chase

Author’s Note: Thanks, as always, for all of your comments, suggestions, criticism, and ratings. They are appreciated and help me immensely. Seriously, keep the constructive criticism coming full blast! While the last chapter was rather short and mundane, I am now back to writing longer, more in depth chapters. I hope you enjoy the story, and let me know your thoughts.



HisPet21




*



Kara looked about her carefully, taking in the cramped contents of the van. There was hardly enough space for Kara and her three companions, so she was none too pleased that Mr. Cross’ escorts had decided to toss a few boxes of supplies in with them. As it was, Kara had a hard time getting comfortable and finally settled on sitting with her knees hugged against her chest and her feet pressed against the crate in front of her. Once situated, Kara forced herself to take several deep breathes and relax into the confines of the van. It vaguely occurred to her that she was ending up in small, cramped spaces far too often these days. First, she’d been confined to a cell in Bremmington, then to an examination table during her memory enhancement, and now this. With a low grumble, Kara pressed herself into the side of the van and tried to curl up into a ball, so as to conserve heat. The plastic like material of the floor sapped the warmth right out of her and there was a draft coming in from one of the windows.



God, Kara hated those windows. Sure, they were tinted, but they still made her feel naked and exposed. Perhaps a flaw in the tinting would reveal her face to a guard at a security checkpoint or even to a pedestrian who recognized her from the evening news. True, she hadn’t minded peeking out of the window on the way to Mr. Cross’ sanctuary, but that had been earlier in the day when very few people were up and about. Once they left the warehouse, it would be midday and much busier. Not to mention the fact that they’d have to pass through a checkpoint to leave the city. Maybe if she tucked her head in a little, Kara could duck below the windows. It was worth trying, at least. But just as Kara was about to shift position, she heard a slight commotion outside and Greenwood—his face beet red—was crawling into the van with her.



“You have got to help me,” Greenwood whispered hoarsely, situating himself across from Kara. It was impossible to see him with the crate in her way, but she could hear the anxiety in his voice and knew that he was embarrassed about something. “Seriously,” Greenwood pleaded, bringing his knees up to his chest. “I am going to get roofied on this trip. I just know it. All of the women are after me. I mean, I’m not bad looking if I do say so myself. Still, you’d think the women could control themselves.”



The tone in Greenwood’s voice told Kara that he was half serious and she laughed, the outburst totally unexpected. “I’m sure it’s not that bad, Greenwood,” Kara chuckled, glad to have her mind taken off the cramped space and van windows, even if just for a moment. “What happened?”



“That elderly woman came onto me!” Greenwood cried, peering at Kara from over the top of the crate between them. “She slapped my butt, and she didn’t even ask me if it was okay!” This time, Kara erupted into peals of uncontrollable laughter and almost fell over onto her side. The double could be a jokester at times, but she’d never thought of him as shy or prudish. “It isn’t funny!” Greenwood insisted, his voice low. “And then Alyssa went and did the same thing, right in front of everyone! Promise me you’ll watch my back and I’ll make sure that Ben keeps his distance. Deal?” But when Alyssa and then Ben crawled into the back of the van, the double agent quickly shut his mouth and shifted back into position.



“Alrighty, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the deal,” Mrs. Timmons began, poking her head into the back end of the van and looking very slightly flushed. “In order to exit the city, we’ll need to pass through a security checkpoint and thanks to you four, the guards are better armed and more riled up than usual.” With a flourish, Mrs. Timmons tossed a black tarp into the van and watched as Ben caught it midair, confused. “When we reach the checkpoint, drape that thing over you,” Mrs. Timmons explained. “We paid a guy off to look the other way. Not cheap, when the bounty on your heads is a whopping two million. As required by law, he’ll have to do a thorough inspection of the van and that includes looking under the tarp, but don’t panic. He’ll ignore you and wave us through. The tarp will ensure that the security cameras at the checkpoint don’t accidentally catch a glimpse of you when the back end gets opened up. Got it?”



But without even bothering to wait for questions, Mrs. Timmons locked the fugitives away and they were off, driving once more through Capital City. Kara could feel her heart tingling with excitement as they passed out of the diseased, distrustful portion of town and onto a major highway. The speed of the vehicle underneath her reminded Kara of a freedom that wasn’t too far off, yet the fear of recapture still lingered in her mind and poisoned her thoughts, creating a constant backdrop of anxiety that she couldn’t seem to shake. To try and distract herself from evil thoughts, she risked a glance out the window and looked with awe at the cars beside them as they whizzed by. Soon, the van had exited onto a busy street in the West Shopping District of Capital City and Kara imagined herself amid the flood of people glancing in on fancy window displays and purchasing treats from food vendors. It was remarkable to Kara that in just a few short days, she might be shopping in Nardia’s capital, Nulme. But as the van stopped behind a long line of cars waiting to leave the city, Kara ducked down below the window panes.



The line was obscenely long and Kara groaned. The more time Kara and her companions spent in the city, the greater the risk of discovery and recapture. Clearly, security had been greatly increased since the fugitives’ escape and the guards present were conducting more thorough searchers of each passing vehicle, resulting in a longer wait period. Up ahead, Kara could hear one particularly disgruntled citizen complaining loudly about the wait and being reprimanded for it. Curious, Kara peeked once more over the window ledge and saw several armed guards—rifles poised over their shoulders—marching along the line of cars and looking into them, occasionally stopping to open a trunk or talk to a driver. There were dobermans too, straining against their leashes and sniffing the air warily. As soon as she’d looked, Kara wished she hadn’t and swallowed hard.



“Alright, then,” Ben began authoritatively, and Kara almost jumped from the sudden noise. “I suppose it’s time to get ourselves situated, don’t you think?” With that, Ben spread out the black tarp and handed a hunk of the fabric to Alyssa and Greenwood, so that they could drape part of it over themselves. Once finished, he turned toward Kara with a friendly smile and offered her one corner of the large sheet. “You too,” Ben insisted. “And then all we have to do is lay low and stay quiet.” But when Kara didn’t respond right away, clearly nervous, he paused. “I promise we are going to be fine,” Ben offered, his tone revealing more confidence than he felt. “Just a little while longer and we’ll be out of the city.”



Kara nodded quietly, hardly daring to breath with all of the commotion outside. Tentatively, she lifted a corner of the sheet and tried to drape it over herself, but found it impossible. While in the seated position, Kara couldn’t seem to get her entire body under the covering. Frustrated, she tried to reorient herself, but was still exposed. The tarp left her entire right side open to prying eyes. Then Kara felt Ben’s hands on her shoulders and realized that he intended to help her out.



“Here,” Ben whispered in her ear, and he gently pushed her toward the van floor. “If you lie down, then we should be able to fit all four of us under the tarp.”



Deferring to his expertise in matters of stealth, Kara let Ben direct her until her entire body lay against the van floor. It was only then that she realized Alyssa and Greenwood were similarly situated. But with several small crates in the center of the van, Kara could only fit on the floor with Ben if she allowed herself to be pressed up against him, her pouty behind resting against the crotch of his pants and her arms crossed in front of her. At first, Kara found the position somewhat awkward, but found that Ben’s even breathing calmed her nerves, like a gentle breeze whispering softly in her ear. Their bodies melted perfectly into each other and his heat seeped into her frozen core. In a moment, she’d relaxed into his form. There was nothing left to do then, except await their turn at the checkpoint and hope that Mr. Cross was as good as his word.



Several minutes passed before the fugitives reached the city gate and the accompanying security checkpoint. With that, a number of guards began barking orders at Mrs. Timmons and the van shook as several doors were opened and then slammed shut. Oh god, they’d started the inspection. Kara listened intensely as the security guards gradually made their way from the front end of the vehicle toward the back, rummaging through the fugitives’ “camping supplies” as they did so. With each passing minute, they eased ever closer to Kara’s hiding place and the anticipation nearly drove her mad. Soon, Kara could hear the back end of the van being opened up and all calm left her. Immediately, she could feel her heart beat quickening beneath her breast and she feared it would give her away. God, it was so loud! Was it supposed to be so loud? Surely, the guards would hear her and come to reclaim her…



But when rationality returned to her, Kara willed herself to relax and was surprised to find that Ben’s hand was clasped in one of her own. He was squeezing it gently, reassuring her. Kara wasn’t sure who had acted first, but it didn’t matter. She squeezed back and noticed that Ben had eased his other hand over to the pistol in the waistband of his pants, ready for action at the slightest hint of danger. With that, the tarp was partially lifted and Kara winced in the oncoming light. Staring directly at her was a young man with deep blue eyes and brown locks, his unwavering glance piercing right through her. Kara stopped breathing then, unable to look away as his eyes raked over her entire body, his expression unreadable. For several seconds, she waited for him to scream out to his companions and sound the alarm or else to withdraw a pistol and arrest them himself. But nothing happened. Soon, it was over and the tarp was draped back over the four fugitives.



