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This Woman's Work Part 3

 
Lance Striker's picture
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((This story contains allusions to the abuse of women, and as such, if you're affected by any related

issues, please proceed with caution))


Uncoiling himself from the economy passenger section of the bus, Shadow gently lowered himself

onto the ground – the uneven, jagged, rocky ground. It felt wonderful. He starfished his ailing

limbs, sighing happily at the flood of new sensations that weren't cramp.

 

I'm getting far too old for this shit.

 

Night had fallen at long last, and he could finally start to get eyes on with what he hoped was his

final destination – the as of recently unknown Farm and its Shepherd. The meaning behind those

words made him sick to his stomach, the suffering those girls had endured under Aunt Lucy became

more apparent each day at the hostel as Hyle and the other workers fought the uphill battle to

bring them back into the normal world. Before all that, they were here – sold like cattle for little

more than handful of plastic chips. Though once a bounty hunter himself, Shadow could never

put a price on life, but he swore that every last Traveller here would pay it with interest.

 

The air was still, almost silent save for the hum of electricity and occasional squeak of metal. He

couldn't see much from the ground, but rolled out onto the right-hand side of the bus that mostly

faced away from the rest of the compound. He picked himself up, sidled against the chassis and

leaned around the front of the bus. Four watchtowers loomed above the perimeter of an apparently

large complex of several buildings – each mounted and manned with spotlights cutting a swathe

through the gloam. The largest of the buildings stood relatively central to those towers, single-storied,

wooden with an outer deck and L-shaped – at least from the angle Shadow could see. Its many

windows illuminated in an inviting orange glow that betrayed the horrors he could only imagine

inside. On the far side of the compound, somewhat hidden behind the main building stood what

looked like a barn and strewn around were smaller darkened structures.

 

He took a cautionary look to his immediate surroundings; behind him was thick woodland that

encircled the area as a whole. There were no guards to be seen and Shadow took the opportunity

to radio in, keeping his voice in a low whisper.

 

   “Echo, it's Striker. Are you there?”

 

   Yeah, man. Read you loud and clear.” The young Jonah whispered back.

 

   Why are you whispering?” Shadow asked, cynically assuming he was being mocked.

 

   “Dude, it's super late, my mom'll flip if I wake her up. Why are you whispering?”

 

   “Super secret badguy base ring any bells?”

 

   “Oh. Right, that. You'll wanna know where you are, huh?”


   “If you don't mind.”

 

Shadow waited, peering anxiously around the front of the bus over the sound of papers, empty

lemonade cups and frustrated teenager on the receiver.

 

   “OK, got it. Rough estimation puts you at grid reference...59, 74. You're using an old USGS map, right?”

 

   “Yeah...let me see...”

 

He took out his map, trying to find a good angle to catch some of the light from the compound

and traced the easting and northing lines with a finger.

 

   “I'm a lot further north than I expected.” He said, frowning upon finding his square.

 

   “Yeah, man. You're like right on the edge of the habitable zone, make sure your skin doesn't fall off, y'know?”

 

   “I'm a little more concerned about the walk back to Gaia.”

 

   “Guess you'll have to make it a run, my dude.”

 

   Guess I will. I'll check back with you if I need anything, good work today, kiddo.”

 

Shadow turned off his radio, set it back in the pouch on his vest, folded up and tucked away his

map then took his pistol out of its holster – unnecessary, but it made him feel more comfortable.

 

Almost dead ahead of the bus was one of the smaller wooden buildings, silhouetted against the

backlight of the compound. It was a mere 50 meters at best, but the space between was wide open

and the grass was too short for him to crawl through without risking being spotted. He eyed the spotlight

to the left of the bus, waiting for the beam to angle away from his path. The unoiled hinges creaked

at the apex of its turn, grinding to a brief silence that signalled him to run to the building. The weight

of his task felt second only to the weight on his knees as he sprinted across the rocky grass to the

wooden exterior of the small building and sidled around its right-hand side to stay out of sight. He

took a moment to try and rub a little more life into his rigid limbs but the ache was growing.

