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Chapter One (Psyche) by Lucy.
Chapter Two (To the other side) by Andrada Costoiu.
Chapter Three by B.V. Stratton.
Chapter Four (The fateful night) by Smita Ray.
Chapter Five (Insight Part I) by Amitbhat0912.
Chapter Five (Insight Part II) by Amitbhat0912.
Chapter Six (They’re still out there Part I) by Lucy.
Chapter Six (They’re still out there Part II) by Lucy.
Content Warning: References of blood, minor gore and violence in this chapter.
Tom was limping, and he felt warmth soak through his leg. He checked his wound, relieved. Good. It wasn’t that noticeable anymore; it was healing, it looked like. He couldn’t quite catch up with Lauren, but he tried to muster his strength to get closer. When Tom slipped hard onto the ground, it was only then did Lauren stop to turn back.
Tom gasped in pain, feeling weaker as each moment passed. It all eluded him, didn’t it. He felt his chest burdened with even more grief–a void that was sinking further into him that only made the tears that came down, burn his cheeks.
His head had hit a small rock, but it pressed a bit on impact with his skull. He was groggy, and simultaneously, he tried to lift himself up by reaching out for the air. No one would catch him.
Lauren hovered over Tom in the darkness, before pressing her hands to the back of his head.
“Oww,” he groaned. “Jesus…”
“I’m checking for bumps or cuts,” she withdrew her hand to ensure the absence of blood. “I think you’re good. Can you stand? Do you need me to help you?”
He nodded weakly. She grabbed his arms and balanced him by pulling his body weight with her shoulders. “You’re just dead weight, aren’t you?”
“I’m sorry… for everything.”
Lauren exhaled. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. How hard was the hit?”
“It wasn’t that hard. Still hurts, though.”
“Are you dizzy? Did you see stars?”
“No. I just feel sick, weak.”
“Alright,” she breathed, pinching the bridge of her nose. She felt weak too, a tad nauseous, but she didn’t have at all the extent of Tom’s injuries to make her feel any semblance that he would have to experience. “You’re dehydrated–probably for awhile. I’m thinking the hit is just superficial. You might just have a headache, and everything is just gone to shit for the worse with dehydration.” She then began looking for a decent-sized leaf. “I’m going to boil some water from the river.”
He only wanted to succumb to exhaustion, after trying so hard to keep it together for her. He was falling apart. “Just, just leave me here, Lauren.”
“No, I’m not doing that. Forget about what happened for now, don’t think about it, okay. We can talk about it much, much later once we leave the island, but we both need each other to escape. We’re here now, despite the fuck-ups that happened. I still love you, Tom.”
He smiled, leaning up against the lower-hanging tree limbs to support his back. “I love you too.”
She smiled back, though it didn’t reach her eyes. Truly, she felt betrayed by Tom, and it killed her on the inside why he was at one point willing to leave her behind. Tears again threatened to brush her eyes, but she swallowed her throat tightly. She couldn’t cry, she couldn’t make a noise right now. She had to get water for them.
With her hunting knife, she was able to gather some pieces of bark to use as wood for a fire. The island was ample with trees, so it didn’t take too long for her to find a large enough leaf to hold the river water in without burning her hands on the flames.
The leaf lapped up the water, and Lauren cautiously brought it along the shore. The fire was little, but she had to make do with what she had. The flames licked and kissed the leaf, curling higher as the surface of the bract changed color. In less than two minutes, the water began to boil.
She brought the water to him when it was done. He began gulping it down graciously. Lauren sat down beside him, both looking up at the sky.
“I’m not really sure why I did what I did,” Tom began, “but, I am sorry. I know it doesn’t mean much, but who I am now is hopefully different than who I was.”
“You’re not different. Not that much. I couldn’t tell you had brain damage at first. I was honestly worried they injected you with their serum, or that they were conducting something on you again. Lord knows how many times they had us ushered back to the labs… Do you remember how you got back in there with Zara?”
“I, I,” He strained to think. “I honestly don’t remember.”
“Did you… Did you guys sneak in?”
“I don’t really remember it all clearly. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine, Tom.” Lauren looked up at the stars. “Just keep drinking, but after you’re done, it’s back to the road.”
A beautiful ebony ring of the moon cradled into the set of stars that, as it looked to Tom, outlined the Canis Major. He beckoned Lauren to look up at the stars with him—to view the cross-connection in the sky vined together to the distant hills, engulfing their path into the luminescence like red sandalwood.
She scoffed as she stared at the asymmetry, but cocked her head in thought. “It’s pretty bright—we probably should get a few more miles in the heart of the island, particularly where there’s more forest ground and trees. This light will make it too easy to find our shadows.”