“All clear!” Kara heard a guard outside call, his voice irritable and impatient. “Come on, let’s go!”



It wasn’t until Kara felt the van beneath her move once more that she dared to breath again, a sigh of relief escaping her lips. But the fugitives weren’t “out of the woods” yet, as it were. Cars driving along the highway near Capital City were still subject to random spot checks and on the off chance that they were pulled over, the four companions were instructed to remain under the tarp. It wouldn’t be safe to emerge until they had reached the countryside to the north of Capital City, where most of the rural villages lay. It was quiet all around Kara as the van sped onward, the gentle rocking of the vehicle and the soft whirring of its engine soothing her. Combined with the stress of the past two days, they pushed Kara past the edge of exhaustion and she soon found herself drifting off to sleep, her body still pressed against Ben’s and his warmth seeping into her skin.



When Kara awoke, she found that the tarp was no longer draped over her body, but had been tucked around her as a blanket would. It was warm and cozy beneath the black material, but there was something missing, although Kara couldn’t quite put her finger on it. It was several moments before she realized that Ben was no longer pressed up against her and as she looked looked about, Kara saw that he wasn’t even in the back end. The loss of his warm body and reassuring presence disappointed her, but as soon as she recognized the emotion, Kara pushed it aside. After all, it was a stupid, irrational emotion.



Kara liked Ben, there was no doubt about that. He was strong, determined, protective, and even a touch on the imaginative side. He was handsome too, by any objective standards. His cool gray eyes and sculpted body would surely make most women swoon, but Kara couldn’t bring herself to see Ben the same way he saw her. She thought that, in large part, it was the timing. She’d just gotten out of a relationship—if you could call it that, Kara thought with a dismissive snort—and she had no real interest in men. But there was also something off about Ben. He had just met her and yet, seemed determined to get closer to her. That bothered Kara and made her wonder if Ben’s feelings were genuine or imagined. Who was he really attracted to? Kara herself, or some imagined idea of her? Did he even know?



With a sigh, Kara sat up, taking the tarp with her and wrapping it around her torso. Looking about, she saw that Greenwood and Alyssa had fallen asleep, both in the sitting position and leaning up against one another. Greenwood was snoring a little bit and Kara snickered softly, unable to resist. It was kind of cute, in an old man sort of way. Then, quite by accident, Kara glanced out the window beside Greenwood’s head. Outside, she could see long stretches of forest, the leaves of the trees a vibrant array of orange, yellow, and reddish pink. As they sped by, the colors blurred together and formed something resembling the scales of an exotic fish, shimmering and shifting in the fading light.



Ecstatic, Kara turned around and pressed her face to the nearest window, watching with fascination as the vegetation came into and out of view. She had grown up in the countryside and had spent many a glorious summer day in the woods, swimming in the deep poles along the creek and climbing the taller, older trees, just to feel the thrill of viewing the world from on high. All during her time as medic in Gardok, Kara has missed the countryside greatly and had missed it even more during her captivity. There was something serene and spiritual about the outdoors, a deep longing that could only be fulfilled by walking along a dirt road, feeling a gentle breeze, and smelling the warm air accompanying it. God, if only Kara could taste the air now, untainted by the pollution of the city and the smoke of factory chimneys.



As if on cue, Mrs. Timmons leaned into the back end from the front passenger’s seat and nodded her head toward the window. “We’re far away from most major cities at this point,” Mrs. Timmons told Kara, an understanding smile lighting up her face. “You can open a window if you want. Hell, you can even stick your head out and howl like a madman. No one is going to find us out here.”



Kara needed no prodding. In a moment, she had rolled down the window and was sticking her head out of it, so as to feel the wind as it whipped by them. The air was cold and cut sharply against her face, so that her cheeks started to go numb, but Kara didn’t mind. The sudden onslaught of chilled air made her feel alive and well, in a way nothing else yet had. With a deep breath, Kara allowed herself to inhale the air, which was laden with the scent of smoke and softly decaying leaves and the oncoming snows of winter. It was a little silly, but Kara’s favorite season had always been autumn, simply because she loved the smell of the air, spicy and bold. The annual Fright Festival in Telma was a bonus, as was the yearly apple cider and pumpkin spice soup her mother made. Then there were the wondrous sunsets—like the one gracing the sky beyond Kara’s window—which were more orange than usual and oftentimes outlined in dark pink or shimmering gold. But, god, the smell of the fall…there was nothing else like it. Taking in another deep breath, Kara smiled quietly to herself, but the grin was soon transformed into a confused frown as they moved off of the road and into a clearing surrounded by trees.



Alyssa started then, awakened by the rapid change in movement. Instinctively, her hand moved to the gun holster at her side and she sat bolt upright, her eyes scanning the landscape beyond the windows worriedly. “Why are we stopping?” Alyssa hissed, withdrawing her pistol. With her other hand, she punched Greenwood on his good shoulder, hoping to wake him up. “Alan,” Alyssa growled, her voice furious. “Alan, get up!” Then, the weapons specialist redirected her attention to the front of the van. “You two want to tell me why we’re stopping? This was supposed to be a straight shot from Capital City to the Nardian border.”



“Relax, lady,” Mrs. Timmons sighed irritably, leaning into the back end once more. “Nothing to worry about. Just a small change of plans, that’s all.”



“You call stopping mid trip a ‘small change in plans’? Really?” Alyssa hissed, her eyes livid. “Because I was under the impression that we were only stopping along the highway in the event of an emergency. So where is the fucking emergency and is there anything I should be shooting?”



“Calm yourself, Commander,” Avery instructed. “You are far too jumpy for your own good.” It was the first time Kara had heard him speak and she found his voice unusually deep for such a young man.



“How did you…” Alyssa began, her tone incredulous, but it soon returned to a low growl. “Nevermind!” Alyssa spat, narrowing her eyes at Avery. “Just don’t call me that. I don’t like being patronized.”



But Alyssa’s outburst only made Avery smirk, an odd glint lighting up in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Commander,” the escort grinned, watching as Alyssa’s face darkened. “It won’t happen again.”



“Avery,” Mrs. Timmons warned, glaring at him angrily. “Will you shut the fuck up already?” With that, she turned toward Alyssa, an apologetic smile on her lips. “Sorry about that. Kids these days, right? They’re all assholes. Anyway, there’s another checkpoint two miles down the road. We have a man under our employ there, who has been paid to wave us through. But there’s a small problem.” Mrs. Timmons carefully pulled out her smart phone and began flipping through a schedule of names, stopping at one and showing it to Alyssa. “You see this?” Mrs. Timmons asked, and Alyssa nodded. “Someone is on to the fact that we’re out of the city and are paying off employees for safe passage. So, they’ve started shuffling the shifts of all the security guards in Isleydor, trying to slow us down. Our man was supposed to be on tonight, but he’s been moved to an early morning shift, so we’ll have to camp out.”



Begrudgingly, Alyssa nodded and crawled to the back of the van, opening it up with a sudden jerk and stepping outside to stretch her cramped muscles. Once finished, she placed her hands on her hips and surveyed the forest surrounding them, more analytic than anything else. “Alright, then,” Alyssa began, looking back toward the van. “It’s getting dark already. Who wants to help me scout out the area? And then we need to set up some tents, maybe get a fire going.”



“No problem,” Kara replied, stepping out of the van and helping Greenwood to do the same. With a cast on his arm, getting about was still awkward. “I can put up the tents and get a fire going. I used to go camping a lot, as a kid. And then when I was on the run in the Middle River Forest…” But Kara sharply cut herself off, determined not to dwell anymore on the past. She was rummaging through the crates in the back end—looking for the appropriate supplies—when Ben came around from the front of the van, where he’d been helping with directions after Kara had fallen asleep.

“I’m going to help Alyssa scout out the area,” Ben told Kara, withdrawing his own pistol. “Need me to grab any fire wood while we’re out?”



“Yeah,” Kara answered, busying herself with the first tent. “Yeah, that would be great.”



***<>***



Alyssa stood atop a small, green hill and scanned the landscape before her. It was a beautiful sight, golden light from the fading sun wrapping the few remaining flowers in a warm glow and bathing the greenery in pinkish light. Below her, Alyssa could make out Greenwood bent at the knees, picking the prettiest flowers he could find. She wasn’t surprised. After searching the area around camp, Alyssa had returned to find that Greenwood was missing, but figured he’d be off doing something silly and romantic like picking flowers. The autumn wind suddenly picked up and pushed Alyssa’s dark blue locks back, tangling them in the process. With an irritable sigh, she forced the freed strands into the length of her ponytail and descended into the meadow below.



