WARNING: This chapter contains violence, guns, and some pixel blood.
My thoughts had got stuck in a huge, tangled knot. Laketon’s cold, light blue eyes burned through my head even though he wasn’t even looking at me. Images of fire and fear went through my head in an endless loop. Next to me, Rem was frozen, and Alvar just looked at us in utter confusion. I faintly noticed that Villia moved to stand in front of us. The air became lighter, and I saw that it started to waver around us. I managed to tear my eyes from my father and looked at Rem questioningly, but he just nodded towards Villia.
“She hid us,” Alvar whispered, “That man shouldn’t be able to realise we’re here.”
I blinked. In a way I was glad that I was probably shielded from my awful dad, but in some other, strange way that I couldn’t fully explain, I wanted him to see me. I wanted to yell at him for hurting our family. But he was much more frightening than Villia, who hadn’t really existed in my mind until pretty recently. Laketon had for so long been very, very real.
But now, his full attention was on Villia, who cocked her head and kept her cool.
“Hello, Laketon,” she said, “Fancy meeting you here.”
Laketon sputtered as if her cold but courteous response was the worst insult in the world. His hands clenched into fists, and he took a very threatening step forward.
“Fancy?!” he roared, “Yeah, fancy that! I sat in a cell overnight for no reason because people thought I’d been after those fucking Farley brats again! You ruined my life once already, and now you show up here!”
Villia sighed. The air around us wavered barely noticeably, but it held together. If I hadn’t been so apprehensive about Laketon standing there, I would have been more intrigued by the experience of being inside an illusion. Now I mostly just hoped it really worked. It was clear that Villia’s illusions were much more sophisticated than Rem’s wild and in-your-face ones, at least. So maybe they were also more convincing.
“Well, I’m sorry,” Villia said without sounding very sincere, “Yeah, I lied to you, but you were the one who really screwed it up. And right now I don’t have time for this.”
She turned to leave, but Laketon actually grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. Now I noticed something else in his eyes. Desperation?
“Well, neither do I!” he snapped, “You know why? Because I really needed that money! I’ve got debts I really need to pay!”
Villia pushed Laketon’s hand from her shoulder.
“Look, Laketon. I don’t have any money. Like I said, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”
Laketon gritted his teeth. He raised his hand as if to hit Villia, but then he lowered it, and something broke behind his eyes.
“I… I’ve got to get that money!” he stuttered, “If I don’t… Mr. Harris will…” he trailed off, apparently shocked that he’d said too much.
Villia shook her head.
“I really can’t help you.”
Laketon opened his mouth, but then he looked around and his eyes fell on something in the community gardens.
“Shit,” he whispered.
The man who had been loitering in the garden had at some point climbed over the fence and was now standing calmly in front of us. He had a shaved head and a very unnervingly calm look in his eyes. Laketon’s eyes widened so much that they looked more like marbles than eyeballs. I felt a shiver going down my spine. Rem suddenly gripped my arm.
“He’s a bad person,” he whispered.
“No shit,” I managed back.
“He’s worse than…”, Rem’s eyes widened at nothingness, “Laketon’s not the Boogeyman this time.”
The man looked towards us, but didn’t seem to see us. So Villia’s illusion really worked. Hopefully.
“Hello, fancy meeting you here,” he echoed Villia’s words in a much more unpleasant tone, “Laketon. And your… friend here? Is she the one who was supposed to get you the money? It sure sounded like it.”
“She was,” Laketon said, his voice quiet and completely terrified.
“And she totally fooled you,” the man chuckled, “And now you went and told her about Mr. Harris. He’s already been impatient with you, and now you’re really becoming a liability.”
Villia narrowed her eyes.
“Well, you certainly keep good company,” she deadpanned and glanced at Laketon, “I assume this man was waiting for you here all along. Isn’t it in rather poor taste to have shady meetings in the community gardens?”
