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20.) Cell Mate

It’s hard to sleep, I realized, when your arms are chained behind your back and rats occasionally sprint over your toes. Every time I find myself slowly nodding off, I’m jerked awake by some variable; whether it be a distant scream or my sore body crying for help.

I leaned into the corner, finally reaching a point where I was so tired I’m sure I’d sleep through another rodent coming to say hi. But as my eyes closed, another scream ripped through the building. I’ve had enough.

“Holy shit! Do you ever stop torturing people?” I screamed back, knowing that heaven forbid he heard me he would come torture me. But hey, how was a girl supposed to sleep and rest before her own demise when other people were being tortured in the next room?

My voice echoes and repeats, then dies off. My chest felt lighter after letting that loose, but my heart gives a sharp thud when I hear a light groan.

“Hello?” I ask quietly, my body suddenly shaking. This whole night I had assumed I was alone, and when being dragged down here I hadn’t seen any other people in the cells.

Nobody answered, I must be hearing things? “Is anyone out there?” Even I could hear the shake in my voice as I peered out into the darkness, my eyes not registering anything beyond the bars that held me captive.

“Good to hear you’ve grown a bit of a backbone, telling that boy off earlier was fun to listen too.” His voice is old and raspy, it rings with familiarity. My heart now thuds with excitement as I scramble to my numb legs and run to the bars.

“Uncle Steven?” Is it really him? It’s true we never found his body, it was bold of me to assume that someone as tough as him had been lost.

“You sound surprised,” he grunted, and I tried to find the source of which cell he may be in.

“I thought you were dead,” I explained, “I thought they killed you when they..”. I trailed off, unable to say the truth to my uncle. Is he even aware? The thought makes me sick.

“So, it’s true then. I heard some suckers talking about taking the life of my Amelia, I hoped it was a torture tactic.” Uncle Stevens’ voice was soft, sad, it wrenched in my gut. His wife was murdered and he hadn’t known.

“I buried her, Uncle. In the family plot, she is with her sister, and her mother.” I hoped that was sufficient, that it would put him at ease.

“She’d like that.” Is all he says, and we sit in a heavy silence for a few moments. I hear the shuffle of his feet on the floor, and then the clanging of his own bars as he leans against them. “So, if I had to guess, you’ve been with the defenders this whole time?” I nod even though he can’t see me, “so you know everything?”

“Yeah, cats out.” He laughed at my sarcastic comment, it’s dry and half hearted but a laugh nonetheless.

“Amelia, she wanted to keep you from it all as long as possible. We knew you’d be great from the moment you were born, the stars knew that too. Hence why they chose you to defeat Parallax and his weapon.” His weapon, as in Beckett. I was chosen at my birth to kill him, I bet the stars didn’t guess that I’d grow to care for him.

Do I still care for Beckett? He betrayed me, and Ember too. It seems as of late that he felt some guilt, but was it too little too late?

“I wish I had known sooner. Ember and Beckett,” his name hurts, “they had to train me from scratch and I wasn’t powerful enough. Clearly. I’m stuck in a cell.” Tears stung my eyes, as the blanket of guilt wrapped itself around me. I wasn’t good enough.

“Is it a question of your capabilities? Or was there wool over your eyes?” His words hit hard, and I let them simmer for a moment.

“Wool, Uncle.” I whispered, wondering if he could even hear me. The truth stings, speaking it aloud makes it only more true. Beckett had played me, I let myself think he could like me, and now I’m locked in a cell.

“I knew this would all happen, knew it from the moment I was captured. They told me, ‘we have someone on the inside’. Parallax himself taunted in my face that you were in grave danger, sleeping down the hall from his weapon.” My throat burned from thirst and sorrow, I tried to swallow my tears but I didn’t succeed.

“Beckett,” I start, “he’s the weapon they trained me to kill.” My Uncle grunts in understanding, “it’s going to be harder now. Now that I think of him as a friend.”

“I remember when Beckett was a boy, and his sister too. Ember, oh how Amelia had a soft spot for her.” My ears perked up, it hadn’t even dawned on me that all of the defenders knew each other.

“You knew them?” I couldn’t help but pry, a little story time before I get tortured wouldn’t hurt.

He laughs, “yes, we knew them. Ember’s parents, Macy and Ky, were amazing people in their time. It was a shock when the siblings came out looking like twins, despite them having different fathers. Macy, Beckett’s mother, was chosen by Parallax for her strength and beauty to carry his child. She loved Beck from the moment he was born, so she fled with her husband, and found Alatar who was willing to put a suppressor on him. It was an attempt to keep him from going dark.”

Steven paused for a long moment, and I held my breath afraid to speak. It’s not often I hear my Uncle ramble, so I listen adamantly.

“A tantrum for Beckett was hell on earth, literally. It’s not his fault, what he has inside of him. With the suppression it became easier for him to live a normal life, but like you he didn’t feel much emotion because of it.” Growing up not feeling much wasn’t fun, and I didn’t have dark rage inside of me. I can’t imagine how Beckett felt.

“That’s why he’s…”, what’s the word..

“Mean?” My uncle laughs finishing my sentence, “yes he did have a harder time showing compassion after the suppression. Except for with Ember, even as children he always looked out for her. And as they grew older, and their parents passed, he became her protector.”

“Everything he does, he does for her.” I speak verbatim, it’s what he always tells me. Now, it just makes a little more sense. All of this makes a little more sense, his lack of caring, his cold demeanor opposing her warmth. How he protects her, even if it means being side by side with the person born to end him.

I had been blind, but he got to live with that pain. Knowing I would be his undoing, and I’m asking him to make me a cup of coffee.