Greenwood must have heard her coming, for he turned suddenly, a warm smile lighting up his face. “Alyssa,” Greenwood greeted, his tone calm and serene. In his hands, the man held quite a collection of flowers, which he wrapped in twine as he spoke. “What a pleasant surprise. I assume the search went well, since you’re back so soon. All is safe and sound?”



“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Alyssa confirmed, looking up into the darkening sky in quiet contemplation. “Are those for Elizabeth?”



“Elizabeth never did like store bought flowers,” Greenwood chuckled, gesturing toward his bouquet. “And I figure she deserves something special, after all this time away. If I am being honest with myself, I have to admit that I can’t quite remember what her face looks like anymore. I’m a little nervous to find out just how badly my memories are blurred.” With a sorrowful sigh, Greenwood sat in the grass and gestured for Alyssa to sit beside him, but she declined. “You aren’t mad, are you?” Greenwood asked, only a hint of worry in his tone. “That I’m doing this…”



“No, Alan,” Alyssa sighed, crossing her arms over her chest and taking a deep breath. “I’m not mad at you. I know that Elizabeth is a part of you and in a strange way, I suppose loving you means that I have to love her too. I was looking for you…I mean, I wanted to…” Frustrated, Alyssa turned her back to Greenwood and sighed once more. “I came here to apologize, that’s all. I’m sorry.”



With that, Alyssa began to trudge up the hill and back toward camp, determined to increase the distance between them as quickly as possible. Her sole mission had been to apologize and she had succeeded. Nothing else needed to be said or done and the weapons specialist was looking forward to a meal outdoors in front of an open fire. But she wasn’t at all surprised when Greenwood caught her arm and yanked her back toward him. Alyssa tried to shake him off then, but Greenwood could be firm and immovable when he wanted something and the the old man liked to push her when she vulnerable. Whenever she was being weak or regretful or remorseful like this, he would pounce upon her like he was a goddamned psychoanalyst instead of a traumatized actor turned double agent. It was fucking stupid and Alyssa was getting really tired of all the bullshit.



“Let go, Alan,” Alyssa hissed, her tone laced with warning. “I said I was sorry. Can’t you just let it the fuck go?”



“Come now, Alyssa,” Greenwood chided, in his kindly way. It infuriated Alyssa that almost nothing got under the man’s skin, that she couldn’t push him away no matter how mean or obtuse or even treacherous she was. Any normal man would have thrown her to the dogs by now and Greenwood had certainly had his chance. True, his gentle nature was one of the reasons Alyssa was attracted to him, but it also disgusted her at times. “I just want to know why you’re so apologetic all of the sudden,” Greenwood continued. “What are you thinking about?”



“How pathetic it is that you need me to explain myself to you all the fucking time,” Alyssa growled, turning back to face Greenwood and wrenching her arm free of his grasp. “And how pathetic I am, for feeling like I have to actually listen to you. We’re lovers, for fuck’s sake. We aren’t married or anything. I don’t owe you my life story. I don’t see why we have to waste so much time talking about all our fucking feelings.” Alyssa crossed her arms over her chest then, glaring at Greenwood and daring him to disagree. Which, of course, he did.



“You don’t mean that,” Greenwood told her, and it was a statement of fact rather than a question. He was right too, goddamn the man. “I mean, you very rarely apologize for anything. There must be a good reason why you tracked me down, only to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Now, why don’t you have a seat next to me. I think I can spare a violet.” Alyssa rolled her eyes irritably, but relented and allowed Greenwood to place the stupid thing into her mane. “It goes nicely with your hair,” Greenwood grinned, tracing the contours of her face with his free hand and then stroking her cheek. “Now, want to tell me what this is really about?”



“You know, I’m not really sorry,” Alyssa blurted quickly, and Greenwood nodded as if he knew. But he didn’t, not really. “I mean, I am sorry that I hurt your feelings,” Alyssa continued, the words tumbling out more quickly than she had intended. “And I am sorry that the situation was as desperate as it was, but you know just as well as I do that I couldn’t go back for you in Bremmington. People get killed when you sway from the plan, and the people you love get hurt when you don’t have the sense to protect yourself. The motto of the Rescue Regiment has always been the same: fall behind, and you’ll get left behind. I know you’re a romantic kind of guy, and the medic had a point about ethics and debts and all that. But you don’t know what I know and trust me when I say that in times of war, there is no room for fucking heroics or romance or knights in shining armor.” Finished, Alyssa sighed and laid back into the soft embrace of the grass, which rested under her head and allowed her a decent view of the evening’s first stars.



“We could talk about it,” Greenwood offered. “You know I’d never judge you.”



“No,” Alyssa replied, sharply and definitively. She intended to let Greenwood know that arguing with her would be useless, as it always was when he brought up her final mission as a Commander. “When you lead any group of men, you don’t foul up their memory with brutality and unpleasantness. Suffice it to say that I fucked up, badly. All because I went back for that asshole. And speaking of assholes,” Alyssa continued, determined to change the subject. “How does that Avery guy know about my old title? Did you go spouting off to your buddy, Mr. Cross?”



“You know Mr. Cross does his homework,” Greenwood replied, lying down beside Alyssa and taking her hand in his own. “I’m sure he figured it out for himself. It wouldn’t have been hard, what with your final career stunt and all that. It’s not like you weren’t in the papers for a little while after. Anyone digging through a recycling bin would know about your time on Calihistra’s Rescue Regiment and then your transformation from a mighty leader to a lone assassin.”



“Alan,” Alyssa whispered, her voice soft and tentative. “What did you tell them?”



“Whatever they wanted to know,” Greenwood sighed, and he let go of Alyssa’s hand. It was a subtle gesture, but it got through to Alyssa and she snuggled closer to her lover. She was bitchy when she could afford to be—maybe because she enjoyed it or maybe it was just who she was—but now was not the time. “I didn’t volunteer anything of course,” Greenwood quickly added, defensive. “But I didn’t object to answering questions.”



“Then what’s with the fucked up face and broken arm?”



“Well, perhaps I was a little bit of a smart ass about it,” Greenwood chuckled, his body shaking gently with the the reverberations of each laugh. “And truth be told, I did get a few warnings. But I ignored them.”



“And the Parallel Project?”



“They didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell,” Greenwood said quietly, still staring into the sky. “But I did end up giving away a few covert hideouts of the White Horse, still in operation by insurgents.”



“Goddamn it, Alan,” Alyssa groaned, laying her head on the older man’s chest. “Calihistra trusted you…”



“No, Calihistra betrayed me!” Greenwood shouted, and Alyssa was thrust off his chest as the man sat bolt upright, shaking with rage. It was a rare that Greenwood revealed the pent up anger that had torn his heart apart and the darkness that had almost consumed him. There were still so many unhealed wounds festering in the man’s mind, unable to scar over until he forgave himself. And although Greenwood was always quick to forgive the men around him, he didn’t seem capable of offering himself the same courtesy. “I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry, Alyssa,” Greenwood continued, the wind blowing his sorrowful words into the sky. “I didn’t mean to scream. But they…everything I stood for…a lifetime of building a family and a career…” Greenwood’s trembling fists clenched and unclenched rapidly, his knuckles white from the exercise.



“I didn’t want to become a monster,” Greenwood spat, still shaking. “But they found my only weakness. They dangled it in front of me, like a carrot on a stick, and I followed them into the darkness and beyond. Like a bloody, gullible fool! What will Melissa think? Oh god, what will she say to me? When she finds out that I’m not…I mean, it’s been over five years. She’s buried me by now—or whatever ashes they claimed were ‘me.’ What will she think when she finds out that I just ran off to Isleydor to work as a goddamned torturer?” Anxiously, Greenwood ran his hands through his hair and allowed Alyssa to caress his shoulders. “She was such a gentle creature as a child and I know she’ll never forgive me.”



“It’s not your fault…” Alyssa tried, but she knew it wouldn’t work.



It never did.



