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Chapter 11

There was an explosion. His room shook, Kyle shot up in bed. Then there was nothing. Was he dreaming? He sat in bed completely still. Still there was nothing. Had to be a dream. Nothing to worry about. Just as he was readying himself to return to the comfort beneath the sheets, the room resounded once more. Now he heard people beginning to move around outside his door. There were voices, some shouts. Another loud explosion. This time Kyle jumped out of his bed. That was something. Something was happening. But what should he do? Go outside? Maybe that was what he should do. He looked around: shoes. He needed shoes. He found them thrown near the corner. Okay, put them on. Left, right. Quick tying of the laces. And then he went to the door.

People were running down the hall. Everyone in disarray. People in their pajamas. A woman in her curlers, he hadn’t ever seen her. He hadn’t seen many of these people. People were yelling out words, some were crying. Kyle was paralyzed. And they were running. Another explosion. His hands jolted to his door frame as the ground gave a shudder. This time there was shrill screaming. Some dropped to the ground and covered their heads. He was watching a movie, but he wasn’t. He was there.

“Run! This way, they’re coming. Come on. Turn around, run!” a large man with a protruding stomach went running down the hall, shouting orders with his deep booming voice. Kyle watched as the people turned like a school of fish. He saw someone fall, he couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. It fell and people began to trample it. One woman tried to help the body, but was pushed along in the current.

“No, stop. There’s someone down there,” she cried. Kyle watched thunderstruck as she fought against the crowd. Another woman and man took notice and also stopped. Between the three of them, they were able to get back to their fallen comrade. Kyle watched as they hoisted the body, one man and one woman supporting it between them, while the third took a rearguard to ensure the safety of the other three, as meager as her strength might be against the crowd. As more people saw the injured body, many slowed and formed a protective circle, a guiding force so the injured one could be led outside. Another man limped by, with a drizzle of blood seeping into his eyes. So many people were rushing by and Kyle couldn’t move.

Finally the crowd began to thin. Then Kyle heard heavy footsteps making time down the hallway. Why was he still standing there? Why couldn’t he run? Run, Kyle.

“Check the rooms. Try to catch stragglers. Get rid of any threats,” a disembodied voice ordered. Kyle froze. He wanted to move, but where? There was nowhere to go. They were here. Whoever they were; whoever was causing this havoc approached. Kyle snuck further into his room. Another explosion went off and Kyle felt like crying. He didn’t know what to do. He stood, framed by his doorway in the darkness of his room. This was no place to hide. He stepped around his half-opened door and pressed his back to the wall, then proceeded to slide down. He didn’t know what to do. He curled up into a ball and pressed his forehead against his knees.

The footsteps came closer and then his door swung completely open, almost hitting his body. He stopped breathing. A body peeked in its head. Against his own wishes, Kyle’s eyes looked up and was shocked by how young the face looked. He could have been in one of his classes, one of his friends. How could this be one of the enemy? How could that boy be among those who were creating this chaos? Shouldn’t he be at home playing video games? Worrying about girls? Doing homework? Sleeping? Why was he here?

The young man turned his own eyes and found Kyle. They stared. The boy blinked, then grimaced. Then in a harsh whisper he said, “We’ll be out of this hall in a few minutes. I suggest you get out of here, bad things are happening. You should really leave.”

Kyle nodded, the boy nodded back and then left.

“This room’s clear,” the boy shouted.

Kyle dropped his head against the wall, and listened till there were no more sounds expect his own short gasps of breath.

*

Noirah crept around a corner, following two men. She had heard them outside of her room after the first explosion. Smartly, she had quickly rumpled her sheets as though she had run, then hid her slight frame in the corner of her bed, deep under the covers. She had hoped that nobody would notice her, and nobody had. Sometimes her miniature frame was a benefit. When she had perceived that they had stopped scanning the room, she jumped out of her bed, put on something she could move around in and stealthy followed these two men. They were jumpy, she noted, unsure and yet highly determined. They were also fairly confident that no one would be stupid enough to stick around and shadow them.

It appeared that most of the residents of the palace had gotten out already. Some hadn’t and never would. When the commotion had begun, she knew that she wasn’t going to leave. This was her opportunity to do something. Those two years she had twiddled away, she’d make up for today, drawing herself into the heart of chaos. The men in front of her stopped. With the quickness of a rabbit, she darted into an open doorway. Hidden in the darkness, she looked out. There was a man, an old man, he was turning round the corner. He didn’t know that the men were there. Before she could take action, before she could yell a warning, she watched as they shot the older man, who hadn’t her quickness, square in his gut. She brought her hands to her mouth to stop herself from screaming. She watched as he fell to his knees, holding his stomach trying to keep his blood from pouring out. She watched the man looked up at his murderers with no recognition of who they were. And she watched as the enemy lifted his gun and shot the man once more in his neck.

Once they had departed, Noirah crawled from her hiding spot and went to the fallen man. Close up she recognized him: he was one of Silver’s camp, he was one of those who pointed his finger at her father and ruined her life. But none of her rage came, none of the cruel joy she thought that she’d feel at seeing one of those men suffer. All she saw was an old man, whose large eyes, frightened and sad, looked up at her, his mouth seeking out air, as a baby sought out a bottle. She put her hand to his neck, but blood still pumped through. All the while his eyes didn’t drift from her face. Words were forming deep in his chest, but when he went to release them, they hung for a moment on the threshold of his lips, only to fall back within him, as there was too little air to carry them forth to her ears. His eyes closed against his will, but with a grand effort he managed to open them to a sliver.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and didn’t know why. The man weakly shook his head with a tear creeping out from the corner of his eye. Noirah knew what he was trying to express and said words that she never thought she could, “I forgive you.”

