Sunday, July 27, 2014


Chapter 33

*Sophie Koh*
“It’s getting late,” Lulu says. “You all have been traveling for several hours... you must be tired.”
“Yeah, I guess we are,” Sara mutters, still looking nettled from her close encounter with Lulu’s knife.
“We’ll figure everything out in the morning, then,” Lulu declares. “Christy isn’t here anyways. You four can sleep in this room; the rest of us will be in the shop next door. Holler if anything happens.”
I watch the Asphodels traipse out of the Chen-Pandit gun shop, a feeling of unease tingling at the back of my mind. Lulu is right -- Christy doesn’t seem to be in Obcasa.
Or maybe she’s hiding somewhere, watching and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.
A chill runs down my spine. I turn to the others to voice my fears, but before I can speak, Lulu shouts, “Lights out!”
The ceiling lights blip into nothing. The door slams, and once again, we’re engulfed in darkness.
Paranoia starts to get the better of me. My imagination runs wild -- was that the creak of an intruder’s footsteps? Did the doorknob turn slightly?
I curl up on my side, shivering. The presence of my friends is the only thing keeping me from screaming and running away.
I wish Dean was here.
I find myself longing for the warmth of his embrace, for the protection of his strong but gentle arms. I long for the safety and security that I know I will never find again.
I force my muscles to unclench, one by one. Calm it, Sophie.
Hours later, I drift off into a fitful sleep, my mind still plagued by the nightmares that have worked their way into my life.

I wake at the butt-crack of dawn and can’t fall asleep again, despite the fatigue dragging my limbs down at every movement. Sitting up, I look around at my friends. Sara and Chris are still sleeping peacefully, their fingers locked together. And Courtney...
My eyes conduct a sweeping scan across the shop, which reveals that Courtney’s not here.
I won’t be able to sleep anyways, and I need fresh air, so I might as well go and look for her. Sighing, I stand and dust off my shirt. Casting one last glance back at Sara and Chris, I turn the doorknob and slip outside soundlessly.

I find Courtney sitting on the curb in front of the gun shop, staring at some point in the distance.
“Hi, Courtney,” I say, stopping next to her.
She jumps up, looking startled. “Woah, Sophie, you scared me!”
“What are you doing out here? Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” I ask.
“Shouldn’t you?” Courtney counters.
“True,” I acknowledge. “I couldn’t really sleep, and I needed fresh air. And I saw you were gone, so I came to look for you.”
“Oh. Same here, I guess.”
“What time do you think it is?” I ask.
Courtney squints at the horizon. “Four or five, maybe.”
“And Christy still hasn’t come,” I mutter.
“Hey, do you want to take a walk outside the city?” Courtney inquires. “I can’t stand another minute in this ghost town.”
I frown. “Won’t it be dangerous?”
She sighs. “Honestly, I don’t care anymore. I’ll go crazy if I stay here.”
“Okay, then,” I say with a shrug. “Let’s go.”

We settle on the top of a hill looking down at the city. The sun is finally starting to peek over the ridges of mountains in the distance, showering orange and red all across the still star-littered sky.
Courtney and I sit in silence, watching the sun slowly drag itself out of bed in a manner greatly resembling myself on a Monday morning. Puffy white clouds drift lazily overhead, casting shadows over the hillside.
“Do you believe in heaven?”
Courtney’s brow furrows. “I don’t really know. I mean, I’m agnostic, but I believe that something happens after death.”
I nod in agreement. “We can’t just blink out of existence.”
“An afterlife. Somewhere else... on the other side of the stars, maybe.” Courtney points at the pale blue sky, where a few cosmic candles are still winking down at us.
“Do you... do you think Dean is there? Waiting for me?” The words rip a new chasm through me as I force them out.
“Yes,” Courtney says softly without looking at me. “He’ll always be there, watching and protecting you. He loved you -- loved you more than anything else in the world.”
Don’t cry, Sophie, I chastise myself as I feel tears forming in my eyes.
“Listen, I-- I’m sorry about yelling at you and blaming you,” I say, the words tumbling over each other as they rush out of my mouth. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“It’s all right,” she murmurs. “You had every right to do that.”
Unable to bear the pain brought on by this conversation, I stand up and turn away from Courtney. “I’m going back to the city. Are you coming?”
She shakes her head. “I think I’ll stay here for a while longer.”
Relieved, I start making my way down the hill and back to Obcasa.