“It is my fault!” Greenwood cried, his voice muffled by the wind and his fist coming down onto the ground. “I’m an adult, for god’s sake! I’m accountable for my actions, regardless of the motivation behind them. I’m not at all surprised that Karrington doesn’t trust me. I wouldn’t trust me…”



“If that asshole touched you—”



“Oh, stop,” Greenwood growled, gesturing dismissively. “Leave the poor boy alone. Anyway, even if Calihistra didn’t betray me, I’d have done the same thing, just so you know. Family and friends come first, then work. And I wasn’t about to take any risks with you in custody. That’s how I was raised, goddamn it. And no war is ever going to change that.” It was quiet then for several minutes, the wind whispering gently through the trees and the crickets chirping away in their musical way. With a sigh, Greenwood laid back in the grass beside Alyssa and his breathing gradually slowed to its normal rhythm. Carefully, Alyssa snuggled up to Greenwood and began to kiss his face, leaving a little trail of wet pecks that went from his ear down to the base of his neck. He sighed, relaxing into her affections before she started to unbutton his shirt. “Not here,” Greenwood warned, attempting to sit up. “Not in the middle of a field.”



“George,” Alyssa whispered in Greenwood’s ear and he moaned, relaxing back into the grass. The weapons specialist chuckled and continued to unbutton her lover’s shirt, leaving a little trail of kisses on his naked skin as she went. “You like that, don’t you?” Alyssa asked, pausing to run her tongue along Greenwood’s ear and listen to the ensuing intake of breath. “You like that, George?”



“Again,” Greenwood groaned, wrapping his arms around Alyssa and pulling her on top of him. “Say my name again. My real name. I need to hear it again, in your voice.”



“Maybe,” Alyssa chided, nibbling gently on Greenwood’s earlobe. “If you stop fucking complaining, maybe I will.”



It didn’t take long for Alyssa to undo the buttons along Greenwood’s suit jacket and then the dress shirt beneath it. Although he was much older than her, Greenwood had kept himself in tip-top shape during his time in Isleydor. After all, it was a militant country and its men were judged by their physical prowess. To play the part of the seasoned interrogator, Greenwood had needed to establish a weekly routine at the gym and it showed. A few thin, gray hairs poked out of the skin of his muscled chest, which rose and fell rapidly as Greenwood’s heart rate increased. Then there was the tiny, almost heart shaped birth mark above his right nipple, which Alyssa lovingly bit until Greenwood whined and writhed underneath her. But as much as she enjoyed foreplay, Alyssa had always been something of an impatient lover and was undoing Greenwood’s belt buckle in between the administration of tiny licks and nibbles.



“Wait!” Greenwood cried, and she looked up at him with a sadistic little smirk. “What if someone comes looking for us?”



“God, you are such a fucking wimp,” Alyssa laughed, and she reached into Greenwood’s pants, grasping his member and listening to him moan. To encourage him along, so stroked up and down his shaft faster yet, until a tiny drop of pre-cum leaked onto the tip of his cock and she was able to smear it over the head “See?” Alyssa grinned, in her chiding tone. “You love it, you fucking pervert. Out in the open air and exposed. Besides, it’ll just be a quickie. I miss this. I miss you, George.”



For a moment, Alyssa considered taking off her pants and fucking Greenwood straight off, but she preferred it when her men worked for their reward. There was no point in taking off her shirt, so Alyssa just removed her black pants and the underwear beneath, revealing a bald and sopping wet pussy. Without any ceremony, she straddled her lover’s face and pushed her cunt into Greenwood’s mouth, rubbing her clit up and down along his chin and lips. They’d done this before and Greenwood quickly got the message, grabbing her hip with his good arm and sucking the tiny pink nub of her sex into his mouth. The gentle motions caused the blood to rush out of Alyssa’s head and she groaned excitedly, wrapping her fingers in Greenwood’s hair and pulling his face into her sex. He had a talented tongue. Most men couldn’t give oral worth shit, but Greenwood was different. One of the many perks of dating a man who’d been around the block a few times. Finding his lover’s adorable clit was easy for Greenwood and he flicked it with his tongue several times, before plunging it past her pussy lips and into her tightening hole.



God, Alyssa loved being tongue fucked. She loved hearing the panting, desperate gasps of a man beneath her. The contrast between the cool air and her warm sex only made the sensations all the more potent, and soon Alyssa felt her core tightening. For a woman, she came awfully fast.



“Motherfucker,” Alyssa groaned, her pussy clenching against the onslaught of sensations. “You are so fucking good at this. That’s it, suck my fucking clit again. Harder, for fuck’s sake. I haven’t got all goddamned night.” Desperate to release her from her yearning, Greenwood sucked Alyssa’s clit into his mouth again and tasted her warm wetness on his tongue. She smelt glorious and the bucking of her hips against his face let him know that she was near the edge. It was time to add finger fucking to the equation. “Oh, god yes!” Alyssa cried, her breasts bouncing lightly and her face contorted with an oncoming orgasm. “Yes…yes…yes….yesssss!” With a scream, Alyssa exploded right then and there on top of Greenwood’s face, white lights flashing before her eyes and her sex throbbing and pulsating with delight.



Wasting no time, Alyssa moved down and impaled herself on Greenwood’s cock, the softness of her post orgasm pussy driving him wild. With her hands on either side of his shoulders, she used her body as a piston and rode him rapidly, clenching her cunt along his cock expertly with each thrust. Within moments, he was moaning and writhing under her loudly, his eyes alight with powerful lust and his hips lifting up to match her thrusts. With animal ferocity, Alyssa plunged her tongue into Greenwood’s mouth and began to explore it possessively, until she felt his finger nails digging into her back, a sign that he was close. It was time to push him over the edge, before their absence became suspect. Quickening the pace, she began to scratch and bite at Greenwood’s shoulders, his chest, his back. Then moving to his ear, Alyssa traced the contours with her tongue, blowing hot air into the canal and feeling him shudder beneath her. God, she loved the way he shuddered for her.



“Cum for me, Mr. Turner,” Alyssa whispered into Greenwood’s ear, her voice sweet and seductive. “Fucking cum for me.” And with one final, powerful thrust, he did, a low groan escaping into the night.



***<>***



It was too dark to see, but somehow Kara knew that she was in a dungeon. She had no idea how she had gotten there, only that her arms were chained above her head and that her ankles were similarly chained to the cold, stone floor. In a panic, Kara began to pull on her chains and shake them wildly, praying that there was some flaw in the material, perhaps a chain link weakened by rust. With all of her strength, Kara gripped the lengths of chain above her head and pulled, using her body weight for extra leverage. But nothing broke and soon Kara grew tired, the metal cuffs about her wrists digging painfully into her skin. She had just redoubled her efforts at escape when a hand emerged from the darkness and grabbed her shoulder. Kara screamed, her voice betraying sheer terror. Then there was another hand over her mouth and nose, firm and immovable, which muffled her cries and made it hard to breath.



“Shhh, pet,” came a dark, smooth voice. Immediately, Kara recognized it as Lord Arlington’s and began to struggle more furiously, her heartbeat pounding loudly in her ears and her skin breaking out in a cold sweat. But Arlington only chuckled, amused. God, how had he found her? Kara couldn’t remember being recaptured. “Feisty as usual, my dear?” Arlington whispered cruelly in Kara’s ear, running his warm tongue along its contours and blowing hot air into the canal. “Go ahead and struggle to your heart’s content, my pet. You won’t be going anywhere for a while.” Then, Arlington’s hand was gone from Kara’s mouth and she coughed furiously, starved for air. “It’s just as I promised. A deep, dark hole, until you can’t remember what the sun looks like anymore.”



“Please,” Kara gasped, tears forming in her eyes. “Please, for the love of god, my lord. Why won’t you leave me alone?” But there was only silence and in the darkness of the dungeon, Kara couldn’t locate Arlington. But knowing that he was in the room with her, unseen and menacing, made her heart race. Why wouldn’t he answer? God, where was he? And worse still, what did he intend to do? “Please,” Kara begged once more, her voice echoing off of the stone walls. “Please, just leave me alone. I don’t understand—” But Kara couldn’t finish her sentence. For suddenly, a gag was pushed into her mouth and her eyes grew wide in terror.



Then, there were hands running all along her body, following the length of her shoulders and then caressing her breasts. Even as she tried to escape the gentle strokes, Kara felt Arlington’s smooth hands tracing the curves of her hips and then following the slope of her pelvis until they reached her cunt. Kara screamed in protest as two fingers were slipped in between the soft, moistening folds of her pussy. And to her utter humiliation, Kara realized that she was wet. In fact, Kara could hear her lord’s hands squelching loudly between her naked thighs. It was obscene, making the situation even more unbearable, with Arlington’s fingers thrusting in and out of her sex.