 

An orange glow and sharp snap startled him as he crept along the edge of the wall; a campfire, adorned

with a pot and surrounded by log benches. It was eerily vacant, but he could smell the food cooking

and looked around for signs of life. Beyond it, another 50 meters or so was another watchtower, scanning

the forest in the distance – the beam itself wouldn't be a problem but there was nothing stopping the

Traveller manning it simply looking over the side. Speed, aggression, stealth – these were the tenets

of his line of work, something he kept reminding himself of as he poked his head around the front of

the building. He had gained so much in the past year, the normal life he'd craved to return to for a

century had found him at last, and it gave him so much more to lose. Failure here could cost him everything.

 

He girded himself, noticing the front of the building was wide open. The clearing between him and the main

structure was decently lit from the ambient glow of countless windows. He moved swiftly, through the

aching, and inside the smaller shack, his P226 darting from corner to corner with instinct – no guards.

He sighed silently in relief and began searching the interior for anything useful. In the centre was a large

table, swarmed with old wooden chairs and stools. It was littered with playing cards, ash, booze bottles

and other trinkets. Stacked up against the wall and encircling almost the entire room were old crates, barrels

and wooden beams – it didn't take long for him to realise this was a storeroom, and that there was likely

nothing important to be found within. He frowned, annoyed and pressed himself up beside the opening, taking

another cautious look outside and planned his next move. Beyond the campfire and situated directly

behind the watchtower was what looked and sounded like a petrol generator in the faint flickering light.

Another option was to beeline straight for the outer deck of the main building and crawl under it to

navigate to the opposite side of the compound. He opted for the latter and stepped assertively through

the entrance when a door swung open from the main building and a flood of voices filled the air.

 

Bollocks.

 

He swung himself back inside the storage shack, frantically looking for a place to hide. The voices grew

ouder, he could make out their stereotypical badguy accents as he tried every crate and barrel lid he could

until one finally opened for him at the back of the room. He briskly and quietly squeezed inside, cursing his

knees as he crouched and lowered the lid. A small opening in front gave him a window to the outside as

silhouettes of trenchcoated men flooded the shack. They lit lamps situated on the table, sat down and took

their revolvers out to display – if Shadow was sure of one thing, he was dealing with your average Travellers.

 

   Hey, Gripper,” said one of the men in that voice that suggested Officer Dibble was about to show up at any

   moment, “I gotsta say, you did real good on that job for Paulie a few weeks back.”

 

   Well, y'know, I been sayin' for years that I gots what it takes to go far, y'know?” The other man replied, lighting a cigar.

 

   “Well it don't get much bigger than this, just keep your head down an' the boss'll take good care of you.”

   He said, patting 'Gripper' on the shoulder.

 

   Ey, ey, ey... watch the merch, buddy boy. This coat cost me an arm an' a leg.” Gripper barked, dusting off his shoulder.

 

   That's nothin', pal, we needsta get you a proper neck scarf,” the first man said, removing his own

   and laying it down on the table, “picked it up from the tailors, a week ago.”

 

   “Nice colouring.” Came another voice from across the table.

 

   That's obsidian and the embroidery is somethin' called Sicilian rail.”

 

   “Very nice, bozo, but that's nothin'. Look at this,” said yet another man, laying his own scarf on display, “ash black, French knots.”

 

A whistle of admiration came from the edge of the room, Shadow gently tried to get an angle on the sound

and spotted another Traveller squatting on some barrels, as they do. He leapt down, approached the table

and began undoing his own scarf.

 

   “How'd a schmuck like you get so tasteful?” He said, setting his own down and stunning the entire

   room into silence, “raised filigree, seed stitch, shadow.”

 

Even from his tiny hole and the dim lamplight, Shadow could quite clearly see there was absolutely no discernable

difference between any of the scarves and if he rolled his eyes any harder he might miss something. Everyone was

still, there was no movement save for the occasional wetting of dry lips, Shadow noted that some of the men even

showed expressions he almost mistook for love if he believed Travellers were capable of it.

 

   “All right fellas, grub's up!” Came a shout from outside.

