It’s time for yet another #TwoChapterTuesday. With only a handful of chapters to go, the action is definitely heating up, and I am curious to hear what you all think! If you want to re-read previous chapters (or arrived at this page without having done so), you can start over with Chapters 1 and 2 here, and then follow the links at the bottom of each post to progress through the story.
And now, on with the tale. Remember; feedback is always welcome!
The Stars That Sing
Cornelius James saw the first punch coming, but with his arms pinned behind him, he couldn’t do a thing to avoid it. Red Two’s fist exploded into his stomach, and just like that, air was impossible to come by. He was gasping for breath when the second punch came in, this one blasting him below his left eye. If it hadn’t been for the men holding him, that one would have knocked him to the asphalt. As it was, his head snapped to one side, the eye swelling shut almost immediately. His nose hadn’t even been touched, but it was already aching like it was on fire, and he could feel snot and tears dripping down his face.
Red Two stepped in until his face was the only thing CJ could see. Saliva and blood sprayed in equal measure as he spoke, his dark eyes wide, his pupils tiny pinpricks in a sea of brown. “We kill spies, little squirrel. Kill them, eat them, and shit out their remains.” He turned to the man who had foiled CJ’s escape. “What do you think, Black? Should we cook this one or eat him raw?”
Black was a mountain of a man, his uniform doing little to hide a muscular and heavily scarred physique. His voice was a quiet rumble. “Just kill him, Two. Easier to carry. Easier to cook.”
“Or you could let him go.”
CJ’s eyes darted past Black to the figure who had appeared in the street as if by magic. Samara was alone, the setting sun painting her in silhouette even as it caught fire in the beads in her night-black braids.
“Sammie, run!” The words came out slurred and quieter than he had intended, but she heard him anyway, and answered with a firm shake of her head.
“Not without you.” She faced down the members of Pod 24, every one of them larger than she was. “You’ve all had your fun, and I’m guessing the boy has learned his lesson. Let him go and this can be the end of it.”
Red Two spun to face Samara, his smile widening. “And if we don’t, little girl?”
She swallowed, but stood tall. “Then I’ll take him from you.”
“I’m already bored,” decided Red Two. “Kill her. We’ll cook them both.”
The men not holding CJ stepped forward to do just that when a loud creak split the night, like a door whose hinges had never been oiled. It was followed quickly by a rumbling that vibrated up from the broken asphalt. Black stumbled and went down. In the twilight, CJ could barely make out the weeds that had thrust up through cracks in the asphalt like creeper vines to wrap about the man’s ankles. As the huge man hit the ground, additional weeds sprouted, binding his arms and hands, growing faster and faster until he was little more than a grass-covered mound in the middle of the road.
“What the fuck?” Red Two’s horrible mouth fell open in shock. He looked over at CJ just in time to see one of the Hill’s trees lean forward over the wall, its long branches reaching down like wooden limbs or tentacles. CJ fell to the street as the men who’d been restraining him were yanked into the air. A second, smaller, tree actually smashed through the wall to impale the last unnamed pod member with its own sharp and broken tree branch.
“Druid.” The word dropped from Red Two’s open mouth like a curse, as he spun back to Samara. The girl’s eyes were clenched shut, one long hand stretched out in the air, her entire skinny body trembling with effort.
The screams of the men hanging in the air ended sharply with twin cracks that could have been branches breaking.
Could have been but weren’t.
Red Two turned tail and ran. He made it five steps before the asphalt split beneath him, and a year’s growth of weeds dragged him down. Within moments, his struggles ended.
Sammie dropped to one knee, panting like she’d just run a mile.
“Sammie, what did you do?” Again, CJ’s words were slurred, and again Samara understood them anyway.
“What I had to, to save you.”
“But using your power in public…” CJ stumbled over, and for a brief moment, they clung to each other. “You know Lord Legion will come for you.”
