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The Shadow of the Valley

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The Shadow of the Valley
Chapter 1: Ticket to Ride

A figure hovers in an open field, listening to the wind sigh against the wheat. It tugs on the corners of his overcoat. His oil slick hair is disheveled in the back where someone's fingers have left their tracks. His arms hang at his sides, his bearded chin drooping as if fast asleep. 

Then a pale brow creases, and John Seed lifts his head.

That's not the wind.

He jumps down from a wooden post, the world's most sharply-dressed scarecrow. Unsure how he got up there in the first place.

Soft calliope music drifts across a rendered golden sea, originating from a great, revolving carousel in the distance. A garish, whimsical thing, with absolutely no business in his valley.

Assuming he's still in Holland Valley, that is.

Everything looks...barren. No trees. No farms. No silos. No roads, even. Just that absurd carousel and the mountains, way in the distance. The sky all the shades of a fresh bruise.

Truth hovers above his shoulder...in the form of a red balloon. Tied to his arm. Frowning, he pulls on the string, and the bow gives easily. How the hell did that get there? He's seen them pop up in his valley before. At sewer entrances mostly. Someone's idea of an insipid prank, not even worth putting his men on to investigate. 

He lets it go. There's no wind, but it soars anyway, carried by powers unknown. He lowers his gaze to the carousel.

Apparently one attempted drowning isn't enough. Because she's come back for more.

She's perched on the ledge of the ride, one knee crossed over the other. Her hands brace herself on the floor, back turned to him. Her short hair floats, caught in the centrifuge. Something off about her, too. She should have been moving with the carousel. Instead, she stays in place.

He smirks. Way off in the air, the balloon bursts into pieces.

Could this be anything but a dream?

It doesn't matter. He has her in his sights.

Deep blue eyes come alive, rippling with greed. With a cheerful sort of whistle, he starts ambling toward her, arms swishing against his coat. The wheat seems to grow longer and longer with every stride, slowing him down. Before he can blink, the stalks are up to his shoulders. There's so much, it mobs and smothers him. He's lost. Trapped in a maze.

He blinks, and everything's normal again. The wheat goes back to tickling his fingertips.

Even in a dream, his annoyance makes him violent. A hand lashes out, snaps off a piece of a stalk, tosses it over his shoulder. There is no maze. And he's not a little boy, stranded at the circus with a bunch of faceless strangers, enjoying his time away from his foster parents, who had only brought him to the entrance to lecture him about the copious dangers of 'fun and games'. Surrounded by clowns, and the biggest joke of all was his own family, scolding a sullen little boy with a half-eaten container of popcorn dug from the garbage spilled at his feet.

That was before he ran away from them. He still bore the scars, could still recollect the stinging bite of the belt clasp where they beat him. That would teach him to run off and join the circus.

And he's about to give her a similar treatment. No forgiveness without bloodshed, after all. At least when he's done with her she'll come away clean and clear.

Her soul will, anyway.

Laughter rings behind him. High and thin. Mocking. He's too distracted by his quarry to care. Months of hunting, nothing but excuses to show to Joseph, and she's oh-so-close. He can almost smell her, a mix of gunpowder and tree sap, maybe a little of that pesky cattle dog she's so fond of.

Whereas miles of cracked roads, coils of barbed wire, and bullet-studded church walls had separated them before, now only the ride sits between them. Round and round it grinds on its pillared center, to the tune of the hypnotic pipe music. A thousand amber glass lights wink in the twilight. He picks up the pace, stalks snapping under his boots. Getting closer.

But she gets up from the carousel ledge. Hops off, stumbling. He knows she's clumsy; he's meticulously scanned endless security feeds, marveling how someone with two left feet could still take down so many of his forces, outmaneuvering death like a drunkard stumbling across a five-lane highway.

She draws his patience to its limit, peeking her head out, before dashing out of sight again, the flying horses obscuring his view.

I see you, Deputy! he calls to her, breaking into a run. You think you can hide forever? Even in this place, I will find you.

She stays hidden behind the ride, not quite buying that sales pitch.

If you won't come to me, I'll just have to come to you.

He reaches toward his hip. For a gun that isn't there. Looks up, brow knit, lips teetering on a malevolent scowl.

She stays put, ignoring him.

He balls his hands into fists. Here he is, meeting her halfway, and she gives him the cold shoulder? No doubt too indignant to speak to him. Typical. People always look down on him, why stop now? Though, it's not just him keeping her at bay. She doesn't seem to care for the horses. He isn't close enough to see them clearly.

Stop acting like a child and get over here!

Nothing. Just that stupid music. He sighs, and takes an eager step forward. Pauses. A switch flips, and night falls like a domino on the valley. The horses spin, faster and faster. The lights dim, no longer a shade of warm amber, but low, magma red. She stands opposite to him, an image caught in one of those antique animation wheels, all that she is reduced to blinking frames.

So shy, this one. John's patience bursts through its limit, and he runs after her. Every time he tries to get closer, she bounds away, using the carousel for protection. The horses, speared to brass poles, with their painted harlequin faces, continuously get in his way.

With a growl, John stops. And sees them finally for what they are. Sees the smears of blood, instead of paint. Stitches and scars, instead of hair and mane. Broken legs, missing ears and teeth.

Who designed this thing? he mutters, disgusted.

You did. She peeks at him again.

He stares dubiously, fingers of one hand clenching, unclenching. A horse with 'GLUTTONY' carved into its hide shoots by. All of them have similar treatments, their sins cut into their flesh. Now that he's closer, he can hear unsettling noises, beneath the lively music. Wickers of agony. Moans.

He brings his palm to his forehead. Now she's afraid? Of a silly ride! One they all had to take, eventually. He grins, face twisting not quite into a fun-house caricature.

They chase each other around that dreamscape in slow motion, a mockery of real life. He stops again, his head pounding in the back. His throat is dry. He rubs his skull, messing up his hair even more. Calliope pipes shriek, the shrill notes mixing with a melancholy organ. She stops, considering him, with his arms held wide open. He may as well be chasing a shadow. Her name. He doesn't even know her bloody name! Is he the Inquisitor of Hope County or not?

Joseph will have his head if he doesn't nab her soon.

Good! Stay right there, he shouts, when she doesn't move.

The music slices apart his words, chopping them into monosyllables. He inches toward her, never touching the carousel, skirting around it, paying the demented horses and their lettered stigmata no mind.

He lunges, but his fingers close on empty air. She stares at him through the vortex of morbid, twitching equine bodies freed of their sins, forced to spin on that ride for eternity. Only their misery for company.

He takes a step forward. She turns to run yet again. His teeth grind together in a snarl.

Wait til I get my hands on you. He thinks of the nickname his men have given her. Little Miss Wrath. I'll flay the sin clean off your bones, have you screaming for the Father for forgiveness!

The carousel spins until it resembles a tornado. About to lift off the ground. Still she doesn't move. A stray bulb lights up her face, full of fear, and sorrow, and-

-pity?

Regret fills his mouth. It's acrid. Chemical. Permeating the air.

Someone grabs him from behind, ripping by the hair, and shoves a rag down his throat. He chokes, the carousel tilts on its axis, and everything decays, bleeds into a farm field full of Bliss, a barn with a painted white cross on the side in the background, afternoon sun hanging overhead. All that crumbles away, too, as he suffocates, falling down, down into darkness...


Clink! Slide, scrape.

John gasped, jolting with a start. A discordant noise ripped him from the soothing depths of oblivion: a sharp falsetto, followed by the slide and rasp of metal-on-metal.

Clink! Slide, scrape.

Where did he know it from?

Heatwaves rushed to his swollen face. He swallowed. Gagged. His head swam. The noxious aftertaste of chemicals assaulted his senses, distorted his thoughts. He fought the urge to vomit.

Fortunately, he had a strong constitution. Came with the job. Or he liked to think such. He certainly did everything he could, just to prove it to his brothers. Sometimes taking desperate measures, and even certain...indulgences. Yet, on the Eve of the Collapse, God was hellbent on finding new and unusual things to test his fortitude. And he, ever the apprentice, tested cruel and unusual things on his subjects.

Only now he was the subject.

He knew that without even opening his eyes.

Clink! Slide, scrape.

That chime and whisper, coupled with sheer exhaustion, lulled him back into a daze that wasn't quite sleep.

But it must have been. Because he dreamed of her again.

Chapter Text

The young woman glowers up at him, slumped under the oven-red light. His 'hot seat', he likes to call it. A spot many a soul has heated up before. But never have the stakes been greater. Or tied to him so closely, as Joseph loves to remind him.

No matter. He's like steel under pressure, albeit a little warped.

John's first impression of the Deputy is weakness. Hearing all the stories about her, he knows better than to judge by appearances. To say she's a bulldozer in the field is an understatement. 

She seems...unused to male attentions...cringing from his touches, even the soft ones. Hiding her face from him, even when he speaks gently, puts down the implement (much as it pains him). Tries a lighter approach, thinking he can woo a confession out of her, at least a slip, before he can really dig his hands in. Fixes his piercing eyes on her dull ones. Things that make young women open up to him. 

Those that don't require him to delve into the deeper, sharper recesses of his toolbox, anyway. And he is seconds from going there with the Deputy.

All fake smiles, he asks, "Why don't you say something? I know you're not a mute."

She doesn't even dignify him with an answer.

He thinks he knows the reason for her shyness. It's not a tactic. She has less resolve than she thinks. Some kind of bitter grudge gnaws and chews away at her. Her poker face isn't fooling him. He thinks he sees a pair of hearts in her eyes.

Her shabby appearance, her short, cropped hair could've been remnants from her job combined with living the outlaw life for weeks now. But there's no denying she's unattractive to him. Ugly. Rough around the edges, scars dividing up her arms, her neck, indicating a string of bad luck that's dragged at her feet her entire life. A tired sort of face, inspiring nothing in him, not desire nor revulsion. She reminds him of some kind of wire-haired terrier, bred solely for digging deep, squeezing in tight, dark, filthy places to chase after the rats.

It's taken him a long time to root her out, but enough smoke and mirrors, threats to Fall's End, to his hostage, and eventually he had her backed into a corner. And from that corner, to the chair she's presently slumped in, she refuses to open up to him.

He thinks he knows her sin, from the way she stares when she thinks he's not looking. Even her frigid silence and fear haven't stopped her eyes from roving all over his body out of a secret curiosity. He catches that look, throws it back at her, and those eyes quickly flit elsewhere.

"When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away, through my groaning all day long," John mutters, smirking. He won't deny that even her attention, however pathetic it is, flatters him. "Thy sin is Lust, perhaps."

Later on, she shows him what her true sin is. 

Leaves a trail of blood, with dead men as bread crumbs. She will not break easily.

Good. He can still dream.

He hovers by a monitor in the security room. She never takes her eyes off the camera, standing in some corner bunker, she raises her hands, like a woman possessed starts to grope herself in doped stupor, kneading and pushing her breasts together, popping them out of her top so he can see everything God gave her, before trailing her hands along the dips of her waist. The fingers of one hand slide past the band on her jeans. She tosses her head back, starts touching herself, right there, in the stairwell, putting on a little show for him and only him.

Her body obeys, but her eyes widen in mortification: a butterfly caught. Or rather, a moth.

His palms itch. Fingers twitch, for tools, for her flesh. For both.

"Knew you'd open up for me, sooner or later, Deputy!" he sneers, over the speakers.

His sadistic laugh echoes in the stairwell. She snaps to, horrified. Covers herself, hiding her face in her arm. He chuckles low.

"Oh, what a shame."

"I don't deserve this!" she screams up at him, back in the chair again. Tears welling in her eyes. "Let me go! Please."

"Perhaps. You do beg so nicely after all. But only when you have been through hell first..."


Clink! Slide, scrape.

John roused again with a shudder, wishing he could go back. His mind spun in maddening circles. Palms positively crawling with ants, itching. His body soaked in sweat.

A sentence had been decided. The scales had fallen (though not from his eyes, he still can't open them). His stomach coated itself with dry ice. He swallowed again, throat dry and sandpapery. He was guilty. He'd done things. Horrible things. Didn't Joseph warn him about this? Didn't he say it was only a matter of time unless he renounced his wickedness?

And the tables had flipped at last. Or rather, the chairs.

He didn't need to open his eyes, to know he was duct-taped to one.

Didn't need to look around, to tell where he was. He could smell the dank atmosphere of a basement, or some other place subterranean and miserable. A tarantula den, perhaps. A big, nasty one. He'd always hated spiders. As a teenager, he used to trap them in jars and shake them around until their legs fell off. But he was grown now. He could stomp on most things that terrified him. And, if that didn't work, he could always run to one of his brothers for help.

Clink! Slide, scrape.

The noise clamored on and on, in queer ritualistic fashion. It took a few seconds but he finally recognized it.

"Nnnngh," he half-groaned, half-laughed at the irony, through his swollen tongue.

At his bellyaching, the weird noises stopped.

Then they started up again, a note louder and faster. It was time to face that music.

He opened his eyes, and saw just what it was God intendednot to test, but to punish him with.

A shadow of a man bent over a worktable. In the yellow glow of a naphtha lamp, they were sharpening the biggest butcher's knife he'd ever seen, sliding its wide, silver body against a honing rod held in their gloved hand.

"Oh God," John whispered. He shut his lids tight, and his head dropped back.

"Hmph. Not quite," a grating voice said. "You cultists see God in everything, don't you? Well, you can't have God, without the fucking Devil."

That time, he was sick. With nothing in his stomach, John leaned over the side of the chair, retching loudly. A clear trail of drool snailed from his cracked lips.

"Ether tastes like horse piss, I'll give you that," the shadow muttered, setting down the rod, and only the rod. Boots thudded, slid across crumbling rock. What little John could see of the floor was in a state of filth and disrepair.

"But, if you puke, muss up my workshop floor, Baby Blue, I'll give you somethin' to really turn your stomach."

Through slit eyes, he watched the tip of the blade press against his belly, just above the navel. The man twisted the knife, popping off one of the buttons on his vest as easily as if had never been sewn. That wasn't cheap, swine.

The man read his offended expression and scowled. He flicked the button at him.

"Fuckin'-John-the-fuckin'-Baptist."

John flinched as it bounced off his forehead, clicking against the floor of...wherever they were. He still couldn't tell. The room was too dark.

"Here. In my old workshop. Imagine that."

"Who're you?" he asked groggily. He hated how useless his greatest weapon was, a limp slug in his mouth.

The man snatched the naphtha lamp and held it aloft, framing himself in its jaundiced bubble of light. He was dressed in butcher's attire. His face was, to a man who had baptized many faces, unremarkable. Though, in the very center of his eyes, burned a primordial blackness, two tar pits bubbling in a swamp. Waiting to suction living things inside.

"Don't recognize your own work, eh?" the man rasped. He grinned so stiffly, John swore he heard hinges squeaking.

A memory stirred, but he was still too blindsided by the ether to put it into focus.

"I don't remember your name. Just your face," he confessed.

"Perhaps this will help."

The man set the lantern at his feet, and ripped down the collar of his shirt. The scrawled, scarred letters of 'ENVY' shouted at him from a jungle of coarse, dark hair.

John's eyes widened. He never forgot a soul he marked. Ever.

"Everett," he muttered, clenching his jaw. "Everett O'Hara."

That one wouldn't shut up about my work space. Kept asking annoying, amateur questions. How did I string the bodies up? What kind of camera did I use? How long did corpses keep without any intervention?

O'Hara stared at his face, almost zoned out.

No sense of reverence or redemption. Just pure blood lust. I mean, a butcher knife, honestly?  I was going to send him to Jacob to straighten him out, but I lost track of it. Damn...

He clenched his jaw hard, tasting bitterness. He was no fool. He should have paid more attention to the rumors his men whispered. A fiend was killing people, stashing their bodies in a hell house. John believed in some dubious things, but, truth be told, he'd been far too preoccupied to look into that particular claim. What little he could remember about his own disappearance was evidence enough.

He had been taken from a field, near where that madman and house-of-horrors was rumored to be. Stupid, really. He would say he deserved it, but if he didn't have his own wretched back, who the hell did?

The man reached out, swiping his gloved hand, temple to temple, across John's cold, sweaty forehead. He brought it to his nose, inhaling deeply, closing those Jurassic eyes.

John was really starting to hate his prioritization skills. Come to think of it, he may have mentioned that rumor to his brothers, during a family meeting. Joseph had cut him down with a sharp word ("No one could defy us in such a manner, and if they are, the Valley is your responsibility, John. Your cross to bear. Unless, of course, you have let Sloth take over again.").

Needless to say, he had let the matter fall.

"Mmm. They say scent is the strongest memory of the senses," O'Hara mused, lowering his hand and opening his eyes, staring off at nothing. He tapped his chest with a rubber finger. "I remember the metallic smell of my blood, as you cut me."

John rolled his eyes. Where was the raw passion in this monologue? The exultation?

"The stink of the rotting bodies, hanging from your ceiling. The fear, coming off the other prisoners, moaning in their cells like cats in heat."

Lord, spare me.

Thankfully, he turned his broad back to John, and pressed a button. An old TV lit up with a gray, static screen. A nest of wires ran from several old VHS tape players, but he knew enough about electronics to recognize a live camera feed.

"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," O'Hara finished. He turned around, facing John again. Eyes feral, lips wet. He ran his tongue over his teeth. He had long canines.

Bastard. John gnashed his teeth, a little vein throbbing in his forehead. He tested his binds, but the duct-tape was cutting off his circulation. Escape was a fantasy at best.

"If I atoned you, that means you have defected from Eden's Gate, from the Father himself!" he growled, thinking of his brother, his source of strength. He was relying on an old trick: act brave, and you'll feel brave. Even if he was ten seconds from pissing his jeans. "My brothers will find you. And ohhh, when they do, you'll wish-"

The man lunged, so fast he kicked the lamp and sent it sliding, and John caught a glimpse of a rock wall. The knife flashed, made its way back against his body, tip propped under his chin. Enough pressure, and he could cleave his tongue in two, maybe perform a little vivisection.

"-don't make me gag that pink mouth of yours, during the show."

O'Hara gestured with his thumb to the screen. John squinted. Someone was running, winding through a tight hallway, stuffed with strange, hulking props. Someone with short hair and a wildcat stride, hazardously fast, handgun held at the ready. Someone who knew to check their corners. Always looking for more rats...

O'hara scoffed, increasing pressure on the knife, forcing John to tilt his head back. The older man scanned him over, appraising the ligaments in and under his face. John's flesh crawled.

"No wonder she wants you," he grunted in conclusion, and John heard the sin he'd recognized during the man's absolute joke of a confession. "Even when you're bitching and moaning, you have a certain somethin'."

He tugged on the dark roots of John's short hair roughly, forcing him to bare his neck.

O'Hara's expression seamlessly switched from hungry to desirous. "Hell, enough shots of moonshine, maybe a couple pills, even I might throw a fuck into you, Baby Blue. Sometin' tells me I'm not the first man to try."

Words fell on deaf ears. John's heart sped up, unsure what he was seeing. The figure on the screen wove her way through confusing hallways, activating different camera feeds, still too blurry to make out. Her image became clear in his mind's eye.

What does he want with her?

O'Hara rambled on, "No woman ever looked at me, the way her face gets, when you call her."

"She belongs to Eden's Gate," John told him dryly. "Not to me."

"Or when she's staring at that fucking ridiculous sign of yours," O'Hara continued, dismissing his remark. John knew he should give it a rest, but he just couldn't help himself.

"It is a rather big sign. Tell you what, I'll have your body strung by your ankles in the middle of the 'E'," and the Deputy buried under you, if she resists me again."

Assuming he would outlive her, that was. Her figure on the TV was nearly slammed into a wall, not by another prop launching itself at her, but from her reaction to it. She recovered from a crouch and moved on on wobbly legs. Only a harmless haunted house, it seemed. He wondered how long that would last.

"Haven't you heard of subtlety?" O'Hara asked, watching the TV with him. "Then again, I'm the guy with the giant, lit-up house. But if everyone's looking at those big, white letters, no one's giving my place a second glance. No one but your Deputy. Probably looking for stuff to sell..."

The gray figure leaped back when a zombie shot up out the ground. She approached it, peering into its grimacing mask, touching it. Her suspicions not quite matching what John already knew, and he felt a pang of apprehension and dread. He couldn't be sure, but he swore she was making a face at it, sticking her tongue out. Have to admire her boldness. But she really should take things more seriously. And for the love of the Father, put your tongue back in your mouth, woman.

God, I sound like Jacob. Where is he when I need him?

"Still, my work does have its hidden surprises," O'Hara mused. "Just like my trail cams."

John gave him a questioning look.

"That's how I learned so much about her. You fucked her, right? Please tell me you did. Nothing's got to be more fun, than making a chick-cop squirm underneath you."

But responding to such vulgarity was beneath him. And he hadn't put a finger to the Deputy, not since she escaped his bunker. Not yet, anyway. But she had given him her 'Yes' . It was only a matter of time, and this hulking brute, coming between them and her salvation.

But he may as well have been stranded on the dark side of the moon, his family, his work, his 'passion-projects' way back on Earth. John forced himself to look away from the TV, the sudden loneliness almost unbearable.

"Well, almost nothing," O'Hara mumbled, rubbing his grizzled chin.

"What do you want, Everett!?" he hissed.

The man shrugged, and gazed at his own reflection in the knife. "What every adoring fan wants, I guess."

But he offered nothing else.

Panting, John licked his lips, using his lawyer's voice, "If you admire me so much, why not let me go? We have similar...passions, after all. Let me continue God's mission, and-"

THUNK! O'Hara stabbed the knife into the old wood of the worktable. To his credit, John didn't jump, or soil himself. A few beads of sweat snaked down his spine.

"And we get to the real cunt of the matter. The root of my...inability, to suspend my disbelief. You really DO believe in all his bullshit, don't you? Joseph's miracle elixir." O'Hara grinned again, flashing surprisingly white teeth.

"You swallowed it, didn't ya?" he goaded. "Slurped his fairy-tale up like a thirsty whore. Then again, not surprising. Addicts always need a higher power. Too bad yours is just a man."

John clenches his numb hands into fists. How dare this man talk down to him! He, who had offered this degenerate salvation, welcomed him into his family? The vein in his forehead pulsed as he intensified his glare, challenging that vacuous stare.

Some time with a few of Jacob's starving Judges would put you in your place. Whatever pieces they leave left, I'll carve my initials into, and hang them up with my airplane models!

"Why does it matter!?" John snarled instead. Even under duress, he knew the value in restraint.

"Everyone's got to have a motive. Just curious, from what well you're drawing from. And I don't think you're entirely telling the truth." O'Hara leaned in, face-to-face, and John realized this might be as close as he got to the last human he might ever see. The man's breath reeked of cigarettes, rotten meat. Bitter regret oozed on John's tongue again, seeped through his pores.

On the screen, a reanimated body spun around, butcher knife cocked for a stabbing frenzy. It froze in place. She kicked it in the shin, and John could see her mouth move as she cursed at it. 

"Admit you like it," O'Hara said. He held his own knife at his side.

John looked away from the screen again.

"Like what? Staring at your disgusting mug?" he hissed. "No, thanks."

His kidnapper's fist came out of nowhere, colliding with the side of his head. John cried out, and was nearly rocked from his chair.

O'Hara grabbed him by the collar, shaking him, and roared, "Don't play fucking dumb with me! You like watching them squirm! You love their pain. It does something to you, gets your blood up! Makes you hard. At some point you've learned to remember the screams, to put yourself to sleep. When you start working on them, really getting under the hood, that's when you truly SEE GOD."

"All right, yes!" he admitted. "Yes! I enjoy my work. It's my purpose. What God put me here for."

Anything to get your face out of mine.

He was still again, and pushed away from John, letting him go.

Sweet, sweet space.

O'Hara danced the knife playfully along his fingertips.

"What your walkin'-Waco-complex of a brother thought you needed, you mean. Hmph. Must run in the family. How many Faiths has he been through now? Does he like them innocent or already broken? My money's on busted. Yeah, he seems like the type to really enjoy having a busted doll at his feet, one he can put back together, just the way he likes. So he can use them just the way he likes. Ring a bell yet?"

John recoiled in his chair. He was feeling smaller, and when he felt small, he was truly helpless. A discarded shell.

But the urge to do his brother justice was strong. His lips peeled back, his teeth compressed, growling, "You shouldn't speak ill of Joseph. I'll make you pay, you fucking inbred, you...you disease. I swear."

But his kidnapper, for all his crudeness, didn't take kindly to insults. He picked something else up from the workbench, something smaller, blunter than a knife.

"You're in no position to swear anything, don't you think? Maybe I should remind you."

Whatever it was, moved fast, and bit into John's left collarbone. His eyes rolled into his head, and his thoughts fled to his brother, all his 'lessons' about pain, about fear. But Joseph was a ghost, far away from that place. A second bite took a chunk out of his ear. Hot blood spilled down his neck. His blue eyes rolled in front, fixating on the TV, where the figure was clumsily scrambling up some crates, trying to get to the second floor of the house...

Chapter Text

Rook sprang up through a hole in the wooden floor. She tripped almost instantly. Her service weapon slipped from her hands, clattering to the floorboards.