“Well, now,” Lord Arlington chuckled, and Kara could feel the amusement in his voice stabbing at her dignity with the ferocity of a blade. Hanging her head in shame, she tried to block out his voice, but the authority of his tone commanded her attention. “You’re so wet already, pet. And I’ve barely touched you. Do you know what?” And Lord Arlington smeared Kara’s wetness along her lips, still clenched around a ball gag. “I think that secretly, in the darkest corners of your mind, you like being tied up and at my mercy.”



It was a ridiculous notion and Kara shook her head violently, denying every word. It wasn’t true, not a single fucking word, and Kara moaned her protests into the gag. But Lord Arlington ignored her, releasing the bonds from around her ankles first and then her wrists. Immediately, Kara tried to bolt away—although in the darkness, finding an exit would be nearly impossible—but Lord Arlington pushed her roughly to the ground, pressing a boot firmly into the small of her back in order to prevent escape. Then, he was able to bend down and grab her by the hair, so that when he lifted his foot, it was easy enough to drag her to a corner of the room, the action making Kara’s scalp burn. With that, Arlington sat down and draped a struggling Kara over his knees, forcing her arms behind her back and binding them firmly together. And although she kicked and fought, he was somehow able to spank her hard upon the ass, causing Kara to squeal out at the sudden pain.



“By the end of this, I’ll have you on your knees, begging me to take you,” Lord Arlington threatened, raining several blows down upon Kara’s ass and watching her struggle. God, the pain was horrible. Kara hadn’t thought an open handed blow could elicit such a reaction in her, but it did. Each loud smack was followed by an intense sting, and then a dull ache that consumed her entire being. And to her horror, the ache seeped into her pussy and made it ache with desire. The realization terrified Kara, that she could actually want to be beaten and brutalized by this monster. The shame was killing her and Kara tried to wriggle away, to escape the torturous pleasure, but Arlington continued the onslaught. “Ah yes, you’re enjoying this,” Arlington laughed. “Good. I’ll need that slave cunt all lubed up before I impale you on my cock and shoot my load into that pulsating, pink mess. Now, I am going to take out that gag and you are going to beg me to fuck you.”



True to his word, Arlington removed the gag, but Kara refused to give into his cruel mind games or her own desire. “Go fuck yourself, my lord!” Kara screamed, her voice laced with a mixture of fear and determination. “I will never, ever begged to be screwed by you!”



“Is that so?” Lord Arlington laughed, and he reached between Kara’s legs in order to pinch her clit. Kara inhaled sharply at that, but refused to give Arlington the satisfaction of a scream. And then to her utter horror, Kara felt him trace the crevice between her ass cheeks, all the way up from her bare cunt to her pink rosebud. “See, I am going to fuck one of these tight holes tonight,” Arlington told Kara, his voice playfully dangerous. “Yet, I’m a generous enough master to let you choose. But, of course, I demand that you do so politely, as a proper slave should. Otherwise, I’ll be choosing. And I don’t think you’ll like my choice…” Kara stiffened as Arlington ran his hands through the valley between her cheeks, pausing for a moment at her anus and playing carefully with the puckered skin. Kara got the threat and it definitely had an effect. If she had to be fucked, she’d rather not be ravaged from her back end.



“Alright,” Kara hissed, defeat polluting her voice. “Alright, my lord. Please, fuck my cunt.”



“It’s a start,” Lord Arlington acknowledged and he gave his girl an encouraging pat on her backside. “But you need to make me believe that you really want it. Right now, I’m just not convinced.” There was sarcasm in his tone and it made Kara furious.



“My lord, forgive me,” Kara sneered. “But it’s hard to be enthusiastic about your disgusting cock and faking that enthusiasm is harder than you’d think.”



“You’re faking it?” Lord Arlington asked, and Kara could hear the grin in his voice. She didn’t like that tone, predatory and playful all at once. “Well, I wouldn’t want you to lie to me, pet,” Arlington continued. “We can’t have you feigning sincerity, can we now? But I think, with a push in the right direction, we can make your begging genuine.”



With that, Arlington pushed Kara onto the floor and straddled her waist, so that she was face down against the stone and unable to get up. Her ears straining for noise—for any indication of what was to come—Kara heard Arlington’s belt buckle clink as it was undone, followed by the lowering of a zipper. Panicked, Kara tried to slink away, but Arlington grabbed her hips and pulled her back onto his cock. The size surprised her, filling her up with glorious, torturous pleasure. The sensation of Arlington’s skin sliding along her own made Kara moan, but she knew she shouldn’t want it and tried once more to get away. However, given that her arms were restrained, there was little Kara could do to resist her captor and she braced herself for a brutal fucking. Only Arlington didn’t intend to fuck her just yet. He was just lubing himself up with her juices and was soon positioning his cock against her rosebud, building pressure against the tight sphincter and preparing to impale her.



“No, my lord!” Kara cried, her voice laced with panic. “Please, not my ass!”



“Your preference, pet? I’m still waiting.”



“My cunt, lord,” Kara very nearly sobbed, her voice straining with the effort of remaining somewhat calm. “Please, fuck my…my slave cunt. Please, I’m begging you…”



“I’m still not convinced, pet,” Arlington sighed, gripping Kara’s hips tightly and pressing himself firmly into her inexperienced ass. “You’ve got to express yourself better, if you want me to understand you.”



“Please, my lord!” Kara cried out, her body shaking with the humiliation of it all. “Please, don’t do this! I beg you, fuck my pussy!” But still, Arlington pressed onward and as the head of his cock slipped into her pouty behind, the panic and ensuing pain made her sincere. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Kara screamed at the top of her lungs, tears streaming down her face. “Please, Lord Arlington! Please fuck my cunt! Pound it mercilessly! Cum into my slutty hole! Please!”



With a grunt, Lord Arlington slid out of Kara’s ass and slammed his cock into her sopping wet pussy, his fingernails digging into her hips. The forcefulness of his initial thrust made Kara scream out in agony and she realized then that she was totally powerless. Arlington was too strong and powerful for her, his massive form too weighty to escape and his grip too powerful to undo. Kara simply didn’t have the heart to fight anymore and remained still, letting her lord fuck her however he wanted and sobbing quietly into the stone. With each thrust, Kara’s breasts swayed against the ground and the pressure on her knees became more painful still, but she simply let the sensations happen, listening to her lord grunt above her.



And then, something strange occurred. As Arlington continued to fuck Kara doggy style, the pain and fear she felt transformed into something delicious and exotic, a strange kind of anticipation that made her hunger for more. Somehow, being open to Lord Arlington and unable to stop him was arousing and though she wanted to fight it, Kara was soon moaning loudly, her pussy clenching the cock buried inside of her. Then she was meeting Arlington’s thrusts, her core tightening slowly, but surely.



“Spread you legs wider,” Lord Arlington ordered, his voice hoarse with lust and an oncoming orgasm. “Wider still. That’s it. Open yourself to me, pet.”



With her legs lewdly spread and her cunt speared by Arlington’s shaft, Kara felt incredibly vulnerable and the helplessness she felt began to posses her mind, making her whimper and groan in needy anticipation. When Arlington responded by leaning forward and biting her back ferociously, Kara cried out and the warm pain turned to indescribable pleasure, moistening her up for yet a more brutal assault. The tiny nub between Kara’s legs was swelling steadily now, the essence of her sex throbbing horribly and her inner woman tightening harder and harder and harder until Kara was sure she would shatter into a million pieces. And she wanted it, Kara realized. God she wanted it so fucking bad.



And then, it was over in a flash of blackness.



Suddenly, Kara’s eyes snapped open and she found herself not in a dungeon, but sitting bolt upright in a sleeping bag, covered in sweat and gasping for air. In the darkness, Kara couldn’t make out her surroundings and for a moment, was unsure of where she was. In Bremmington? Or Lord Arlington’s Manor, perhaps? But then reality came back to Kara and she remembered that she was in a tent, camped out in Isleydor’s countryside. Her heart beating widely, Kara willed herself to calm down, letting the world slowly return to her. It was still dark outside and the wind whipped at the sides of her canvas tent, making a horrible snapping noise. Then there were the crickets and frogs, noisily serenading the night away.



The rape had only been a dream, Kara realized. And at first, that fact came as a tremendous relief, but it was short lived. With a groan, Kara parted her legs and saw that her pussy was creamy with dew. Even her thighs were sticky with cum. For the dream—as terrifying as it had been—had still aroused her, making her juice and swell in her sleep. God fucking dammit.



“Traitor,” Kara whispered down toward her pussy, her frustration getting the better of her. Reaching between her legs, Kara drew two fingers through her slit and lifted them toward her nose, the smell of her arousal strong and sweet. The former slave was thoroughly soaked and if she had been wearing underwear, Kara would have stained them. Clenching her teeth angrily, she glared at her treacherous sex once more. “Goddamn you,” Kara groaned. “You stupid, fucking…cunt.”