 

The men quietly, almost reverently backed away from the table, gathered their things and headed outside to

the campfire. Shadow waited for a couple of minutes before gingerly stepping out of the crate and stretching

his legs. He crept up to the entrance once more, there was no way he was going anywhere with the crowd

of people around the campfire.

 

Think, think...

 

An idea came to his mind, putting up with that nauseating display wouldn't be a waste of time after all. He

holstered his pistol, peeked out at the group sat around the fire and tried to pick out the one with the scarf

sharing his name – not an easy thing to do when literally every Traveller looks and acts the same.

There – squatting, rather than sitting, over a log bench was his target; he focused his mind, projecting

forward to latch onto the scarf and pulled it from his neck into the fire. Panic set in, a horde of trenchcoats

swarmed the fire, stamping and pouring drinks in an effort to save the sacred relic. The flames, swallowed

in idiotic darkness, died and gave Shadow his corridor of opportunity to sprint for the outer deck of the main

building. To his joy, the majority of the building was on raised foundations, giving him perfect concealment, a

moment to lie down and stretch, and easy access to the rear side of the compound. He crawled under the

building, halting at the sound of a door flinging open and a man shouting.

 

   Hey, boss says to keep it down out there!”

 

He waited for the door to close then carried on ahead until he reached the other side. Much like the

entrance, there was little to no presence save for the other two watchtowers keeping tabs on the perimeter.

Ahead of him was some sort of stage or platform, with a raised metal frame and rigging hanging from it. He

crawled closer, keeping an eye on his surroundings at all times, he stopped when he felt the ground squelch

beneath his arms. He ran his fingertips through the wet soil and sniffed at it, the unmistakable sickly metallic

tang of blood, a few days old by the consistency as he rubbed his fingers together before wiping them on the

grass. He got a better look at the platform as he cautiously rose to a crouch; the rigging hanging from the

overhead frame were hand restraints – he went cold for a moment, trying to cool his rage.

 

   “Boss,” came a voice from behind, startling Shadow until he realised it was coming from an open

   window on the rear side of the building, “I told them, like you asked.”

 

Shadow quickly moved towards the opening, listening in.

 

   I'm not deaf you slack-jawed idiot.” Came a wheezing, struggled reply.

 

Shadow frowned, was this the voice of The Shepherd?

 

   “I...yes, boss. Sorry, boss. Should I prepare your entertainment now, boss?”

 

   Hmm...yes, yes,” he pondered with laboured breathing, “the brunette. Have her washed and brought to my room.”

 

The other man left with no reply, his footsteps growing quiet on the wooden floor. Shadow, living up to his

name, was poised up next to the window, not chancing a look through just yet. He could hear the man's

breathing more clearly, between hacking coughs. It was clear that this was a man with a slow metabolism

and a fast appetite. The idea of being so close to ending it all crept across Shadow's mind, but without a

clear picture of the full compound and where the girls were being kept, he couldn't risk any more lives. He

slipped away from the wall, apologising over and over again in his mind for whatever that poor girl had to

endure, if only for one more night...

 

In the far corner of the compound was the barn he'd spotted earlier. It cast an ominous shadow over the

ground from the watchtower on its far side. He hurried, low, over towards it and up to the huge doors. The

smell of death hit him hard through a slight opening in the doors, his empty stomach made it all the worse

and he had to gird himself before he could carry on. No light or sound came from the inside, and so he

decided to risk entering after anxiously prying the door open enough for him to do so.

 

It was almost pitch black inside, save for the ambient light trickling through the opening in the hayloft, and

so Shadow decided to risk using the tac-light on his pistol. Immediately he could see the bottom floor was

filled with cages, not all of them were uniform, some looked more akin to kennels and wouldn't afford a

person room to stand. One such cage was on his immediate left, the smell grew more intense as he neared

it and found the source. Curled up on the floor was the emaciated body of a young girl, clutching a bulge on

her stomach. Beside her were two metal bowls, one was empty, the other full of mould. His heart sunk at the

realisation and he found himself reaching out towards her stomach, laying his hand on hers.