“Oh.” Tom instantly frowned. There goes finding a silver lining then. “Good idea.”
Lauren gave him a reticent nod. As they continued their trek, she felt a plunge of guilt stab through her at the exertion her brother was doing. He was limping, winded, and terrifyingly pale as his face was schooled into a sober, solemn expression. Her hand coiled around the bamboo spear, looking ahead into the blossomed light from the stars. They moved steadily, relying on Lauren’s mental compass and map.
Truth be told, she wanted to get closer where the second x was dispatched. She balled her hands into fists at whatever else could just fucking go wrong if this one didn’t have what they needed. There were two marks to get through before they could claim freedom entirely; former marking spots that Lauren relied on through some connections she made that were considered “radicals” of the island society.
Against them, naturally.
Everyone she knew, except that shithead Benzino Venitolli, was dead. Fuck, he might be dead too at this point.
Well, they were casualties. If they were casualties of war—that was hard to say. “Cazzo di stronzo. Spero che hanno fatto il suo ilvere sanguinando spingendo un pitone birmano lassù.” She whispered it to herself—she considered it a risible threnody to whatever was truly out there. She hoped he suffered.
In the distance, Lauren heard faded laughter. She looked to her brother, expecting to find him as the source, but instead of laughter, this was different—this was not from him. He did not even understand Italian, she had to remember. She heard whiffs of air entering and leaving unpromising of his fate, with his hands frozen at his sides–she did not hesitate to help him.
“Lauren, I can’t—I can’t walk anymore,” Tom sat down on a tree-stump, rubbing his leg. It was evident that the tourniquet had (finally) started to come apart; Tom’s wound became slightly exposed—the skin imparting with green scab marks, dark streams of blood—which made Lauren wonder how long he was bleeding while walking and walking for hours; Lauren looked at the distant greenery, they were almost there at the forests. Squinting, she surveilled the area further; only the quarry-waters glistened in the dark now.
She grabbed her satchel, only remembering now that they were going light on ammunition. “Did you really have to waste the first round of ammo on constipated muscles fucker?”
Tom snorted at her nickname for Zargaff but immediately doubled over in pain. Lauren got straight to work—she pulled out what remained of the first aid kit, replacing the bandages on Tom’s leg; she looked at him doubtfully but continued making the tourniquet. Tom twisted in place and said, “I’m so tired.”
“I know. I know you are.”
“Can we rest?”
“We have to keep going—it’s just a little bit more.”
“I’m going to die, Lauren—”
She grappled his face. “You don’t get to say shit like that. Not after this fucked off day. You can go fuck off too if you keep saying that.”
“I’ve never seen you so sentimental.”
“It’s not like you’d remember,” Lauren sighed, only now feeling how sweated up her tank-top had become.
“Ouch. Low blow.”
“Damn straight—It’s a blow, and it still fucking counts no matter how low.”
Tom looked off into the distance of the pushing blue. The wind slid through the ocean waves, spinning them; and he longed for that respite. In his sight, he saw the atmospheric cyclone-shaped shadows dictate the movement of the shore; tree-limbs pervaded his eyes, and he could see the bloodletting claws that Zara once had, now stained in commingled wounds and fettered anguish; in his eyes, she had suffered in tribulation. In dissociation, he could blame himself but simultaneously, he could not as the circumstances were still lost to him. He could not remember it all as he would have liked to.
He closed his eyes, but Lauren immediately shook him awake. “You can’t do that—not now!”
“Lauren,” he stirred weakly, “I’m just so tired, I just, I just don’t have this in me right now. Let me rest. I need my—my energy, whatever I can make with it—please.” Tom’s turmoil was hitting the brunt of her frustrations, but she kept her initial thoughts covert when she glanced at his beaten body commingled with bruises. She reflected his bruises as well, but she was in much better shape and (currently) finesse than he was.
Tom could feel his leg throb; echos of his pain felt deteriorating to his very atoms. He turned over, trying to shield himself from the brumal-like cold. However, it was not cold at all. “I’m so fucking done… I’m just weak. Do you… Do have any more food on you?”
“No,” Lauren shook her head despondently. “I don’t.”
“Oh, fuck, I’m just, just so hungry…”
Please don’t die on me. “God, you’re fucking losing it. Alright, sit here and try not to let the crows pick at you. I’m going to find some food in the forest—berries might have to do.” She opened her satchel, loading up the pistol before handing it off to him. Sensing his hesitancy, she said, “You know how to work it. It all came back to you, remember?”
Tom uttered, “I don’t want to remember.”
“Be wary of the shadows. Shoot anything that comes around here.”
