Archive for the ‘horror fiction’ Category

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Hello everyone. Just wanted to give you a quick update on postings this week. I’ve been busting my ass trying to get this finale chapter done. I wanted it finished by Halloween, but alas, that just isn’t happening.

I won’t be posting today. I’m going to post on Wednesday and Thursday this week, and possibly a double posting on Halloween (fingers crossed). I already have two episodes but I want the extra time to push and get the third one done, too. As far as the schedule for next week, I’ll keep you posted. This week is already getting busy for me.

Other than that, last word count I had for Book Six was 270,000 words, officially making it the longest book in the series (and that just keeps happening with each new book… lol).

Well, back to work. See you Wednesday and I hope you all have awesome shit planned for Halloween.

-Scott

~~~

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~~~

The fishing vessel continued to cut across glassy waters toward the island. Megan Bishop stood with her back facing the lake, cornered in by the aft-end guard rails for support. Though the lake was mostly calm, she could still feel the movement of the ship, causing her stomach to turn. She kept staring nervously toward the front of the vessel, to where Meredith and the foul-smelling woman in red had gone, yearning desperately for Meredith’s return.

“Relax, Megan,” Stephen Eddington said. “She’ll be okay. Meredith can handle herself.”

Megan looked to her right at the former school teacher leaned over the guard rail beside her.

He was staring into the vessel’s wake, smiling contently, as a light breeze ruffled his shoulder length hair.

To Megan, he was acting like some tourist on a pleasure cruise, oblivious to their situation. “How are you so calm?” she said.

Stephen turned to her and flashed another smile.

Under normal circumstances, if her anxiety, her darker side, and her stomach were not at war within, she would’ve soaked in that smile like the sun. Stephen never once looked at her the way others did, immediately becoming a mirror to her abnormalities. His eyes were always kind, reminding her that although she was a monster… she was also a woman.

She looked away, now adding guilt to the assault of emotions she presently experienced.

Stephen laughed lightly. “You’ve never been on a boat before, have you?”

She shook her head. “Actually, I have. I didn’t like it much then, either.”

“Motion sickness is fairly common.”

Logan McCalister, who had been half praying to God on their behalf, and half cursing the ‘devils of the deep’, as he called them, finally threw up over the guard rail on the other side of the boat. “Praise, God!” he declared, flopping down on the deck and raising his hands to the heavens.

Stephen turned to him. “You okay?”

“I’m good, little brother,” he said, dismissing them with a shaky hand. “The Lord has granted me victory over this damn unnatural means of traveling!” The big preacher mumbled a few choice profanities, then rested his arms across his knees, laid his head down, and continued to pray. Stephen had seen this before. Logan was in what he called, ‘warfare mode’, when it came to this sort of praying.

Stephen turned back to Megan and tried to hide his amusement. “As you can see… it’s quite common. Try not to focus on the movement and find something else to distract you.” He stared back toward the wake. “I’ve always loved being out on the water. There’s just something… humbling… about it. I should’ve done this a lot more back in the day.”

Megan gave him a stern look. “Where headed toward Death Island with some red-robed witch who just happens to be the scary girl, all grown up, from Meredith’s nightmare bedtime stories. How can you just… ‘not’ think about ‘that’?”

Stephen’s smile faded. He gave her a sad, distant look. “I’m trying not to think about a lot of things,” he said. “A lot of things that no longer matter because they’re gone.”

Megan waited.

“Meredith will need us for what happens next. There’s a good chance we might die trying to end all of this, and I’ve made my peace with that.” He shook his head and laughed at himself. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we’re so close to the end now, so close to our own mortality, that it’s making every moment between here and there so much more… meaningful.” He paused and finished, “I guess the word I’m looking for is ‘vital’.” He stared at her and smiled again. “I’ll be scared shitless when we arrive, but right now, I just feel… alive.”

Megan smiled. “I think I understand. I only wish that the part of me that was still… alive… could feel what you feel right now. All I have left… is the anger… and the sadness.” She was surprised by her admission. She immediately threw up her shields. “Sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying.”

Stephen gave her a gentle look and nodded. “You’ve nothing to be sorry about. And I believe you feel more than you realize. You’re a very compassionate young woman who feels… everything… so intensely, that it causes you to shut down.”

Megan was speechless.

He smiled. “But I’ve seen you with Meredith. I’ve seen the way you fight for the ones you care about. We wouldn’t even be here if not for you. So, don’t sell yourself short. You’re more alive than any of us.”

She looked away, wrestling against the waves of overpowering emotions threatening to betray her. “Thank you,” she said meekly. “That was… I mean… sometimes I…” She looked up into Stephen’s gaze and couldn’t turn away. “Speaking about what’s vital… and since, as you pointed out, this might be our last moments alive… I’d like to tell you something… something I’ve kept locked up inside.”

“Go on,” Stephen encouraged. “No need to keep anything inside anymore. You know all my secrets already.”

She smiled. “I… what I mean to say… you’ve always been so good to me… you never made me feel like a freak… and I… well… I think I… what I mean is… I don’t think… I know… shit!” She took a breath. “What I’m trying to say, very poorly, Stephen… is that I-”

“Can I get you all something to drink?” a tan, lanky young woman with short red hair interrupted. She was barefoot, wearing baggy jeans and a dark blue tank top. She could almost be mistaken for a man due to her plain-Jane appearance.

Megan’s defenses went way up as she crouched down and glared at the woman.

Logan slowly got to his feet, then looked to Stephen. This was the first time they had seen anyone else on the boat since Clementine escorted them on board and disappeared with Meredith, shortly after the ship left the dock. They’d all just assumed they were being watched, under guard, from the pilot house.

Surprisingly, the woman was not armed. She was alone. The woman just stood there, hands behind her back, waiting for them to answer.

“No… thank you?” Stephen finally said. “We’re fine.”

The woman nodded with a forced smile. She turned to the strange creature with dark grey eyes and frowned.

Megan stepped forward and approached the girl with a sour look on her face. “Get away from us,” she snarled.

The woman stepped back.

“No need to get snippy, young lady,” a voice called out from above them. “Laura’s just trying to be hospitable.”

They all looked up toward the back of the pilot house. A heavy-set bald man with a long, bushy mustache, wearing an old beat-up parka, was leaning against the upper deck rail, scrutinizing them out of one good eye while puffing on a pipe. His right eye was covered by a black eye patch.

Logan chuckled. “Mother apparently has… pirates?”

The man pointed his pipe toward the big preacher and said, “You’re not much to look at, either, my big tattooed friend. But you don’t hear me making snide remarks about it.”

Stephen gave the preacher a cautious look.

Logan rolled his eyes at him, then folded his big arms across his chest and addressed the bald man. “My apologies. I meant no offense. It’s just… well… this boat ride has not been what we expected.”

“Ship,” the bald man corrected sternly.

“Pardon?”

“You can intimidate Laura and poke fun at my appearance… but insult Carrie-Anne again, and I’ll throw all of you off my vessel.”

Logan gave the bald man a confused look while scratching at his beard. “I’m sorry… who is, Carrie-Anne?”

“He’s talking about his ship,” Megan clarified. “Carrie-Anne is the name of this vessel… and apparently, she doesn’t like being referred to as a ‘boat’.”

“Smart young lady, that one is,” the bald man said. “She the brains of this outfit?”

Before Stephen or Logan could speak, Megan said, “Of course.” She then winked at the others.

This made the bald man laugh. He sized them all up, took a long drag off his pipe, then exhaled. When the smoke cleared, he said with a serious face, “Name’s Sinbad… Captain Sinbad.”

Logan’s eyebrows went up. “Seriously?”

The bald man could no longer keep a straight face. “No… of course not,” he laughed. “But you can call me Carl… Captain Carl… if you like.”

The big preacher looked to Megan and Stephen then pointed at Captain Carl, letting out an infectious laugh. “Shit! He got me!”

Stephen shook his head at him and smiled.

Megan just rolled her eyes.

Captain Carl took another big hit off his pipe and then coughed out the smoke, while laughing. “You guys are alright,” he said. Carl turned to Laura.

The young woman looked confused and didn’t know whether to stay where she was or return to the pilot house. She gave Captain Carl a pleading look.

“Come on back,” he told her. “Our… guests… as the Red Lady keeps calling them, don’t require your services at the moment.”

Laura was clearly relieved. She started back up the port side stairwell, then disappeared into the pilot house.

“You’ll have to excuse her,” he told his guests. “Laura gets all worked up whenever we’re transporting ‘special’ folk. It’s much harder to relax.”

“You don’t seem affected,” Stephen remarked.

The bald captain laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve been doing this shit long before the world lost its mind, young man. Monsters may own the mainland, but the Sea…well… she doesn’t give a shit.” He stood up and opened his arms wide, staring out at the lake. “Strange times have always come and gone… but none of it ever mattered out here… and it never will.”

Stephen smiled. “That’s… refreshing.” He then added, “You said, ‘the sea’. Clearly this is a lake. Are all bodies of water considered ‘the sea’ when spoken of like a person?”

Captain Carl laughed again and ignored the question. “So, what should I call you three, or should I just make up names?”

“You mean you don’t already know?” Megan said suspiciously.

Carl laughed. “Clever girl. You’re right, of course. I was just being polite.”

“That’s Megan,” Stephen said. He turned to the preacher. “This big, green-faced fellow is Logan.”

“Yeah, I’ve already noticed the lack of sea legs on that one,” Carl laughed.

Logan seemed less amused.

“And I’m Stephen.”

“Nice to meet you folks. I’m sorry it isn’t under better circumstances… but as the saying goes: I just work here.”

Megan scoffed at that. “That attitude must make it easy for you and your crew to just turn a blind eye to all that’s going on. You, and the fucking Sea, share that indifference.”

Carl just smiled, studying the girl with his one good eye.

“You’ll have to forgive Megan,” Stephen said. “She can be very blunt at times. She means no disrespect—to you, your crew… or the Sea. We’re all on edge. You do understand what’s happening, don’t you?”

“No worries,” Captain Carl assured him. He looked to Megan. “As for the rest, I don’t ask questions regarding who we transport. As long as no one brings their business aboard my ship… then the rest has nothing to do with me.”

“That’s bullshit,” Megan said. “It’s people like you who just watch the world fall apart from a distance that let people, like that evil woman you work for, do whatever the hell they want… to anyone.”

Captain Carl took another hit off his pipe, then patiently added, “Young lady, for all I know, you, your friends, and the Red Woman, are all up to no good. But that’s not my business. I currently make the occasional runs between the island to the mainland. That’s my only involvement with whatever’s happening on either end. The Red Woman provides me goods and services, and a whole hell of a lot of fuel to make these runs for her. It’s just business.”

“Well, since you haven’t been paying attention,” Megan pushed. “The world’s gone to shit. And either you’re part of the problem, or you’re trying to stop it. No one gets to be neutral anymore. That’s how people acted in the old world… but not anymore.”

Captain Carl smiled. “No offence intended, but judging by what’s happened to you, Megan, I’d say getting involved didn’t land you on the better end of anything.”

Megan looked away. She was fuming.

“Where is this island we’re travelling to?” Stephen asked, wanting to end this discussion before it escalated. “It looks like we’re headed toward Put-In-Bay.”

“You’re close,” Carl said. “We’re headed northwest across the lake, well above Put-In-Bay Island, and into Canadian waters… not that borders matter anymore. All that shit is now are old lines on a chart.”

Stephen nodded. “How big is this island?”

Before Captain Carl could respond, he looked to his right. Meredith and Clementine were headed aft along the port side of the ship. He became all business, standing up straight. He gave Stephen, Logan and Megan a final glance, and then said, “Well, it was nice meeting you fine folks. I’ll see you all when we dock.” Carl turned and entered the pilot house without another word.

Meredith was immediately relieved to find her friends safe. She smiled at Megan.

Megan relaxed and smiled back. Then she noticed the Red Woman behind her and gave her a threatening look.

Clementine, amused by the hybrid’s reaction to her, whispered to Meredith, “Is your… pet… safe, or will she require a leash?”

Meredith ignored her. “Megan, honey,” she said. “It’s alright. Nothing’s happened.”

Megan nodded, then tried to reel in her anger as she gripped the guardrail fiercely. She forced herself to stare at the deck and concentrated on breathing.

Stephen and Logan came over to meet her as Clementine stopped a few feet back and waited.

Before anyone could bombard her with questions, Meredith raised her hands and said, “I need you all to listen, please. We don’t have much time.”

They all waited.

Meredith frowned, feeling Clementine’s eyes drilling into the back of her head. “Me and… my old friend… have had a lengthy discussion about many things. But what matters now is the island… and Toby.”

“You’ve talked with her about all that?” Logan said, lowering his voice, and glancing behind her at the strange robed woman.

“Yes,” Meredith said. “We’ve discussed the state of the island to some length… and have decided that it’s in everyone’s best interest… to help each other.”

They were all shocked.

Meredith raised her hands before they could object. “Please… we haven’t much time. And there’s a lot-”

“What Meredith is trying to say,” Clementine interrupted, losing patience, “is that you all need me to take out Toby, as much as I need Meredith to get me within striking distance.” The old woman stepped up next to Meredith and stared at them all with an unnerving smile. “That was the plan, yes? Hunt down Toby’s body, destroy it, and cut off his connection to our world, or at least, his ability to affect it.”

Meredith sighed. “Yes, Clem. I was just about to-”

“Well, then, let’s get to it,” Clementine continued. “Toby’s body is in a cavern at the base of a cliff on the western shore of the island. The cave opening is big enough for a ship this size, and deep enough to dock before the tides shift.”

Meredith took over, staring into the confused faces of her friends. “Clem has told me that Toby has become too dangerous for even Mother to condone bringing him into our world. She has tried several times to kill him, herself, but Clem can’t get close enough.”

“So, what does that mean for us?” Megan said.

Clementine turned. “It means, child, that Toby’s body is in a place beneath the island, much like the cavern beneath the orphanage.” She turned to the rest of them. “You all remember that place, don’t you? How unstable it was? Well, this cavern is where Toby intends to cross over from. He tried to snatch Meredith away beneath the orphanage but was unable to hold on to her. The fact that he believed he was strong enough to do it, shows his own arrogance and his overestimation in his abilities. That will be to our advantage. However, the boundary between this world and Toby’s world is still paper thin beneath the island. The only difference is that Toby has managed to keep this location stable. And he will be able to seize Meredith if we’re not quick and precise.”

“What Clem means, is that this second cave is essentially Toby’s doorway… and I’m his key. This… second cave… is where he’s been primarily operating from. He can affect our world through the cracks from this doorway, but he is unable to fit through it.”

“So, the damn door’s been left ajar, thanks to Mother,” Logan started, “and this Toby keeps sticking his head through it and messing with us.”

Clementine laughed at the analogy. “That is essentially correct. I have tried to slam that door shut, but I am unable, even with my reach… and Toby is aware of this.” She turned to Meredith. “Your friend, and my sister, is the only one who can get us into that cave without us all succumbing to madness… or much worse. Once inside, I will be able to locate the real Toby—the brain-dead patient that this ‘entity’ originally used to establish a connection to our world—and destroy it. Once that is accomplished, Toby’s strength will be cut off. And then it’s just a matter of sealing off the cave permanently so no one ever dabbles with that door again.”

Meredith nodded. “I believe Clem is telling us the truth… despite what I’ve told you about her.”

Clementine gave her a nasty look.

“I can’t protect us in this place beneath the island… and stand up against whatever Toby might send against us. I’m not strong enough for this.” Meredith frowned at her old friend. “But together… with our combined abilities… Clem and I believe we can end this and stop Toby.”

The others looked doubtful and afraid.

“I’ve instructed the captain of this vessel to keep us a mile off the coast until sunset. That’s the next window in the tide table that will allow us to get into the cavern,” Clementine said. “I would suggest you all take the time to rest and work out your suspicions toward me.” She turned to Meredith. “If there’s nothing else right now, Meredith, I will excuse myself and head below to prepare.”

Meredith said nothing.

“Very well.” She smiled at her old friend. “I wish our reunion could’ve been under different circumstances. Maybe when this is all over-”

“When this is finished, Clem… I never want to see you again,” Meredith said.

Clementine’s face was stone. The old woman nodded. She turned toward the cabin, ignoring the rest of them.

“One more thing,” Meredith called back.

Clementine stopped.

“You told me that Gina came back with you willingly… but you never told me why. What is her involvement in all of this?”

Clementine turned around and said, “Toby is expecting me to deliver you to him after sunset. The fact that you’ve blocked him out will not be surprising… but that I’ve blocked him out, too… well… this may make him suspicious or he may simply believe that you’re doing it. Either way, I don’t want his eyes on me when we arrive.”

“And Gina?”

“While we enter the cavern, Gina will be helping us topside.”

“Helping us how?”

The robed woman smiled. “She will be providing us a… distraction.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-7

Previous Episode 54-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-6: 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.

