Chapter One (Psyche) by Lucy.
Chapter Two (To the other side) by Andrada Costoiu.
Chapter Three by B.V. Stratton.
Chapter Four (The fateful night) by Smita Ray.
Chapter Five (Insight Part I) by Amitbhat0912.
Chapter Five (Insight Part II) by Amitbhat0912.
Chapter Six (They’re still out there Part I) by Lucy.
Chapter Six (They’re still out there Part II) by Lucy.
Chapter Seven (Cycles of violence Part I) by Lucy.
Chapter Seven (Cycles of violence Part II) by Lucy.
Chapter Eight (Fragments of the past Part I) by Shweta.
Chapter Eight (Fragments of the past Part II) by Lucy.
Chapter Nine (Flashes from the past) by Smita Ray.
Chapter Ten (Be the hero you weren’t) by Lucy.
Italics indicate flashbacks, memories, and past events.
The deeper Tom emerged in the cave, the worse his memories were. Fragmented moments bewildered by a small presence—his daughter. Each memory tussled and coiled around his brain, making him wonder how many years had passed. Did he really get amnesia from drowning or was it all part of the loop? Fuck, if he knew. His mind was re-engaging him into cyclicity. He sought every breath he could, the damp cave, as he went, draining him mentally. Gathering himself, he marched to destiny—the easing trail of catastrophic darkness. What was its source?
Dwindling, all without realizing the eyes watching from above, he sank into refuge by a stalactite-type structure; he was concealed in the dials of oak-wood leaves and shadows—intertwined with the presence of echoes, far-off echoes. Pacing closer, he detached from his comfort, seeking out the dangers that lied ahead.
His heart was pounding.
He traced around his path to mark it. He didn’t want to think about the ruthlessness and isolated reality he had to survive, but it was all he had to accompany him in the hood of darkness. In haste, he curved his pistol back to his hand, sneaking between the alleys of the shadows; he tried hard to listen for more life beyond these depths but there wasn’t any from what he could tell.
The escapee trudged ahead, a willing soldier in a pursuit. Somehow, his hands shook at the gravity ahead—unnatural wisps escaping and burning his chest as a smoked cocktail. Memories were flooding through him—memories that he didn’t want to deal with now, memories that would only distract him.
He hung his head low, calculating what must be done to preserve their futures and the strength of their reality that was slowly being grafted away. Memory alteration was first; he dreaded what would happen if captured. He had heard tales of physical alteration beyond the mutants he interacted with.
Zara’s lips pursed into a frown. “Tom, did we do the right thing?”
“I hope so,” he gritted in the sideway winds. His hand penetrated hers as they knelt in their hideout. “Clarence would be a risk to take with us.”
“That’s not it,” Zara shook her head violently. “We left her behind. We left her and Lauren behind.”
“Lauren doesn’t know that!”
“I don’t give a shit about that. Our child is going to be stuck here. We’re abandoning her.”
Tom let himself divert to the sunset feast ahead of them, an expel of blood-thirsty howls in the silence. During these moments, he let himself recollect the barren mutants he crossed paths with during his alteration loops, and while Zara may not remember, he sure as hell did.
“We didn’t abandon her,” he stroked her cheek. “We gave her a chance to live. We both may die in our escape when we hit the labs, you know that as well as I do. If we survive, we’ll be able to send for help.”
“Help from where!? Is it all in your delusions of grandeur?”
“This is not—”
“Oh!” She laughed bitterly with a distinctive hiss that stirred Tom’s gut. “But don’t forget, my Tom, I went along with it. But, you never told me what we had to give up.”
“You know it wasn’t like that. Not at all.”
“Don’t I…” She stumbled back, withdrawn from his touches.
He didn’t know what else to say. “I love you, Zara.”
“I’m not too fond of you,” she gave a sad smile, grasping the finality of the idea. If they were to save their daughter, they would have to remain undetected. Dragging Clarence along is making her a risk when all they wanted to do was give her the life they never had.
“Make me a promise.”
“Anything,” Tom breathed.
“You’re so whipped,” she shoved his chest with a scoff. She then turned. Her hands trudged through the dirt they crawled on, seeking mutants or sentries in the perimeter. The vegetation around them was dying—all evidence that burned on their skins like a fresh blood or piercing concoction, with the thorns aside from each monstrous bush and chasm; the gorge that was going to claim the life of them both, she knew.
“If one of us is… is not here whether we die, are turned into mutants, or have memory alterations, please—please let’s try to remember her.”
Tom nodded, rubbing the mire off his hands. “Okay.”
Zara looked back solemnly, as well conflicted, a wave-line from ahead forming into the strands of trenches as a mixture of darkness coincided. “I love you too, Tom,” she said.
“I left you behind, Clarence,” Tom was mumbling. He rubbed his face; from such cruelty he was handed with in survival, to the pristine innocence of his dear daughter… He left her behind. They both did.
