~~~

Hugh Marten sat on the second landing steps overlooking the large steel entrance door to the Ama-Eskua sanctum below. He took the scabbard off his back and laid the sheathed sword beside him. Hugh scratched his itchy beard and then wiped fresh sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. Aside from always being unnervingly quiet, the old Mother Headquarters was always so damn hot and dark. Like the rest of the facility, the overhead lighting provided just enough light to see just how many areas had been swallowed up in shadows. He took a deep breath and let his heavy eye lids close for a moment.

“Taking a break… again?”

Hugh opened his eyes and sighed. “Big damn door hasn’t changed since the last time I looked at it… or the hundred times before that,” he grumbled. “This is a bullshit detail. While everyone else gets to eat, we’re stuck in this dead-ass place doing nothing!”

A younger man, tall, with dark hair and dark eyes, stood behind him on the landing wearing stainless gray. The tall recruit leaned forward, supporting himself with his black spear, and smiled. “What’s the matter, don’t like the assignments Lady Gina graciously provides? At least you have a real weapon again.”

That was all it took.

Hugh turned around and frowned at the younger man. “Come on, Brent, everyone knows that our Royal Highness has it in for me. She enjoys giving me all the shit details. It’s payback for trying to kill her. Sometimes I wish Lady Clementine hadn’t stopped me.”

“Careful, Hugh,” Brent said mockingly, lowering his voice. “The ghosts in this place might hear you and report your insolence to Lady Gina.”

“Yeah! Well… tough shit! I wish she never came here. We had a good thing going before all these… changes. Now, there’s all these rules about how to behave, and how to think, how to fucking dress—We were warriors before all this, and now, we clean, stand guard, and listen to all that woman’s ‘touchy-feely’ speeches about morality! Give me a damn break! What world does she still think we’re living in, anyway?”

Brent laughed. “It will get better. Hell, at least we’re not all going for each other’s throats anymore. Lady Gina’s bringing us together to fight the real fight… out there.”

Hugh waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Screw all that. I’ve been out there. There’s nothing but death. What we had before was better, when Julianne was still in charge. Now, we just wander around in this dark, desolate place waiting to die of boredom while we guard this old tomb.” Hugh turned toward the sanctum door. “I mean, look at it! Nothing’s coming through that damn thing! No one’s used it in years. It’s probably not even a real door. Just some ceremonial nonsense from a time long before us.”

“Why don’t you tell me how you’re really feeling?” Brent poked.

“I’ll tell you! I’m feeling like somebody has to say something to that lame chick! She’s gotta go! Having us triple up on watching this gloomy place is stupid! No one’s coming to get us. Hell, the Order probably doesn’t even care what we do down here anymore.”

The sound of three rusty bolt latches being released reverberated throughout the hub.

Hugh and Brent turned toward the large metal door.

“What the fuck was that?” Brent whispered.

Hugh shook his head. He reached for his sheathed sword and almost knocked it off the steps.

Brent took a fighting stance with his spear. “Get your shit together, man. Something’s not right.”

Hugh unsheathed his sword and stood up.

Suddenly, the large steel door slowly opened toward them, screeching so loudly that it sounded like a banshee let loose.

“Was that the fucking door?” Brent whispered.

The lower level was haunted by shadows. The door stood open. They could see nothing but darkness within the doorway.

“Shit!” Hugh hissed. “Door’s open. I can’t see shit down there.”

“Where are the other patrols? Think they heard that?”

“They’re on the other side of this big fucking space,” Hugh said.

“We need to get to one of the control rooms and sound the- did you see that?” Brent said.

“See what?”

“There! Right fucking there!” Brent was moving around nervously with his spear, pointing toward the door. He tried to get a better angle on the lower level.

Several dark shapes sprinted out of the doorway, dispersing in different directions and disappearing beneath them.

“Fuck!” Hugh yelled. “They’re under us! Lower level!”

A large metal-on-metal sound caught their attention off to the left.

Huge was stepping back up the steps. “They’re trying to get around us… and behind us!”

More movement from the door.

Hugh turned back. “Shit! They’re playing with us! I think a few more just came in!”

“Where are they?”

“I don’t fucking know!” Hugh said. By now they were both pacing the upper level trying to catch movement below.

“Watch the damn door!” Brent said.

“Fuck that!”

More sounds from the lower level.

Large objects were being tipped over.

The sound of a metallic trashcan rolling beneath the stairs.

Breaking glass somewhere to the right.

Footfalls… lots of them… smacking down hard on metal stairs.

“They’re coming up for us!” Hugh yelled.

“You see ‘em?” Brent was peering down a center stairwell into the lower level.

“Screw this. I’m out of here!”

“Where are you going, you cowardly fuck?”

“There’s too many! We need help!” Hugh said.

“We need to alert the others… sound the fucking alarm and-”

“Brent!” Hugh yelled. He pointed a shaky finger toward him.

Something big came up behind Brent, wrapped two gauntlet-covered arms around his waist, and then pulled him down the landing steps.

And then he was gone.

“Brent?” Hugh whispered.

Brent started screaming below.

Get the fuck out of here! NOW!

Hugh bolted for the southern hub exit.

The terrified older recruit dropped his sword and cleared the landing. He ran faster than he thought possible, hearing only the sound of his own racing heart pounding in his ears. He approached the hub exit. “Hey! Anyone! Sound the alarm! SOUND THE FUCKING ALARM!”

Hugh made it to the exit door. Reached for the handle.

Several arms grabbed him from behind and dragged him back into the darkness.