"Shit!"

She landed hard on her rump. Bounced back quickly, stumbling to her feet. Story of her life.

"Crap." She remembered her gun and snatched it up. Shhh, it's okay. Mommy didn't mean to hurt you.

Shaken, with a new hole in the seat of her jeans, but otherwise unharmed, she stood to her full height. Freakish carnival music played from speakers, regrettably out of the range of her baseball bat. Her boots planted apart, she rested both hands against her hips, leaning back.

"Fuck me," she gawked under her breath.

The second floor of O'Hara's House of Horrors wasn't better than the first. And that had been an absolute shit-show. This room was eerily quiet (aside from the circus music) and still as a grave. Devoid of traps and spooks (she hoped). It smelled...lived in. Remnants of paint, solvents, and machine oil, clinging to the air like phantoms. Tobacco. Sweat. Something metallic and sharp, a scent she couldn't place.

Someone had spent a great deal of time here. Gone through great pains to make everything, downstairs. This was evidently his workshop.

She stared at a red balloon, framed by a halo of smoky sunlight, and shuddered. 

A real charmer, the guy who designed this Halloween 'ride'. And she even liked that holiday. Come October, she lived for that shit. Forced her friends to attend her parties, squeezed her three adopted mutts into various humiliating costumes, sitting around a bonfire and getting plastered on spiked cider. Classic movies playing all night, until the candles in the jack o' lanterns sputtered out.

Those were better times. Lately real monsters, disguised as godly men, were turning her life into a horror movie. One she never signed up to act in. You certainly wouldn't catch her dead in front of a camera.

The circus music died abruptly. It must not have been designed to loop. Sure, that was it.

For her to loathe a simple haunted house, this guy must have borrowed a page from the cult's book. Or John's diary. Assuming he wrote in one, and didn't just bounce his ravings off his captives. He'd been all-too-happy to soliloquize during her confession, but she'd ended it prematurely, taking a tumble down the stairwell. They did say people fell when they were in love. Or scared out of their wits. The bruises on her legs still hadn't healed from her tour of John's horror bunker.

Yes Lieutenant, but you should see the other guy. Or should I say, guys. And one woman, I think.

And now she had this haunted house to thank, for re-traumatizing her. She didn't even look twice at the piles of cash and scattered ammo on the counter. At least this den was missing its snake. For now.

Outside, she heard the echoing drone of helicopters. More than one. Probably Jacob's.

"God." She gripped the handgun tight. "Get me off this ride."

No one answered. Especially not the mannequins, shoved to the corners.

"What is this stuff?" she murmured, looking back at the balloon. Only one way to find out.

She walked gingerly from wall to wall. Appraising things, though she knew by instinct there were no threats. She was used to drug dens. Animal hoarders. The occasional Florida man, in search of Bigfoot, who needed shipped in a crate back to his swamp.

She picked up a note, titled 'Clown Thoughts':

you have the fear of god you need the fear of THE DEVIL you need to FEAR IT

you take a young person and take their body and mind

you use their empty corpses to find more young people whose bodies you can steal no no-

Yeah, no thanks. She set it down, without finishing it. Didn't need spoilers, to know how that one ended. Dude could give John Seed a run for his money, that was for sure. At least John was open about his psychopathy. This guy was sneaky. Snake, indeed.

"I don't have to seeeell my sooooul," Rook sang uneasily, trying to create some noise. "He's already in meeee."

A fresh pack of cigarettes held more interest. Half-smoked, as if the person had left in a hurry. Reds. Non-menthol. Ugh. A man of presumed taste, and those were the worst. She supposed she should be glad he didn't vape. She took one, lit it with her own lighter, and puffed on the filter. It tasted stale. Lifeless.

"I wannaaaa be adored."

The floorboards creaked under her boots. Little gaps in them gave her glimpses of the flashing lights and dry-ice fog below. The glass eye of one of the props, staring up at her.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

She stretched languidly, yawning, tongue curling like one of her dogs after a long run. Weird shit aside, she was somewhat grateful her exploration hadn't ended the usual way. That was to say, in fire and smoke. Blood and broken glass. A call from the Baptist. Of all the Seeds, he was the most 'invested' in her. Usually she had to get men drunk to show her that kind of attention.

...Why don't you say something? I know you're not a mute.

Rook's shoulders stiffened. She twisted her lip, ashing her cigarette on the floor. She dragged her boot across it, smearing it into a blurred, black line. The pale blue eye gazed up at her from the crack. The youngest brother had all the dirty work unloaded onto him, it seemed. They had that in common. She was the youngest of four. As a child, people often mistook her for one of her brothers. As an adult, they mistook her for many things.

A fish, for example. She snorted, recalling John's death-grip on her bulletproof vest. Drowning her, as if she were a mistake, one he could just hold under water and forget about. Feel the strength leave her hands. Never have to see her face again.

She doubted there was anything else they had in common. She tapped the cigarette again, ashes falling down into the crack.

In the absence of smoke, Rook sniffed, gagging. A tub full of stinking meat festered to her left. The mannequins seemed to threaten her in silent judgment.

"You are the company you keep, I guess."

She took a long drag from her cig, flicking her oily bangs out of her eyes. Water, water, everywhere in Eden, but showers were forbidden fruit. The mannequins didn't seem to mind.

Air. She suddenly needed air. A barred window at the front of the house displayed bird's eye view of the zip-line. The one she had used only minutes ago. Creepy. But no one's there. No one was watching herWere they?

"Sure could use another beer, right about now."

Down below and past the second house, her stolen Peggie truck was parked in the grass. An empty 40 oz. bottle in the cup holder, payment from a gas station she had liberated earlier, and all by herself, thank you very much. No word from her sworn enemy, her self-appointed redeemer, would-be torturer, for that little offense. She had almost been disappointed, while unscrewing that cap with trembling, bloodstained fingers, taking guilty gulps.

She belched loudly, for emphasis. Covered her mouth with her fist, remembering her manners. Fuck it, there was no one around. She lowered it.

If she was going to stop a doomsday cult, she should probably stop drinking at such early hours. Wasn't really her style to begin with. But the times, they were a-changin'.

The weird music started up again. The soft, downy hairs on the back of her neck and arms raised all at once in static union.

Listening, staring into the blank face of a female mannequin dismembered on the floor, a flashback hit her. The grim remnant of an awful promise unkept. This place was too similar, it couldn't be helped. She remembered, just what it had been like, strapped to the chair. The sheer, devilish glee on that deceptively handsome face, as he'd rolled Hudson out of the room. Who knew the power of 'YES' held such joy...

Thy sin is Lust, perhaps.

"Get a hold of yourself." She shook her head, and the color from her cheeks.

If only the handful of men she had (very briefly) dated had shown the same enthusiasm. Most of them, three of them fellow police, took her for a novelty, something fun, rough-and-tumble, but not 'wife material'. Not even 'show off in front of your buddies' material. Fast, furious, and forgotten.

But John. Oh, John. He was going to work on her, turn her into something he could parade in front of Joseph. He had left quite the impressions on her. 

The music skipped, a broken record, and cut off.

Fuck that noise. 

A loud hiccup rocked her on her feet. She shook her head. Job needed doing. Mom didn't raise her to be weak, knowing she would learn some hard lessons early in life, the way she looked. Nothing would be handed to her. She would have to work for it all. And she never let what men thought of her stop her, before. She sure as shit wasn't gonna start now.

Her gaze settled on a tripod and camera. Alarm bells went off, but she chalked them up to the scares she'd had on the first floor. Every screaming, snarling human prop she'd encountered looked...real. Fresh. More so than the models she'd seen at a wax museum, as a little girl. No Elvis's down there to sing her the blues, though.

She took another pull off the cigarette, cherry glowing. One agitated finger tapping the filter. Her lips blew a thin stream of smoke. She decided against touching the camera, looking it over, instead. Disconnected. She doubted it would power up if she tried.

"This guy one of yours, John?" she murmured, deep in thought. The cigarette bobbing between her lips. She raked her fingers through her hair, tugging on the roots. "Didn't tell me you were in the business of hiring serial killers. Just when I thought you told me all your dirty little secrets. Then again, we never did get to have that 'talk'."

The owner of the house was clearly disturbed, but, based on the other note she'd found, it was evident he thought the cultists were beneath him. That made him a friend. Didn't it? She glanced sideways, at the broken doll on the floor. At the camera again. Shivered lightly.

What was she doing, talking out loud to herself in this place? Didn't she have better things to do? Why had God seen fit to put her here?

Silence pressed in. Wind howled through the windows, the cracks. The house groaned.

Perhaps she should ask John the next time she saw him. Lord knew when that would be. For a guy both Addie and Hurk claimed had a hard-on for her ("Hard-on for my head on a spike, maybe. The fuck are you both smoking?"), he sure made a habit of ghosting himself.

She rolled her eyes, Flies buzzed in a cloud, above the rotting, mystery meat. She watched them-

BRRRRRRRRRRRRIIIINNGGGGG-IIIIIIING-IIIIING!

"Gah!" She shrieked and aimed her handgun out of sheer instinct, but it was only the black rotary phone, ringing loud enough to make her ears sting. She picked it up.

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" a high-pitched voice cackled. "Ahahahaha, ahahahaaaaaaaaaaaa..."

Then: click.

Silence.

"Why me?" she groaned.

The receiver shook in her hand. Her cigarette drooped between her lips, forgotten. Were it not for John's violent radio calls, she might have said it was the weirdest call she'd ever received. There she went again, making comparisons. Who was the main villain in this story, again? Right. The Seeds. Not some Halloween hobbyist with too much time on his hands.

Still, between the note, the mystery meat, the questionable positioning of the mannequins, she wondered: perhaps there were worse things, lurking in society. Waiting, behind a mask, for some chaotic thing, some catalyst, to rip it off, run amok in the daylight, demons loosed from hell. Or homicidal lunatics let out of the asylum. Free to pick off the weak and vulnerable. Maybe find a throat or two, to sink their teeth into, while the wolves were busy giving chase.

"Rook! Come in, Rookie!"

She jumped again, dropping the receiver, letting it swing. Thank God her superiors weren't around to see.

"Fucking hell!" she gasped. She made her way over to the window, leering down at the truck, Whitehorse's voice drifting up from the CB speaker. Seeing her vehicle resting in pool of dapper sunlight, she fought the wild urge to claw her way through the cracked walls and jump down.

She gripped the bars of the window. There were no ghosts, no malevolent witches stalking the halls below, but she couldn't shake the feeling of eyes, on the back of her head.

The room was missing something. Rook stabbed her cigarette at the balloon on her way out. POP!

Perfect.

Sweet, sweet daylight. She inhaled the fresh, summer air, as she walked over to the truck.

"Rook?" Whitehorse's voice called.

"Sheriff?" She leaned across the front seat, her legs sticking out. She could use a damned nap after that little adventure.

Static hissed. "Need to...come to...prison, ASAP."

She bolted upright.

"What's going on?"

"Notice....radio in...Holland Valley...missing a certain prick, lately?"

She glanced up at the 'YES' sign in the distance. The electric sign to the haunted house spit out a stream of sparks.

"Yeah, over."

John's been weirdly quiet, the last day, or so. Usually he's threatened me with bodily harm by now. Or tried to woo me with the wonders of faith healing. You'd think he'd try to bribe a cop, set me up with a condo in Atlanta. Salary's not what it used to be.

"Well, we got..." While fiddling with the dial, the volume spiked all of a sudden. "COMPANY OVER HERE!"

Rook gritted her teeth and turned it down. Pressed her forehead into the leather seat, sighing with relief.

Back to nearly a whisper, more static, "And they're packing...serious heat. They...John Seed...missing."

She sat up.

"How much company? As in the whole family?" she asked. "What the fuck's that supposed to mean? Over."

A long, unsettling pause. Perhaps Whitehorse was fighting the radio.

"Just get over here, kid, and be fast about it. There's a blockade at the road. They'll disarm you and send you in."

She pinched the skin between her eyebrows, hard. She had just helped them take the prison back.

"Sheriff. Earl. Did Faith's men-"

"Think I'm stupid?" Whitehorse interrupted. "I wouldn't lead you into a trap, believe me. This was arranged on both sides. Just double-time it over here! Over and out."

"Over and out."

Rook set the radio down. She inhaled deeply, eyeing the house through the passenger window. Her cigarette lighter dug into her thigh. Much as she would have relished watching that thing collapse to cinders, there were more pressing matters at hand.

Her nerves were sparking all over the place, and wasn't all from the Sheriff's distress call. She squeezed the steering wheel tightly. She made a point not to look into the rear-view mirror as she drove away.

It didn't matter.

The memory of the house alone was enough to make her shudder, as if a corpse were rolling its bony fingertips along her spine.

Chapter Text

Her truck ground to a stop outside the prison, thick tires chewing up gravel. While the engine clicked and hissed, Rook paused for a moment, gulping a deep breath of air that smelled skunky and floral. Bliss-tinged. Her shoulders sagged, hands damp against the steering wheel, her fingernails bloody and torn.

It was disheartening to see the jail overrun. Her only solace was watching the armed Cougars hound the cultists' footsteps, their purple pins winking in the sunlight. Reminding the Peggies of their shadows. A blockade had been erected in both directions on the main road, the dwarf-star glow of road flares blindingly bright, even in the day. At her arrival, both sides started chattering and pointing.

Yeah, yeah, everyone gather 'round, take a look at the new exhibit.

"There's the sinner, now!"

The Peggies swarmed the truck. 

"Hold still! Arms above your head!"

Two men pulled her from the truck, took her guns, and began frisking her. She kept her eyes straight ahead, staring at the barbed wire on the catwalk. From the guard tower window, dressed in gray and black, a Cougar sniper kept close watch. One man grabbed her forearm to lift it. A spiraling scar with spiked notches wound from wrist to elbow.

"Christ woman. Were you born in a fucking meat grinder?" the one behind her asked, no doubt noticing the ones on her bare neck, too.

"Life's a chopping block, and we're the meat," she murmured.

"What was that, sinner?"

"Nothing."

The other reached between her thighs, and her heart began to pound despite herself. Making a rough go of it, taking his time. Her face burned in the afternoon sunlight.

"I'm not holding!" she snapped.

"Aw, izzit your first time?" the other Peggie sneered mockingly. "Don't worry, Ed here's real gentle-like."

"I'm sure the middle-school girls appreciate that."

"Shut the fuck up."

He finished smoothing down her ankles.

"Lucky the Father is so gracious. Even with our Baptist missing, God bless and keep him. Move."

He shoved her by the shoulder. Didn't have to tell her twice. Tracey Lader came outside the gate to meet her, none-too-thrilled to have a bad case of Pegs crawling around her home. The men held onto her stuff, and she shot them death glares over her shoulder. 

"Everyone okay?" Rook asked.

Tracey sniffed with derision. She leaned in. "Just make this quick, Rookie. Don't like these fuckers in my jail. Stinks up the place, you know?"

Rook nodded and fell into a troubled silence. She was led by a strange mashup of her allies and enemies: Tracey, another prison fighter, and two armed Peggies. Traversing shadows and concrete hallways. Empty cells, bars in every wall. It felt like they had just washed the last of the bloodstains from the cracks.

Mind you keep the floors clean.

The main block was far from empty.

Positioned almost identically to the night of the failed arrest were Joseph, Jacob, and Faith. Surrounded by the best muscle the cult had to offer. Joseph was the only one seated, fully dressed in his gray suit with the tacky western design. Worry-lines marred his otherwise smooth, greasy features. The lidded electric eyes beneath his yellow aviators broadcasted a peculiar frequency. Looking at everything, and only her, at the same time. A dangerous gift, in the wrong hands. Right now his were clasped in his lap, harmless enough. A flat, black object rested beneath them.

The Seed family tree had lost a branch. John was nowhere to be seen. Her stomach churned.

Opposite them, the Cougars and Sheriff Whitehorse formed a defensive wall. Her boss nodded to her. Just take it easy.

Easy for you! She gave him a horrified, wide-eyed look, resuming her calm demeanor when she turned back. She stood under a hanging light. The only one between the Seeds and the people who had her back. There was less tension in a bio-weapon lab with a gas leak.

"Joseph," she greeted, for all the world polite and soft. "You're missing your handcuffs."

"Ungrateful heathen!" a red-faced Peggie cried. "You will address him as 'Father' Joseph!"

Joseph held up a free hand to silence him.

"My brother John is the one missing," he said, ignoring her sarcasm. No one in the prison acted surprised. Word of mouth got around fast.

"Holland Valley is deeply vulnerable while he's gone. We came here, all of us, in good faith-"

Tracey hawked and spat, her projectile landing halfway between her and the Father. Showing him just how far her faith in him went.

Jacob and his hunters took a menacing step forward (That explains the helicopters from earlier, she realized). One high-voltage stare from Joseph, and they halted. For now.

"Go on, Father," Whitehorse told Joseph. "Speak your peace."

"-in the hope that some mutual cooperation may take place," he finished. He rested his hands on the flat object, the rosary dangling.

A man who'd helped Rook retake the prison shook his head. "Un-fucking-believable. I lost my son to these clowns. Get these fuckers outta here."

"Asshole stole my ride, he's got it locked up at his ranch!" another whined.

Rook winced. Whitehorse took the lead.

"In exchange for your help, Rook, Joseph has agreed to cease all conflict in the Valley. Permanently. This is a major win," the Sheriff said.

"If you help us get him back," Jacob interjected.

Rook raised her eyebrows dubiously.

"There are two other regions you're forgetting about," she said, strictly to Joseph. Thinking of the Whitetails and their struggle. Pratt and Burke, still prisoners. Hudson as well, for that matter. She was really doing a bang-up job freeing her allies.

Jacob uncrossed his arms. "That's the deal, woman. Take it or leave it."

She hated how he always leered at her like she was a piece of meat. And 'woman'? Did she miss something? Were they back in the Stone Age?

Joseph held up the flat object that had attracted her curiosity the moment she came into the room. It was a black vinyl record.

The breath caught in her lungs.

"This was sent to me. To my private quarters."

She didn't miss the implication. She doubted that address was public knowledge.

A guard came forward with a portable player. Joseph set the record in the center. The pin dropped. Rook glanced behind her. The prison fighters were jittery with disbelief. Schoolchildren with firepower. Lots of itching trigger fingers, in this room. She'd better not give them anything to scratch.

Thankfully, there was a distraction. A song played, filling the prison with a golden oldie she didn't recognize:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out the saints are comin' through
And it's all over now, baby blue

The glibness of the threat made her shiver. This was another level of demented that surpassed Jacob, John, Faith. Anybody.

"How much of this-" she started to ask.

Jacob ripped the record out and broke it over his knee, throwing it away. Rook couldn't help but savor a note of irony. How many times had he used that awful music box against her? Tables were turning. Pun not intended.

Minding her tone, she asked delicately, so as not to bruise anyone's gigantic, statuesque ego:

"What kind of security are you running at that compound? It seems it's someone who knows you well."

"How they knew where to send it, remains unsolved," Joseph said. She would have detected scathing bitterness, had he not spoken so eloquently.

"Not for long," Jacob rumbled. His bright eyes scanned the Cougars with a roving predator gaze. He was thirsting for the blood of the one who had nabbed his little brother. She was somewhat envious, not having someone in her corner. Always having to be her own strength was exhausting at times.

"It's meant for John, right?" she asked, more for the people standing behind her to understand. Baby Blue. There was nothing subtle about it. Even she could remember those eyes, piercing her through the lens of muddy water. Then later, in a red, red room, that frostbite-blue still managed to scald her.

A sinking feeling weighed her down worse than cement shoes. This was getting way too complicated, and fast. It was already complicated enough!

"Somebody kidnapped my brother," Joseph said.

Oh, the irony. She could have sworn she heard someone behind her cough.

"Details?" she asked, when no one spoke.

"We believe while he was inspecting a Bliss farm," Jacob briefed them. "Whoever sent the record is sending us a clear message. They have John. They will kill him."

Splendid. Do my job for me. The insane thought faded fast. She had dealt with some real peaches in her police work. Wife beaters and abusers. Rapists. Dope fiends, drug dealers, biker gangs who would gun down their own mothers if they thought it would earn them another dollar, another score. Human scum. And John was the king of Scum Mountain, though his siblings were rapidly climbing the ranks.

Even so, she wasn't the type to wish death on anyone. Her job was to save lives. Not end them. The sword and the shield. Protect and serve.

The Seeds, and their guards, all shot the Sheriff an accusatory glare.

"The Resistance had nothing to do with it!" Whitehorse cried. Her boss looked about ready to blow a trail of gun smoke out of there and retire someplace tropical.

"Oh, believe me, we wouldn't be here, otherwise," Joseph assured him. He held up a scrap of paper. "The record came with instructions."

A guard took it, handing it over to her. Rook scoffed, but her disgust at all their pretense, their self-involved drama, quickly melted into a puddle at her feet as she read the contents:

I have your Baptist, the handsome one smiling on the billboards. He's not smiling anymore. If you want Baby Blue, you'll have to come get him. Put the Rookie cop on the job. No one else.

Any of your cult clowns tries anything or if that ginger jar-head does something funny, I'll carve a nice, big smile across his jugular. Have you seen my haunted house? I've become rather good at working on faces.

You have one day, from the receipt of this message. Start where 16 was once, now only 1 stands.

Time doesn't tick any slower down here in the dark, Miss Deputy.  Or should I call you Detective now?

Either way, I hope you know how to swim. Make your decision and make it fast. 

The writing made her skin scrawl, looking way too familiar. The note had a timestamp.

"Ten hours?" she cried, waving the note in exasperation. "You waited until I only have TEN HOURS, Joseph?"

"We needed a plan," Jacob defended. As if that should be all she needed to know.

"Rook?" Whitehorse asked tiredly. "What's it say?"

"That last line...what does that mean?" she asked the Seeds instead. She wasn't talking about the riddle. "Swim where? What decision?"

Fuck if they knew. She met Joseph's stare, pleading with him silently for answers. He gave her nothing.

"Go to the Hot Springs Hotel," Faith spoke up, stepping forward. She sounded haggard. Rook could have sworn there were bruises peeking under her collar, poorly concealed by makeup.

"Where 16 become one. 16 people killed in the avalanche there, where one hotel stands now," she finished.

"Why the fuck should she trust you, Faith?" Tracey roared, earning a death glare from Jacob.

Faith's pretty eyes were downcast. One hand rubbed her upper arm, and she appeared to fighting the urge to cry. Or wince.

"The men there have missed the last three check-ins. The hotel has been compromised by someone."

But who? Rook wondered.

"Someone we believe may have built a...house. In Holland Valley," Faith added. Extra emphasis on 'house'.

Rook opened her mouth, but no sound came out. It's him. The clown guy!

"He may have been killing in John's region for some time, hiding the bodies inside. Do you know of it?"

I was just there. Only he wasn't hiding the bodies.

...He was putting them on display. What kind of sick mind does that?

Rook nodded, stiff as a board. The note sagged in her hands. Whitehorse stepped forward, gripping her shoulder tight. He whispered in her ear.

"Focus. A lot's riding on this, kid."

The paper shook.

"Maybe we should let this guy keep John," she suggested to him, out the side of her mouth. "He wasn't exactly a ray of sunshine."

"That thought did cross my mind," he muttered. "But take a look at them. You think they won't punish us for this, even if it's not our fault?"

Rook stared. The Peggies were growing more agitated by the second. Joseph's eyes could have combusted the note to ashes. Jacob fumed, about ready to start a war for John, happy to tear the entire county to pieces, raze it to the ground, and Faith was dejected, having lost her hypnotic glow. The pack wolves were circling, and though the floors were sparkling clean, there was blood in the air.

She felt absolutely miserable. But she dared not show it. The corner of her mouth twitched once, and nothing more.

"I can't do this, Earl."

Whitehorse growled, "You don't have a choice. Got a call from Jerome. Heavy Peggie muscle, artillery, lots of chatter on the radio. They're preparing for a mass takeover, if you fail. This is for show, so we don't attack them while they're wounded."

While they're weak. And they weren't the only ones. Rook wasn't so sure this wasn't some sort of demented test on Joseph's part.

Speaking of, Joseph stood, preparing to leave. Faith at his side, hooking her elbow with his. His guards swarmed him in a protective circle. Jacob and his hunters brought up the rear guard, challenging the Cougars with arrogant gazes, smirks.

Rook muttered to the Sheriff, "This is messed up. I'm HCPD, not a detective. What am I supposed to do?"

"Trust your gut," Whitehorse suggested. "I'm no detective, neither. This is beyond any of us. Gotta see these people out, excuse me."

They followed the Peggie escort out of the prison. In the open air, the wind, the tension seemed to thin out. But only a little. They herded Joseph toward an unmarked van. Rook supposed the Pope-mobile would be too obvious. The Father seemed hesitant to leave, though, his head bowed in contemplation. He was truly concerned for his baby brother, the one he took such twisted pride in redeeming. Not a soul dared to touch him as he paused, though she heard the prison guards mutter snide remarks, ones she prayed Jacob didn't hear.

She couldn't take it anymore. Rook walked off to the side, near a field of Bliss, keeping safe distance. Held her arms against herself in a tight hug. She wanted the grisly note away from her, crumpling it in her fingers.