She was forgotten, alone, and above all, she was scared. His lip convulsed and quivered, eyes wincing, throat with a thirst for water; his mouth was so dry. He felt a dizzying occipital headache come on, and rubbing his neck, he chanced a look at the ceiling almost letting out a meek yelp.
Eyes of different colors were above him, glissading of death and watching like ice. “What the fuck?” He grabbed a small stone from one of the ground cavities off the cave, striking the roof. He almost pissed himself when the eye he had hit slowly blinked, penetrating a layer over it immediately like a bruise to clot the red overflow that pervaded and leaked from its cornea. Tears had pushed out of it like puss, falling onto the ground as a light rainfall.
The escapee shivered.
“Dad, are you taking us to the movies?” the kid looked expectantly at Tom.
“Um… No,” he focused on the rain. “I’m not, Clarence. You’re going to spend a few days at Aunt Lauren’s.”
“Why? Did I do something?”
The silence was complimented by a stump in the pathway they took, edging closer to crafty symmetrical forestry; and in their depth, it drowned the universe between them all, a mysticism that was present and yet eluded them. Zara was the first to speak. “You never did anything wrong. It’s just that you haven’t seen Lauren in a while and she has some fun stuff planned when you get there. It’s a surprise, my milaya,” her voice was a blossomed warmth. “Did you pack all of your toys?”
“Yes, mommy,” the child stated with a theatrical roll of the eyes. “Like I would pack without them, you should know that! Don’t be like dad.”
Tom, wounded, gave a slight playful gasp. Both mother and daughter laughing at his misfortune, eyes of stone pitying him, while his old wound blossomed like a Pieridae. He fell onto his knees.
Tom’s eyes shot up, glittered in nerve deep tingles, almost as bubbles of adrenaline spiked from his bloodstream to his back. His wound had still miraculously healed, nothing to suggest that it had been reopened. Just as there was nothing to suggest what had flashed before him was true.
A hand appeared like a paperweight creased over his chest, eyes a dead veil from above, that however the mist was, he could not actively look away from the subject. A cold heart stared back at him, leaving aside the proximity of them both—Tom flinched at the contact.
“If you thought any of it was real after all, I’m sorry to take that away from you.”
He was calculating the fastest way to leave the woman’s grip; his pupils roaming the enclosure to find his next move. He had none left he realized when he found himself pacing away, red claws collecting the tiniest scrapes of flesh down on his chest.
“You’re not real,” he murmured, kept murmuring, then gasped feeling around for his waist. “I saw you and I killed you.”
The woman had an entrancing laugh—his ears crumpled at the sound, almost giving way to bursting his blood vessels. Gathering his might, he rammed her in the nose with his shoulder using the slightest second to pull out his pistol. The sideway winds tolled and he pressed the trigger.
She closed her eyes calmly as blood leaked from her nose—a bullet did not echo through her skull. Tom went through his wishes and miracles as a beggar would have done. Wasted. He used up what was left of his clips, the rest (hopefully) with Lauren as he couldn’t take every single bit of the ammo. And almost as if a sinkhole had emerged from beneath, he felt carved against the ground; two feminine hands molesting his temples.
“Who—who are you?”
“You may call me Anastasia.” She discarded the gun and laid a hand over his throat.
Tom inspected Lauren closely as she swung the axe into the door.
“Does she even know about this?”
Another blow. “Hmm?” She fiddled with the handle grip before setting the head of the axe onto the grass—they traveled here for a couple of hours and according to the lost trails of the map, this was one of the abandoned portal-structures that used to be occupied by ancient spirits. Or so they say. Lauren knew the mythology, but Artemis lived it; it was in her raw bones that disturbed her, that she was born with, dwelling the mystics but above all, the knowledge she knew.
Tom crossed his arms and sighed. “Did you tell Artemis about this?”
“Did I stutter?”
“Lauren,” it was pained with an exhale. He looked through the tree-line gaps that pushed and pulled through the wind like the briny of the isle; fog encompassed the area the deeper they went into the forest floor. As they made their paces through the trees, their presence didn’t seem too welcomed here.
They had to coordinate this carefully. They reported to the NOR an investigation of mystic soundwaves in the area that was, in Tom’s words, “giving them certain visions,” and with Artemis’s knowledge of Anastasia, her deluded sense of reality would crumble if these genetic failures were to break out of their loops at this point in time. The mistress of death would be too occupied with developing a countless amount of her monstrosities to spread throughout the isle, and so approval wasn’t too hard to come by in this specific area.
Tom wasn’t sure if it was the first time this happened, these loops as he thought back. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. A voice collapsed into his head, but he believed it as one of his own thoughts: “Many different lives…”
The ground was lumpy, the soil damp with small rocks that shifted a bit upon footfall. As he paced, the sensation in his legs turned restless, “You shouldn’t have lied to her.”
