Better Late Than Never

Posted: February 28, 2015 in Fiction, Flash Fiction Challenge
Tags: , ,

Alright, so this one took me a little longer to crank out than I’d hoped, so it’s going up a day later than I’d planned. But, here it is nonetheless. Again, terribleminds is still doing a round-robin style challenge, so for this one I consulted Seventh Sanctum for a prompt and got the following:

Setting: post-apocalyptic     Theme: serial killer story

So, using that, I came up with “On the Shores of Emerald Bay”:

1

 

“I still don’t understand: why don’t we just grab one of these cars? They have to have gas, right?”

Julie trudged down the middle of the road, the asphalt aged and cracked underneath her worn shoes, hands shoved into the pockets of her denim jacket, hugging it and the thick, wool hoodie underneath it closer to her to keep the chill in the air out. One of the other five individuals arrayed around the small, thirteen year old girl, snorted and chuckled.

“And I keep telling you, shortstack: they haven’t been gassed up in more than three years,” the man retorted. He was tall and lanky – lankier now after three years of living hand-to-mouth on what could be scrounged up, foraged, or hunted – with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. His clothing was much like Julie’s: scavenged and worn from too many hard seasons, too much hard travel. “Any of the ones that might still have gas in them aren’t going to be worth shit. The gasoline will have gone stale.”

Julie frowned petulantly. “Still, I mean…we could at least try…”

“Julie, put a sock in it and leave Jeff alone,” her mother, Cassandra, said from behind her. Julie could hear the rolling of her mother’s eyes in the lilt of her voice.

“But, couldn’t there be one–?” It was Tommy who asked, the nine year old boy turning to look over his shoulder at Cassandra then Jeff. The teenaged woman walking next to him tousled his hair.

“No, squirt,” his sister, Kate, answered. “Believe me, we’ve tried. Again and again and again. Besides, walking is good for us.”

They were making their way south, having followed Route 30 out of Carson City until it became Route 50 after they crossed the state line into California. Though they’d been able to get good glimpses of the lake while they had still been on the Nevada side of it, now all they could see were pine trees and asphalt and the occasional aged road sign that declared South Lake Tahoe to be so many miles ahead of them.

The last member of their group turned his eyes skyward, clocking the position of the sun for a moment as the group continued their steady amble. “We’ll take a break in about half-an-hour,” he said, the sun glinting off his prominent nose and mostly-shaven head with its variety of painted designs. Though he was half of a head shorter than Jeff, he was a bulky man whose frame was mostly muscle, which allowed him to deftly wield the long-handled hammer its sixty-pound head that was currently resting across his shoulders. “We should be able to get into South Lake Tahoe before night falls completely.”

Julie saw Jeff glance toward Ecthi, the bulky man, and then shrug. He’d been slowing down over the past hour or so, and since they’d started walking just after dawn, no doubt he was feeling the ache of tiredness like the rest of us. But, while Ecthi was in no way the group’s leader, Jeff often deferred to the other man’s wisdom.

The Neanderthal had, after all, single-handedly saved them from bandits when he’d first come across the group six months back.

They walked until they came upon residential streets branching off of the main road and slowed their pace, Ecthi and Jeff and Cassandra keeping their eyes alert for any movement that might betray the presence of others. In the three years since the dead rose, Julie and her mom had moved a lot – and lost her father, her cousins, her aunts and uncles along the way. Though they had come across decent folk just trying to salvage what remained of a normal life in this new world, they had also encountered scores of people – men, women, children of all species – who wanted nothing more than to strip the goods and the meat from their bodies.

But as they continued down Route 50, they saw few signs of any current inhabitation, which elicited a frown from Ecthi. “This is a good place to live…,” he rumbled softly. “Why would anyone depart?”

“Well, winters up here can be brutal,” Jeff offered with a shrug and an idle fingering of the stock of the rifle he carried. “I remember coming up here for vacation once, years ago when I was a kid. My dad even talked about possibly getting a place up here, if we could afford it…until some of the locals warned him about how the passes can get blocked by snow in the winter. Sometimes food stores get low. Really low.” He glanced sidelong at Ecthi. “Maybe that’s what happened.”

“They ate each other?” The Neanderthal asked, stroking his long beard thoughtfully then flashing a smirk.

Jeff snorted. “Maybe. But I was thinking more along the lines that whoever might have lived here either starved or left in search of some place with an easier winter.”