~~~

Lady Clementine’s fishing vessel departed Fairport Harbor and was directed northwest toward Mother’s mysterious island. The morning presented calm seas with a warm summer breeze. An indifferent sun started its dying circuit across the day. Aside from the souls on board the solitary vessel, Lake Erie appeared to be just another void in the new world.

The red robed woman led Meredith toward the bow of the vessel where a large beach blanket was spread out over the deck.

“Please,” the robed woman started, waving an old bony hand toward the blanket. “I know it’s not like our late-night conversations in your old room with a flashlight to scare off the monsters… but it’s the best I could do under the circumstances.” The old woman flashed her a smile.

Meredith trembled looking into this woman’s ancient face. My, God! She looks a hundred years old! What have you done to yourself, Clem? She shook off the thought, and looked away from the robed woman, staring down at the blanket. Meredith moved toward the right side, as close to the outer edge of the blanket as she could. Here we go. Stay alert. Expect anything.

Clementine slowly sat down across from her, adjusting the folds of her large red robe around her legs.

Both women sat in silence for a moment, studying each other’s faces, as if peering into portals at the past.

Meredith looked back toward the stern of the boat, turned back, and said, “Should anything happen to my friends on this boat ride…”

Clementine laughed lightly, raising her eyebrows. “My, oh, my! It really is you behind that stranger’s face, isn’t it?” she said. “I was starting to have my doubts—but that old fire behind your eyes…”

Meredith sighed. “My friends?”

“Yes, yes.” Clementine waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing will happen to them. Their needs and comfort are being attended to while we catch up. You’ve nothing to fear from me, Meredith.”

Tell that to our sisters you murdered at the orphanage, she thought.

Clementine could feel her old friend’s accusing eyes, but nothing else. Her attempts to probe Meredith’s mind was like trying to scale Mount Everest with only a spoon. Her smile faltered slightly, then returned. “You are not the woman I expected,” she said. “Not at all like the frightened and confused little girl I remember who despised what she was… and what she was capable of.”

Meredith said nothing, refusing to walk into that verbal trap. She sensed Clementine’s probing immediately. She smiled and said, “I’ve as many questions as you do, Clem… and nothing to hide. Rather than attempting to invade my mind, why don’t you just ask.”

Clem laughed in surprise and lightly clapped her hands. “Indeed! Not what I expected… at all! Shame on me for believing you had neglected your gifts. Clearly, I was wrong. Forgive me, I had to make the attempt.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Meredith said. “Let’s stop pretending we’re two little girls having a sleepover like dear old friends and get down to it. You can keep on poking at me with your abilities, but you won’t gain anything that way.”

Clementine’s face went dark for a moment.

“And there you are,” Meredith said, with a smile. “I don’t need to probe your thoughts to see that you haven’t changed over the years. You are still that unstable girl that I remember.”

The robed woman quickly reeled in her temper and smiled. “So, you do remember. Has your memory been completely restored?”

“Yes.”

Clementine nodded. “Okay, Meredith. I won’t insult you again. Clearly we are both women who have set aside our childish ways… and have become… formidable.”

Meredith had no response to that.

Clementine laughed. “Let’s not do this. I don’t want to fight with you or play games. Believe it or not, a part of me was really looking forward to seeing you again.”

Meredith frowned. “How are you here? And what is your role in all of this? I assume you work for Mother, now… or rather, Toby.”

Clementine gave her old friend an amused look. “I assume you’re blocking him out right now, too… is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then we can talk openly with each other. You are much stronger than I ever imagined. I’m a little impressed, but not surprised. Between the new face, which I would love to talk to you about at length, and the immense walls you’ve built up in your mind, it all still reminds me of the girl I once knew.”

Meredith sighed. “How so?”

“While I have embraced my ‘gifts’ and my destiny, all you’ve seemed to achieve with yours is an uncanny ability to hide. I can see why Mother…and Toby… has had a hard time keeping track of you over the years.” She shifted gears. “You know, there is no shame in who we are, Meredith. And now, we don’t have to hide it from the world any longer. That garbage we were taught at the orphanage… about hiding it from the world… that was just a means to keep us under control.”

Meredith stared into Clem’s old face and said, “I’ve paid a heavy price for ‘who’ I am… and so have you, judging by your appearance. Clearly you know this as well as I.”

Clementine nodded. “Yes, there is a price. Always a price. My abilities have taken a heavy toll on these old bones. But it won’t matter for much longer.”

“Why is that?”

Clementine just smiled. “We’ve a long boat ride ahead of us. Let’s try to clear the air, shall we? We both have many questions. I’ll answer what I can… truthfully. And maybe after… we will have cleared up a lot of misunderstandings.”

Meredith took advantage of the opportunity to knock Clem off-balance. “Okay, I’ll go first. Last I knew, you were captured by Mother after slaughtering an orphanage full of young girls. How does one go from an enemy of Mother… to apparently… a position of power?”

Clementine nodded. “Good. Let’s get that awful mess over with. I assume you read the files in Labyrinth Level 1?”

“Yes.”

Clementine shook her head and frowned. “That cavern beneath the orphanage is a very unstable place. You were incredibly fortunate to get out of there in one piece… or… in several pieces. Places like that attack the mind in unspeakable ways. Most people never leave the same way they entered. How did you-”

“The girls,” Meredith pushed. “Why? Why would you do such a horrible thing?”

Clementine’s eyes turned to stone. “Did your files mention that they attacked me, first?”

Meredith shook her head.

“No, of course not,” the robed woman continued. She looked away. “When I found out you were missing… I was… heartbroken.”

“You mean after what you did to Claudia?”

Clementine ignored the shot. “You were my only friend in that despicable place. After Mother snatched you away, I was lost… alone. No one else seemed to care that you were gone, except me. Then, while I was out walking one night, I found you in the fields. I don’t know how you got away, or where you were, but somehow you made it back. But Finch was there. He’d knocked you out, or something. I thought he was our friend, but he was trying to take you back to them! I tried to talk to him, reason with him first… but he wouldn’t listen to me. He threatened me and told me to go back inside.” Clementine looked up into Meredith’s eyes and put on her best performance. “What was I to do? I was afraid! Afraid they’d come after me next for knowing what I knew; afraid to do nothing and just let him take you away again. I already knew what everyone thought of me. Everyone hated me and wanted me gone. It was up to me to save you, Meredith! And I did what I had to do to stop that man!”

Meredith’s face was unreadable. “So… you killed Finch… to save me. Then when everyone else arrived… they saw the perfect opportunity to blame you for everything.”

“Yes!” Clementine said. “That’s exactly what happened, Meredith! I tried to explain what happened. I didn’t mean to kill Finch… I just… took it too far. But they didn’t want to listen. Miss Evans brought men with guns. They would’ve shot me down, if not for you. Then… then the girls all turned on me, too! They all let their hate for me out and came at me. What was I supposed to do? I was afraid… and so… well, you know the rest.”

“I don’t believe you,” Meredith said, with no emotion. “I believe that’s the story you’ve been telling yourself all these years to justify what you did, and maybe, you’ve come to believe it.”

Clementine just stared. She was surprised Meredith’s rejection hurt as much as it did. She balled up her fists beneath her robe and closed her eyes, trying to keep her composure. She opened them and finally said, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, Meredith. I just wanted you to hear it from me… and not from some cold words written down in a report that sealed my fate and ended my childhood.”

Meredith nodded. “And after all that death… what happened?”

Clementine looked around the small bow, breathing in the fresh air. She smiled and said, “While you were hiding from your destiny, living out your lie of a life under a dead’s girl’s name, I spent what was left of my youth in a dark room, smaller than the bow of this ship, at the end of a long, forgotten underground hallway. I was continuously drugged to keep my mind dull, poked and prodded by scientists who did everything short of dissecting me to figure out what made me tick, and then eventually just left alone to rot in the darkness.”

“That’s… that’s awful.”

Clementine nodded absently, then stared past Meredith into the gently rolling waves. “You say you don’t believe my story. So be it. It really doesn’t matter. I’m not seeking your forgiveness. You weren’t even conscious… so what the hell do you know.” She turned to Meredith with an angry gleam in her eye. “I paid for what I did to those girls, to Finch… and then some. And all of it to protect you. But I was just a frightened girl with the ability to do monstrous things to people. I didn’t understand… I didn’t have anyone to help me understand. You were my only friend, Meredith, and you were long gone, too.” She turned away and sighed. “After Mother branded me ‘Monster’, and they no longer saw a terrified child… well… let me just say that once a human being is no longer seen as one, it becomes very easy to dispose of conscience, like throwing away some worn out pair of socks. That’s how they became… as they performed ‘monstrous’ things on me.”

Meredith felt surprisingly sad. “I… I didn’t know that part. I’m very sorry that happened to you. Even after what you did… no one deserves that.”

“Thank you.” Clementine wiped a surprising bit of moisture from the corner of her left eye and stared at it. She laughed. “That was… much harder to talk about then I imagined.” She stared at Meredith. “But I’m glad I got to share that with you. It’s one less burden on my chest.”

“What did you mean when you said, ‘lie of a life under a dead girl’s name’?”

Clementine nodded. “Yes, good idea. Let’s move on from this dreary subject. I was referring to your little magic trick, of course. You know, the one where you left your body, escaped Mother’s highly secure facility, and then ended up in the body you presently wear.”

“You called it a ‘lie’,” Meredith clarified.

Clementine gave her a pained expression. “Surely, you’ve figured it out by now, haven’t you?”

Meredith frowned. “I know that Hannah… that she… worked for Mother.”

The robed woman pretended to care. “The short of it, Meredith, is that they found you eventually, then placed someone they could trust to keep an eye on you after you left the dead child’s home.”

Meredith looked away and nodded.

“It wasn’t until your abilities reemerged that they were able to locate you. Mother had already spent a great deal of time and resources establishing that network to monitor… people like us.”

“I thought I was free,” Meredith said, remembering her haunted past. “I was foolish to believe that. After I… became the brain-dead girl… after I became Michelle… I embraced it—almost believed it, too. It was wonderful to be loved, to have a mother, even if she wasn’t my own.”

Clementine nodded. “A wonderful lie, indeed. I can’t blame you for holding on to it for as long as you could.”

Meredith looked at her. “It didn’t last. I couldn’t pretend to be Michelle any more than her mother could pretend to love this strange girl wearing her dead child’s face. I think we both needed it for a while, but the strain, the distance was always there. She knew. Call it a mother’s intuition… I don’t know. But Michelle’s mother sensed there was something ‘off’ about her little girl. We kept up the farce for as long as we could… but then my abilities started to come back.”

Clementine leaned in. “And in all that time you spent wearing this face, you remembered nothing… from before?”

“For the most part, yes. What I did remember were scattered images that made little sense, like waking up from some strange dream that quickly fades. I knew who I was beneath this face, but so much of my life was hidden in the dark.”

Clementine leaned back. “And when your abilities resurfaced, I assume the strain between you and your new family got worse.”

“I didn’t let it get that far,” Meredith said. “I was a legal adult by then. I went away… and never came back. Many lonely years past… until I met Hannah.” She stopped, as a whirlwind of emotions attempted to overwhelm her. “Even now, knowing what I know about her, I still want to believe that what we had together… was real on some level.”

Clementine’s face turned to stone. “It was all bullshit, Meredith,” she said coldly.

Meredith gave her a hateful glance.

“I’m just being honest with you. The sooner you understand how… diabolical… Mother was and stop putting your emotions out there as an easy target, the stronger you will be.”

“You mean, so I can become a cold and heartless killer… like you?”

“Hannah was a tool, just as much as you were… as was I. Mother didn’t care about any of us. I wasn’t involved with anything that happened to you during those years, Meredith, but I’ve read your file, too.”

“You keep speaking of Mother in the past tense,” Meredith said.

Clementine smiled. “A lot has changed, Meredith, in the years you’ve been away. In fact, it was your escape that started quite a shitstorm back then, so I’ve come to understand.”

Meredith waited.

Clementine sighed. “The past is such a heavy burden, don’t you think? We carry so much, you and me. It’s refreshing to have someone to talk to about all of this, someone who can understand.”

“There is a lot I still don’t understand,” Meredith confessed.

Clementine laughed. “Well, I’ll try to fill you in.” The robed woman tilted her head toward the partly cloudy sky, closed her eyes, and continued. “I spent so much time in that dark room that it’s still difficult for me, after all this time, to adjust… out here.”

“What you went through sounds unbearable.”

She opened her eyes and smiled. “I wasn’t completely honest with you, Meredith. I wasn’t entirely alone in the darkness. Toby was there. He spoke with me often after I was locked up. Something he hadn’t done since before you showed up at that orphanage and ruined everything.”