Laketon shook his head, but the man silenced any words he was about to say with one cold look.
“We were told to keep an eye on you once you were called to Twinbrook. The last time you were here, you got yourself stuck in prison for years, with no way to pay your money back. And you know you’re running out of time. Mr. Harris really wants his money.”
“I’ll get it, I swear!” Laketon said hastily, “Just… give me a chance!”
“You already had it. Way too many times,” the man said, “And we’ve always stressed that this should be kept under the wraps. You certainly blew that this time.”
“I thought she was going to pay-!”
“Give it a rest, Laketon,” Villia said, her eyes hardened into shards of emerald ice, like she had finally really understood the seriousness of the situation, “There’s no way you can talk your way out of this.”
She closed her eyes for a second.
“I think we’ve both screwed up big time.”
The man didn’t speak anymore. He pulled out a flash of metal, but Villia’s eyes snapped open, and she struck with dizzying speed before he could do more.
The man lost his balance, and Villia continued with a knee to his stomach. Then she turned and swept the air with her hand. The man let out a startled scream.
“Go!” she shouted, and I knew the order was meant for us.
I knew I was in some kind of shock, but I managed to turn around and push Rem into moving. The air rippled around us like water, and the illusion dissolved when we started running. Alvar followed us, still looking totally confused. I heard Laketon shout out a startled:
“What the hell?” and I wasn’t sure if it was because he’d seen us or because of Villia’s sudden burst of ninja skills.
We all ran towards the police station as if out of some silent agreement. That included Laketon, whom I saw following us with some kind of wild fear in his eyes. The quiet streets of the too-early morning felt far too long now when one was running away from a clearly murderous criminal. The part of my mind that wasn’t in fight-or-flight – or more like flight-or-flight – mode tried to understand how in the hell this morning had gone downhill so badly. Weren’t people supposed to have some sort of breaks before the next intense thing? Well, no, of course not, my now rather shoddily functioning rational side said. Life didn’t work that way.
My lungs were hurting, but now all I cared about was the relative safety of the police station and the fact that Rem, Alvar, and Villia were still with me. I quickened my steps even further, so glad that I’d spent so many hours jogging for fun. The police station was close to the gardens, but it wasn’t close enough when Laketon suddenly hit his personal brakes and said:
I didn’t want to wait, but the distress in his voice made me reconsider.
“What’s going on?” Villia asked impatiently. Laketon pointed at the nearby diner and more specifically, a woman who was sitting at the table there.
“That’s got to be one of them.”
“Oh, come on!” Villia snapped, “This has to be a small-time criminal gang at worst, right? They don’t have big-scale operations for insignificant debts!”
“I’m not gonna risk it! I know she looks familiar! Feel free to go past her if you want, but I’m not gonna.”
“We have to keep moving,” said Rem, “Just… we need to get the police. Now.”
“Nobody asked you, mutant brat!” Laketon hissed, “Why are you people even here?!”
I risked a look at the woman at the table. She didn’t seem to have noticed us yet. She had bright red hair and an equally red biker jacket. Her cell phone rang, and she started to dig it out to answer it. Villia sighed.
“Alright,” she said, “We’ll go around.”
At once, Laketon started running to the way that would take him farther from the woman. Which meant he was going towards the beach. I followed, and the rest caught up with us a bit later.
For a second it was just me and my estranged father who didn’t deserve to be called a father. It was a chilling moment. I slowed down my steps just a bit.
“This is a small-time gang, right?” Villia whispered when she caught up with Laketon. For the first time there was slight uncertainty in her voice.
“It’s not a big one, but it’s big enough so that they can take care of mysterious deaths,” Laketon replied, too scared to realise who he was speaking with and how much he hated the company he currently kept.
Villia bit her lip. I wondered why she wouldn’t just hide us, but I supposed it had something to do with the fact that Laketon was with us. He probably wouldn’t take having spells cast on him very well especially after they’d got him in this mess in the first place. Well, no, that wasn’t true. He’d got himself into the mess on his own first.