*Jack Frost*
By the time I get to Obcasa, my feet are sore and numb all at once. The sun is already shining brightly overhead, a constant reminder that Christy had likely arrived quite a while ago and that I might be too late.
I’m standing amongst the rolling hills of lush, green grass just outside Obcasa when I see a familiar figure sitting elegantly at the apex of the tallest hill. Even though I’m far away, I’m absolutely sure that it’s her. I would recognize that figure anywhere.
I start racing toward her, overwhelmed by the thought of seeing her again. I’ve spent so many nights tossing and turning, wondering about Courtney and missing her.
Just then, an indistinct blur plummets out of the sky and smashes into Courtney. It bursts into light so blinding that I have to look away.
“Courtney!” I scream, even though she can’t hear me. “Courtney!”
I have to get to her. Ignoring the pain in my chest, I pour on the speed.
The same blur that attacked Courtney starts hurtling straight at me. As it gets closer, I make out a vaguely humanoid shape -- attached to... wings?
A second later, it plows into me, and we crash to the ground in a jumble of limbs.
“Going somewhere?” a voice drawls in my ear.
My head jerks back, and I view my assailant’s face for the first time.
“You,” I whisper.
“Yes, me,” Christy says with a smile.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Chapter 32

*Jack Frost*
The first thing I register is the cold.
My breath blows mist in a cloud before my eyes, each puff shining white for a brief moment before condensing into droplets and evanescing into the air. The room has got to be forty degrees Fahrenheit, tops. I shudder and try to bring heat to my extremities, rubbing my hands together and huffing on my fingertips.
A voice drifts out of the caliginosity. “Jack, is that you?”
It takes my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the crepuscular gloom and make out Leo’s form. Keeping up my icy demeanor in case Christy is listening, I say, “Yes, it is. Come with me; Christy wants to see you.”
Leo wavers for a moment, then shuffles towards me. As he stumbles into the light from the doorway, his gaunt features are thrown into sharp relief. His skin is pale and gives the impression of being stretched over his bones; his hair is unkempt and dark bags shroud his haunted eyes.
“What does she want?” he asks, sounding uncertain and anxious.
“I don’t know,” I say truthfully, “but it can’t be good.”
“Hurry up!” Christy calls from outside.
I grab Leo by the arm and pull him out with me. We burst into the light, blinking the brights out of our eyes.
I stop in front of Christy. “Here he is.”
She takes a few steps towards him, her eyes flashing with menace. “Leo, you’re from the city of Vale, right?”
Leo shifts uneasily. “That’s the city I escaped to, yeah.”
“And you took refuge among the other survivors there?”
Leo gives a nod of confirmation.
With a satisfied look on her face, Christy turns to me. “I have observed a small group of people leave Vale and travel in the direction of Obcasa. I recognized the people: Sara, Chris, Courtney, and Sophie. Did you know about this?”
I shake my head, genuinely puzzled. “No. When I left, the whole place was in turmoil.”
“Well, Jack,” Christy says, “this is your task. I will leave for Obcasa tomorrow morning; you must stay here and guard the fortress.”
I frown. “What’s so significant about four teenagers going to Obcasa that you would go there before they’ve even done anything?”
A strange look passes over Christy’s face for a split second, then disappears. “Oh, of course you don’t know. Obcasa...”
I lean forward, sensing that she’s about to tell me something extremely important. “Yeah? What about Obcasa?”
“Well, Obcasa’s where the Cosmo Prison is.”