"Deputy!"

Faith dashed across the blacktop toward her. Rook marveled at how she was able to traverse any ground barefoot. The young woman held out a square bottle, filled with crimson, swirling liquid. It whispered of Jacob for some reason.

"Not supposed to take drugs from strangers, sorry," she said waspily.

Faith never wavered, standing in supplication, offering her the vial. Rook picked it up, after letting the other woman hang for a minute. She hadn't forgotten: Burke was still her prisoner.

"If you find yourself in a bad spot, use this. It might help. But don't breathe it in."

Rook eyed her distrustfully. Her gaze softened upon seeing the awful bruises. She'd had more than one woman feign an injury, just to take a swing at her. Didn't change the fact that she felt sorry for them. Most of them, anyway.

"Thanks, Rachel. I'll try and bring your Baptist back in one piece."

Faith's innocent facade cracked, at the mention of her real name. But she recovered flawlessly, with a tender smile, and turned around, showing another bruise above her shoulder blade, the back of her shin. Joseph had evidently been displeased at her losing the Hotel outpost.

Nice family, these people. She could see why John was, well, John. Didn't excuse any of their behavior, though. But if she had kept that attitude about her job, she'd be burnt out of work in a single day.

"Three days, Deputy," Jacob warned, and she snapped to. He jabbed three fingers in the air. "If you fail, it's over. For all of you."

"Just you try it!" Tracey snarled from the catwalk, almost in tears. "Just try!"

He turned his back to her.

Joseph regarded her, as she approached. A wall of guards stopped her from getting too close.

He seemed to almost want invite her over, but stopped himself.

He called to her, "Help John, child. Or all will be lost."

...to you, his angelic eyes seemed to whisper.

Then he climbed inside.

"Be keeping an eye on you, Deputy," Jacob said. "From the sky."

The convoy sped off down the road, Joseph and Faith in the van. Jacob's choppers buzzed somewhere close by. Everyone watched the motorcade snake away, down the road, praying that would be the last time they saw such a thing. The Sheriff tried to keep everyone calm, thanking them for holding back their thirst for vengeance.

As soon as the Peggies cleared out of there, helicopters hovering in the distance, the prison became an uproar of opinions she never asked for.

"Let the Baptist get what he deserves!" someone shouted at Rook.

"You don't have to do this!" someone else told her.

"Fuck that guy!" Tracey agreed. "We'll go to war. I'm done runnin'."

She doubted Nick Rye and the other families, people with children in the county felt the same. Hell, she didn't have kids or even a husband, and she was scared.

"You ready, kid?" Whitehorse asked, walking up to her a few minutes later.

She didn't answer, staring blankly at the note. Her time in that haunted house suddenly took on a whole new, disturbing meaning.

"As ready as I'll ever be, I guess," she said quietly.

"Get over to that Hotel and check it out," he said. As if it were that simple. But the man wasn't one to stand around crying about shit. That was what made him a good boss, she supposed.

"Don't suppose backup's in the cards for me."

"I don't think the Pegs would take too kindly to you disobeying that guy's instructions. But I didn't live to be this old without learnin' a thing or two about fooling smartasses. But I need time, Rook. And you're wastin' it here."

She mumbled, "Anything happens to me, take care of my dogs, would you? They were strays once. Growling, attacking anyone who got near them. But they know kind people, when they meet them, now."

"I'll do my best. As long as you do yours not to make 'em strays again," he suggested, with a pat on the shoulder. He handed her a parting gift of an ammo clip, then left her to her thoughts. Moments later, the engine of the truck idled loudly. She started driving down the road, about to turn right, in the direction of the hotel. A Peggie song yowled over the radio.

They'll look high and they'll look low
They'll look everywhere we go
But when the sinners find us we won't hide
They'll come loud and they'll come fast
But we shoot first and we can last
Keep your rifle by your side

She didn't have a hunting rifle, but her handgun rested, heavy in her lap. Cutting the wheel, she turned sharply out of the prison lot and burst through the abandoned blockade, onto the main road.

Chapter Text

He only let up when John's blood misted the floor with red.

Most of it had sprayed from his nose. A cut extended across his right cheek. His left eye was pinched shut by a welt the size of an egg. His earring had torn loose, and his collarbone, judging by the pinpoint of agony, was either cracked or broken.

"Not quite the face on the billboards now, eh?" O'Hara chuckled.

"Nothing...some time in my bunker, won't fix," John panted, leering at him through slit vision. "Perhaps you'll...join me there, soon."

Everett grunted, and set down the dripping hammer. The old TV displayed a dead, black and white image of a hallway. Empty, save for the props. He gazed off into the darkness, remarking,

"Surprised you handled it so well. Always heard you were a giant pussy who jumps at his own shadow."

"Happy to disappoint you, heathen."

Sagging into the chair, tape constricting his wrists and ankles, John could only gather a mouthful of blood to spit at him. But he was too weak to even do that. He swallowed it instead. Though his body may have quit on him, the coppery taste reminded him that he was still very much alive and at this man's mercy. As laughable as that word was.

Yes, he certainly felt like laughing. He cracked a bit, split, swollen lips peeling back, and did so. The sound was hollow. Mirthless.

O’Hara beamed scathingly. "That's more like it, John. I know it'd be a waste, on somebody so used to pain. But I have to test you. See if that image you project holds up."

He shook his head at him. John had no strength left to defend his ego. All he could do was laugh, and even that didn’t last long. O'Hara held up his gloved hands, in a manner that eerily reminded him of Joseph when he talked about one of his visions.

"When I'm done with you, the outside will match the inside. It will inspire. Frighten. Awe." He squatted to eye-level with him. In the absence of the lamplight, his sunken, overworked eyes were two gleaming pitfalls. He ripped his own shirt down again to expose the ENVY scars.

And when I'm done with YOU, not even Joseph will find fault with me, this time.

"Surely you can appreciate that! You are the one who showed me, after all. The power of Yes? Fuck that. The power of Fear. That's the true power."

Yes. Anything you say, John thought, repressing a distorted smile, his eyes shut.

He heard clinking, and cracked them. O'Hara rummaged through a tray of tools, muttering to himself. He could have sighed. Where was an obnoxious, stubborn, trigger-happy deputy when he needed her?

"You still haven't told me what you want with me," he said. Worth a shot.

O'Hara slammed the tray down, rattling the tools. Fuck.

"What's your rush? We're still gettin' to know one another. I'm not going to half-ass our time together." He jabbed a dirty finger at him, feigning injury. "Like you did with my confession."

Oh, but I already know everything I need to, Everett the Envious.

"Besides, you're forgetting someone." O'Hara piped up. He pointed to the television. "My 'House of Horrors' was a little sneak preview. I'm having your Deputy go somewhere very special. I've given her specific instructions."

He's telling me an awful lot. I must have less time than I think.

O'Hara seemed about to spread his arms wide, as if in revelation. Instead, he hugged his own chest, shuddering, "It is my Labyrinth! My greatest creation. Up 'til now, anyway."

"...And the Deputy?" John wondered, trying to figure out the extent of the wires damaged in that man's head. "She's your Theseus?"

O'Hara's disappointed frown sent a wave of nausea through him. He reached for a pair of surgical scissors on the tray.

"Theseus was a hero, John."

The scissors snicked once, sharp as talons. Energy came back at the sight of that little silver beak. John rocked the chair with his body, fought against his restraints, to no avail. O'Hara walked up to him.

"If you're just going to murder us, why keep me alive?" he cried. He was about to unravel, his good eye widened, fixated on the scissors.

"More effective, that way. Haven't you ever hunted with rabbits? Got to snap their legs, so the foxes can hear them wailing, and they come a-runnin'. Got to make sure your brothers know you're still alive and kicking. Speaking of."

He leaned over him. John shrank against the back of the chair, shaming himself.

"Don't worry, Baby Blue. I need you whole. Most of you, anyway."

He grabbed a generous handful of his blue silk shirt, and cut away a huge chunk. No mistaking that material, in any lighting.

"That little clip should suffice. Be back soon. Don't go anywhere."

But the dim light of the cramped little room vanished, and the world and its unfair miseries dropped out from under him.


John wakes up in the dream again.

The circus is in town.

It's crept into the heart of the Holland Valley—this remote, empty dream version of it anyway. A tall fence with black tarp walls and barbed wire encircles the entire thing. Inside, a Ferris wheel sits, a rusted skeleton no one in their right mind would want to ride. Empty cars hang like rotten fruit from its spokes. A wooden roller coaster twists and snakes, tying itself into an infinity knot, one that only time and decay can undo. It’s well into that process by the state of it. Various other smaller rides and game booths clutter into a grayscale jungle, the roofs of which he can barely see over the fence spikes.

Calliope music drifts from afar, beckoning him to come closer.

This has got to stop, John thinks hopelessly, creasing his brow. He flexes his fingers on impulse. If Joseph sees this, he’ll flog me ALIVE.

Well, isn’t that the point of flogging, anyway? Beneath his shirt, the ragged scars on his shoulders itch, the way they sometimes did when it was going to rain. The sky is an unplugged monitor, absent of clouds or a moon. A few razor-sharp star points pierce through.

He jumps down from the wooden post again. Dusts the shoulders of his overcoat off. Starts the long trek over to the ticket booth and entrance. No visions of mazes and nightmares of family outings to distract him, this time.

The wind is the only sound, whistling, tugging at the tarp, testing its strength. The windows of the ticket booth are soaped up. Someone’s smeared with their finger: ‘Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate’.

Please. John scoffs, hands resting lightly on his hips. He turns to the entrance gates. There are wreaths of fresh Bliss flowers woven through the iron bars. The wooden sign above the gate is so badly faded, he can’t make it out. Someone’s splashed fresh, white paint over the old lettering: ‘REPENT!’ Antlers dangle from a string beneath that, twisting in a breeze he cannot detect.

A phantom runs, just out of his field of vision, darting between the game booths.

Oh no you don’t, Deputy. Not letting you get away this time.

John runs after her. Time seems to slow down to a crawl. He presses on, passing boarded up stands and slumbering rides, a congregation of cobwebs. The lights are off. Nobody’s home. The scents of popcorn and cotton candy linger under the omnipresent tang of wood, oil, and dead leaves. Vague memories from his childhood well up, trapping each footfall in quicksand. It takes him an eternity—and he’s certain he gotten sent back to the entrance once or twice—but he perseveres, makes it to the heart of the carnival.

The calliope music swells, the pipes play cheerfully. The carousel has been well-maintained, compared to everything else, turning as if powered by a limitless source. The red lights are on. Carved-up horses whirl by in a parade of sins: LUST. GLUTTONY. PRIDE. GREED.

On the other side, she waits for him. He knows better than to run after her.

Meet me in my hell...


Rook knew she was running on borrowed time. Quite literally. But her gut told her not to follow the kidnapper’s instructions. Not yet.

She had ten hours, and she planned on using them to her full advantage. John would just have to sit tight, wherever he was. She'd be a liar if she said he didn't deserve time in his kidnapper's 'hot seat'.

Not just a kidnapper, but a psychotic killer. She would also be a liar if she said the guilt wasn’t chewing away her, fraying her at the seams. John needed extreme psychological counseling and time behind bars. Possibly a lifetime committed somewhere. He did not need to be tortured and executed in the same manner he had done to so many.

Or did he?

After pulling out of the prison lot, she cut the wheel hard, to the left. Headed west toward Holland Valley, driving like a bat out of Faith’s region. Something about the Bliss in the air didn’t sit right. She needed to clear her damned head.

No one followed her. She was doing okay, formulating a plan, until she arrived at a bridge, where a body was strung up with white trumpet-shaped flowers and even whiter sheets. Well, mostly white. She slid out the truck to get a better view. Sank to her haunches, catching her breath, the wind knocked out of her suddenly.

The body was too high up for her to cut him down. Red letters had been sliced into his naked chest for all to see: SINNER.

Rook hated that she recognized that handwriting, too.

“This is you, John,” she thought aloud, standing up. She wondered what that man had done to piss John off, to deserve such horrific treatment, if that was even the right word for it. “You have your reasons. I bet you believe they’re sound. Or maybe, you just don’t care.”

She climbed back into the truck, nauseated. A skyward breeze struck the drapes, lifting them gently. The body swayed, a morbid wind chime.

“Know what? I think you’re off your fucking rocker,” she muttered, truck shooting past the dead body. What could drive a man to do something like that? How could something so beautiful be so psychotic and loathsome?

He deserved everything coming to him.

That wasn’t going to stop her from doing her damn job. She glanced in the rear-view mirror at Jacob's helicopters, swooping in on her fast, now that he'd realized she wasn't headed for the hotel. Lest she forget, his brothers were ready to raze the entire county. 

They don't pay me enough for this shit.

She crossed into the Holland Valley, the Wolf of the Whitetails hot on her trail. Her hands gripped the steering wheel tight.


When I get my hands on you...I don’t even know what I’m going to do anymore.

He focuses on her shadow, trying to discern the shape, the face. He has to rely on memory alone. She will not reveal herself to him.

One thing’s for sure: I’m going to take my time with you. Make you wait, like you did to me.

If she will not come, he will go to her a different way. He moves to grab one of the poles as they sweep by. Waits for the outermost horse, before extending his arm. This one has ‘PRIDE’ etched down its face in faded pink scars. It’s missing an ear, perhaps sawed off with a sharp object.

Before his fingers can grasp the tainted brass, the horse gnashes its teeth and twists its ugly little head, trying to bite him!

John utters something that would have earned a fresh welt from Joseph, and retracts his hand in a blink. The teeth chomp down on nothing but air, making a loud click. He barely has time to process before he’s staring at the horse’s frozen legs, its shredded flanks.

The Deputy, still standing in the same spot, stares at him. All this sickness parading between them. He is tired of this place. Tired of the distractions. Tired of chasing her.

The sky rumbles with distant thunder.

What do you want? he yells. What do I have to do?

But she never answers.

He’s about ready to set the entire fucking place on fire.


His body felt like it was on fire.

John jolted upright in his chair, as if someone had planted live-wires in it. His aching nerves sparked, pulse thumping in the swollen, broken parts of his face, his neck and chest. Through sheer force of will, he commanded the pain to shrink to a low burn. It obeyed. For the moment. The sweat that had coated his body in the heat of O’Hara’s fury—of a kind that could have given his parents a run for their money—had cooled down. He shivered.

No carnival lights on this side to dazzle him, although there was something, or rather someone, moving on the TV.

Deputy, he realized, with a raw zap of panic to his stricken nerves.

She had returned to the haunted house, a miniature version of herself in the spectral black-and-white glow of the old TV. She was all panicked, like she was doing something she shouldn’t. Taking soft steps. Hair sticking up everywhere, and that was saying something. Breathing heavily.

She wasn’t back in that house for the fun of it, that much was certain. In the back of his mind, the part free from all the pain, he wondered what she was up to. Hadn't Everett said he'd given her instructions to go somewhere else?

He had. John went rigid. Are you crazy, woman?

But of course, he already knew that. He watched, as she found the surveillance camera, her gun gripped in her right hand. She walked closer, a curious, disturbed expression on her face. Tapped it once with her gun.

God, even the face of his enemy was a welcome sight now. John could have cried. Or screamed. Get out of there you idiot!

Noises clanged, from the other room. Something heavy, being dragged. Acid roiled in his stomach. O’Hara was off somewhere, but who knew for how long.

The Deputy drew back, taking in the hallway. Walked over to one of the props and examined it closely, running her hands over it, before twisting away in revulsion. He saw determination there, too. The same stubborn will that had resisted him all this time.

John thrashed against the duct tape around his ankle, thigh muscles and abs straining. During the worst of the blows to his head and his upper torso, he’d felt it loosen. It tore completely after a few more tries, the sound exploding in his ears. He stretched out, hooked his boot around the wires leading into the TV, giving them a sharp tug. Glanced over his shoulder once, the simple movement an absolute agony on his cracked collarbone.

Everything came unplugged. The TV went dark. He tucked his leg back against the chair, panting from the effort.

O’Hara graced him with his presence a moment later. A tight-lipped John watched him as he dragged in two mannequins. One was male, with a golden Eden’s Gate cross hung around its white neck. The other was female, a police badge hanging between the soft cones of its cracked breasts.

Everett took one look at the loose wires, the darkened TV, and tsked. Shook his head.

“Not polite, John. Messing with a man’s setup.”

John didn’t react. O’Hara stormed over to the workbench and started sharpening his knife again. If he did it any more, John thought, perhaps he’d luck out and the fucking thing would snap in two.

Raising the knife, O’Hara gazed at his own reflection it. Then he pulled out some needle and thread from his butcher’s apron. Although if that silver spear qualified as a ‘needle’, then he may as well call one of Jacob’s wolves a poodle.

“Not doing what she’s told,” O’Hara relented, crossing his arms over his chest. Oddly wounded. “She should have arrived by now. Going to have to improvise, I think. No matter. I anticipated this.”

Something tells me you didn't, though. 

Displeased, he turned to face John, who went numb with fear. A fear that he had under the iron-grip of his control. He wasn’t sure how long he could maintain that grip before he fell, crashing back to earth in a flaming heap.

“Your brothers assured me she would listen,” O’Hara mused. An afterthought. But one that carried all sorts of implications. He had contacted them, somehow.

“Listen to what?” John asked miserably.

O’Hara ignored him. John tried not to let the news of his brothers hurt him. Tried, and failed. At least they knew. They will try to rescue me, somehow. Jacob will want to burn all of Hope County down. Joseph will know better. And the Deputy...what exactly does he want with her?

To my instructions,” O’Hara spoke up finally. The beginnings of anger, in his words.

She wasn’t a passive observer in this, that was for sure. John smiled grimly, little more than a pained twitch of his facial muscles. Perhaps his fate was less dependent on his brothers, and more on her...cooperation.

The acid in his stomach came up as bile. He swallowed it down.

“She never listens,” he groaned. A bit of admiration in those words. But mostly resentment.

O’Hara smiled back at him, eyes watery and treacherous as a swamp. His face was blotched red and sweaty. No other indicators of the rage inside him, but John had a sixth sense when it came to mood swings. He braced himself, retracting the weakest parts into the deepest recesses.

“Unfortunately for you.”

He cracked his knuckles, in a very Jacob-esque way. None of the love his brother had for him in his expression, though. He started walking toward him again.

“Yes.” John’s eyes locked on the black screen, at his own warped reflection, before O’Hara completely obscured the view.

Whatever you’re going to do, Deputy, be an angel, and do it fast.

Chapter Text

“Dear God ,” Rook groaned.

She stood paralyzed in a dim corner of the wood-paneled hallway, trying not to stare at a humanoid shadow. O’Hara’s scare props had transformed, taking on an undead life of their own. To think she stuck her tongue out at one, earlier. Disgusting . She wiped her palms against her jeans for the umpteenth time.

Let it never be said she was afraid of dirty work. Just as suspected, the skin on the props was stitched together and wrapped around a mannequin, the hair and flesh meticulously preserved, glass eyes inserted in the hollowed sockets.

Who knew what other gruesome methods he’d used. There wasn’t enough time and she didn’t much want to find out. She couldn’t afford to. But she wasn’t about to trap herself in some hotel without a bit of damn research.

Fortunately she had experience. Maybe fortune isn’t the right word.

With John it had been easier. He’d left his calling cards dangling all over the damn road, like some kind of proud tom cat showing off his trophies. Look what I caught! He even sent her videos. If she hadn’t escaped his ‘workshop’, it might have been her swinging from a telephone pole, a broken toy he can no longer play with.

She turned to face the zombie prop, and her stomach turned with her. She knelt and examined the spring device at its feet. The mechanical aspects of the house were installed by hand, and less upsetting compared to the...fleshier components. But it all felt like play time. Practice. O’Hara—she wasn't sure if that was his name, but it was the one attributed on the notes scattered around the place—had been at his ‘craft’ for years. Now he was eager to pull a John and flamboyantly show it off.

“I don’t know what’s worse. A guy who makes dolls from people, or a guy who carves Jesus ornaments out of ‘em,” she huffed. “Is there anyone in Hope County with a normal goddamned hobby?”

She walked back toward the entrance. Her flashlight beam caught the sparkle of a camera in the corner. I see you, you little jerk.

Rook stepped up and examined its bulbous eye, balancing on her tiptoes. She even went so far as to tap it with her handgun, tempted to put a bullet in it, just to stop it from staring. Jacob’s helicopter droned a warning outside. Shouts erupted from the Peggies. She didn’t have long. But she just had to see it, one last time.

What if he was watching her, right now? What if John was too?

The hairs rose on back of her neck. But of course, she had checked the house from top to bottom. She’d ransacked enough prepper shelters to know an empty one.

Think, girl. Think. She nearly concussed herself pressing the butt of the gun against her temple. Hard to concentrate in a noisy diorama of the dead.

What did she SEE , without seeing the ‘big picture’? So much time spent working on the ‘creations’ for the bottom floor, but this O’Hara guy’s true home was in the workshop in the attic. He thought of himself as a craftsman?

She considered the prop ( victim ) again, shuddering. He was going for scares, for reactions. A sick prankster? Why not throw eggs at John’s bunker, a few flaming bags of cougar poop on his church doorstep, and call it a day?

Was he supposed to be God? Religious iconography was John’s thing. At least his methods had belief, faith, some kind of sense behind them. Wait, what? No they didn’t! She leaned against a wall, pressing her head against old wallpaper. The flower pattern tore, and so did her poor mind.

Broken minds. That’s it. John was the key. Springing off his modus operandi , she asked herself: how did she feel in this place? How did this ‘O’Hara’ WANT her to feel? Trapped. Breathless. Cornered. A rat in a maze. Toyed with, just as God toyed with-

Yes, God. That was it! The ultimate form of control. A king in a sick kingdom he’d built himself. A redneck Minos with a modern labyrinth.

Rook regarded her own hands, wiggling the fingers, caked with dirt. This rat had a gun and tools at its disposal.

She smiled, as one would smile in the face of a tornado touching down on their house.

Not today, Satan. She grabbed a red plastic can from a closet, glaring at the camera. She had shown John just what she could do with a few tools, some blinding rage. She would show this clown too.

The noise from the helicopter began to die down as the blades slowed. Time’s up. She had just enough left to douse the floor in gasoline, lighting a rolled up magazine on fire. She tossed it and dashed out the front door, panting wildly, sprinting for her truck.

She glanced at the mountains, at the YES sign. What was John thinking, other than his usual insane thoughts? Was he even still alive?

“THERE YOU ARE!”

“Christ!” She shrieked, nearly colliding with a solid wall. Jacob Seed, back down to earth to collect her sinner ass. His freckled hands clamped her by her upper arms.

“Get off!”

“You must really wanna start this war early!” Jacob roared in her face, and she winced. “What if John’s in there?”

“He isn’t!” she cried. “I checked! Let me go!”

Waves of heat behind her brought out the sweat. Jacob’s grip, his scowl, the furnace of his body didn’t help. There came a loud crash, and they swiveled their heads at the haunted house. Thick smoke billowed and tongues of flame licked out between the boards. What Sharky would have called a housewarming party.

With a frustrated growl, Jacob throttled her arms, dragging her toward his helicopter in the nearby field. A shame the killer hadn’t wanted him to go to this stupid hotel. Rook didn’t fight back. She knew where he was taking her, and the air was a hell of a lot faster than the road.

She just had to outlive Jacob’s short fuse and get there.

“How do you know where he’s got my brother?” Jacob demanded.

“I don’t! Let up, you’re gonna break my arm!”

Wrong answer. He snarled and shoved her into the chopper, its blades kicking up dust. They took off, right as the haunted house went up in flames with a great ‘whoosh!’. Rook watched with satisfaction from the open door.

She murmured, “Now that’s what I call a hell house.”

Jacob glared ice-daggers from his seat, hands clawing into his knees. Alerted to danger, his hunters and the pilot glanced at her, then him. Something had shattered his glacial exterior. It wasn’t all her, leeching off his spirit. God, what now?

“I want to know what the fuck you were doing. You have five seconds, then I’m throwin’ you outta here!”

Dep set her jaw at such a threat. Good luck finding John with me as a road pancake.

Jacob took out his sidearm with a click and leveled it at her stomach.

“Speak,” he ordered.

She couldn’t help but obey.

“I dunno, I was hoping it’d make him do something stupid!”

“Take a page outta your book, little whelp?”

Touche, Jacob. They were en route, crossing the Henbane. They flew over the very same bridge as earlier, but she couldn’t see the body anymore. Maybe O’Hara kidnapped that thing, too. Can you kidnap a dead person?

“Draw him out of his den, you know,” she added when she couldn’t take his rage-filled stare anymore. A real panty soaker, this chump.

“My gut tells me John is someplace else. And the house, he's proud of it. He’s got the inside rigged like a, I dunno, an evil fun house or something.”

Jacob’s complexion deepened to an ugly shade of crimson. He lunged forward and stabbed the blunt end of the gun into her chest.

“Look here, woman.”

He shoved a stained piece of blue silk in her face, and she caught a whiff of the Baptist’s cologne. His sweat. Dampness. The iron of his blood.

She raised her frightened eyes to Jacob’s slit ones.