We reached the beach. During daytime it was full of people, especially around summertime. I remembered our trips there, and the talks about Krakens and thoughts about horizons. Then it was all washed away by the emptiness and fear and by Villia’s shout not to linger there.
“This is way too much in the open,” she said, “We have to get into better cover and to a place with more people!”
“I can see you’re an expert on this,” Laketon managed to snark, and for a moment I felt a strange sliver of kinship with him.
Villia didn’t answer. We headed towards the staircase that led back to the street. The sand was too light and soft under my shoes. My feet kept slipping, but I kept my pace steady. We were already relatively close to the police station. To safety.
We’ll make it.
It’s not that bad.
She didn’t even notice us.
We’ll make it.
Alvar shouted, and I heard a thud. Then there was a loud bang in the air. I let out a yelp and saw Villia stopping and turning around. All of my instincts told me to keep going, but then I realised that Rem and Alvar weren’t with us anymore.
I turned and saw them both on the ground, with Rem’s shoulder staining red with blood.
My own blood froze, and I could barely see the man Villia had downed moments ago standing farther away, with a gun pointed right at us.
Villia cursed unintelligibly again, and moved her hands so quickly I just saw flashes.
“Oh, screw the masquerade,” she muttered, “We’ll so mind-wipe them later!”
The gunman shouted in surprise, and Villia was moving so quickly I could barely see it.
“Keep moving!” she shouted over her shoulder right before she reached the man and kicked him in the stomach with a kick my Sim Fu teacher would have called very sloppy. It was enough to work, however, and Villia continued by grabbing the man’s gun-hand and wrenching it into a very painful looking angle.
I tore my eyes from the mesmerizingly frightening sight of Villia fighting a gunman, and rushed to Rem and Alvar’s side. My knees hit the sand, and I grabbed Rem’s good shoulder.
“Are you okay?” I asked, “Okay, stupid question, but whatever. Can you stand? Crawl? We’ve got to keep moving!”
“He should be fine,” Alvar said in a shaky voice, “I’m sorry I couldn’t push him out of the way faster.”
Rem’s mouth was moving, but no words came out. His thick sweater was absorbing most of the blood, and I could only hope it also slowed down his bleeding in general at least a little bit. I shook him carefully.
“Come on!” I whispered. Next to me, Alvar got to his hands and knees, but froze when another gunshot hit the ground and sent a burst of sand towards us. This time it came from the opposite direction than where the gunman was. I couldn’t help another small scream leaving my throat.
I instinctively hugged Rem, shielding him and cursing myself for being so helpless. A few martial arts lessons meant nothing when faced with guns. Hell, thousands of martial arts lessons would most likely be useless now.
I dared to peek behind me and saw the red-headed woman near the stairs, blocking our other escape route. She too had a gun, but her face had frustrated confusion on it.
“Come on, I know you’re here,” she said, “Where are you?”
I blinked. We were right there, in the open. My morbid side told me that we should be dead by now. Then I noticed the waver in the air.
“Villia’s hiding us again,” Alvar whispered, “But we have to move. She can’t focus on this too much when she’s fighting that… other guy.”
I nodded and tried to get my legs to move. But I was frozen, not trusting the air to hide us. Especially when Laketon was standing in front of us with shaking legs, breathing such panicked, loud breaths that I swore they could have been heard from space.
The woman approached us, her gun trained in our general direction, but she didn’t fire it.
“Where are you?” she yelled, “Don’t think I didn’t see you run here! You haven’t had enough time to get away!”
On the other side of the beach, Villia punched the man so hard he fell, and she immediately jumped on top of him and latched onto his throat.
The woman’s head snapped up at the man’s strangled cry, and she started walking towards the fight.
“Oh, no you don’t, bitch,” she muttered, and there was something very unhinged in her eyes. Then she was only a couple of feet from Laketon, and her eyes focused. Alvar drew in a hissing, panicked breath.
