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This article, Where the Self Resides, is property of Leafwhisker.
Where the Self Resides is a spin-off of my previous story, Thaumaturgy of the Prophet. -Leafwhisker 21:06, June 2, 2014 (UTC)
The title is from the song "Dark Matter" by Andrew Bird.
The companion is Ode to the Serpent.
On the ten year anniversary of the apocalypse, Samantha Yune had been piecing together the remnants of a book which she had found in an abandoned auto repair shop. Among other things, she also found a car wrench and a box of matches next to the mangled body of a man she assumed had been in his forties, but the state his body was in made determining anything about him near impossible. On top of finding the abandoned auto repair shop, it started to rain, so she started to piece together the pages of a weather-damaged book.
She pulls up the hood on her sweatshirt, the wind howling as it runs through the broken windows of the houses across the street. When she looks up outside, she sees a fork of lightning reach for the ground before it disappears. Two trucks are in the garage: the one which she sits on is significantly more appealing than the other considering its windows aren't smashed in and the inside doesn't reek of dead animals. She considered attempting to hotwire it – it had been used recently – but ruled that idea out because she didn't want to attract bandits.
She looks back at the pages of the book – most are yellowing, some have water stains, but it is mostly readable – and runs her fingers over the cover page. It is just a phone book with lists of names of people who have probably been dead for years.
Her boots touch the pavement as she stands and looks outside. The rain has lessened to a steady drizzle; she might as well start moving before the sun sets. She slings her backpack over her shoulder and tosses the partially repaired phone book on the mangled body. It hits him square in the face. “Hope you get to where you want to go, Tom.” she mutters to the body before she leaves.
~ ~ ~
The steady drizzle turns into a downpour ten minutes after she leaves the shop. The crunch of her boots on the gravel is drowned out by the rain; she constantly looks behind her in case someone is following her. Generally, in this world, more people will break your leg, steal whatever you have, then leave you to die rather than befriend you. She knows this well.
Her hands slide into her pockets, her breathing becoming more quiet, as she walks. With any luck, the rain will settle down so she won't have to stop before the sun sets. Lightning arcs into the ground, lighting up the darkened sky as hail begins to pelt her arms. She pulls her hood down more before she catches a hail pellet and brings it in her line of sight. Not golf ball sized at least.
The shriek of a bird makes her stop. She looks behind her to see dark shapes coming towards her and without hesitation she breaks into a run. She takes out her knife from its sheath as she runs - the hilt is familiar in her hands. The rain and hail pelt her, numbing her body under the thin sweatshirt, but she ignores that. She feels a thump on her back and winces as her shield digs into her body. Her legs begin to tire, her breaths coming in gasps as she runs, but she doesn't allow herself to stop. Another bronze feather hits her shield. Then another. It takes three tries for one to sprout from her shoulder. Pain spreads throughout her shoulder and down her arm; she does not look back. She sees blue Honda a few yards from her so she bolts to it, flinging open the door and pressing herself to the floor. She hears an indignant huff from the front seat but doesn't bother to tell the other person to duck.
Bronze feathers break the glass, then beaks peck at the window. Sam stays down, her knife held tightly in her hand. A bird head breaks through the glass and she drives her knife through its eye before dragging the blade out. She kicks the bird in the head repeatedly before it finally relents and flies off with the other two. Finally, she sits up and takes the time to look at the other person. They turn around, their blond hair sticking up all over their face. “You're a demigod.” The words are spit out of his mouth but lack the venom they might have usually carried.
“Yes.” she replies as she sits on the backseat and sets her backpack and shield down. She unzips her hoodie, draping it over the headrest to let it dry. “The birds'll be back soon.” she adds as an afterthought.
“I know. I've traveled with demigods before. I don't recommend their company.”
“Neither do I.” She looks at his face which looks like someone attacked it with a Sharpie. “You might make good bait. How well do you run?”
He raises his eyebrows before realizing it is supposed to be a joke. “Did everyone else run away from you in fear?”
“Something like that.” Her eyes sweep over the damage the Stymphalian birds caused to the car: all the windows are broken, letting rain and hail in, the hood is dented, and blood is splattered on the seats. Her eyes lock onto the air freshener and realizes why it smells like rancid oranges. “Can you fight?”
He shows her a gun. “Don't freak, I have Celestial bronze bullets, too.” He turns back around and opens his car door to step outside to survey the damage. As he's preoccupied, she takes the gun from the front seat and sits back. When he returns, he looks pointedly at her. “Give me the gun back.”
She doesn't respond.
He sighs. “Fine. Just give it back before you go barreling out of the car once those birds come back.” She doesn't bother to respond. Her eyes look outside at the lightning which strikes the ground. A pellet of hail hits her arm hard enough that she knows a bruise is going to form later. A thunderclap shakes the car.
She sees the approaching figure rather than hears them a few minutes later. As they grow closer, she sinks back into the seat. The boy mirrors her gesture but she doubts he even knows what is approaching. “Come out, little demigod, I know you're there.” Medusa's voice is sickly sweet as she slithers towards the car. Sam sets her knife down then unloads the gun and puts the cartridge in her pocket. She tosses the unloaded gun in her backpack and takes the knife in her hand again. She slides out of the car after she puts her hoodie on just as lightning strikes the vehicle. The boy stumbles out hurriedly, tripping face first onto the pavement as he tries to get out. Medusa whirls around to look at who caused the noise and looks at Sam from behind her sunglasses. She smiles – her teeth are jagged – and Sam begins to step back just as the boy jumps up and runs towards her. She can practically feel the fear radiating off his body.
She steps backward as Medusa approaches, her pace quickening as Sam's pace slows. She eyes the boy who is still staring at Medusa as if he is frozen by fear. She turns away from Medusa and breaks into a run; the boy follows her lead. Hail bounces off her head and arms as she runs, and the rain soaks through her clothes. She positions her knife in her hand so that she can see Medusa as she approaches, and once Medusa is only a few feet from the boy Sam stops. The boy bumps into her, stumbling, when Sam turns around and ducks behind him when she sees Medusa take off her sunglasses. Sam's hands grip the sides of the boy's head then she forcefully turns it so he's staring into Medusa's eyes.
His legs turn a gray color as cracks appear in the stone. Lines like spiderwebs form on the boy's flesh as his skin turns gray as it solidifies. With all her strength – and the aid of the slippery ground – she knocks the newly formed statue into Medusa, effectively pining the monster to the ground. Sam's boot connects with Medusa's head, shielding Sam from Medusa's gaze, and once she unsheathes her sword she slices off the monster's head. As she wipes the dust from her sword, she kicks Medusa's head to the side. Once she sheaths her sword and grabs her stuff from the Honda, she turns around and begins to run.
The rain stops just before she holes herself on the first floor of an abandoned hotel. The windows are boarded up – someone had been here before – but the smell is not unpleasant. The person who had previously lived here had done some cleaning for which she was grateful. She tosses her backpack and shield on one of the moth bitten couches and throws herself down on the other. She unzips her hoodie, draping it over the side of the couch, and unlaces her boots before kicking them off onto the floor. She winces as her fingers curl around the bronze feather and take it out. She takes off a sock and presses it to the wound to staunch the flow of blood while she grabs her backpack with her other hand. Unzipping it takes a bit of work, but once she opens it she takes out an ambrosia square in an open ziplock bag and eats a corner. She gently sets the backpack on the floor as she takes her sock away from the healing wound. Darkness settles around her as the sun sinks, and she closes her eyes.
She hadn't even asked the name of the mortal. She imagined he was a Ryan; he looked like a Ryan. Nine years she had been living like this in this wasted world. With the gods dead, everything is so dreary, so dull. But she makes it through because that is what she always does. What she will always do.
~ ~ ~
She wakes up to a knife digging into her throat. “Where is she?” The voice is panicked and angry; Medusa isn't the one holding her at knife point. Sam opens her eyes. The boy in front of her is young, fourteen maybe fifteen. His matted blond hair falls to his shoulders and his wide blue eyes dart everywhere to avoid looking her in the eyes. The grip he has on her shoulder is pathetically weak and the knife was almost immediately jerked away from her neck when she opened her eyes.
She sits up, pushing him away with her foot so he trips over her boot and falls on the white rug. “Whoever you're looking for I don't have them.” she says as she puts her boots on and begins lacing them up. Once she finishes, she takes a granola bar from her backpack and takes a bite out of it. She doesn't miss how his eyes look at the bar longingly. He doesn't move from the floor as his eyes widen in realization. “No! No no no! Help me find her, please! You're a demigod, aren't you? You can help me! They listen to demigods!”
“If bandits took her then she's already dead.” She grabs her shield from the other couch, even though he makes no move towards it, and puts it next to her backpack on the floor. Her eyes fall to the knife in his hand. It's a simple bread knife that looks like the most fighting it has ever seen is against a tree branch.
His eyes start to water so she wrinkles her nose. “Please, she's only seven! You have to help me, I don't stand a chance against them. She's my sister; she means everything to me!” He pushes his hair out of his face as he rubs his eyes. He's sincere, she can tell that much.
“No.” Sam stands, collecting her things and holding out her knife where he can see it. He stands up and backs away from her, but she knows he isn't going to stop pestering her. When she walks out of the building, he is right behind her although he follows at a safe distance.
“I'm Richard,” he offers, “if you help me I'll leave you alone. I just want my sister back! Don't you understand that?” She ignores him as she straps the shield to her back then slings her backpack over her shoulder. But she does put her knife in its sheath. “Please!” he begs although his voice is less strong. “Please, help me.”
She starts walking away; a glance at the sky tells her it is going to rain again soon although the sun is still bright. The sound of his footsteps follows her for a couple yards before they stop entirely. Her pace quickens when she looks up to the sky once a steady drizzle begins. She pulls up her hood and begins running as the drizzle turns into a downpour. Boots crunch against gravel, the world turning into a blur as she runs without any direction in mind. Living like this doesn't require any direction or moral compass. Her only objective is to survive; she plans on keeping things as they are.