 

He found himself drifting back to his old life, how much he missed his daughter. He could feel himself succumbing

to the grief when a sound at the back of the barn snapped him out of it. Immediately he turned, gun trained on the

source and slowly approached – his heart and mind reeled in a cocktail of emotion and anticipation. As he closed

in, he found nothing except for another large cage at the rear of the barn, walled off on all sides but the front which

was locked off with thick metal bars. He circled around it, pointing his gun through the bars and almost blinding a

half naked woman covering her eyes at the back. He immediately lowered his weapon and approached the bars slowly.

 

   “Hey, you all right back there? Sorry for blinding you like that.” He whispered, trying his best to seem

   friendly and approachable.

 

The woman, covering her exposed breasts gave him a cautious look from head to toe.

 

   “It's all right, I'm not one of them, I'm here to save you.” He followed, holding out his hand slightly through the bars.

 

She approached slowly, suspiciously, eyeing his hand. He smiled at her as she came up to the bars, and reached

through wrapping one arm around his neck. Shadow felt a moment of relief at what he thought was a hug, but soon

came to the realisation she'd pulled his knife from his vest and had it pressed hard against his throat.

 

   You certainly don't dress like them, but why should I believe anything you say, 'hero'?” She whispered, viciously into his ear.

 

   “I'm here to put an end to the man they call The Shepherd, he sold women to someone named Lucille Slater for her

   to use in her brothels.” He said, calmly and carefully, each word pressed his throat further into the blade.

 

   I don't remember...maybe I would've been one of them, but I earned my place here. But you already

   know that, don't you, you fucking piece of shit?”

 

He wasn't sure what he could say to allay her suspicion, but he still couldn't stop thinking about the other

cage, despite his predicament.

 

   The other girl...what was she in here for?”

 

The woman gritted her teeth, tightening her grip around his neck. He could feel her trying to slit his throat and

instinctively blasted her away with telekinetic force, sending her crashing loudly into the back of the cage. Shadow

clutched his throat, checking for damage; nothing but superficial cuts under his beard. The woman picked herself

up, moaning and in some pain, she kept the knife pointed forward towards Shadow. He holstered his pistol, holding

his hands up for calm. Adapting to the dark, he could see her well enough, there was a tense few moments of

silence and panicked breathing. Shadow was about to speak when he heard the barn door open, and darted quickly

down the side of the cage.

 

   “Keep it down in there, you stupid bitch!” Shouted a man, who closed the door again and heaved and coughed at the smell.

 

He gave it a moment and came out in front of the cage again, the woman looked him up and down.

 

   “Who are you?” She asked, blade still pointed at him.

 

   “Folk call me Shadow, I'm from Hope Springs.”

 

   “Shadow? Hope Springs? You're here to kill that fat piece of shit, you say?”

 

   “Yeah. We already saved a group of girls from Lucille Slater.”

 

   “Who's we?”

 

   “That would be my significant other, Hyle. The girls are being taken care of back home, I'm here to save

   whoever's left and put an end to this once and for all.”

 

   “Hyle? Shadow? I don't put much stock in people with stupid names, I don't know if you've noticed, but one of them lives right here.”

 

   Fair point...”

 

He felt the progress slipping for a moment before she lowered the knife.

 

   “A guard 'sullied' her.”

 

   Pardon...?”

 

   The other girl. Damaged goods they called her, threw her in here, but not before they made us all watch.”

 

   Watch?”

 

   He likes to put on shows to remind everyone about their proper place. The guard was stripped and tied up, then

   they made us watch while they tortured and cut him to pieces.”

 

Shadow frowned, the blood he found earlier must've been his.

 

   “This is a prison, then?”

 

   “This whole place is a prison,” she scoffed, “this is just where they leave the ones they have no use for.”

 

   Then you...”

 

   “No. I just refused to 'entertain' that fat bastard.”

 

Shadow looked over towards the other cage.

 

   “How the hell could they do that to a pregnant girl...”

 

The woman pressed up against the bars, looking up at him with shock.