The man’s eyes drifted up and then closed. Noirah kept her hands pressed against his neck where no pulse could be felt. An hour ago, if she had seen him, she would have wished this upon him, but now, she only wished that she could have saved him. Her hatred and desire for revenge seemed pointless and hollow. She had wasted so much time hating her father and nameless men and her best friend, the world, and maybe she still did, but maybe she also could have found it in herself to forgive them. In his final moments, she imagined that maybe he too would have done things differently. In that final moment one’s perspective on life totally changed. Noirah just hoped that she’s have a tomorrow so that she might be able to reclaim her bitterness. She’d rather forgive people on her own time, not with death imminent – to be honest, she really hadn’t completely enjoyed all that her hatred had to offer yet.

For a moment she hesitated to leave, but there was nothing more to do. She drew back her hands. They were wet and sticky. His blood coated them. She wiped them on her sleeves. Now wasn’t the time to be sentimental, now was the time to pursue and she knew what direction those men went. She wasn’t sure what she would find, but they had to have some type of leader and he had to have some information. More importantly, whoever was at the head of this had some informant, and that was what she was after. Someone on the inside helped plan this. She just hoped, if she learned what she was after, that she would be able to live long enough with that information to share it with someone who could do something about it.

*

Mac was pacing. He had gotten out. Granted he had a head start. There was some benefit to being a night owl because he had already been wide awake, wandering around the empty halls when the first explosion hit. He had run. It shamed him to think about it, but he ran and saved himself. And now he was outside watching streams of people running terrified from the burning palace and none of them were Felicity. He knew that he should follow them, as they were being guided to safe lodging far from the destruction. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t leave until he knew she was safe. And Kyle, he thought. And little Pete. When did he become attached to so many people? Unconsciously he found his feet heading back towards the flames.

“Get over here,” the king called, grabbing Mac by the collar and pulling him back. He waved back his armed guards. Mac was no threat, except to himself.

“But sire, and I’m not trying to treason or anything, but they aren’t here,” Mac said. “We gotta go find everyone else.” He was certain that this man, of all people, would understand his desire to return and look for them. The face which the king made upon the knowledge that his children had not been located was forever burned in Mac’s mind. It was the face of a person who cared about others more than himself. Pain of that sort did not exist in a person who didn’t love. Mac wondered if he made the same face.

“That sounds like a very well thought out plan, MacCartney, go find everyone.” The king stroked his chin; Mac was already rolling his eyes at the sarcasm. “To imagine that I didn’t come up with it. You know what, perhaps I ought to abdicate my throne to you. Actually, at this point, that doesn’t sound all that bad to me, when one considers that we have men overriding the castle at this very moment intent to force me to do just that, except abdicate my power to them, not you. In fact, I think that they planned to slaughter my family and myself for the throne.” He released his hold on the boy and affectionately squeezed the back of Mac’s neck, “Forgive me. I know that you’re worried. I know.”

The touch made Mac feel better. The king’s sign of paternal affection made Mac feel wanted. He steeled himself, wanting to help this man who had helped him so much, so often, even though Mac rarely gave him a reason to and even more rarely acknowledged him for it. “I know that you’re worried too, sir. They’ll be okay. They have to be, for the both us.”

The king didn’t answer but he left his hand on Mac’s back. Mac vowed that from now on he would be a good son, a good man for the king. He would certainly try. Well he’d think about it later, when his decision making wasn’t clouded by danger and heightened emotions. Why make promises that he couldn’t keep? But when he caught sight of David, running down the hill in his efficient manner, he decided that the king didn’t need him to be good. His real children would always naturally be one hundred percent better than he. Besides the king probably liked him better as he was: Mac, the roguish ne’er-do-well. Wait, David? What was David doing there? He left yesterday with the troops. David stopped before them and the king stepped away from Mac to greet his son. He grabbed him and pulled him tightly in his arms.

“Father,” David said, surprised that his father embraced him so warmly in public. They had both always attempted to maintain a certain level of professionalism before the public.

“Wes didn’t go,” the king stated, releasing his son.

“No, no he didn’t. He split the troops. But, father, the north, it’s bad. We met a messenger from Colonel Harding on our march. General Su ordered Harding to move his troops from where they were stationed to Blandings. The Northern Realm engaged Su’s men and they needed the manpower. He was coming to inform us. Wes sent our men on with Harding. It’s not good there either.” David hung his head. “But Wes wouldn’t leave here. He knew something was going to happen and he wouldn’t let us leave, no matter what punishment he might face. He had us camp out in the woods. A small group of us came at a double march when we were informed what’s happening. We’ve done a perfunctory recon of the grounds. Wes will alert me when he arrives with his men.”

Mac could have leapt up in the air with a cheer.

“No sign of them?” the king asked, already reading the answer on his son’s worried face.

“No. I would almost like to think it a good sign. Maybe Felicity took Peter and they’ve hidden themselves. If we can’t find them maybe the other side won’t either.”

“Unless they’re still in there and...”

“Not now, MacCartney. We operate under the assumption that everyone is safe,” the king cut in.

MacCartney nodded, though the grimness in his face told of his doubts. It would be naive of him to believe that everyone who had begun this venture would be there till the conclusion. The one thing that Mac had shamelessly mourned was the end of his naiveté. It was unfair that he was forced to relinquish it so early in life. To think that there were some out there who desired to shed their childhood skin so early. Once it was gone, he thought sadly, you can’t get it back. You can’t pretend that you believe in the fairytale, the happy ending, when you’ve seen enough to prove the opposite true. He imagined that, wherever Felicity was, enough hope emanated, enough innocent belief to serve the both of them.

* Kyle ran down the halls, not sure where he was going, only whom he needed to find. The goal, he hoped, was enough. People rushed by him, the smoke began to grow denser. What was he thinking? The girls had probably already left. He was risking his life for nothing. And yet. And yet, he was still running further into the mess. The people were growing scarce as the smoke and the heat combined to form a potent dissembling tonic to his senses. Every step was becoming labored. His head hardly seemed to want to stay on his neck, but to fall to one side and roll away from him into the direction of safety.

“Noirah!” he shouted, “Felicity!”

“Kyle?” Was he hearing things; was it an angel calling him to Heaven? Well, if that’s the way they sounded up there, then that’s where he would go. The world be damned. “Kyle!” the voice yelled out again. Focus, Kyle, he reprimanded himself. The lack of oxygen was making that task a little harder than normal. He tried to squeeze some air in through his nose. The hairs burnt. He knew that voice, that angelic, sweet voice.