“Oh, please,” Lauren scoffed. “This is going to help us.”
“I bet she would tell you stories of what happened here with the spirits.”
“Yes, a long, long time ago. And bore me to death?” Again, she silently noted. “She’s a fucking history buff about this. Even she acknowledged that there isn’t enough evidence if there are spirits in this area.”
“Ancient spirits,” Tom corrected.
She picked back up the axe. “What did I say?”
“She would never want you here alone, you know that.”
Her hands felt like ice. Blows into the door, into the dilapidated wood, into the wood-rot and vines that dripped from each crack. “Artemis doesn’t know that. It’s not like we haven’t been here before you know.”
“But, she was there with you. She knew how to avoid the spirits getting upset when they discovered her m—”
“Don’t you mean ancient spirits?” Swing.
He squeezed the dried blood from his hands, as sweat pooled under his brow. Blackness, like a void, covered the cottage of shadows, and he closed his eyes as it passed. The red tattered on the wood was almost like paint. Almost. He helped her tear down the relic with manual labor.
“I’m just saying,” he grunted, “she knows how to tap into the spirits in different areas. Who knows what is here and what is not? Is it worth the risk? Is this worth it, Lauren? You could have had her help, too, though I bet she wouldn’t approve of this.” Tom threw the chunks of wood into a pile, soon squatting on a rock to catch his breath. “Remember too. We are wanted.”
“Potentially wanted. No one knows anything. We need this space cleared because there’s a cottage down the path. I want to cover my bases so if we destroy this, it’ll steer the maybe-maybe not spirits that have nothing better to do away from here, and make people and mutants stay away from the forests as we all prep. Benzino’s going to help me get the cottage and then we’re almost done with phase one. Anyone who comes by here, they’ll REALLY think the forest is haunted now if not before.”
“Do you just not care?”
“The reason I’m doing this,” she laughed into her sleeve, “is because I care. Now shut up, fratellino, and help me demolish this.”
“I only came because I didn’t want to find out you died in these woods.”
Lauren snorted, still not looking at Tom. She put down her axe and gesticulated with her hands. “Imagine the headlines: Island Native smothered to death by old, perverted spirits. Wouldn’t that be funny?”
“I don’t find it quite funny, actually.”
Both siblings turned their heads to the source.
Artemis pursed her lips, head tilted at the destruction before her; the chaos entities that she could feel pervaded in the air, through her veins and blood it stirred, and as she took a breath, she was met with silence.
Lauren pushed out the memories as they emerged. None of it made sense, and just as she did her whole life, she repressed it. Again.
They moved into the pitfall of darkness. Lauren’s hand clung to Artemis’s as the surroundings morphed into an even more flattering darkness. Artemis could no longer rely on her vision instead illumining the depths with a small lighter Lauren had tucked away. The further they crossed into the embellished crystal chains that set aside them, they witnessed schizo blemishes of carvings—different figures, one covered in soot and banished in clouds of an icy sequence—betrayal and anger as if a red lotus had crushed the submersion and ripples on the wall. A concoction of subsumed tragedy and blood.
If it were war, it was as good as a guess as any.
Lauren drowned in their coiling hazards, parallel to the artistry that depicted danger and the circumstances they were in. She traced along her mind to figure why it kept looping back to her, what these suspended images floating around meant. She asked Artemis about it—which after taking a step back, a deep trance from the light engulfed the wall.
The mutant’s eyes rattled against each scripture and carving. Her face submerged in the blackest depths, draped over the sick paleness of her skin. “This is foreign to me.”
“Figures,” Lauren huffed. She stared at the carvings; etches of black had fallen like ashes. A bubble could have floated above her head, the visualization of soot, vengeance, and freedom in her mind’s eye that warily it was a distant dream giving invitation to forgotten memories.
Lauren bit down on her tongue so hard, it could have bled. She slid down to her knees, stifling the screams as they peaked out in murmurs. She shuffled to her side.
Artemis stood on the defense, facing the human. “What’s going on? Did something inject you? Is it a creature?”
“N-no,” she breathed, briefly glancing up. Her face was barely visible. “I just…”
“Just—just sit with me. Tell me something, maybe something a-a-about yourself. Anything. Please. Fuck.”
Artemis’s lips parted in confusion, her eyes taking in the human kneeling, pleading in front of her. Usually, she took it as a sign of surrender or weakness from her prey but it bewildered her nonetheless—What was she doing, if not that? She responded, soberly, shrugging her shoulders back. “You lead us here in the hour of night-slayers, and now you let your fear incapacitate you?” There is no hidden knife behind you at this point when we’re choosing to wield one ourselves, the mutant bit back the thought from her tongue.