 

   She was...pregnant...?”

 

Shadow nodded, surprised she didn't know. He had assumed that's what she implied. The woman sank in

her cage, silent for a moment.

 

   You. You said you're here to save us. Where are the rest of you, where is this Hyle?”

 

   It's just me.”

 

   “That doesn't...but...how did you get here?”

 

   “They call me Shadow for a reason.”

 

   But you can't do this all by yourself, surely.”

 

   Not without putting you all at risk, no. I'll bring others, but I need your help.”

 

The woman leaned back against the walls of her cage, looking up at him.

 

   “You better not be lying to me, man.”

 

   “Shadow.” He smiled.

 

She frowned at him for a moment, then stood up.

 

   Anna. Tell me what you need.”

 

   “I've seen 4 guards on the watchtowers, about a dozen around the campfire and heard at least one more

   not including this Shepherd. Are there any more?”

 

Anna thought for a moment, counting in her mind.

 

   “The ones outside are the patrol group, he keeps 2 guards with him at all times and another 3 inside the building.”

 

   “So they do patrol...”

 

   “Not often, what's the point?”

 

   No one's ever tried to escape?”

 

   “Maybe, but where would they go? No one knows where we are, the world outside is dangerous.”

 

   “You've not been here long?”

 

   “I don't know. Girls come and go all the time, to be given 'purpose'.”

 

   “We'll reunite you with your family soon.”

 

Anna scoffed.

 

   My parents were the ones who sold me in the first place, only way to keep the family business open they said.”

 

Shadow sat against the cage, making sure that his pistol was well and truly out of her reach.

 

   “I'm so sorry...”

 

   “Are you? Why would you even care?”

 

   “We're trying to make life better for people.”

 

   “You and this Hyle?”

 

   “Aye, all of us at Hope Springs.”

 

There was a long silence.

 

   What else do you need?”

 

   “Where are the girls kept?”

 

   “We're given our own places to sleep in the basement.”

 

   “Why did it have to be a basement...”

 

   “There are no guards, just the girls. He doesn't trust them.”

 

   “No guards at all?”

 

   “No. Three times a day they bring us upstairs for lessons, how to behave and do whatever our new masters

   tell us. If you're good, you get more food and water.”

 

   “Like animals...”

 

   “Like animals.”

 

Shadow stood up, contemplated everything then crouched back down beside her.

 

   “I'll be back tomorrow before dawn, then we'll put an end to this nightmare.”

 

   “I'll believe it when I see it, until then I'm keeping this knife. Better to go out on my own terms if it comes to that.”

 

Shadow just nodded, everything Hyle had told him about the girls at the hostel taught him that they needed much

more than empty promises, though this Anna seemed defiant and lucid. He made his way back to the door, gently

parted it open and stealthily made his way into the forest. After a much needed toilet break, he took out his compass

and began the long run back to Gaia.

Comments

Hyle Troy's picture

((  Long long long read...But riveting start to end. Excellent :)

I would rather die peacefully in my sleep, like Grandad, than screaming, like his passengers

Joe Spivey's picture

((Loved it. Great read with the first coffee of the day :D

Stick with me kid and you'll be farting through silk.

Lance Striker's picture

Arin sniffed mockingly at the air, smirking at his sister laid next to him in the grass. Danielle stifled a

giggle, smirking in turn at Shadow laying between and slightly ahead of them both.

 

   “Is that Soto's perfume, sis?” Arin asked, accusingly.

 

   “You know, I think it might be.” She whispered back.

 

Shadow was starting to regret not doing this alone. Being accused of titting up the First Citizen was

annoying enough, but the lack of respect these new generation of rangers had was as disappointing

as southerner gravy.

 

   “Will you two shut up? You'll blow our cover.” Shadow growled back, returning to the scope of his rifle.

 

   “Oh relax, we're only playing. Besides, we know you're all loved up with that mayor.” Danielle giggled.

 

The three rangers were positioned on the edge of the dense woodland to the west of the Shepherd's

compound. The searching ray of the north-western watchtower raked through the trees, but their

camouflage and position hid them well. Some of the men were patrolling now, making things a little

more precarious.