Disgusted with herself, Kara carefully wiped the wetness away and made up her mind to go back to sleep. But after several minutes of wasted effort, Kara gave up. Her sex still throbbed with desire, making it nearly impossible to drift off into dreamland. All Kara really wanted was something to clench with her swollen pussy, something to pound against her g-spot and offer her release. Masturbation was always an option—Kara didn’t have to share her tent with anyone—but all be damned if she was going to pleasure herself after having a sex dream about Lord Arlington.



Fuck that idea, Kara thought. There was no fucking way.



Kara’s only real option was to take a short stroll around camp and cool off. Quickly pulling on her clothes, Kara stepped out of her tent and into the night. Immediately, she was hit with a blast of cold air and her cheeks began to grow numb. Burst after burst of autumn wind pelted her face and eyes and exposed arms, until the heat between Kara’s legs finally began to die down. And with a triumphant smile on her face, Kara headed off into the darkness, searching for the fire they had built earlier that evening.



It had been reduced to mere embers, but with some prodding and a little extra wood, Kara soon had it roaring to life once more. Then, sitting beside the fire, Kara allowed her mind to wander. One dream about Lord Arlington had been bad enough, but two? And what if there were other dreams Kara had experienced, but forgotten? Absentmindedly, Kara poked at the flames with the blunt end of a stick, watching tiny embers rise into the sky and contemplating her situation, as if from a far away place. With the crackling of the fire and the twisting of flame hypnotizing her, Kara was easily able to slip into her thoughts and become absorbed by them.



There was no doubt in Kara’s mind that being subjected to the drug Anterline was largely responsible for her lustful dreams. While training as a medic, Kara had spent three weeks on a psych ward in Gardok. Many addicts hooked on Anterline had been confined to the ward, but they never had cravings for the drug itself—which only lowered the threshold for experiencing pleasure, but did not elicit pleasure itself. Instead, addicts craved the “pusher pleasure” they used in conjunction with Anterline, usually chocolate or sex. And indeed, many addicts experienced withdrawal in the form of dreams. But it usually took five to seven doses of Anterline—administered over the span of a week or two—before a patient would be tortured by such withdrawal. Kara had only been subjected to a single dose of the drug and it bothered her that it was enough to cause the occasional sex dream. As much as she hated to admit it, Kara knew that there had to be more than one reason for her bizarre dreams.



But what was the reason? Was it possible that, somehow, Kara wanted Arlington?



It was an absurd notion and Kara wanted to ignore it, but felt compelled to explore all possibilities. If she wanted to escape her persistent sex dreams, Kara would have to be truthful with herself and couldn’t afford to back out of an honest self-assessment. Was she, god forbid, physically attracted to Lord Arlington? It seemed possible, though repugnant. After all, if you ignored the fact that he was an asshole and a barbarian, Arlington was rather handsome. He was tall and muscular, showing off the chiseled form of a high end model. But what if, more horrifying still, a small part of Kara liked being powerless? After all, the most arousing aspects of her dreams seemed to involve a loss of control. On some subconscious level, was it possible that Kara had a kinky side to her, drawn out by Lord Arlington and the Anterline?



No, it couldn’t be, Kara thought, shivering in the autumn air. It just couldn’t be. There was no way in hell.



“Well, hello there,” Ben greeted, stepping out of the darkness suddenly enough to make Kara jump. But the general only laughed, his tone jovial and boisterous. “No need to be so agitated,” Ben chuckled, sitting beside Kara and warming himself by the fire. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I tried waving, but you seemed so engrossed in your thoughts.”



“Well, I have a lot to think about,” Kara shrugged and she added another hunk of wood to the fire, just to have something to do. Ben had interrupted her in the middle of some very troubling thoughts and she felt guilty, as if she’d just been caught doing something dirty. “After escaping from a madman and being on the run in a foreign country, a lot enters into your mind.”



For several minutes, there was silence, interrupted only by the crackling of wood and the chirping of lonely crickets. Wrenching her eyes away from the hypnotizing twist of flame, Kara watched as the smoke from their fire faded into the big, black sky. Here and there, stars peeked out from the vast expanse and twinkled merrily. Out in the countryside, the stars were so much more visible than they were in the city, where light pollution obscured their shine. It was another reason Kara preferred rural areas to urban ones.



“So, what brings you out here in the middle of the night?” Ben inquired, drawing Kara out of her careful reverie. “I myself had a nightmare and couldn’t get back to sleep. Just one of those nights, you know? I think the cold makes it worse.”



“Same here,” Kara sighed, inching closer to the fire. “I awoke from a nightmare and thought a nice, quiet walk would do me some good, you know? Clear my head a little.” Kara only gave Ben part of the truth, of course. In all honesty, her dream hadn’t exactly been a “nightmare.” Parts of it had been horrifying and the aftermath even more so, but Kara had rather enjoyed the experience while it was happening. “Anyway, I am excited to finally leave all this behind and get into Nardia,” Kara added, trying to change the subject. “I think Avery said it would only be another day or two, at most. I’ve already decided that, first things first, I’m heading to a local pub, getting drunk, and dancing with strangers all night. Then I plan to find a nice, green hill and watch the sunrise. What about you?”



“I intend to enlist in Nardia’s military, if they’ll let me,” Ben replied causally, as if it were the most natural response in the world. “And if they’re hesitant, I’ll travel down to Scorce and try again.”



Kara frowned at him, a little more than slightly confused. “Really?” she asked, her eyebrows raised incredulously and her head cocked curiously to the side. “You mean to tell me that after all the shit we’ve been through together—enslavement, imprisonment, escape—that you intend to immediately jump back into the fray and start fighting?” With a very serious expression, Kara looked over at Ben and watched the flames dance in his eyes. “We lost, Ben,” Kara told him, her tone unremitting. “Calihistra has been lost to Isleydor and that’s all there is to it. Survivors like us need to move on, not dwell on the past.”



“I’m not dwelling on the past,” Ben told her, and his eyes were very suddenly burning. Kara recognized that look from Bremmington, when the man had been in combat mode, splitting open heads and mortally wounding guards. Only seconds before Ben had been laughing, but now the man’s eyes were hard and his lips had formed a thin, firm line. There was nothing even remotely lighthearted about his expression anymore and the sudden transformation frightened Kara. “This isn’t over by a long shot,” Ben continued. “Maybe Calihistra is captured, but Isleydor is clearly aiming for world conquest and I have no intention of letting them win. It wouldn’t be right of me to convince thousands of people to sacrifice their lives for a cause I myself wasn’t willing to see through to the end.”



“I’m so tired, Ben,” Kara sighed. “I can see your point, but I’m ready to have my life back.”



“Do you know how the White Horse Rebel Alliance was founded?” Ben asked quietly, and Kara nodded. “I mean, my part in it? In becoming its founder and leader?”



“Only the basics,” Kara admitted.



“Essentially, I was leading an army on the front lines when Calihistra’s Primary Counselor’s surrounded to the Four Lords,” Ben began, and Kara picked up on a very slight hitch in his voice, a testament to his hidden rage. “And maybe if the counselors had given me a good reason for their surrender, I would have relented. But they sold out on us—on the men who had served and sacrificed for them—after being promised leadership positions in the “New Government” and, of course, all that entails. A government official in Isleydor is paid much better than one in Calihistra. An unbeatable deal, really. But I couldn’t stand for that. I didn’t intend to be the head of anything, but that’s just how it turned out. It just sort of happened. My men were more loyal to me than they were to Calihistra’s Primary Counselors and soon other military personnel were following my lead.”



“I joined the White Horse because of you,” Kara admitted shyly. She had never intended to tell Ben that, but now the words just slipped from between her lips. “Your speeches were so encouraging, so confident and enigmatic. We lasted another two years because of you and your leadership.”



“But we still lost,” Ben sighed, crossing his arms over his chest, his tone contemplative. “Which means that the only difference between surrendering from the beginning and losing two years after the fact was more dead bodies.”



Kara looked toward Ben then, hearing the pain in his voice and sympathizing with him as a matter of reflex. But the man she saw wasn’t broken or regretful. He was determined, a cold fire lighting up his eyes and making his skin glow in the firelight. When he was passionate like this, Kara thought that Ben looked a little taller and his firm muscles looked a little more intimidating. Like a lion, Kara thought, watching as Ben clenched and unclenched his fists, the knuckles white with effort.