“Felicity?” Kyle called, trying to catch sight of the girl.

“Here.” She grabbed his hand out of nowhere and yanked him into the room in which she had hidden. She shoved a sheet under the crack of the door. It had kept the room basically smoke free. Peter, Kyle could see, was squatting in a far corner with a rag over his mouth.

“I knew that you would come.” She hugged him with arms that felt like rubber. Her whole body began to feel like rubber.

“You guys need to get out of here.” Kyle said, feeling uneasy for the little boy who was shaking noticeably. “Have you seen Noirah?”

“I haven’t seen anyone. I just had to get Peter. There was gunfire and I ran and hid here, but now you take him. Don’t let him see this. Get him out, but I have to go do something and you have to take him outside. Okay? Can you do that for me? Get Peter outside. And I’ll be there. And everyone will be there, okay? Everything will be okay, but first you have to go. You have to take him and go.” Felicity knelt down, holding her arms open. “Come here, Pete.” The little boy crawled awkwardly with one arm to his sister with the other holding the rag to his mouth. When he reached her, she lifted him up in her arms. He attached himself to her determined never to let go. “Peter, I need you to be brave like daddy. I need you to go with Kyle and he’s going to take you out of here.” From beneath the rag Kyle could hear Peter give a little whimper. “I know. But I’ll be a moment. We’ll be apart then together before you have a second to think on missing me. So can you do this for me? Be the courageous little prince I know you are.”

Peter didn’t say anything, but gave a meek nod in assent. Felicity kissed him on the forehead. “I love you, little man, my brave little boy.” She looked Kyle in the eye with a burning stare. “You better get him out of here safely.” Kyle took Peter in his arms. The boy buried his face into Kyle’s shoulders. He’d never felt older, or more petrified. All his fears dissolved when Felicity leaned in and kissed him, not a peck on the cheek, but a real kiss, her hand behind his head, pulling him into her, full on kiss. He felt like a comic book hero; he felt like he could save the day. It was perfect. She pulled away and stared. “You get out of here safely as well. I’d like to be able to do that again with you.”

“Yeah, definitely would. We’ll all get out of here safely,” Kyle answered. He hefted the boy onto his hip and readied himself to dash through the halls.

No. Wait. Hero moment wrong. He shouldn’t just be saving the little boy, he had a damsel standing in front of him and in distress no less. He had to sweep her into his arms too and fly her out of here. “You’re coming too.” He tried to grab her hand, but she wrenched it from his reach.

“No, I can’t. Just don’t argue and trust me. I just need...just go. That’s an order.” The frantic look of her eyes softened and she cupped Kyle’s face in her hands, “I need to find my mother. I need to make sure that she got out. And you and Pete would just slow me down. Get him out.” She smiled sadly. “I’ll be gone for a moment. We’ll be apart then together before you have a second to think on missing me. So can you do this for me? Be the courageous man I know you are.”

Kyle nodded. Between Felicity, Noirah and his mother, he didn’t think he knew a single weak woman. They all made him stronger by their own inner will. No wonder he cared so deeply for each.

Felicity gave him one more kiss and rushed out of the room and into the smoke filled hall, leaving Kyle with a terrified boy who seemed to be tip-toeing ever closer to the border of tears. Kyle took a deep breath of relatively clean air before returning back into the halls and, god will it, out of the castle into safety.

*

Noirah pressed herself up against the wall. Around the corner the two men she had been following had met with two others. Noirah’s heart pounded. What was she doing? Why did this seem like such a good idea? Her hands were still red. No, stop looking at them; stop breathing so loudly. Just stop being here. She couldn’t hear a word that they said. The smoke was filling her senses, the low rumbling of the flames, the waves of her nerves. Every time she blinked she saw the dying man’s watery eyes. She saw her father. She could see him walking her through the halls with her little hand in his. He never let her go. Why wasn’t he here now? She didn’t want to be alone. She felt so small and vulnerable standing in this hall, the threats of the night surrounding her.

She looked around the corner. The four men were still there. What if they were all planning to convene here? What would she do then? To those men she was an expendable waste of flesh. But she couldn’t leave. That would mean she declared defeat; she let people run her out of here again. But if she got caught, well, running would no longer be an issue. Her hand shot up to her neck. Her pulse beat strongly, quickly. It was refreshing and frightening. How easily someone could make all of this end, could make her fragile pulse stop forever. She had to make a choice. Stay or go.

Her breath caught as she saw a figure enter the hall. She pressed herself further against the wall, as though it might make her invisible. Soon the tension melted: it was Felicity. No, it was Felicity wandering closer to where she was and the four men around the corner. What was that girl thinking? Coming up here on a night like this? Noirah had assumed the kingdom swept in and conveyed her away to safety. Just like Felicity to be exactly where she shouldn’t be. Her instincts kicked in and she sprinted to her former best friend. The other girl gave a quick yelp, as Noirah grasped her, put her hand over her mouth and dragged her into a dark empty room. She waited a moment to see if the men had heard, then quietly shut the door and locked it.

“What are you still doing in here?” she whispered, trying to stifle a cough. Her lungs desperate to get the smoke out.

“What are you doing?” Felicity shot back, “You scared me half to death!”

“Imagine if it wasn’t me who saw you; you’d be murdered to full death. There are four men with guns right around that corner.” Noirah paced. Her heart pounded at the idea of what might have happened. “And odds are those boys aren’t alone; odds are we’ll find a lot more patrolling; odds are you’ll be a grand prize in their eyes, so it’s stupid of you to have stayed with all those odds against you.”

“Then what were you doing there? Did you think you could take them yourself?” Felicity countered, thinking back on the days when they were kids. While all the other girls played with dolls, Noirah insisted on slaying dragons with the boys. She’d never change.

“No, of course not. I thought that maybe…” The sentence trailed off. Noirah placed her hand on the wall, feeling a little light-headed. They had to get out soon. If the invaders didn’t kill them, the fire and smoke would.

