We’d come to a ruined crossroad. With the white sky glowing overhead and toppled, wobbling buildings all around, there were four different choices.
We set Amanda down in the shade. I, still limping, took a seat in front of her. Her head bobbed a little as she tried and failed to rouse.
“Do we have smelling salts or something?” Anna asked.
Ash bent down and slapped Amanda in the face.
She jerked awake and covered herself with her arms. I had to pry them away as she fought. She was still half awake. I held her still and looked into angry, confused eyes. “We’re even,” I said. She broke off my grip.
“We’re on the surface?” she asked.
“The tunnel was a trap, Amanda,” I told her. “We survived because of me.”
She looked past me at the ghostly streets. “We’ve backtracked! Just because we’ve found the surface doesn’t mean we’re on the right path. I have no memory of this place, these streets.”
“I knew what I knew, Amanda. It was a trap. I was willing to get shot to save you, understand? Do you understand?”
“Fine. You don’t have to believe me. You just have to guide us.”
She tried to stand but failed. “Fuck! You understand something, soldier. I don’t know this place, and I’m not sensing our path. We’re lost now, because of you.”
I pointed to my singed chest plate. “I almost died saving you.” Then, I moved my finger into her face. “You, who saw the shot loop but didn’t believe me. Your determination almost destroyed us. You fucking child.”
She slapped away my hand and, pulling up her leg, kicked me back. She then found the strength the stand, uneasily, above me. I got back up to face her.
“I don’t know what you are, but I, I am your senior officer and handler. You four, essences, ghosts, demons, and you, Doran. I wanted to work with you, but you have to respect my authority, and you’ve proved you don’t. I’ll have words with Kendall about this. I’ll make sure he knows how out of control you are.”
He’s well aware.
“Kendall is not my problem right now.” I had an idea of what needed to be done. Most importantly, I had to get Anna to safety. I felt like she was owed that. She wasn’t any demon or ghost, she was still just a girl. I had to find a way keep her that way. I said to Amanda, “You are my problem.”
“Same.” Amanda reached into her suit and withdrew a card. Kendall’s card. “Because of you, this mission is a failure. I’m calling it.”
In my peripheral vision, Ash’s hand clenched and strained at his side, his entire body going stiff. He was fighting to gain control. He had calculated how close he could be to death and had entered a panic.
This is about to go horribly wrong.
“Think twice,” I spoke. “There’s things you don’t know.”
She was holding the card, and I knew she only had to will it. “Speak,” she ordered.
“You don’t know how monumentally important this moment is. If you open that portal, I’ve already been told Kendall intends to kill us.”
“Gods curse that wretch!” Odessa shouted. “Why didn’t you speak of this earlier, Doran? Kendall plans to kill us on return?!”
Amanda didn’t let me respond. “This is not my problem, in fact, I think it’s the right thing to do. You’re dangerous. You specifically, Doran. I see the demon trying,” she’d noticed. Ash was practically paralyzed in his constraint, though his face was placid. He wanted to kill her. “It makes sense now. You’re hardly in control at all. Got one of the most stressed bindings I’ve ever seen. Whoever did it is relying completely on force of will, at this point, not binding of essence.”
I showed her the hand as I slowly took out my own card. “You go back if you want, but we’re going to complete the mission. Let us try.”
“The only reason you would want that is if you’re planning something… No, I’m bringing you in and I’m not taking no for an answer. No loose ends.”
“No. You are letting us go.” I stood my ground. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I refuse to let Kendall… kill them. I know you can understand this. Please, if you’re worried about me… I can promise to return. But I’m the only other one that could possibly navigate this place. I have to find a way for them.”
She didn’t open the portal, she just waited.
“Kendall gave you control over us, you can let us go.”
“You’d rather get lost for all eternity in this godforsaken labyrinth than go back to your master? All of you?”
Odessa was quick with a “yes.”
“I trust Doran,” Anna said.
Ash simply stared her down.
“Then fine,” Amanda decided. “I do understand. Self-preservation is your sacred right. But you’ve seen our technology, you’re a loose string which any number of threats could pull on. Do you understand, Doran? What promise can you make?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “At least not for the others.”
“Then I can’t just let you off the chain.”
She was so close to doing it. I had no power to stop her. I could feel the restraints tightening around my options. None of us were physically capable of attacking her or breaking our bindings. I could pull on them, but I wasn’t willing to test them to the breaking point. I didn’t think I could. I was too weak.
Everything was in her hands.
“Then kill us. Because what Kendall has in store is far worse. If you know what he is, now, then you know I’m right. I’d rather fade in hell than live in him.” When she did nothing I walked over to Anna and took her pistol. I presented it to Amanda, set to lethal. “Do the right thing.”
Her expression was stoic as she considered it.
“Do it!” I ordered.
She aimed at my head. “You have to return…” she said, putting her finger on the trigger. “I can’t save you from Kendall. I’m sorry.”
“Either give us the chance to save ourselves,” I reached up and grabbed the gun, threatening to yank it from her hand. “Or take responsibility.”
“I’m opening this gateway…”
Angrily I shouted, “then you’re k-!”