Meredith didn’t know how to respond to that.

“I don’t blame you… not anymore. I was just a young and confused girl back then. I hated you for how much Toby favored you over me. I was the special one before you came along. I was the one who was supposed to achieve great things under his guidance. But that was all bullshit, too. Just like the life Forrester and Finch set up for you under the dead girl’s name. All they wanted was to keep you as far away from Mother as they could. No one had our best interests in mind, Meredith. No one really cared about a couple of freak girls.”

“Someone was looking out for you,” Meredith corrected. “It would appear that you’ve done rather well for yourself.”

Clementine laughed and shook her head. “Appearances are certainly deceiving. Yes, yes, I’m… respected… these days. But it wasn’t always like this. After the old regime lost control, Toby was furious. When you disappeared, it set the organization into a tailspin. Apparently, there were doubters within the fold who were just looking for an opportunity to rise out of the shadows and… change… the direction Mother was headed in. There was quite a few who did not desire to serve Toby’s interests.”

Meredith raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying that Mother was dealing with its own insurrection?”

“Something like that. Those fools. They had no idea what they’d unearthed. All they saw was power. But they had no idea what they were meddling with… or who. When they’d discovered the first doorway into the darkness that you and I are well-acquainted with, they thought they’d tapped into some other dimension, believing that if they could find a way to simply step through it… that they would tap into a whole new world of resources beyond anyone’s comprehension.”

“You’re saying that Mother had no idea they were opening Pandora’s Box?”

“No. They knew what they were doing was dangerous. What I’m saying is that those idiots decided to redefine what that ‘box’ was… and that they were the ones who were still in control when they opened it.”

Meredith nodded. “And then they discovered… Toby.”

“Yes,” Clementine said. “And when that happened, he promised them everything they sought… and more, and they bought into it like greedy little children with their hands caught in the cookie jar.”

“I think I’m starting to understand,” Meredith said. “When Toby entered the picture, not all in Mother were on board. Is that what you’re saying?”

Clementine smiled. “Yes. And while the unbelievers conspired in silence to break away from the organization, Toby was aware of it, but it was manageable. It wasn’t until you got away that it became a problem. The dissenters became vocal and many left Mother. Some who had already been active in causing that rift to widen, were working from within to close that box. Some like your Dr. Forrester and Finch…”

Meredith’s eyes went wide.

“So, after you slipped through Mother’s fingers, that’s when Toby forced some… organizational changes. Mother had grown weak and conflicted from within. This put Toby’s plans in jeopardy since he still needed these fools to work together to support his cause.”

“And that’s where you come in,” Meredith said.

“Yes, Meredith. That’s when I became… valuable again. Mother had become a bunch of bickering children, in Toby’s eyes. He needed something to unite them again before Mother fell apart and ruined everything. Since he couldn’t entice them any longer with false promises of power and wealth, he resorted to the oldest tactic in the book to get them back in line.”

Meredith frowned. “Fear.”

Clementine stared into her lap. “I remember Toby whispering to me in the dark about what was happening. Near the end of my incarceration, we had spent a lot of time together. He’d been preparing me for a while, telling me that my time was finally at hand.” She looked up and gave Meredith a chilling glance. “And I had grown very powerful in that little dark room, Meredith. Toby had shown me so much. He’d taught me many things about myself… and what I could do. He’d taken a confused and angry child and tempered that anger into an efficient weapon… to serve Mother’s true cause.”

Meredith sighed heavily. “What did you do, Clem?”

“I remember one despicable man who was charge during my imprisonment. His name was Bawl. He’d been the one responsible for losing you, and as punishment for failing Toby, he’d been assigned to babysit me. Well, this Mr. Bawl, had gone above and beyond his duties overseeing the experiments… Let’s just say that he was a bit too enthusiastic when it came time to make me suffer. I’ll spare you the details of what that evil man did to this frightened child and just say that I screamed a lot back then.”

Meredith shifted uncomfortably.

“Toby sent Bawl to fetch me from that dirty dark cell for the last time.” She was staring into Meredith’s eyes with a devilish look. “I was… more physically mature by then… and not a little girl. Bawl often exploited that, too. Anyway, he was the first I got to test my strength on. I did things to that man’s mind that made what I did to Finch look tame.”

“So, after he let you out… you killed this Mr. Bawl?”

“Actually,” Clementine said, leaning back. “He’s still alive today… well… if you could call it alive. What was left of the man, after I finished with him, is still breathing in that dark little room I left him in. I sometimes visit him when I’m in an exceptionally foul mood.”

Meredith didn’t dare comment further on Mr. Bawl.

“I won’t bore you with the rest,” Clementine said. “After I was released, I spent the next few years under Toby’s guidance making changes from within the organization. I made ‘examples’ out of many of them. Converted others back to the cause. And hunted down as many of the traitors as I could. In the years to follow, we created scriptures to replace procedures; invented the Ama-Eskua, which you know as The Shadow Dead, who were originally intended to be an intimidation tactic to enforce sacred laws but have since turned into a den of disgusting assassins.”

Meredith glared and said, “So, you are responsible for the attack on the compound!”

Clementine laughed. “Really, Meredith? Don’t try to pin that on me. If you hadn’t been there, hiding, Toby never would have sanctioned the attack in the first place.”

Meredith’s fire quickly dissipated.

Clementine continued, “We gave Mother a dogmatic sense of ‘purpose’ rather than a scientific quest for ‘knowledge’ and a corrupted greed for ‘power’. We re-emphasized the importance of the Lions, which Mother had nearly forgotten. You remember the Lions, don’t you, Meredith?”

Meredith wouldn’t look her in the eye.

“Everyone now had a purpose and a place in the organization. We prepared for what was coming, rather than what we could take. You were either a ‘Candidate’ or ‘Fodder’ when the Lions came. And you would prove yourself worthy of Toby’s new world… and his gracious gift of life… by giving over to the pending darkness.” She stopped there to let her old friend process.

Meredith shook her head. “It sounds like you did a wonderful job of making a sinister group of human beings a whole hell of a lot worse; turned them into a bunch of religious zealots supporting a monster’s cause.”

Clementine just smiled. “It’s all rubbish, of course.”

Meredith was shocked by her response. “Come again?”

“All of it,” Clementine said. “It’s all nonsense. Just more tactics to maintain control. We needed them to remain loyal… no matter what. When ‘The Change’ finally arrived, and we always knew it was coming thanks to Toby and what he did with you over ‘there’, it only cemented all that dogma and elevated the fear to a whole new level of devotion.” The robed woman rolled her eyes and shook her head. “What a waste. So much time. So much effort. And for what? Just to get you, the chosen one, where you are right now… so Toby can finally cross over into our world, The Final Lion, and dispose of us all.”

“I’m confused,” Meredith said. “Don’t you… want this?”

Clementine sighed. “Before… The Change… I almost believed in what me and Toby were doing together. I thought I was back in his good graces, and that we were changing the world… together. He used to lie to me during all the hard work I did getting Mother back on track, saying, ‘Well, done, Clem. You’ve come a long way to achieving the world I always wanted for you… and your kind. I think I will stay in the darkness… and let you continue the good work in my absence.’”

“He actually said that to you?”

She shook her head, then frowned at her friend. “I was the biggest fool of all. He used me to keep everyone doing exactly what he needed them to do, but he also had to keep me in line, too… until he could get you ready to bring him back.”

“I don’t understand.”

Clementine shook her head at her as if dealing with a child. “Everything you’ve been through, Meredith, has been a test… one, long damn trial… to get you strong enough to finish this mess that you and Toby started together. Everything has been leading up to this moment. For me, it’s the damn orphanage all over again.”

Meredith let Clem’s words sink in. “Are you saying that Toby’s been… that he’s been overseeing everything that’s happened to me and my friends… since the beginning?”

“Consider every event that’s forced you to open your mind, lower your walls, and caused you to use your abilities. And each time you have, you’ve only grown stronger for the next time… and the time after that…”

“No,” Meredith said. “I won’t believe that! I can’t believe that he’s been orchestrating everything—my whole life—just to get me back to that beach in the middle of the darkness…. I won’t!”

“I’m as shocked as you are, Meredith. He’s manipulated us both… perfectly. I only started to see the truth after your damn Lions finally came into our world. We were ready for it, too. We had protocols in place, cell groups, hell… we even knew to chain ourselves up at the first sight of the rain before the storm… But none us really believed The Change would happen. It was always there, to motivate us, to unite us… but it was never supposed to happen. After that, I knew everything Toby told me was a lie. And the moment I deliver you to him, my purpose is finished.”

Meredith was at a loss for words.

Clementine took in a deep breath and let her shoulders slouch. “Again, I don’t blame you for all this. I know what he made you do. But honestly, after The Change happened, and people at random turned into vessels for these… creatures, I was hoping you were one of them. That’s when Mother lost you again… in the middle of all that chaos… until you arrived at the compound and used the old code that Hannah gave you. But I think, Toby knew exactly where you were the whole time. He kept it concealed from me, from all of us, until then.”

“But… why?”

“Because Mother would have done everything in its power, while we still had the power to choose, to kill you.”

Meredith nodded. “I understand. I have thought about ending my own life, to finish all this.” She looked at her old friend and sighed. “So, why not kill me now? Or is that what you’ve yet to tell me? Are my friends and I going to mysteriously drown in this lake before we reach Toby’s island?”

“I wish it were that simple, Meredith,” Clementine said. “But it’s too late for all that. Yes, I could dispose of you now, but Toby would destroy us all immediately. As long as you live Mother still has a purpose… as do I.”

“He spoke of another… like me. He said that if we fought back and he was forced to eliminate me, he would just have to wait until the other was ready. After I saw you at the marina, I just assumed he meant you.”

For the first time Clementine looked confused.

“You didn’t know?”

She frowned. “For as much as Toby has told me, there is just as much he keeps from me. But I can assure you, I am not the one he was speaking of. As strong as I’ve become, I have never been, nor will I ever be, what you are in Toby’s eyes.” She said the last bit with a touch of scorn. “Thank you for sharing that with me. You could’ve kept that to yourself.”

“Maybe you’ll remember that and consider sparing my friends on your boat. I tried to get them to stay behind, but they wouldn’t leave me.”

“I commend their devotion. Foolish, but admirable.” Clementine nodded. “I will allow them to leave… if you wish.”

“And Gina?”

“If she chooses to go, then I won’t stop her. Gina is not my prisoner. I found her in the woods. She was injured and my people took care of her.” After a deliberate pause, she added, “Gina chose to come back with us.”

“I find that very hard to believe.”

“You can ask her yourself when we arrive.”

Meredith paused, then said, “So, if I’m not to be murdered in route to this island, and Toby has no further use for you after I… fulfill my purpose… then why do I still feel like I’m missing something?”

Clementine smiled. “You always were smart… much smarter than I. But don’t let it get to your head, because if you haven’t heard, I can make heads pop like balloons.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

Clementine slowly stood to stretch her legs.

Meredith did the same.

The old robed woman looked directly ahead, toward the island which was still miles out of view. “I was hoping our conversation, despite whether or not we could ever be friends again, would at least bear fruit… enough to form an alliance.”

Meredith stared dumbfounded at the old woman’s robe blowing in the breeze. Her initial response was to charge the vile thing, grab her around the waist and knock them both into the lake… killing two birds at once. Instead, she said, “To what end?”

Clementine turned back. She wore an exhausted expression on her face that reminded Meredith of one she wore many times. “No tricks, Meredith. I’ve had time to consider this meeting, to dread it even, but the outcome has always been the same. There’s only one thing either of us can do now. We need each other.”

I was doing just fine without you, Meredith thought, but kept her mouth shut. “Need each other for what?”

Clementine smiled weakly. “To eliminate Toby.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-6

Previous Episode 54-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-5: 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.

~~~

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.