“Are you okay?” Felicity asked, rushing to her side. Noirah slapped her hands away.

“I’m fine. I might be a little tired since I didn’t get a full six hours of sleep. If it’s not birds singing out my windows, it’s bombs,” Noirah answered sharply, “But answer my question: why haven’t you left? Your dad, hell, the kingdom must be holding its collective breath that their golden child is still in danger.”

“I’m looking for my mother,” Felicity paused, “Have you seen her?”

“Um, no.” Noirah replied wearily, the oddity of the question throwing her off. “Have you seen mine?”

“Huh. No. What?” Felicity shook her head, looking at Noirah like she was not only insulting Felicity but insulting her while growing an extra head. “Why would I see your mother here?”

“Likewise.”

“Because,” Felicity spoke slowly, enunciating each word at Noirah who stood stoically biting her tongue. “This is where my family lives, as opposed to yours, who lives elsewhere.”

“Except your mother is supposed to be out for diplomatic purposes.”

“The gods! Just shut up!” Felicity exploded. In her annoyance she had forgotten their situation and her voice shot out more loudly than was safe. This time she brought her own hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Noirah didn’t say anything. She brought her finger to her lips and listened. They might not have heard in the cacophony outside the door. She put her hand to the doorknob and sucked in a breath, terrified of what she might find when she opened the door. Would there be a set of eyes staring back, someone ready and waiting for their prey?

“I’m going to open the door and then we are quietly going to proceed out of here to the stairs and hopefully to safety. Okay? Quietly, like little mice,” Noirah said, looking over her shoulder. She didn’t turn back to the door until she saw Felicity relent. Her hand turned the knob and pushed open the door. She peeked out her head and saw that the hall was still clear. She motioned to Felicity that it was safe. First Noirah stepped out, then Felicity.

They crept along the hall. The stairwell came closer and closer. Noirah felt uneasy because escape should be harder. When they got to the next corner, Noirah peered around again. A small group of men had convened there. Why couldn’t they all just stand in one place far away, in maybe another kingdom? Noirah sank down to the floor, taking Felicity’s hand to bring her down next to her. If there was one benefit to the ever increasing smoke, it might provide some type of screen.

“We have a problem,” Noirah whispered. “Seems like I was right about the odds: got some guys posted right around the corner. Every goddamn corner. I don’t know what to do.”

Felicity grasped Noirah’s arms excitedly. “Don’t you remember when we were little? We found all of those secret passages? There’s one in David’s old bedroom, just a few doors down. Let’s make a run for it. We can get in there and they won’t find us and we can get out!”

A fresh breath of joy filled Noirah. She couldn’t help it, she hugged Felicity and kissed her on the cheek. “Genius.”

The two froze. Suddenly they were transported to a few years ago, scheming to prank David, plotting how to get away from him and Wes. They were two little girls playing, best friends who shared a million secrets and didn’t want to include anyone else in their fun world. Noirah dropped her arms first, then Felicity.

“Okay, so we have a plan and then we’ll leave this place,” Felicity said.

“Yeah, we’ll leave this place,” Noirah echoed. Both wondered where they would leave to. Where did they go from here? “Are you ready?”

Felicity stood up, so did Noirah. Felicity held Noirah’s hand. She needed comfort, she needed a touchstone of security. “Let’s go.”

The two ran. They could hear the men shout as they saw the two pass. Without thinking, pretending that this might still be a game, they bolted into David’s boyhood room. Noirah shut and locked the door behind them, while Felicity headed to the closet and removed a box to expose the hidden little door in the back. The men outside demanded to be let in, knocking at the door. Someone ordered the others to stand aside, that he would take care of it.

“Hurry up!” Noirah called, with a tremor in her throat. She saw Felicity’s adrenaline-fueled hands yank open the secret door.

“Come on, quick,” Felicity answered. Noirah ran over and Felicity ushered her into the little passageway first. When Noirah had gotten in, Felicity shut the closet door, and followed, crawling backwards. She could hear a gun going off, the door was kicked in. Men were rushing in. She tried to calm her shaking hands so that she could shut the passage’s door. Come on, she commanded herself. Finally she managed to get it shut. She didn’t move, as she heard the closet door open.

“They’re not in here. Under the bed?” a voice called. Someone replied in the negative.

“Maybe it was the other room.”

“Did they make it down the stairs?”

“Are we sure that was even the princess?”

Felicity listened to their hurried conversation. Slowly she crept backwards. She didn’t want to hear anymore. A few feet later she had gotten to the end of the crawl space, which opened up to a larger passageway. Noirah was already standing, leaning against the wall, looking sick.

“Well, the plan worked,” she managed to get out. Felicity only nodded, and, perched on the edge of the cavernous tunnel, let her head sink between her knees. Okay, they made it this far, they could make it the rest of the way. They could get out. She only hoped her mother and everyone else had as well.

*

He had made it out. He didn’t know how, but he did it. After winding through the halls until he found a section with no smoke, avoiding any echo of footsteps, Kyle found an exit and thrust himself with Peter clinging to his neck out of the mess. But where was he? He looked around. There was no lake, no clearing, nothing which he had seen before when he was outside, only dark, black woods and an endless ebony sky. He had forgotten how large the palace was. He tried to listen for voices. Helpful ones, preferably. But every sound he heard mingled with the cascading rumble of the flames. Even outside, he was lost. But lost or not, he had to find help. If not for himself, than for the little boy whom Felicity had entrusted to him. If Kyle at eighteen felt like the world was falling apart, he couldn’t imagine how the little boy in his arms felt. No, he knew: terrified

Kyle’s head felt fuzzy from all the smoke. He just needed a quick break. But a moment could change everything. Don’t stop, keep moving. He entered the woods, feeling safer covered up by their blanket of branches, the manifold hiding places in the dark. All he had to do was survive the night. None of this meant anything if they did not survive. Walk. It’s only walking, he encouraged himself. You promised Lissy that you would keep Pete safe and that meant taking him away from the palace, away from crazy people and to his father. If his father was still alive. Who was alive? Was Felicity still breathing? And what about Noirah? Noirah was a survivor, she had to make it through. If Kyle had managed to get out, Noirah must have. But would she have even left the palace? She’d be foolish enough to be brave. Too many thoughts. Walking usually helped him clear his mind and his head wouldn’t stop thinking. He’d just keep walking, pressing forward, taking one breath after another.