Ecthi nodded and the group continued until they found a small beach house that looked none the worse for wear and, most importantly, not recently lived in. Julie and her mother claimed one bedroom, Kate and Tommy in another, while Jeff and Ecthi claimed the livingroom and dining room, respectively. As darkness fell, they lit a small fire in a brick-lined pit in the house’s backyard, where they could see the light of dusk reflected across the lake.

“We’ll venture a little further into town in the morning, see if there’s any edible food left, eh?” Ecthi said as he cleaned his pistol, the fire light glinting off of the metal. There was a chorus of wordless agreement from the others as they ate their meal of protein bars, fruit, and trail mix.

“Maybe you and I go, the others stay here and hold down the fort?” Jeff offered, taking a swig of water from his canteen. Ecthi grunted his assent and silence fell over the group for a long moment, the only sound was that of the early spring insects and the lapping of the waves.

“Tell us a story, Ecthi!” Julie said after a long moment, with Tommy echoing her call.

The Neanderthal made a thoughtful face and nodded softly after a moment. “Okay. Well, once upon a time, when Ross and Rachel were still dating, they met with the rest of their friends down at Central Per–”

Julie tossed a peanut at the burly man. “One of your stories!” She said, sounding playfully annoyed. “One of your Dvegarti stories.”

Ecthi mimed a look of dawning understanding. “Ohhhhh…one of our stories,” he said, nodding. “Okay. Let me think for a moment.” A minute of silence passed around the fire-pit, the burning wood crackling as Ecthi thoughtfully considered his sidearm, before he finished cleaning it and set it on the empty patio chair next to him.

“Alright. Well, as I’ve told you, my people among the Dvegarti are the Ryti, who traditionally lived in Spain – long before it was called ‘Spain’, ‘Hispania’, or even ‘Iberia’. In the most ancient of times, we lived in caves and huts made from mammoth bones and hide, but as the glaciers receded and more people…your people” – he said this with a small smile – “came into our lands, we moved more and more underground. Literally.

“We Dvegarti have always been of lesser numbers than your folk, which we and the Huxanju have attributed to our longer life spans. Anyway, at some point after we began inhabiting the caves and the tunnels beneath Iberia, we found ruins.”

“Ruins?” Kate had asked the question, her eyebrows crooked in confusion. “Underground?”

Ecthi nodded.  “Yes. Great rooms and halls – veritable cities under the earth. All carved and built by…someone. Not us, as far as we knew – but as we learned in later centuries and millennia, and as your folk have learned in recent years, the twists and turns and nuances of the human story – the story of all of our many and varied peoples – are intricate and ancient. We took up residence, we discovered ancient treasures and wonders of engineering both scientific and arcane. In our wonder and our greed, we kept going, deeper and deeper.

“I guess you could say that we delved too deeply.”

“The elders say that we awakened a monster, unleashed a demon of some kind, but all that can be said is that scores of our people–”

Jeff snorted out a laugh. “Oh, come on! Now you’re just quoting Lord of the Rings!”

Ecthi smiled and shrugged. “Who’s to say that Tolkien didn’t get some of his story from one of us?”

Julie looked at the burly man for a long moment with narrowed eyes. “I call bullshit.”

“Julie! Language!” Cassandra said sharply, reaching over and smacking her daughter on the upper arm, eliciting a soft cry of pain from the teenager.

“Seriously?” Julie asked, rubbing her arm. “The world has ended, we’re just barely surviving, and the thing you worry about it me using bad language?”

“If we lose the little civilities, we’ve lost everything,” her mother replied curtly, punctuating her statement with a bite of her protein bar. Julie rolled her eyes before looking back at Ecthi.

“Come on! Tell us a story!”

The Neanderthal rose from his patio chair with a shake of his head. “Sorry. I’m going to hit the sack for a couple of hours before my turn on watch. You entertain yourselves.”

“But, but–!” Julie tried lamely as he walked back into the house, slipping his sidearm into his thigh-holster. Frowning, Julie picked up a poker and stirred the logs in the fire. “Stupid Caveman,” she muttered.

 

2

 

“I’m going, Cass. I don’t like it, I’m afraid for him.”

Kate and her mother were in the kitchen, and even though they’d attempted to keep their voices hushed so that Julie wouldn’t overhear them, she had. The thirteen year old leaned against the doorframe into the kitchen, out of sight, biting her lip worriedly as she listened.