~~~

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.

~~~

Gina struggled to keep up with Julianne and her recruits as they raced out of the cafeteria and into the labyrinth of long dull gray hallways. The alarm continued to assault her ears as they turned left down one hall, then right down another. She attempted several times to call out to Julianne when it seemed like they were about to leave her behind, causing Gina to panic after she’d lost sight of them around another corner. But Julianne stayed between her recruits and Gina, slowing down long enough to urge Gina to move her ass with erratic hand gestures.

“Fuck this,” she said, running out of breath and sweating more than usual. “What the hell did you get me into, you old bitch?”

Gina turned another corner and almost ran into the young Ama-Eskua recruit.

“We’re almost there, Gina,” she said. “I’m sorry for the urgency, but we need to reach the weapons first.”

Before she could ask a fucking thing, Julianne was already moving again, headed toward two large steel double doors at the end of the hall.

By the time Gina reached the doors, her insides were on fire. She stopped long enough to catch her breath, grateful for the adrenaline that coursed through her, but understanding that she’d pay for the overexertion later.

The blaring alarm mercifully stopped.

Gina turned to look behind her. She could hear frantic footfalls slapping against the tiles, coming toward her from a few hallways back.

What fresh hell is this? she thought.

Gina pushed herself through the double doors and stepped into a large gymnasium-sized room. A handful of long florescent lights, many of the others had long burned out, barely lit up the large space. Dust particles floated in the dull beams of light, adding another room not well-maintained. The air smelled of death and stale piss. The once-polished hardwood floors were stained red. Some looked fresh.

She found Julianne and the recruits sifting through piles of scattered weapons. Gina looked along the walls and found a handful of weapons still mounted, but most were laying on the floor.

“What the fuck is this?” she called out to Julianne.

By now, most of the recruits had selected their weapons. They were on their feet, assuming attack stances, and staring just past Gina, toward whoever was approaching from the other side of the door.

“Gina!” Julianne hissed, picking up a hand axe. “You need to stand clear! The others know not to involve you but standing in the way could easily confuse them!”

Gina threw her arms into the air in frustration and hobbled away from the doors and over to the closest wall for support. “Alright… fuck all of you, then!” she grumbled under her breath.

Before she gathered her bearings, the double doors burst open. Three surprised young men, two younger women, and one middle-aged woman, all wearing bloody grays, stood there, staring at Julianne’s armed recruits.

“Shit!” the older woman hissed and shook her head. Then she saw Gina standing off to the side and said, “I’m too old for this shit.”

Gina smiled, finding the defeated woman’s comment amusing, in light of the situation.

“NOW!” Julianne screamed.

All humor left her body as Gina watched Julianne’s entire cell group charge the unarmed second group, weapons raised, and yelling like lunatics.

Before Gina could register what was happening, the bearded man, Hugh, approached the older woman, who held her hands up submissively. Then he plunged a long sword into the chest of the woman, who let out a tortured scream, then fell on her knees. Huge pulled the sword out of the dead woman, then sliced her head clean off.

What the fuck?! Gina put her hands to her mouth and froze.

The rest of Julianne’s cell made quick work of the others. Some had tried to flee while the ones with the most blood on their clothing had tried to fight back barehanded. They were all pierced, torn, or hacked up within thirty seconds.

Julianne, who stood in the center of the massacre, had bloodied her axe, driving it directly into the face of one man, and then down into the skull of another. She moved so fast that Gina had a hard time believing she’d just murdered two men.

All of their clothes were bloody (bloodier). Their weapons dripped crimson. Their blood-splattered faces did nothing to hide the savageness in their eyes.

Even Connie had managed an ‘assist’ by stabbing a woman in the back, providing Nick and easy finish as he sliced the young woman’s throat open.

What horrified Gina the most was watching Connie’s reaction when she noticed a small patch of the woman’s blood on her left shoulder. Connie’s eyes went wide with delight as she showed the others her first… badge.

Gina turned toward the wall, disgusted and badly shook up. She needed a moment to process what just happened… and why.

“I’d like to wake the fuck up now,” she whispered to the indifferent wall.

Someone put a hand on her left shoulder.

Gina flinched.

“It’s okay,” Julianne said. “It’s just me. We’ve eliminated the Fodder.”

Gina glared at the young Ama-Eskua recruit. “The fucking ‘Fodder’? Get your damn murderous hands off me!”

Julianne retracted her hand and stepped back, stunned.

The rest of the cell stared at Gina, equally shocked by her reaction.

Hugh looked to Julianne and said, “Who is this? Why does this woman scold us with her condemning eyes when we did nothing wrong?”

Julianne just stared at Gina, her face an unreadable mask.

Gina balled her fists at the sound of Hugh’s whining voice. She turned to the rest of them, failing to stay calm. She pointed at the bloody mess surrounding the recruits. “They were all unarmed! I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with all of you and why you’re killing each other… but you clearly had them! There was no fucking need for this… slaughter!”

All the recruits were grumbling now. They looked to Julianne as if waiting for her to grant them permission to kill Gina, too.

“Enough!” Julianne barked at her recruits. “Now is not the time for this!” She looked at Gina and finished, “For any of this!”

Gina just stared back defiantly.

Julianne pointed her bloody axe toward the carnage. “This was not the whole cell. Until we locate the others-”

From the other end of the large room, another set of doors violently opened. Eight more Mother maniacs dressed in bloody gray stormed into the Kill Room. They came in screaming, armed with whatever make-shift weapons they were able to scrounge up. Some were carrying torn off table legs, others had shards of glass, and a couple had long steel pipes ripped from walls.

Julianne’s group looked terrified and less sure of themselves now that the enemy was armed.

“Attack!” Julianne screamed, stepping out in front with her hand axe up. She somehow managed to deflect a steel pipe coming down toward the top of her head as steel struck steel. The axe head snapped off the handle, but Julianne never hesitated. She stepped inside her taller attacker and thrust the jagged wooden handle up into an older man’s chin. The man fell dead instantly.

The others, now motivated by Julianne’s boldness, stepped up to meet the attacking cell with fierce screams as they raised their weapons to defend themselves.

Three of Julianne’s people went down as an intense young man, his dark hair tied back in a ponytail, whirled his steel pipe around in the air as though it were as light as a broomstick. His clothing was the bloodiest of the group. He plunged his pipe through a man’s throat, then turned right around and bashed a short girl’s head in. The last one was Nick.

Nick swung his sword in a sideways arc at the young pipe wielder’s neck. The young man easily ducked beneath the clumsy assault, then knocked Nick off his feet by putting the pipe between his moving legs. Nick fell forward on his face and the young man jammed the pipe through the base of his exposed neck. Nick flailed for a moment like a fish out of water, then ceased to move.

Gina didn’t know what to do. All around her, recruits on both sides were dropping in bloody piles. She watched as Julianne, who had seized a pipe from her latest kill, confronted the ponytailed pipe wielder. The two of them clashed violently as steel struck steel. They moved so quickly and aggressively, countering each other’s attacks, that it became clear that the ponytailed young man must have been one of the last three Ama-Eskua recruits that Julianne had mentioned.

Do something, Gina! she desperately thought. Do something before they all fucking kill each other!

So far, none of them had paid her any mind as Gina stood near the back wall, watching the massacre. She felt like she’d become invisible—the last rays of sanity blocked out by all that blood and madness.

If not for her injuries, Gina could’ve handled her own against most of these inexperienced attackers with their odd assortment of weapons. But she had no idea whose side to back since Julianne’s group had been the first to murder the unarmed group.

“This is fucking insane!” she shouted over the yelling, blood-crazed maniacs. “Just fucking stop this!”

No one was listening.

Gina turned and saw young Connie. A bigger girl had forced her into a corner. Connie still had her knife as she held it out at the bigger girl, slashing at the air in front of her.

The bigger girl, who had picked up a black spear from the cache of scattered weapons, was clearly toying with her as she poked the tip of the spear at Connie’s exposed legs, enjoying watching the young girl cry out.

Gina made eye contact with Hugh, and yelled, “Hey! Connie’s in trouble!” she pointed behind the bearded man.

Hugh turned, saw Connie, and then… walked away.

“What the fuck?” Gina yelled at him. By then, Hugh was already engaged in another fight.

And then she noticed the others in Julianne’s cell. Some were clearly aware that Connie was in trouble, but they, too, dismissed the situation, glancing briefly toward the big girl with the spear, before finding another fight to throw themselves into.

The big girl had relaxed too much, allowing Connie to lunge and land a lucky slash across her left forearm. This only infuriated the big girl as she moved in to finish her off. With a monstrous scream, the big girl raised her spear toward Connie’s face. She stepped back, preparing her final thrust, and… staggered to the left, as she was struck in the side of the head. The big girl, more surprised by the blow, shook her head, then turned toward her new attacker.

Gina was already coming at her again as the strange wooden bat-like object she’d picked up connected with the top of the big girl’s nose, breaking it instantly.

The big girl dropped to her knees, grabbing at her bloody face.

Gina brought her weapon back for a third strike. “Move again… and I’ll finish you,” she promised.

The big girl looked into the red-head woman’s fierce green eyes and knew that she meant it. The big girl fell over, gripping her face from the intense pain.

Gina turned to Connie.

Connie gave her a pained expression and shook her head. “What have you done?” she accused.

Before Gina could register the girl’s strange reaction to just saving her life, Connie put her knife up to her own throat.

“No! Wait! Connie, NO!”

Too late.

The young girl slit her own throat. As she choked to death in her own blood, Connie stared down at her gray uniform and… smiled.

Gina’s arms went slack as she dropped her weapon and just stared at the girl.

She didn’t see her attacker, Hugh, coming up from behind, raising his sword to finish her off.

Before Hugh could do so, a voice boomed throughout the Kill Room, “All of you… STOP IMMEDIATELY!”

Everyone turned to see a hooded woman in a long red robe appear to float into the center of the room.

Weapons struck the ground as everyone on both sides turned and dropped to one knee, including the Ama-Eskua recruits.

Gina just turned and frowned at the old hag. “It’s about damn time you showed up,” she said exhaustedly.

Lady Clementine glanced at Gina, then examined the mess, shaking her head. She took a deep breath, then said, “The next weapon raised, on either side… I’ll make sure that person is buried with it,” she hissed.

All the recruits averted their gazes, staring submissively toward the bloody ground.

The Kill Room became so quiet that Gina almost missed the murderous screams… almost.

Lady Clementine, her ancient face buried in the darkness within her hood, kept her hands beneath her robe and stood still for what felt like an eternity.

Even Gina wisely remained silent.

She finally spoke. “All of you will report to isolation,” she commanded. “There you will remain… until I decide what to do with you.” Her last words were loaded with contempt. “NOW!”

Acting as if her words were like a grenade just thrown into the room, all the recruits scattered, rushing toward the exit doors.

Gina turned back toward Connie’s corpse, wiping frustrated tears from her eyes.

Clementine waited until the two of them were alone, then removed her hood and sighed. “I’m sorry for all of this, Gina,” she said. “I only wish I could have been here much sooner… to stop it.”

Gina turned and stared at the old crow. “Why the hell did you leave me here with these… animals? And what the hell are you teaching them in this God-forsaken place?”

Clementine shook her head sadly, then slowly approached her. “A lot has happened here since I’ve been away, Gina. I am only just finding out the extent of it.”

“What does that mean?”

For the first time, Gina saw something in the old woman’s eyes that made her uncomfortable.

Uncertainty.

“If you’re able, Gina. We’ve much to discuss,” she said. Clementine stared around the Kill Room in disgust. “But not in this place.”

“What the hell is going on here, Clementine?” Gina pushed.

The old woman frowned. “That, Gina, is the very question I’ve been seeking to answer ever since we arrived.”

~~~

Gina stood on an upper level balcony, next to Clementine, overlooking the lower levels beneath them. Everything was in ruins. There had been multiple fires at some point, as evidenced by several large black stains imprinted on the walls and the ash remains of scattered furniture laying like victims on the ground floor. There were blood stains everywhere. Trash and dust had collected in piles all throughout the large middle-section of the facility.
As Clementine had explained it, the large open-area central hub of the massive Mother facility was laid out like a mall with multiple floors for various offices, laboratories, classrooms and a command center. But now, anything resembling the once active ‘Headquarters’ of Mother had been obliterated.

“How long has it been like this?” Gina nearly whispered.

Clementine sighed. “From what I could gather, most of the chaos occurred after The Change.”

Gina turned to her. ‘You mean, this all happened when your people started to turn? I don’t understand. I thought Mother was aware of what was coming.”

The old woman nodded. “Mother was aware, and the threat was contained.” She nodded toward the ruins below and finished. “This happened after. When most of us were sent out to our assigned cells… the ones who were left in charge… they are responsible for this.”

Gina turned back to the deserted hub. “So, all of Mother’s ‘big wigs’ functioned out of this place?”

“In a manner of speaking… yes.”

“Judging by the looks of your ‘Headquarters’, along with the training facility, this place has been falling apart for quite some time,”

Clementine nodded with a frown. “It would appear so.”

Gina turned. “Tell me about those recruits. Why are they killing each other? Is that Mother’s idea of ‘training’?”

Clementine paused. She rubbed her temples with tired old hands. “Forgive me, Gina. I know you require answers. I’m… I’m still processing what’s happened, myself. This place was nothing like this when I left. Apparently, I’ve been away for too long.”

Gina shook her head in frustration. “You talked me into coming out here. I believed we were coming back to get help to deal with the Shadow Dead and restore order out on the mainland. And then I get here… and everything’s a fucking mess in your own damn house!”

“I’m… sorry, Gina. I’m as disappointed as you… and honestly… a little terrified.”

Gina waited.

Clementine continued. “Everything we’ve built here has fallen apart… and I don’t understand how this all happened. Not yet. We were supposed to be a beacon of light for what was left of the world. But then I come here and discover that the light has been snuffed out.”

“Why did you leave me with those recruits?”

“I wanted you to meet them since they would be the ones to help us defeat the Shadow Dead.” Clementine shook her head. “These… recruits… are not the ones I remember.”

“You’re talking about the Ama-Eskua?”

“Yes. But apparently, there are no more Ama-Eskua recruits. Instead, what was once a proud and honorable warrior class, has become a disgusting den for refugees.”

“How could you not know about all this? How could you let this happen?”

Clementine looked away. “There is only one way this could have happened without my knowledge. The remaining Ama-Eskua Order, who was left to oversee and secure Mother’s affairs, has seized power instead.”

“So… they’ve done all this?”

Clementine raised an eyebrow. “A bold, unexpected move for sure. But yes, considering the circumstances and the absence of senior authority after The Change occurred… the Ama-Eskua could not have picked a better time to betray Mother.”

Gina shook her head in shock. She laughed and said, “So, let me get this straight. We came back here to raise your damn army to fight the Shadow Dead, a rebellious sect of the Ama-Eskua Order, only to find out that the Shadow Dead has… what… taken control of the Ama-Eskua?”

“I wouldn’t take it that far, Gina,” Clementine said. “But after everything I’ve seen here, I wouldn’t rule it out, either. Everything Mother stands for… everything noble… has been neglected and distorted. I haven’t even begun to dig beneath the surface yet. But apparently, the Ama-Eskua has forsaken the training facility and left it in chaos. Those… recruits… have been operating under archaic practices that were banned long ago… but have somehow been reestablished.”

“Are you talking about Candidates and Fodder?”

“No, actually. That was doctrine that has come to light since The Change… or the Lions. But it was meant for good, and not to be used as an excuse for violence.” Clementine placed her hands gently on Gina’s shoulders and said, “Gina… I feel like I’ve let you down, and for that, I’m truly sorry. Mother’s house has become a den of liars and thieves since I was here last. Until I get some solid answers… I don’t know who to trust. That’s why I’ve been absent for the last few days. I’ve been trying to speak with the Order on the northern end of the facility… but have met resistance.”

“Sounds like it’s time to leave,” Gina said, pulling away from the old woman. “Come back and find me when you’ve all figured your shit out. Until then, I’ll go hunt the Shadow Dead on my own.”

“Please… don’t give up on me, Gina. I would ask that you consider staying.”

“Why the hell would I do that?”

Clementine nodded. “Yes, the recruits you were meant to meet… are no longer with us. But that doesn’t mean we should forsake them like the Ama-Eskua has apparently done. You’ve seen how they live. They are operating off a bad program stuck in some murderous loop.”

“It’s all fucking Lord of the Flies as far as they’re all concerned. I think it’s time you get some new recruits.”

“Or some better leadership,” Clementine said, letting her gaze linger on the red-headed woman.

“Why the hell are you staring at me like that? Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”

“Once I figure out this mess, and believe me, Gina, I will, I’m going to need some help getting Mother back to where it belongs.”

“Fuck no!” Gina said. “Absolutely not! I’m not going to be your next fucking Donovan!”

Clementine’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “How do you know that name?”

“I’ve seen some of your finer ‘recruits’ in action,” Gina said. “In fact, it was one of your damn cell groups, led by that very asshole, that executed a good friend of mine for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I won’t even get into what you all do to pregnant woman in your cell groups.”

Clementine shook her head and sighed. “As I’ve told you before, Gina. Many have gone off on their own under Mother’s good name, perverting the cause. The Shadow Dead, that lunatic Micom, and if you’ve encountered the traitor, Donovan… well… I can only imagine the heinous things he’s done to your people, and to his own cell. All of this, along with whatever is happening in the Ama-Eskua Order presently, just demonstrates how much I need someone like you to help me get things right again.”

“And what about you?” Gina said. “You talk about the others, conveniently excusing what they’ve done by saying they acted alone, and not under Mother’s direction. But how do I know you aren’t just like them, blowing smoke up my ass?”

Clementine smiled. “I guess you don’t, Gina. And your assessment is both wise and understandable, especially under the circumstances.”