Once he felt that he entered deeply enough into the woods, far enough away from the fire and destruction, Kyle decided his best option was to walk parallel to the palace’s wall. Eventually he’d find the front and the city and hopefully everyone else.

“Mommy,” he heard Peter whimper into his ear.

“Hey Pete, you know, if we just go a little bit more I bet we’ll see your mommy. Sound good to you?” Kyle was going to do everything in his power to make the boy keep calm. But what did he know about stopping a kid from crying? Heck, he wasn’t sure if he started crying now whether he could get himself to stop. He heard men. Kyle ducked down behind a tree with Peter settled on to his lap. The boy tried to climb away.

“See Lissy!” Peter cried out. Kyle clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth.

“Sh, Peter. We gotta be quiet. Lissy would want you to be quiet,” Kyle whispered. He gazed around the darkness, willing his heart to stop beating so loudly. He closed his eyes and focused solely on his ears. He could hear the sound of the flames. But somewhere in the distance, he could hear the sound of people. Yes, those were voices. There were no more screams, just whispers of voices from afar. He couldn’t tell from what direction they came. The wind seemed to drag them from all corners of the world and the flames did their best to distort them, but they were there.

“Come on, boys, let’s pick up the pace but be on alert.”

Kyle’s ears perked up. That sounded like Wes. But it couldn’t be. He wasn’t there anymore. Wishful thinking? He considered calling out to them, but without any certainty about what side those men were on, Kyle couldn’t risk it, not with Peter. He remained still until the group had passed. Then cautiously he raised his head and scanned the area. All clear, for now. He stood and reached down for Peter who willingly climbed into his arms. He only took three steps before his heart sank. There was a rustling nearby. There was someone close at hand. Kyle froze. There a few yards away he could see the offender, who could probably see Kyle as well. He could feel Peter tightening his grip. Apparently the little one had also heard the noises and understood what they might mean.

“It’s okay, Petey, it’s okay.” Kyle wished that he believed his own words of comfort. Then he saw the approaching, shadowy form. It was moving quickly and it was huge. There was nowhere to hide. What kind of fight could he even put up with Peter still in his arms? He didn’t have time to look for any weapon. All he knew was that he would fight long enough so that maybe Peter could get away. He doubted whether that was even possible. Where would Peter go? How safe was it for a child to go running through these woods alone? But Kyle wouldn’t let him die. That was not an option.

“Kyle?” a deep voice grumbled. The body came closer and finally Kyle recognized the form as the fire illuminated the face.

“Mogren!” Kyle had never been happier to see someone in his life. He could feel Peter tighten his grip once more, staring at Mogren with his large, blue, terror-filled eyes. “It’s okay Pete, this is Mogren. Mogren is a friend.”

“Mogren?” Peter asked, looking up to Kyle with a trust which Kyle never expected to see from the boy.

“Yeah, Mogren. She saved my life.”

Peter looked once again at the huge hulking mass, deciding whether he could trust her. Mogren, in turn, inspected the boy with a cocked head. Kyle thought she looked like a puppy. If she had a tail, Kyle imagined it would be wagging. Finally, after an in-depth analysis of the very soul of the beast, one that can only be properly done with a child’s eyes, Peter concluded that Mogren was good.

“Peter.” Peter pointed at his chest. Kyle nearly dropped him as Peter began to hold onto him with only one hand. The boy reached out and touched the fur on Mogren’s face, patting her lightly on the cheek with one of his tiny, chubby hands.

“Peter.” Mogran repeated and smiled with her sharp, jagged teeth. But it faded quickly as the beast looked to the castle. “It burn. Bad fire.” Mogren said. “Kyle safe?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, but I don’t know about everyone else. My friend, Felicity, might still be in there and Noirah.”

“Newrah? Get Newrah.”

“Yeah yeah, get Noirah and Felicity.”

“Lissy!” Peter cried out. Mogren looked to the boys and then back to the palace.

“You safe now?” she asked.

“Relatively,” Kyle answered honestly, though there was still the nervous energy which was all but consuming him. He wouldn’t feel completely safe till he was with everyone again. Or perhaps until he got back home. Or maybe he would never feel quite as safe as he once had. “Please go and try to help everyone else, anyone who might still be in there. They’re really not safe.” Mogren nodded and started to dash off but Kyle quickly interjected. “Mogren!”

Mogren turned, her eyes scanning for some danger nearby, assuming that’s what caused Kyle to call her back.

“You be safe too, okay? There are some guys in there and I think they’d kill people. I think that they did already.” Mogren nodded and then ran off without hesitation. Kyle could never imagine being that brave or selfless. Mogren certainly was something else. Just as he was beginning to calm a little, Mogren having proven to be a huge comfort, Kyle was jarred once more as he heard someone behind him growl out:

“You so sure you’re safe?”

*

“This is really fantastic,” Noirah grumbled, lifting her flashlight higher. Since Noirah had left the palace, Felicity no longer travelled through their secret halls: everything was just as they had left it. Their childhood supplies for survival were still piled up in a corner. Thankfully the flashlight worked and the matches were dry enough to light and use for the candle that they had used for ambiance when telling ghost stories. But now their initial elation at their escape waned and they travelled in silence, fear and anger bubbling up and fraying their nerves. The game was more fun when it was David and Wes giving them chase. Those two might claim they’d kill the girls, but they’d never follow through.

“I just wish I could have found out who was behind this, who the traitor was,” Noirah muttered.

This time Felicity couldn’t ignore her. She had heard Noirah several times commenting under her breath about a traitor and Felicity wouldn’t believe it.

“There is no traitor. So stop bringing it up.”