Lightning lights up the sky, illuminating a gas station a couple yards away. Across from it is an old motel that's falling into the ground. Cars of various shapes and degrees of disuse line the street as the sound of rain hitting against metal turns into an annoyance then a rhythmic pattern. She picks up speed and, once she's close enough to the gas station, slows to a steady jog before sitting on the back of a pickup truck that is protected by the roof. She watches the rain fall as she drinks from her water bottle and finishes the granola bar. She watches as the rain falls, and she would not be surprised if one day it didn't stop.
The sound of glass breaking causes her to jump off the truck and look at the gas station. Broken glass litters the ground, and she catches a raccoon scurrying under a Jeep. She turns around, grabs her backpack, then runs out into the rain.
It isn't long before something begins to follow her. The growling is quiet at first, then it becomes so loud that Sam has no choice but to focus on it instead of the rain. She skids to a halt, turning her head to see a hellhound whose head, unlike older hellhounds, comes up to her chin. The monster slows down and begins circling her, its teeth barred and its saliva dripping onto the ground. She unsheathes her knife before stamping the ground. A vine breaks through the ground, wrapping around the hellhound's forepaws twice so that it loses balance and falls on the ground. She stamps her foot on the ground again so two more vines shoot up and wrap around its stomach before squeezing. The hellhound begins to whimper, its fiery eyes becoming less like a demon's and more like a dog's. The vines around its stomach loosen but never disappear completely as she steps away from the monster. The vines around its forepaws tighten, preventing it from going after her, and after a few seconds she runs away in the opposite direction.
She sees a small house ahead and doesn't hesitate to open the door once she's close enough. When she steps inside, she surveys the condition the house is in. Some of the floorboards have been taken out and nails are sticking up haphazardly everywhere. A couch has been attacked – by animal or human she does not know – and the foam is sticking out. The smell of death and decay is prominent yet she sees no dead animals. When she steps into the kitchen, she realizes it is much worse than the family room. Cabinets are thrown open; cockroaches and centipedes are crawling in and out of them. The kitchen table is covered in animal droppings and moldy food.
The stairs to the second floor, she later finds, are in the best condition when compared to the sections of the house she has inspected so far. Bugs still crawl on the walls, on the stairs, and on her boots, but she ignores that fact as well as the smell which becomes more pungent.
The hallway she steps into proves that the stairs were the only decent thing in the house. The bodies of rats and mice litter the hallway while one which are still alive scurry from room to room. She covers her nose with her hand as she checks the rooms for anything of value; she finds nothing. When she opens the door to the last bedroom, she finds a human body. Or, what used to be a human body. Now all that remains are bones and bloodstains on the now gray carpet. She steps back, nearly tripping over the body of a rat, and slams the door closed. Her boots thunder down the hallway then the stairs, and when she flings the door open she sighs in relief as the rain splashes her face.
The house across the street still retains whole furniture which is promising. The smell of decay remains, but the smell is less pungent. The floorboard do not sink beneath her feet and, most likely because of the actions of some person before her, there are no animals that scurry about the room. A thorough inspection of the other rooms reveals that most if not all the furniture is intact although nothing of immediate value remains. Sam finds her way back in the family room and sets her backpack, shield, and sword on the coffee table which is in near perfect condition. The rain taps on the windows which aren't broken and slips into the cracks of the ones which are, and she promptly falls asleep.
~ ~ ~
The sound of breaking glass wakes her up immediately. She stands up as quietly as possible, gathering her things and unsheathing her knife. Footsteps circle her and the words of whoever is inside the house are mumbled under their breath. A soft breeze runs through the dark house. Something touches her elbow – a hand – and she whirls around to find herself face to face with a young boy. Although the lighting is dim, she can tell who he is by the word which runs from his mouth. “Sorry!” The word escapes as a squeak as she is kneed in the gut. She has enough sense to sheath her knife as a bag is pulled over her head.
She wakes not by design but by a hand roughly shaking her shoulder as if she is a protector amidst a storm. Her eyes open not to light but to darkness and she recalls the boy pulling a bag over her head then tying her hands behind her back. Small hands tear the bag from her head and the light which falls in her eyes makes her wince before her eyes adjust. The boy's blue eyes focus on her for a moment, realizing she is awake, and he stands up. Her ears pick up the faint growl of something not too far away. Her back presses against the tire of a car.
“That-that thing is coming; you have to do something!” His voice is like that of a mouse. Squeaky and insufferable. She stares at him.
“What is it?” His face sags with relief and he bends down to cut the ropes tying her wrists together. The pieces of rope fall to the ground; Sam stands and notices Richard has stopped in an alleyway. The ground is littered with trash and buildings crowd them on both sides. When she turns her head, she sees that their exit is blocked off by a minivan forcefully crammed against the fencing. Something is out there and she imagines it is much worse than a monster.
“I don't know,” he answers after she looks down at him. A few hours of grim coat his face and worn clothes. His hair is even more filthy than it had been when she first saw him. “but it sounded like a dog.”
“Hellhound.” she corrects as her hands searches for her knife that is no longer in its sheath. She notices her sword and shield aren't present, either. “Give me my things.” Richard hesitates under her stare, his body fidgeting as if he is trying to decide whether or not running would be the wisest option.
When he does give her back her things, she doesn't let his look of hesitation go unnoticed. She puts her weapons in their sheaths and straps her shield to her back when she hears the growl a second time. This time the growl is louder, more desperate, and when she hears the sound of claws raking the pavement she knows she has stayed too long.
“You can't leave, not now!” Richard's cry of protest is already out of his mouth before she even starts walking away. His voice makes her stop, but not out of desire to help him. She is more surprised that he could read her face. “What about my sister?” he adds but she knows she made no promise to help him.
“Find her yourself. You're her family, that's your duty.” she states as she walks away from him. She shoulders her backpack as she breaks into a run. She makes a right, dodging a blue mailbox, and only briefly glances into the shops where windows are broken and littered with items. She curses him for taking her back here, but at least here she has some protection and she still knows the area.
The sound of paws hitting the pavement follows her for more blocks than she can count. Each howl that it releases feels almost like a wolf howl, as if it is drawing the pack. For all she knows it could be, but it is neither a wolf nor a dog so its hunting patterns shouldn't necessarily be the same. She hopes they aren't.
She makes a left, trapping herself in a fenced in alley. She starts to climb the wire fence; some of the wires have been cut and she only narrowly avoids them. She hears rather than sees the hellhound stop in the alleyway; she hauls herself up and drops down on the other side of the fence. Now, face to face with the monster, she realizes it is the same hellhound as before. Its eyes are still a fiery red but now they look less like a dog's and more like a monster's.
When it jumps, it doesn't land over the fence and instead rams itself face first into the fence. She makes her way around dumpsters and overturned trashcans, finding herself in the middle of an empty street. There are no cars or sound except for the hellhound's howling. As she walks backwards, she looks into the empty shops and, like most she has seen, some have broken windows and unhinged doors. But something still feels off about this place. She looks to the sky but finds nothing but a few clouds dotted around the darkening blue. She pulls up her hood as her feet take her to the nearest building – a coffee shop that looks as if it was the first to be ransacked. She slides the partially open door with her foot to step inside, and the first thing she notices is how spotless the place is. Any usable item is gone and entire chairs are missing from tables. As she walks around the tables, she finds that outlets have been attacked for their wires and even the machines have been dismantled for their parts. There is no moldy food in the display cases, and when she checks the back rooms, and even the bathroom, she finds that everything has been striped clean. She exits the building to look at the others and finds them left the same way. All of these buildings are almost skeletons of what they used to be; all that's left to do is let nature tear them down completely.
She ends up in the middle of the street once she checks a few more houses, and she almost forgets about the hellhound before it rams into her body, pining her to the concrete. She twists her body around just as it moves its head down. It gets a mouthful of her backpack instead of her face, but its claws still tear at her arms as she pulls away from the monster. She shrugs the straps of her once-intact backpack onto the ground and grasps the hilt of her knife. While it spits the remains of her backpack out of its mouth, she stabs the hellhound in the eye.
Its howl is harsh enough that she winces as she pulls out the knife and sticks it in the other eye. Before she can pull it out, it knocks her down with its head. Her shoulder hits the ground first, causing pain to jolt through her shoulder, but she manages to stand back up. The hellhound flails around, its paw clawing at the left side of its face where the knife is embedded in its eye. Its right eye is already healing, but the process is slower than it usually is. She doesn't stick around to ponder why.
When she turns to run, she's greeted with a bronze feather that sprouts from her right leg. While the blood stains her jeans, she pulls her shield from behind her back and tries her best to duck behind it. The sound of the Stymphalian birds grows, and she hears them moving around her as the birds try to find an open spot. She turns her body with them despite the pain in her leg. The bone isn't broken, she can determine that much, but she cannot stand up forever.
Then she realizes the hellhound tore apart her bag. She doesn't have any ambrosia left.
She pushes the thought from her mind as the bronze feathers begin to make dents in her shield. Her feet begin to slide; one of the birds sends a volley of arrows that her shield mostly catches, but a few land in her shoulders. The pain seems to curl around her body now, but she continues to stand. Her sword dangles useless at her side and the hellhound continues to paw at the knife but it isn't a real threat anymore. She sucks in a breath and, finding the coffee shop where the door is still open, she breaks into a run that nearly causes her to faint. The feathers bruise her back before falling to the ground and she runs behind the counter, jumping down and leaning against it. Her leg and shoulders throb with pain but the blood seems to have stopped. Still she doesn't pull the feathers out yet. She can't risk losing anymore blood and she doesn't have anything to treat the wounds with.
Her breaths come in gasps. Her head falls against the counter as she runs her fingers through her dark brown hair. The shrieks of the birds begin to die – she imagines they're not coordinated enough to go indoors – so her only threat is the hellhound that grows only more angry with each second. She needs her knife back but she has no way to get it before the hellhound attacks her. She pulls her leg up to her chest and sighs. Her stomach growls and her throat feels unnaturally dry. Everything except her weapons was in her backpack, and her shield is little more than a dented piece of bronze now.