Gina did not expect Clementine to give up so fast.

The old woman nodded. “You’re right, of course. Mother’s reputation has been soiled at this point, and you’ve every right to be suspicious of me, too.” Clementine’s eyes started to water up. She looked away and finished, “I’m sorry. This has been a trialing past few days. This is not your problem. I brought you here to help you, and instead, I’m the one who needs the help. I will arrange a helicopter to fly you back to the airport, with enough supplies to get you back on your feet.”

“And… and what will you do?”

Clementine smiled. “I will do whatever I can, Gina. Whatever I must… to relight the beacon that Mother is supposed to be.”

“And the recruits? What happens to them?”

“I don’t know, Gina. I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

Gina nodded. “Well, I’m sorry for what’s happened here, for what’s it’s worth.”

“Thank you, Gina. I just wish I could fly all of you out of this place. But the recruits’ minds are… unstable. It would be negligent of Mother to just release them into the world, in their current state.”

Gina looked concerned. She thought of Julianne. “What does that mean? Are they… prisoners?”

“No, Gina. Just… dangerous. You’ve seen it for yourself. They have been operating without a moral compass for some time.” She gave Gina a long deliberate look and finished, “Sometimes, the darkness, when allowed to dwell for too long, unchecked… well… it can make good people do very bad things.”

Gina just stared.

Clementine smiled weakly, speaking more to herself. “In time, I’m sure I can undo the damage that’s been done to them.”

“And if you can’t?”

“You just let me worry about that. We need to get you out of this place. Once your safely gone, I’ll have one less concern on my plate and-”

“I’ll help you,” Gina said.

“What was that?”

“You’re recruits,” Gina said, already regretting her decision. “I want to help them… get out of the dark.”

Clementine feigned surprise. “May I ask, why the sudden change of heart?”

Gina looked away. “I know what it’s like to be without the moral compass you mentioned. And if they can’t be helped… then I’m forced to wonder what that says about me.”

Clementine just nodded. “Thank you, Gina. I’ve every confidence that if anyone can help them… it’s you.”

The exhausted red-head averted her eyes.

“Anything you need,” Clementine continued. “just say the word… and I will make sure it happens.”

Gina let out a weak laugh, looked into the old woman’s eyes, and said, “For starters, I’ll need coffee… and lots of it.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-3

Previous Episode 54-1

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-2: 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.

~~~

Hey, everyone. Just a quick check in for the month of October. We are now into the final chapter of Book Six, Mother. I’m looking forward to completing this very challenging volume with all of you. There’s been so much happening in this book with a lot of surprises that even I didn’t see coming… lol. I am currently writing like a madman to get this final chapter completed. I’m estimating eight episodes with a finale set for Halloween night (and that’s fitting since I started Book Six on Halloween last year). I think that even if this runs over eight episodes, I’ll still post the finale on Halloween and just post extra episodes to get us there.

Judging by what’s coming out in the writing, it looks like each of these final episodes are going to be what I call ‘mega episodes’, which means they might all run significantly longer than usual.

Speaking of long, Book Six has officially become the new longest book in this series (gee… surprise, surprise), already clocking in at over 260,000 words.

Aside from that, and everything else that I can’t tell you, I’m still planning on jumping right into Book Seven as soon as this volume is complete. As far as a Book Seven release date, all I can say at the moment is that it will probably be Spring 2020. But I’ll know more on that later.

For now, I hope you enjoy this last chapter and thanks for sticking with me through this incredibly long saga into The Dark.

-Scott

~~~

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~~~

She can feel her warm breath rising through the small cavity created by her arms as she exhales upon the desk, trapping the moist air around her face. She begins to stir at the sound of her own snoring. Gina opens her eyes, keeping her head down to avoid being embarrassed. Her teacher, Mr. Eddington, continues to drone on about post-apocalyptic history and how Mankind eliminated the zombie threat.

Gina smiles within her arm cave as artificial light illuminates the small desktop. Words have been written on academic wood, which smells like ancient pencil lead and worn-down erasers:

TONY + GINA
4-EVER

Before she’s called upon to answer a question, betraying her sleepy absence from the subject, Gina slowly raises her head, wiping away ‘spider drool’ with the back of her hand.

Stephen’s wearing his glasses with his shoulder-length hair tied back. He leans against a tall chalkboard in his khakis and dry-cleaned white dress shirt, looking too relaxed to be a real teacher. “And… who can tell me in what year was the McFarlane Initiative established, making it mandatory for all governments to publicly disclose their scattered dead populations?”

Gina lowers her head as Stephen scans the room.

He stops and points to the student to her right. “Yes, go ahead Meredith.”

Gina turns and smiles. Meredith is wearing a new sundress. She is sitting all prim and proper with her back straight, hands folded above the desk, her long hair tied up in an elaborate bun.

“I believe that was finalized in 2014.”

Stephen gives her a blank stare for dramatic effect, then responds, “Correct!”

Meredith looks around the room, feeling proud of herself.

Gina notices the rest of her classmates. They’re all there—all her friends—surrounding her, sitting at their individual desks and looking… Happy?

Dead or alive… doesn’t matter. Gina scans the room. She sees Douglas, Amanda, Greg, Ashley, Nine, Diane… the list goes on. There’s so much love in the room she can hardly stand it.

She looks for Tony but can’t find him. Gina stares back down at her desk and gasps. Someone has crossed out her and Tony’s names in black marker. Written just beneath in red are the words:

BLOOD FOR BLOOD

Before she can register the meaning of the words, her ears are assaulted by the sound of chalk screeching across the chalkboard. Gina looks up and finds Sam, the ex-cop, standing where Stephen was a moment ago. She’s wearing a bloody uniform and staring straight at her.

Gina looks above the cop and notices a message scrawled across the chalkboard in blood:

YOU KILL US. WE KILL YOU. BLOOD FOR BLOOD

Everyone else in the classroom appears to have frozen in place.

“Didn’t see it coming, did you?” Sam says. “Believe me, bitch, I didn’t see it coming either.”

Gina opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.

The door to the classroom suddenly bursts open.

No one moves. Not even Gina can move.

Marcus strolls into the classroom wearing black trousers and a black turtleneck.

He is carrying his machete.

Gina can do nothing but watch as her body fails to respond.

Marcus casually steps behind Samantha and stops.

The former cop shakes her head. “Better watch your back, bitch… and be more mindful about who you call a friend.”

Marcus peeks at Gina from around Sam’s left arm. He winks at her.

Gina wants to scream.

He raises the machete and repeatedly hacks into Sam’s head, sending blood and brains splattering everyone sitting in the first two rows.

No one moves as the former cop’s insides soak their hair and faces.

When Marcus is finished, he steps over Sam’s body, stops, and scans the students in the front row.

Move! Move, you fucking useless bitch! Gina shouts within her own thoughts. Move before he kills them all!

Marcus smiles at her futile struggle. He lifts the bloody machete and points it at Frank, three rows back. “Been there. Done that,” he tells Frank.

Frank falls from his desk as if the bones in his body had just given up.

NO! Gina wants to scream, but the words still won’t come.

Marcus gives her a pouty face, then focuses on the first row. He lifts the machete again and points it at each student, saying, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”…

Stephen, Douglas, Diane and Nine all fall over in their seats.

Dead.

Gina manages to close her eyes. I’m… I’m so fucking sorry! she thinks. I should’ve seen it! I should’ve STOPPED IT!

She opens her eyes.

Everyone in the room is now lying on the floor.

Dead.

Gina looks down at her feet and stares into Meredith’s accusing lifeless eyes.

Marcus is standing in front of her desk. He lifts up her chin with one gloved hand, looks her in the eyes, and says, “I will find you again, Gina. I will find you if it takes me mowing down everyone you care about to finish what we started.”

“NO!” she finally lets out.

Marcus smiles like the devil. He releases her chin.

Gina tries to get out from behind the desk but fails.

The killer raises the machete one… last… time.

All she can do is watch the blade fall and stare into the maniac’s blood-thirsty eyes…

~~~

…Gina opened her eyes and slowly started to focus. She was lying on her back, staring up at a dull gray dusty ceiling.

She takes a deep breath and whispers his name like a curse:

“Marcus.”

Gina quickly dismissed the dream.

Where the hell am I?

Her memory slowly started to return. For the last three days since arriving on the island, she’d been assigned to the facility clinic. The medical staff had done a more thorough job of addressing her injuries. Her leg wound had required stiches and she’d developed a chest infection after exerting herself on the mainland. The facility nurses loaded her up with antibiotics, strong pain killers, and then finally relocated her from the clinic and placed her in this room. Her body had shut down to heal as she’d slept most of the last thirty-six hours away, in and out of consciousness, and assaulted by the most disturbing dreams.

Her head felt like fifty pounds as she slowly lifted it off the pillow, using her elbows to sit up in the uncomfortable single-sized bed. She laid back down, regretting it immediately, as pain ripped through her body.

“Shit!” she hissed. “What the fuck did they do to me?”

She turned her head and examined the small, depressing room. Everything was the same dull grey color, including one small table with a build-in drawer. Aside from that, and the bed she was in, the room was bare, dusty, and the air tasted stale. The dim florescent lighting and the lack of windows didn’t help improve her mood. There was one grey rusted metallic door at the other end of the small space. It was closed. Gina frowned. This place reminds me of my old compound room, minus the personal touches. She started to panic a little. Are we underground? The word ‘tomb’ immediately came to mind.

Her memory was sketchy after the helicopter landed on the southern end of the island. From the sky she remembered approaching the island and seeing a large long structure at the center, bordered by trees, a few fields, and a long peninsula bluff at the northern end. She couldn’t remember much else since she could barely keep her eyes open at that point. She’d started feeling sick over the lake, and one of the nurses had injected her with a sedative for the rest of the ride. She was already in and out of consciousness when they carried her off the helicopter in a stretcher and moved her to the clinic.

“So much for the fucking tour,” she thought groggily, attempting to sit up again. This time she was successful, although her body protested every movement. “Fuck me, I must have been worse off than I thought.” She removed the thin blanket covering her and noticed her clothes. She was wearing an all grey uniform that fit and felt like pajamas. “From forest-green coveralls to drab gray sweats,” she said, shaking her head. “I wonder what they wear on Friday nights?” She laughed lightly and then sighed. “What fucking day is it, anyway?” She stared over at the door. “If I manage to get up and find that door locked-”

A knock on the door made her jump.

Before she could respond or decide not to respond, a young woman with short black hair opened the door and entered. She was wearing the same gray uniform, but in the dim lighting, Gina observed that the stranger’s clothing was stained in several places. The woman closed the door, then sat down in front of it, before finally looking up at Gina. The woman’s eyes looked uninviting—hostile even—with a frown to match.

What the fuck is this? Gina thought.

The woman said nothing for several seconds and just continued to stare.

Gina, already annoyed with everything else, finally broke the silence. She locked eyes with the woman and said, “Where I come from, it’s rude to barge into someone’s room uninvited… and even more so when that someone just stares at you without explaining why.”

The woman cocked her head to the side and responded, “I… I did not break protocol. So, what’s the problem?”

To Gina, she sounded younger than she looked. Maybe nineteen… judging by the fucking attitude. Gina smiled, and said, “Your first impression on me, for starters. But I’ll let that slide and pretend it’s not creepy-as-fuck that you’re just sitting there, staring at me. It’s already been a stranger than usual apocalypse.”

The woman just continued to stare, immune to jokes.

Gina rolled her eyes. “Okay. Let’s try another tactic to break the ice: What the fuck do you want?”

The young woman tensed up. She looked away as if just being asked the most important question of her life. Finally, she looked back up and said, “My cell has been tasked to oversee your needs… and insure you make it to the meal hall unharmed.”

Gina laughed at the woman’s seriousness. “Are we talking about… breakfast? It is morning, right?”

“Correct.”

“And… there’s some kind of danger involved in getting there?”

“You will be safe,” the arrogant young woman added.

“Okay… now we’re getting somewhere. Let’s try this again. Who are you?”

The woman’s eyes went wide. “I… I know who I am… who I was… and who I will be.”

“What the hell was that?”

The young woman looked equally confused.

“Relax,” Gina said. “I was just asking for your name.”

The woman took a deep breath. “Oh. Okay. I thought… never mind what I thought-”

“I’m Gina. And you are?”

The woman nodded, clearly embarrassed. “I am Julianne.”

“There we go,” Gina said with a smile. “Okay, Julianne. Can you tell me what the hell is going on… aside from seeing me safely to my next meal?”

“You… don’t know?”

Gina laughed. “Clearly neither one of us do. Did that old crow in the red robe send you down here to fetch me? I’ve got a shit-load of questions for her.”

Julianne gasped and stared at the floor. “I do not know which ‘old crow’ you’re referring to. Surely, you do not mean Lady Clementine, especially in such a disrespectful tone.”

Gina sighed. “This is getting us nowhere. Did… Lady Clementine… send you here to take me to her?”

Julianne repeated, “My cell has been tasked to oversee your needs… and insure you make it to the meal hall-”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got that,” Gina said. “Okay. Baby steps, then. We’ll start with breakfast.” Her eyes lit up. “Do you all have access to hot water here? I’m in desperate need of a shower.”

“Of course.”

Gina clapped her hands once in delight. “Fantastic!”

Julianne just watched her reaction, giving her the strangest look.

Understanding that she was getting nowhere with this very intense young woman, and not understanding anything else, Gina cupped a smile and then sternly said, “Now, Julianne, since your… mission… is to see me safely to breakfast, I have one very serious question to ask. Your answer will determine how we will proceed from here. Are you ready?”

Julianne got tense again. “I am… ready.”

Gina, clearly enjoying the young woman’s discomfort and confusion, asked, “At breakfast… will there be coffee?”

~~~

After exiting the depressing gray room, Gina followed the strange girl down several long hallways in silence. Every surface was layered in dust. She noticed several more doors like her own on their way to the meal hall. Gina frowned at the dull overhead lighting which only made the oppressive gray walls stand out. She looked at Julianne, getting a better glimpse of the girl’s appearance. The dark stains she noticed earlier on her uniform looked like faded blood stains.

“I’m assuming this is some sort of berthing wing… or a damn prison cell block,” Gina half joked.

Julianne, who was constantly stealing sideway glances behind her as if Gina might attack her from behind at any moment, answered, “This is where we all go to rest and reflect after training. Everyone has an isolation room… and most respect the sanctity of them.”

Gina laughed. “‘Isolation rooms’? So… this is a prison block. Sounds like solitary confinement.”

The young woman turned, again, missing Gina’s humor. “You are correct. Not about the prison part, but about the rooms. We are free to move about the training facility, understanding that combat may occur at any time.”

Gina was reminded of the old blood stains. “Is that how you got your nice gray uniform all dirty?”