“Don’t get so indignant about it. Just think about it. A day after the army leaves under unexpected orders, we’re attacked. Coincidence, I think not. These guys had someone on the inside informing them, who knew before the rest of us that the orders were going out because this was planned, and not in a day.”

“No, Noirah, no, no one would do this to us.” Felicity vehemently shook her head. What Noirah said made sense, logical sense, but Felicity’s heart told her no. Why would anyone do this to her? To everyone who lived here.

“I don’t see why you’re ignoring the obvious choice here. MacCartney.”

“It’s not MacCartney,” Felicity interrupted tersely. Noirah gave a sneering little smile.

“You’re the only one who would say that. Do you know how much money he could get for selling a secret like that?”

“No. Now drop it, because it is not Mac.” Felicity felt a drip of water sting her head. For some reason that drop did it, it broke her resolve to remain civil while this was happening. It felt like Noirah made that water drip on her head. Felicity could still feel the heavy drop plopping, it stung as though Noirah had flicked her on the nose. “I wonder how many people would point their finger at you? Strange coincidence that this happened only a few days after your return and you have motivation,” Felicity snapped.

Noirah was silent for a moment. She pressed her hand against the cold wet stone that separated them from the reality of the night. When all this over, if they made it out alive, how many people would blame her, her family? At least, Mac had Felicity as a champion, who did the Tillards have?

“I didn’t mean that. I know that you wouldn’t,” Felicity apologized, standing far off from Noirah. She wrapped her arms around herself as a draft wafted through the passage, sending a chill coursing through her body.

“Maybe you know me better than I know myself,” Noirah retorted, “Let’s go.”

Felicity followed a few steps behind. She knew her better at one point in time.

*

Kyle turned his head and saw a man standing behind him. He held a gun loosely in his hand at his side. Kyle had never seen a gun, not in person, only ever on the TV. They really existed, they weren’t merely some mythological monster. He clamped on more tightly to Peter. How was he going to protect the boy now?

“I just want the kid. Okay?” the man said, running a hand through his hair. He was skittish and a little surprised to have one of the king’s kids run right into him with the Leonard boy. “You can go. Just give me Peter.”

“What makes you think that I’m just going to leave Peter with you?” Kyle asked, trying to buy some time. A plan, that’s what he needed. He needed Mogren. If only he hadn’t sent her away. But then how could Kyle have known this was going to happen? Well, first of all, because he read enough comics to know that this kind of situation always afflicts the hero. This was the hero’s moment to shine and show what he or she was worth. If only he had a sword and was an expert swordsman. Then he could challenge the man to a duel. In this case, gun beat sword; it certainly beat fists. Magic wand?

“Because, kid, I don’t really think you have a choice right now. Your protector left you and there’s no one else here. So as I see it, you can either give me little Peter there and walk away or I shoot you and take the kid anyways. I’m not going to give you much time, so decide quickly. Want to be a hero or...”

“A coward?” Kyle finished for him.

“Not a coward. No. You people have it all wrong. You won’t be a coward, you’ll be human. Gotta survive, right?” The man took a step closer, and Kyle took a step back without even thinking about it. Gotta survive, he thought. He looked at Peter who was gazing up at him with those clear, blue eyes; eyes which knew a little too much and maybe nothing at all. Did he know why someone would attack his mother when they were out enjoying a picnic? Did he understand why his home was burning to the ground? Did he understand why some strange man was trying to take him? Did he understand why Kyle was going to do what he was about to do?

Kyle knelt down so Peter’s feet were touching the ground.

“Pete, can you let go?” Peter shook his head. This might be harder than Kyle thought.

“Smart boy,” the man said, watching the proceedings with a smile. “I’m going to take good care of the kid. He’ll be safe.”

Kyle looked up at the smarmy man with disgust, then once more focused on Peter and spoke in a whisper, “Peter, you know how I promised Lissy to take care of you?” Peter nodded in assent, “Well, you gotta trust me here. Okay? I’m not going to let anything happen to you. So, I need you to let go of me and then I need you to hide. Okay? Run and hide. And don’t come out for anyone but me or Lissy or your dad.”

“Okay” Peter whispered.

Kyle felt his heart pounding in his throat. If he wasn’t careful, he was pretty sure that he might throw it up.

“Hurry it up.”

Kyle’s head shot up. “Hey, he’s scared. I’m just trying to calm him down before I give him over to some lunatic,” Kyle snapped.

The man just laughed hollowly. It was the kind of laugh that Kyle thought a ghost might make. “Not a lunatic, kid, just gotta shout in this world to be heard.” The man struck a beat on his thigh with his free hand while his eyes scanned the area.

Kyle focused on the boy and whispered, “On the count of three, Pete, let go of my neck.” Kyle took a breath, thinking himself insane for even conjuring up the meager plan that he had formed in his head. “One. Two.” He and Peter locked eyes, “Three.” Peter let go and ran behind Kyle, while Kyle ran with as much speed as he could towards the man in an attempt to catch him off guard. He did. It seemed this man didn’t understand that some people had honor and would do stupid things for the sake of others. Kyle with all his strength drove his shoulder into the man, taking them both down to the ground. Kyle quickly utilized his advantage and swung his arm down upon the man’s face. Oh, he was amazed by how much something like that hurt. He had never punched anyone in his life. Why did people do this? It was rather unpleasant. Thankfully his panic dulled some of the pain. His adrenaline made his whole body shake and move quicker than his brain could keep up with.

His own shock gave the man beneath him enough time to shove Kyle off. That’s when Kyle saw the man reaching for the gun which had been knocked from his hand. Fear drove his foot to kick the man’s hand away from the object of his desire.

“You don’t want this kid. Let this go and I won’t kill you. I don’t like murdering children,” the man grunted out. Kyle’s breath was coming in puffs. He had stopped thinking. He couldn’t feel any thoughts going through his head. There was only this man in front of him and the need to stay alive. He couldn’t even think of an answer for that man. Kyle pounced once more atop of the man before he could gain possession of his gun. Once he had that, the fight was over. Kyle was no Superman. He threw another punch at the man’s face, prepared now for the pain which followed. How this man was still conscious, Kyle could not fathom. If someone had punched him, he’d be out for the count. This man, however, was still fairly alert. Before Kyle could drive another fist into the man’s face, the man used his superior strength and flipped them over. Now Kyle lay on the ground, with the man atop him. Kyle was terrified. His eyes flashed frantically, as his body squirmed and his legs bucked, desperate to escape.