“You’re going to do as you’re told!” he warned. “I don’t care if he has you cut off your own fucking head in that hotel, if it gets us John back!”

He shoved her by both shoulders until she collapsed back in the seat.

“Jacob, what happened? How did you get that?”

But the old veteran held his stony silence. It was clear what her purpose was. The killer had seen to that, and damned if Jacob wasn’t a stickler for rules. He tucked the scrap into his pocket.

That was fucked. What was even more fucked was that she actually felt sorry for John. Truly, it was the end of the world. Whoever this guy was, he was a diseased creature that needed to be put down, and fast.

A shudder of the helicopter, a feeling of impending doom told her that they had arrived. They hovered at a distance above the darkened hotel, beginning their descent, rapidly plunging through a shaft of air toward the ground.

After a bumpy landing, Jacob dealt her a swift kick to the rear end, sending her spilling out into the grass.

“Thanks for the lift!” she cried, staggering to her feet. “Asshole!”

Jacob aimed his gun at her. “Get going! Don’t let me catch you runnin’ back! I’ll be watching.”

“...Don’t I feel safe.”

Before he could start taking potshots, she ran toward King’s Hot Springs Hotel. The sunset was a vision of heaven or hell, she couldn’t decide. She slowed to a steady walk, stepping up on the porch. No sign of any foul play outside the building. Just boarded up windows and cracked roof tiles. Chipped paint. The looming threat all abandoned places seemed to emit like bad breath.

Pushing the rusty hinges of the front door, she raised her handgun, inhaling slowly.

Then she stepped inside.

Click!

The door locked the moment it shut on her.

“Oh, shit.”


Back in a place of darkness, while John lingered in a near coma, O’Hara wheeled in a small flat-screen TV.

He regarded John, and the trickle of drool out of the corner of his torn lips. Tsk’ed. Reached out and wiped it away with a rag.

Then he turned on the TV, bellowing “OH JOHN, BOLD AND BRAVE!”

John moaned something unintelligible, stirring.

He squinted. A new live feed, this one in vivid color, showed the darkened foyer to a hotel. It took him a few seconds to recognize the place. Something about hot springs, an avalanche, Faith’s men, scared the place was haunted. He’d only been there once. Too many sheets covering things—too clean . Not his style.

An easy target for a maniac to overtake. And he had. Faith had really dropped the Eucharist wafer on that one, straight into the toilet. Stuck in his seat, John had no choice but to watch as the Deputy entered through the front door. It promptly locked behind her, and she whirled around, gun raised.

“I think I’ve seen this horror movie before,” John rasped.

“Good,” O’Hara remarked as if critiquing a film. He sounded so far away, just behind John’s shoulder. “She’s cooperating.”

“For once,” John mumbled sourly. Had she shown the same willingness when I was Atoning her, we might not even be in this mess!

Another camera picked her up, zooming in on her perspiring, anxious face, dissected across the middle by a single ray of light from the sunset. John’s hopes sank. O’Hara must have had the place rigged to record everything. Down to every facial expression, every flash of terror. Why? Some kind of experiment?

The level of planning was disheartening. His heart was punching to get out of his chest.

“Just perfect,” O’Hara breathed, wiping his mouth with a rag tenderly. “Better than I imagined. Ohhh, this is gonna be...succulent.”

The screen blurred into watercolor strokes. Consciousness wavered, ripples in a dark lake. John heard calliope music, but it wasn’t coming from the TV. His eyelids slid down, two broken shades.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? That fear teeming below the surface,” O’Hara’s voice drifted in the darkness. “About to be unleashed!”

John’s head shot up. He fought the urge to pass out, focusing on the scene unfolding with the Deputy.

She was fumbling for her flashlight. She couldn’t see, and neither could John. The hotel was dark as a crypt. Until the screen switched to another feed, this one a night vision camera. John got a good, long gander at what the Deputy couldn’t see. He sucked in a breath and stiffened.

“How...” he wavered.

“Do you take pride in your work?” O’Hara pondered.

He was too distracted to answer.

I ASKED YOU SOMETHING!”

The knife shrieked above his head, slicing off a few hairs. They tickled his nose as they fell down his aching forehead. John barely reacted.

“Someone turn down that circus racket,” he muttered, head nodding. “I’ll flay the next sinner I see if you don’t shut that awful music off. And where did this dunk booth come from?”

O’Hara grunted, as if he’d like to see such things. The last of the daylight vanished from the Deputy’s face, in what might have made for a compelling, Lynchian shot. Transfixed, John watched as the tinier version of her clicked on her flashlight, to see what he’d seen, moments ago.

“You can’t be serious!” She threw her body against the door. “Get me out!”

She spun around and clawed at the electric lock, but it wouldn’t open. Through the speakers, John heard her scream.

Dozens and dozens of white faces stared at her. Mannequins. A whole pale, disjointed forest of them.

Their marbled bodies arranged into different positions throughout the first floor, the stairs, crowding the balcony above. All of them snow white, dressed in Peggie rags, a few civilian clothes. Positioned into a kind of maze.

“Shit!” The door rattled as she pulled on it one final time, but it may as well have been welded shut. There was no going back. John knew it. He felt it, in his spirit. Saw it, in her dejected eyes. Some kind of axe had fallen. He just didn’t know if had mortally wounded both of them.

The knife glimmered. Deep, rattling breaths released from his kidnapper.

“Yes. Yes,” he answered O’Hara quickly. “Pride is one of my sins!”

“John,” the Deputy called timidly. “You in here?”

She wove her way through the path of plaster bodies. Something about the light on them didn’t seem right. Call it his sicko-sense, but it tingled.

“... John ?” She called again in vain, fighting to keep her voice steady. For an insane moment, he half expected to hear her walking above him.

“HERE!” he bellowed, as loud as he could. He swallowed glass. “I’m in here!”

O’Hara watched, tilting his head. Amused.

She didn’t know what to search for, so she began with the rooms on the first floor. Tried the closest door. Locked. She elbowed her way past the mannequins and tried the next one.

The door swung open, fast and easy. John held his breath.

“John? You in he-”

An explosion struck her in the chest, tossing her backwards like a rag doll. Smoke permeated the hallway and obscured the feeds.

He might have just watched his last chance at escape blow herself up.

“No,” he groaned. “No, no, no…”

“Yes!” O’Hara laughed.

Chapter Text

You should know (by now) really
That this could end, really
You should know I could never make it work
Wake up
Let's pretend, really
Really
Babe

Do you like the way the water tastes
Like gunfire
And you knew but you could never say
Then come forth 'cause it's coming round
Round the water
Beware the water

-"Beware", Deftones


The smoke thinned after a few agonizing seconds. The Deputy rolled over once and coughed. The mannequins had shielded her from the brunt of it, breaking her fall. Their arms and legs tangled together where she’d landed. John could have sworn he saw one turn its head, another twitch its fingers. Must have been the pain, muddling things.

Impossible. But Joseph always said, they lived in miraculous times. And look where they were, now.

John glanced up, his head sagging into his chest without him realizing it. A trickle of drool soaking his trim beard. He wasn’t in any shape to care about his groomed appearance now.

The Deputy remained curled in a ball.

“Come on,” he groaned, though he knew she couldn’t hear. She got up shakily. “Be careful!”

If it were one of his outposts, she’d already have her feet on the counter and a beer in hand, his men hogtied or with a new skylight installed in their head.

“Ah, fuck me.” She clutched at her right arm, badly singed. Her thick jacket had spared her the worst. Even so, he could see every line of pain in her pinched face, thanks to the cameras.

“Through fire,” O’Hara mumbled, his knuckles pressed against his lips. An artist, studying his work. “And water.”

John would have let the Devil drag his tattered, whiskey-and-blood-flavored soul in the dirt for the man to shut the fuck up.

She started walking again. He exhaled, and a wave of dizziness washed over him.

“Do you enjoy saving souls?” O’Hara asked. “Even the ones you don’t know?”

His answer came immediately. “Yes. I take pride in my conversion rate.”

“A numbers man, then. I can respect that.”

She tried another door. Locked. Ran to the next one. Opened it. A balloon popped in her face, dousing her in glitter and confetti. The inside of the room was filled with...bloody stuffed animals? She brought her flashlight aloft. Only hunting trophies, shoved into storage. Covered in red paint or worse. A quick check and she was back in the aisle of frozen white bodies.

O’Hara nodded to the two mannequins in the room with them. He tapped the one with the police badge.

“Makes you kinda like her, don’t it? Two sides to the same coin. As a cop, she can’t choose who she saves, either.” He chuckled. “Serve and protect. Confess and Atone.”

John coughed hollowly, his taut chest heaving. What cop had been through half the things he had? Done the things he’d done? Saved as many souls?

“Whatever you say, Everett.”

The Deputy reached the last door in the hallway, gripping the handle as if it was poisonous. She turned it and opened the door a crack. A brightly-painted sledgehammer swung out, whooshing inches past her face, followed by a burst of flame from a torch. With a strangled cry, she dodged both. When the hammer stopped moving, she shined her light inside. The room was filled with cages, stuffed wolves, and trapped mannequins, steeped in crimson stage lighting.

Dog tags hung around the wolves' furry necks. The mannequins lay torn apart at their feet. All save for one, running eternally toward the door, ‘Wrath’ painted above its breasts.

John growled through strained vocal chords, “What's the point of all this? Why all the cameras?”

“Got to have a good backstory, for when I edit this footage together. It’s more compelling if you two have a connection. Mutual hatred only goes so far.”

John made a disgusted noise. “You’re making a movie ?”

“Something like that, Baby Blue. I learned from the best, didn’t I, Mr. Christian Programming? Every film’s got to have a climax. A tearjerker, something to stir up the audience. Imagine how shocked your brothers will be when they get to see the premier!”

John froze. He knew where this was going. One madness touched another, and his hackles raised.

“Eden’s Gate could use a man with your vision!” he bargained, his collar damp with sweat. “You waste your talents all alone! Let me go, and I’ll speak with Joseph personally. Let the Deputy live, and we can work something out!”

He chuckled darkly. “Not going to orate your way out with that silver tongue of yours. I’m going to preserve it in a jar when this is all over.”

O’Hara started moving the male and female mannequins around, testing different poses. He gouged different spots with the tip of the knife. Heart. Lungs. Navel. Privates. The shavings fell to the floor in plaster snowflakes.

“Look at me, you godless freak!” John snarled. His eyes roved around and he thrashed in the chair. “DEPUTY! DEPUTY, I’M IN HERE!”

His cries fell on deaf ears. O’Hara took the silver needle out of his pocket, threading some thick fishing line through it. Then he started picking his teeth with the tip. Both men watched the screen.

The Deputy launched herself upwards, braving the mannequins on the stairs to reach the second floor landing. She favored her uninjured arm. Her flashlight beam cut through the pitch black as she shuffled along, doing her best to avoid touching the dolls. John had to give her credit. She might have been sorer than sin on his eyes, but she was a tough son-of-a-bitch. Real police. The kind they used to reminisce about, back at the courts in Atlanta, as if such things were only legends in modern America.

Real police. And she was gonna get them both fucking killed doing her job. But if he was a betting man, he’d have top dollar on her. A shame he couldn’t convert that wrath into jet fuel.

The only thing pushing him right now was the pain, or his mastery of it. He nodded off again, all the color draining from his face. When he woke, it was to her cursing.

“Fuck this fucking bullshit!” she screamed, as she stepped on another trigger and was forced to dodge a barrage of steak knives, ejected from the ceiling. “GOD DAMN IT JOHN I SWEAR TO GOD I’M GONNA TAKE THAT FANCY BELT BUCKLE OF YOURS AND STICK IT-”

She missed the second trigger—a trip-line, tied to a stuffed grizzly bear—and clown buzzer rattled, the bear turned, and something exploded. She rolled under a table, just in time. Shrapnel tore claw marks into the wood, splinters flying, releasing high-pitched screams.

A piece the size of her index finger lodged halfway into her thigh. She yelped and tried to dig it out. It came free, and she threw the bloody splinter aside. Her face was contorted into one of pure rage.

That’s it, keep going.

She went limping onward. What else could she do? She shined her light on the upper windows, searching the night for Jacob’s helicopter, but she couldn’t even see that .

Keep...reaching...toward me...

John must have passed out. Time flickered in broken frames, skips. He dreamed of a burning carousel. A circus ablaze with nuclear fire. Twirling horses eaten up by flames, cleansed at last, or perhaps sent back where they belonged. A hand reached for him, through the firestorm.

He grasped it. It was surprisingly smaller than his own.

Fingers interlocked, scars and tattoos meshing together. Ice flooded his body, a gift of numbness. It ripped him from the daze, transporting him back into the room. The pain had gone. For the moment.

The Deputy braved the next room. She had ceased calling out, moving stiffly on autopilot. Recorded screams screeched through the speakers, complete with a telltale antler chandelier on the ceiling and two mannequins, their shadows cast upon the wall. One was in a chair, the other had driven a screwdriver into its heart, up to the handle.

“Subtle,” she remarked, and pinched out a piece of her hair that was apparently on fire. Then she stumbled sideways, collapsing in the door frame. She must have had a concussion. Her ears were bleeding. She was no doctor but ears weren’t supposed to leak anything.

Come on. Get out of there, get out...

Cutting through the waking nightmare of the chair and the dark circus of his dreams, there came a faint moment of clarity, while watching his enemy unlock O'Hara's horrors, each door containing some new disaster. She was risking her life for a devil like him. All that pent-up wrath, unleashed on someone else for once.

Bathed in translucent light from the television screen, John smiled. It dawned on him at last.

All this time, he wanted her dead. But perhaps the best thing he ever did was let her live. And so he swore a new vow: if they made it out alive, he must find a fitting way to thank the Deputy for her service.

Banged up, burned, covered in glitter and blood, she reached the final room on the second floor. An old bathroom, with tile walls and floor. She checked over her shoulder, before stepping inside.

O’Hara giggled. John winced. The camera whirred, almost cheerful.

It switched to a view above the door, having detected movement. But not from her.

A mannequin stumbled out of the crowd and slammed the door shut behind her. Then it stepped back into place.

The view shifted again, inside the room, from a hidden location. Not much to see. A shower drain. A toilet. A medicine cabinet mirror. Pipes.

O’Hara turned to John, giddy with excitement. "I heard a rumor, from one of my set pieces. While he still had lips, anyway. Said the Baptist tried to drown a policewoman, the one who arrested Joseph. The Father himself had to intervene. I almost didn’t believe it. I thought for sure it was a lie. The man I thought I knew would never go back on his dedication to his art."

“If you think what I do is arts and crafts…”

With a shout, Rook realized the bathroom door had shut. She wrenched on the handle, kicked it with her foot. No good. She went limping to the center of the room, confused. The mirror caught her reflection, but she scowled and turned away from it.

“...you are beyond crazy, Everett.”

She glanced directly at the camera. The pipes in the ceiling groaned. Then, as with the great flood unleashed on the old world, and the tears of all the people John had ‘marked’, they split open, gushing torrents of water on top of her.


"Through fire and water,” O’Hara repeated, gesticulating with the knife. He picked up a handheld camcorder and started filming John calmly, zooming in on his face. Capturing every Kodak moment.

“I've watched you both, oh so closely. One never giving in to the other. It makes for a compelling scenario."

The room was filling up, inch-by-inch. The Deputy splashed and kicked against the scum-covered walls. She tried the door yet again, out of sheer desperation. It wouldn’t budge. The cloudy water soon soaked her chest and jacket. She ripped it off in one go, and he got a good view of the scars, the ones she tried to hide so well, and her new burn. He saw the panic as it crept into her eyes. Her tough, stubborn facade crumbled, an achievement even he hadn’t won from her. There was no victory now, no malicious joy in it, as there had been that night in the river.

This time, he was simply watching a frightened woman drown. Her flailing legs would haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life, however long that might be, but he couldn't tear away.

"That's enough!" John cried. "You hear me, O'Hara?"

He said nothing, getting up in his face with that hateful camera. Then: "Go on, John. Tell me how you really feel. Confess."

“What do you want me say?” he snapped, his swollen face reddening. He felt utterly sick, and the words came churning up, unbidden, “That Jacob and I knew Joseph was wrong about her? That she was a threat? That it would all be so much fucking easier if she disappeared? That I didn’t trust Joseph’s plan? That I was lazy ? What, O’Hara? What do you want from me?”

O’Hara lifted the camcorder high, without a word, a smug smile on his face. Catching every second of his turmoil.

"I just wanted to get this gold on camera. John the Baptist, admitting he doubts the Father! That he went back on his duty."

"What do you know about duty?" John snarled. "Or me? What I'm capable of? I would die for Eden's Gate! I would die for Joseph!"

"The only one you're going to die for," O'Hara corrected, smiling. "is me."


Rook placed her hands on the ceiling. She clawed and scraped. Took a deep breath. Dove under the surface, torn nails raking the floor, the toilet, the sink, the door, searching for a switch. A lever. Something.

“Come on!” she cried, surfacing. She pounded her fist on the ceiling tiles, shattering one. “COME ON! Fuck! Move!”

The water was moving. Upwards. She thrashed about worse than a cat thrown in a river. What else can I do?


O’Hara jerked his thumb at the TV.

"Not much of a threat now, is she? That wasn't so hard. You're either really bad at your job…"

She was choking onscreen, swallowing water in a panic. Only a few inches of air left, mercilessly shrinking before their eyes.

“No!” she cried. She was reduced to begging. “Fuck! Ah, fuck! Somebody! HELP!”

"Enough!” John roared, lunging as far forward as he could, rocking the chair. “I'll tear you apart for this!"

"...Maybe,” O’Hara smirked, setting down the knife but keeping the recorder on him, lifting the scissors with his other hand. “You don't want her to die after all?"

He stared right through John, along with the handheld camera.

The Deputy aimed her gun at the door. It clicked uselessly underwater. She whimpered.

“All right, I don’t! Just save her!” he hissed.

"Nothing I can do,” O’Hara concluded, setting the scissors down on the workbench corner.

Right next to John. He tried not to stare at them directly.

“It's all up to her."


It was all up to her neck. Slimy, rotten old water.

Rook knew it would be the last time she came up for air. Her last thought as she sucked in her final breath was: I won’t let him win. Not O’Hara. John. He'd want me to give up. To drown. So he can laugh at my funeral, pat Joseph on the back, let him know how sorry he is-

But then she remembered if she didn’t make it, he would probably die, too. A complete and utter failure of a mission. John never brought to justice, and their killer never found. The cult taking over Hope County and the planet rolling into the fucking sun. Hallelujah. It was all crazy and absurd, one big carnival cluster-fuck. The only thing she could do was fight whatever was right in front of her.

She positioned herself in front of the door, and tried her gun again, but it wouldn’t fire. She held onto it and zoned in on the ceiling light. Flickering, about to go out. Next to the bulb, a clear piece of tape. A piece of paper folded neatly underneath. She ripped it free and read the familiar handwriting, floating in place, forehead scraping tile.

To live is to hide behind a face. Kill the illusion. Set yourself free.

She scanned the room, wide-eyed. Roaring, in her ears. No time left. The corner of her mouth brushed the dirty ceiling. Lungs gulped air, and she plunged below for the final time.

Her waterproof flashlight caught in the mirror, flaring white, almost blinding her. Then she spotted it: her reflection. Her stupid mug, dumbstruck and helpless, cheeks puffed out, body all banged to shit. Damn if that was going to be the last thing she ever saw!

She swam over and kicked the glass, slamming both heels. Bubbles shot out of the frame as it budged. The note sank from her fingers. Bracing herself against the ceiling, she kicked again. Again. Crushing the face inside into shards. The mirror smashed, her reflection disintegrated, and the water began to gush out an opening where the mirror once was.

Below her, the drain in the floor activated, sucking out the water even faster.


“Good work, Deputy,” John sighed, resting against the back of the chair. “Damn fine job.”

O’Hara trained the camera on him one last time. Then he set it down next to his tool tray.


Rook stuck her head above the water line, feeding her lungs precious air. The room drained steadily, through the hole she'd created in the wall, and through what appeared to be a drain in the floor. When it was done, she sloshed over to the broken mirror and picked up a bright yellow key with a room number. The drain gurgled loudly, and she spun around.

The door to the room unlocked with a pleasant ding!  Then it swung open.

Horrible room service,” she sighed, wiping her soggy bangs out of her face. She limped down the hallway, dripping water...and a weird substance. She smelled herself and shuddered. It reeked.

A curious smell, not all that dissimilar to Bliss. She'd have to fret about a shower later.

As she stumbled through the maze, leaving a trail of footprints, she began to turn some heads.

Chapter Text

Somewhere underground, O’Hara nodded at the flat screen, smug satisfaction on his face.

"So glad the mirror held," he sighed, flashing his canines in a lopsided grin. “Was worried it would give out too early. Spoil all the fun.”

"I don’t say this often,” John remarked. “But you’re insane.”

"Said one patient to the other.”

“All this meticulous planning, just to kill us. Haven’t you heard of therapy? The healing power of prayer?” he asked flatly.

O’Hara’s grin widened into something putrid, sending a shock-wave of nausea through John.

Et tu, Brute?” he smirked. “Gotta admit, waterproofing that room was a real bitch. I had an easier time smuggling Angels out from under Faith’s coke-dusted nose."

“Insult my sister all you want. But she has been cleansed. The Father saved her. He saved a wretch like me. He could help, if you’d let him. He would find a place for even the likes of you.”

“The likes of me...” O’Hara spit at his feet. “That’s what I think of your Faith. And where’s the Father now? Off praying in his church, safe and sound on his little island.”

“Why don’t you go check on him, and find out?”

Sharp words rang dull on his lips. Some deep, small, frightened part of him began to doubt. Joseph wouldn’t abandon him (again). He wouldn’t. He didn’t give up on anyone, not even his wayward, black sheep brother. But maybe cutting two loose ends, the Deputy and himself, would benefit the Project. Free up some dead weight. The fact that he hadn’t been found, the Deputy forced to comply with these bizarre demands…

No. They just didn’t know where he was yet. Yes, that was it.

O’Hara picked his teeth avidly with the needle. Even Jacob would question the man’s table manners. Hard to believe the Wolf of the Whitetails hadn’t sniffed him out yet. Maybe no one was coming. Maybe it was only him, alone and small again, with a monster looming above him. He would have to look it in its grotesque face, let it know he wasn’t afraid. That he could take whatever it unleashed on him a thousandfold.

John made a fist, crushing something in his right hand. Blood welled in his palm as something sharp and metal bit into it. He savored the gift of clarity that came rushing in.

On the screen, the mannequins stirred from their slumber as the Deputy walked by. Twitching, shaking their heads, shrugging their shoulders, testing their limbs. Fingers curling, uncurling. A deep dread seeped into his guts, watching her proceed so completely unaware. Would it kill you to glance over your shoulder? What the hell was Faith doing? Taking yoga lessons? Joseph calls her to his room too often and in the same day lectures me about the dangers of MY appetites?

"How did you do it, Everett?” he rasped, squeezing the object tighter. “How did no one notice so many Angels missing?”

O’Hara answered by shoving a rag down his throat.

"No more talking. I've got work to do."

While he choked, his kidnapper lifted him and the chair together, carrying him into the next room. The man was an ox: powerful, thick in limb, broad of chest. But with all of God’s creatures, great and small, he was made with soft, exploitable spots.

O’Hara set him down with a thud. John shrank back into the chair. Harsh, fluorescent bulbs left nothing to the imagination. Hooks on chains clinked like rusted chimes. Human parts scattered everywhere, the wooden floors tacky with dark red. Flies. Glue. Staples. Needle. Thread. Plastic tubs. Mannequins sagged, in various states of decay. The overpowering stench of taxidermy chemicals was dizzying.

More curious to him, though, were the rock walls and ceiling, reinforced by wooden beams. What was it the man had said earlier, when he first woke up? He was too sapped to remember. He’d had better recall as an overworked junkie.

A squeak of wheels. O’Hara pushed the TV, angling it so he could see. John retracted his free foot while the big man was preoccupied, sweating again.

"Don't wanna miss this. Thank God I'm getting it in HD.”


Rook’s boots pounded up the final set of stairs, elbows knocking stiff bodies out of her warpath. A few milky eyes peeled open, but she remained focused ahead, a deer alert for headlights. She halted at the only door on the third floor. Gasping for breath, clutching at her side. Her burn pulsated wickedly, as if about to shoot off and mutate into a new appendage.

“John?” She swallowed, tasting metal. “You in there?”

The fragile hope in her voice was palpable. It tore off and crushed a piece of his stained soul.

She glanced down at the key dangling in her hands, and shook droplets of the foul-smelling water off her handgun, praying it would still fire.

Unbeknownst to either, he was praying silently with her.


His teeth bit down on the rancid cloth, blue eyes glaring at O’Hara, who shrugged. The plastic armrests curled into shavings under his nails. Blood pooled beneath his hand, which trembled in an odd fashion.

"What do you think she's going to find? You?" O’Hara laughed. He wiped moisture from his lips. Color clotted in his face, eyes feverish and glassy. “Oh no, no, no no no no...”