Julianne didn’t answer.

“Is that your blood… or someone else’s?”

Again, she said nothing.

Gina stopped.

The young woman turned. “We need to keep moving.”

“You said you and your cell were assigned to get me to the meal hall safely.”

Julianne looked around nervously. “That is correct.”

“What’s going on in this place, Julianne? And if you ignore another one of my questions, I’ll start running down these sad-ass hallways, banging on every door I see and yelling, while I make you chase me.”

“You wouldn’t!”

Gina smiled. “I probably wouldn’t get far with my injuries… but that would be on you, too.”

Julianne looked frustrated. She looked around again, then said, “Fine. We are not accustomed to… outsiders… here. Your presence has caused a lot of confusion. But you are Lady Clementine’s guest.”

“Am I still a ‘guest’, Julianne?” Gina challenged.

The young woman didn’t know what to say. “I… I don’t know what I’m allowed to speak with you about. Frankly, up until now, I thought you were some sort of test to see how I’d respond to something… unusual.”

“What do you mean?”

Julianne gave her a grave look. “I was starting to believe I was sent to you… so you could make an attempt on my life.” She then looked at Gina’s clean clothes in disgust and finished, “Since meeting you, nothing I’ve seen or heard is threatening in any way.”

Gina caught the girl’s insult. “Oh, I see. Because I’m not wearing bloody rags like you… I’m some… what… scared little VIP tourist?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“Of course, you don’t,” Gina said, sighing in frustration. “You and I don’t even speak the same damn language.”

Again, Julianne looked confused. “Please,” she said. “It isn’t safe to remain in the halls for too long. Anything bad could happen.”

Gina laughed. “And that kind of shit, right there, is what I’m talking about. What the hell is happening in this place? And whose blood is that on your clothes?”

Julianne took a deep breath. “This is not blood,” she finally said. “These are combat badges.”

Gina just shook her head.

“I don’t expect you to understand what that means. But you asked… and I have answered the best I can.”

The fiery red-head gave her a menacing glance. “Speak down to me again like this is my first day in the fucking apocalypse, you little brat, and I’ll slap that cocky look right off your damn face,” she growled.

This time, Julianne looked surprised. She straightened her back, raised her chin respectfully, and smiled. “My apologies. I have… miscalculated. I can now see in your eyes what the rest of your appearance did not show me. Perhaps that was my lesson all along.”

Gina reigned in her temper. “Okay. Will breakfast include a civil discussion with anyone who can answer my questions?”

The young girl flashed her a nervous smile. “For both our sakes, I certainly hope so.”

Gina laughed. “Now that was funny. Perhaps I’ve misjudged you, too.”

“The blood is not my own,” she clarified. “And it lets the others know that this is also not my… first day.” She added a weak smile.

“Got it,” Gina said. “That just created a lot more questions, but I won’t make you suffer any longer. Get me to the damn chow hall before you sweat to death. Maybe your Lady Clementine will be there to explain what the hell I’m doing here.”

“Thank you… Gina.” The young woman turned back, quickened her pace slightly, and Gina followed.

Gina stared at the young woman’s blood-stained back and thought, This whole bizarre encounter reminds me of something. She almost had it—a word—on the edge of her already crowded thoughts that made the connection.

Then Gina’s eyes went wide as she remembered the infected girl, Megan. Specifically, she thought about reading the young pregnant woman’s diary. The word she was looking for struck her immediately:

Recruits.

~~~

Gina stepped into the training facility meal hall, which was nothing special and resembled every school cafeteria she’d ever been in. This place was a bit cleaner but still carried a very old, abandoned feel about it… like her room and the halls. More depressing gray walls surrounded several long tables placed together to form rows. There were no windows. Gina was beginning to believe that windows and primary colors were strictly forbidden on this bleak island.

She had expected the rest of Julianne’s cell group to be more teenagers, like Megan’s old group she’d described in her diary. What she found instead was an odd mix of teenagers to middle-aged men and women, all sitting quietly in their gray uniforms huddled around one table. Some had more blood stains on their clothing while others had nothing. No one had as many stains as Julianne.

Including her escort, there were nine total. The rest of the meal hall was deserted.

Julianne motioned toward a seat at the end of their table. As Gina sat, the young woman sat down across from her. The others pretended not to notice the new arrival.

“Is there anything in particular you’d like to eat?” Julianne said. “The kitchen is well-stocked… but it’s been self-service ever since The Change.”

“No coffee, I assume.”

“What creature comforts we had are long gone. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult getting regular shipments of anything these days.”

Gina nodded and stared into the faces of the rest of this motley crew. “I’ll pass on the meal for now.” She looked back at Julianne. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself. How did you… and the rest of your group end up here?”

“May I ask a question, first?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“Your scar. How did you get that?”

Gina reached up toward her right eye. “A young woman with most of her mind gone came at me with a knife. This was the result.”

“And the woman? Did you defeat her?”

Gina frowned at her. “She’s dead.”

Julianne lifted her chin and nodded. “A noble scar. A battle wound. I would be proud to bear such a mark.”

Gina shook her head at her, not relishing reliving the memory, especially since it had been Marcus who had saved her. “Whatever you say. It’s a ‘badge’ I could live without.”

The young woman just stared.

“And what about you?” Gina redirected. “How are you here?”

Julianne nodded. “Of course.” She took a deep breath and said, “I was here, training… when the Lions came.”

“The ‘Lions’?”

“Yes. Outsiders like yourself have come to know it as The Change. The Lions came and devoured the people, leaving only Candidates and Fodder and their wake.”

Gina shook her head, remembering the strange flier she’d found in Megan’s diary. “I’ll leave that can of worms alone for now. So, you were here when it all went south. How many people did you lose?”

Julianne frowned. “I was in my room when the screams started. I thought it was just another challenge, until one of those… creatures… stormed into my room and tried to bite into me.”

“What happened? Did you bite that thing first?” Gina joked.

Julianne looked confused by Gina’s joke. “I made it into the hallway. Everything was in chaos. I managed to find a few other Ama-Eskua recruits. We armed ourselves and went after the beasts, room by room, until the situation was under control.” She looked down at her hands and finished, “There were only three of us recruits left after the attack.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gina said. “Things were rough all over the place back then. It’s a wonder any of us survived at all.”

Julianne nodded, clearly wanting to get away from the subject. She turned to the others. “These are recruits Mother found after The Change. They were tested and the faithful were brought here.”

“‘Tested’?”

Julianne gave Gina an impatient glance as if sharing news everyone should already know. “Everyone who was not devoured by the Lions… is tested… to discover if they are worthy of their lives.”

Gina didn’t know what to make of that strange comment. “And then… what… they’re brought here to train as Ama-Eskua?”

“Oh, no,” Julianne said firmly. “The Ama-Eskua have not taken on new students for quite some time.” She looked at the others. “These are the Chosen. They, as well as I, train and fight to find out if we are worthy to be called Candidates or if we’re reserved for Fodder.”

Gina mulled this over. “So, are you telling me that Mother believes that The Change was not a ‘random’ event on the population? That somehow, those of us who didn’t turn into those yellow-eyed freaks, were chosen on purpose?”

Julianne seemed perplexed by the question. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “We are either worthy of the ‘gift’ or we are not. It has always been this way.”

Gina leaned back in her chair. “This is crazy. Who decides who is worthy when we’ve all been given a second chance… all of us who didn’t turn into blood-craving monsters?”

Julianne had no response.

Gina shook her head and turned toward the group. She locked in one of the oldest looking. A heavy-set man with curly black hair and a beard pretended not to be listening as he sipped on a cup. “What about you? You look old enough to be some of these kid’s father? How did you end up here?”

The man, realizing Gina was speaking to him, nearly choked on his drink. He turned to Julianne.

Julianne nodded, giving him permission to speak.

The man put his cup down and smiled. “I’m just lucky I guess.”

“What’s your name?” Gina said.

“Name’s Howard, but everyone calls me Hugh.”

“I’m Gina, Hugh. Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise. And… if you don’t mind me saying so… you are the prettiest thing I’ve seen since arriving on this rock. No disrespect intended.”

Gina laughed. “None taken. What’s your story, Hugh?”

Hugh took another sip from his cup. “I was with a group trying to get out of Cleveland. That place was insane. The dead were everywhere. We found a high-rise to hide in. Everything was going okay until we made it to the third floor, then it was like the dead were just waiting there for us. We were overrun in seconds. Made it to the roof and barricaded the door. We were up there for days, slowly dying, while those monsters just kept trying to get at us. They were never gonna stop.” He put his cup down and stared off toward the wall. “My group… well… we started losing our shit up on that rooftop. We were so hungry and thirsty and… and fucking desperate… pardon my language.”

“That’s okay,” Gina said. “I can’t think of a better time period that deserves some choice fucking profanity… and often.”

Hugh nodded appreciatively. “Anyway, we all stared having the craziest fucking thoughts. The days were the worst. That sun just beat down on us, cooking our brains and trying to kill us off before the dead had a chance. I still remember when Patty, this good-looking blond, she just decided to walk on over to the edge. She looked back at me, smiled, and then just… jumped right off.”

“That’s fucking horrible,” Gina said.

“That wasn’t the worst of it. People started turning on each other. Someone said something about a lottery to decide who we should kill… to survive.” He wouldn’t elaborate. “Things just got worse from there. The dead were never going away. Next thing I knew, a fight broke out and I thought that was it for all of us. I started looking around the edge of the roof for some way down or across… fuck… I didn’t know. That’s when I saw this rope tied off to this pipe about ten feet below me. I swear it wasn’t there before! Anyway, it went all the way down to a second roof on another section of the building. I turned to say something and watched this man just throw another over the side of the roof. It was insane! I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t say shit. I just started climbing down that rope.”

“You just left them up there to kill each other?” Gina said, astonished.

“If I’d said anything, they all would’ve fought each other for the rope, probably would’ve knocked it loose. So… I let them all duke it out and started climbing. I didn’t make it halfway down before I heard the dead finally knock that rooftop door open. I think all that fighting just got them riled up. I made it to the lower roof and was able to get out from there.”

“Then what did you do?”

Hugh looked surprised by the question. “I fucking ran! Never looked back. I didn’t make it two blocks before I ran into this strange fellow, talking about Mother’s Salvation and being a potential Candidate. He said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve passed the test.’ I didn’t know what the hell he was going on about, but he told me about this place and that I’d be safe from the ‘Lions devouring the world’. Asked me to come with him… so I did!” Hugh looked around, sighing heavily. “Been here ever since.”

Gina was stunned. “And how long was that?”

Hugh shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure anymore. I know I arrived before the winter. It’s easy to lose track of time down in this place.”

Gina just nodded, thinking about her time going crazy down in the compound.

“Something similar happened to me,” a young man with long brown hair said. “My name’s Nick. I was with a small group near Medina. We found an elementary school in the middle of this devastated neighborhood. The school looked out-of-place and undamaged. It reminded me of when you see news footage after a tornado strikes down, tearing everything to pieces in its path… and then there’s like one house that somehow survived it. It was just like that. We needed somewhere to hide for the night and the school seemed perfect. We set up for the evening on the second floor. Shortly after, we heard explosions going off beneath us. When we checked it out, every exit had been blown up. There was so much debris, we couldn’t get out. The dead came quick after that, attracted by the explosions. We started to panic and ran back up to the second floor. The dead surrounded that school in minutes. While the others were scrambling to find a way out, and making all kinds of noise doing it, I got as far away from them as I could. Someone had spray-painted red arrows along the walls. I thought that was strange, so I followed the arrows… and found an access ladder leading up to a hatch to the roof. By then, the dead were coming in through the first-floor windows. There were screams coming from everywhere. I was so terrified. Part of me wanted to go back and help them, but I couldn’t. I was afraid they’d lead the dead right to the access ladder, so I went up there, shut the hatch behind me, and just stayed quiet while those monsters tore the rest of them to pieces.” The young man’s shoulder’s slouched. “They never found me… the dead, or my group. Hours later, when I finally worked up the nerve to head back down into the school, the dead had moved on… and I was the only survivor. After that, I ran into this creepy guy, sitting at a desk in one of the classrooms. Told me I’d passed some test and a lot of stuff like Hugh mentioned… Long story short, now I’m here because I hid on that rooftop.”

Gina was shaking her head. “You could’ve gone back, before it was too late, and helped some of them get to that roof access… but you kept it to yourself. That’s pretty fucking shitty, Nick.”

“Like I said, I was terrified,” Nick defended. “All I could think about was saving my own ass. You would’ve done the same if you’d been in my shoes.”

“No,” Gina corrected. “I would not have done the same thing.”

The young man turned away from Gina’s intense gaze.

Gina noticed a small, sad looking young girl staring into a bowl of soup. She can’t be any older than sixteen, Gina thought. “What about you?”

The girl looked up into Gina’s probing gaze and froze. “Excuse me?”

“What’s your name?” Gina pushed.

“Connie. My name’s Connie.”

“Nice to meet you, Connie. I’m Gina. How did you end up here?”

Connie stared into the faces of her group, looking for anyone to bail her out.

“Go on, Connie,” Hugh said gently. “Answer the nice lady’s question.”

Connie nodded and frowned. She looked to Gina. “I was… I was with my family about a month ago. It was me and my mom and dad, and Cody—that was my brother.”

Gina nodded.

“It was getting late and we hadn’t found anywhere to crash. Cody saw this big Greyhound bus up on an overpass. It looked like it had been in an accident because the front tires of the bus were hanging over the side. My dad checked it out and it looked safe, if we stayed near the back. We didn’t dare stay out after dark… not where we were. So, we locked ourselves in the bus and huddled together as quietly as we could. Mom and Cody fell asleep as soon as they laid down across the seats. Dad and I were in the seat across from them. He was staring out the window keeping watch. I had laid down with my head in his lap. We were so tired.” She stopped to wipe tears off her face with the back of her hand. “Sorry. I know I’m supposed to be stronger than this.”

“You will be,” Julianne told her with a confident nod.

Connie smiled back.

“What happened to your family?” Gina said.

Connie stared back down at her bowl. “We fell asleep. A horde of the dead were traveling over the overpass really late. I don’t know how they knew we were there, but they did. We heard them pushing against the back of the bus. Dad started to panic and yelled at us to move toward the front. The bus shifted and slipped forward farther over the edge of the overpass. While Mom and Cody tried to help throw luggage toward the rear entrance of the bus, I just… I just froze. I could see them outside… all their angry, bloody faces, pressed up against the windows. I looked up to keep from staring at those crazy faces and I saw the emergency hatch exiting the top of the bus. There were words written there above this strange symbol.”

She had Gina’s complete attention. “What did the words say?”

“The words said, ‘Open, if you want to live’.”

“And the symbol?” Gina pushed.

Connie stared at the others and they encouraged her to continue. She said, “It’s the one we’ve all seen. The eye with three points surrounding it… The Eye of Mother.”

The others started to nod.

Gina was shocked. “What did you do, Connie?”

“I got my dad’s attention and showed him the hatch. He yelled at my mother to grab Cody. Next thing I knew, he had it open and was lifting me up to the roof.” She sighed heavily and continued. “They ran out of time. I crawled on top of the bus and the dead broke in through the rear door. I shouted down to them and my dad told me to run. He told me to run and not to look back. I lost sight of my family when they were forced toward the front of the bus. I felt the bus shift again. The dead were inside, and I wanted to scream at them… but I couldn’t. I didn’t want them to find me. I heard Mom and Cody scream… then Dad. I felt the bus moving again and I jumped off the side and rolled beneath an abandoned car… so the dead wouldn’t find me. And then I heard the bus make this awful squealing sound… and then it was… gone. Moments later I heard it crash on the highway below. The dead started jumping over the overpass to chase after it.” Connie stopped to wipe more tears from her face. “I stayed under that car until morning. I thought the dead would get me, too. But they didn’t. Eventually, daylight came, and everything got real quiet. The dead were gone… and so were my family… just like that.”

Gina’s eyes watered up. “Damn… I’m so sorry.”

“I would’ve died under that car if the man hadn’t found me. He told me to not be afraid and reached his hand under the car to help me. When he got me out, I was… I was real messed up. The man, he patted me on the head and said, ‘You did well, child. You held on to Mother’s gift.’ I didn’t understand what he meant, not then. All I knew was that my family was dead, and I did nothing.”

“You saved yourself,” Hugh said. “That’s how you ended up here, too. So, don’t beat yourself up about it. Mother is proud of you… we all are.”

Connie sheepishly smiled at the others who gave her encouraging nods. “Thanks, guys,” she told them. “And praise be to Mother for her precious gift of life.”

“Well said,” Julianne added. “You can relax now. I believe Gina’s heard enough. It was very brave of you to tell that story.”

Connie nodded and stared back down into her soup.

Gina just stared at the depressing kid. She finally snapped out of it and said to all of them, “I saw it, too. Mother’s symbol. It was spray-painted on a bunch of hangar doors. My group was after a boat at a marina. The hangars were a trap filled with the dead. They came after us and killed my friend, Doug.”

“Is that how you ended up here?” Hugh asked. “Did you make it to the boat, and leave the others behind?”

Gina just stared at Hugh in disgust. “You know what. Julianne was right. I have heard enough.”

Hugh saw the disapproval in Gina’s eyes and immediately looked away.

“Did we… offend you, Gina?” Julianne said, noticing Gina’s displeasure.

Gina shook her head and laughed. “You’re all here… alive… because you climbed over your own people to save yourselves.”

“Is… Is this wrong?” Julianne looked confused. “The way you talk makes it sound like you don’t believe we are Candidates?”

Gina sighed and let it go. “It doesn’t matter what I think. And I’ve no room to judge any of you for doing what you had to do to survive. I’ve done some despicable things that I’m not proud of.”

“But you are here, Gina,” Julianne said. “You are among the Chosen. You are a potential Candidate, too.”

“I don’t know what the hell that means,” Gina said. She was getting tired. “I’ve just become really good at surviving. That doesn’t mean I’m worthy to be alive, chosen, or that my life’s some damn gift to protect. It just means that I’m still here, when a lot of other good people that I used to know are gone. And they deserved to be here.”

They all looked at her in silence.

Gina stared into their wide-eyed faces. They don’t understand a fucking word I’m saying. Mother’s gone and put a big fucking band-aid over their selfish actions… and then made a damn religion out of it!

Before anyone else could speak, a loud buzzing alarm started to go off, blaring throughout the entire training facility.

“Fuck!” Gina said, startled. “What the hell is that?”

Julianne was already on her feet, motioning toward the others. “Ready yourselves immediately!” she barked at them.

They all stood up and came to attention. “We are ready,” they all responded together.

“Julianne… what is this?” Gina was staring all about the cafeteria. “Are we under attack?”

Julianne smiled at her. “Yes, Gina,” she said calmly. “Enough talk. We need to move now. Are you able?”

Gina nodded. “I’ll figure it out. Where the hell are we going?”

Julianne’s smile was gone. “We need to make it to the weapons… in the Kill Room.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-2

Previous Episode 53-11

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-1: 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.