Lauren sniffled, turning away from her… Partner? Girlfriend? “Fuck you, Artemis. All I needed was just—just something to try and stop it.”
“Are you dense? I’m freaking the fuck out! I’m having—a panic attack. I don’t, I don’t want to…” remember. “Leave me be,” she shook.
The mutant blinked, cocking her head like a cat—at least, that’s what it looked like to Lauren. She stayed silent until Lauren scooted away from her effervescent shadow; the cave had only felt smaller, with a set coldness enveloping her chest, adorning her in a tightness she hadn’t felt since childhood.
Artemis slid down on the ground with her. She closed her eyes, leaning her head against the stone, and breathed out once. “Something about me… Um, when I first saw you and your brother, I thought of ways to kill you both.”
It took moments before she spoke. “Tell me something that wasn’t common knowledge.” Lauren pushed at her in the chest playfully until Artemis impelled her back; they rolled around like some moonstruck fools in the dying grasslands.
“I’m a good hunter, Lauren,” she had a bloodthirsty grin. “There’s no way you knew I was watching you.”
“Fine. I was oblivious. I didn’t,” she chuckled. “I’m not going to lie, you really scared the shit out of me when we met.” She sighed when they untangled themselves. “Though, you’re sort of an animal. They’re your instincts, I guess. Like you said, we have to survive for the most part. At least, that’s what I try to convince myself of…” Lauren glanced away.
“Hmm. I don’t really understand you—humans. I mean, I don’t… get it sometimes. I don’t mean to be cold to you, but just tell me what to do; I’m not good at something unless it’s killing.”
“I,” her eyes glazed over as she glanced down. “am, or was, having an anxiety attack. I get them here and there. They’re sort of like—you know when you feel threatened and on guard?” Artemis nodded, probably reminiscing of when she made others feel that way. The human couldn’t imagine anyone, at this point, getting the upper hand on Artemis; she went undetected, she had alternative routes.
But, she remembered, the squirrel incident…
Lauren swallowed down her chuckle with a cough. Rubbing her face, she continued, “You have to prepare yourself for an attack from a predator, but mostly it’s in your mind; it’s something that could be a reminder and it hits you until you feel sick, dizzy. You feel engulfed in a tunnel, you’re dissociating, you’re in a black prism while staring into a mirror. It first happened when I broke out of the loop, and then a memory—a memory I didn’t know existed—I remembered it, some of it. And I’m so lost and so confused. It’s too much! How many years went by? How do I not remember? It’s… Ugh, I’m so fucking lost!”
Artemis crossed her arms. “It’s a memory gap, Lauren. She took years of all your lives. It’s not just the memory loops and concoctions. There’s more she’s likely capable of. But look, this is her M.O. This is what Anastasia does and she did it to me too. I barely know myself, I feel so dissociative of my past. I barely remembered it even existed, that I wasn’t born as… this.”
Lauren knew she how hard it was to discuss the mutant’s appearance, so she assimilated it then diverged. “I remember something with—with family. I couldn’t protect someone, a kid, I think? I don’t know, it’s not coming back to me yet… I–I thought, I can’t, I’m still recovering from the loop, did I not really break it? I don’t understand. What are these memories?” A morbid thought arose, what if Tom couldn’t recover completely either? Maybe he didn’t have head trauma or amnesia…
They were the same, they were all the same. A big possibility through the years wasted.
“Give it time, mia cara. I’m sure they’ll come back eventually?”
“Yeah. Eventually.” A pause. “Look, don’t think I forgot, I’m not buying that shit of an excuse you gave that you witnessed her rituals. It bothers me why you’re familiar with her methods, her “M.O.” What you are you not telling me?”
Artemis stared at Lauren, and when she did, her expression softened just a bit. “I’d rather not say.”
“Oh, come on. I just shared with you some traumatic shit. The least you could do is share some back.”
“Once we kill her, I promise I will tell you. But, I can’t right now. Not when she’s still alive.”
Lauren groaned into her hands. “You’re such a bore.”
Before Artemis could puff out a rejoinder, they heard screams in the further bowels of the cave. Lauren twisted her spear in her hands as the mutant steadily lifted her up on her shoulders, following the point of vociferation bereft of command. Maybe Lauren was right on her instincts to explore in the night—they may have been someone’s last chance. The stones were thick on mutant feet, but Artemis’s callouses were enough for now; she may discover bleeding in the day of or the next but that was a bridge to cross after this is over, when it finally hits morning. Just at least four more hours until sunlight, she could have thought.
Lauren, however, grasped harder on Artemis’s collarbone, hands accidentally tripping over her chest. Mortified, she bested her grip back on her shoulders—yep, the shoulders would do. For a moment, she wondered if the screams were to lure them to a monster, to a mutant. But, she had to trust Artemis’s instincts on this.
It was all she had left.