“Uncle, I have to ask. Why didn’t you like me?” It’s silly, in retrospect, to ask this. But for eighteen years I got to live with a grumpy old man, and I want to know why.

“The Umbra Bellum, it changed us all.” I remember Ember saying that, “after the war I wanted out. So I stopped being a defender, and I ran away with Amelia to live a normal life and maybe even have kiddos.” I smiled small, my aunt deserved that life.

He sighs, “but then you show up at our doorstep, the warlocks and literal stars bringing you to us saying you’d been chosen to save the world. And that…my sister in law and brother in law had been murdered.”

The faces, from my dreams. It clicks, the ones I’d never been able to understand, they were the stars. Stars are people? Is that why they wore hoods? To blend in with the warlocks? A question for later.

“Amelia, she loved you to pieces, and raised you as such. I saw you as a reminder of the war, and of what took people I love. And I’m very, very sorry about that.” He coughs, “and I’m sorry that it took us being prisoners together for me to tell you all of this.”

I want to respond, ask more questions, but my brain feels scattered. Before I could say anything I heard a door get thrown open and a stream of light floods the hall. With the light I can see my uncle a few cells down, he looks at me with scared eyes and my heart thuds in response.

If a war veteran is afraid, then be afraid.

“Be brave, Astra.” He tells me, before disappearing into his cell. The people who storm in are vamps, they charge for my cell with wide grins.

“Morning sunshine! I hope you got some beauty sleep, my master is waiting for you.” I gulped, shying from the bars. They opened the cell, and I wished my hands were free so I could defend myself. Be brave, my uncle told me, so I swallowed my fear and forced a smug smile back.

“The room was a little drafty for my liking, be sure to tell your master he needs to fix that.” They growl at me, but I don’t let it show that it scares me.

A vamp runs behind me quickly, taking my hair to pull me back against his chest, and yanking my head to the side so my neck is exposed. He hissed in my ear and lowered his mouth to my pulse, I know he can hear my racing heart. I let out a heavy gasp, and closed my eyes right.

“I could kill you right here, get rid of all our issues. Would you like that, sunshine?” He hissed in my ear, I shiver.

“You can’t, Parallax would kill you. He wants his weapon to kill me himself,” my voice is bold even as it fails to reach my heart. Please don’t call my bluff, I prayed.

“Bitch.” He spits, before pushing me forward and forcing me out of my cell. I stumbled down the hall, passing my uncle’s cell. I peek inside out of the corner of my eye; he leans against the far wall and looks up at us through hooded eyes.

“Take him too, Parallax wants an audience for this.” I hear the vamp holding me say, and another one opens my uncle’s cell. Uncle Steven is bold, he doesn’t cry out as I hear a fist pummel his face, and as he’s dragged out behind me. I hold back my own tears.

It’s brighter outside of the hall, Parallax likes the color red I see. He has red rugs, and red curtains, all the color of blood.

The walk felt like forever, down a million halls, each colored red. I noticed the lights are on, the whole lights off thing must have been an illusion for my trapping.

“Keep moving!” The vamp snapped at me, as I slowed to look at a large painting on the wall. It was Parallax, his gray skin sagging in a grotesque smile, and beside him is a woman who’s eyes held all the fear in the world. Her bright blue eyes terrified even as a painting, her dark hair tumbling down past her shoulders and framing her fair face.

Ember, it seems, looks just like her mother.

Macy’s scared eyes, as she holds her pregnant belly for a painting with a mass murderer, stays at the forefront of my mind as we enter a large brass door. I couldn’t imagine her fear, what she went through. Would she be disappointed in Beckett? I have to wonder, I’m sure she would have wanted better for her son.

Inside the door is a large room with tall ceilings, the carpet is red here also. I’m getting sick of the color. At the head of the room sits Parallax in an oversized chair made out of chains and…bones? I try not to think about it.

Beckett stood beside his fathers chair, he stared straight ahead and didn’t glance my way. The electricity commences as it usually does, only now I truly see it for what it is; a warning.

He doesn’t look right in this setting, with his hair combed back and a white button down. This version of him, blindly following a killer, makes me nauseous.

“Darling! Did you enjoy your stay?” Parallax purred as we got closer, I made sure to maintain eye contact with him. It’s bad enough I’m powerless, he doesn’t need to know I’m afraid.

I don’t answer him, which only makes him squirm. He’s a dramatic man, I’ve come to realize, and he wants me to be afraid.

“I see we’re not in the mood for a chat this morning?” His tone is sour, like he had hoped I’d play his little game.

“I’m kind of a bitch before my coffee, and the espresso machine in my cell was out of order.” I cock an eyebrow at him and enjoy watching him blanch slightly. Out of the corner of my eye I think I see Beckett’s lips lift slightly, but only for a moment.

“She has teeth, I can tell you and my son spent a lot of time together. He also has some bite,” Parallax knew mentioning our time together would fire me up. That it hurt me deeply, to know I’d got played after blindly trusting. So I refused to react.

Distracted by my thoughts I hadn’t noticed the slow moving black mist escaping his hand, it slithers toward me on the rug and advances. At the sight of it I tried to move away, but the vamps standing behind me only allowed a few inches of space.

“We know why we’re here, just hand over the souls and-” I don’t even let him finish.

“You’re out of your damned mind if you think I’m just going to hand over these innocents!” He smiled, he expected this. I think now that he had hoped I’d say this, and would enjoy my lack of compliance.

“Well, I’ll get them one way or another.” Parallax taunted, as the black tendril launches forward and encased me.

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