“What if I shoot you?”
“What if I do?” He pressed.
“Then I’ll shoot you back.”
“With what gun, Lauren?”
“The gun that I’ll take from you, Shnopsey.”
Tom lied back down but perked his head skywards. “Do you even know how to work one?”
“I do, but you’re more accurate. I can’t hit center mass as well as you.” In the silent night, she descended. The wind had convulsed, and Tom lied still—his eyes caught the sight of a stranded shadow, but in a split second, could only assume he envisaged it. The fortress of trees had their webs of moss punctured by excess wind, and finally, as Tom rolled over, his eyes glittered with fatigue and tears.
The dials of the moon allotted themselves out like the white of a cigarette. Tom stared at the bruised, collapsed sky, feeling as dried out and bony like the pare legs of an ant once crushed. His white flesh was tinted in the shadows; he dragged his sight forest-ward where Lauren was nearly a flicker in the light of the dark moonspots.
He allowed himself to grieve—to grieve for the sister he still could not remember entirely—to grieve for the life he could not remember—to grieve for the life first taken away from them as young children—to grieve the chaos and bloodlust of death that surrounded them by the pale riverbeds, oak trees, and dead logs—and to grieve Zara as he once knew her as. The goat-like color of her claws and fertile, predatory smile contrasted with the image of her timid figure in the lab; his memories began to change and distort, losing the imagery he once consolidated to compare. His reality was distilled.
He could remember the strains of verdant green blood sprinting from Zargaff’s chest like a fountain; it was all over Zara and himself. He watched her eyes slowly divest the life that was within her. The engineered features that had once liberated her on the island valleys had contributed to her demise.
Though, even in death, she looked the same.
Artemis could make sight of the whitecaps as the wind pushed them onto the water.
She nursed a sober glance at the young woman heading further into the forest territory, and desire burned in the pits and depths of her stomach. Echoing to the least traveled footfall, she scouted the area; her eyes blazed and flashed emerald.
She had discovered this area not too long after escaping, destined to kill Anastasia. Artemis had planned to camp out here in isolation, feed off of the cadavers and slaves of the deluded monarch. She didn’t like to kill, but only when it suited for survival. She drowned those sent to kill her in the ocean, dismembering their limbs to hang upon tree-branches. Others she killed with her injected strength tearing them apart from their ligatures of muscles, eventually creating monuments of their legs to light smoke signals from. Once the concoction reached its life within her system, she resided herself to different measures to counsel death in undemanding methods.
She would get creative here and there. Use the rocks to create makeshift knives to slit throats, sharpen their edges with the breadfruit tree bark. At times, when she was bored, she would use coconut shells to crack the skulls of her victims from behind, and if they were still breathing, she would shove the liquids of yew berries down their throats to summon a quick death.
Artemis now paced feet to feet with her new target, hiding to the depths of the tree-limbs that kept both women covert.
She craved human contact of course, but curiosity dashed within her—she delved deeper by the bark limbs. They were almost redder than Mars, and the trail of dust was merely unseen by labored escapees. Artemis figured out that the dust they inhaled on the island were the ashes of those who have died.
She cut through the elongated leaves and branches, keeping her sight honed on the brunette. Artemis found herself enjoying the chase, however one-sided it was. She moved her blonde hair away from her eyes as she refocused on the path in front of her.
Lauren squeezed the skin of the berries before dabbing the liquid on her finger. It burned. “Poisonous,” she murmured, moving onto the next available bush nearby. The berries, this time, were an absent red, garbed with an aperture of an ivy looking seed; cup-shaped and about a quarter of an inch—Lauren inspected closely. Red berries had a fifty-fifty chance of being deadly, but in the dark, it was helpless to distinguish the different characteristics that set them apart.
“Queste sono bacche di tasso. Se li mangi morirai velocemente, ma i semi sono deliziosi. Sarebbe un destino peggiore di avere un pitone su per il vostro asone, non credi?”
Lauren froze at the stranger’s voice. Not moving, she responded lowly—that it almost didn’t reach Artemis’s ears, “Lo sai per esperienza allora.” She continued after some thought, “È stato divertente? Sembra che ti piacerebbe una merda del genere.”
“Can’t say that I have, my dear. I’ll try it on the next victim.”
Lauren slowly turned around. They were face to face. “They sent you to kill me.”
“I’m not one of their night-slayers. I don’t kill unless you give me a reason to.”
Lauren backed away. “Did I give you a reason?”
“Yes,” Artemis nodded but at Lauren’s startled expression, added, “but not to kill. I rarely see anyone around here, unless they’re mutant. I followed you because I wanted to see what you were.”