The pain he felt in his hand when he punched someone was nothing compared to the pain he felt in his face when he was punched. Again some instinct, which Kyle wasn’t even aware he had, kicked in as he brought his left leg up and kneed the man between the legs.

“Goddamn it!” the man shouted, rolling over Kyle, with his hand once more reaching for his gun. Kyle began to freak out as he saw the man’s fingers close around the hilt. Kyle scrambled over and snatched the man’s hand. The man struggled, but this time Kyle had the upper hand and with the strength of both arms brought down the hand which held the gun. He heard a cracking sound. The man yelled. Kyle had driven his wrist right onto a rock and broke it. Before he could even think about what he did, he grabbed the gun and crawled back until he reached a tree. With a hand on the trunk he steadied himself and stood up. His back was pressed against the trunk with the gun held out in his shaking hands. He had never held a gun and he certainly hoped he would never have to again. It didn’t feel right. He didn’t even know what to do with it. He wasn’t about to pull the trigger on this man, no matter what the other had planned or done, even though he just tried to shoot Kyle. It just wasn’t in Kyle’s nature; no one could make him change who he was. He thought back to when he watched Mogren dig the grave for another assailant long ago, what had Noirah said: it meant more now. His beliefs meant more now that they were challenged. They weren’t beliefs now, but actions.

The man was sitting on the ground, cradling his wrist against his chest.

“You’re not going to shoot me, are you?” he asked calmly not even attempting to put up a fight.

“Um, no. No, I’m not. But, uh, stay there. Okay? Don’t come any closer,” Kyle stuttered hardly able to hold up the gun anymore. He tried to calm himself, to look intimidating, but he had no control over himself. Air could hardly make it into his lungs. Too much reality existed inside.

The man remained seated on the ground, staring calmly at Kyle. He almost felt bad for the kid. Then he flexed his wrist and felt a bolt of pain. He cleared his throat. “You should.” Kyle looked at him blankly. The man continued, “You should shoot me. You okay with letting me go on your conscience? Knowing that I’ll just do it again? Ready to have that blood on your hands?”

Kyle shook his head. If he wasn’t holding a gun, he would have plugged his ears. If he didn’t have some maniac in front of him, he’d close his eyes and dream himself away to another place, to another world, a place filled with clouds and puppies. He really didn’t want this. A week ago he had graduation to worry about and now his major concern was whether or not kill someone! School did not prepare him for this. Honestly Kyle knew that he couldn’t shoot this man. In his heart, he knew that he could never shoot a man in cold blood. Cold blood, warm blood, blood today, blood tomorrow he didn’t want any of it on his hands. When he looked in the mirror, he wanted to see the face of someone who had never killed another person. When he got home, he wanted to tell his mother that he was a good man. He only hoped that by letting this man live he was doing the right thing. Could the right thing result in the deaths of others? Would Kyle be able to look in the mirror, if this man later killed Noirah? Felicity? Anyone? Could you be a good man and make the wrong decision? He felt sick. The world felt safer when it was black and white.

He continued to hold the gun out. The trigger felt easy enough to pull, but it wasn’t easy at all.

“Still not going to? Are you?”

“No, and if you do it again, just remember that those people whom you’d kill would show you the same compassion and let you live; at least, I think most of them would. The blood’s on your hands, not ours. What you’re doing is wrong. That much I know. That much is clear to me.” Kyle lowered the gun, but didn’t dare drop it. He may leave the man to live but he wasn’t about to rearm him. He wasn’t that trusting.

The man dropped his head and shrugged his shoulders. “Must be nice to see things so clearly.” With his head still lowered, he gazed at Kyle beneath his dark brows. Kyle squirmed a little under the weight of the man’s heavy grey eyes. “You can’t always do the right thing when you want to get things done. We have a big picture. People don’t change of their own volition.”

“So you kidnap a little boy?” Kyle charged.

“Nothing but collateral. We weren’t going to hurt him. Sometimes to create a better world you need a sacrifice.”

“No,” Kyle replied, “He’s a child. You don’t sacrifice kids for a better world, you make a better world for them.” Kyle released a breath. He felt a wave of light-headedness pass through him. Noirah would joke that it was a thought that threw his brain for a loop. Too many thoughts, he might add. He was holding a gun. Flames roared just beyond him. A child was lost out in the woods, and so was Peter. Nothing else, he had nothing else for this man huddled in a pathetic state on the ground. He’d like to believe that something he said might make a difference, that there was some salvageable humanity in that man. After tonight, however, Kyle questioned his very basic belief that man was at heart good. That humanity meant anything. That frightened him more than anything else. Maybe one day something better might come and might find some no place land to dwell. Maybe they’d all find their own puppity. Puppies never murdered people and if they did, he couldn’t handle knowing.

“Is that what they were doing for my son? Making the world a better place, huh?” the man suddenly spoke with a strained voice. Some artifice disappeared from his posture. That little bit of himself from before broke through. He suddenly appeared to Kyle less like a vague man that Kyle might only be able to recall with fuzzy details and more like a man, like a person with features and a story that Kyle would prefer not to hear. He could hate the vague idea more easily, dismiss it, him, without thought. Kyle didn’t want more thoughts.

