised his chin up proudly. “I am Hugh Marten.”

“Who were you?”

He smiled and said, “I was… an electrician… back in the day.”

Gina smiled back and raised an eyebrow. “And who will you be?”

Hugh nodded. “I will be a man of peace, serving my brothers and sisters. I will be a man of action, guarding their backs with my own life… when peace is not enough.”

Gina nodded. “Good answer,” she said with a wink.

Hugh relaxed… a little.

With Julianne’s help, Gina had modified the ancient Ama-Eskua mantra to turn them away from believing that killing was the first call to action. The young recruit had taught her as much as Gina could absorb about Ama-Eskua doctrine and beliefs, often causing Gina to raise the ‘bullshit’ flag on the Order’s cold and calculated approaches to death, while she tried to uphold the more ‘honorable’ traditions with the recruits. Initially, every time Gina had amended an Ama-Eskua doctrine, Julianne had fought her round and round on the matter until Gina’s stubbornness prevailed. Eventually, Julianne started to understand Gina’s ‘vision’ as evidenced by her positive effect on the recruits. She still struggled every time Gina made a change, but she was getting much better at adapting. Gina had commended her for her bravery and strength in accepting all her changes (and especially for putting up with her fiery temper during combat training) and she had promoted her to second-in-command.

Julianne, in a rare moment of emotion, had been overcome by the honor as Gina had watched the young warrior’s eyes water up… briefly. Of course, neither of them had spoken of it again.

Gina led Julianne out of the cafeteria and into the maze of hallways, headed toward the former Kill Room. Among many changes Gina had made, when the recruits were authorized to train again in the gymnasium sized death space, she insisted that the Kill Room’s name be changed. After some deliberation and a whole hell of a lot of resistance from Julianne, Gina renamed the room, the KAR, which was short for “Kick Ass Room”.

They entered the KAR and Gina smiled with satisfaction.

Aside from the oldest blood stains on the floor, the rest of the room had been cleaned up. All the weapons had been removed and stored in an armory. Along several walls were racks of Balatos used for combat training. Aside from Gina, the three original Ama-Eskua recruits, and watch-standers, no one else was authorized to be armed outside the KAR.

They crossed the training room, exiting a door on the north side, and stepped out onto the upper balcony of the ghost town hub—the remains of Mother’s headquarters.

Gina noticed two recruits on watch below. One was the ponytailed Ama-Eskua who Julianne had fought with the pipe.

The young man noticed them, scowled at Gina, then nodded briefly at Julianne. He then walked off with the other recruit.

Gina smiled. “Kyle doesn’t think much of me, does he?”

Julianne shrugged her shoulders. “I think he’s preoccupied with too many thoughts about himself to think about anything else.”

Gina laughed. “Did you just crack a joke, Julianne?”

“That depends. Was it funny?” She smiled this time.

The red-head laughed a little harder. “Julianne, I think you’re finally tapping into your ‘human’ side. I was starting to think that you didn’t possess one.”

Julianne looked puzzled by the comment.

“Never mind,” Gina said. She looked across the large hub toward a thick metal door on the other side. “Why have they not approached us, Julianne?” she said. “I’m starting to believe there is no Order.”

Julianne stared at the large door. “That’s the main entrance to their sanctum. For as long as I’ve been here, no one’s ever entered that door. And no one’s ever exited. It’s primarily used for ceremonial purposes, like when a recruit becomes Ama-Eskua.”

Gina nodded. “I understand all that… but where the hell are they?”

Julianne smiled. “I’m sure they’ve been watching us. If the Ama-Eskua wish not to be seen… then we will not see them.”

Gina mulled this over. “And if they decide to attack us, would they use this door or come at us from another way?”

Julianne had already been briefed on Gina and Clementine’s earlier discussion. “Does Lady Clementine really believe that the Order will strike after she’s left the island?”

“It’s possible.”

Julianne stared at the large door with a frown. Her face was a mask of conflicting emotions. She finally nodded with a sigh. “Yes, they could choose to use this entrance. Coming at us through here would be a tactical advantage. This door is close enough to our weapons to cut us off, and far enough away from our quarters to slip in undetected.”

Gina nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. If you were them, what move would you make first?”

Julianne stared at her. “I would attempt to locate your isolation room, Gina, and then slit your throat in your sleep.”

Gina unconsciously reached for her neck. “Go on,” she said.

“Then, I would create a diversion causing chaos, attempting to scatter our ranks in the confusion, as I’d pick us off one by one.”

Gina shook her head and laughed. “That’s comforting.” She watched Kyle and the second recruit exit the hub. “I want to triple the sentries in this area, and around the other entrances.”

“Consider it done.”

“I think it’s time to retrieve the weapons again. From here on out, I want everyone armed.”

Julianne seemed pleased. She nodded.

Gina could not look away from the large locked door. “This evening, you and I are going to discuss alternative strategies to defend this place… or attack the sanctum directly.”

The Ama-Eskua recruit became very quiet.

Gina turned. “What’s the matter?”

Julianne’s face was stone. “If the Order chooses to attack… in full force… we all will die.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-5

Previous Episode 54-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-4: 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.

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