*Chris Velis*
We arrive at the city of Obcasa after being on the road for more than two hours. The sun has already sunk well below the horizon, and it’s getting hard for me to see where I’m going.
Obcasa seems to be completely empty of life. Like Vale, all the houses and shops are dilapidated and decrepit. There’s no artificial light whatsoever; the moon is our only source of visibility.
I reach over and tap Sophie on the shoulder. “Do you know where the gun shop is?”
Her brow creases. “No, but it should be close by. It’s not a big city.”
“There! Over there!” Sara points at a ramshackle building to our left. “I think that’s it. See the gun hanging over the door?”
“Yeah, I see it. There’s a sign next to the gun.” I squint, trying to read the sign. “C... P... I can’t read anything else; it’s too dark.”
“That could stand for Chen-Pandit,” Courtney speculates.
“It might actually be the place we're looking for,” Sara says excitedly. “Should we go in?”
Sophie shrugs. “I guess so.”

*Sara Fuller*
I brush cobwebs and dust off of the doorknob and push open the door. It gives away with a long, plaintive creak. The floorboards under my feet crepitate in a painfully shrill cacophony as my friends and I tiptoe in.
“What a mess,” Sophie murmurs as she flicks a dead bug off the windowsill.
“Are we going to spend the night here?” I inquire.
Just then, a draft blows the door shut, leaving us in complete darkness. Gasps and shrieks ring out from around me as we all bump against each other, panicking over the unforeseen blackout.
“I don’t want to stay here,” Courtney’s voice whimpers from somewhere behind me. “Where’s the door?”
“Over here,” a new voice hisses.
I jump back, my heart in my throat. “Who... who’s there?”
Suddenly, the door blows back open and the ceiling lights flash on to reveal a pale, petite Asian girl standing near the entrance. I glimpse a pair of dark, slanting eyes and a cruel slash of a mouth -- then her mane of sleek black hair flutters in front of her face, obscuring her features.
Then my gaze travels to the objects she’s holding: two wickedly sharp knives. Each is at least six inches long and tapered to a deadly point. And they’re angled at us.
My tongue scrambles for something to say. “I’m so sorry, we didn’t mean to--”
“Silence,” the girl snarls. “And don’t move.”
“Listen, we--” Chris starts to say.
It happens so fast: a blur of movement, a silver flash of light glinting on steel. Then, a dull thump.
Chris freezes, his mouth hanging open mid-sentence. A knife, still quivering slightly, is buried in the wall behind him, barely inches from his neck.
All eyes turn to the girl, who’s now missing one blade.
Her voice is no more than a low growl. “I said, silence.”

*Leo Qi*
“You’re going to have to hold the fortress for at least two days while I get this Obcasa business sorted out,” Christy informs Jack. “You can find food in the forest and freshwater in the lake.”
“What about Leo?” he asks.
“Do whatever you want to him,” she says, smirking at my discomfort. “Just don’t let him escape. And if any of those survivors from Vale comes along, kill them.”
Jack’s eyes widen slightly, but he keeps his face inscrutable. “Okay, got it.”
“It’s around midnight right now,” Christy adds. “I’m leaving in about five hours. Shut Leo back in and go sleep.”
With that, she retreats down the hallway.
“You heard her,” Jack says to me, loud enough for Christy to hear. “Get in your cell.”
I nod, exuding every impression of capitulation. Jack and I slip into my living quarters together.
Once we’ve ensured that Christy is gone, Jack drops his evil-henchman facade. “Leo, when Christy leaves, you have to run back to Vale and tell everyone that the Cosmo Prison is in Obcasa. I’m going to follow Christy and try to warn the others before she can hurt them.”
I’ve never seen Jack so anxious before. A sheen of sweat coats his face; his movements are jerky and unnatural. Then I remember that Courtney’s in Obcasa -- that must be why he’s so fearful.
He doesn’t know how lucky he is, still having someone in this world whom he cares about.
“All right,” I say, hiding my inner musings. “When are you leaving?”
“Right after Christy,” he answers.
“Okay. You better go now.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Looking troubled, Jack scrambles out of my cell.