“That’s why I had to kill them, Cornelius James.” Samara was ashen, shaking from more than just the use of her powers. Her dark eyes looked down at him, pleading for understanding. “Lord Legion won’t know if nobody tells him.”
CJ swallowed, but before he could catch his breath, before he could tell her about the Eye that was less than two blocks away, they both heard it: the sound of rotors spinning almost lazily above them.
In the sky, the Eye was little more than a shadow against the barely-visible stars. A handful of cold red lights indicated cameras in use.
“Run!” CJ managed. “Run now!”
CJ was the fastest runner in Pod 23, but Samara wasn’t that much slower, and she hadn’t just taken a beating either. They paced each other, her longer strides making up for his speed, racing back into their pod’s territory, cutting through the alleys they’d grown up in. All the while, the Eye paced them easily, making little effort to halt their desperate flight.
“Others are coming,” he realized between pants, “It’s acting as a spotter.”
“We need to split up.” Samara wasn’t much better off than he was, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. “Before they arrive. Cut through the buildings so it can’t see you. Meet back at the old dorm.”
Before CJ could say anything, she veered off.
Too tired to even curse, he did the same.
Thirty minutes later, CJ made it to the old dorm, one more broken shell of a building in a city full of them. Their pod had abandoned it years prior when its heating unit broke for the third and final time, and it was now home only to the city’s vermin. Like a shadow, he slipped inside, carefully sliding the door shut behind him to block out the light of the nearest glowtorch.
“Sammie? Are you here?” CJ’s voice was a whisper, but in the stillness, even that whisper carried.
There was no answer.
He crept through every room of the building, repeating his call, before realization set in. Samara hadn’t made it yet.
CJ had gone wide to the north during his flight, crossing over all the way into Pod 15’s territory before eventually curving back around. All told, he must have run fifteen blocks. Samara should’ve been there long before him… unless she had done the exact same thing he had; purposefully choosing as long and circuitous a path as possible.
That sounded like Sammie.
With a groan, CJ took a seat on the dusty, dirt-covered floor, and leaned against the wall. He’d left the Eye far behind, but didn’t know if he’d actually evaded it… or if it had followed Samara instead. If they were lucky, the Eye had arrived after the battle, and didn’t know which of them was secretly a Power… didn’t know which of them had been hiding that fact for years now to avoid being drafted into Legion’s guard. With all those active cameras, it was too much to hope that they hadn’t both been identified, but if luck stayed with them, they might be able to hide out for a few days. Maybe they could get word to William, and convince him to sneak them out of the city, now that there was no other option.
An hour into his wait, the curfew alarm sounded. An hour after that, CJ fell asleep. When he woke, the morning sun was streaming through cracks in the boards covering the house’s broken windows, his body ached like he’d been run over by a Hand, and Samara still wasn’t there.
They hadn’t been lucky after all.
Lord Legion had Sammie.
CJ was four blocks from the pod’s main dormitory when he started having second thoughts. The plan had seemed simple enough; tell Mrs. Stevenson that Samara had been taken, and convince the older woman to help. But pod leaders were chosen by Lord Legion—or someone in his government—and the position didn’t afford them any special privileges or security. Mr. Greenwood had found that out the hard way. What were the chances Ms. Stevenson would want to stick her neck out for Sammie… and even if she did, what were the chances she’d actually be able to help?
He came to a dead stop in the middle of the empty street. The pod leader couldn’t help Samara. But someone else could.
There was no sign of the Eye that had guarded the wall—and helped capture Samara—when CJ reached the Hill. He hopped the broken wall, and started up the slope at a full sprint, following the path Samara had made with her power more than a month earlier.
William was in his usual room, good leg tucked under the chair, his bad one stiff and straight to the side. His welcoming smile disappeared as soon as he took in CJ’s battered face.
“Cornelius James. What happened? Are you hurt?”
“I have some medical supplies—”
“I don’t care about my eye!” CJ interrupted. “Sammie was taken.”