“Kate, I’m sure Tommy’s fine–”

“He’s not,” Kate cut Cassandra off. The younger woman sighed before continuing. “Or…maybe he is. I don’t know. But that’s the point, Cass. I told him to go get us firewood, thinking it would be a simple, safe enough job for him to do. That was two hours ago.”

Julie peeked around the edge of the doorframe and saw her mother place a hand on Kate’s shoulder. “He’s probably just exploring nearby. I’m sure he’ll be back soon. You know how kids can be, especially boys…”

Kate shook her head. “No, Tommy’s smarter than that. After everything we’ve seen? He wouldn’t just wander off without telling any of us. Even if there isn’t another human being besides us for…fifty miles, God only knows what other things might be lurking around here.”

Cassandra sighed. “Kate, I understand. I do. But, it’s just not smart to go out there by yourself. Wait until Jeff and Ecthi come back.”

“I’ll go with her!” Julie found herself piping up, stepping partly into the doorway and looking at the two women. Immediately Cassandra turned and fixed her daughter with an icy stare.

No.”

Kate shook her head. “Cass, I’ll be fine on my own. But, I can’t wait for Jeff and Ecthi to return. What if Tommy is hurt? What if he’s trapped somewhere? I need to go find him.”

“Mom, I can take care of myself. Remember Dayton? I handled things fine there,” Julie implored. “Kate’s going with or without someone to watch her back. Shouldn’t she have some back-up?”

Cassandra gave her daughter a thin-lipped look, her gaze slowly cycling from Julie to Kate. Finally she sighed. “You stay here, Julie,” she said, continuing over her daughter’s immediate protestation. “I’ll go with Kate. My rifle is in the living room. Keep the doors locked and stay by the our bedroom’s window – stay vigilant until the boys get back. Okay?”

Julie sighed, but nodded, watching her mother and Kate check their own sidearms briefly, before both slipped out the sliding glass door that led to the house’s backyard. The teenager locked all of the doors, drew the blinds and curtains, and retreated to the second floor with her mother’s rifle to wait for Jeff and Ecthi.

She waited in bored silence for an hour until the two men returned, each one laden with at least two backpacks full of food-stuffs. Julie had barely begun explaining where her mother and Kate had gone, when all three heard loud sobbing and turned to see Cassandra and the younger woman emerging through the underbrush separating properties. A bulky form wrapped in a bloody sheet was held in Kate’s arms and the nineteen year old was crying almost uncontrollably as Cassandra physically guided her back toward the beach house.

“Dear gods,” Ecthi said as he and Jeff dropped their packs, “what the fuck is going on?”

“Tommy,” Cassandra said, her voice raw and clipped as they walked around the house toward the backyard that abutted the beach. Julie glanced up at Jeff and Ecthi, who themselves traded a glance before following quickly in Cassandra’s wake.

Kate was kneeling on the ground near the small fire-pit, the sheet pulled away slightly to reveal Tommy’s face. Her mother, Ecthi, and Jeff were standing not too far away from the young woman, speaking in clipped, hushed tones as Julie slowly made her way around the house. She couldn’t see Tommy’s face all that well, but it looked to be covered in blood. Julie felt her stomach roil some as she came alongside her mother and the two men.

“–strung up in a tree,” Cassandra said softly, her voice trembling some as she spoke. “He’d been…been…hollowed ou–” She stopped mid-word as she saw Julie. “Sweetie, go back inside, please. Okay?”

“What’s going on?” Julie asked, trying to keep her gaze from sliding toward Kate and Tommy. “Is Tommy dead?”

Ecthi nodded somberly. “Yes.”

Ecthi,” Cassandra hissed, her eyes widening with anger.

“What, Cassandra?” The Neanderthal countered. “Are we just supposed to lie to her? To pretend that he’s not–”

Cassandra shook her head and sighed. “No, you’re right…”

“Look, you two sort this out,” Jeff said, stepping away and moving over to where Kate knelt and sobbed over her brother’s corpse. He knelt next to her and put an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him as he held her.

Ecthi looked at Cassandra for a long moment, his head canted so that he looked passed his heavy eyebrows at her. “We should go.”

“What?” Julie asked, but the adults ignored her.

“I don’t–” Cassandra began, but Ecthi continued.