 

   “Do you now?” Shadow replied apathetically as he followed a guard in his scope.

 

   “Yeah, Allie told me all about it.”

 

Note to self – Allie is super grounded, 21 or not.

 

   “Riveting.” He said, rising to his one knee.

 

   “Seriously, though. How'd you get command to agree to this one?” Asked Arin, also rising along with

   his sister.

 

   “It's the right thing to do, that's all. Plus, if this Shepherd is as business savvy as most Travellers, Ranger

   Command will get a big head's up on other targets.”

 

The siblings looked at each other. Danielle couldn't help but wonder.

 

   “You're taking him alive?” She asked.

 

   “We'll see,” Shadow huffed, moving low towards a nearby tree, “it'll be dawn soon, let's not waste time.”

 

They hurried towards the perimeter, darting from tree to tree as the spotlight passed them by. Their first

task was securing the western side of the compound and extracting Anna. Shadow saw her as a leader

and source of strength for the rest of the captives, something Hyle hadn't had the fortune of in her own

rescue.

 

The trio settled in the long grass on the outer side of the western fence, situated almost equidistant

between the two watchtowers. The barn loomed to ahead and to the left, behind the main building that

stretched out in front of them. A petrol generator directly ahead of them rumbled as it fed the spotlights

to either side. Shadow turned to Danielle.

 

   “Get me a handful of small pebbles.” He whispered.

 

   “So cool!” She grinned, excitedly, combing through the rocky ground.

 

Shadow laid a hand on Arin's shoulder and waited; one of the guards was patrolling back and forth along

the stretch of land between the two towers. Both men eyed him carefully, his route was inconsistent, lazy

and unpredictable. He passed the generator multiple times before Shadow was satisfied – he motioned to

Arin, miming out a chop to the back of his neck. The younger ranger nodded, braced himself, then leapt over

the fence and sprinted towards the generator on Shadow's signal, taking cover behind it.

 

Danielle tapped Shadow on the shoulder, presenting him with an assortment of rocks and pebbles. He picked

two out, laid one in each palm and eyed the men manning each tower. He took a deep breath, focused, and let

the influence of his mind expand, creating a field of energy that he occupied with his thoughts. To him, he and

the world around him became one, humanity drifting away in the alien sensation Shiva had cursed him with. Pressed

firmly into his thoughts, the guards seemed to occupy a space inside of him, vulnerable and completely at his

mercy – a whisper of a thought, the shaping of himself into a weapon, a projection. The pebbles soared towards

them at speed, tearing through their skulls, killing both instantly. Shadow suspended their bodies in the air, rigid

and unmoved, then nodded at Arin.

 

Arin nodded back, waiting for his prey to make another pass by the generator. The guard lazily walked by, oblivious

of the fate of his comrades, who looked otherwise alive and normal from his perspective. The growl of the generator

muffled the young ranger's steps as he crept out behind him, drawing a machete as the guard took his final step and

struck him clean and hard, severing his spinal cord and dropping him lifeless to the ground.

 

Shadow released his hold on the corpses, holding his head, pained from the backlash of mental exertion as the

bodies fell limp atop their scenic graves. Arin hurried back over to the fence, Danielle wrapped an arm around Shadow.

 

   “You okay there, big guy?” She said, half playful, half concerned.

 

   “Yeah...hurts a lot more when they're spread out like that.” He replied, pocketing the rest of the stones.

 

   “If it's any consolation, that was cool as shit,” she said, grinning, then turned to her brother, “you weren't so bad either.”

 

Arin shrugged and patted Shadow on the shoulder.

 

   Why the back of the neck and not the front, by the way?” He asked, scraping his machete on the grass.

 

   “You ever seen someone get their throat cut?” Shadow replied, recovering somewhat.

 

   No, why?”

 

   “Takes a long time to die, all the while the person is conscious and gasping for air as they slowly succumb to shock

   and blood loss.”

 

   We feeling sorry for these scumbags all of a sudden?”

 

   “Hardly. It's just very loud.”

