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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.
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...”
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.”