*Lulu Lin*
The intruders look like they’re about to wet their pants and cry for mommy. Not a bad act by me, huh?
The blonde girl makes the rash decision to risk movement. She takes a step towards me, her palms raised in the universal gesture of surrender. “Please don’t hurt us. We just wanted to spend the night somewhere safe--”
Dimwit. I let my second knife fly without even pausing to aim; I know exactly where it will go.
Before Blondie can take another step, my blade sails right through her thick ponytail and lodges itself in the wall. Blondie’s hairband snaps and her hair cascades down in a mess of tangled curls.
Blondie lets out an alarmed shriek and staggers away from me, her hands flying up to her hair. “You just-- what--”
“Shush,” the Hispanic boy next to her whispers.
“Listen to your friend,” I say with a smile. “That was only a warning shot. Another false move and your hairband won’t be the only thing cut in half.”
Blondie looks horrified, but she keeps her mouth shut.
I fold my arms and stare them down like an imperial dictator watching her subjects. “All right, guys. Sit down on the floor -- slowly. No sudden moves.”
Cautiously, one by one, the intruders situate themselves.
After they’re all seated, I plop myself on the ground as well. “Now that we’re seated, care to tell me who you all are and what you’re doing here?”
No one speaks.
I sigh and roll my eyes. “You can talk now, you know.”
Wary and careful, as if she’s treading on a shaky rope bridge, the taller of the two Asian girls starts speaking. “My name is Courtney. This is Sara, Chris, and Sophie.” She gestures to the blonde girl, the Hispanic boy, and the shorter Asian girl in turn.
“We’re from Vale,” Courtney continues. “And this is our story...”

*Courtney Tern*
Quite a while later, I finish telling the tale of how my fellow survivors and I discovered Christy’s fortress, got captured, escaped, made plans to distract Christy, et cetera.
When I’m done, the stranger nods. “As weird as it seems, your story makes sense. It’s the best explanation I’ve heard so far.”
“So, you believe us?” I ask hopefully.
She shrugs. “I guess I do.”
I wait a few moments, then venture on, “So... are you going to tell us who you are?”
The girl smirks as if we’ve finally reached a topic of interest to her. “My name is Lulu, but of course that doesn’t mean anything to you.”
Then, turning around, she calls out, “You guys can come out now!”
At those commanding words, the whole room seems to rustle with movement. As I look on with wonder, dozens of teenagers seem to materialize out of the walls themselves. They’re all heavily armed with various old-fashioned weapons ranging from knives and clubs to bows and arrows. How had we never noticed all these people before?
“Now do you know who we are?” Lulu asks.
I definitely don’t, but when I look over at Sophie, I see that her face is completely drained of color and her jaw is slack with shock.
“You-- you’re the gang of Obcasa,” she whispers, her voice tight with fear and amazement.
“Correct,” Lulu says with an eerie smile. “We are the Asphodels.”