He doubled over, snorting, emitting high-pitched sounds. A kind of giddiness overwhelmed the man, a swelling euphoria. The thrill of the impending kill. Should have silenced this clown when I had him in my chair, he lamented. That vivid fantasy breathed new life into his tired bones.

But it was a shallow breath at best.


The key rattled from her trembling fingers. Here goes nothin’. It turned smartly in the lock, and the apparatus clicked. She cracked the wooden door with a banshee-cry of its hinges, wincing. She shined her light as if it could set aflame anything that would come flying out at her.

Nothing did, thankfully. It did little to relieve her. A brief pause, and she slipped inside. The room was dark as a tomb. Sparse. Save for a single area...

“John?”

She switched between raising her gun and lowering it, a broken reflex. A floodlight shined on a body—a real one, no mannequins in there—with sleek black hair, garbed in a long, patterned overcoat. Dangling from a noose face down. A bunch of knives driven into its pincushion back, a shining pool at its feet.

A separate body lay on the floor, a switchblade lodged between the breasts Juliet-style. The face was unrecognizable. ONE DAGGER FOR EVERY SIN smeared all over the wall in the blood. She counted six daggers in the hanged man. The seventh in the other. Running across the room, she pulled the switchblade out from the female's chest. Blade sticky and congealed.

She wiped it on her jeans and sawed the noose in two, letting the body drop to the carpet with a dull thud. She turned the face towards her, sobbing quietly. Please. Don’t be blue. She shined light in the face...and let out an anguished sigh.

Vacant, clouded white irises gazed up at nothing. Whoever they were, their head had been shaved, the black wig askew. Fucking sick.

There was no time to mourn for those people, whoever they had been. A computer monitor flickered, and her head shot up. Some kind of high-speed setup flashed green in the corner. The whole place was wired and rigged. This was the cortex of another haunted house...an elaborate one, and that was all. No cheese at the end of the maze.

No John, either. But some evil spirit was trying to seance with her now.

“You son-of-a-bitch.”

Nails bit into the flesh of her palm, the other hand squeezed her gun so tight it left grid-shaped indents. A live-stream window launched on the monitor. The image out of focus. Then, someone shoved a camera in the real John Seed’s face. Severely beaten and bruised, she recognized him anywhere. Filmed at an unflattering angle, he was still hopelessly handsome.

She barely felt her knees hitting the ground. They met eyes, regarding each other face-to-face through the screen. His mouth was gagged, eerily reminiscent of Hudson.

“John,” she sniffed. “You look like shit.”

A large, gloved hand ripped out his gag. He coughed once.

“Deputy. I could say the same for you. And here I thou-”

He was cut off by a series of violent, wheezing outbursts. She peered into the webcam as if it was a keyhole to Hades.

"Where are you?” she murmured. “What do you see?"

John stared up off screen (into the eye of the handheld camera). O’Hara intently filmed his reactions, the Deputy’s tear-streaked face floating over his shoulder. Doubled over in the chair, a furious desire consumed him: to give this man the Atonement he deserved. Every bit of it. He must come out alive with this woman, his mortal enemy some might say, but the devil he knew was heaven-sent compared to this thing with the camera.

He looked around the room at all the tools, the gore, the ruin and the walls, and something O’Hara said earlier resurrected.

“His old workshop!” he cried, leaning forward. “Deputy, watc-mmmph!”

The gag was shoved back in, and he was pushed out of frame.

“John! Fuck...” Words fell away, as the camera settled on a rock wall, and a great shadow stretched out.

"The Baptist’s last sermon before he loses his tongue. Not a very good one," a deep voice said.

Her nails crushed pixels on the edges of the monitor into ink blots.

"What now, O'Hara?”

"That's up to you, my little rat."

Rook gnashed her teeth. "I’ve run your stupid fucking maze like you asked! It’s time you held up your end of the deal! Where are you?”

He chuckled mirthlessly. "Me? I’m where I've always been."

A pause.

"If you want to find John, you'll have to go into the heart of darkness. But there’s no coming back from there. Don’t worry. He’ll be joining you shortly."

The feed ended in a blizzard of static, then nothing. Rook stared, dumbfounded.

From behind, a pair of painted white hands seized her around the throat.


“Sir. Incoming call for you. From the jail.”

The copilot handed Jacob a set of headphones. They circled the hotel at a safe distance. No calls or further warnings from the kidnapper, no more pieces of John’s (excessive) wardrobe sent to them. Only silence. Jacob wasn’t sure that was a good thing. Next to him on the seat was a laptop with a military-grade spy program running. Amazing what a little bug or two could accomplish when subtleties were most definitely needed.

“Did you copy that, Sheriff?” he asked into the mic.

“His old workshop. Yeah, I copy.”

“Good. You know, Whitehorse, Eli and his bastards could learn somethin’ from you all.”

“Need I remind you, Jacob, we could have pulled this guy up in our database a LOT faster if you hadn’t fucked with our systems. Over and out.”

Tch. Over n’ out.” Jacob grunted and paused, glancing down at the hotel. There was activity inside. The Deputy’s flashlight going wild. He positioned himself on his belly from the floor of the chopper.


She might have run the maze, but O’Hara’s game was far from over.

With a fresh necklace of bruises as her prize, Rook tore through a jungle of clawing hands. Her service weapon was unfireable, but she didn’t hesitate to swing it, crunching noses, crushing temples, shattering teeth, trying to to clear a path. Her bloody switchblade was lost, embedded up to the hilt in the skull of the thing that had tried to choke her. The zombie shows made it seem so easy.

Long nails raked her face cruelly, leaving streaks. She wasn’t afraid anymore. Only pissed as hell that it would end this way: suffocated under a stinking pile of crazed Angels painted to resemble mannequins. All of heaven in a rage, indeed. Cults, homicidal maniacs, bullets, explosions, knives, and drownings, she had the makings of the greatest magician’s assistant ever (assuming she lived through this).

Plummeting down the stairs in a gnarl of limbs and Peggie uniforms, she clung to her handgun for dear life, rolling painfully to the first floor. She collapsed in a heap at the bottom. The horde pounced, clawing, scraping, biting, shrieking. Out for her blood, calling to them like the irresistible odor of seared meat. Whatever chemical O’Hara had added to the water had rung the dinner bell.

Help me. She couldn’t scream, the air was being crushed from her lungs. Something sharp and hard dug into her kidney. She reached, and pulled out a glass vial, the innards swirling with vapor, as bright and tempting as a fresh apple. Faith.

Instead of biting it, she uncapped the tincture and threw it against the wall, shattering it.


Jacob waited in steely silence, finger pad resting on the trigger. The erratic light in the windows had ceased for about a minute. His hunters exchanged worried glances. The pilot checked their altitude, their position, the fuel gauge for the umpteenth time. All levels normal.

Inside the hotel, something decidedly abnormal was going down.

Then the front door ripped open. The Deputy went limping away, trailing crimson vapor. Angels shot out the door after her, pouring onto the lawn in a feeding frenzy.

With cool indifference, Jacob waited patiently as she sprinted down the drive. Waited, until her attacker funneled into a line. His rifle cracked, again and again. The snow-white Angels collapsed, one at time. She glanced behind her once, at heads bursting, red mixing with white.

Her run slowed to a crawl. She fell over. Flopped forward, ate the grass, gasping for air. More Angels spewed from the orifices of the hotel, bursting windows, jumping off balconies, charging across the lawn like crazed beasts.

“Go in low. Time-” he ordered the pilot, watching the creatures crowd the Deputy’s limp body. He paused to send a few more of them to the pearly gates.

“-to collect our little maze runner.”


“Nnnn...”

“Easy, pup. You’re safe.”

The low, steady voice rolled in and out of her blind daze. A heavy blanket weighed her down, and someone pressed a finger to her neck, checking her pulse.

“John?”

But she never received an answer.

Chapter Text

“Sheriff! Pastor Jerome’s on the radio again!”

Alarmed voices echoed off stone walls. The air smelled of rubbing alcohol, mildew, and gunpowder. Never did Rook think she’d be so relieved to wake up in a jail.

“The Peggies are about to launch the assault on Fall’s End!”

Jacob’s fuse had finally run out, it seemed. She had failed. The memory of John’s blood-drained face on the TV screen came flooding back, along with that deep, emotionless voice, delivering that final speech that was to be her eulogy.

Only, it wasn't. Faith and Jacob had seen to that.

The cot squeaked as she bolted upright, then doubled over with a groan. Telltale motes of light clustered at the borders of her vision. Her skull was a lead weight threatening to drag her down into the pillow, back into that awful demimonde, those haunted carnival grounds where laughing, malicious things stalked her, tricks and traps around every corner.

Her fingertips brushed the gauze on her upper arm gingerly. The worst of her wounds had been tended to. Her nerves tingled, any pain muffled by the residual chemical cocktail thrumming in her system. The fury aspect had been a flash in the pan, enough for her to charge with linebacker ferocity out the front door of the hotel, before the familiar daze came crashing down, throwing her to the dead grass.

Now, she touched her face clumsily, where two butterfly bandages sutured several raw, elongated claw marks. Her nose was plugged shut with old blood. Jess Black’s gonna think I’m copying her beauty routine. Somehow she managed to throw on a sweatshirt hanging on the back of a chair at her bedside. A still-smoking cigarette and a mostly empty beer bottle on the nightstand nearby.

Sneaking to the nearest door, she pressed her good cheek against cool metal. In the next room, Whitehorse and some Cougars were speaking in hushed, somber tones.

“...least the Junior Deputy’s safe. Jacob didn’t have to bring her back,” someone remarked. “Maybe he’ll still work with us.”

“He wants the info on John’s whereabouts. That’s all,” Whitehorse replied gruffly. “Fucker’s pulling every power move he’s got. Did you look under that pseudonym he gave us yet?”

Clack of keys as someone’s fingers plugged something into a laptop.

“Still searching the database. Thing’s slower than molasses. At this rate maybe I should ask fuckin' Jeeves-”

Whitehorse cut them off, “We’re fresh outta time! O’Hara wasn’t happy Rook survived his trap. You heard Jacob—they got another present.”

“Yeah, John's bloody earring, with some of the ear still attached...”

She shoved the door open, harder than she’d meant to. The hollow bang drew the attention of the others, crowded around several laptops and a CB radio.

“Rook. You shouldn’t be out of bed,” Whitehorse cautioned. “That shit you used on the Angels nearly killed you.”

A pity it didn’t.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, gripping the door handle for dear life. It came out more as, “Wasgoin onn?”

She swayed on her feet. Earl grasped her by the shoulders, steadying her. The others returned to their typing.

“You done good, kid,” he assured quietly, squeezing her uninjured shoulder. “Jacob had the hotel bugged. He heard John say O’Hara was keeping him at his old workshop. We’re tryin’ to figure out where exactly that is, but he’s lived under several pseudonyms over the years, and his record’s piecemeal at best.”

“Did I hear you say Jacob’s gonna attack Fall’s End?”

“It’s looking more and more likely. Seeds are getting desperate. They’re done cooperating.”

She licked her lips, biting the lower one. “And is John…did he...?”

“We haven’t heard anything new. Now, you really need to get your ass back in that cot, and let us take it from here.”

He redirected her to it, leading her as if she were a child (or mental patient). She gave him a pleading look.

“Don’t make me cuff you to it, kid.”

Rook batted his hand away, laying down and rolling over. Listening for his slow footsteps. The minute they were gone, she snatched her service weapon from the nightstand and snuck out a side door.

She swiped the keys to one of the commandeered jeeps and climbed behind the wheel. Gazed out the window. The trees and Montanan foliage swayed and danced, the statue of Joseph rising like Chernobog on Bald Mountain. Fuck it. She shoved the key in the ignition, and the engine rumbled. She left the parking lot and cut through a field, emerging on the main road a good distance from the security gate.

Shifting the jeep into a higher gear, she pressed lead on the accelerator. The jail, its medieval towers, the protection of its walls, the promise of safety all shrinking in the rear-view mirror.

The engine roared. The nighttime mountains blurred past, red-tinged under a pagan moon, hellish to behold. Inspiring no sermons, no dogma in her, but summoning words, nevertheless:

“Hang on. I’m coming.”

The jeep shot under the gate of the bridge, where the hanging sinner’s body swayed, as if greeting her in passing.


She parked the jeep some distance away, stumbling across O’Hara’s old property on stiff, wooden legs. She couldn’t say why exactly she’d gone there. Only an itch, but after all she'd suffered through, itches were all she had left...

The charred ruins of the haunted house lay in pieces, blackened foundations jutting upwards in the abyssal darkness. Embers twinkled. Her face lit up at the sight. She’d like to do the same to John’s sign. She gazed on those giant white letters, their pale ghosts visible in the scant moonlight. Maybe it was the hallucinogenic drug, but an intense, profound longing constricted her, made her legs want to buckle.

She felt small. Alone. Miserable. A tiny, sorrowful sound left her lips, not quite a prayer.

“What are you doin’ out here, Little Miss Wrath?”

Rook sighed. Busted. She turned around to mouth off to the Peg who had followed her

“What I damn well pl-”

What came at her was no cultist, but a coal-dusted man dressed in a butcher’s apron. Fury in his eyes, the soul-sucking kind. She was drawn into their event horizon, powerless.

“YOU BURNED DOWN MY HOUSE!” he bellowed.

He launched himself at her, tackling her so hard her rib cracked on impact. A sack was thrown over her head, and a fist slammed into her gut, silencing her cry prematurely.


Minutes later, she woke with a pounding headache and cramping nausea, wrists and ankles bound with twine, a gag shoved in her mouth. The truck was doing at least thirty over the speed limit. It cut a sharp corner, a tire flew off the ground, and she rolled around the pickup bed, bumping her head against a board. She scraped it open on something, wetness pouring out.

They’ll have to ID my body on dental records at this rate. Stupid. So fucking stupid, Rook. What were you thinking?

She had been thinking her little dabble into pyromania might have drawn the killer out of his den. Jacob had almost executed her for it. But it had actually worked, a mite too effectively.

The wind howled in her ears. She looked up with bleary eyes, ocular nerves the only thing responding to her brain. Joseph’s statue loomed, no longer a demonic colossus but soft, small, fragile as a glass animal in a menagerie. All the world seemed to teeter, about to tip over and shatter.

So she closed her eyes, and let the darkness swallow her.


Regurgitated back, to the grind of the truck’s brakes, bouncing off narrow walls. Without uttering a word, her kidnapper left her in a tunnel, boots pounding in a hurry. The edges of her vision still hazy, but the sparkles were gone. The severity of what she had done, where she had ended up, sank its claws in her.

She moaned miserably. O’Hara had her trussed up like a pig at a Hawaiian barbecue. She rolled over onto her knees, retching into the gag. Her stomach heaved, but nothing came up.

No time to think, only act. Christ, but the cut on her head stung! What the hell had caused it? She ran her fingers along the side board, something sharp nipped at her. A little wink of broken metal—a snapped nail. The most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She brought the ropes up and started scraping, listening for O’Hara.

He’s probably gone back to John. Fuck! I need to hurry.

She continued to saw away. The edge of the nail was going dull, but she pulled, and yanked, and chewed, and frayed enough to tear herself free. She ripped off the gag. Her ankles were more of a problem, but now that she had her fingers, she freed herself in no time. John’s not the only one who prefers to work with his hands. That, and they taught us all about ropes at summer camp. Not much for a bored, lonely little girl to do, other than learn some survival shit.

She removed her gun from her hip and slid out off the truck bed—one of the models used to transport Bliss crops—ducking against the side, using the wheel and bed for cover. Crouching there, blood tingling in her extremities, she could have collapsed. Slept with the dead.

No O’Hara around, but there were signs slithered in the dirt. The tunnel flooded with pools of light from old industrial bulbs strung along a black wire. She crossed puddles of that watery light, following the footprint traffic in the dirt from the same pair of boots, crosshatched by dozens and dozens of drag marks and tire tracks. The path led her deeper into the bowels of the mountainside, through a maze of another kind, this one a series of tunnels and rooms, each room showcasing more signs of life...or lack thereof.

Gagging, she pulled her shirt collar above her mouth and nose and kept moving, trying not to look too thoroughly, not to smell anything. Nothing indicated John, or parts of him, had been there.

Just as her anger began to ebb, and she was starting to lose her nerve, she came before an unmarked door. She jiggled the handle. Dried blood flaked off on her fingers, and it gave easily under pressure. She cracked it open, anticipating a trap, another explosion. She peeked inside...and the Holy Ghost almost bowled her over.

She picked the winning door. John Seed gazed up at her from a chair, one eye half-lidded. Blood ran in rivulets from his clipped ear, soaking his shirt. She froze, her jaw unhinged. She didn't think a human being could take so much punishment and smile at her so handsomely! Either that was an oncoming heart attack, or her chest was actually fluttering. Fuck me, even at a time like this...I must be going insane.

"Ah, Deputy,” he greeted. As if they were meeting at the Spread Eagle for a round of drinks. She braced herself for his insults, for the snap of an order. Maybe even a threat. Their usual friendly banter.

"Am I glad to see your face," he sighed, his head sagging back. She almost staggered. Then:

"To come all this way, just for me. It must be divine providence. Or maybe, a crush?"

What blood remained inside surged to her face. Scowling, she raised her gun on him. Lowered it. He was in no shape to try something, and unless it suited him to take on O'Hara alone, he needed her. She worked on the duct tape at his wrists, doing her best to ignore the savage purple bruises. And his sudden warmth and closeness.

“I’d leave you here to rot, if your brothers weren’t threatening to nuke all of Hope County,” she said tersely.

Knew they wouldn’t abandon me, John mused, bloodshot eyes aglow. His blackened heart lightened three shades to charcoal gray. Neither did she. Loyal little thing, to dig after such a big, nasty rat on her own.

“Need I remind you, much as rumors circulate, we don’t have any nukes.”

“Whatever.” She yanked on the tape, stretching his damaged skin. He showed no sign he felt it. “Any idea where our friend’s at?”

John watched her calmly. “He left with all his tools in a big hurry, about an hour ago. Now I know why. Are you all right? You look dog-tired.”

“Let’s just get you out of here, please.”


“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he’s coming,” he whispered into her neck, as she leaned across him, clawing at the tape.

At his warm breath, Rook shuddered, taking a step back. Goosebumps prickled. Her reaction didn’t go unnoticed. Even down there, in all that insanity, he saw how she averted her eyes. How a betraying color flooded her face, detectable even under all the dirt, blood, and bandages. Ah, sweet limerence. Poisoning her into making rash decisions, no doubt.

Such venom was his antidote.

“What should I do?” she squeaked.

John tensed, remembering their situation.

“You’re asking ME?”

They both froze and fell silent. Someone was whistling It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue down the corridor. She bit her lip. He opened his mouth to say something, but coughed blood instead. She darted into the other room, just as O’Hara came thudding in. Brandishing the butcher knife, a contestant on the world’s worst cooking show.

“Where is she, Baby Blue?”

Who?” he feigned ignorance. “I’ve just been in here, pray-”

A bone-shattering crack sounded. From her hiding spot, Rook cringed. John toppled over, taking the chair with him. She prayed Joseph still had the warranty on his baby brother. The man was a sadist, but even he could only take so many hits and still find the strength to argue. Maybe she could construct a dummy from all the spare parts lying around.

“I’d say it’s time we start immortalizing you, Johnny,” O’Hara sneered, and bent over his face, bringing the knife around and grabbing him by the hair. With a cruel tug, he stretched his neck out.

Or she could be a fucking cop, and do her duty.

“FREEZE!” She stormed out of the room, training her weapon on his scowling face. “Hands up!”

Her stomach flipped. She waited a second too long. O’Hara held the knife at John’s throat, eyeing her from a squat on the floor.

“I’m the one giving orders, little rat,” he sneered. His thumb caressed the handle. The other hand left John, snaking down behind him.

John rolled his eyes. Or rolled them back in his head. No way he could be exasperated at a time like this.

“If you cut him, I’ll blow your brains out,” she threatened.

“That so? I’m awfully close to his jugular. Would hate for my hand to slip.”

For once, John dared not open his mouth. His eyes pleaded with her to make the right call.

“Put it down, O’Hara!”

“You’ll shoot me if I do. I see it in your eyes. There’s a lust in you, Deputy. You’ll kill for this man. Die for him like a dog, most-”

“SHUT UP!” she screamed. Her finger primed on the trigger.

John raised an eyebrow, a half-smirk ghosting his lips. Then shut his eyes as the blade drew a thin red line. A tiny smile.

“I mean to arrest you, not commit murder,” she said icily. “Now put the knife down!”

He grinned. “That’s right. Ever the intrepid cop. And you even have a lawyer here to represent you! Well how about this, Officer: I slit John’s throat, then I stab you to death and watch your blood mix on the floor!”

She cursed and took aim. Her trigger finger twitched.

WATCH IT!

John’s cry of alarm came too late. A smoke bomb went off, and the tight, narrow room filled with noxious gas. Choking, Rook felt those same powerful hands from earlier tangle with her, ripping the gun from her hands.Oh my God. I just armed the killer.

“Freeze, Deputy.”

Before she could dive aside, she heard an unmistakable clicking sound. For John’s sake, she obeyed.

“That’s right. Nice and easy. Don’t go anywhere.”

O’Hara flipped on an industrial fan, and the smoke cleared in seconds. Switched it off, Rook’s ears ringing. He turned her own weapon on her and shook his head.

“I expected better, Rat.”

“That’s Wrath to you!” she snapped, tears streaming down her face. Unsure why, but those felt like suitable last words, staring down the hole of her own weapon. No one tell my old Academy instructor.

He extended the gun, elbow locking. Clownish glee on his warped face. She glanced down at John. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. She shut her eyes.

The gun went off. Or rather, to pieces. Her eyes snapped open.

O’Hara was doubled over in agony and howling. It took her a split second to realize what happened.

Weeks of gunfights, swimming in rivers, neglecting to clean her poor service weapon had taken their toll, and her little dunk in the hotel bathroom had corroded and congealed it enough to fire a squib, which was what had torn him apart.

He clutched at his shredded hand, making clogged, choked sounds.

From the floor a voice hissed, “An improvement if I ever saw one.”

John twisted up and plunged the scissors deep into the man’s calf. Tsk’ed. Disappointed. He’d been aiming for the artery in his thigh.

O’Hara groaned and shambled off, slipping out the door faster than a bad dream. Again, Rook was amazed with how quickly the big man could move. Fucker might have had a career in the NFL had he not taken up murder. Then again...

The echoes of a half-laugh, half-wail screamed back at them, “You, ahah, weren’t supposed, heehee! To escape the hotel, Deputy! Ahahaha! Congratulations! But...heehee...neither of you is, leaving this place...ALIVE!”

“Happy to disappoint, asshole,” she panted, bent over, trying not to faint. “What a loser.”

From his twisted position on the floor, John smiled up at her brokenly.

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”


Though Mary May, Grace, Pastor Jerome, Hurk, Sharky—virtually everyone she knew in the Resistance—would beg and bribe her to regale them with the tale of how she escaped from the abandoned mine in the southern Henbane, Rook would always have to disappoint them.

“The truth,” she’d tell whoever asked, with a nonchalant shrug, “is that just I don’t remember much. Sorry.”

What little she did recall, she preferred not to talk about.

Weeks after their rescue, tossing and turning in her bed, her sleeping bag, whatever, it was always the same dream:

She’d help John off the floor. He cut his right arm free with the sewing scissors, now part of O’Hara’s anatomy. She had no time to question why he hadn’t told her about those. Did it matter? He was crazy, too. She must never forget that. But now she knew there were different brands of crazy, and some of them she preferred more than others.

They tried to leave the way she came, to find the passage had caved. Or someone had caused it to collapse. Then, something about a whisper, a high-pitched laugh in the dark, followed by a gravelly voice:

“If I hadn’t needed to take such good care of your flesh, you’d both be dead! Come and find me, if you can!”

A silkier voice would then say: “Come on. Let’s get out of here. Let my brothers deal with him later. I’d give up the Affirmation for his capture. A few days with him...alone...”

“John, you’re white as a ghost.”

“Tanning is a vanity I no longer allow myself.”

“You need to rest. I don’t get my gold star if I drag out your corpse.”

The hand tightly gripping hers retracted suddenly, leaving a cold spot.

“I’m touched by your concern. But I’ve been down in this hell long enough!”

“Fine. Pass out from blood loss! See if I care. I’m not carrying you out of here.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Would certainly make your destruction of my family so much easier!”

“Yeah, because I put myself in mortal danger just to abandon you at the last second. Idiot...”

She would dream of a winding maze of underground tunnels. Nature had seen to most of the traps, the crumbling walls and ceilings supported by nothing but rotting beams. At some point, they split up, and she’d ended up alone. Things got really hazy from there. Footsteps rang, and not an echo of her own. Louder and louder, the deeper she went.

Finally, a natural source of light would appear ahead. She’d inhale fresh air, hear the drip of a pool, feel the caress of wind from a vast, open ceiling in the cavern. Starlight, shining down. She’d run to the rocky ledge overlooking cold, black water, keeping an eye on the entrances to two tunnels.

What she thought were the only two. Until a pebble skittered behind her.

“John?”

The knife answered, finding her throat. A deep voice rattled her bones, taunting, “Come out! I’ve got her!”