She cut me off, “-and you’re not going to be here when it happens.”
I let go of the gun, dropping my arm. I had to stare at her a moment as the tension passed. Every muscle in my body wanted to go limp.
Finally, I nodded and backed away. Watching her as I did, I picked a path by gut feeling and led Ash, Odessa, and Anna quickly away.
We came out onto a back alley street and kept running. It wasn’t until fifteen minutes later that I finally collapsed to sit by a rotted tree springing up through the road. I heaved breaths and tried to focus my spotted sight. So much visual snow.
“It was because of me, wasn’t it?” Anna said.
“…Yeah,” I answered.
“Did you know?” she asked Ash.
He replied honestly, surprisingly. “Yes.”
“But not me or Odessa? What are you, sexist?”
“Actually, you’re just slow,” Ash told her. “He never wanted any of us to know. He wanted to think up a solution first. But! Ya can’t keep secrets from Ash.” He took his pistol, the last pistol, and threw it at my feet. Odessa had never gotten one. “Ain’t that right, Doran?”
I picked it up. “Yes.”
Anna erupted, “Then why not let us help you figure this out!?”
After attaching the gun to my armor, I let my head fall. “Because there’s no new solutions to think of, Anna… the options are two. We either submit to our fate, or we break free. And I’m not sure we can or cannot do that. Kendall is stronger, now. And even if we break free, where’s there to go?”
“There’s always a way out,” Ash chided me.
“Right now the only way is to the city. I was going to tell you all when we got there.” I put my feet under me. Had to stand. “Our need to get there hasn’t changed. Our best chance of escaping is there. The mission is also there. With Amanda out of the way, it’ll also be easier to get this done.”
“We may be freer, but our burden has greatened,” Odessa corrected me. She lodged her sword in the earth. “Kendall’s betrayal…” She seemed not to be capable of coming up with the words. “Fuck him.” She went with a modern curse, something I’d never seen her do before. “He’s no god. Our lives are not his.”
They technically are.
“I never had many options…” Anna said to no one in particular. “This, though. I feel like there really isn’t a win here, guys.”
A faked a smile. “There’s always a plan.”
“And what plan do you have for this?”
I didn’t directly answer. “Destiny, design. I’ve never experienced hopelessness, Anna. Because hope is something unreal. Things are as they are, which is a tautology, but you understand my meaning. We’ll figure something out.”
“I used to have standards for the type of life I would live.”
“We can’t choose what we’re born into, who we are. But our souls are all of the same substance, and we own it. There’s no difference between rock bottom and paradise, Anna. God made the parasites and he made the mortal earth, and do you know what he said about it? He said, ‘it is good.’” I put a hand on her shoulder and pointed down the path. “Suffering isn’t evil. We are evil if only we choose not to overcome.”
“I guess,” she quietly said. Grimaced.
Ash crossed his arms. “Yeah, now, are we going? I’d rather not wait.”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
We walked down the alley in the shadow of the buildings, until we hit a winding sun-bleached road.
The heat was oppressive and after hours of walking, Anna was the only one sunburning. She couldn’t catch a break.
Nothing eventful happened from then on. The ground seemed to almost be sloping, though, as we walked. The buildings grew taller and bridges sometimes passed overhead. Our trek became an uphill battle.
The sun set after a while, over the streets the white sky dimming grey. The stone and wood were colorless, even in the less harsh light.
Eventually, we came to a large door which had collapsed in on itself.
We can climb the rubble, go in through one of the windows.
I looked and saw the buttresses aside the building creating a somewhat easy climb to the second level of the building thirty feet up.
But the road is not raising with the same steepness as the skyline. It’s almost like we’re going down, relatively. I need height.
“We should start walking the rooftops,” I said.
“You sure?” Anna asked.
I wasn’t feeling strong, but the footholds were placed easily. Anna went first, Ash second, me third, Odessa last. We scaled up to a low roof on the side of the building and used it to jump onto a balcony on the next structure over. I bashed in the wooden door. A murky room of stagnate air was disturbed, dust stirring in plumes. There was a decrepit ladder in the room’s back, and no way downstairs. The ladder led into the attic, and a latched door had cracks of light in the darkness showing through.
Ash went first this time due to the darkness, and threw it open, climbing up. The rest of us followed.
I came up and had to balance myself on the slanted roof. When I secured my footing I looked up and took in the sight.
The skyline rolled like an ocean, building tops wavering with the slopes and rises of the earth. Staring out, it almost looked like it was moving. Rising and falling like a sea of ruins. With the grey sky overhead and this eagle eye perspective, I still couldn’t see or sense our destination. We were dwarfed in this place. Even though we’d finally broken to the surface, we were lost in open water.
The fourth tolling rocked the sky and shook the city, disturbing the skyline. Two chimes remained. If we weren’t to our destination by the sixth, we would be lost in this place. And I doubted all of us would be willing to leave, back to Kendall.
I didn’t need hope. I could find a way. I would.
Hope in thyself.
Hmm. It was less comforting put that way.
There was a path across the rooftops. We got going.