William frowned, his brown eyes narrowing. “By who?”
“Lord Legion. We have to get her back!”
“Hold on there.” William marked his place in the book and carefully placed it aside. “What are you talking about?”
“When I left yesterday, I ran into some of Pod 24’s members. Sammie found them beating on me, and…”
“And she used her power.”
CJ stared at the old man. “You knew?”
“That she was a Power?” His smile was oddly crooked. “I’ve wandered this continent for more than four decades, CJ. I’ve seen many things, small and grand, but I have never, ever seen a blue tulip.”
“Oh.” CJ dropped his gaze. “I was wondering if you’d caught that.”
“I’m old, not blind. Not yet anyway.” William dismissed the matter with a wave of a weathered hand. “So, she used her abilities as a Druid to save you. What does that have to do with my brother?”
“Anyone with powers in Old Baltimore gets taken. Some of them show up later as part of the guard. Others…” He met William’s gaze again. “Nobody knows. That’s why Samara has been hiding her gift. That’s why we have to get her back!”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” His voice was gentle. “Change is a scary thing, but being a part of the ruling regime could be a fair bit safer for Samara than running the streets.”
“Like it was for you, you mean?” CJ scowled. Maybe Sammie had been right about the old man after all.
“It’s not the same thing at all. Lincoln was—”
“I don’t care! If Sammie wanted to join Lord Legion, she would’ve. Instead, he kidnapped her. I’m not going to just abandon her!”
“Of course you won’t,” William soothed, “because you are a responsible young man and a good friend. But Cornelius James… exactly what is it that you want me to do?”
‘Talk to him! Get him to let her go. You used to be brothers, right? Maybe he’ll listen to you this one time?” CJ blinked away tears, but couldn’t do a thing to keep his voice from cracking. “Sammie’s in trouble, and it’s my fault. Please help her. I’ll give you anything. Do anything.”
CJ swallowed, but nodded.
“Then I guess you can start by bringing me my cane.” William nodded to the far corner.
“And now?” asked CJ, when he’d handed it over.
“Now?” William levered himself to his feet, one hand on the cane, the other extinguishing the lantern and plunging the room into darkness. “Now, we go get young Samara back.”
They were a block south of the Hill when the first Eye swooped down from the sky to follow them. By the sixth block, there were three Eyes and CJ was wishing he’d gotten William a wheelchair instead of a cane. With the pace they were setting, it would take them forever to reach the harbor, and with every step, CJ could feel the target on their backs grow.
William didn’t seem to share his concern. He glanced up as a fourth Eye dropped from the clouds, shook his head slightly, and kept limping along. A handful of steps later, however, he slowed to a halt, and gave the newest Eye a longer look.
“What is it?” Every one of Legion’s Eyes was unique, yet there was a sameness that linked them all; cameras embedded in flesh that had been wrapped around legs or rotors or sometimes even engines. This particular Eye was no exception, for all that it had four rotors and two cylinders, protruding from its main body, which looked a lot like weapon barrels.
“Your former pod leader…”
“Yes. Mr. Greenwood. You said he had a tattoo, yes?”
William nodded to the Eye hovering above them. “Did it look like that?”
CJ frowned and looked closer, something he generally tried to avoid when it came to Eyes and Hands. Below the two barrels, just to the side of one of the rotors, someone had inked the words miles to go into the Eye’s body.
“I guess so?”
“CJ, this is important.” There was suddenly something scary and dark in William’s voice, something that made CJ stiffen and take a step away from the old man. “Would you say it looked sort of like that, or exactly like that?”
“Well, Mr. Greenwood’s tattoo had the whole phrase, not just three words of it, but otherwise…” CJ frowned. “Yeah, it looks exactly the same. What does that mean?”
William started walking again, his pace increasing, despite the cane. It was more than a block later that he finally replied, the words so soft CJ could barely hear them.
“It means I shouldn’t have left.”