A pause. Then, a slight figure, emerging from the other tunnel. Hands held in the air.

“Any last words?” the voice muttered in her ear. Foul breath warm against her neck.

She never had any. Fortunately someone spoke on her behalf.

“You know something, O’Hara? I wouldn’t be any good at what I do, without getting to know each and every person I Atone so intimately. Guess what I learned about you? And no, I’m not talking about your sin. I know that doesn’t interest a man like you.”

“Talk all you want!” the voice jeered. A layer of fear in those words, but the blade was a cold kiss against her skin. “I’m coming for you next. The exit’s shut. Nobody’s leaving now.”

Hurry.

Her head would be thrust back, throat exposed.

“Fine, fine. But first, you dropped something!”

Please, hurry.

“Let me put it back where it belongs!

She would black out for a second. Pressure increasing, around her neck, on her back. Thuds and cracks and grunts. When she came to, there was a struggle. The slight figure pushing against a hulking shadow, silver flashing between them. Both backing toward the edge of the outcrop.

Her knees would hit rock bottom, and she crumpled into a ball. Her hair soaked, slick with blood. Not her own.

“Bastard! Where do you get the gall?”

“As I was saying, Everett, I learned,” a gleeful voice almost sang, “that when I cut you, you bleed the same as every other worthless sinner in my chair!”

Another shout, higher in pitch, would be silenced abruptly. Followed by a deep, resounding splash.

A beat passed.

Someone gathered her head in their arms. Stroked her matted bangs back.

Poked her wounds, eliciting a whimper.

Jolly, livid sapphires gazing down, but that wasn’t right, she was facing the ceiling, not the water.

“Stay with me.”

Someone would squeeze her upper arm. The one with the burn. Hard.

“John. I can’t even feel that...I can’t..."

“Shh. I won’t let you slip away so easily.” Murmuring, in her ear. Someone snipping, twirling scissors with eager fingers.

She sobbed weakly.

“After all, we have unfinished business, you and I. This was a minor setback. The really fun stuff is just ahead. You have shown such...promise.”

She couldn’t remember if it was a threat or simply a statement, but there was no mistaking the determination, the enthusiasm behind those words. As fucked up as it was, they comforted her. At least she wasn’t alone, back in those tunnels, with those footfalls pounding steadily after her. Minutes later, a searchlight would beam across the water, followed closely by weightlessness, a sense of floating into the sky.

And then she would wake, drenched in cold sweat, grasping for a weapon in the dark, and remember almost none of it.

Almost.

Chapter Text

The doors to the chapel banged open with such ferocity, the Peggie guards, no strangers to gunfire, almost jumped out of their woolen britches.

“Brother Jacob! Leaving so soon?”

“Safe travels to you, sir!”

The flustered, redheaded man with the military-cut hair and rabbit’s foot necklace said nothing as he stormed past, fatigues swishing. In the distance, a helicopter—his favorite mode of transportation—began to spin its blades.

Inside the chapel, encircling the pulpit, the remaining Seeds regarded one another through a thin shroud of incense and candle smoke.

Two sets of eyes locked on John simultaneously, but only a single pair, concealed by panes of semitransparent yellow, concerned him.

“We need her on our side, John. The Voice is rarely adamant, but it is about that.”

“She certainly isn’t making it easy. I had hoped your olive branch—this infernal truce in my valley—would help convince her to stop this war path she’s on. But it seems she’s chosen the Whitetails as her next target.”

An airy, feminine voice lilted, “She doesn’t know our brother very well, does she? I thought he might rip that door off its hinges! I shudder to think what he’s got planned for her.”

Joseph lowered his chin, eyeing John slyly from above his aviators.

“At least he knows better than to test me. Jacob knows when to put a mad dog down.”

John scoffed. His brother wasn't referring to current affairs.

“Please! I came to you for help regarding Everett, if you both weren’t so busy-”

Faith flitted between them.

“Stop, just stop! I can’t stand all this tension between you two. You both haven’t been the same since, since that man. That idolater who took my hotel and killed my precious Angels!”

John's sideways leer might have burned up the flowers in her hair.

“And...and who dared lay his filthy sinner’s hands on my dear brother, of course,” she amended quickly.

“Yes, and what a peach he was. If he had a grave, I’d spit on it.”

She giggled, placing a hand lightly on the leather shoulder of his overcoat.

“At least you have your little trophy! How long did it take you to fish his body out of that cavern?”

Joseph cleared his throat loudly, and Faith retreated to join his side, contrite.

“Let us not dwell on irredeemable souls, already feeling the eternal flames. We have a junior deputy to focus on.”

“Oh, yes. I hear the poor thing’s not taking to Jacob’s training very well. Perhaps if we brought her to my bunker, some time in the Bliss might-”

“-Forgive my objection, Sister Faith, but it’d be a complete and utter waste on her. You don’t know this woman like I do.”

“Joseph? Your thoughts?”

“Our older brother is...aptly disciplined, but he only follows orders until he is backed into a corner. I have seen what devastation she brought on your valley in just a few weeks. He will capture her again soon, and when he does, I fear less for her life, and more for her mind. He thinks she is weak.”

John picked up a candle, letting the wax run down his fingers. Winning a disgruntled glance from Faith.

Some people embraced their pain, rather than blocked it.

“Parts of her are weak,” he defended, the little column snapping in his grip. “The best parts. Disassembling those is my forte, Joseph. Not his. I know I’ve failed you before, but that is why it is all the more vital she come to me, instead. She’s mine.”

He tossed the broken halves at Joseph’s feet.

His brother lifted his chin again. “Yours?”

“...to Atone.”

Faith beamed.

“It’s nice to hear you back to your old self, John.”

“Thank you, Sister dearest.”

Joseph nodded sagely, adjusting his glasses.

“Let it be done, then. I would prefer Jacob did not know. He fights hard for me. He always has. I do not want him to think I do not trust him.”

John passed his hand over another candle flame, back and forth, letting the meager heat caress his skin. He liked to think wherever O’Hara was, he was getting more than his fair share of that same sensation.

“She’ll come to see things in a new light. I will be the one to shine it.”

Faith sighed. “I wish I had another potion for you. It might help. She’s a wild one, that Deputy. Her roots are deeply ingrained in the old ways. She won’t be pruned easily.”

“I think I can do better than drugging her into submission.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, really? How much better are we talking?”

John pinched the candle flame out with his fingers. Then, slowly, never taking his eyes off Joseph, he used one from the pulpit to light it anew.

“Oh, my!” Faith gasped, then smiled. “I must say, I’m shocked. Forgive me, but she...doesn’t seem like your type.”

“Excuse me? I don’t have a type.” He set both candles on the edge of the pulpit with the others. “That attitude belongs in the old world. The one that’s going to burn. All that matters is that she believes. That she serves the Project.”

They turned to their leader, his head bowed, thumbing over his rosary.

“Joseph? You’ve been strangely quiet.”

“You are not being completely honest with me, John. I wonder, given past incidents, about your intentions for this endangered soul.”

“You need not worry. My intentions are sound. This time.”

“Are they, really?”

John restrained the urge to gnash his teeth.

“She went down in the dark for me. Where no one else would go,” he said pointedly.

Faith gulped. But Joseph’s lips quirked into a ghost of a smile.

“Hm. I do believe the threads of your fates are permanently wound together. Your shared ordeal with that demon proves this. He was desecrating the lands you so meticulously prepared. She provided you a means to his destruction.”

John grinned back.

“His evisceration, you mean! I’ll never forget the sound of his body hitting the water. Music to my ears.”

Faith made a face. John took a mental photograph. Always having to keep her hands clean, that one.

“I pray you are taking this seriously. This is about more than her Atonement, now. Her fate is in your hands, brother. I would see you both walk through the gates, hand in hand.”

“Better my hands, than anyone else’s.”

“Do not delay on this. She has already spent far too much time in those mountains.”

A suddenly disconcerted John watched the enlarged cross on his brother’s back grow smaller as he walked towards the doors.

“What do you mean?”

His polished boots pounded against the wooden slats.

“Joseph? How bad is she? What’s he done?”

“Good luck!”

Faith darted past him, skipping out ahead of the Father, to hold the door ajar. A weighted, pointed jab of a look from Joseph, before the doors slammed shut behind them.

Leaving John standing under the bird cages, in the swaying aura of the votives, alone and devoid of recourse.

The silence, the verses of love, hate, and the end of the world carved into the doors, the distant baying of a wolf the only things answering him.


In the abandoned hunter’s cabin, hunched before a mirror, she pinched a lock of hair between thumb and forefinger. Unraveling it slowly, very slowly. Stretching it taut.

The smooth strands a foreign sensation, for one who’d always kept her hair so short. The tips brushing against her shoulders felt downright unnatural. She hated it. Hated the way their sudden tickle would make her jump, scaring off the meal she’d been tracking, or while sneaking around one of those awful flashing beacons.

The old wolf might have taken secret acoustics lessons from O’Hara. Days earlier, lying outside at the bottom of a filthy cage, the lowing elk cries had kept her awake for nights on end.

Well, those, and the screams. The howls. Almost as bad as the footsteps that rang the few times she dared to dream, accompanied by distant calliope music. Perhaps not a dream, at all. There were no tunnels in the Veterans Center for the footsteps to echo off. Yet echo they had. No mirthless giggling or music, but those came even over the din from the blasted beacons, seeping through the bars straight into her molecules.

Jacob had a way of tinkering with the fragile machinery of her mind, pulling things out, putting things back where they didn’t belong. And always the red, red light, stalking her closer than her own shadow, and a voice, booming above the din of the training grounds...

You have my thanks for saving my brother, pup.

I see O’Hara’s done quite a number. What’s a few more scars, I always say. Hopefully your mind’s untouched. If not, that just makes it easier for me to get in there and poke around. At least John made sure the bastard got his, huh?

Guess we should be thankful you neglected your own service weapon. Now I know why they call ya Rookie.

The hand grasping the scissors trembled. She pulled her hair tighter, until her scalp stung.

And the voice in her head lowered to a growl.

Joseph, he ain’t pleased about the truce. You clipped his Baptist’s claws and put him in time out. He always was such a fucking child. I imagine enough days holed up in his bunker, without any converts to sink his teeth into, he’ll remember he still has balls. Sooner or later he’s gonna snap. Unless Joseph gives him a new chew toy, that is.

In hindsight maybe taking on Jacob’s region hadn’t been the brightest of ideas. She wasn’t exactly a shining beacon of military tact. More like a carpet bombing. And if O’Hara’s haunted houses were a hell of their own, she didn’t even know what to classify the Whitetails. The boundless woods became her purgatory. The walls of the Veterans Center her personal plane of torment.

You’ve only bought the people in the Holland Valley some extra time, is all. But I wouldn’t worry about them right now.

Let’s worry ‘bout you, instead.

She grimaced. A few more twigs fell from the tangled bird’s nest on top of her head. It wouldn’t stay a nest for long. As a cop, long hair was an invitation for disaster. She had tried to tell Hudson, once, and had personally seen the woman slam her own ponytail into the cruiser door. Thank God no one else had been around to see.

She almost smiled at the memory, before she remembered the newly-liberated Officer Hudson was probably warm and safe at the Spread Eagle, and she was there, in all that darkness...

Tell ya what, you sure got a lotta skeletons in your closet. Gonna have to work on you extra hard. Lotsa footprints in all that gray matter from O’Hara and John, too.

She hung her head, seizing roots, yanking on them. The other hand lowered the scissors to her thigh. Scraped them along her filthy jeans, splitting a few more seams.

Oh yeah. Seems my brother’s left quite the impression in there. He’ll be happy to hear that, I think. Maybe I won’t tell him, though. Save his ego a trip.

She stared ahead blankly. From the mirror’s depths, a familiar stranger stared back. Other than that, she tried to think about the last human face she’d seen and came up short. The cabin owners were either dead or gone. They took anything useful, but those days she carried with her everything she needed. No need for people or their things.

Solitude, the only company she required.

Rookie? You there? We’ve been trying to reach you for weeks! Come in already, let the folks at the prison know you’re all right. Sure could use a morale boost. Over...

She supposed she wasn’t entirely alone. All around the cabin were traces of animal life. Bleached vertebrae and miniature ribs littered the edges of the deep utility sink. A few dusty feathers scattered about, left by some scavenger bird or other. She brushed one over the edge of the plastic wash basin, watched it drift to the ground. A few weeks back, her weathered face pressed against frigid steel, she’d watched a raven—sable-bodied, sleek as an ermine, with indigo-tinged wings—peck at the leftover blobs of meat, just out of reach.

For a moment, she’d stared, transfixed.

It’s plumage retained the color of the bottom of the sea. Slicked-back and oh-so-neat. She longed to run her fingers through all that ink, sinking into those depths. But her stomach had released a growl, the raven had lifted its noble head, framed against the backdrop of cement, white as snow, bright red carrion dangling from its beak.

It had stretched its handsome wings and took off southwest. In his direction...

Alone again, to the tune of nearby beasts howling and snarling, the prisoners moaning and the flies buzzing, her fingers had circled the grit on the cage floor. Smearing blood and dirt into meaningless patterns, daydreaming that perhaps some secret combination would activate a spell, freeing her from that empty place of pain, unleashing fettered desires.

An owl hooted balefully outside the bathroom window, drawing her back to the present. Reaching toward the mirror, she traced a single, tapered, serpentine line in the dust. A silver dragon. At her bare feet, an orange work bucket contained a family of deer skulls. Some young, some old.

Kid...aw, fuck speaking in code. Rook, this is Dutch. I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing. My niece tells me you’re still alive. The longer you stay in the Whitetails, the less likely that’ll be. You got stop all this senseless running and get some help.

Christ. All that stuff with John and that O’Hara guy must’ve fucked you up bad. Don’t let Jacob make it worse! Jess thinks I should leave you alone. She’s young. She don’t know everything. Come back to us, if you can. My door’s open to you. Dutch, out.

Pinpoints from the conjoined flames of three tealights wavered in the black rings of the stranger’s pupils. She didn’t want to risk a fire. Not even an electric lantern. Jacob’s hunters and Judges stalked these woods, night and day. Armed to capture or kill on sight, depending on their mood.

She killed the ones who came before. Slaughtered them regardless of their intent. Except on two regrettable occasions. Both times she’d escaped Jacob’s compound, after enduring a wicked brainwashing that left her head pounding for days, her vision stained Mars-red from sunup to sundown. Rusting the components in her skull, coating her dreams in it. Everything had to work harder, now, just to function properly. She found she’d changed the definition of that word, these past few months.

Know somethin’? I don’t care what Joseph says. You killed some of my best men.

My hunters find you, and it’s shoot to kill. You hear me?

You’re dog meat. I ain’t like John.

I don’t fuck around with my prey.

She preferred those mean mountains, over the sleepy river, the tricky valley. There was a kind of permission in constantly running that appealed to her. It left no room for thoughts, for regrets. Or temptations. Horrid ones that set her stomach churning with guilt and-

I see it in your eyes. There’s a lust in you, Deputy. You’ll kill for this man...

Hollow fawn eyes peered up at her, partially buried by its brethren. She stuck out her foot, sending the bucket grinding across the ash laden floorboards. Some flies went with it.

You dropped something.

Let me put it back where it belongs!

She set the scissors down with a clink. Considered the stranger, tilting her head from side to side. Left to right. The firelight in their eyes changed, growing larger, smaller. Weeks on the run in the Whitetails, performing stakeouts, looting stashes, working in the shadows with seldom any company had left her near-starved, transformed into something…

Hungry. Feral. An unraveled version of herself. Every time she tried to tuck the pieces back in, more fell out of place. Her joints felt stitched together with threads of frailest silver. The constant hunger tugging on her strings, even after a rare belly full of meat, threatening to tear her limb from limb. The looming threat that, if caught in the right hands, one misbegotten tug and it would be all over.

She’d crumble to pieces.

Don’t think about him. He’s not your problem anymore, became her nightly mantra before fleeting sleep.

Steadying herself, she breathed, inhaling scents of pine. Smoke. Decay. She glanced at the bucket, at the flies circling above. At least the wilderness was honest. Unlike her instincts. Everything outside the cabin was either predator or prey. No secret surprises, no maniacs at the masquerade. No fetching smiles and blazing sapphires to dazzle and disarm her, make her fantasize for a second that maybe, just maybe-

Frowning, she touched her face. The stranger touched hers. This is what ‘maybe’ gets you. Her cheekbones had grown more prominent. When she clenched her jaw, she could see the tendons working. Her eyes were huge orbs. The athletic body she had meticulously maintained since teenage years had softened (weakened). She traced a claw mark on her left cheek, since faded to a dusky pink.

Instincts damned as they were, it was safe to say she wasn’t sure whom she was looking at, anymore.

Hooking her middle fingers into the collar of her shirt, she pulled it down. Nothing but a blank slate of flesh in the mirror. A little more collar bone than usual. Her breasts still covered by the material. No need for a bra. She was as flat as a board. Made her feel like a perpetual teenager, as if she hadn’t finished growing yet. Didn’t look right, on a woman’s body.

Then again, neither did all the scars. She wasn’t sure if they were a sign of self-preservation or self-destruction. No one would ever possibly find them beautiful, those grim badges of honor. She looked like the scrapped project of something that was meant to be a woman, but the artist had moved on to grander things.

Tires crunched outside. Big ones, not the ATVs the hunters preferred to use. Fuck. There she was, sulking away, while her enemies closed in. Unable to do something as simple as cut her damn hair.

Boots crushed gravel. She snapped away from the mirror, cursing her shit luck. Her eyes searched the gloom, ears primed and alert. Curtains fluttered thinly. A song she hadn’t heard in weeks crooned through the cracked window:

If your soul has grown weary

Your heart feels tired

Let the water wash away your sins

She was. Dead tired. Even running held no pleasure anymore. It was all a lie.

If the snow begins to fall

And you can't find the fire

Let the water wash away your sins

Not bothering with the candles, she crept into the other room, trying to get to her backpack. Crawling. Reaching. Needing.

“Someone’s in here! There’s candles lit.”

There! Her backpack, in the corner. Her lifeline. Her service weapon clipped to it. It should never have left her side, but in her quiet panic to cut her hair, she’d been careless.

If the night time lasts forever

But the days are cruel and mean

Let the water wash away your sins

Now a man filled the open doorway, rifle in his hands. His shadow leaked across the floorboards. Light from the headlights spilled in a yellow column. She heard another one running around back. Surrounded.

“We know you’re in here, sinner! Come on out with your hands up.”

And you thought one day you'd be happy

If you held in all your screams

Let the water wash away your sins

Without a scream or even a sigh, she got up, her mouth drawn into a baleful line. She raised her hands in the air, stumbling as she did so on rubber legs.

The man swore and raised his gun.

“Don’t shoot!” she rasped. “I surrender.”


Outside, the two men bound her hands behind her back, right about the same time she spotted the cage in the pickup bed. Her heart began to pound. A sick part of her longed for the illusion of safety behind the bars. Jacob’s Pavlovian training, hard at work.

A strong gust spiraled in the trees all around them, creating a dull roar. One man shined a flashlight in her face. Her vision flashed red, a brief supernova, and it was gone. He held up an old wanted poster of another stranger: her former self, before so much blood stained her hands...

“You sure this’s her?”

“Yeah, that’s her. Just with longer hair’s all.” The Peggie turned to her with a sardonic smile, brushing the straightened piece out of her eyes. She didn’t flinch. The other peered into her face, too close for comfort.

“Hmph. I hardly recognized you, Little Miss Wrath.”

“I can’t tell if the hair makes it better or worse.”

And your uniform’s not doing your ugly mug any favors, either. She bit her lip, maintaining her steely silence. One of her hands had balled into a fist, surprising her. But she went with them as they hassled her toward their truck, tossing her into the cage. She had no strength to fight, collapsing at the bottom, curling into a ball.

The two Peggies exchanged satisfied, if not slightly confused looks.

“That was the easiest capture I think we’ve ever had.”

One tapped the bars with his rifle. He was wide open. She was so tempted to reach out and bash him in the gut with it.

“We’re almost disappointed, Deputy! Expected more fight from you, of all people.”

She groaned into her skinned knees, shaking her head, “Just take me Jacob and be done with it. Or shoot me now. I don’t care. I’m so fucking tired.”

“Jacob? Who said anything about Jacob?”

The truck rocked a bit as one man climbed behind the wheel. The other slid into the passenger’s seat and slammed the door.

“Then where the hell are we going?”she growled.

The one behind the wheel turned around, sneering at her through the open back window, “We don’t answer to Jacob, lady.”

“Yeah,” the other grunted, propping his steel-toe boots on the dash. “We’re John’s men. We’ve been ordered to bring you straight to him.”

Her head shot up. She unraveled and leaned against the bars.

“That’s right. Sit back and relax, lady,” the Peggie smirked. “While you can.”

Letting her head fall back, she sighed quietly, even as the truck rocked and rolled over the unstable terrain, driver gunning the engine like the devil was after them.

Off somewhere in the dark, the same owl hooted thrice, perhaps announcing the departure of the humans from that empty place.


The two men drove their prize out to that gaudy ranch. The one where John also kept his planes. Lord knew those were the only things he loved in this life, other than his damned brothers (and that patterned jacket of his). She wasn’t even sure a word like ‘love’ was accurate when it came to that man. The way he reacted when Joseph embraced him by the river, staring off at nothing…

She hadn’t seen admiration or adoration in him. He was a mongrel, bred solely for ripping things apart, taking a look around the adoption shelter for the first time. John didn’t know how to feel. Only how to act. Saving him from O’Hara wouldn’t have changed anything. Jacob knew his brother better than she did. And confinement to a mad dog only intensified its madness.

A lesson she had learned herself, all-too-well.

She hugged her knees again as they pulled up to the ranch in the dark, stopping at a side door in the main building. Floodlights came on with a flash. Her heart started hammering at the sight of those iron scales, as more fell from her eyes. I’m not safe here, am I?

To the point, the men opened her cage and trained their guns on her.

“No sudden moves now. Joseph might’ve declared a ceasefire, but we won’t hesitate to put a bullet in you.”

Unless I put one in YOU first, she thought testily. Surprising herself for the second time. The farther away she got from the Whitetails, the more such sudden heated thoughts came. She was rather enjoying it.

And that made her question her resolve.

The side door banged. Two female cultists joined her captors, armed with the same assault rifles. They escorted her inside and down a hallway, not to a torture chamber or an incinerator, as she’d been expecting, but to a small guest bathroom.

“Shower,” one of them barked. “Make it quick. Don’t keep him waiting.”

What the fuck? As if her day couldn’t get any weirder, she was made to bathe and scrub herself clean, the stains from the Whitetails soon circling the drain. Normally, she’d have jumped for joy at the notion of steaming hot water and rose-scented soap, heated tiles under her sorry soles, but her enjoyment was tarnished by the glaring, watchful eyes of the guard.

And the knowledge that she, the enemy of Eden’s Gate, the one who had, figuratively at least, served the Baptist’s head on a silver platter, winning back the Holland Valley, was now being pampered like she was at a fucking day spa. But she wasn’t at a spa, was she? She was at John-fucking-Seed’s Hollywood hills ranch.

Never a place anyone in their right mind wanted to end up. Especially while naked.

“Wait, where are you taking my clothes?” She stood dripping with a towel wrapped around herself.

The guard that had taken her things held them away from her, grimacing.

“Your...rags...we’ve been ordered to burn.”

She scoffed, her wet, unpleasantly long hair dripping down her neck, sending chills down her spine. I hate you I hate you I hate you.

“And just what am I supposed to wear then? I can’t very well get tortured and interrogated in my birthday suit.”

Things took a turn from weird, into the downright absurd, as she was handed a crimson lace dress that Faith (and, by extension, Joseph) might have approved of. A pair of clean, cotton underwear came with it, and no shoes, not even a damned bra. She detested the dress immediately. The tight fabric made her skin itch and crawl.

This is getting ridiculous, she worried, when they started drying her hair, raking a brush through it until it was nice and feathered and soft. Why are they buttering me up like an offering? Don’t they know it’s a waste on me?

Once she was deemed ‘presentable’, they led her to the exit. Still no shoes. Apparently, wherever she was going, she didn’t need them.

“What’s going on?”

But they ignored her questions, her curses and accusations. Exhausted, confused, she was escorted out into the yard. She tried not to lean against their arms for support, but the temptation proved too great. They led her toward the back of the ranch. The faintest hint of firelight danced on the side of the building and in the windows. Dozens of tenebrous shapes reveled across the wooden beams.

Her nostrils flared. Smoke. A great deal of it. Her hackles raised, and she had a flashback of bodies burning in a ditch.

“NO.”

She dragged her heels. Scraped her clean soles raw on the tarmac.

“No, don’t take me back there! Let me go!”

“Shh!” One of the women held up a finger. The other tried to smother her, but there was no need. Two reinforcements arrived, pointing their weapons.

“March. He’s expectin’ you.”

Expecting me to die of fright, maybe.

Round the corner, onto the grassy terrace they went, straight at what she was sure was her funeral pyre.

Instead, they took her to a dinner table.