She pushes herself off the floor, stumbling only slightly as she unsheathes her sword. With her other hand she picks her shield from the ground. She steps are slow at first; it takes her a few minutes to finally exit the coffee shop. The hellhound is still howling, the knife looking almost comical from where it is on its face. It notices her but, instead of simply growling, it attacks her. Its paws land on her stomach and her back hits the ground first. Pain explodes in her chest; she imagines she broke more than one rib. It growls, saliva hitting her cheek, and the smell of dog breath invades her nostrils. She stabs upward with her sword but the hellhound bats the sword out of her weakening grip. She grits her teeth, the pain almost too much to handle, as her hand reaches up to pull the knife from the hellhound's eye. The howl of pain is deafening. She thrusts the free blade into its throat, blood spraying onto her clothes and face, and the hellhound's body collapses on top of her. As long as she doesn't move the dagger it won't heal itself.
A sigh escapes her mouth as she uses her remaining strength to push the hellhound's body off of her. As an afterthought, she pulls the bronze feather from her leg and tosses it somewhere on the ground. Her legs wobble as she stands, her sword and shield momentarily forgotten as she looks up at the sky. For once she wishes it would rain. She bends over and picks up her shield and sword, sheathing the sword and keeping the shield out. She blinks a few times; she's finding it harder to keep herself upright.
She starts walking away from the hellhound and away from where the Stymphalian birds came from. The wound on her leg stings and her shoulders aren't much better. It hurts to breathe, but she tries to ignore the pain that attempts to make her stop moving. She has to get away from the hellhound as quickly as she can. She isn't going to risk staying in the same place as it.
She hears footsteps and looks around to see people of various ages running out to meet her. She counts four of them, and all of them hold various types of weapons. Two of them approach her, trying to calm her as she pushes them away with her hands. Her eyes begin to close and she stumbles. One of them catches her.
“She's badly wounded! You three, get her inside! I'll keep watch for any other Stymphalian birds.” Sam pushes away the nearest person, but they murmur something she cannot quite hear. Her lips part to say something before her vision goes black.
Small hands stretch towards the knife, but the child's eyes still look up at the sword in its display case. The metal gleams just for her, and she doesn't have to imagine holding the hilt to know it would fit. Perhaps it would be too big at first, but she would grow into it.
A hand grasps her shoulder, pulling her away from the artifacts. “Samantha, how many times must I say this? Stay with the group!” Her arms fall to her sides as the teacher leads to her to the rest of the class, but her head still turns to gaze at the weapons. The security guard watches the two intently.
The teacher brings Sam to a secluded corner after leaving the chaperones with the rest of the class whose laughter could carry for miles. “Sam, hon, you have to start making friends. I know this was hard for you in the past, but I know you can change. Your parents and I –”
“They aren't my parents,” Sam states plainly. “I don't even look like them.”
“Sam,” the teacher chides. “your parents and I are all worried about you. Please, just make an effort to be more social.” Sam stares at her before her eyes fall to the ground. The floor is too clean. It looks unnatural.
The teacher sighs, leading Sam back to the group where she avoids the other children's eyes as they leer at her. One, a boy, looks at her with a too kind smile; she grips her upper left arm.
* * *
When Sam wakes up, the first thing she remembers is the pain in her chest, and the first thing she notices is the room. The walls are a sickly white and the door is closed. All the furniture has been moved out save for the bed which she lies on and a dresser which is practically glued to the bed. The air smells of pine needles, yet she cannot see any candles, and the sunlight which filters through the windows bathes the room in light. Someone pulled the sheets too tightly around her body and, from what she can feel, the same person put bandages around her wounds. The bronze feathers have been removed from her shoulders and loosely-tied gauze has been put in their place. Her throat feels unnaturally dry, and all she can think about a cool glass of water.
She throws her head back on the pillow, ignoring the pain that swarms in her chest when she breathes, just as the door opens. She sits up despite the protests of the person and her ribs, and looks at him intently. He has curly black hair, hazel eyes, and light brown skin. A faint scar rests upon his cheek. “I didn't think you'd wake up so late,” he murmurs to himself, then straightens up. “Um, hi! I'm Eric, and you really shouldn't be sitting up in your condition.” His smile is crooked and somewhat sheepish, but he lacks the same timidness which Richard had. His clothes have not yet faded in color, and there are only a couple of places where the fabric has frayed.
“Is this your safe haven, then?” she asks as her eyes dart about the room; she relaxes when she sees her sword leaning against the dresser.
“Yeah...” he mumbles. “I'm going to have to change the bandage on your leg, okay?” He winces as he rolls the sheet up to her knee then unties the bandage. His fingers shake and his hands are unnaturally warm. “It's not infected.” he murmurs more to himself than to her, and he ties a fresh piece of gauze over the wound after cleaning it. “How do your ribs feel?”
“The same.” she answers, but keeps her gaze fixated on her sword. The sheath is bloody and coated with grim, as is the hilt; she can't remember the last time she cleaned it. He mumbles something to himself before he looks up at her with a kind of wonder in his eyes.
“Leah told me you fought a hellhound by yourself and you even managed to stun it. She told me about the Stymphalian birds, too, but I saw those myself. Not many people have the nerve to stand up to a hellhound by themselves like that.” She would doubt he'd ever been in a fight before had it not been for the scar on his cheek. “I'll tell my mom to come check on you.” As he slips out of the room, her gaze is drawn back to her sword. Her right hand stretches, begging to grip the hilt so she can leave this place. But leaving would be unwise considering the condition she's in, much to her annoyance.
Every breath reminds her of the fight with the hellhound, and when she closes her eyes she can see the thing's fiery eyes. She can feel the claws tear her flesh and the bronze feathers pierce her body, and for a moment she wonders how she survived.
The sound of the door opening prompts her to look at the woman who steps through. She holds a glass of water and a plate with a measly lettuce sandwich on it, and her blonde hair is tied in a braid. A satchel hangs on her left shoulder. A few wrinkles which do not match her eyes line her face; she frowns as she looks at Sam.
“I'm surprised you made it,” she says as she steps up to Sam's bed and sets the glass and plate on the dresser. “but I shouldn't be. How old are you? Seventeen? Eighteen? You must have grown up during the apocalypse so you would have learned to adjust before anyone else had the chance to.” She presses her palm to Sam's forehead then pulls it away after a few moments. “Your temperature feels normal, but what about your wounds? Any irritation of the skin?”
“No.” Sam replies. After a moment she adds, “You're a demigod, aren't you? Shouldn't you be dead?”
The woman answers, but not with the response Sam was expecting. “Do you know of the Greek gods?” The woman's touch is light as she unwraps the bandages over Sam's shoulders and upper arms, and her work is done swiftly - within a few moments the Sam's wounds are re-bandaged. Sam catches a faint smoky smell on the woman's clothes.
Sam waits before answering and draws her eyes to the broken clock on the wall. She can hear each breath she takes, and she does not allow herself to wince at the pain that builds in her chest. “Somewhat, but I couldn't tell you the names of all of them.”
“At least you've heard of them, and since you know about the existence of demigods you know that they had offspring with humans. Monsters attacked these demigods because of the scent they produced, but certain demigods had weaker scents because of their godly parent. Children of the gods Hades, Zeus, or Poseidon were attacked more often than children of the other gods. Powers also served a role in a demigod's scent. The more powers a demigod had, the more likely they were to be noticed, but the less powers they had the less likely they were to be noticed.
“My father is Apollo, and my only skill is to heal through touch, so my scent is significantly weaker than others.” Her eyes shine yet do not meet Sam's gaze. “Do you have any pain other than your wounds?”
“No.” Then the woman looks at her, her eyes almost seeming to memorize the features in Sam's face before she turns around.
“Get some rest. Even with my ability it will take some time for you to properly heal.” She closes the door softly as she leaves, and Sam is once again left alone. She would prefer it more if she had something to do. Once she finishes the sandwich and empties the glass of water, she closes her eyes and forces sleep to come to her and give her some kind of relief.
She wakes up to rain. It taps on the windows as the wind howls through the trees, and she lets the sound take her mind off the pain for a little bit. Then she hears footsteps. Some are soft, others heavy. Most are hurried but a few are slow. The air still smells like pine needles.
She turns her head to see a glass of water and another sandwich on a tray. She eats, drinks, and lets her head fall back on the pillow. This room is too cramped despite the utter lack of furniture; she wants nothing more than to get up and walk away from this place. She supposes she could if she wanted to. Her wounds do feel slightly better, and her ribs don't hurt as much, yet she knows it would be foolish to leave.
The next several days pass without many happenings. She eats and sleeps for the most part, and Eric's mother comes in to heal her once each day. Sam finds herself able to stand up without causing too much pain in her leg, and her breaths become less laborious. The pain isn't going to completely diminish for some time, she knows, but the pace remains much faster than one without aid.
Sam decides that more than a few people live in this hotel, but she has no idea of the exact number. Counting the different each different pair of feet that walk by her room isn't actually a reliable way to gain information, but until she is able to leave it will have to do. Eric is the only person willing enough to talk to her; she comes to the conclusion that he isn't as afraid of her as his appearance suggests. He brings her books to read although she never bothers looking through them, and he tries to get her to talk about her past. She doesn't, so he instead talks about himself well into the night. She can't say that she dislikes his company since listening to him drone on gives her something to do rather than lie in bed, but she doesn't care for it either.
“I'd always wanted to see other countries before the apocalypse,” he admits. “but that was mostly because my mom and dad went to Europe more than a few times before they had me. I guess that rubbed off on me.” He pulls his legs up to his chest so his entire body is sitting on the chair which he brought into the room. “I still want to travel the world, but that isn't really possible now.” He sighs then looks at her as a hesitant smile grows on his face. “What about you?”
“There's no point in traveling to another country,” she says as she looks up at him. “not even before all this.”
He doesn't turn away from her gaze. “Why not?”