“My callousness forced us into a war we clearly couldn’t win. Thousands of men died for a cause I supported out of a sense of moral duty, rather than the cold logic we, as soldiers, are trained to utilize. But I regret nothing,” Ben told Kara, his voice a low and heady growl. “I made a choice, and then the men who followed me made the same choice. But their deaths and our loss is still on my head and it wouldn’t be right to go on living without seeing this war through to the end. I started something and I intend to finish it, either as a soldier or as a general. I don’t care which one. But I would never put my men through anything I wouldn’t, myself, endure. Many fought to the death and I, too, will fight until Isleydor gives up on world conquest or else I die with my men.”



“You know, with the way you talk about war, I’m not surprised that your sleep has been tainted,” Kara offered, unsure of what to say and needing to say something or else sit there gaping at Ben, like a bloody idiot. “I hear that lots of soldiers have nightmares regularly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”



“Oh, I wasn’t dreaming about the war. I rarely do. It’s odd, really.”



“Well then, what got you riled up enough to take a stroll out here?” Kara asked, and Ben’s face twisted into something ugly and sorrowful. It was a drastic enough change that Kara immediately knew she’d crossed some invisible line, though unknowingly. “I’m sorry,” Kara cried, getting up and intending to go back to her tent. “I didn’t mean to prod and poke about something so personal. I know I’m not comfortable talking about my issues and…Well, I’ll just get going now.” With that, Kara started a slow jog away from the fire, but Ben’s voice stopped her in her tracks.



“No, Kara, it’s okay,” Ben told her, defeat and a hint of resignation hitching in his voice. Kara could tell that he didn’t wish to speak of his horrid nightmare, but something was compelling him to fight his instincts and open up to her. Kara knew that she should probably go back to sleep anyway, but was curious. “Sit down,” Ben told Kara, and she did. “I guess I should get it out in the open anyway. They say it isn’t healthy to keep secrets pent up like this. Does the name Judith Raynare ring a bell?”



“The woman who bought you?”



“Indeed,” Ben chuckled darkly. “Indeed, she did. I’m not even sure why, exactly. Judith works as a weapons engineer and your typical conquest slave gets bought up by a war time opponent. That’s why Arlington only made bids on slaves from the east side, which he was responsible for taking over. I expected Lord Dreymond, from the west side, to pick me up. But alas…” Ben’s voice drifted off into oblivion and for several minutes, there was an eerie, unbroken silence. Even the crickets seemed to have quieted down, but Kara waited patiently, unwilling to push Ben. “It wasn’t the pain that bothered me,” Ben finally blurted, his face red. “It was the humiliation. God, the woman could be so cruel. But a few days into my captivity, I got free and found a gun. It’s a long story, not worth repeating. Anyway, I didn’t bother to worry about the tracking implant, I just wanted to get out. So in the dead of night, I crept through the manor looking for an unlocked door, an easy exit, a poorly secured window. Anything would do, really. It was an accident…” Ben stopped then, his voice choking up and his form deathly still. Then, with the flames from the fire reflected in his eyes, Ben whispered, “I shot a little girl.”



“I was panicked and it was dark,” Ben hurriedly added, the words tumbling from his mouth in rapid, chaotic succession. “Judith hired a security guard to roam the Raynare Mansion at night and I didn’t want to bump into him. And Judith breeds dogs, too. Big terrible things. Dobermans, I think. And anyway, I walk into the kitchen and see something move out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t stop to think about it, I just shot.”



“I didn’t know it was a child,” Ben groaned, turning his eyes downward and staring into the dirt. Kara could tell from the anxiety in his tone that he was telling the truth and was distraught by the mistake. “I didn’t even know Judith had children, let alone school age. And you’d think the height would have tipped me off, but she had tiptoed downstairs to get a glass of water and was standing on a stool so that…oh, god…so that she could reach the sink. She looked just like Judith, same hair color and everything. When the light from a window caught in her eyes and they were the same dark red, I just fucking fired. And then this tiny body falls onto the floor and her cup breaks. There’s blood and water everywhere. And in front of me is this tiny person with dead eyes, still in her pink princess pajamas.”



“I should have made a run for it. I know that now, but at the time, it didn’t feel right. Who shoots a small child and runs off? It’s fucking cowardly, that’s what. And the gun didn’t have a silencer, so chaos ensues. I felt bad for the husband worst of all. I didn’t even know she was married; I never saw the man before. Anyway, he’s crying and screaming at Judith, telling her, ‘You can’t keep dangerous pets in the house when there are small children running about. No tarantulas, no anacondas, and no war time generals.’ Just like that, and I’m trying to apologize. I’m on my knees, begging. Telling Judith, over and over again, ‘I’m sorry, I thought it was you, Mistress. I swear to god, I thought it was you…’ And you know what they do to dangerous pets, don’t you? They get sent to the pound. Which is how I ended up in Bremmington.”



“But anyway,” Ben finished, hurriedly getting to his feet and straightening his shirt. “I think that’s enough sharing for tonight. Pleasant dreams, I hope.” And with that, Ben was off, rapidly disappearing into the night.



“It’s not your fault, you know,” Kara told him, and Ben stopped. She couldn’t imagine the pain such an incident must have caused Ben and she couldn’t let him leave without reassurance or sympathy. Kara needed him to know, at the very least, that she didn’t blame him. “Things happen during wartime,” Kara continued, her voice kind. “You made an honest mistake while trying to escape enslavement. Don’t beat yourself up about it. There’s no reason to feel guilt.”



“Now see, that’s where you’re wrong,” Ben told Kara, his voice oddly contemplative. “Guilt is my lifeline. It saves me from the kind of monster I could become if I stopped feeling bad about shooting little girls, accident or not.” With a shrug, Ben turned back toward Kara and smiled warmly. “I suppose it’s irrational to feel guilty for a simple, easily justified mistake. But it’s our irrationality that makes us human. It makes us fall in love with people we should hate, and sacrifice ourselves for causes we can’t win, and strive for goals we cannot reach. It is what makes us beautiful. But anyway, there I go again, babbling. Good night, Kara Chrystein.” And with that, Ben was gone.



It was a good hour that Kara sat in the darkness, contemplating Ben’s words. When she finally stood to her feet, she had no idea what she was doing or why. But Kara didn’t care. There was something about Ben’s words—whispered into the evening sky—that enthralled her and she needed to experience more. Hunching her shoulders against the cold, Kara marched across their campsite to Ben’s tent and tentatively peeked inside. The general wasn’t asleep and sat huddled in a corner, wrapped up in a blanket and pouring over a small book. When he saw Kara, he only smirked at her.



“Well, now. What do we have here?” Ben grinned, turning down a page in his book to save his place and setting it aside. “I would never have taken you for a hypocrite. You seem to be a woman who means what she says.”



“Excuse me?”



“Why, just this morning, didn’t you tell me that ‘no one who pities me is a friend’? And now here you are, because I told you my sob story?” Ben shook his head, tsking humorously at Kara and leaning against the side of his tent. “You know, I don’t like being pitied much either.”



“It’s not that,” Kara told him, averting her eyes toward the floor. What the hell did she think she was doing? Why was she here? Kara didn’t know, but decided to just go with the flow for once and trust her feelings. “I don’t pity you,” Kara whispered. “Really, I meant no offense.”



“Is that so?”



“It’s just that you’re, I don’t know…” Kara whispered, and a crimson blush rose in her cheeks. “I mean, you kill people for a living, but you have a conscience. I don’t know a lot of men like that. Your protective nature creeps me out a little, but I also kind of like it and I think that’s just you. You care about the people around you. And can I…I was wondering if…I could sleep in here, with you tonight?” Then, as Ben grinned widely at her, Kara quickly covered her mouth, blushing even more furiously. “I don’t mean ‘sleep with you’ as in ‘have sex with you.’ Not that you aren’t attractive, but since we’re both having nightmares, I thought that—”



Ben pulled Kara down toward him and she squealed in surprise, almost pulling away from him out of pure instinct. But when he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her toward him, she relaxed. His muscled arms made her feel safe and secure, like a kitten curled against its owner’s chest. God, he was so much bigger than her. It was like being a lamb beside a lion, which could snap her in two at any moment. Gently, Ben laid a blanket over them both and pressed Kara into him, until they were spooning comfortably. There were no more words after that, but Kara felt soothed by the massive man’s rhythmic breathing and the rise and fall of his chest. Soon, she was able to drift off to sleep, listening to the sound of his heartbeat.