 

Danielle grimaced. Arin stared at his machete, and Shadow got up and leapt over the fence.

 

   “You two cover me, watch for any more patrols and notify me on the radio if anything comes up. I'm going in

   for the girl.”

 

They nodded and circled the perimeter on reconnaissance while Shadow pressed on towards the barn, sidling

up along the edge of the main building and peering round the corner. There was another guard, mostly stood

fidgeting near the stage they used for executions and other twisted spectacles. He took another pebble out of

his pocket and got ready to take him out when he turned and started heading towards him. Shadow ducked under

the foundations, laying still but primed as he kept his hidden gaze upon him. The guard looked up, eyeing the

watchtower and cocked his head in suspicion. Urgency began to creep through Shadow, ready to kill as the guard

walked right by him. The guard looked around, confused then headed into the barn after peering over his shoulder.

 

Shadow moved quickly, drawing his own machete and creeping along the front of the barn before poking his head

around the corner. He couldn't make out anything in the blackness and the stench of death still lingered in the air. He

slipped inside, each step measured and silent as he tried to concentrate on the darkness, the faint outlines of the

interior etching their way gradually into his vision. He stalked onward, resisting the urge back himself into a corner

or against a wall as the unease sank in. The silence deafened him with the sound of his own heart beating faster and

faster with every second, his pulse hot in his ears. He stopped, focusing on everything, clinging to the awareness

afforded to him – being able to manipulate the material world left him with the ability to grace it with his mind. He stilled

his thoughts, pushing outwards in concentration; like a million searching fingers, the tendrils of his mind echoed back

and gave definition to the abstract. Long, round, dense – bars. Sensation, void, uniformity – a cage. Patterns

repeating, objects the same and yet different, subtleties the human eye could never distinguish. Shadow possessed

a mental discipline few in history could boast of, a stray thought, even an idea, would manifest itself as an assault

upon the physical world. He had to be still, patient, omnipresent.

 

There was a ripple, a pressure wading through the water of his thoughts. It closed on him, inch by inch, stalking from

his left. It grew more chaotic, churning his concentration until it came at him like a wave; he barely had time to turn and

return to normality when the Traveller dived at him, grabbing his wrist and sent them both hurtling to the floor. Shadow's

backpack saved his head from smashing on the ground, and gave him enough clearance to headbutt his assailant as his

other hand tightened around Shadow's throat. The Traveller groaned in pain, recoiling from the force and gave Shadow

enough room to grab his face and dig his fingers into his eyes while pushing him back. He shook his head wildly, trying

to wrestle Shadow's clawing agony away, both men huffing in adrenaline-fuelled exhalation, yet the panic proved too

much. He flung himself back, desperately grabbing as Shadow's hand with both of his, giving the ranger a window to

swing his machete up and into the side of his face, pushing and struggling as the blade clumsily danced across flesh. The

Traveller sat up, rolled backwards from on top of Shadow and clutched his blood-soaked cheek, buying time for Shadow to

get onto his feet, compose himself and strike at him. The Traveller raised his arms instinctively at the blade sailing towards

him through the abyss, his leather trenchcoat dulling the bite of sharpened steel and giving him the courage to lunge once

more at the ranger.

 

The pair grappled with one another, stifled exertion keeping their duel unknown to their allies outside. Shadow was proving

the stronger of the two, pushing the Traveller back along the dusty ground with a muffled grunt as his boots lost traction. That

strength turned against him as his foe cleverly span and threw him stumbling towards the rear door of the barn, dropping

his machete in the process. Shadow went hands and head first into the wood, bracing himself against it in exhaustion and

barely managing to turn when the silhouette of the Traveller came rushing at him. It took everything he had to grab his arm

to spare the killing blow, but he was pinned hard and tiring; the guard had him unable to move, slowly gaining on his neck

with his own machete. Shadow held as best he could, but he was running out of time – the blade was millimetres from his

throat, his calm was fleeting as his eyes raced for some last gasp of hope.