“The people aren't gonna change.” Her gaze falls from his face to the door which Eric left ajar. Someone passes the room, but Sam hears their laughter instead of their body. She tunes his voice out as he continues to talk; she uses the time to count the cracks in the ceiling when she lies back on the bed.
Eventually, he changes the bandages on her wounds and replaces them with clean ones; each time his hands shake and his face contorts. Once the room begins to darken, she asks him a question.
“If you hate seeing open wounds so much, why are you a healer?”
“I...I want to make my powers stronger. I want to be someone who's respected.” His words grow quieter near the end of his explanation. The floor creaks as he stands up. “Um, I guess I'll go.” She doesn't answer him, and before she knows it he's left the room.
Then next day, Sam is moved to another room on the same floor. From the hushed voices of the crowd, the person who's moving into her previous room has wounds which easily surpass hers. She takes in the hallway as if she's come across water after being stranded in a desert for days. The cracks along the ceiling and walls are sealed with some kind of putty, and the people who scurry about range between children to teenagers to adults. Some of them look at her, but their gazes are fleeting. Her limp feels much more obvious among a crowd of uninjured people.
The new room is the same as the other one, so instead of actually staying in it she puts her sword in its sheath around her waist and exits the room. The crowd has begun to disappear; all she can hear are the cries of pain from the injured person and footsteps down the hallway. She starts walking down the hallway when Eric stops her. Or maybe he just decides to join her since he doesn't bother making her go back to her assigned room.
They walk down the stairwell in silence. He walks ahead of her until they reach the bottom and she looks at the lobby in front of her. The space is filled with groups of canned food, toiletries, books, weapons, blankets, and other items. Sitting on the counter and sorting a small group of items is a pretty redheaded girl who doesn't even bother to look up when Sam walks across the room to the spotless revolving door. Outside she sees the deserted street before the giant makeshift gate where a few people are on watch. The sky is a pleasant blue but in the distance dark clouds are gathering.
“Hi, Sarah.” Sam hears behind her and turns her to see Eric plucking a fresh apple from the pile the girl – Sarah – is sorting.
“Hey, Eric. How's babysitting the warrior queen going?”
“She's, um, right here.” Eric says, and Sarah finally looks up at Sam. The girl's curly red hair is tied in a messy bun. She wears a faded yellow sweater with a plaid skirt and black tights; it hurts Sam's eyes just looking at her outfit. It takes a moment for Sam to realize that only one of Sarah's blue eyes are moving when the girl looks up and down at her.
"You're pretty cute." Sarah jumps down from the counter and Sam realizes they're the same height, but while Sam is lithe Sarah is more muscular and curvy. “What's your name?”
“She hasn't told anyone.” Eric says. Sarah raises her eyebrows.
“We aren't gonna rob you and leave you to die. Not everyone is a bandit, you know.” Sarah tells her then goes back to sorting the pile. She tosses some stuff into what looks like a trashcan, but on further inspection Sam realizes it is a pile of machine parts. “The people who're skilled with tools and stuff use those to make fancy weapons.” Sarah informs her.
“She means people like her.” Eric adds then looks around. “Has Leah come back from the sewers yet?”
“Not yet. You know her, she likes to make sure every inch is looked at before she comes back.” Sarah tosses the rest of the stuff in a box next to her and turns around. “You up for some monster hunting, Eric?”
“I can't.” he admits. “I'm supposed to help with the other patients.” Sarah sighs in annoyance but doesn't say anything as she exits the building and runs to the right. Sam watches the sky for a few seconds before she turns around and looks at the rest of the room. Maps have been tacked onto the walls, and when she steps closer she realizes they are filled with descriptions of bandit hideouts, monster territories, and buildings that have been looted.
“We don't actually hunt monsters,” Eric says as he moves next to her. “but we have to when they attack us. Recently the attacks have gotten worse, and the Stymphalian birds which followed you here are only adding to the problem.” He pauses before adding, “Not many people want you here. They're hoping the Stymphalian birds will follow you if you leave.”
“When.” Sam corrects. She raises a finger to trace the nearest pathway towards a three story house that hasn't yet been searched. If she runs the trip will take around thirty minutes if she doesn't count the high possibility of a monster attack.
Eric doesn't comment on her revelation and instead mumbles a hesitant goodbye before he disappears up the steps.
A few hours later, Sarah comes back sporting bruises around her right eye that have already begun to heal and on her right shoulder where the fabric of her sweater tore. She walks into Sam's room with a confident gait, and the grin on her face isn't the strangest thing she has. Around her neck is a leather chord with teeth and talons of different sizes attached. Blood stains her skirt and her white sneakers.
Sam stares at her for a moment longer then sits up. Eric's mother had healed her only a few minutes prior so her pain will be numbed for the next few hours. “Can I come in?” Sarah asks and Sam gives her a short nod. Sarah plops down on the chair across from the bed and kicks her shoes off. “Eric doesn't know what he's missing.” she comments when she turns to look at Sam. “Healing people just doesn't compare to the rush of a battle.” Sam pulls her feet to her chest and raises her eyebrows.
“You do that for fun?”
“You don't? Damn, I guess I had you all wrong. With all your piercings and that--” Sarah gestures to her right temple. “--weird ass haircut I figured you enjoyed it out there.”
“From the way you dressed I thought you'd be terrified of this world.” Sam replies; Sarah's grin only grows.
“Guess we were both wrong, huh. How does my eye look?” She points to the left one – the one which Sam noticed doesn't move. It looks the same as the other one except it doesn't look as if it connected with the ground.
But the rest of her face isn't. Sarah's bottom lip is split, and bloody hand prints are around her neck. Long cuts mark her cheeks, but they have stopped bleeding and are beginning to scab over. “An empousa found me right after I got a hellhound that was nearly through the gate.” She explains, then tilts her head to look at the leather cord. “And these are from the first few years during the apocalypse when the monsters still disintegrated.” She almost sounds proud.
Sarah looks back at Sam with an expression she can't quite read. “Even though you're big on the all 'not sharing' thing, you're going to have to trust us sooner or later. You probably like being by yourself, but going out there feels a lot more safer if you know you have some place to go back to.”
“This place is going to be ransacked sooner or later.”
“Every place is going to be, be it by monsters or people – hell, the Leviathan might even decide to grow legs and come stomping all over the Earth – but at least I have a place to call home before that happens.”
Sam raises her eyebrows. “The Leviathan doesn't exist.”
“Until all of this started I figured hellhound didn't exist either, but now they're attacking me whenever I walk through the gates. If they exist, why can't a giant serpent be swimming around in the world's oceans?”
“If it did, then how the hell did it hide for so long? And why did it decide to appear ten years ago?”
“I'll ask it for you.” Sarah gives her a grin that's unsettling. “Actually, there's word that two demigods are trying to find this thing. They think killing it will set everything back to normal.” Sarah gives a short laugh that's more similar to a cough, and Sam half expects her to double over with a coughing fit. “I can't believe anyone could be that dense.”
“Really.” Sam says sardonically.
“Just because it exists doesn't mean killing it will set everything back to normal.” Sarah pauses, then adds, “It could end up making everything worse.” From the way Sarah says it, she sounds ecstatic, almost as if being in the middle of an apocalypse is the best thing that's ever happened to her.
Sarah stands up suddenly, knocking over the chair with a dull thud, and extends her hand in a mock gesture of politeness. “This isn't why I came up here, though. You're probably sick of being stuck in this building, so I have something to show you.” Sam stares up at her. It's true she wants to leave this place, but she doesn't particularly want to go anywhere with Sarah.
“Don't worry,” Sarah croons, “I'll protect you from the big, bad monsters.” She laughs at Sam's expression, handing her her sword. Sam stands up, taking it, and the two step out of the room. Sarah leads her down the hall and up several flights of stairs before finally stopping at a door at the last flight of stairs. She pushes it open to let light flood in. Sam raises and arm to shield her eyes before stepping outside into the mild air.
The deary sky looks so much closer up on the roof of the hotel, and the buildings seem more broken. She steps up to the edge of the roof, peering down at the wall which surrounds the hotel. Outside the wall, several hellhounds try to pry at the walls but eventually become discouraged so leave. The ocean begins on the west horizon, and the only thing separating Sam from it are buildings and monsters. Her gaze falls back on the world under her, and a Stymphalian bird make a shrill sound as it looks up and sees her, but it makes no attempt to attack her.
“They rarely come on to the roof.” Sarah tells her as she sits down on the edge, her legs dangling off the side. When Sam looks at her, she notices more than half of her wounds are already healed. She doesn't comment; she already has an idea of who healed her. A few raindrops fall on Sam's nose; within a few minutes a light drizzle begins. Neither of them speak for a few minutes, but eventually Sam breaks the silence.
“You're a mortal, aren't you?” It's more of a statement than a question, but Sarah still answers with a yes. “Then why don't you hate this world?” Her eyes fall back to the Stymphalian bird which flies to the wall where someone is guarding. The two scuffle, but the Stymphalian bird is the one which flies away wounded. The figure goes back to their post.
“How could I?” Sarah's voice is strangely morose, and another silence falls between the two. A breeze coaxes the cold air to wrap around them like a cloak. Sam's feet move on their own accord as she looks down at the the ground below. The gate changes to a small building with opaque windows which looks like a greenhouse, and instead of guards there are people who move in and out of the greenhouse with laughter that Sam can hear even up here. The sight is almost pleasant, and it stands out too much among the backdrop of abandoned buildings. It shouldn't be so homely. “It isn't so bad here.” Sarah says a few feet away from her. Sam looks up and meets her gaze but she doesn't respond. It's just masquerading as a sanctuary.
Her eyes fall to an animal which she can't see clearly from up here, but what she can see doesn't make sense to her. It is pacing around the wall, and its pelt seems to be a mixture of orange and white. It keeps pacing for a few more minutes before disappearing into an alley. A hellhound follows after it, but within seconds it races out of the alleyway like it was frightened.