~~~

It’s been a couple of months since my last update. Been busy writing. Well, we’ve just finished Chapter 53, which turned out to be another long one clocking in at over 48,000 words (second longest chapter in the entire series). I swear, every chapter is starting to feel like its own novella… lol. Anyway, the grand total for Book Six at this point is 240,000 words plus. By the conclusion of this book I suspect that Book Six will take over as the new longest book in the series (and that seems to be the trend since Book Three).

I apologize for another brief delay before posting the final chapter. As I’ve said above, each one of these chapters is feeling like its own story within a story and it takes a lot out of me to plan, plot and write each chapter. Rather than rush to meet online deadlines, I would rather take a couple of weeks and make sure everything’s right… especially for the Book Six finale.

There has been a whole lot happening in this book. I always knew this volume was going to be the most challenging to tackle in this series since I dubbed this one as the ‘Origin Story’. But now, the end of this part of the journey is almost upon us and I’m excited to see what comes out in the finale chapter. Writing this book has brought out all kinds of surprises I didn’t see coming, as well as paving the way for the final two books that are pending. I love it when this story takes on a life of it’s own and catches me off-guard. Those surprises along the way reinvigorate me every time, motivating me to explore new paths rather than forcing the story to stay within the confines of a plotline. I am delighted by what has been revealed to me in this book.

Well, obviously I can’t talk about anything that’s happening in the final chapter, but I can tell you that it will not end with a cliffhanger going in to Book Seven. No, this will wrap up the second long leg in this journey, clearing the way for the final two-book run to the finish line.

As far as what happens after… Book Seven is already in the planning stages and I intend on jumping right into the writing of it following the conclusion of Book Six. It will still be titled, Book Seven: The Prophet… a that’s all I can say right now. I also know the title for the last book in this long series, but I’m going to keep that to myself for a while.

Chapter 54: Treachery, will start on Monday, October 7th. If I can have it my way, I would love to post the final episode on Halloween since Book Six premiered on Halloween last year. Man this has been a long book… lol. Time will tell ;)

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. As always, thanks for reading, and I look forward to jumping into the conclusion of Book Six with you in a couple of weeks.

~~~

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~~~

“To anyone who finds this recording, my name is Stephen Eddington. I was once a history teacher back in the old world. I’m traveling with my friends, Logan McCallister… he’s a preacher; Meredith Montgomery… a seer of sorts; and Megan Bishop, a bright and brave young lady who… well… I’ll just say that she’s a special woman, belonging to two worlds, now.

We’ve been running for a long time, trying to survive… just like you, I suppose. We are exhausted—mentally, physically… spiritually. But we haven’t given up yet.

Whoever you are, I hope and pray that you’re still hanging on; that you keep on fighting for as long as you can. Keep on fighting, for each other, for a chance… any chance… to maybe live a life where you don’t have to run any longer.

As for me and my friends, we’ve reached a point where we can no longer run from the monsters in this strange and horrifying new world. We’ve decided to turn around and face them. I’ll spare you the details because by the time you’re hearing this, we will either be dead, or maybe… just maybe… we will have scored a win for humanity, one we so desperately need.” …

~~~

Meredith, Stephen, Logan and Megan cautiously stepped out onto the front porch of the inn just after first light. They could hear the collective low moans of the dead from all around them, but mercifully, Toby kept them far enough back and out of sight for the four of them to reach the roadway.

The older woman turned toward the eastern sky, smiling up at the brilliant display of pink and reddish hues igniting the horizon. She took a deep breath, refusing to look away from the sunrise, refusing to let Toby and his massive horde of monsters steal from her moment of joy inspired by the hand of her Creator.

Logan stepped up beside her and whispered, “He does know how to paint them… doesn’t He?”

She turned to the preacher who winked at her. Meredith smiled, then turned back toward the sun. I want to remember this, she thought. I want to hold this image, right there, in front of my eyes… forever.

“We should go,” Stephen said, ending the moment.

Meredith turned toward him.

Stephen was staring about his twilight-covered surroundings, looking extremely uncomfortable.

Megan had tensed up. She was standing beside Stephen, swinging her head around at every sound the dead made.

“They won’t attack,” Meredith assured them. “They’ll follow, but Toby will keep them away from our route.”

“That’s unnerving,” Stephen said. “So, we’re supposed to travel… with the dead?”

Meredith smiled. “I don’t know if I like the way you put it… but… yes. They’ll be close by, but not too close. Toby’s got them all on a tight leash.”

“And if we should wander off the path?” Megan said, her intense eyes hidden behind her sunglasses.

Meredith smiled at her, relieved that Megan was already feeling like her old, new self—ready for a fight. Whatever Toby had done when he woke her, there didn’t seem to be any lasting effects on the young woman from last night’s attack. “Let’s just try not to think about them and make the most of our time on the road.”

“And don’t get fucking bit in the ass, praise God,” Logan added unapologetically, stepping between them.

Megan shook her head at the big preacher, and snickered.

Stephen looked west, examining the roadway out of Cherry Hill. “Are we really going… all the way back?” He turned to Meredith and raised an eyebrow.

She knew exactly what he meant. “Yes, Stephen. All the way back to the beginning… so it would seem.”

He shook his head and frowned. “I don’t know what’s going to be worse. All these deadheads pushing us toward Toby… or the ghosts waiting to greet us along the way.”

Meredith smiled and teased, “You and I, young man, have had plenty of practice dealing with haunts from the past.”

“You got me there, Meredith.”

She gave him an encouraging nod. “We will endure each painful mile… together.”

“Together,” Stephen agreed.

“Let’s do this, before the sun gets any higher and lights up all those creepy bastards,” Logan said, taking the lead. He slung his shotgun over his shoulder and readjusted his pack while walking. “I don’t wanna look into their dead eyes and feel like breakfast.” The others shuffled with their own gear, then followed the big man, heading west out of town.

A few minutes later, the reanimated started shambling toward the roadway from both sides. It was as if two invisible dams that held them in place had simply collapsed, releasing the flood waters of the dead from the cemetery that was once the town of Cherry Hill.

~~~

… “We’re headed west at dawn, back across the border into Northeast Ohio… and then toward Lake Erie. It’s going to take us a few days to get back to Fairport Harbor. That’s where it all started for some of us. Myself, Meredith, and a fierce and determined red-headed woman named Gina Melborn—we were among the first to pioneer this journey, which has led us to so much love and loss, in equal measure.

Would I take it all back if I could? All that pain and misery? Absolutely not. We have risked all on our fragile and very temporal relationships, understanding that with each new person, with each new light we had let into our hearts—the very real darkness was always present… threatening to extinguish that light. But to have known them, even for a moment, is worth the heartache that remains, echoing within us, until that pain is what keeps them alive… for as long as we’re still around to carry them with us” …

~~~

It took them six long days, pushing west then southwest, until they finally reconnected with the Grand River on the other side of the now deserted City of Painesville. The last time Meredith and Stephen were here, the dead had almost ended their journey at a gun shop before narrowly escaping via the river by boat.

This time, the dead were not hunting them, but providing an eerie chaperone, delivering them up toward the horrors that awaited.

Toby, who had been surprisingly quiet, finally spoke to Meredith when she decided that they continue along the river into Fairport Harbor.

Where are you going, Meredith? You don’t have to go that way. The roads will suffice.

“We are taking our old route,” she told him.

Toby paused. Are you planning to escape using the river? Yes, they fear the water because they do not understand it, but I will force them to follow… and they will. Besides, I have many more surrounding the area. There is no where you can go.

She looked to Stephen, who couldn’t stop staring around the ghost town of Painesville, and then said, “No, Toby. We’re not trying to escape. We are exactly where we want to be. But… we will have one night of peace, away from the sound of your groaning monsters, should the river drown them all out.”

Toby laughed. Alright, Meredith. I will allow you this… indulgence. Go ahead, take the river. I will not send the dead down after you. Pick a place, have your final night of respite, but continue in the morning to the marina without delay.

“Thank you,” Meredith said.

You are welcome, Meredith.

Stephen was staring at her. “Is he… gone?”

“Yes. For now,” she said. “Toby will leave us alone along the river. I suggest we take advantage of our last night to finalize a plan.”

“The day’s keep slipping away,” Megan said, staring down into the river at her reflection. “It’s like… it’s like the closer we get, the faster time moves, pushing us toward the end… just like the dead pushing in behind us.”

Meredith smiled at the introspective young woman. “It would appear that we can’t delay for much longer.”

Stephen stared into the river, then looked downstream. “Nicole and I… we met somewhere along this river. I mean… the second time.”

Logan stepped up beside him and placed a big hand on his shoulder. “You good, little brother?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s just… this whole area brings back a lot of memories… and emotions.”

He nodded and said, “I understand.” After a moment of silence, he added, “All it does for me, is make me want to piss listening to all that running water.”

After expecting the preacher to say something… meaningful… Megan rolled her eyes and shook her head at him.

Meredith, watching Megan’s reaction to Logan, covered her mouth to keep a nervous fit of the giggles at bay.

Stephen closed his eyes, smiled, and told him, “You have no filter, my friend.”

Logan gave him a wink. “Just trying to lighten the mood.” He looked over at Megan and started unzipping his pants. “Do you mind? I think I’ll drain the main vein right here.”

Megan, realizing what he was about to do, suddenly blushed, covered her sunglasses with her hand, and turned away, rushing toward Meredith.

Stephen started laughing at the embarrassed half-dead. “You did that on purpose,” he accused him.

Logan shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe. Probably.” He laughed. “She’s fun to mess with. Besides, when a man’s gotta go…”

The preacher took a leak in the Grand River.

Stephen turned and started walking off. He repeated over his shoulder with a smile, “No damn filter at all.”

“Screw that,” Logan said. “It just gets in the way of the fucking point… and I’ve had to pee for hours!”

Megan approached the medium, fuming, and whispered, “That… that crude man! He is… pissing… all over Stephen’s moment!”

Meredith almost fell over from laughing so hard.

She was immediately reminded of something Gina had told her once that Douglas had shared with her:

“Laughter is a manifestation of temporary insanity. That’s why there’s always room to laugh, no matter how fucked up the circumstances get. Insanity doesn’t play by the rules or act in accordance with expected behavior.”