~~~

The Carrie-Anne made its approach toward the island an hour before dusk.

The foreboding mass of land continued to grow larger and larger as they rounded it, preparing for the final approach on its western side. When the island had first come into view, it had looked like a lifeless black rock in the middle of nowhere. But now, they could make out steep cliffs rising up on the west and northern sides, forming a natural barrier that made reaching the island almost impossible from either side. To the south and east, the land leveled out and they could see one large structure dominating the center of the island, surrounded by fields and tropical forests.

“That place looks like Alcatraz,” Logan remarked, standing near his friends on the bow of the vessel.

Stephen nodded. “Probably just as hard to escape, too.” He looked over at Meredith.

The old medium was sitting on the deck. Megan was resting with her head in Meredith’s lap. Meredith gently stroked the girl’s hair, staring absently toward the water. They had all taken turns resting and talking themselves into the idea of this new and dangerous plan ever since Clementine departed for her cabin. No one knew what to say to Meredith, or what to even ask, sine she’d become distant ever since the island first came into view.

Stephen came over and knelt by the tired-looking woman. He lowered his voice. “You ready for all this?”

Meredith turned, coming out of a trance, and said softly, “Sorry, Stephen. What did you say?”

Stephen laughed. “You’ve been somewhere else ever since your old friend left us. Everything alright?”

She frowned. “That evil woman is neither my friend, nor my sister.” Then she lightened up. “Yes, Stephen, I’m okay. I’ve just got a lot on my mind. What we’re about to do is… terrifying. I’m trying to prepare my mind for what’s coming. If it’s anything like that cavern beneath the orphanage…”

Stephen nodded. “Anything I can do to help?”

She smiled at him. “No. But, thank you.”

Stephen wasn’t finished. “You haven’t told us what you really think about this new plan… or why we’re even joining up with this woman. From what you’ve told us about her, she’s likely to kill every one of us after she gets what she’s after.”

“You are correct.”

“Then… why are we doing exactly what she wants?”

She sighed. “Because Clem’s right, Stephen. We can’t finish this without her.”

“And after?”

Meredith frowned. She looked back at Logan who had moved to the other side of the bow, then turned back and stared into Stephen’s face for a long time. “You’ve been a good friend, Stephen. One of my most consistent friends, too. No matter what you found out about me or after learning what I’d done, you never wavered, not once.”

Stephen averted his eyes. “Well, that’s what friends do.”

She smiled and then became guarded. “When we arrive, I’ll need you and Logan to do something you won’t like. I’ll need you more than ever to be that friend who trusts me… even if you don’t understand. Can you still do that for me?”

Stephen looked hesitant, then answered, “Always. But you’re starting to scare me. What is it?”

“When we arrive in the cavern, I’ll need you and Logan to remain with the ship.”

Stephen shook his head. “No. Sorry, but I can’t do that. We’ve already talked about this. We stick together, remember?”

“Yes,” she said. “But things have changed. I wasn’t expecting all this. Once we’re in that dark place, I’ll be able to protect Clem, Megan, and myself from what comes at us… but you and Logan… will be exposed.”

“Exposed?”

“Exposed to the madness… just like before.”

“I don’t understand. Can’t you just… I don’t know… protect us, too?”

“No, Stephen. That won’t be possible. It’s different for Clem, Megan and I because we are already… acquainted… with that darkness. I wasn’t prepared before, but I am now. When the madness strikes, we will have a much higher threshold before it affects us, too. But you and Logan will not. And once I’m directly engaged with that darkness, I won’t be able to help you both… and you will die.”

Stephen knelt back down and let out a heavy sigh. “I wish you’d mentioned that before.”

“Yes, I could’ve, but it wouldn’t have changed anything.”

“Logan’s going to be pissed.”

“Can you do this for me?” Meredith pleaded.