“Why did you bring me up here?” Sam finally asks after the rain stops. She looks on at the people walking in and out of the greenhouse as she waits for Sarah's answer.
“I figured you'd like it up here.” Sarah replies. “Most of the wounded here like to come up to the roof. I think it calms them.”
“Looking at an empty city isn't calming.”
“The fact that the monsters can't touch them up here is.” Sam disagrees with that. For her, there's nothing calming about being above the monsters.
Pain starts back up in her leg, reminding her that she shouldn't be walking around like this. Sam backs away from the edge of the roof, then turns around and walks towards the door. Before she can push it open, Sarah does. The girl leads the way back down the hallway, too, since she has the flashlight, and if she notices Sam lagging behind she doesn't mention it. Once they reach the bottom, Sarah opens the door to see Eric rushing around the hallway with a pile of fresh bandages. He looks at the two curiously, and his gaze settles on Sam just a few seconds too long before he runs to the next room.
“He has a thing for you, by the way.” The news isn't that surprising to Sam.
“Shouldn't he be the one to say something about it instead of you?”
They reach Sam's room and Sarah shrugs. “Probably.” She almost looks guilty, but Sam doubts Sarah would feel guilty for anything. Sam opens the door, but before she can close the door, Sarah says, “Enjoy your solitude.”
Sam doesn't respond, and as soon as Sarah leaves she closes the door. She puts her sword back on the dresser and sits on the bed. She doesn't sleep, and instead she nurses the idea that the monster pacing around the wall is something she shouldn't brush off lightly.
It takes another week and a half for Sam's wounds to heal, and when she finally begins straying from her room she notices the looks people give her. Most of them give her glares, but some – usually the children – give her terrified glances as if the hotel is going to be overrun with monsters at any moment.
She usually finds herself sitting on the wall, teasing her own freedom, and there she can see just how much the Stymphalian birds have affected the people. Nearly everyday she sees someone fighting one of them. From the way the birds act; however, Sam thinks they are simply testing the waters. They rarely come in groups and are often seen alone or with another bird; she wants to leave this place before they eventually act.
Her feet lead her to the east side of the wall where the greenhouse looms over her. It is relatively large, although it still doesn't reach the third floor of the hotel, and she can see clumps of green through the mismatched glass fragments. A man-made stream gurgles to her right and canteens line the sides. Small dots dart around from within the building, and it is only when Sam opens the door that she realizes they're songbirds.
The air is pleasantly warm and the sound of bees fills her hears as they flit around flowers and vines which grow around poles. Tables line the walls, and on them are plants which provide various uses. Some are vegetables, others are herbs, and a few are just wildflowers meant for decoration. An old man with dark skin stands at the back of the room where the most plants are and waters them using a pale blue watering can.Various hues and shades of green bloom within her vision as she takes in everything within the greenhouse. If she closes her eyes, she could imagine the world is no longer is disrepair.
She steps up to the nearest table, one with wildflowers and herbs, and her eyes catch a withering flower that's been pushed to the back. Her fingers brush against one of its leaves, causing color to flood back into the yellowing plant. Its flower turns a pinkish color but, despite the fact she brought the flower away from the brink of death, she frowns.
Her eyes drift from the newly resurrected flower to the herbs including thyme, basil, and countless others. Although their value is limited, they carry more worth than simple wildflowers.
She moves deeper into the greenhouse, her fingers constantly brushing against the plants simply to memorize the feel of them beneath her skin. The entire greenhouse hums with life, both from the plants and the animals living among them, and she cannot deny its surreal beauty.
“It's been a long time since I've seen a child of Demeter.”
Sam stops. Her head turns toward the old man who walks past her and begins watering the countless other plants. “Excuse me?”
“You're a demigod, aren't you?”
Sam frowns. “Demeter isn't my parent.”
The old man sets the watering can down and looks up. His wrinkled face speaks of years she will never reach and his dark eyes tell of memories she will never know. He doesn't frown.
“She is. I've seen enough children of Demeter to know one when I see them. She and Dionysus are completely different, you see, so the differences between their children tend to stick out when you get to be as old as I am.”
She doesn't respond. Even if he's right there's no point in arguing with him. Although she never cared to know who her godly parent was, she cannot deny it fills an ache deep in her bones. Then it creates a new one as she expects.
The old man goes back to watering the plants, his face still expressionless. Sam stares at him a moment longer before she hears something ram into the wall. The sound reverberates through her body, and her hand immediately goes to the hilt of her sword as she runs out of the greenhouse. Screams of varying pitch fill her ears and the unwavering cacophony of the situation causes her legs to move faster towards the direction of the hotel. If everything falls in her favor, she will be able to reach her room without attracting anyone's attention, and once she has everything she can slip away without anyone the wiser.
Just as her hand reaches the hotel's revolving door, someone shouts, “Hey, Warrior Queen, find some backup!” Sam whirls around, seeing Sarah standing precariously on top of the wall for a split second before she jumps onto whatever ran into it. Someone pushes open the door, knocking her out of the way while she's distracted. She regains her balance and darts inside, pushing someone in the process, and her legs bring her up the steps as people rush past her. She opens the door to her room and finds the backpack she had procured for herself.
She imagines the midwest will be nicer than the west coast, although rumors have spread that bandit activity is more prominent there than anywhere else because so many dense populations of demigods and mortals alike are scattered amongst the land. Regardless, she could use a change of scenery.
As she exits her room, she maps the hotel in her mind. There is only one way to leave this place, and doing so will bring her directly in the path of whatever is trying to smash down the wall. She has no choice but to move past and hope the beast doesn't see her.
Her feet just reach the bottom step when she hears a crash and sees a hellhound nearly as tall as the wall standing amongst a pile of wood boards, metal sheets, and other things she cannot identify from the distance. Someone pushes past her, shouting “Don't just stand there!” into her ear before they run outside. She swears. The hellhound will come into the hotel, but even if it doesn't floods of monsters will be attracted by the noise, and now there's nothing to keep them from coming in.
Her grip on the hilt of her sword tightens as she pushes the revolving door and steps outside again. Her eyes catch the sight of the greenhouse before she looks back at the hellhound. Bodies broken and bleeding litter the ground, and only a handle of people are left.
One of them is Sarah who's managed to hang onto the hellhound's side by its fur, but it's ignoring her in favor of crushing the people at its paws. With her right hand, Sarah takes a sword from one of her sheaths and sticks it into the hellhound's side. Sam winces as its howl reverberates within the ground, but its left front paw only raises to swipe the nearest person, sending them falling to the ground in a heap.
Another person begins climbing up the beast's leg, but its mouth closes around them and tosses them into the sky. A third person manages to get a grip while the beast is preoccupied with a fourth person who circles around the hellhound, changing direction every few seconds to keep its attention. For a moment, Sam believes her interference would be unnecessary and begins stepping backwards when the hellhound notices her. It fiery eyes seem to glow, and with no hesitance it barrels towards her.
Sam swears as she sprints to the right then makes a sharp turn to the bodies littering the ground. The metallic tang fills her nostrils and a gleam of something shiny catches her eyes. She bends down and picks up a throwing knife and notices more strapped to the body of a mangled young woman.
The wind picks up as she turns to face the hellhound. The two people hang onto its fur for dear life, steadily climbing up to reach its back, and Sam stands as bait. She grimaces and throws the throwing knife in its direction. Her foot steps back with a sickening crack but she doesn't linger to survey the damage to the body. She sprints to the left, stomps the ground, and a vine breaks through the concrete and wraps around the hellhound's forepaw, bringing it to the ground with a crunch.
As she stares at the hellhound's body, she begins to step back. The vine which once wrapped itself around the hellhound's forepaw begins to retreat to the ground. Pain erupts in her left arm, near her elbow, and she turns to see two Stymphalian birds circling in the air. Sam sighs, rips the bronze feather from her arm, and throws it to the ground.
Sarah sinks a dagger into the hellhound's eye, but just as she jumps off it stands up again with a low growl. The birds fly down to the ground but, instead of attacking Sam or the other two people, they notice the dead bodies and take one by their talons before returning to the sky where they cannot be reached.
Sam's attention goes back to the hellhound. Sarah stares up at it and then she turns toward Sam. “Do that thing with the vines, again!” she shouts.
“I was just about to.” Sam responds with annoyance, but before she can do anything the hellhound leaps at her, knocking her to the ground and trapping her beneath its giant paw. Her sword clatters to the ground a few inches out of her reach. Tears form in both her flesh and her clothes, and she prays nothing in her backpack is harmed.
Blood splatters the ground, and the hellhound's howl pierces through the otherwise quiet area. Pain erupts in Sam's shoulders as the hellhound's claws dig further into her flesh, and she closes her eyes as salvia drips on her face. Its rancid breath invades her nostrils.
A sickening crack fills the air, and the hellhound's weight is pushed off of her gradually, and when she opens her eyes she sees Sarah staring at her. Sarah her attention back to the wrecked wall, and she swears loudly. “Eli, what does the rest of the wall look like?”
Sam stands up, sheathes her sword, and notices the other person who had been hanging from the hellhound. He has short black hair and dark brown skin, and he radiates authority although he doesn't look more than a guard. “Not good. If we don't get it rebuilt we'll have to relocate.”
Sarah frowns. “We have more than one hundred people here, and there's no way the kids can survive this! Do you know where Leah is?”
Eli shakes his head. “She's been gone for three weeks now.”
“If she doesn't show up soon we'll have to leave without her.” Sarah sighs and directs her attention back to the hellhound. A pool of blood is forming around its lifeless body, and Sam finally notices the sword in its heart. Sarah mumbles something Sam misses and walks toward Sam. A grin spreads on her face as if the hellhound didn't just knock down part of the wall, and then –
Sam wonders if this is Sarah's way of coping with everything, and for a moment she wonders what happened to her.
“Your shoulders are both bleeding. So is your arm.” Sarah points out and Sam raises her eyebrows. Sarah's grin doesn't waver. “But if you're able, can you help me with the bodies?” Sam doesn't say anything, but she still finds herself carrying the body of a girl, younger than her, bloodied and green eyes wide open with horror. The girl had a life here, albeit a dreary one. She had a history, and she would have had a future had the hellhound not broke the wall.