“He was strung up, you said, Cass. He was hollowed out? That means that at the very least there is someone else in this town. Someone who, apparently, has no problem murdering and eviscerating a boy. We need to leave.”

Cassandra sighed and nodded. “You’re right, you’re right,” she said, looking over her shoulder at Jeff and Kate. “Noon tomorrow then? That’ll give us time to bury Tommy and pack up.”

They continued talking as Julie half-turned and stared at the grieving forms of Kate and Jeff, and beyond them, the still, covered form of Tommy. Her stomach roiled again and Julie turned, quickly heading to the side of the beach house and retching. She’d seen people die before, of course, but something about Tommy being gone now, about the way her mother and Ecthi had described him.

Why would someone do that?

 

3

 

“You’re fucking kidding me. You have to be fucking kidding me, Jeff.”

The light of dawn was streaming in through the sliding glass door, illuminating the kitchen in reds and oranges. Ecthi leaned against one of the counters, his arms crossed and angry eyes on Jeff, who sat at the kitchen table. The younger man was shaking his head, his gaze firmly on the table top.

“She must’ve…” He sighed, rubbing at his face. “I must’ve dozed off at some point and she slipped out.” Jeff raised his gaze and looked at Ecthi then Cassandra, who stood near the door into the dining room, while Julie watched from the door into the living room.

“Gods damn it,” Ecthi muttered.

“We have to go look for her,” Cassandra said. “If someone or something is out there, we have to find her. I’ve lost too many goddamn people–” She cut her own self off, holding back her emotions as she looked away from the two men.

We will go,” Ecthi responded, not moving his gaze from Jeff. “You two: stay here. Get things packed. Hopefully we’ll find her before nightfall. But, if not, we’ll head back once we do and leave in the morning. Okay?”

Cassandra agreed and Julie echoed her mother, watching as Jeff and Ecthi set up getting dressed and geared up. They left half of an hour later with Ecthi following what tracks Kate had left behind her.

For Julie and her mother, though, the day went by in a way that was simultaneously glacially slow and lightning. Dusk came, finding Julie and Cassandra in the living room, candles around the room providing meager light as the pair sat by the windows, firearms in hand, as they continued to wait for the two men to return.

“Why?” Julie asked, her voice soft and almost a croak into the silence that had hung between the two of them most of the day.

“What?” Cassandra asked, looking away from the window toward her teenage daughter.

“Why…why would someone do that?” Julie asked, her hands worrying at the stock of the rifle she held. “To Tommy.”

Even in the shadows, Julie could see her mother’s face darken. The elder woman had insisted upon taking care of Tommy’s body by herself, setting it in a canoe they’d found in the beach house’s shed and anchoring it far enough into the lake to keep too many animals from getting at it. “I…I don’t know, Julie.” She sighed softly and rubbed tiredly at her eyes for a moment. “Before these past few years…I would say that some people are just…wrong. They’re the monsters that all the stories are based on. But that was before the Hartmann Act, before…magic. Before people like Ecthi came to light. Before the real monsters stepped out of the shadows they’d been hiding in.”

Cassandra was silent for a long moment, her gaze sliding, unfocused, from candle to candle before returning to Julie’s face. “No…those human monsters are still monsters nonetheless. Perhaps even worse. They were the faces of men, but have the hearts of demons.” She shook her head and looked out the window, where full dark had fallen. “Whoever it was, they were mons–”

She trailed off as Julie saw her squint her eyes. “Is that Jeff?”

Julie looked out her own window to see the silhouette of a man standing in the driveway, not too far in from the road. “I can’t tell,” Julie said, suddenly feeling her heart beat faster. “But, I don’t think–”

She was cut-off by the sound of the sliding glass door in the kitchen shattering, eliciting a cry of surprise from the both of them. “Get away from the windows!” Cassandra shouted as she rolled away, coming up to one knee with her rifle raised toward the kitchen. Julie had fallen into a prone position on the ground, her attention flickering between the kitchen and the windows. The sound of crunching glass came from the kitchen, which was followed by the deafening report of Cassandra’s rifle.

Julie’s ears rang so she didn’t hear if someone screamed in pain, she didn’t hear if they fled the kitchen, and she didn’t hear the window above her shatter inward as a small, dark shape arced into the room and rolled across the floor. Her eyes went from the object to her mother, who was mouthing at her to run. There was no explosion, no flash of light, but smoke began to quickly emanate from the intruding object.