Chapter 31

*Saket Bikmal*
After evading Sophie for two days, I finally summon up my courage and go out to look for her. Hopefully I’ll be able to undo the damage.
Evening has just started to set in when I find Sophie talking to Courtney just outside Town Hall. I pause just out of earshot -- I’d feel even more guilty if I’d ended up hearing something that I’m not meant to hear.
Once the conversation dies down, I shuffle up to the pair, keeping my eyes on the asphalt. “Uh... hi, Sophie. Hi, Courtney.”
“Hey, Saket,” Courtney responds, sounding slightly surprised. “Why’re you here? Is there supposed to be a meeting?”
I shake my head. “No. I, um... I was just looking for Sophie.” Gosh, that sounded bad. I cough to hide my embarrassment.
An amused glint enters Courtney’s eyes for the first time in days. “All right, then. I’ll just leave you two here.” Wiggling her eyebrows at me, she grins and slips into Town Hall.
I fidget with the hem of my shirt, unsure of what to make of Sophie’s silence, still not daring to look at her. “Uh, are you...” Suddenly very self-conscious, I let my voice evaporate in the darkness.
Sophie doesn’t look at me. “Still mad, you mean? No, I’m not. But I don’t really want to talk to you, either.”
“Listen, I’m sorry about... you know,” I stutter. “I just--”
“It’s all right,” Sophie says quickly. “I know you meant well. But let’s just be friends.”
“Okay.” I fake a smile, even though my gut is twisting into a jillion knots and my soul feels like it’s slowly shriveling up. “That’s okay.”
As an excuse to remove myself from the awkward situation, I grab the handles of Town Hall’s double doors. “I have to talk to Suchet. See you around.”
Sophie nods.
I turn around and drag the doors open, wincing at the ancient creak they make. My sneakers make squeaky sounds on the tiles as I step in.
“Hey, guys.” I greet the three people seated around the table in a friendly tone.
The heads of Courtney, Ramya, and Suchet swivel around to face me, and I realize I must’ve just interrupted an important conversation. Desperately trying to backtrack, I stumble back towards the door. “Sorry, I’ll just go and--”
For the second time today, someone cuts me off. “It’s okay, take a seat!” Ramya says cheerily, patting the chair next to her. She’s always so bright and sunny; I can see why Suchet likes her.
“Yo, Saket, what’re you here for?” Suchet inquires.
“I don’t know. Guess I was bored,” I answer.
“Well, join us!” Ramya exclaims. “We’re talking about our next plan of action.”
I slide into the seat between her and Courtney. “Why just the three of you?”
Suchet shrugs. “We didn’t want to let too many people know, since the plan is only in its first stages.”
“Makes sense.” I lean my elbows on the table. “Can you let me in on it?”
“Well, we want to lead Christy away from the fortress so Leo and Jack will be able to escape easily,” Suchet explains. “We’re planning a grand distraction, basically.”
“So, what are your ideas so far?” I ask.
“Yeah, that’s the problem,” he sighs. “There isn’t really any obvious move that Christy would expect us to take. She wouldn’t take anything seriously.”
I frown. “There is.”
“Enlighten us, then.”
“Christy doesn’t know that we have over forty survivors fighting together; she thinks we wouldn’t risk an attack without first getting weapons. So, she would expect us to raid a weapons stronghold, like a gun storehouse or something.” I sit back in my chair and smile. “How’s that?”
The three of them exchange glances, and Ramya gives me the thumbs-up. “Sounds good. Now what?”
“We should come up with our plan and put it in action as soon as possible,” Courtney advises. “Jack and Leo don’t have forever.”
I nod in agreement. “How big is this operation going to be?”
“Well, it will have to be fairly noticeable if it’s going to serve as a diversion for Christy,” Suchet muses. “But it can’t be too obvious; otherwise, she might smell a rat.”
“Four people, then,” I say. “And they should be people who she’s encountered before.”
“That narrows down the list,” Suchet murmurs. “Who are our options?”
Courtney’s eyebrows knit together. “Me, Nidhi, Sophia, Sara, Chris, Alisha, and... Sophie.”

Wait a moment.
My scalp prickles with foreboding. If Sophie hears about this, she would go.
And if she goes...
Will she ever come back?