Sam cannot find it in herself to care.
She places the girl next to the woman whose body she had accidentally stepped on, and Sarah and Eli both carry a mangled pile of flesh that cannot be identified as human anymore. As Sarah turns to bring another body to the line and allow it to be mourned, Sam stops her.
“My name. It's Sam.” She doesn't know why she says it. But she does.
Sarah manages to smile at her. “Nice to meet you, Sam.”
The entire funeral doesn't even last an hour, but during that time people constantly work to rebuild the wall. It is nothing like what it once was, and it will not stop the monsters from breaking in, but it provides hope to the people of the hotel. Even if it is false hope. Sarah, Eli, and a few others stay on top of the remaining sections of the wall, watching out for monsters. Sam sits on the wall not because she wants to guard, but because the funeral pyre is too cluttered with people she does not know.
The taste of smoke lingers on her tongue as the sun begins to set in the darkening sky. The gauze around her shoulders and arm reminds her she cannot exert herself, but even so she must leave soon if she wants to survive another day.
The muffled sound of weeping surrounds her but she ignores it in favor of watching a small animal scurry across the pavement. Buildings both crumpling and still intact surround everything, and the street is lined with broken down cars. A chill fills the air not completely unrelated to the ongoing funeral, and Sam notices a figure out of the corner of her eye. She turns her head and sees an orange colored pelt, and she stands up abruptly just as someone shouts, “Monster at the wall!”
The monster looks up and its vivid golden eyes scan the wall, and it only takes a few seconds for it to run into the newly constructed gate and destroy it. It howls – but it's more like a roar – and Sam realizes just how small the monster is compared to the hellhound. It's nearly half its size, and it has three heads. One of a lion, one of a goat's that sprouts from its back, and one of a snake that acts as the beast's tail.
Then the lion's mouth opens, and the person closest to it is engulfed in flames.
The screams of the mourners grow in volume as they run into the hotel, but the giant beast leaps over them and blocks their path before the rest of the people can go inside it. The sound of shrieking catches Sam's attention, and she looks up to see a few dozen Stymphalian birds in the air. The sound of crunching gravel directs Sam's attention back to the ground, and she swears when she sees several hellhounds of various sizes approaching the damaged wall.
Sarah and the others move to attack the three-headed beast while Sam drops down on the ground outside the wall. She scans her surroundings, but she already knows that as long as she keeps the hellhound's off her trail she'll be fine.
She slowly walks to the nearest building and opens the door as slowly as possible. She runs up the steps, not unaware of the stench of mold that fills her nostrils, but as soon as she hears muffled voices outside she freezes in her tracks.
She stands still for a few minutes with her ear pressed to the wall. The sound of her rapid heartbeat becomes a constant sound in her ears, so when she strains to hear the voices she cannot make out what they're saying. But she determines that the voices are coming from outside, not from within the building, so she slows her breathing and walks up the steps. She opens the door to the nearest room, ignores the dust covered furniture and animals which run out the door as enters, and moves to stand by the window. She peers outside.
Five people walk towards the hotel. They carry an assortment of weapons and armor on their bodies, but the most noticeable thing is not them but the person who the tallest – most likely the leader – is dragging along. The figure is young, maybe several years younger than her, and they have blond hair that's accumulated enough dirt and dust to look gray.
The person in front holds up a hand and everyone stops. The child stumbles into the leader. “What did the demigod look like?”
The child whimpers. “She was Korean. She was tall and had long dark hair and the right side of her head was shaved.”
Sam's eyes widen. Richard.
“And the rest of the people here?”
“There's maybe fifty. Some of them have to be demigods, but there's this girl with red hair who I know is one.” Richard shrinks back while the woman holding him ponders his words, and then she lets out a laugh.
“Johnson, get the birds. Kagome and I will take care of the Chimera, and the other two can round up the people. Dead or alive, it doesn't matter.” She turns to Richard and smiles at him. “If your information is right and we find the demigod, we'll give you your sister back.”
The bandits begin walking towards the hotel where, as far as Sam knows, the monsters are destroying in order to get to their food, and Sam backs away from the window. With the bandits now looking for her, everything is suddenly much more difficult.
She moves to the drawers of the bedroom and flings them open. Papers are tossed from the drawers and dried out pens clatter to the floor. Sam's right hand touches a pair of scissors and she pulls them out from the recesses of the second drawer, and she moves to clear dust off the mirror above the vanity. A dust-caked face looks back at her with bleak dark eyes and lips that form a tight line. She grabs a fistful of hair and cuts it at her shoulder; the locks fall to the floor and the cut ends up being more uneven than she wanted. She does the same thing with the rest of her hair, and once she's done she takes the piercings out of her nose and ears. She finds a small box on the vanity and carefully places the bits of metal in it and puts the box in her backpack. As an afterthought, she places the scissors in her back pocket.
She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. The bandits won't give up until they find her or until they get tired of lugging a kid with them. Their first target is the hotel, so Sam hopes they'll find enough demigods there to satisfy their greed, but if they don't there's no doubt they'll start checking the nearby buildings.
She opens her eyes and swears as her foot connects with the leg of a chair and it falls to the floor. Richard sold her out for a seven-year-old. She sighs and runs down the steps then exits the front door. She closes it quietly, then she runs north, away from the hotel. She can still hear the screams of terror as she puts more distance between herself and the bandits, and for a few seconds she thinks about those people stuck inside the hotel who are only minutes from death. Dying by a bandit's hand would be much worse than dying by a monster's teeth.
Her eyes spot an an bicycle lying on the sidewalk; without hesitation she checks the tires and gets on. Before moving, she looks behind her and catches a glimpse of the hotel in flames. She turns back to the expanse of concrete ahead of her and begins pedaling with a prayer that the bandits don't catch her.
When Sam wakes up, she can still taste ash on her tongue.
It's been twenty four hours since she last saw the hotel, but she knows she isn't safe yet. She stands up from the couch and throws her backpack over her shoulder then opens the front door. The potted plants placed haphazardly on the porch have long since died, but she can tell when she touches them they used to be tulips. Yellow ones.
The bike rests against the railing at the bottom of the steps. She hasn't seen anyone else since coming to the house, so she assumes they've all gone because of the monsters. If not them, then the fire at the hotel would have repelled them.
She gets on the bike and begins pedaling at a leisurely pace as her eyes scan the area. The area is the picture-perfect idea of a suburban neighborhood, but she knows each house will be empty save for rodents, bugs, and other animals. Still, at the very least she could find supplies. She finds a relatively homely looking place several blocks from where she was staying and hops off the bike. She leans it against the railing.
The building is two stories like the others. The overgrown lawn has imprints from where animals slept, and the windows aren't broken in like many of the other houses. Vines wrap around the railing and stretch over the steps, and they retreat back into the ground with a wave of Sam's hand. She looks around before opening the door and slipping inside the home, and the first thing she sees is a dead rat lying in the middle of the entranceway.
Sam covers her nose with her hand as she walks around the body, and she moves into the living room. Dust coats the furniture, and it is only when she clears the windows that light filters into the room. She finds a cabinet near the wall opposite the television, and kneels next to it. Her fingers trace the knobs, wiping the dust off, and she swings the doors open causing dust particles to fly through the air. Unread books sit in the space, and sighs and closes the doors when she realizes that's all there is.
She checks the next cabinet and finds two spare woolen blankets inside. They're plain in appearance and on top of a few dozen cedar mothballs, so she figures they're durable enough. She unzips her backpack then rearranges the contents so one of the blanket is on the bottom, and she carries the second one under her arm. She stands up, and then she hears movement from outside.
Her body tenses. Her head turns toward the now clear windows, and she can make out a small figure running away from something. She slowly moves closer to the window, and she notices a blood trail is leading whatever is chasing the figure right to them. She moves to the front door and opens it slowly, and once she slips outside she realizes the person has slowed significantly.
Leaving this place would be the smartest thing to do. She can find what else she needs later, and having someone trail behind her would just slow her down.
But having another person with her would deter Richard from her. All he knows is that she doesn't like company, and two people traveling together would be even less familiar in his eyes combined with her altered appearance. So she unsheathes her sword, sets her stuff on the ground, and tells herself she doing this for herself.
The empousa blocks Sam's strike with her own blade, and the yellow-haired woman offers her a grin that's all pointed teeth. “Well, it's been a while since I've feasted on demigod blood.” the monster murmurs, and Sam dodges to the left when the empousa lunges. She eyes the mismatched legs and ducks the monster's blade then moves to the left again. Sam is only dimly aware of the small girl cowering in the background, and she hopes the kid doesn't die on her so this is for nothing.
Sam hooks her foot behind the empousa's donkey leg just as the empousa moves, and the monster falls face-first onto the pavement. Sam drives the sword into the empousa's skull, and then replaces the blade with the scissors in her back pocket. She turns around and stares at the girl who's sitting on the ground. She can't be over ten. Her skin's brown and her hair's black and coily, and the gash in her left leg looks like it was caused by a hellhound.
Sam kneels next to her. The girl whimpers, but moves closer to Sam. “Please, help me.” she manages before she collapses. The girl is light in Sam's arms – too light – and she doesn't hesitate to move into the house she had just left. She clears the nearest couch of dust then sets the girl down and checks her pulse (faint), then feels her forehead (burning). The wound is deep enough that it will require sutures, but the bleeding itself has begun to lessen. She retrieves her stuff from outside and places it on the carpeting next to her, then she tears the fabric away from the wound and digs her water bottle out of her backpack.
She pours a little on the wound to wash the dirt away, then she takes a short drink then stuffs it in her backpack again. She tears a piece of cloth from her t-shirt, dampens it with water, and places the wet cloth on the girl's forehead, and then Sam finally stands up. She moves to the bathroom and finds bugs lining the walls, and when she opens the cabinet underneath cobwebs and empty plastic bottles greet her. She swears and moves to the kitchen, but nothing of use is there, either.