“Run, Julie! Run!” Cassandra yelled as the ringing in Julie’s ears began to lessen. The girl felt her mother’s hand grip her upper arm as Cassandra hauled Julie to her feet and dragged her from the living room into the dining room, getting an eye on the kitchen – which was empty now – before entering the room.

“When we get outside: run,” Cassandra said firmly into her daughter’s ear as the pair paused within the darkened kitchen. “I’ll draw their attention. You run, you find somewhere to hide. When morning comes, you find Jeff and Ecthi.”

“Mom–”

Cassandra squeezed Julie’s arm painfully. “You fucking listen to me, Julie. Okay? Run.”

Julie nodded her head sharply twice before Cassandra finally let go of the teenager’s arm. They slipped through the shattered sliding glass door, Cassandra holding her rifle up to her shoulder and sweeping the barrel back and forth. She fired twice into the darkness to give cover as Julie slipped out behind her and made for the neighboring yard. As her ears rang again from the rifle-fire, Julie heard the muted sound of Cassandra’s rifle firing three more times as she fled. Branches smack and slapped her as she ran half-blind through hedges and underbrush, trying to put as much distance between herself and the beach house as she could before looking for a hiding spot.

She ran until her lungs burned and her ears stopped ringing, and the only sounds she could hear were her own labored exhalations and the slap of her sneakers against the ground. Julie found herself in a residential area away from the lake and after waiting ten minutes hidden in the crawlspace under a house’s front porch, watching to see if she’d been followed, the teenager allowed herself to relax.

They’d been in tough, even dangerous, spots before – this was no different, Julie told herself. Her mom was tough and smart, no doubt right now, Cassandra was finding her own hiding place in which to go to ground until morning, when Julie would see her again.

And with that hope in mind, Julie allowed herself to slip into a light and fitful sleep.

 

4

 

The beach house was burning.

Julie had waited a good two hours past dawn to slowly begin her trek back to the group’s abandoned camp. She’d seen the pillar of smoke rising into the sky almost as soon as she’d crawled out from beneath the porch, suspecting the source long before she was able to find her way back to the house. It was mostly charred rubble by the time Julie came back upon it, her footsteps slow as she made her way up the driveway, the rifle gripped tightly in her hands. Smoked continued to rise from the few burning patches that smoldered here and there as Julie numbly watched, sitting on the ground.

The sun was a quarter of the way up the sky when she heard the sound of shoes on pavement behind, and she shot to her feet, spinning and bringing the barrel of the rifle up as she did so.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Jeff said holding his hands up as Julie looked down the rifle at him. Ecthi was a few steps behind him, maul in his hands and rifle slung across his back. Julie sighed and let the barrel of the rifle drop, before letting the gun itself slip and tumble from her grasp as she began to silently weep.

Jeff rushed over to her and wrapped his arm around her, hugging the teenager tight to him for a moment before pulling away to look down at her. “Jesus, Julie. What happened here?”

It took her a few moments to calm before she was able to relate what had happened to Jeff and Ecthi. “There was at least two of them,” she said, sniffling and wiping at her eyes. “They broke in through the kitchen, then sent some kind of gas…grenade or something in through the living room windows. Mom and I escaped out the back…” She had to take a few breaths to regain her composure. “She told me to run while…while-while she drew their attention…”

“Fuck…” Ecthi said softly, rubbing at the back of his head.

Jeff shook his head. “We’ll find her,” he said, then looked at Julie. “We’ll find your mom, Jules. Right, Ec?”

The Neanderthal nodded, his gaze sweeping across the smoldering ruins of the beach house. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll start checking for tracks and any sign of whether or not these assholes took our stuff or burned it.”

He began walking around the former beach house as Jeff spoke with Julie, helping to calm her and collect her wits. Within a few minutes, Ecthi returned and three set out toward the west, where multiple footprints led.

 

5

 

“Huh.”

“Yeah…it…kind of looks like a viking’s castle.”

The three of them were squatting on the side of a hill that sloped down to what signs they’d passed identified as Emerald Bay, an oblong offshoot of the lake. Below, they could see a squat structure made from granite among the trees not far from the bay’s shore, half-hidden in the lengthening shadows of late afternoon.

“Well, the signs did say ‘Vikingsholm Ahead’…” Jeff countered Ecthi’s observation.