The next day, Kara awoke early, but apparently not early enough. Ben was already up and about, packing for the day’s journey. He must have been extremely careful when slipping away from Kara that morning. The pair had been tangled together like two wind blown ribbons and escaping Kara’s grasp without waking her couldn’t have been an easy task. She was grateful for the effort, though. The extra minutes of rest had done much to rejuvenate Kara and refresh her mind. And with a loud, obnoxious yawn, she stretched out her sore limbs and went outside to help with the packing and travel preparations.



From there, Kara and her companions returned to the van and got through their second security checkpoint just fine, imitating the technique used back in the city and hiding under a black tarp. Moments later, the fugitives were back on the open road and Kara was able to breath a sigh of relief. For the remainder of the trip, she spent much of her time staring out of the window and admiring the autumn colors or day dreaming about the future, of beer and fried food and local bands that played far too loudly. But when Kara tired of her fantasies, she would play word games with her companions or chit-chat idly, mostly about the progressively colder weather. There were dark, foreboding thoughts plaguing them all, but no one was insensitive enough to bring them up. The sun had just begun to set—painting the sky in streaks of red and yellow—when Kara saw a third checkpoint come into view and Mrs. Timmons leaned into the back end excitedly.



“This is it,” Mrs. Timmons grinned, gesturing ahead of them. “This is the final security checkpoint and then we’re a mere two miles from the border.” With a little smile on her lips, Mrs. Timmons turned back to face the windshield. “Not a bad checkpoint, either. A few guards and a dog. No big deal. You guys know the drill by now.”



Kara leaned into the front end of the vehicle to get a better view and shivered. There weren’t nearly as many guards out here—running a checkpoint in a rural region, surrounded by farming villages—as there had been in the city. Still, it was an intimidating sight. There were three kiosks and three adjacent, metallic gates blocking the road in the distance. Already, a few cars were lined up behind one gate, which would only be opened upon the completion of a vehicle inspection. Inside each kiosk, security guards sat and waited, but a few disgruntled figures with rifles were wandering the road up ahead, preparing to shoot at anyone who tried to run through the gate. Not daring to hope until she had crossed the border, Kara swallowed hard and hid under the tarp once more with her fellow runaways. Then below her, Kara could feel the van begin to inch forward as Avery drove them into line.



“Oh, shit,” Mrs. Timmons suddenly groaned and in the darkness under the tarp, Kara could feel her heart start to race. The escort’s tone was fearful and apprehensive. Something wasn’t right, and yet the four of them were so close. “Guys, get out from under the tarp. I’m going to need your help with something.” Immediately, both Alyssa and Ben jumped up and were withdrawing their pistols. Kara hoped they wouldn’t be necessary and that Mr. Cross’ escorts would say so, but they didn’t. “Our guy isn’t here,” Mrs. Timmons told them, her tone very matter-of-fact, betraying only a hint of tension. “I don’t know what happened, but he isn’t here. When it’s our turn, we’re going to have to run the gate. But the border is only two miles down the road. We should be able to make it.”



“Why do we have to run through the gate?” Kara choked, looking forward and at the guards surrounding them, black tinting the only barrier between their prying eyes and Kara’s exposed body. “That thing looks really sturdy. Can’t we just, I don’t know, find away around this? Without having to go through anymore checkpoints?”



Mrs. Timmons shook her head. “Sorry sweetheart, all roads leading out of Isleydor are guarded by checkpoints. They are unavoidable. And besides, we’ve got people in front of us and behind us.” Starting to feel nauseous, Kara looked around and saw that Mrs. Timmons was right. There was a car in front of and behind their van, with guards on either side. “We’re trapped in line,” Mrs. Timmons finished. “But those gates aren’t as heavy duty as they look. We’ll be able to punch through. Pull up one of the compartments in the back. We’ve got a few guns stashed away.”



Immediately, Ben was wrenching the compartment open and browsing through the weaponry, handing various pieces of equipment to Greenwood and Alyssa. When he silently held out a pistol for Kara, she took it and tried to get comfortable holding the thing, but she was still clumsy with a gun. Meanwhile, Ben was rearranging the contents of the hidden compartment, making sure that ammo was easily accessible and that several extra weapons were on standby. With that, the four companions got low to the floor and under the windows, where they would be safest from gun fire. Kara lay across from Ben, clutching her weapon to her chest and trying to think through all the possible “what ifs” and potential life threatening scenarios, preparing her mind for the worst. And although he was busy peering up through the windows and readying himself for a road chase, Ben smiled reassuringly in her direction.



“It’s just a two mile chase,” Ben soothed, reaching out and patting Kara’s arm. “We can make that, easily. Just…Well, if we get separated somehow, shoot like mad.”



Inch by inch, their van approached the security checkpoint and the accompanying gate, which was blocking the road. Carefully peering out of a window, Kara watched as the car ahead of them was waved through the gate and a guard motioned for Avery to move forward, then come to a halt. But the escort had no intention of stopping. As soon as the car ahead of him had cleared the gate, Avery hit the gas, trying to get through before it had fully closed. Kara wasn’t able to watch the entire scene unfold, however. Grabbing her by the collar of her shirt, Ben yanked Kara back toward the van floor just as the guards surrounding them opened fire. There was a horrible, pelting sound as metal hit metal and several windows were shattered by the onslaught of bullets, causing glass to rain down around Kara. With the screeching of tires ringing in her ears, Kara could feel the forward thrust of the van as it ran through the gate, dislodging it from its hinges such that the entire vehicle shook with the force of impact.



All around Kara, there was chaos, a backdrop of sirens and gunfire making it all the more frightening. Mrs. Timmons was cursing at Avery as they raced down the road, shouting instructions to him before pointing and firing at their enemies, like a woman obsessed. Ben and Alyssa were also on the attack: leaning out of broken windows, aiming at their pursuers with heavy duty rifles, and reloading often. The noise and smoke and commotion made Kara’s stomach sink more deeply into her gut, twisting and turning sickeningly.



When she dared to look into the rear view mirror, Kara saw that there were two police cars following them and two guards on motorcycles. It wasn’t much, but the whining of their sirens and the screeching of tires on asphalt made Kara’s heart skip. Looking down at her gun with determination etched on face, Kara made up her mind to help with the shooting—as bad as she was with a gun—when she noticed that Greenwood wasn’t doing his usual, badass sharp shooting. Instead, he was clutching his side and there was blood. Her heart quickening still further—if that were even possible—Kara crawled toward Greenwood, little pieces of glass embedding themselves in her knees. When she reached the double, Kara forced him to remove his hand from his side so that she could inspect the wound.



“Is it bad?” Greenwood asked worriedly, as gun shots rang out from both sides. “It doesn’t hurt too terribly, but I’ve been told that’s a bad sign.” With fear in his eyes, Greenwood examined his hands, colored red from the recent wound.



“No, thank god,” Kara replied, as she looked over the injury. There was blood, certainly, but not enough to account for a severe bullet wound. “It’s just a bullet fragment, not very deep,” Kara told him, taking off her shirt and hurriedly ripping it into several strands. We just need to keep pressure on it for a little while, until—”



With a loud screech, the van came to a sudden halt and Kara was jerked violently against the van wall. With a loud crash, her head hit metal, disorienting her temporarily. But once the spinning in her mind and the ringing in her ears had ceased, the fear set in. Oh god, why had they stopped? Bile rising in her throat, Kara looked up from her handy work and saw that only one police car had been dealt with. As the fugitives stood stationary, a second police vehicle and two motorcycles came speeding toward them, heavily armed and ready for action. Kara was just about to jump into the front seat and see what was wrong when Ben grabbed her hand, opened up the back end, and pulled her onto the highway with him, largely deserted.



“What are you doing!” Kara cried, wrenching herself free of Ben’s grasp. “We’re sitting ducks out here!” Forcefully, Kara tried to push herself back into the van, but saw that both Alyssa and Greenwood were exiting onto the pavement. “Ben,” Kara whispered. “What’s going on?”



“The tires are shot,” Ben replied solemnly. “We’ll have to huff it on foot.”



Quickly, Kara whipped her head around and saw before her an impossibly tall wall, which stretched off into the distance on both her left and right sides. It was, maybe, a full football field’s distance away and right in the middle of her line of view, Kara could see a metal gate disturbing the continuity of the wall’s appearance. God, they were so close! The Nardian border was within walking distance! As if anticipating the fugitives’ arrival, the Nardian Border Patrol—dressed in blue uniforms, the symbol of the hawk emblazoned on their vests—opened the gate and waved anxiously toward the four companions, offering them asylum. But not a single one dared to enter Isleydor’s territory, at the risk of violating international law. Behind them, Kara could make out an ambulance and swallowed hard. The patrol suspected that, even if Kara and her friends did make it, they would enter Nardia with severe enough injuries to warrant a trip to the hospital.

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