*Jack Frost*
As my second day as Christy’s “assistant” nears its end, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on at home -- and what’s happening to Leo. I haven’t seen him ever since Christy led him away, and all I’ve been able to do for him is pray that he’s all right.
All this time, Christy has been assigning me menial tasks, such as polishing the floors and oiling the gate hinges, as if I were some obsequious, dim-witted servant. But then again, she probably sees me as just that. I haven’t really done much more to prove myself, and no opportunities have arisen anyways.
For the past hour or so, I’ve been busy scrubbing flecks of dirt off of the tall stained-glass windows. My arms ache from holding the bucket of soapy water aloft; my fingers feel as if they’re about to fall off.
Footsteps ring out behind me, harsh and metallic on the silver-tiled floor. “You can stop now, Jack.”
I turn around to face Christy. “Thanks.”
She scowls. “Don’t thank me; your next task is even worse.”
“I can handle it. I can handle anything you throw at me.”
“We’ll see about that.” Christy smiles sadistically, and I internally kick myself for goading her into testing me.
However, before I can fix the mistake, Christy starts walking down the hall, the way she’d come. I have no choice but to follow her to my fate.

We’ve walked for five minutes or so when Christy stops abruptly outside of the door of something that resembles a prison cell. It’s about seven feet tall and made of obsidian, like the walls of the fortress.
“What is this?” My voice quivers slightly as I tremble under the door’s ominous shadow.
Christy gives me the same deranged axe-murderer grin. “Leo’s temporary asylum, of course.”
“Wh-- what do you want me to do?” I stammer.
“Bring him out,” she responds. “I’ll show you what to do after that.”
I can’t exactly argue with her; I’m supposed to be loyal and obedient. So, having no other choice, I push open the door and step in.

*Courtney Tern*
We’ve decided to make our “target” the Chen-Pandit Firearms Dealership, a gun shop in a neighboring city approximately five miles away.
All forty of the survivors, myself included, are gathered in Town Square for a meeting Suchet has just called.
“Quiet, guys!” Suchet shouts. “I’ve gathered you all here today to inform you of our next move.”
At these words, utter silence falls.
“A team of four people will travel to the city of Obcasa,” he continues. “There is a gun dealership there. We’re going to raid it.”
Whispers and murmurs arise as people take this in. None of us have ever been to Obcasa; it’s a city shrouded in mystery and enigma.
Suchet raises a hand to quiet the crowd. “The team will leave at the end of this meeting. We need to decide who the members will be.”
A voice interrupts his speech. “Is it open for everybody?”
“No,” Suchet says with a shake of his head. “We need people who have been to Christy’s fortress before.”
I hear a few querulous mutters, but no one comes forward to express dissent.
“Nidhi, Sophie, Courtney, Sophia, Alisha, Sara, and Chris -- step up.”
I’m the first to do so. Slowly, the others follow.
“Would any of you like to volunteer?” Suchet asks.
I have to do this. If I stay here waiting for Jack, I’ll go mad.
My hand shoots up. “Me.”
Suchet merely nods. “Anyone else? We still need three more people.”
Sophie’s hand joins mine in the air. “I’ll go.”
Saket darts out from the crowd. “No, Sophie, you can’t! Please!”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Saket,” Sophie says softly.
Saket’s face falls. “Sophie...”
“I will go,” she says more resolutely. “You can’t stop me.”
Saket looks crestfallen, but before he can interrupt again, Suchet clears his throat. “Okay, two more people.”
Sara and Chris look at each other and seem to come to a tacit agreement. They step forward together, fingers intertwined.
“Us. Both of us,” Chris says.
Suchet doesn’t look surprised in the least. “All right. You four know how to get to Obcasa from here?”
“I do,” Sophie says.
“Great,” Suchet says, clapping his hands together. “Go now, and hurry! The rest of you, go back to whatever you were doing before.”
As the crowd disperses, Suchet leans in towards the four of us furtively. “There’s something else,” he whispers. “There’s a gang in Obcasa, one that I’ve heard of only from legend. I don’t know what they’re called, but they’re reputed to be strong in numbers and skilled in combat. If you could find them and get them to help us...”
He doesn’t need to continue. “Got it,” we all respond.
“Okay, then,” Suchet says with finality. “You have to hurry if you want to make it there before nightfall.”
“Let’s go,” I say to the others. “Sophie, you lead.”
And, just like that, we were off to Obcasa.