“Guys, there’s smoke coming up from it,” Julie interjected, keeping her voice hushed.

Both nodded as they saw the thin columns of smoke ascending from two or three chimneys and from a spot within the center of the ring-like structure of the building. “So, we got people in there,” Ecthi said with a nod of his head. “Julie, you stay up here, keep an eye on us from above and snipe anybody you see, okay?”

The teenager nodded her head.

“Alright, Jeff and I will go down, see if we can’t find any signs of your mom or Kate down there, and get them back out if we do. If things go bad: you run. It’ll be hard on your own, but it’s better than all of us going down, right?”

Julie felt her chest tighten, but she nodded again. The two men made their way slowly and carefully down the rest of the hillside as Julie took up position behind a thick pine tree, following their descent through the sight of her rifle. Jeff had his own rifle in hand, while Ecthi had his maul in both hands, both men trying to travel as silently as possible. She saw them approach the building, make their way around one side of it, then slip out of sight.

“Damn,” Julie sighed softly, pulling her eye away from the sight and letting her gaze take in the entirety of the building, looking for any signs of movement while she felt her heart speeding up within her chest.

She heard the crunch of dirt under foot behind her and half-turned to look over her shoulder. She saw the shape of a man behind her, then her vision went black as she felt something hard smack into her head.

 

6

 

Her head was pounding as she swam back up to conscious awareness.

Julie’s left eye was gummed almost shut by something, but as her right eye came into focus, she could see that she was in some kind of courtyard. It was a squat building, faced with granite, and she could see sod on the rooftops of the sections closest to her. Instinctively, Julie tried to move a hand to clean her left eye, but felt her wrists bound behind her back.

“Wha…what…?” She mumbled, her mind still foggy.

Casting her gaze about she saw the form of a nude woman suspended off of the ground a few feet away from her, hanging from a metal rack of some kind. Blood covered her legs and arms, though one of them had been amputated at the elbow, and it took Julie a moment to realize that something hung between the woman’s legs that ended in a bloody stump, its other end inserted into her sex. Though she was still confused by what she saw, Julie felt her stomach roil.

“J-Julie?”

Her mother’s voice, as weak and trembling as it was drew her gaze away from the nude woman, and she saw Cassandra not far from where Julie found herself kneeling on cobblestones. “Mom…?”

“Is that your name, child?” It was a man’s voice that posed the question and Julie felt a hand land gently on her shoulder. “‘Julie’?”

“P-please,” Cassandra croaked. “Don’t hurt us–”

The man walked around Julie into her field of vision and she could see that he moved like a lion, his body strong and sinewy, his head shaved bald and every inch of his skin marked by either scarring or dark-inked symbols. He approached Cassandra, who was seated with her back to a post driven into the ground and her own arms tied behind her back. Though she bore some bruises on her face, Julie couldn’t see any other harm done to her mother.

“Can’t do that, child,” the man said in reply to Cassandra, walking over to her and stroking her cheek with his thumb. “‘You push them until they reach their breaking point, only then will they rise up against the guards to seek their freedom.’ Liberatio, Chapter Three, Verse Nine.” His voice was warm, benevolent, and affectionate – a contrast to the shouts she heard approaching from outside the courtyard. He gazed down at Cassandra in an almost loving way, then backhanded her sharply across the face.

Cassandra cried out in pain, then gritted her teeth. “I don’t know what that means. Please! Just let us go. We’ll move on and leave you people in peace. Isn’t it enough that you’ve…you’ve…had your fill with…” she choked up as her gaze drifted across the square to the nude woman. “With Kate.”

Julie followed her mother’s gaze and stared at the suspended woman and felt her stomach lurch violently. Bile and acid erupted out of her mouth and splattered on the cobblestones as she finally recognized Kate – beneath the bruises and the cuts and the hollowed out eye sockets.

The man looked over his shoulder at Kate and smiled. “Oh, we’re not yet done with her,” he said, a small smile on his lips. “But just because our work with her continues does not mean that we cannot educate you, as well.” He glanced at Julie as the noise of approaching others got even closer and the sound of gate hinges creaking open heralded their arrival. “All of you.”

“We found the other two, Sceleratus,” a woman said as a half-dozen people entered the courtyard. They shoved Jeff into the center, he stumbled and fell, rolling a foot or two across the cobblestones. After that, three of the others tossed the limp body of Ecthi onto the cobblestones. “The troglodyte had some kind of giant sledgehammer — we had to kill him, couldn’t get close enough to apprehend.”