Meredith smiled. Some ghosts know when to return when we need them the most, she thought.

~~~

… “Our extended family has been scattered again. Many have died or are presumed dead. For all we know, the four of us, and Gina… may be all that’s left.

Whoever you are, listening to my mixed-tape ramblings, I hope you’re not alone. I hope you have people you care about as much as we care about our own. If you do, I hope you protect them with all that you have. In this dead world, that’s all we have left… and nothing else matters, not even our own lives, if it means saving them.

The one who’s in control of all this madness—he calls himself Toby—he has Gina… and he presently has us… but not for long. I don’t know what Toby is. Demon? Spirit? Satan, himself? Your guess is as good as mine. But I do know that Toby is evil personified, and it wants to destroy everything about us. Mark that name, should we fail. Understand that it is this… entity… who has assaulted our world.

Toby is the enemy.

We’re being escorted by the dead all the way to the lake. I know, sounds crazy, doesn’t it? There’s a boat waiting to take us across… to take us to the monster’s island.

I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about going back. We’ve lost good people along that route… family. It’s going to be hard to revisit those painful days.” …

~~~

By mid-afternoon, Megan held them up along the narrowing river, pointing out an object up ahead that looked out of place against the natural terrain.

Stephen squinted toward the object, then looked immediately to Meredith.

She nodded toward him, already wiping fresh tears away from her cheeks.

“Some kind of small boat?” Logan suggested, staring at what looked like a vessel’s mast sticking up at an angle.

“No, Logan,” Stephen said, solemnly. “That’s no boat.”

~~~

Everyone stood quietly before the crooked driftwood cross, marking a small pile of stones beside the river. Ashley Dermont’s grave had remained surprisingly undisturbed after all this time.

Stephen stood beside Meredith with a comforting arm around her shoulder.

The old medium just stared at the cross. She was at a loss for words.

Logan stepped forward, head bowed, hands folded in the front. He cleared his throat and said, “Dear, Heavenly Father, we thank you for your grace and safe passage, just as you have granted this young woman safe passage into your eternal kingdom. As we stand here, gathered before this memorial to all those who have gone on ahead of us, we carry them, all of them, in our hearts and minds, as they travel forth before us, granting us courage for the days ahead, by their sacrifices.”

Megan stared at the big preacher. Her face was stone, concealing the many emotions that threatened to unravel her.

Logan continued, “We thank you, Heavenly Father, for watching over our beloved friend, Ashley, and for leading us here… to remind us all what is at stake. May we find comfort and resolve to do what is required by your grace and strength, and through the memories of those we have lost.” He paused, closing his eyes.

Meredith and Stephen were openly weeping.

The preacher finished. “‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’”

~~~

… “I wish I could tell you that everything’s going to be alright, that we’re not terrified at the prospect of what we’re about to face. But we are. I’m sure we will be second-guessing our decision constantly as we tremble with each step forward. I’ve tried my best to put on the bravest face I can… for Meredith’s sake. But I’m deathly afraid.

At least we have each other. I can’t imagine facing the monsters in this world… alone.” …

~~~

“It feels… smaller,” Stephen remarked, then turned to Meredith. “And surprisingly little has changed.”

Meredith smiled at him then examined the boathouse loft.

Other than one shattered window and some obvious weather damage in the area in front of it, the loft still resembled a small recreation room with three large dusty sofas surrounding the same old Zenith console television which dominated the center of the room. Farther back were various other items covered with tarps and an old CB radio hidden way in the back.

The antique refrigerator still captured immediately attention as Logan opened the door, was assaulted by the rotting smell within, then quickly closed it. “Think I’ll skip dinner,” he said. He eyeballed a multi-colored striped couch and smiled. “Looks like something I’d have at my old place.”

Megan stared at the hideous couch, then at Logan. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Bah!” Logan said, waving a dismissive hand at her. “It ‘ain’t much to look at, but I bet it’s super comfortable. I call the couch.” The big preacher plopped down on the old sofa, causing the springs beneath to squeak.

“Was that you, old man, or the couch?” Megan teased.

He laughed, then stared at the others. “Girl’s got jokes now.”

Meredith cupped a smile. She located her spot from before in the center of another sofa. She sheepishly sat down, half-expecting to be thrown back into the past the moment she got comfortable. The old medium felt how tired she was as soon as she was off her feet. She closed her eyes, took a long, deliberate breath, then opened them. Meredith smiled as the time machine of memory brought them all back. She could see Douglas, spread out on that ridiculous striped couch, the weight of the world in his hard but compassionate eyes. Meredith could feel the strong and determined red-head sitting on one side of her; the inquisitive and funny young Ashley on the other. Amanda was already passed out on another sofa. She could see Gregory and Marcus, tinkering with the old radio in the back of the room—Greg was always tinkering with something. Meredith turned toward a window and frowned. Where Megan was now standing, she could see Frank, perched in another one of his stand-off spots, always keeping his distance and shutting everyone out. Only she understood his pain and loss, but Frank had forced her out, too, choosing to suffer in his own private way. She turned from the window and found obnoxious Charlie, always pacing, always unsettled, staring around at everyone in the room like they were idiots… and she… the queen of the idiots. Meredith laughed lightly at the thought.

“You see them, too, don’t you?” Stephen said, sitting down beside her.

She turned and smiled at him.

Stephen’s eyes looked glazed over.

She nodded.

“In this place,” he said, still staring at old friends who were long gone, “I feel like the ghost.”

“You and me, both, Stephen,” she whispered, wiping another round of tears from her eyes. “You and me, both.”

“Is… something wrong?” Megan said. She came over and sat down on the other side of Meredith.

She turned to the half-dead woman and smiled. “No, honey. We’re just…”

“We’re sharing the room with old friends,” Stephen finished.

Megan just stared at them, then nodded. “So… what happens now?”

Logan sat up, realizing he’d almost nodded off. He let out a monster yawn.

Meredith laughed. “Well… obviously… we need to rest. This place offered us a rare moment to do that before. I believe we should take advantage of it again.”

“And after?” she pushed.

Meredith looked away. Her eyes looked distant. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll arrive at the marina. After that… we will do what we must.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a plan,” Logan said. “We’ve been going at this for days and all I feel like we’ve done is rule out all the ways to get ourselves killed.” He sighed heavily and finished, “Nothing we can come up with will work without your insight into all the damn scenarios we can’t perceive… or understand. You’re holding back, Meredith, and I want to know why.”

They were all looking at her now. Meredith could feel the weight of their stares. She laughed nervously and said, “I suggest you petition your God, Logan. We will need His help.”

“I’ve been praying ever since Cherry Hill,” Logan said with a smile. “Trust me, our God will be there.”

She nodded. “That’s comforting.” She took them all in. “I’ve been building my strength back up since we left Pennsylvania. I should be ready to confront Toby with all that I possess, when the time comes,” she said. “I don’t know if it will be enough to stop him… but I feel less afraid now.” She smiled at Stephen. “And more encouraged that I am up to the task.”

Stephen smiled and nodded.

“What can we do to help?” Megan said.

And now comes the hard part, Meredith thought, staring at the girl. She had been working out her own plan ever since Cherry Hill, one she kept to herself. “Tonight, we enjoy each other’s company… and rest. Tomorrow, we say goodbye. I’ll be going to the marina… alone.”

“Like hell you will!” Logan objected.

Megan was up on her feet. “No!”

Before she could calm them down, Stephen put a hand on her shoulder.

She turned and saw a fierce and uncompromising determination in his eyes. “Meredith,” he said, calmly. “There is no way we will let you face Toby alone. None of us could live with that.”

She was about to protest, then stopped. She glanced into all their faces and found the hard look of warriors before a great battle, and then being told to retreat. She laughed. “My goodness. I’ve already lost my first fight.”

“You may feel responsible for Toby,” Logan said. “But you’re not. You’re also not responsible for our lives. This is a choice we’ve all made.”

“We stand together,” Stephen added.

“Yes. Together,” Megan echoed.

Meredith nodded through tears. “I… I had to try. I thought… I thought maybe if I could spare the rest of you… then… then it would easier.”

“What… easier if you failed?” Stephen said.

She nodded. “Yes. At least, you would all be safe.”

“But for how long?” Logan said. “Toby will come for us, eventually. Fail or succeed… we do it now… together.”

“We might all die tomorrow,” Meredith said. “I’m not being pessimistic… just realistic.”

“We were all prepared to die in Cherry Hill,” Stephen reminded her. “Nothing has changed. If we die… we’ll die fighting… we’ll die together. I can live with that.”

“Me, too,” Megan said.

“Well… I’m not keen on the dying part,” Logan added. “We’ll cross that bridge should it come. But I’ll be damned if I stand by and let you attempt this alone. Living with that shame would be far worse than dying tomorrow.”

The others agreed whole heartedly.

Meredith nodded and smiled. “Okay, then. We do this together. Honestly… From a selfish standpoint, I feel a little relieved.”

“Then it’s settled,” Logan said.

“So, what will you do?” Megan said. She turned to Stephen and then back to Meredith. “Has your… secret weapon… revealed itself to you, yet?”

The old medium’s face was unreadable. “All I can say is that I believe we have a chance now. Please don’t ask me what that means. It would be difficult to explain.”

Megan just stared, causing Meredith to look away.

“What can we do… to aide you in that ‘chance’?” Stephen said.

“Find Gina,” she said.

They all looked confused.

“Toby called her his ‘guest’, not his prisoner,” Meredith clarified. “Maybe that was just a play on words, but I don’t believe so. I sensed that he tipped his hand a little and told us more than he intended. The fact that he mentioned her at all felt desperate… like he really needed me back… now… despite his claims on there being another like me.”

“So, was that all bullshit?” Stephen said. “And how do we even know if he’s telling the truth about Gina?”

“I believed him when he said there was someone else, but he also said that it would take time for that someone else to be ready. Again, he said too much. I believe he’s desperate to have me back and revealing that he had Gina, which I also sensed was true, or telling me about this other ‘me’, both felt like he was running out of options… other than just killing me.”

“And the fact that he couldn’t just overpower you at the inn, kill the rest of us off, and then drag you back… that’s also telling,” Logan said.

“Yes. That says he respects my strength enough now to take me seriously. But back to Gina. Unless she’s locked up in some dungeon, which I don’t believe is the case, she might have some limited freedom on this island. She might know where Toby is… Toby’s body.”

The others paused, looking confused.

Meredith pulled them in close… and told them her plan.

Most of it.

~~~

… “I’ve reached the end of my ramblings. Going to attempt a final night of sleep… if that’s possible. To whoever is listening to these words, maybe the battle is long over by the time you’re hearing this. Maybe several years have passed and the dead are long gone. Maybe all traces of that terrible time we have come to know as The Change is foreign to you. I would certainly like to believe this… especially if we succeed… but at the expense of our lives.

I take some small comfort in this possibility… and choose to believe it.

I’m left wondering: Will there be a place in history for us, long after our task is complete? Will we be recorded as heroes? Martyrs?

Failures.

It will be enough to just have a history… and a species still around to remember it.

On a final note, should this mission cost us our lives to give the rest of you a chance at some kind of normal life, then this will all be worth it in the end. I do hope my friends and I are still around to see it.

Pray for us, pray for each other. Love one another while you still can. I hope that after our task is complete, win or lose, that the rest of you remember everything we’ve already lost… and turn it around somehow, even in this dark, upside world, and find a damn way to keep on loving each other. That’s all I have that’s really worth saying. Good luck to us all.”

~~~

The trip along the river in the morning was tense. Meredith and Stephen expected the dead to storm out of every abandoned building in Fairport Harbor. Logan and Megan were unnerved by the silence, feeling like eyes unseen were always watching them.

When they reached the badly weathered boardwalk, Stephen stopped and pointed toward the first of the boat carcasses left rotting away in the harbor. Many of the original sabotaged vessels had been overturned by the elements, leaving what was left of them buried beneath the river. A small handful of badly burned boats had been pushed up against the shoreline, where they looked like dead fish out of water.

“They remind me of us,” Stephen remarked. “Banged up, ripped apart, burned alive and full of holes… and yet, some of them have managed to stay afloat or crawl to shore.”

Meredith stared at what was left of the decrepit ships. “No, Stephen. Not like us. If anything, they resemble what ‘alone’ looks like.” She turned to him and smiled. “We never had to face that horror.”

He nodded, then stared back at the ship graveyard.

“Well… I sure hope none of these were the boat we came to find?” Logan said.

Meredith shook her head. “No. These were all sank on purpose at the beginning to force survivors toward the marina… and false hope. That’s where Toby’s boat will be.”

“Just like before,” Stephen whispered.

“Great,” Megan added sourly, staring up at the deserted shops and businesses that lined both sides of the river. Every shattered window and open doorway felt as though monsters lurked just within the shadows. “This place smells… dead.”

They all looked at her.

“Sorry,” she said, with a crooked smile. Megan suddenly stopped. Her eyes locked in on a tall gate in front of several large hangars off to the right. “I don’t want to go that way,” she said, taking a step back. “It smells very bad over there.”

Stephen and Meredith stared at the old gate and the hangars beyond, each remembering the attack when those large hangar doors opened, letting the hungry dead out. They could still hear the screams…

“We will go around,” Meredith said. “Nothing good came out of going in there.”

Logan was standing right up near the gate. “That three-pronged symbol… it’s painted in red all over the hangar doors.”

Meredith sighed. “Never mind that, now,” she said. “Those were primarily intended for me to find. The rest of it… doesn’t matter.”

They all gave her a puzzled look.

She didn’t want to elaborate, but finished, “Those symbols were always meant to make me… remember.”

The tired old medium led them away from the hangars with relief, and up into Fairport Harbor, around the hangars, and toward the marina.

~~~

They all stood at the edge of the only pier that still moored a boat.

A long white and beige vessel faced them on the starboard side, looking too clean and out of place in the worn-down marina. From the aft of the vessel to midships, the interior of the boat was completely exposed to the elements. From there, stairs descended into what they all assumed was a cabin area, and another flight of steps ascended toward the small pilot house which loomed over the bow.

“Looks like a charter boat for extended fishing trips,” Logan remarked. The preacher squinted and examined the dark windows surrounding the pilot house for movement, but he couldn’t make out anything.

“Is anyone on board?” Stephen asked.

As if hearing his question, a strange figure appeared above deck, stepping up from the cabin area, wearing a large red robe.

“I don’t like this,” Megan said, sniffing at the air. She took a step back.

Meredith raised her hand toward the robed stranger. “Hello!” she called out. “We’re… we’re here!”

The red-robbed stranger turned its hooded head toward the voice. Then it moved to a plank midships and crossed over to the pier.

Before Meredith and the others could speak, the robbed figure removed its hood, revealing an old woman with long white hair with a few strands of black.

Meredith’s eyes went wide. “No!” she whispered in disbelief. “This isn’t possible!”

Clementine stared at Meredith for what felt like an eternity, and then finally smiled. “Hello, old friend,” she said. “It’s been a very, very long time.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-1

Previous Episode 53-10

~~~

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“Chapter 53-11: Love and Loss” 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.