“It looks like we don’t have a choice,” Stephen reluctantly said. “But what about you? Who’s going to help you when that evil damn sister of yours turns on you?”

She looked down at the sleeping girl and smiled. “I’ll have Megan to watch my back. I would rather she go with you… but I suspect she would kill me herself before staying on the boat.”

“I don’t like any of this,” he said, shaking his head again.

“Logan will listen to you,” Meredith said. “Besides, I’ll need you both to do what we originally talked about.”

Stephen waited.

“You two will have to find a way to get to Gina. I don’t know what she’s mixed up in here, but I suspect Clem has manipulated her. You two need to find her. She’s alone and she’s in trouble, whether she knows it or not. Can you do this for me?”

Stephen smiled. “Let me get this straight. You want us to steal the pirate’s ship and make Captain Carl take us to the other side of the island? Sure, we can do that.”

Meredith smiled. “I didn’t say it would be easy. None of this will be. But you two are all she has now. I wish I could do more.”

Stephen nodded. “I’ll talk to Logan. We’ll… figure it out.”

“Thank you, Stephen.” Again, she stared at him for so long that he started getting uncomfortable.

“Was there… something else?” he asked.

She looked away. “No, Stephen. That was it. Again, you’ve been a good friend—the best. I will always love you for that.”

Stephen frowned and then nodded. He got up to talk to Logan before the wicked witch returned. He looked back at Meredith once. Something about her behavior was… off… and it troubled him a lot. He tried to shake it, but Stephen felt like she’d just said goodbye.

~~~

Conversations at dinner were more tense than usual. Everyone not on watch was present in the installation mess hall having hushed discussions. The recruits were constantly glancing over at Lady Gina’s isolated corner of one table where she and all three Ama-Eskua recruits sat over a large old blueprint of the facility. After the word went out to put away the training Balatos and arm up with legitimate weapons, as well as the increased patrols, especially in the former Headquarters area, all the recruits were regressing back into battle mode.

Lady Gina had told them to expect a possible attack on the facility, but she had not given the enemy a name. Some suspected that all this preparation was for a surprise drill, while others were simply excited by the possibility that this was not… and that would mean blood. Either way, the recruits were amped up for a fight.

Gina sat in between Julianne and the third Ama-Eskua recruit, the youngest of the three. He went by the name, Gilo, and his appearance and mannerisms were as peculiar as his name. Gilo did not speak much, but when he did, he usually had something useful to say. Ever since becoming a recruit of the Order, Gilo had chosen to shave his head bald (no one knew why), which made him look much older than twelve. Gilo wore a katana strapped across his back, which seemed far too big for his small frame, making him look ridiculous with it on. Julianne had assured Gina that, despite his age, Gilo was an excellent swordsman, and of the three Ama-Eskua recruits—the most lethal in combat.

Gina wore a pained expression as she struggled to understand the old blueprint. She continued to wear her own Balato strapped across her back to serve as a reminder to the others not to abuse their privileges of getting weapons back. She also wore a hand axe strapped to her side.

She pointed at two long lines on the blueprint and said, “What about here? This looks like it goes right under the sanctum?”

Gilo leaned over the blueprint, then shook his head. “No. That’s a water main. Won’t work.”

Gina leaned back in frustration. “That fucking place is as secure as a prison.” She looked over at Gilo and smiled. “Thanks.”

Gilo nodded and continued to study the blueprint.

Regardless of his skill with the sword, Gina had already discovered how intelligent he was. “You remind me of a friend of mine,” she told him. “He was a bit like you—a jack of all trades.”

Gilo looked up with a blank expression.

Gina laughed lightly. “He just had a bit more hair than you. Ever consider growing a beard, Gilo?”

This made Julianne smirk.

Gilo just gave her a bland look, then finally said, “Ah… that was joke. Correct?”

“Yes, Gilo,” Gina said, trying to hold in her amusement.

Gilo nodded and then said with a straight face. “That was very funny, Lady Gina.”

His dead pan response made both Gina and Julianne laugh. Gina shook her head, “I’ve got to get you out more, Gilo.”

Gilo looked puzzled. “I thought we were trying to get into the sanctum… not further away from it.”

Gina just stared at the young man. “Are you fucking with me, Gilo?”

Gilo smiled, a rarity. “Yes, Lady Gina.”

Gina laughed hard and clapped her hands.

Julianne just shook her head, trying to contain her own amusement.

The only one of the four who seemed completely oblivious to the conversation was the long-haired Ama-Eskua recruit, Kyle, who tugged at his ponytail and sighed. He was no longer wielding a steel pipe.  Instead, he carried a black spear.

Gina stopped laughing and frowned at the young man, who sat directly across the table. “I’m sorry, Kyle,” she said. “Are we boring you?”