The shaven-headed man nodded. “Can’t save them all,” he said thoughtfully, then nodded to one of the others who had entered. “Lem, your axe.”

An axe was tossed to the shaven-headed man, which he deftly caught, whirled and brought down upon Ecthi’s neck. A second chop brought the Neanderthal’s head clean off and it tumbled across the courtyard. He tossed the axe back to the man, Lem, then looked at the woman. “Have the Caveman cleaned and butchered and the meat preserved.”

The woman nodded and then she and two others proceeded to drag Ecthi’s corpse into the building.

“Fuck you,” Jeff croaked out as he lay on his side, his arms bound behind his back, his eyes squarely upon Kate. “Fuck you, you goddamned monsters!”

The shaven-headed man shook his head softly and stepped toward Jeff, kicking him sharply in the solar plexus. “I understand your Stockholm Syndrome, I really do. And that your fear and anger is born from ignorance,” he said as he walked over to Kate, pulling a folding knife out of one of the pockets of his jeans. He flicked the blade out as he lightly smacked Kate’s cheek, eliciting a dull, but pained groan from her. Julie felt her stomach heave again at the realization that Kate was still alive. “The job of education can be a hard one, but it is not one from which we shy.”

He then took one of Kate’s nipples between the thumb and forefinger of his free hand, rolling it back and forth until it hardened, and then sliced it off with the knife. Kate cried out dully in pain, but did not scream for long, slipping back into an almost catatonic state.

“You motherfucker!” Jeff growled, his voice wheezing from the kick he’d received. The man walked back over to him and squatted in front of Jeff, placing the edge of the knife against the prone man’s throat.

“Open your mouth,” he said calmly. Jeff stared daggers at the man, which only caused the knife to be pressed more firmly against his skin. “Open or you die. Slowly. A slit throat is not peaceful and swift.”

A beat of tense silence passed before Jeff finally opened his mouth. “Good,” the shaven-headed man said, then shoved Kate’s nipple into Jeff’s mouth. “Chew and swallow.”

Jeff’s body seized briefly, instinctually rebelling against the thought of what was being commanded of him. But, after a moment, he chewed for a few seconds then swallowed. The shaven-headed man inspected Jeff’s mouth to make sure he hadn’t faked the consumption, and stood, smiling, once he was satisfied. To the three others of his group that remained in the courtyard, he nodded and said: “Have your fun with him. Make it hurt.”

The two men and one woman all smiled wolfishly as they descended upon Jeff, taking turns stripping his clothes off and beating him, before one of the men began to rape him. As Jeff screamed, the shaven-headed man approached Cassandra.

“It’s going to be such a pleasure working upon you two: mother and daughter,” he said, grinning. “Oh, it will be such a delight.”

Cassandra shook her head violently, manically denying him as if the words themselves could negate the reality of their situation. The man grabbed her head, wrapping his fingers in her hair before pressing the blade against her skin and sawing at the flesh of her scalp. Cassandra screamed in pain as the man hacked away, tossing bits and pieces of hair-covered scalp onto the cobblestones. Julie felt herself get light-headed and heard herself, distantly, screaming in terror but felt no connection as the one emanating that sound. As the shaven-headed man began to extract his hardening member from his jeans, using the bloody pieces of scalp as an aid for his self-pleasure, she found herself rising and running away from the courtyard.

“Let her run!” she heard the shaven-headed man call out behind her. “We’ll get her soon enough!”

Julie slammed through the gate, ramming it with her shoulder, stumbling out onto the cracked asphalt roadway beyond. She ran without thinking, leaving the roadway behind and running along the shoreline of the bay, seeing the western sky painted in reds, oranges, and indigos. Tommy was dead, Ecthi was dead, Kate as good as dead, and her mother and Jeff not far behind. The shaven-headed man was right: even Julie’s running wouldn’t matter.

The monsters would get her soon enough.

She stopped running, her chest heaving as she struggled to breath, when she found herself on top of a small rise that overlooked Emerald Bay. She looked down into the dark waters of the Bay, hearing the distant, muted screams coming from the courtyard, and closed her eyes. At least this way, her fate was in her own hands.

“I’m sorry, mom,” she whispered softly, then tumbled into the Bay.

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