“Flattering,” Lauren remarked dryly as she rolled around different thoughts and questions. This could very well be an island native! The woman could help them escape. “You must know your way here then. How much do you know of the island? How long have you been here?”
Artemis fiddled with the silver band on her wrist; she could not remember at this point. “It’s hard to keep track of time. I have no way of knowing the days except by sunrise and sunset—lucky if I’m not hibernating. If that’s the case, the shadows will do.”
“You escaped from them as well?”
“Barely. I’ve killed those sent here to either murder me or recruit me back. I think they’ve figured I’m hard to die these days.”
“Bold of you to assume that.” Lauren crossed her arms, becoming suddenly perplexed while Artemis had her eyes trained on her throughout. “You must be familiar enough to know that these are yew berries.”
Artemis’s eyes latched onto the deadly berries in fondness. “I know enough. I’ve made poisonous injections with them.”
Artemis shook her head.
Silence rattled in the presence of ocean waves, and Artemis furrowed her brow as she examined the skull-like statues of the trees surrounding them. She paced in circles. “Do you know of the name Anastasia?”
Lauren racked her brains for an answer—coming up with not adequate enough of a response. “Ugh, I was never good at world history. All I’m coming up with is the Russian revolution.”
“Anastasia is a deluded freak who thrives on the blood spurt of humans and mutants as she is cleansed of them. She is the leader of the society here.”
“She likes having blood ejaculated on her?”
Artemis looked away as she laughed to herself—she could see through the gaps of tree vines and thorns, the elixir of white melting away in the ocean like acid. “She lives in time—never here or now. She lives in death as a way of preventing time. Their souls are for a cause, everyone dies for a reason. Time, in essence, is a pixelated function to the tint of humanity—to the intensity of self-created beasts and Gods.”
Lauren glanced warily at Artemis who was observing her facial features, along with the husk of coconut shells in the treetops that she could see from this distance. Lauren paced around quietly, the grassland itching at her barren legs. She decided to remain discrete in the illumination, and gently in the toil of the dark, she picked back up her spear, aiming it at Artemis’s throat. “Tell me how you know this.”
She blinked. “Are you threatening me?”
“I don’t fucking know you. I can’t fucking trust anyone, so yeah, I’m threatening you.”
“Put that down—I don’t want to have to hurt you.”
Her hand remained tethered to the spear, ready to decapitate Artemis. Silently, Artemis ran her fingers to the middle of the weapon, flipping it back to Lauren (she had a weak grip–Artemis decided she was not native to these areas, or more likely, did not have much experience with self-defense), ultimately slashing the bottom half of her shirt, forming a thin red line above her navel. Lauren paled in a juxtaposition of white, stumbling to one of the trees, feeling dismay creeping into her bosom. A prospect of death was luring her, and she believed it was about time.
Artemis leveled the spear at her side. “Down on your knees.”
“What?” Her voice felt faint.
Lauren dropped to the ground, ready for her head to be decollated. She opened up her eyes to witness Artemis on the ground with her, trying to calculate her next move. Lauren followed her gaze to the skyline and shaken at the sight, she strained to take a breath.
There were lights in the sky. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! They’re searching for us. My brother—he’s out there. He’s going to die!”
“Where is your brother?”
“He’s out southeast of here, I think. From the opening direction of the forest pathway.”
“We wouldn’t be able to make it back to him quick enough. He might live, he might die. It depends where they are dispatched at this point. Only time can tell.”
“Oh, fuck off with the time.”
Artemis took a puff of air, as her eyes moved cautiously. “It’s all I think about.”
“I want to kill her.”
There was silence as Lauren sat in anticipation, her thoughts rolling back to the only family she had left. All that was taken away from her, and now she has separated from Tom yet again. Quietly, like a child, she spoke. “Anastasia… She is the reason my brother and I were taken away?”
“The reason, if not the cause.”
“If they’re dispatched, the night slayers, can you kill them all?”
“Who even knows what they have in mind currently? They try to create mutants that are less human than the last to kill off the escapee population. I don’t know what they’ll try to do now. Sit and wait—we watch, we hunt while they think we are hiding. Then we either kill or we wait for the light to shut off. That is what we look for now.”
Lauren rolled on the ground, gushes of dirt clung to her knees. “After this, I need to find my brother. I need to know if he’s dead or alive. I’ve left him there; he has an injury, he’s vulnerable, and I don’t know what will kill him first—the island or his wounds.”
“I just, I just can’t! He’s all I have for fuck’s sake.”
Artemis broke their gaze to embark her sight to the outline of the clouds. They reminded her of dark blood. “He’d be lucky if he dies from his wounds by the end of tonight if they are indeed out there.”