“She’s seeing through it!” he whispered, “Rem… now would be a good time to help Villia with distracting those guys…”
In my arms, Rem nodded, or maybe he just twitched.
“I… I’ll try,” he said in a barely audible voice, “But I… I’m not good at controlling it…”
“I don’t care, just do something!” Alvar snapped.
The woman’s blood red lips twisted into a smile.
“There you are, Laketon”, she said, and aimed her handgun right at Laketon’s chest, “I don’t know how you hid from us, but it’s over now.”
She glanced at us.
“Oh, and so many eyewitnesses,” she sighed, “And this was supposed to be such a smooth taking-out-the-trash -kind of thing.”
Rem closed his eyes, and I saw a spark of a flame out of the corner of my eye. The woman turned to look at the spark for a split-second, which was all it took for Alvar to jump at her like a cornered mongoose. His elbow smashed against her chin, and when her gun left Laketon’s chest, even my no-good deadbeat dad’s survival instincts activated, and he joined the wild teenager in restraining the woman.
We’ll make it.
We’ll make it.
“It’s okay,” I said out loud, “They got her, Rem.”
Rem didn’t look up. His shoulder was worryingly red. The woman hit the ground, and Laketon twisted her arm behind her back. Alvar pushed her gun away from her.
We’ll make it…
I almost choked on my own breath. I didn’t know where the first shot hit, but the second one almost got me in the leg. Rem yelped when I moved, and he tried to drag himself away from the bullets. It had to be the gunman. But hadn’t Villia-
The thought was too terrible to finish.
But when I looked at the man who now knelt next to Villia’s unmoving, bloodied form, I had to finish the thought anyway.
For several seconds, I couldn’t breathe.
“No…” Alvar whispered.
The man wasn’t talking. He was aiming, and his eyes told me that he wasn’t going to miss next time.
Rem drew in a deep breath, and screwed his eyes shut again.
Plants shot out of the sand all around us. Trees, flowers, bushes, weeds… all familiar from both Rem’s dreams and previous illusions, and from the real fairy forests. Laketon yelped, and I heard the woman grunt when he smashed her head against the sand. The gunman gasped, but then he spoke, his voice annoyed more than anything:
“I really don’t know what this voodoo’s supposed to be, but you’re just delaying the inevitable. You should have just paid that money, Laketon!”
I scurried backwards, further into the fake bushes, until my hand hit something cold. A shot rang out, and I forced myself to stay quiet. We couldn’t stay here. Magic trees or no, we had to move. But the second we ran, he’d see us, unless Rem could somehow extend the forest everywhere around us to confuse him. One look at him told me that he couldn’t do that. He was barely conscious. Another bullet flew over my head, and Alvar ducked under it with panic in his eyes.
My hand curled around what was behind me.
“There’s no escape,” the man said, “Just give up now, and maybe I’ll let the kids go!”
Like hell you would.
That was my last coherent thought before the next shots rang out.
I didn’t even hear them. But I heard Rem’s shocked yelp, and felt rather than saw the forest around us dissipate when Rem didn’t have the strength to hold it up anymore.
All I really saw was the plants giving way to the shocked face of the gunman when three dots of red blossomed in his chest and he doubled over before he collapsed on the sand.
He didn’t get up.
I stared at the woman’s gun that was clutched tightly in my hands. It was now lighter, blindly emptied towards the threat. My hands were still shaking from the recoil.
The realisation of what I’d just done made my heart stop. Emptiness flooded my lungs and my stomach, and darkness overtook my vision.
Author’s Note: Well, that just happened. And at least I got this one out quickly. I’ll get to working on the next chapter after a little break. Pay no attention to the sky that changes from morning-ish to night and back. Doing photoshoots during in-game nightfalls/dawns are the worst.
You guys are awesome! Thanks for your support!