Kyle dropped his ponytail and sat up. “No, Lady Gina.” He never looked her in the eyes when forced to address her.

“Well… what is it, then?’ Gina pushed.

At first, Kyle did not respond.

Julianne kicked him beneath the table.

He turned to her and glared.

“Lady Gina has asked you a question. Answer it,” she ordered.

Kyle sighed and said, “It’s not my place to disagree. I am merely a recruit,” he said, with a hint of sarcasm.

Julianne looked on the verge of reaching across the table and punching him.

Gina shook her off with a look. She turned to the disgruntled recruit. “It’s okay, Kyle. I know you don’t like me… and that’s fine. There are days that I don’t like me much either. But if you have something to add to this discussion, even if you don’t agree with my plans, then feel free to speak up.”

Kyle glared at her this time. “Why are we trying to breach the sanctum? They have done nothing to provoke us. I find it difficult to believe that the Ama-Eskua wish to eliminate us. We have been here on this island, long before you arrived, and have never needed to feel threatened by the Order. What would provoke them now?” He said the last, letting his eyes linger on her deliberately.

Gina smirked at him. “That sounds a little like an accusation.”

“Just an observation… and an unanswered question,” he said, looking away.

This time Gina wanted to reach across and hit him. She took a breath. “We are preparing for any and all possibilities right now. As I’ve explained, Lady Clementine told me herself that the Order may try to take advantage in her absence… and that they might come for us.”

Kyle nodded. “As you’ve said.”

“Watch your tone,” Julianne cautioned.

The young recruit could not hold back. He glared at Julianne and said, “And you! How can you just sit there and condone this? This is our Order! And yet, here we are, planning some assault on the Ama-Eskua. How can you stomach that?”

“Keep your voice down,” Gina said.

He turned to her. “Why? If the Order is planning to wipe us out, then why keep it from the rest of them?”

Julianne rose to her feet and placed a hand on the hilt of her sheathed sword. “I will not tell you again. You will show Lady Gina respect… or I will-”

“Enough!” Gina hissed. “Both of you… calm the hell down. Julianne…sit!”

With reluctance, Julianne sat back down, but she refused to break eye contact with Kyle.

Kyle just smirked at her.

Gina sighed. “Look, Kyle. I hope you’re right. In fact, so does Lady Clementine. We’re not looking to start some war with the Order. They may or they may not attack us. The reason I’m keeping it from the others is to not put a sour taste in their mouths about the Ama-Eskua. But… if they do attack… we will be ready to defend ourselves by any means necessary. Is that clear?”

Kyle looked away from Julianne and relaxed. He finally nodded.

“Good,” Gina said, adding a sigh. “Now, can we all pretend to be friends long enough to take the ‘threat’ seriously? Just in case?”

“Of course,” Julianne said. She looked at Kyle.

“Whatever you say… Lady Gina,” he relented.

“I found it,” Gilo calmly said.

They’d all forgotten about the quiet boy who had continued to study the blueprint through their tense discussion.

“Come again, Gilo?” Gina said.

Gilo looked up with a smile. “I’ve found a way into the sanctum.”

Before anyone could respond, a loud buzzing alarm sounded.

All the recruits stood up, reaching for their weapons. They all looked to Gina.

“That’s the hub alarm!” Julianne said. “That can only mean one thing!”

Kyle looked to Gina with a confused and apologetic look.

“To late for ‘I told you so’s’,” she told him. she glanced at all three of them and said, “Nothing else matters now. Put your fucking issues on pause and get ready.”

They all nodded and followed her from the table.

“Alright!” Gina said to the recruits. “We are under attack. There’s no time for questions or for keeping you in the dark any longer. The Ama-Eskua have breached the hub.” She took a deep breath. “They intend to eliminate all of us while Lady Clementine is absent.”

The recruits’ faces were a mixture of shock, confusion, fear and anger.

Gina pulled out her hand axe. “Get those fucking looks off your faces! I don’t care what you believe about our odds of defeating them. Shake it off! They’re still men and women just like you! And they bleed just like you! The worst that can happen is death… and we’ve all been living with that ever since the world went insane! So, clear your fucking heads… find some steel within you, and fight! Fight with all that you have! Fight for each other! Our very existence is at stake. Am I clear?”

“Yes,” they said weakly.

Gina turned her fire on all of them. They could almost feel it radiating from her cold, dark stare. “That’s not good enough! AM I CLEAR?”

“YES!” they all roared.

“You know what to do! We’ve trained for this!” She lifted her hand axe into the air. Everyone in the room lifted their weapons likewise. “Tonight… fuck gray! We will all be wearing BLOOD!”

~~~

Next Episode 54-8

Previous Episode 54-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-7: 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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