A lush one overflowing with platters of food and drink. She froze, gawking at it. The glasses and silverware winked in the light of colorless candles. Plush bouquets and wreaths of wildflowers and the intoxicating white trumpets were woven throughout. Smoke billowed from a bed of charcoal off to the side. Roasted game sat steaming in their dressings of apples and shallots, garlic and butter. She spied a gigantic salad in a polished wooden bowl, dishes of candied fruit, stacks of smoking biscuits, wrapped in pressed linen cloth.

Her stomach clenched at the scent of so much abundance. Saliva pooled in her mouth. She wiped her lips, before remembering the lipstick one of the guards dragged across her face. The back of her hand came away red.

It hit her then: only two chairs, at this table.

And, was that a full-length mirror? Placed a few feet away? Just sitting there, outside. Maybe he prefers to watch himself eat. That’s not creepy in the slightest.

She stared into it as they brought her closer. The stranger no longer stared back. Only a frightened woman in a red dress with lace sleeves.

So distracted was she by the spectacle, she didn’t hear him sneaking up on her. Perhaps he knew his lair well enough to prowl about without making a sound.

“Deputy!” John greeted cheerfully. “So kind of you to join me for dinner.”

Rook yelped and spun around. She felt his gaze rove over her, noting the change of appearance. She might have passed out from embarrassment, were it not for the tidal pull of those aequoreus eyes, keeping her stranded at sea. Caught in their unyielding surge, a secret part of her basked in the riptide.

Then his veiled insult came hurtling at her.

“Why, look at you, ah,” he trailed off, searching, smiling so radiant it singed her. Crow’s feet crinkled at his eyes. “Er, such a lovely dress! And I adore what they’ve...done, with your hair.”

Rook seethed, hot and rigid as a radioactive rod. The guards all laughed, as if that were the funniest joke they’d heard all year. It was a rare thing indeed when their boss was at a loss for words.

She curled her fingers into a fist. It felt so fucking good.

Like a return to form.


He had the bemused guards dismissed shortly after. May you all be dismembered by bears, she cursed inwardly. A few of them headed for the forest. They left them alone in the dark. Or the illusion of alone. Charcoal and wood hissed and crackled. The wind sifted through nearby leaves, sand through an hourglass.

Time slowed to a crawl. In all that stillness, standing so close to one another, she couldn’t stop her traitorous eyes from scanning John in the glow of the candelabra.

Standing there, one hand resting on his belt, he was clad in his usual clean-cut, sleek manner. Handsome and trim, almost all traces of O’Hara’s torture gone. Save for a small piece of his left ear. It bothered her more than it had any right to. The gnawing, empty sensation she’d felt, staring up at the YES sign before O’Hara had so rudely interrupted her thoughts, returned in full force. Needling its way down her spine, into her core.

“Here. Sit.” A proper gentleman, he pulled out a wicker chair for her. She could only stare, moonstruck. Had any man ever done that for her before? She couldn’t recall.

“Don’t be rude, now.”

She lowered herself woodenly into it, still dumbfounded. John waited for her to get settled in. Her dress rode up as she sat down. Flustered, she smoothed it fussily, trying to yank the hem as far down as she could over her thighs. He snuck a glance, when she wasn’t looking, and his lips quirked strangely. He left her side and took his seat. A concerning mixture of relief and loss churned within her as he walked away.

Both seated, he watched her closely from across the table, lacing his fingers beneath his beard.

“What the hell?” was all she managed to squeak out.

“Apologies for calling on you at such a late hour,” he offered, holding a hand out. “And I hate to interrupt you from running around Jacob’s woods, doing whatever is you do. I always knew you were a bit uncivilized, but I never expected you to take up such heathenry.”

She held back a riposte, knowing it was unwise to clash with a man on his own turf. She glanced down at her plate. Instead of an array of fine silverware, the spread was truer to Montana. A steak knife and a hammered fork on either side of her plate. A copper cup full of herbed water. A heavy, hand-spun clay plate that could knock out an ox if thrown Frisbee-style. She made a mental note.

“Well?” he drawled. “I know it’s not bull testicles, but it’ll have to do.”

One thing would do just fine. She reached for the steak knife, flicking her eyes upwards. John was busying himself with his napkin.

“Don’t think I can’t see you scheming over there!”

She retracted her hand into her lap, fuming. John leaned forward, taking his silverware in his hands. She supposed she should be thankful he didn’t force her to say grace.

“The guards will come running if I so much as sneeze. Don’t get cute.”

“How am I gonna cut my food without a knife?” she snapped.

“With that attitude, you really must be starving. Jacob’s region hasn't been kind to you, I see."

She blushed a little, to be under his scrutiny. And, if she wasn’t completely delusional...his concern?

He made a magnanimous sweep at the banquet. “Please. Eat.”

His blue shirt stretched over his shoulder muscles, pulling his collar open slightly, giving her a peek of sternum and sin. Suddenly her appetite vanished. She looked away, pretending to be interested in something non-lethal on the table. Around him, that proved difficult.

“You first,” she growled, narrowing her eyes in suspicion.

John rolled his eyes. He stabbed at the roasted pig with his fork (winning a cringe from her), hastily sawing off a slice. Chords in his inked forearms stood out, the black lines even deeper thanks to the candlelight. He made a show of lifting his fork (along with his eyebrows). Then he popped the juicy morsel into his mouth. Chewed and swallowed unceremoniously, as if never one to really enjoy food.

He took a generous sip of wine though.

“There. It’s not poison,” he assured. “Nor is it the slop they serve at that serpent’s den the Spread Eagle. Now eat up, before it gets cold.”

He started on the food himself, taking small portions of everything. More for show than for hunger. She had to sit up straight just to see him over all the distractions. He moved slowly, wavering before her, a seductive spell called up from her fever dreams. She damn well knew this was more than just dinner, but she went through the motions stiffly, picking up her fork.

She tried to keep her hand steady. A miserable failure. Anything that somehow made it on those shaking prongs would slide right off.

I’m a fool, she mourned, watching John dig into his plate of assorted meats. While he was distracted, her eyes were free to roam, to torture her. Who knew the act of eating could look so delectable. All this pomp, this showmanship was just the appetizer before the big letdown. Her hand shook even worse. Jacob fucking warned her, his little brother would do something rash. The master beckoned with his crooked finger, and she came running along, an obedient hound. Or a bitch in heat.

Now I’m acting as if this is a goddamned date, instead of a means to humiliate me. Make me hopeful, before he murders me in some uniquely ‘John’ way.

So this is how it would end, then. With him tormenting her in the worst way he could possibly have. Her fork slipped with a clatter. Bitter tears swelled. She sobbed quietly, wilting forward, her hand shielding her grief-warped face.

Across the table, John chewed on a piece of skirt steak. It melted on his tongue, and he sucked it down. At her weeping, his pale brow creased, though his lips maintained their slight smirk. He reached out for the rack of lamb, snapping off a few juicy pieces. Raised them to his lips. Chewed slowly, along the bones. His attention on her the entire time.

He hadn’t eaten in days, ever since her last escape from Jacob’s compound. But there was no need for her to know that. Plans, planning, and more planning, left a man with little room for sustenance.

“Food’s that good, huh?” he asked, over her sniveling.

She gathered herself and sat back, hands constricting themselves in her lap. Wet eyes flitted to the wine. She grabbed the goblet. Smelled it. Took a few paranoid sips. It went straight to her head. She set it down like someone had dumped ricin inside.

“Not a Cab fan, I take it?” he quipped between bites. Making short work of the lamb.

“Enough bullshit!” she snapped, pushing her empty plate away. “What do you want? Why have you brought me here? Shouldn’t I be in your dungeon by now, strapped to a chair or something?”

He leaned forward, deeper that time.

“Would you prefer that?”

She shook her head. He sat back and snapped a bone in two. Sucked on the marrow.

“I would prefer if you let me go. Please.”

At that tiny bit of begging, his face lit up. Her heart ran with her eyes, betraying her next with a few skips and a bad remix.

“In time, perhaps. First, a meal. A drink. Go on. Take communion with me.”

A gust swelled, the candles guttered, throwing oblong shadows across him. She glowered at the food with a misery that he took sanguine delight in, laughing lightly, his shoulders heaving.

Off somewhere in the woods, a barn owl screeched. Something small squealed. Died.

“Come now. You must be starving,” he pressed again, twirling a bone fragment. Less patience in his tone, now.

“It’s plain to see Jacob wasn’t kind to you, despite saving me. Honestly, you really didn’t expect to remain in his good graces, bombing his outposts and dismantling his beacons, did you? Still, I heard he was...needlessly ruthless.”

Rook threw back her head and laughed brokenly. He talked right on over her outburst, as if to himself,

“They said you were living like a filthy pagan in some hovel. You. The one who helped track down my k-, Everett. Why I even heard my dear older brother ordered his men to shoot you on sight!” He tsk’d, pushing his own plate away. “Disobeying Joseph, my oldest brother! Never a good idea. His charge is to strengthen sinners with rigorous training, not euthanize them as if they're a bunch of diseased mutts. Not unless absolutely necessary.”

Rook stiffened against the back of the chair. I know a bunch of dead men who’d like a word with you.

“I...see,” she said, dejected. “I guess.”

They both knew she was blind. He chuckled behind one tattooed hand. She took an unsteady gulp of wine, tapping a finger against the rim. The roasted meats, the fine cheeses sang their siren songs, but she was deaf to her body’s cries for nourishment. Most of them. A nasty one was growing more engorged by the second. Turning into a ravenous slavering thing, the way it always did when she was around this dangerous, infinitely vexing man.

“Though I’d say,” he added, roving over again, “that some things about you have improved.”

She looked to him for an explanation. He sucked sauces from a supple finger. Wiped his beard with his napkin. Sipped his wine.

“The dress suits you, believe it or not.”

She fought tooth and nail, to let that comment not utterly dissolve her will. Beneath the table, her knees squeezed together.

“T-thank you,” she murmured. Even though he probably didn’t mean it. “But all this...this genuflecting is pointless.”

He picked at a handful of nuts, crushing them more than eating them. “What is?”

Her temper reared its head. He knew damn well what she was talking about.

“This dress. The food. That weird fucking mirror!”

He stiffened at her profanity, a predatory gleam in his eyes. She didn’t care, though her stomach rolled over once.

“Tell me what you want with me. The truth. No games.”

He tilted his head, folding his arms across his vest.

“The truth? The truth is, I owe a debt to you. One I have yet to repay.”

“So you kidnap me? Guess that’s no surprise.” Acid in her words, now. Spoiling the food.

“I saved you. From Jacob. He was going to dismantle you. Stupid woman!”

She mirrored him, folding her arms against her chest.

“I even prepared this feast in your honor!” He shrugged with offense, slamming both hands before his plate, rattling the glasses. “But apparently, it’s a massive waste of my time. You won’t even take one little bite. Even when you’re clearly on the brink of starvation.”

And she wouldn’t partake. Not ever. He paused, his gaze piercing right through her. He was about to pull something out, throw down some wildcard.

She wasn’t prepared for it, and it ensnared her better than one of her own rabbit traps.

“Perhaps,” he insinuated, low, “It’s something else you’re craving.”

Fuck. He knows.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

John cracked a smile at that. Every time, a bolt to her heart. A flicker of heat between her legs. What was it she’d heard once? A man wants to fuck you, he takes you to a bar. A man takes you to dinner...well, he’s interested. Whatever interested John about her couldn’t be good for her health. Post-O’Hara and Jacob, she was in a self-destructive kinda mood.

And she was so very, very hungry.

“Enough song and dance,” she recovered. Mustering her dignity. Wringing her hands in her lap. “If you’re going to do something to me, John, be a man, and get it over with.”

“As you wish.”

John upended his goblet, draining it. Her poor, confused heart sped up. Fuck this. It’s to war, then. She reached for hers, draining it in a few gulps. The thick notes struck her tongue in a fine symphony. The last she would ever drink. Her head filled with little tendrils of smoke.

“After all, you went through such pains to save me,” he continued, wiping his mouth. His fingers webbed around the goblet opening, twisting it side to side. “I only wish to show my gratitude. Make us even.”

Is that really all? Is it?

“You already have, thanks to Joseph,” she tried to reason. She might be in a shitty dress instead of her uniform, devoid of a badge, but she was still a cop. “A deal’s a deal. The Valley’s had weeks, months of peace now. What more is there?”

“What more, indeed.”

Those wolfish orbs twinkled at her from above the candles. He stood abruptly, pushing out his chair. She recoiled, looking right to left for escape routes. He started making his way around the table, trailing his fingers along the cloth. Fretting them along the wood. Tap, tap, tap. The way he was looking at her, she wondered if this wasn’t all a form of foreplay, in his upside-down world.

At that thought, the flat bottom of the chair became very uncomfortable. Her fingers gripped the edges.

“I wasn’t lying, earlier. You clean up rather nicely,” he offered. The fake compliment generated another wave of embarrassment in her. The table corner cut him off at the waist, and her wretched eyes jumped to his belt buckle, his zipper. Back to his smiling face. He loomed across the remaining bit of tablecloth.

Seized a piece of her soft hair in his fingers, rubbing it together. She braced herself for the sudden yank, the incoming blow. It never came. He was just touching her hair. What the ever-loving fuck?

“Don’t,” she protested lamely. But the longer he did that, raising her hopes, dangling them above her head, the more her temper surged.

“Liar,” she snarled, jerking her head, freeing herself. “I know what I am to a man like you!”

“A man like me...” He trailed off. Leaned, much closer, one hand on the table, til they were practically nose to nose. Silence pressing in, among other things she had no name for.

“...you don’t know any men like me.”

So close, she could smell his cologne, over the sumptuous feast. Was he going to kiss her? Her instincts collided, sparked hazardously. This was a trap. It had to be. She glanced at the steak knife.

Maybe it’s not too late to-

He swiped it out from under her, before the thought could even finish in her brain.

Then he smiled charmingly, the serrated blade catching the candlelight and throwing it back in her face.

Chapter Text

While she sat there, wrestling with her shoulder demons, John let the knife dangle against his leg. His free hand, the one with the checklist of sins, scooped a handful of pomegranate seeds from a glazed bowl. One by one, he tossed them into his mouth.

“You’re in a bit of a predicament, it seems. The way I see it...”

She swallowed uncomfortably. Chewing, taking his sweet time, he read her consternation with saline satisfaction. She watched his jaw work until his lips were stained. He grabbed more and offered her a palmful of those sparkling tear-shaped jewels.

“...it’s my way, or Jacob's. And I think we both know how that ends for you. Why not take the easy path?”

Her hand twitched once. She refused the seeds, shaking her head. He swallowed and scanned her dress again.

The apples of his cheeks glowed orange in the candlelight, his narrowed eyes Plutonian and glinting. “I also know your vicious little secret.”

Before she could protest, he went on, swirling the knife as he talked, “You think I haven’t noticed, the way you look at me? When you think I’m not paying attention?”

Oh, how she longed for that knife.

“If this kind of talk’s supposed to turn me on-” she choked out. Her eyes pooled. She blinked and they overflowed. “It isn’t working.”

He was hardly surprised.

“How about this, then.”

He stepped away from the table. The owl screeched from the void. She was suddenly aware of how alone they were, stuck in a bauble of light, nothing but darkness on the periphery. A few silver spiked tips pierced through the black ceiling of the sky, the moon hidden by gray swaths of cloud.

“Stand up,” he ordered, gesturing with the knife.

She did. Damn her to hell.

“If you hate that dress so much, why don't we take it off you?"

“...What?”

At her stunned hesitation, something snapped. He jammed the knife into the table, right in front of her, rattling the glass. Before she could finish jumping, he seized her head with both hands, twisting her face toward his. Forcing her to look straight at those pomegranate-stained lips.

“Don’t play dumb with me,” he growled. “You heard right.”

And he forced their lips together, muffling her shocked cry with his mouth. She tasted richness, the overpowering sweetness of the seeds. Surprised to find herself using equal amounts of force, twisting to meet his advances, returning a bite to her bottom lip with a nip of her own.

He broke away so she she could catch her breath. Tint on her lips that hadn't been there before.

“Knew you’d bite, eventually,” he smirked. Her face framed by those dangerous hands.

“Please...” She was in shock. She wasn’t even sure what she was asking for. Please, continue? Please, don’t deceive me? Please, please, please...

“I can only lead you to the water,” he said, in hushed tones. At ‘water’, his thumb touched the corner of her mouth. The helpless urge to put it between her lips shamed her worse than anything. A whirlpool formed inside her, sucking down all rational thought.

“If you choose not to drink, you may go,” he continued. “And we’ll return to our violent game of cat and mouse. However, if you stay, give me your ‘yes’...”

At ‘yes’, his thumb tapped once. That whirlpool opened up, taking entire ships with it.

“You’re mine. For three days. And I will do my best convince you to remain here. With me. This is my gift to you.”

She hovered, as if about to step on quicksand. Arrogant son-of-a-bitch, bribing her with such depravity. As if she would sink so low. But then again, he was promising three whole days of him. Just him.

He watched her flounder, pleased with himself. “Well? How does that sound?”

“...Tempting.”

The last attempt of a drowning woman, she broke free and dove forward, reaching for the heavy plate. She heard a curse, and he clamped down on her upper arms in a bear-hold from behind. She rooted for a foothold to kick out from, but he spun her violently, slamming her chest down against the wood.

The plate slipped and dropped to the grass with an anticlimactic thump. He kicked it out of the way, laughing haughtily while he grabbed her wrists,

“Such rude table manners."

Rook shimmied, trying to wiggle her way free. Unrelenting arms pinned her in place. He may have been a slight man, but the force of his anger crashed down on her like a river. Heat rippled from his body. She suddenly understood exactly why Joseph had put him in charge of wrenching confessions out of people. She could hardly swim against his current.

He twisted her hair around his hand, using it to press her down, down into a submissive hold. His hips pinned the backs of her her legs in place, the table gouging her thighs.

“I saved your life,” she hissed. “Remember?"

“Yes, you did, didn’t you? Loyal little thing. Letting you live is the second-best gift I can give you. But even that has it’s limit. Now get up. And don’t try anything like that again, or you’re really going to make me mad.”

He peeled his torso up, and she inflated her lungs, panting. Ah, there it was. The insanity. She already missed his nearness.

Damn her twice.

“And give me your answer.”

He pressed his hips even harder against her, so she could really feel his intention, straight through the thin material of the dress. The belt buckle left an indentation, warmed from their combined heat.

“...Yes.”

She hung her head, his hot breath on her neck. One tiny word, for such a grand admission. She would let him do anything to her. Wanted him to. Had craved it, from the moment she saw him in Joseph’s church. But she would never, ever say that aloud.

She didn’t have to.

“Good.”

He released her wrists, sliding his hands down lace and around her trim waist, squeezing. “Very good, Deputy. You’re learning.”

To his point, he pulled her up against his chest, his grip startlingly soft. Rewarding her with tenderness. He stroked the side of her face. Trailed his fingers down the rake marks on her cheek. When she flinched at his touch, he said with quiet remembrance,

“I watched this face go through hell. You were just a stranger, someone I’d been ordered to atone. And there you were, on a screen, risking your life for me.”

Distantly, she recalled the television in O’Hara’s lair. She had never considered the possibility that her entire ordeal had been filmed.

Feather-light, his finger brushed against her old wounds, as if he could smudge them and their memories away. Then all his sins closed in delicately around her windpipe. When he tried to look her in the eye, she flicked hers away, embarrassed. He explored some new scars at the base of her neck, outlining them reverently, a sculptor before an old project, rediscovered and placed back on the pedestal.

He murmured down, “Know what I realized, watching that monster toy with you like that? Every look of shock and awe and pain...”

She turned back to him, recalling her despair in the hotel when she’d seen his tortured face in the last room. Thinking the body had been his, weeping over a nameless Angel corpse.

He stroked a stray piece of hair aside. “If anyone’s going to make you look that way, it should be me.”

“I was just doing my job.” The line was so wooden, so fake, he could have snapped it in two.

“Keep telling yourself that, Deputy.”

He rested his forehead against hers, and she drank him in, closing her eyes. He could practically feel her unfurling. Their lips met again, mutual that time, sharp sounds ringing out across the lawn. Each kiss a brief tease, neither taking things quite further. He was quick to pull away again, only giving her small hits of him. She pressed in, insistent, craving more, but he stopped her, murmuring into her ear,

“I know you’re eager to start. But one quick matter to address. If I take anything too far, you need only say ‘Tytonidae’. And I’ll stop. Anything at all. One word. ‘Tytonidae’. Let me hear you say it.”

“Tytonidae,” she repeated, uncertain. She doubted the veracity of his statement. In his arms, she found she didn’t care. She’d been tipped overboard, fighting the swells as she clawed, bunched his shirt in her hands, pressed against his chest for purchase.

He withdrew his hand from her throat, placing it at the small of her back, steadying her.

“I don’t think you’re going to need it, though,” he added, bemused. “You’ve already shown what you’re willing to put yourself through for me.”

Recalling what, exactly, that had been, she felt a stab of panic. To make matters worse, he wrenched the knife from the table.

“Wait, why-”

"Shhh. Over here."

He crowded her over to the mirror. Fingers plucked at her arms, her shoulders, not at her skin, but at the dress. She realized what he meant to do, and spun around. A new sort of panic gripping her heart.

“Are you crazy? Not out here, in front of this thing!”

He walled her in from behind, wrapping his arm around her waist, watched him do it, in the mirror. His free hand twirled the knife at his side.

“Don’t forget our rule now. I want you begging from pleasure, not from misery.” His voice teemed with excitement. “Not all from it, anyway."

She faced the mirror, her pulse thrumming. Lightning balled in her abdomen. She hadn’t forgotten the safe word, and at this point, after all they'd been through, she believed he would hold good to his word. That didn’t stop her shame. She was about to be disrobed out in the open, for the wide world to see. He was determined to worsen that shame, too, pressing in even more, using two ‘implements’ against her at once, above and below. He was a man who loved to use tools, after all.

The knife dragged close to her shoulder, across the fabric of the dress. Further down, at the lewd prod of him against her lower back, her mixed feelings of dread and desire began to prowl and circle one another.

But then he slid the knife under the neckline of her dress, and she caved to the urge to protect herself from prying eyes. She couldn’t let it go any further. The disappointment if she was wrong about him would wreck her, drag her along the shallows, til there was nothing left.

“Don’t...”

Because it could still be a fucked up game, this deal of his. One he was going to turn around on her, somehow, make her regret ever opening up. Oh, how she would know such regret. Her lip quivered. More stubborn tears spilled over.

John sighed and pocketed the knife. Those tears wouldn’t do. Not now. He needed to hear her praise his name, not condemn it.

He placed his hands on her shoulders, the weight of them dizzying. Thumbs kneading her muscles. Then, a kiss, on the side of her neck. She shuddered at the bristles against her skin. Gentle John was perhaps the scariest John of all. His hands cruised down her arms at her sides, finding her hips, tugging her into him slightly.

“Relax,” he ordered, with another pull. “I won’t harm you. Not unless you want me to.”

A little too much hope, in that statement.

She eased back into his warmth, content with his current ministrations. He nuzzled her neck while he explored her, and she permitted it, his bulge at her lower back driving her wild. While his hands treated themselves to her lithe figure, her hills and valleys, his mouth journeyed along her neck, planting more kisses. He felt her body loosening against him. Her willful tears stopped. Game or no, she had made up her mind. She would eat of the fruit.

But that damned knife reappeared, and she recoiled, cringing.

“Oh, come on. After O’Hara, I’m really not that scary, am I?” he purred.

Another kiss, lower. At the nape, raising goosebumps everywhere. She squeezed her thighs together once more. Her nipples became obvious through the lace, and she saw his reflection fixate on them.

“You kill people,” she hissed. Her blood churned with the unstable mixture of pleasure and guilt. “You torture them.”

“When I'm obligated to.”

Far too casual an admission for her taste

He brushed her hair aside. Kissed the other side of her neck. Pushed up the hem of her dress, just an inch. Teased her thighs, her ass, palming them greedily, but never for long. She wiggled, but didn’t try to break away. Each time her backside brushed against him, his desire intensified, cock straining a bit harder against his jeans.

“And so do you, Little Miss Wrath. Kill them, at least. So efficient about it, too. I envy your industriousness.”

Thinking about that must have really ignited something, because his touches grew aggressive. He coasted his hands all along her body now, lace and skin alike, as if he could eat her with his palms. She was beside herself, astral projecting into the mirror with their intertwining images. It had been too long. And this man was a species of his own. She was at a loss.

“Because your people attacked me,” she defended, remembering there was a conversation happening. Having a difficult time, with his fingers tangling in her hair, yanking her head back, baring her neck to him. The nudge of his canines against her flesh.

“Not the way you do it, stretching it out for hours...you’re like him.”

He froze with his teeth on her, and she knew she’d fucked up. At the comparison to Everett, his hold on her waist compressed the breath from her lungs. The other tightened around her hair. Fingers dug into the dress, yanked on her scalp, and she winced. She didn’t know if he would throw her down, stab her, or-

All at once, he relaxed. The constrictor hold on her fell away. She drew a narrow breath.