She runs upstairs and goes through each room, and she finally finds a bottle of half empty rubbing alcohol, a needle, and several spools of thread. She runs back downstairs, pours rubbing alcohol on the needle and thread – and in the process her own hands and the girl's wound – and begins closing the wound. Once she's finished, she ties a knot at the end and cuts the remaining thread from the sutures with her dagger, and she tears another piece of cloth from her t-shirt and wraps it around the girl's wound.
It isn't the best treatment the girl could receive, Sam knows, but it's all she can do for now. Sam covers the girl with one of the wool blankets then takes an apple out of her backpack and bites into it. Once she finishes it, she tosses the core outside on the lawn, and she sits down next to the couch while the little girl sleeps. Cold settles around her, but she ignores it in favor of tracing the cracks in the wall with her eyes.
She knows staying here is foolish, but she cannot risk moving until at least the girl's fever breaks. Once it does and the girl's strength starts returning, they can start moving.
~ ~ ~
Sam doesn't know when she fell asleep, but when she wakes up it's morning. Rain taps on the windows and creates a rhythmic sound she could easily fall asleep to, but instead she stands up. She feels something brush against her arm and turns around. The girl's eyes are open, and she looks slightly better than she had yesterday. Sam presses the water bottle to the girl's lips; the girl nearly empties the bottle before she finally pulls it away from her lips. She looks up at Sam and gives her an awestruck expression. “You saved me.”
Something resonates in Sam because of those words. Something which she doesn't dare to decipher, so she swallows the emotions budding up. “What's your name?” she asks.
“Alissa.” the girl mumbles, and already her eyes are beginning to close. She's so young; Sam wonders why a child is running around without anyone. She pushes the thought away and changes the makeshift bandage on Alissa's wound, and then she steps outside after determining the girl's fever is gone.
Raindrops slide off the roof to their final descent to the ground, and the cloudy gray sky promises nothing except more rain in the near future. The houses across the street reek of loneliness and forgotten memories, and she finds that the mere existence of them is insufferable. Her heart beats in time to the seconds she wastes waiting for a child who she does not know to recover from a bite wound she should not care about.
The corners of her lips curve downward.
~ ~ ~
“Why were you alone?”
Dust drifts around the space between breaths as Sam coaxes the green tendrils further away from the comfort of the soil. Overbearing warmth seeps through her shirt and into her skin as the sun's rays scatter looking for something to land on. Alissa sits across from her on the concrete steps. Her eyes widen as the plant grows before her eyes.
“If you keep following me everywhere you're going to bother your wound.” Sam reminds the little girl, although the wound has healed significantly since she first found Alissa. It'll take more than walking to reopen the wound. Her eyes briefly observe the girl's expression for any sign that Alissa heard her.
“I'll be careful.” Alissa murmurs, yet her gaze never trails from the plant. “Are you magic?”
“No.” Sam takes a handful of blueberries from the newly-created bush and drops them in the girl's open hands. She squeals with delight, popping one into her mouth. Sam harvests a handful for herself, and the leftovers she puts in a ziplock bag. As she eats, the bush's leaves wilt and the plant recedes into the ground until all that is left are gaps in the soil.
She looks at Alissa, and the girl finally meets her gaze. “Were you with someone before you were attacked?” Alissa's gaze falls to her feet. Her mud-stained shoes are falling apart and held together with duct tape, and colorful lines are drawn on with different colored Sharpies.
“My mom and my uncle. My dad was with us, too, but then a pair of bandits attacked us. He told us to run, that he would hold them off and meet us later.” Alissa rubs her eyes with her hands. “My mom wouldn't tell me if he's dead or not because I think she was scared to believe it.”
“Where were you last?”
Alissa shifts where she sits. She shrugs. “I don't know, but I could see the ocean.” She hangs her head, and Sam sighs. It isn't much information to go off of, but assuming Alissa and her family were separated recently, her mother and uncle will still be searching for her. The sooner she gets rid of her, the sooner she can be on her way.
“Looks like we're gonna look for your mother and uncle, then.” Sam tells her, and the little girl looks up with wide eyes. A smile starts to grow on her face, and before Sam can go anything Alissa hobbles over to her and hugs her tightly. Sobs shake her body, and Sam stares at her. “Thank you,” Alissa mumbles.
Sam doesn't respond. Instead, she gently pushes Alissa away from her. “Pack up what you have and be out here in five minutes. We'll be going farther northwest.”
Alissa nods, goes inside, and Sam follows. Sam gathers up her water bottle, folds the blankets and stuffs them in her backpack, and pulls on an orange windbreaker. She gathers the spools of thread, needles, flashlight, batteries, and tucks them inside the other pockets in her backpack as her eyes sweep the floor. Alissa would have gotten everything else, then.
Her fingers ghost over the hilt of her sword, and she tenses. The bandits will find her. If not now, they will find her soon, especially now that she's backtracking. She knows she should leave the kid behind – she's done it before so many times, yet this time she can't bring herself to do it.
She frowns, pulls her backpack over her shoulder, and steps outside. Alissa follows her soon after with her own small backpack and a sweater she found tied around her waist. If it weren't for the grim on her face and the bandage around her leg where the pants leg is rolled up, she would look like a normal fourth grader on her way to school.
Sam grabs her bike by the handles, and together they begin walking.
Alissa stops suddenly a few miles into the journey. She tugs on the sleeve of Sam's windbreaker and points to the charred, crumbling remains of the hotel in the distance. “What happened there?” Something cold resonates within Sam, and she tenses.
“We shouldn't be here.” she mutters to herself, yet her legs keep moving. She can still see the swarm of Stymphalian birds raining down on the people as the giant three-headed beast engulfs the few warriors the hotel had in flames. She can taste ash on her tongue, and it makes bile rise in her throat.
She killed them, she supposes, by running away. Like the boy she let be turned to stone. Like Richard, who she left to wallow in his grief for his stolen sister. Sarah and Eric are probably dead. They were probably among the first to die. Sarah was too reckless, too foolish, so she would have died fighting the monsters. Eric would have died healing those whose wounds were too deep to ever heal.
They had a life there.
She killed them. But they would've died there anyway. It was inevitable, like everything else that's happened to them so far. This world only lets the people who earn it survive.
“We need to keep moving.” Sam reminds her. Even when the two start walking again, Alissa doesn't stop looking back at the hotel. Her eyes cloud over as she stares at the ruins.
“Do you think we could have helped them?” she asks once she finally tears her gaze away. Sam doesn't answer. Instead, her pace quickens as she focuses on staring straight ahead. The gray and white clouds gently graze each other across the baby blue sky, yet despite the blessing of a beautiful day she wishes the rain would come to wash the memory of ash from her mind.
Alissa moves closer to her, but instead of reaching up to grab Sam's hand like Sam expects, she just keeps walking. When Sam looks down at her, Alissa looks up and gives her a smile that Sam doesn't return.
Incessant squawking erupts in the distance. Sam freezes. Alissa bumps into her as Sam surveys the area. Nothing except buildings, streets, street lamps, and the occasional car. She knows better than to think it's nothing, but for now there's nothing to immediately worry about. Even so, her paces quickens.
Once the pair reach the nearest shelter – a flower shop with windows that are surprisingly still intact – the squawking erupts again alongside furious indistinct shouts. Something topples over with a crash, and a thousand separate clinks fill the air as more shouts tumble out from the monster's mouth.
Hands groping for the doorknob, Alissa steps backward into the partially ajar door with an oof!. She trips on her way inside, picks herself back up, and scrambles deeper inside the shop. After a few more seconds, Sam follows her.
Dead, withered brown plants pile on top of each other on the dusty tabletops as the disintegrated remains of their leaves scatter at the bases of their pots. Burnt out lights hang like decorative ornaments from the plain white ceiling, and the earthy smells of plants and soil float lazily in the air. The cash register lies broken and opened on the floor, as if the money the person took was a way to free them of their fears.
Sam clears a space with her hand on the nearest table and places her backpack next to the potted plants. Alissa mimics her actions with too much flourish, and she gasps as the dry soil collects as her feet where the pot and plant lie. “Sorry!” she apologizes, but before she can do anything Sam clears the mess away with her foot.
“It's just a dead plant.” Sam tells her. Her fingers brush against one nearest to her. White lily, and the one across from it a pink rose.
“Can you bring them back to life?” Alissa whispers. Her fingers curl around the edges of the table as she leans close to the plants, body poised to spring back as if it'll come to life and attack her. Sam's fingers brush the stem of the white lily, and color spiderwebs back into it from the base of the stem and outward into the leaves. White petals bloom from the sepal and around the stamen, and they curl back as the flower's stem straightens. “Wow,” Alissa murmurs. Her finger brushes one of the petals with tenderness. “that's so cool.”
Sam jerks her hand away from the lily as another shrill shriek fills the air. A large mass comes barreling toward the nearest window directly opposite Alissa, and Alissa's eyes grow wide as her hands move to grip the edge of the table. Sam's body moves before she has time to think, and with a deafening crash the glass window of the flower shop breaks into thousands of tiny fragments. When several seconds pass, Sam opens her eyes to see Alissa staring up at her and her own arms stretched out around Alissa's body. “You're bleeding.” Alissa points to a thin trail of blood running down the side of Sam's neck. Sam wipes it away as she turns to face the carnage.
An unconscious woman with the mottled gray body of a bird lays at Sam's feet, and the jagged shards of glass spread around her like flower petals. Blood stains her torn and faded yellow sundress, and fresh blood oozes from the thousand of cuts on her skin. Feathers dislodge from her left wing as Sam nudges it with her foot, but other than that nothing happens.
Outside the building another harpy hovers. The backs of her wings are a glossy emerald green and the feathers around her throat a deep ruby red. Her eyes latch onto Sam. “There's more?” She furiously zips away, and it isn't until she's only a dark speck on the horizon that Sam and Alissa exit the flower shop.