Lauren tried to brush off Artemis’s callousness. “If they are, where will Anastasia be?”
“Wherever there is a bloodbath.”
“If Tom is dead, I want to kill her.” Lauren glanced up at Artemis’s nocturnal eyes and felt a shiver originate from her chest, soon plunging into her back. The flickering of the stars was beyond them, the delay of death wrapped around them both waiting to be completed in the clutches of blood on this land. “Listen, I will help you find her if you help me find Tom.”
In a hazy moment, Lauren tried to retrieve her map from the back of her short pockets to outline the remaining X’s. Artemis grabbed her hand, crushing it to the point of nearly cutting off blood-flow. “What are you doing?” Artemis asked.
“Oh, fuck! Let go of my hand, psycho. Don’t go fucking marking me.”
Tactically, she kept her grip. “What are you retrieving?”
“A–A map. I have a map of the island–let go of my hand!”
Artemis did as she was told, satiated with the answer. Lauren had to massage her wrist, silently cursing to herself about now having a sprain. She bit her lip in thought, while staring at the creased-filled map–tracing with her finger, the potential exit routes and X’s that were found.
Lauren murmured, “We have two more–go through the riverbed, then–is that a ditch under the bridge? Who the fuck drew this?” She twisted the paper around before showing it to Artemis. “Tell me. What is that? Would you know anything about the topography?”
Artemis studied the areas outlined on the paper. “I’m not too familiar with some of these areas.” In the engulfing darkness, the silence unleashed through the illumination that witnessed itself to the fog in the isthmus. “The ditch might be one of the places where they perform cremations.”
“I thought those were performed on building sites?” Lauren was perplexed.
“I would bet that’s where they do it as well.”
“They do cremate people alive,” Lauren thought aloud, “so maybe it drowns out the noise…”
Artemis shrugged, recognizing the purpose of Lauren’s map. “You’ll never find an escape from the island. I’ve learned first-hand I can kill anyone who comes this way, and it doesn’t matter. There will be more. Even if I wasn’t being hunted, I highly doubt there’s any way to escape here. You’ll never truly know how to leave.”
“I just want out,” Laruen groaned tiredly. She clutched her wrist weakly, before lying down on the rotund of leaves underneath them. “I just want to leave here. I don’t care anymore, I want a normal life with my brother. I want us to not live in fear. If Anastasia dies, will it stop? Will it finally end?”
“It may not.”
“Then, what’s the reason you want to kill her? How do you know so much about her?”
“Anastasia observes the creations in the lab. Do you not remember her before you escaped?”
“I don’t fucking remember anything from those days, honestly. I block them out if they come through.”
“I met Anastasia. I witnessed her rituals. I want to kill her before she kills me.”
Lauren raised an eyebrow, landing her gaze straight in Artemis’s eyes. “How would you do it?”
“I would slice off each body part before throwing them into a fire. She would suffer at watching her beauty decimate.”
Artemis aimed her line of sight at the rogue moon, imagining and dreaming dust rotund in the making of this kill. “We’re both in agreement, it seems. There may not be an exit, but we must summon her. If anything, this gives us the opportunity of time. Let’s kill her together.”
Lauren carefully stared back at Artemis, making her decision.
Time was disposable as well—if there be a concept of time. Anastasia could go by the equations she memorized; she could go by the fundamental line of many spaces and time—one line, only forward, which she deemed irrevocably false. Time would never move ahead of her; she would not weld it either. They’re still out there, she was informed, as her servants lathered the “heam” off of her body.
The moon illuminated dreamily on her coursed, pale skins of white. The lights grew non-abating as they still angled at the sky. It felt intense as she let herself be revealed into the cold chambers of dusk; the twilit sands resembled purple layers, and Anastasia ambushed her way out from the metal gates.
It’s time for them all to meet.
Translations (Italian to English):
“Cazzo di stronzo. Spero che hanno fatto il suo ilvere sanguinando spingendo un pitone birmano lassù.” –> “Fucking asshole. I hope they made his ass bleed by pushing a Burmese python up there.”
“Queste sono bacche di tasso. Se li mangi morirai velocemente, ma i semi sono deliziosi. Sarebbe un destino peggiore di avere un pitone su per il vostro asone, non credi?” –> “These are yew berries. If you eat them you’ll die quickly, but the seeds are delicious. It would be a worse fate than having a python up your ass, don’t you think?”
“Lo sai per esperienza allora.” Lauren continued after some thought, “È stato divertente? Sembra che ti piacerebbe una merda del genere.” –> “You know from experience then.” Lauren continued after some thought. “Was it fun? You seem like you’d be into shit like that.”