“Please.” His lips and beard tickled the crown of her head, his words light and warm. “I saw right through you when you were in my chair. I see through you now. Stop all this denial. Admit it. You want me.”

There’s a lust in you…

Thy sin is lust, perhaps.

“Yes,” she admitted sorely.

He laughed into her hair. More ghost breaths. “That’s the bitch of the thing, isn’t it? As it turns out, I want you too.”

“I don’t...I don’t...” She swallowed nails. Perhaps she should take a page from his book. Get it off her chest. “I don’t care anymore. Just...don't stop.”

He nodded, gazing at their reflections. Reached into his pocket.

“One sick soul touches another.”

Before she could move, he flicked the knife along the straps, sawing at a few inches of fabric. Two clean, precise nicks, and the fabric slid, pooling at her ankles. Leaving only her underwear to shield her from the elements. And John’s hungry stare.

At her sudden near-nudity, out in the cold, open air, him rutting against her, she couldn’t handle it. She averted her eyes from the mirror and started to back away. Covered her breasts with her hands.

“Oh no no no, I don’t think so.”

Hands clamped over hers, the blunt part of the knife digging into one. He forced her arms apart, forced her to face her naked reflection. Scars and all. Hair hanging in her eyes, sparing her the worst. He let go, and brushed her bangs aside. Each time she tried to cover herself, he slapped her hands away.

“Such pointless pride,” he chided, eyeing that image of her exposed before him. “Parading as false modesty. Your indignation screeches through your bones like a badly attuned instrument. I can hear it even now, in your pathetic protests. But I’ll tell you something.”

He caressed the scaly burn on her upper arm. His face tucked firmly against her neck, he spoke, vibrations shooting through her, “The ugliness in me likes the ugliness on you.”

He nipped at her ear, and the last thread holding her resistance snapped. A hand found her bare breast. Fingers pinched and twisted the nipple, savoring the slight yield. Her spine warped under all that pressure, a hiss escaping her lips.

Yet another kiss, behind her ear. Each time she expected pain, but found only the thrill of its absence.

“Flesh is but flesh.”

He seized the downy nape of her neck in his teeth, biting hard enough to leave indents. Shivering, she watched in the mirror with voyeuristic pleasure as the hand snaked to the other breast, giving that nipple the same torturous treatment. Her pulse stormed in her ears. Raged between her soaked thighs.

He muttered against the column of her neck, doing what he did best, “Nerves are but nerves. The body has its needs, and there is no great victory in shame. Do you think I’m that shallow?”

The hand left her nipple and slid under the faint swell beneath.

"This is how God made you. For me."

Though she didn’t have much there, he groped her possessively anyway, as if it were all he ever needed. His attentions left her overly-sensitive and sore.

“I think this is a trick,” she hissed, wincing. But her hand said what she really thought, palming all along his restrained erection.

His head filled with static for a second. Then he laughed, breathy with lust, “That so?”

A hand dove, unapologetic, between her legs, and she jolted. Fingers delved past her panties with cunning quickness, cruising along that slippery little highway of her vulva, a road only he was allowed on, to tease her entrance. She softly whined her want, thighs clenching on him, but he withdrew his hand.

Splayed his fingers, slick with her lust. He feigned his shock. In the mirror, her eyes widened.

“Not all of you thinks that, it seems.”

He licked and sucked those fingers once, but with more savor than he had at the banquet. Oh, but he was shameless, almost proud of his perversions. The red in her face deepened. Any more blood in those cheeks, she might faint. With a new, focused expression, he took her by the hand, grip tight. Palm searing. Led her away from the fallen dress dress and the mirror. The air was a cool, thin shroud wrapped around her.

For a moment, she thought he was taking her inside, to the privacy of his bed. She should have known better. He stopped in front of the long farmhouse table, with its sturdy legs and overflowing surface. He faced her with lecherous intent.

“Come now. What better place than where hunger is sated?"

She crinkled her face in disagreement, saying nothing. He took her hips in his hands, backing her up, rocking her against the edge. Forcing her to spread her legs to make room for him. His mouth sought her lips, demanding tithe after tithe. The rub of his zipper against her thinly-covered mound chafed her, but she ground against him despite that, trying to feel all of him, burning with curiosity of what the rest of him looked like, felt like, tasted like. Needing more. More skin. More heat on her cold body. More everything.

He offered it to her, morsel by morsel. Bit her lip, as he pressed her backwards...straight into a warm pan of roasted pheasant.

“John?” She shut her eyes. Trying hard to forget they were outside. Surrounded by his men, even if she couldn’t see them.

“Deputy. Keep your eyes open.”

She watched him unbutton his vest and shirt, letting them hang, a window to the skin she so badly wanted to touch. He lowered himself and kissed from her mouth to her neck. Leaving a trail of marks to her breast. He took one nipple in his teeth, then the other, suckling with lewd, wet sounds, rather than biting. At one point she even heard a pop, and the alarm bells went off in her head: Outside. Open. Danger.

Oh well. She was at a table. She may as well partake. She snaked a hand past his shirt, clawing at his marked chest, so hot she thought his puckered scars might brand her palm, her other traveling under their compressed bodies, grabbing at his bulge greedily, eliciting a hiss from him.

Something poked her in the neck, but it was just a wooden spoon.

“Wait...the table...” she sighed, with his mouth on her breast still, hand working its way under her, slithering between her thighs once more.

Grunting, somewhat annoyed, he pulled her up, sweeping entire dishes and silverware to the ground with a tremendous clamor. All that tempting decadence, in the way of his true meal. Clearing just enough space, he came down relentlessly, crowding her flat on her back, attacking her mouth with his. Drawing more purple bruises on her neck. He steadied her lower half, hands cupping her backside. Her hair splayed out behind her in a fan.

“Ahh,” he purred, gazing down at her with ravenous intent. “You’re blushing again. How cute.”

She hesitated, peeling off her back slightly. “This is...a first for me. Outside.”

No mistaking the devilish glee in his raised eyebrows, his flashing teeth.

“Lay back. Relax. Even if you scream, my guards know better than to interrupt me.”

His arm supporting her pelvis, his free hand delved to her cleft and found her clit, circling it, and she could tell by the glide of his fingers that she’d soaked him. At this discovery he made a pleased sound that shattered her. His beard rubbed her chin and cheeks raw as his lips twisted against hers in a fierce kiss. He forced her mouth open wide, tongue sliding against hers, tasting her. Opening her up. He inserted two fingers below, and she gasped at the sudden intrusion.

He pushed and pulled more of those little sounds from her throat, his wrist working hard. At one point he stopped, lifting his head for a breath.

“Second thoughts?” he teased.

“Please,” she huffed. “Don’t. Don’t stop.”

He hummed assent into her mouth. He added a third finger, stretching her to her limits. She arched up into his chest, gasping, and felt him smirk against her cheek.

“All that, just from my fingers...” he chuckled lightly, removing them, wiping her slick on his jeans. “You really are starved.”

Not like I had time to sleep my way around the county, asshole. She bit his lip in response, pulling on it, pulling him farther down. Nudging his crotch with her knee, her thigh, guiding him to her. An offering he’d be an idiot to reject, with it so temptingly close.

“This time I’ll indulge you.”

Eager to be rid of all restraint, he unbuckled his belt and pants, letting everything slide down, his jutting cock springing free at last. She raised her hips to meet it, propping herself up with her elbows so she could see. His fingers hooked into her panties, but instead of pulling them off, he slid them down to her ankles and stopped.

Ducking under and between her legs, he rose up, spreading her thighs. When she tried to kick the panties off her ankle, he smacked her inner thigh with a loud slap, and she yelped.

“Don’t think so. Those stay on.”

He rubbed her where he'd struck her, his red hand print ghosting to the surface.

“Sorry,” she whined, clawing at his shoulders, trying to pull him on top. Needing his warmth, his weight, his power over her.

“Mmm, you'd better be.” He squeezed the print, letting her feel the dig of his nails. “Don’t try to stop me again.”

He grabbed his cock in his hand and pressed the tip against her, sliding toward her center, their fluids converging in a deluge, salt to her parting seas. He stopped just shy of home. Relishing her pants and whimpers as she tried to thrust up, angle him in on her own. A tightly-wound spring about to snap within, but he bore down on it with a will of iron. Her pants and pleas, her flesh all exposed and ready for the taking, corroded that willpower quickly.

“Stop messing with me...please...” she whined.

“You’re ready?” he huffed, nudging a bit harder against her entrance. A rhetorical question if there ever was one. “You want this?”

“Yes,” she insisted, curling up a bit from the table. “Yes, now, please now.”

But she could tell by his face she’d displeased him.

“No,” he said severely. “I don’t think so.”

He sat up, and she raised her head, alarmed. He loomed above her. Expectant. Domineering. Taking in the sight of her, every inch laid out before him, an exquisite dish. One he was deciding how to cut into.

With a thrill of panic, Rook glanced at the ranch, the forest, remembering where they were. What they were doing, so open and obvious. He saw her fear, and leaned across her, pleased again. He kissed her slowly, forcing her head to tilt right and left. Soft and earnest. As if they were warming up on his bed, instead of draped across a table, a proper pair of heathens.

A pillar of warm flesh jagged between her thighs, wetting them. For fuck’s sake.

“Come on,” she urged, her fingers clawing into the back of his neck, feeling that black plumage at last. “Hurry.

“What’s your rush?” He nipped her ear, harder that time. “We haven’t even had dessert.”

She tried not to whine (nor critique his food puns, she doubted she had the air in her lungs), trying to maintain some dignity while on her back. Exposed and laid open, so close to his heat, it proved impossible. Another sharp nip to her lobe drew blood almost to the surface. She winced as pain flared. She had to give him what he wanted, if she wanted her fill of him.

And what he wanted was for her to crumble. Fall completely, at his mercy.

Please.”

“Please what?” he taunted ruthlessly. He switched to her other ear, lips scratching beneath it. “Use your words.”

Oh, you bastard.

“Please, John,” she hesitated, “...fuck me.”

Not good enough. He pinched her already-swollen nipple and twisted, hard. She writhed under the sensation, pain and pleasure co-mingling in a morbid dance.

Louder. So the guards can hear you!”

He waited with bated breath, a tiger before his kill, chest rising and falling. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Fuck me!” she wailed up at him, for all the county to hear. “I need you! I need it, John, please.”

He snorted, a telling rosiness in his own face. Sweat beaded on his brow. But he let her hang a bit longer. Tithe paid, he supposed. It had been a while for him as well (no better mistress than abstinence), and his orgasm reared its head in his center, ready for escape.

But not before he ravaged her a little.

The wide, grooved head aligned with her center again. His cock slid in almost effortlessly, and her walls stretched and resisted at the same time. Wet as can be, she was still tight from her dry spell. When he was inside completely and butting against her limits, her cunt clenched tighter as she wrapped her legs around him. Fully enveloped, he groaned deeply from somewhere in his abdomen. He began setting his pace, lifting her legs, tilting her pelvis for a better angle, thrusting deeply into her, the panties dangling off one ankle like a white flag.

Fuck,” he hissed, the pull of her threatening to rip his release from him early. He bore down and braced himself against her thighs. Finding his rhythm, anything on the table that wasn’t already knocked over started swaying and clinking. The clamor was a gunshot in the night.

She scarcely heard it, moaning softly in her own pleasure, letting her head fall back while he worked her over. Watching his lithe stomach crunch, the muscles in his tattooed forearms drawn taut as bowstrings.

“Yes,” she sang, to the tune of his short breaths, his hips snapping against her, the table rocking. “Yes, oh, fuck, yes, yes-”

He seemed unsatisfied with that reaction, slowing down, her legs still in his hands. He set them down, letting her feet hit the grass. He pulled out of her, fingers gouging impressions into her thighs. She lifted her head, concerned. Without warning he seized her arm and yanked her up, spinning her around.

“What’re-”

Shut up.”

Her anger flared, but she obeyed, smoldering in flustered silence.

Smiling at that, he knelt down and slid her panties off, using them to tie her ankles together. Moving with fast, expert fingers. There wasn’t much to work with, but she heard the fabric rip, felt their impossibly tight squeeze. Then he pulled her hips high, pressed her torso low against the table. Forcing her onto her tiptoes into that demeaning position, everything out in the open. By all rights she should be petrified.

Instead she softened in his hands, which were presently caressing the twin globes of her ass.

Much better,” he sighed, stroking those swells covetously. “All presented for me like this. You’re going to be a good girl and take it all, aren’t you?”

Arrogant of him...and I hate that I love it.

“Yes, John.” She moaned her agreement into some cut wildflowers, and then again, more robustly, when he plunged back inside.

He went slow at first, then more enthused, gathering speed and ferocity until she thought he might impale her to the table. Flesh slapped against flesh; the table shook on its legs. He bent down to gnaw at her neck, still inside her to the hilt. She squirmed and arched, he felt her wiggling her knees against her binds to spread her legs, finding their restriction utterly delicious.

“How’s that?” he asked, breathy from the squeeze of her cunt around him. “Good enough for you?”

“Harder,” she sighed, thinking that was what he wanted. “Harder!”

He withdrew entirely. Cold emptiness crashed in. She peeled up in shock, her hair matted.

“What the fuck? I thought you-”

You don’t tell me what to do,” he cautioned. His fingers on the pommel of the knife. “Now get back down there.”

She hesitated, then lowered herself once more, palms flat on the table, breasts rubbing against the stained cloth in that animalistic position. He draped himself over her, reaching around, between her legs, fingers finding her clit, and she mewled as he started hassling it. The return of sensation was too much, with him pinning her under all his weight, straining her nerves...she tried to flail, but the restraints stopped her. She could only wriggle beneath him.

“What’s wrong?” he panted into her ear, relishing the needy sounds she was making. He started thrusting again. Filling her, over and over, while he stroked her clit. “Something...you want from me?”

Her wetness dribbled down her own leg, onto him. He worked her clit studiously, even while fucking her. She slammed her eyes shut, terrified someone would hear her wretched confessions.

“You know what I need,” she said, almost dreamily, eyes lolling.

He hummed a question, and sped up his rubbing, pulling at the skin of her hood roughly. When she didn’t respond further, he halted, shutting everything down. Save for a faint touch, circling her swollen, hypersensitive bundle. She whined, pouting over her shoulder.

“You wanna come for me?” he teased. Removed his fingers, and almost his entire length, but not quite. Dangling her over the edge.

Yes,” she breathed, almost remorsefully. Into the flowers, inhaling their cloying, sweet scent.

He gripped her hips tightly, pulling her around his length til there was no more room to tunnel in. She stretched her spine out, trying to accommodate him. One final touch was all she needed, to spill her over. But he wasn’t going to let that happen so easily.

“Say ‘please’. Beg.”

“Please, John, please, let me come!” She paused, adding, “For you. Only for you.”

One hand rested on her rump. Patted her. She winced from the sting of the hand print.

“When I say then. And not a moment too soon.”

He flexed his hips and fucked her properly, once. Twice. Letting her feel each stroke of him, oversensitive clit taking the impact. She gasped as ecstasy seeped into her veins. He could have been rougher, but there would be time later to test her limits. This was merely an introduction, getting to know her body. Her walls contracted, yielded endlessly to that sensitive, arrogant part of him.

Once his rhythm returned, he pushed a hand down on her lower back. Pressed up with his cock, dragging along her walls. Nice and slow, letting her feel every profane inch. She gnashed her teeth, eyes slammed shut. About to unravel completely, her arousal wetting his thighs.

Too much. It was too much. The incoherent noises that sprang from her throat rang out in the night.

“Come around my cock then, love,” he sneered, breathless, between firmer strokes now. “That’s...the only way. While you’re...so full of me.”

Another thrust, for encouragement, and he dragged it screaming out of her. Her dam crumbled and flooded, to her bleats and wails. While she was helpless, mid-release, he pumped her savagely a few more times, using all his length, their crashing skin creating wet, loud sounds anyone on the property would recognize. His hands clawed her buttocks, leaving bruises, as he envisioned all his plans for her.

Nails bit into her backside, and she cried out in surprise. With those images in his head, he finally came, releasing inside with an arch of his spine and a gutted gasp. Lids half-lowered in a séance with la petite mort.

Warmth pooled within, as he slowly pulled himself free. Sick, sweet warmth she needed in her, constantly. She twitched once, eager to have a stretch.

“Don’t move.”

Still giving her orders, then. She huffed, face down, her feet going numb. She felt his hand between her thighs. He pushed his seed back inside, holding his fingers there a moment. It felt so right. Fuck Jacob’s mind control, this was on another level.

“Much better.”

His fingers left her. Empty, her ache and the slight dribble down her thigh the only evidence he’d been there. Rook rested her cheek on the tablecloth, now damp with her sweat. He pulled up his pants and belt, then helped her up. Her legs were a bit stiff, a bit numb from the table cutting off her circulation. Her pelvis complained below the navel, as the pleasure from her release ebbed. A pleasant sort of after-burn.

She turned to face him, and her face fell. She found him suddenly quite serious, even more so than when he’d been almost up to his own navel inside her.

“What is it?”

“Three days,” he reminded her. Reached out, as if to stroke her hair. He traced her lip with his thumb instead, and she tasted a hint of their debauchery.

“I have you for three days. This is only the start.”

He smiled broadly, with a horizon of possibilities. She shivered.

Then he scooped her up in his arms (somewhat unsteadily), and carried her naked, bruised, sinner self into his ranch. They passed several guards on their way in, and she hid her face from them. She felt his chest vibrate as he chuckled.


Once in his room, she had little time to nose about. He took her again, and again, furiously each time. He didn’t stop until long after the witching hour.

Locking the door, he first forced her to stand naked in the middle of a plush bear rug. She supposed she should be glad dead animals were all he decorated with.

“Did you like what we did outside?” he asked, enfolding her in his arms. The ever-present color in her face just wouldn’t leave. She glanced off to the side, and he loved that he could make her do that. He rotated her face towards him.

“Yes, John.”

His favorite thing to hear from her tattered, swollen lips.

“Good. If you’re still hungry, there’s more where that came from.”

She didn’t think she’d ever get used to such words. His thumb traced her shapely mouth, stirring up cravings she was too ashamed to admit aloud. She wanted more. More than just one place filled with him. He seized her chin and tilted her head, forcing her to meet his prying gaze. If anything, he was an expert at ripping out admissions from the deepest, most stubborn parts of people.

“Tell me what you want,” he said, leering. When he half-smiled so, she swore she could see the entire underworld behind his blown-out pupils.

“I want you...to fill me again,” she confessed weakly. “In here.”

She pressed her stomach and her breasts against him. He grasped her chin.

“I’ll be happy to cleanse you of such a desire, but it’s going to take some work on your part. You remember the word I taught you?”

She nodded against his fingers, her stiff neck protesting. It was about to get a lot stiffer, she suspected. Heat swirled once again in her belly, blood rushing to her sex. It had never really left.

“Good. Because I’m not letting you go,” he said, “until every bit of you drips with me.”

At that, her lips formed a ring around his thumb and sucked, sending waves of arousal shooting to his cock. Not even five minutes passed since their foray on the table, and he was hardening again.

“You won’t sit down, stand up, eat or drink without a little reminder of who owns this.”

He let his hand slither over her flat belly, then her mound. In response, she swirled her tongue around his thumb. Her breasts perked and appetizing. She stopped, anxious. He still had the knife on him. She pulled his hand away. Risking his anger.

“Are you going to cut me? Turn me into your art project?” she asked flatly.

He flipped the knife once. Jammed it into his dresser with a squeak, where there were a hundred other identical marks. The dozens of model airplanes above it jangled.

She stared back at him, stricken.

“I never mix work and play, my dear,” he told her, drawing her close, so she could feel his hardness.

Thank God for that.

He kissed her fiercely, with renewed hunger. She nuzzled against him, her hands on his bare shoulders, her nipples dragging against his flat, muscular chest. Their skin rapidly heated up now that they were inside. She felt his insistent length prodding her belly, and a coy smile played across her lips.

“Doesn’t sound so exciting then.” She peeled back, biting her bottom one, and locked eyes with him as her hand snaked south, groping at hot iron. John seized her wrist, and wrenched it high. Above her head. Pulled, until her joints protested, and she was drawn onto her tiptoes to relieve the pain. Her mouth hung open in a delighted little snarl.

“Have faith,” he suggested.

He let her hand fall. He was about to tell her to get on her knees, but, lust-ridden thing that she was, she didn’t wait to be told. He let it slide that time. She sank down and went straight to work, unbuttoning his pants, hands searching while she licked her lips, and he seriously doubted she was finding any faith.

Her clever lips soon formed the same ring from earlier around his member, sucking him a few times before licking precum from the tip, then all along his crease, lapping at him like he was the best dessert. He sighed his pleasure, easing back, fingers tightening in her hair. Strands of his own black hair all out of place, against his forehead. All disorderly.

Pieces of them continued to fall apart that night. Right and left. He would put them back. Eventually. Though they might not be the same when they were done.


Though he dressed her in chains, she would not call herself a prisoner.

Though he used leathers on her, she would not consider herself his slave.

Though he knew exactly when to be gentle, she would never, ever call him an angel.

She was simply his.

For three days and three nights, she gave herself to him, body and soul. And he took from her as much as she had to give. He tested her in ways only he knew how, ways he kept secret from his brothers. Just when he thought her seas couldn’t part any more, when her shores were all swept asunder, she’d come back from the abyss to astound him with her vigor.

And, in return, he’d find some new way to torment, humiliate, and satisfy her, dragging her down to deeper depths. Just when she thought he’d start to drain, run out of that fury, he could tap into some hidden place inside, born anew from the spent ashes. She knew it came from a dark place, and didn’t want to know any more.

Sleep only came in small doses, with them wrapped in each others arms in his bed, or on the rug. Sometimes he would leave, but only for an hour or two at a time.

She would wait for him, chained naked to the bed. He would return, bring her to the brink, only to take it away. Build her up again. Knock her back down. Until he had her screaming prayers to heaven. The things he made her say, the things she divulged she wanted of him, as often as he could, made him grateful for the ‘private confession’ rule. If he had known, when he’d seen her in his brother’s church, that he’d have the junior deputy on her knees, or sunken down on his cock, riding him and begging for his cum, he’d have simply checked himself into the looney bin.

Wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried to send him there.

Now he was glad for his uncertainty. So, so glad. He had finally found someone whose cross was as bent and crooked as his own.

He’d made an addict out of her, around the end of the second day. Even after leaving her for a conference call with his brothers, she’d was all sorts of strung out when he returned. Crawling on her knees toward him, placing her head in his lap, a lost puppy. Begging with her eyes.

But he’d push her way out to sea, trying to pull her under. Only letting her up for air when needed.

Sometimes, they even switched roles, and it was himself gasping for air, laying on his back while she wrapped her hands around his throat. Slapped him. Punched him. Cursed at him. Rode him like he was her pale horse in the apocalypse, hips crashing into hips with only his flesh connecting them...

Halfway through the second day, he sensed she needed to go out. See daylight. So he let her. She had been tempted to keep going down the road. Had even started to walk away. Testing him. Testing his promise. But John was a man of his word. He would make her see.

He enjoyed it, that turmoil, changing her from the inside. His love more potent than radiation, seeping down to her marrow, altering her on a cellular level even as his hot DNA coursed through her canals. He watched her struggle with something, perhaps only a woman would know. Her hand went to her lower abdomen, rubbing the space absently. He knew she wasn’t on birth control.

That had been a fun little confession he’d won from her, early in the morning, with her unraveling and speared on the end of his favorite part of him. But he soon drew himself out of such murky thoughts, as she came running back down the road.

Halted, just before him.

She slapped him across the face, hard. No restraint.

Then she kissed him, sucking the blood off his lips in an apology.

“I love you too,” he laughed, licking his teeth.

“Just take me back.”

“Only for one more day, remember.” He held up his index finger.

She shook her head. “Your math’s wrong.”

He smiled, and threw the arm of his overcoat around her. They began the short walk through the golden grass, back to his ranch. A bit of a limp to both their steps. She was as obsessed with keeping scores and tallies as he was.

Which made her perfect for him, really

“Is it?” he asked, stopping.

She shrugged beneath him.

“Who’s counting? Way I hear it, end of the world’s coming soon.”

“We should seek every pleasure while we can?” he asked. A warning. “Ignore our past? Shed ourselves of our responsibilities?"

Now she was truly confused.

“I thought you wanted me to stay, John.”

“For the right reasons, Deputy.”

“And what are those?”

He stopped her, hand blocking her midsection. She was always so surprised, how solid and unyielding he could be.

“Because I made you believe. Because you Atoned, and left your old self behind.”

“I don’t know about belief,” she mused, turning to him. Placing a chaste kiss along his sore neck, his pulse fluttering against her lips. “But I don’t think I am the same girl, the one living in Jacob’s woods. Or the one who came before that.”

The one who had traversed the dark, through fire and water, to save him. Vaguely, to the tune of the wind whispering in the grass, a dream stirred. Something about the circus. A freak show, one they had managed to flee together.

Neither said anything to the other about it.

“Maybe you’ll find her again, some day.”

He took her hand in his own. A fresh tattoo of a barn owl etched into the back of hers, its face a watchful mask.

She listened to the wind, murmuring thoughtfully,

“Maybe I will.”