The man shifted, searching the ground for something, but knew it wasn’t there. The kid continued to stand there, so the man continued his story:

“My son, my baby boy, I had dropped him off at school, just like I had every single day. He held my hand the whole way. I told him to hold on tight, to keep safe. And he looked at me proud as punch that his daddy had that power to keep all the bad things away. See, things weren’t good there, in the area where we live, up in the northern region but we were told to go about our daily lives. I left him there and went to work, just like every day. I told him to be a good boy and not to pull Sandy’s hair anymore. And he shook his head at me like I was the dumbest man in Panchaea. ‘But daddy,’ he says, ‘she’s got the prettiest hair in the whole world. I ain’t pulling it. I’m pettin’ her!’ When I saw his eyes well up because I told him Sandy didn’t like it, I promised him the biggest cookie I could find when school was done.” His eyes bore straight into Kyle who stood with this heart thumping in his chest. “Someone set off an explosion in the school. Dozens of children died. My boy died. Sacrificed as you might call it. See on the outskirts, there had been a territory dispute. King Andrew had broken a truce and took land, crap land at that. Northerners were angry. This king had done nothing to give the land back, politics and all, some of the senators said that it was ours from before the treaty. A stupid chunk of dirt and egotistical men without a thought to us killed my son. Someone blew up a school to make a point to them. I still don’t know what the point was. What could have been the point?” He choked on a haunted laugh, his eyes wandering up to the stars above, seeking the son who he knew wasn’t there. No, his son was alone, in the ground, slowly decaying until nothing was left. He had cried once for him, but now his insides had grown too hard for such softness. “My son died because of them.” He pointed back to the palace. “We need people who care about the families. They don’t get it. All they see is the forest, none of the trees.”

“But you’re killing people. You’re setting off bombs. You were going to hurt a child. You were going to hurt me. You fought me. I’m a child. There are dead people in there!” Kyle implored, waving the gun that he still held towards the palace and the flames.

The man was silent, his face grew grotesque as a grievous smile furrowed onto it. Kyle wished that he could give this man something but there was nothing which could fill the emptiness which permeated through the man’s innards. This man wasn’t evil – not the way it had been taught to Kyle – he was without hope and terribly misguided, no he was guided by terrible anger. He was guided by nothing, a darkness that twisted and deformed the light of himself. It would have been simpler to think of him as some monolithically evil monster. Somehow this person, this flesh and blood like Kyle, found some excuse for inexcusable actions, for repugnant actions, for actions that a man might blame the devil for to hide from the fact that the devil might be he. Someone not evil could do such evil things, the thought betrayed Kyle.

“You’re right,” the man said, nodding his head. “I’ve…but they have to know; they have to feel this, what they did. They need to be sorry. Just go ahead and kill me. Okay? Life’s not always the gift you think it is. Sometimes hope disappears and you stop lying to yourself that it gets better. One day you might feel this darkness too and you can’t cure yourself of it. Once you see the monster, you can’t pretend that it’s not there.”

Kyle stood dumbstruck, feeling the weight of the gun in his hand, the weight of adulthood and the choices he had to make. But it wasn’t a choice. He had no choice. When he stared at that man, Kyle saw his own father. Who knew, perhaps this man could be. What would he say to his father if he saw him like this, if he knew that he had done such deeds?

Kyle stared hard and finally asked, “What’s your name?”

The man blinked, taken aback. “Gregory.”

“Gregory. I’m Kyle, Kyle Walters. That there was Peter Sterne, but you knew that. What was your son’s name?”

“Nicholas.”

Kyle nodded and let the name sink into him. Nicholas. He could almost picture the little boy with his father’s eyes splashing around in some puddles, looking up at his dad with a smile. He could smell the hair of Sandy right before he tugged her hair. Maybe he had a drawer where he hid snail shells that he had found in the backyard. At night he might sneak over and wish them goodnight. And then Kyle tried to picture him, this happy, little Nicholas dead, to see what that man, what Gregory saw. Little hands that held father’s hands, petted girl’s hair, bloody and lifeless. Other faces swam into his vision. Faces that came to him from pictures he had seen in his world. Dazed, dead eyes; large, toothy grins. Boy and girls and older and younger and from everywhere. Pictures he had never seen from events that he had only heard as an echo from the news. He wasn’t always so brave to look and learn. Even from the safety of his kitchen, with a warm breakfast before him, Kyle couldn’t handle a world that he didn’t have to live in.

He thought about Peter out there who had no choice but to know. So many people who hadn’t had the choice to keep themselves safe.

He brought the heel of his hand to his forehead to stop everything for a second. To stop despair from entering too deeply, to keep from crying for everything, everyone, the whole mess, here and there. He felt too small, like a single rock meant to stop a flood. To think that he used to cry because of broken toys. To think that every time Allison ignored him he mistook that feeling for a broken heart. Those were the days, lovely days he hoped that he could return to.

Then he thought about his mom. He could picture himself smiling up at her while he splashed through puddles. She jumped into one with him. He pictured himself smiling up at her while he held out a daffodil for her. She took it with a smile. He couldn’t force himself to look down at what she might look like without that affection, that glow in her eyes. He couldn’t imagine a world where he would never hear her call him her little man anymore. The idea of a world without her chilled him with its frosty fist. Even if all of that should come to pass, Kyle would never be that man on the ground. He would never hurt another person for his loss because he loved her. He loved her and she would never want him to swim in the blackness.

“I’m sorry. I truly am for you and for Nicholas. That was wrong. What happened to you, that was wrong too and awful and I’m so sorry.” Kyle paused. “And I hope that you’re sorry for Peter, if anything happens to him tonight and you’re sorry for all the people like your son and for all their families. I’m sorry for you, but what you’ve done is unforgiveable. If you were my dad, I…” Kyle looked up and tried to imagine how he would feel. He thought about how angry he used to feel when he thought his dad had abandoned his mom, threw them away like nothing; the disappointment, the self-hatred. All those things one man caused inside of him. “If you were my dad, I’d want to forgive and love you and understand you, but mostly I’d feel terrified that I inherited something of you. If you can’t be a better person for anyone else, do it for your son. You were supposed to protect him and you’re making it harder for the rest of them.”

The two paused in the darkness. Somehow silence found them there in that bubble where two divergent worlds collapsed and mingled. As soon as it burst, the two would depart and some days recall this moment in the woods, never quite sure how it affected them, how it affected the other. Neither would ever meet the other again.

Kyle turned and departed. He had a gun to hide and a child to find.

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