 

Anna's cage was directly to his left, he was her last bastion of hope and she was about to watch it die. His final thoughts

raced with the fate of each and every girl in retaliation of his failure, how they would suffer because of him, because of his

weakness. Strangely, he thought of Jess too – how she was no stranger to the cruelty of men and the marks it had left on

her. How the bollocking Hyle had given her seemed misguided when he couldn't do any better for these girls.

 

Bollocking...bollocking...that's it!

 

A smile almost crept along Shadow's face as he silently thanked Jess. He braced himself, puckering his lips, craning his neck

forward as he felt the bite of the blade more keenly. He planted a quick kiss on the overbearing Traveller's lips, startling him

and giving Shadow just enough room to knee him square in the bollocks. The guard withdrew, the indescribable sickness

paralysing him as Shadow grabbed him and threw him into the bars of Anna's cage. A pair of dainty arms emerged from either

side of the guard, wrapped themselves around him and graced his neck with serrated steel, hacking and tearing into his

throat. Shadow looked on for a moment, relieved and catching his breath while the Traveller gurgled and soaked the ground

with the blood pouring from his neck. Anna let him go when she felt him weakening, letting him stumble forward, splashing

more crimson as he fell to the ground.

 

   “God that felt good. Aren't you supposed to be saving me?” She asked the exhausted ranger.

 

   “I'm working on it...” He replied, moving towards the cage and taking his pack off.

 

He rummaged through the contents, passing Anna a set of clothing and some boots through the bars. She seemed somewhat

surprised, though not ungrateful at the gesture.

 

   “A key would've been enough, but... thank you.”

 

   “Here, these too.” He said, handing her a canteen of water and some packaged food.

 

Shadow sat, regaining his energy for a moment while Anna got dressed. The guard had completely gone into shock, motionless

save for the unnerving heaving of his chest desperately searching for air through the gurgling flap that was his throat, pouring and

pooling blood onto the ground that could be heard more than seen. It didn't seem to phase Anna as she tucked into the rations

greedily – Shadow wondered if too much damage had been done to her, if she'd end up consumed by revenge and be left unsatisfied

once she'd gotten it. He knew that in many ways the hardest part of these girls lives would be having to live with the memories of this

place once they were free. He thought about it all for a moment when the adrenaline began to wear off, and his situation began to

calm. The rush, combined with the rotten smell in the air hit him like a truck – he rushed to his feet, stumbled to the other side of the

barn and threw up.

 

Anna watched him for a moment, resisting the urge to overly criticise the only man to show her any kindness in her incarceration.

 

   Are you all right?” She asked, munching on a granola bar.

 

   “Aye...considering I almost died a moment ago.”

 

She watched him for another moment, listening to the orchestra of liquids hitting the barn floor.

 

   “You're a clone, aren't you?”

 

   “Yeah, why?”

 

   “So dying isn't a big deal, right?”

 

Shadow turned back to her and walked over to the cage.

 

   “I don't believe in souls.”

 

   “You'd fit in well around here then.”

 

Shadow just went over to the now-silent guard, searching his body for a key.

 

   “I'm sorry, I didn't mean-”

 

   “I know. Got a key, let's get you out of here shall we?”

 

He carefully unlocked her cage, relieved the key worked and stepped back to give her some space. She was hesitant, not

quite believing it was real, and that a man of all people had been the one to free her. Shadow left her to it and grabbed his

machete from the ground, frowning at its unintentional betrayal. Anna seemed to take a moment getting used to walking

again, then smiled at Shadow.

 

   “Come on, we have a lot to do.” He said, walking carefully with her towards the sliver of light at the front door.

 

   Wait...” Anna said, wandering over the cage with the girl's body in it.

 

Shadow carried on ahead, peeking out of the door and radioing in to his teammates for a rendezvous. Anna sat by the cage

for a minute, just staring at the corpse.

 

   “Every. Last. One of them.” She vowed, kissing her hand then laying it on the girl's stomach.

Lonely are the brave...

Joe Spivey's picture

((Anna echoing her daughter? Nvm, thrilling stuff. :D

Stick with me kid and you'll be farting through silk.



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