Several people stand a ways from the flower shop, and once they begin walking Sam notices the familiar auburn hair of the one holding a wooden baseball bat with nails sticking out. Her blue eye widens in recognition, and a smile spreads on her face. “Sam?”
“Sarah.” The word flies from her mouth as she stares at the light haired woman. Her eyes move to the boy standing next to her with tousled curly black hair, then from Eric to the four people she does not recall. Their stances range from relaxed to guarded. Sam ignores them and instead looks back at Sarah when she speaks.
“I thought you might be alive.” Sarah looks to Alissa who stands closely by Sam. Her eyes are wide with amazement, perhaps because she's never seen this many people in one place before. “What's your name?”
“My name's Alissa.”
“Hi, Alissa.” Sarah's eye moves back to Sam. “I thought you would have left the area by now.” she says more to herself than to Sam, and as her eye moves back to Alissa a look of understanding passes over her face. “You should come with us. We have some extra clothes for the both of you, and we ought to stick together now that the bandits are more active.”
Sam hesitates. The four strangers eye her with suspicion, and her knee-jerk response will always be refusal, yet she knows what Sarah says is true. She looks at Alissa and notices the sweat beads on her forehead, and while Alissa might have been acting fine before now she's sways in place. Sam places her hand on the girl's shoulder to steady her, and when Alissa looks up she gives Sam a grateful smile. “Fine. But before we go any further we need somewhere to rest.”
“I know a place.” one of the strangers pipes up, although their green eyes study Sam cautiously. “I could show it to you.” They look at Sarah before taking the lead, and it's only until after Sam begins walking that she feels something grow deep in her gut.
“Why are you traveling with Alissa?” Sarah asks as her pace slows to match Sam's. Alissa softly snores from where she hangs on Sarah's back, and it's more than a simple relief to know the girl's latched onto someone else. “I thought you were the type of person to ignore people in need.”
“I don't know.” Sam says. She pauses. “How many people were killed at the hotel?”
“Most of them. This was all Eric and I could rescue.” Sarah frowns. “Eric swears he saw his mother escaping the building just before it collapsed so he won't stop talking about needing to find her. I wish I could do something to help him, but we never even saw her body so I don't even know if she's dead or not.”
“He'll eat himself up thinking like that.” Sam mutters.
“But he can't be faulted for it. It happens to all of us.” Sarah sighs as her foot kicks away a rock in her path. It clatters over to the other side of the street and stops where the sidewalk begins. The sounds of quiet chatter from the others fills the silence between her and Sarah, and she finds the sound a welcome relief from wherever her thoughts may take her.
As the shapes of buildings fall in and out of Sam's line of sight, she begins to doubt the people are leading them anywhere at all. She rubs at her eyes constantly as the hum of insects grows in volume with the gradual disappearance of the buildings. Then, finally, someone in the front stops with a confident “We're here!”
Someone lets out a disgruntled “finally” as they open the door of a small, two story house and slip inside. Sam goes in last after a final look at the trees in the front yard and the overgrown weeds spilling on the sidewalks.
A glowing lantern hanging above her head greets her once she shuts the door. Several more are placed on tables and hanging on different ceilings to slightly illuminate the path and the rest of the house. A mattress has been moved from a bedroom into the living room, and blankets and sheets are folded neatly on top of it with a few mothballs on each pile. The couch has been pushed to the wall nearest to the boarded window, and a map and a backpack are on the only table.
Sarah gently sets Alissa on the couch and covers her with one of the blankets before walking to the kitchen where the others are. Sam instead walks up the stairs to find the rest of the house has been thoroughly cleaned, and there's even a hint of candles. She finds a bedroom with a mattress and promptly sets her things on the floor after locking the room and falls asleep.
When Sam wakes up, no light comes in through the window. She rolls out of the bed and, from the way the sky barely looks any lighter than when she first fell asleep, decides it must be barely past midnight. She pulls on her boots then opens the bedroom door and slips into the hallway. The soft glow of the lanterns casts an eerie impression on the stairs leading down to the first floor, and as she walks toward the kitchen she sees Alissa still sleeping on the couch with a smile on her face.
She pushes the canvas covering the opening of the kitchen away with her hand as she steps inside, yet she isn't surprised to know she's not the only one awake. Sarah's tinkering with a disassembled remote at the table, screwdriver in hand. Her tongue peeks out from the side of her mouth, and her brows are furrowed with either concentration, frustration, or both. Eric sleeps in the chair next to her with his head buried in his arms.
When Sam sits down at the table, Sarah looks up. The dark circles under her eyes make her look older than she is, and bloody bandages are wrapped around her knuckles. “What monster attacked?” Sam asks.
“None,” Sarah admits. “I was bored.” She goes back to putting back the remote, although her hands don't move as much. A cherry tomato plant sprouts from the pot of yellowing flowers as Sam's fingers skim the top of the soil. She takes a tomato and pops it into her mouth.
“Why do you throw away your life like that?” Sam asks.
Sarah looks up, eyebrows raised. Her eye falls to the tomato plant, and she reaches out and takes one yet doesn't eat it. Her thumb presses into the skin, and with her nail she pushes into the skin hard enough to stimulate resistance but light enough so to not break the skin. “It gives me something to do.” she says with a shrug.
“I got into a lot of fights when I was a kid, so I knew the principal's office like the back of my hand. I was there when this all happened. I escaped to my house right before the monsters flooded the streets, and I saw a snake-haired woman instead of my parents so I took my baby sister Lilian and ran. We were taken in by a group of survivors a few days later, then the plagues happened a couple years later and those who hadn't been killed by the monsters died, so it was just me and my sister. She was four, and I was twelve, and I thought I was invincible because nothing had killed me yet. I was living in a dream with monsters, except I didn't really realize that the people who died actually stayed dead.
“My sister and I were walking through the alley one day. I was so hungry I would've eaten monster meat. I don't know what happened, but she started bawling and suddenly five harpies flew down toward us. They attacked her first. I should have done something, but I was too weak to even try to fight back. I crawled through a hole in the fence, and when I got to the other side I couldn't help but watch. They ripped out her throat first, so I never even heard her screams as they ate her.”
Sarah sets the tomato down and swallows. “I was an idiot. I should have saved her, but I was too weak to do it. I just let it happen.” She looks at Eric who's still sleeping, and a forced smile spreads on her face. “He and his parents found me a couple months after that. I would have died out there if it wasn't for them.”
The cherry tomato plant withers and falls over the side of the pot. The leaves scatter around the pot, and the faint smell of something decaying fills the air. The blood on Sarah's bandages suddenly looks much darker now, and if Sam concentrates she can see a bruise around the shell of her left ear and a pale line of skin across the bridge of her nose. Sam wonders if her own skin is splattered with bruises and scars, and she wonders how often her own stories would overlap with Sarah's.
“Did you have siblings?” Sarah asks as her fingers play with the remote screws.
“Died the first couple days.” Sam says, although she never considered them her parents before they died. Her lips part, but before she has the chance to say anything else a rush of jumbled speech and feet running on concrete interrupt her. Sarah looks at the window in the kitchen – boarded up – as her body tenses.
“Bandits.” She turns her attention from the window back to Eric, then to Sam. The conversation outside grows louder, then the sound of breaks through the window as something falls to the ground. “You know, I heard they take the demigods to the members of the Leviathan cult. I hear there's members everywhere, just waiting to snag another demigod. You know what they do when they get one?” Sarah asks as she pushes the dismantled remote and screwdriver away; Sam's faintly aware that Sarah's hands are shaking.
“I heard they eat them. It's sick.” The sound of laughter fades away, replaced by the sound of something heavy dragging across concrete. A lump forms in Sam's throat as the sound fades away, slowly, and she hopes she only imagines the scent of fresh blood hanging, stagnant, in the stuffy air.
Something soft brushes against her leg. An orange tabby cat jumps on the table, curling up in the center of the table and promptly falling asleep. The normalcy of all of this reminds Sam of the world that used to be, and a pang resonates in her chest when she thinks of it. It's not like she misses her old life, but it's preferable to the one she lives now, if it could be called a life at all. She doesn't notice Sarah looking at her until she looks up. Sarah's eye drops down to the edge of the table. “Are you okay?”
Sam's eyes widen and her lips part, yet when she regains her composure she cannot find the words in her mouth. She swallows. Her eyes dart to the wall where shadows dance around with the flickering light of the lantern. “I'm fine. What does it matter?”
“You look different.”
Sam's eyes flicker back to Sarah, whose red curls clump together, falling down her face and brushing against her cheeks. “So do you.” she mutters.
“Watching people burn to death does that to you.” Sarah forces a bubble of laughter past her lips at her own words as her eye darkens. “Before you leave you should see the hotel. It might help.” The chair scratches along the floor as Sam pushes it away from the table. The cat's ears perk up although it doesn't move. Sarah gives Sam a small smile. “You should get some sleep.” she says, but they both know she won't.
Even so, she goes back up to the bedroom with the thought of leaving. It isn't as if she has to pack up anything, and it isn't as if she's needed here in the first place. Alissa would be safe here. She could find her mother and uncle, and they could be a family again. Sam will only get herself killed if she stays here with the bandits lurking everywhere, and yet –
When the sun finally rises in the sky, Sam greets it warily from her perch on the windowsill. The stars, while lacking in luster when compared to the sun, gave something for her to count as doubts piled themselves in the gaps in her mind.
She stands up from the windowsill, gathers her things, and frowns before leaving the room. The others sleep still, although the person with green eyes begins to stir as Sam walks past them. Sam pays them no mind; when she enters the kitchen Sarah and Eric are both awake, talking in hushed voices. Eric's eyes shift to her when he hears her enter, yet nothing flickers in them except for something unkind. He nods, yet his lips do not part for him to speak, so she looks away from him.
“We need to leave.” she says sharply. Sarah nods, whispering something to Eric that Sam cannot hear before she looks over Sam's shoulder.
Sam turns her head. The person with green eyes regards her coolly before their attention turns to Sarah. “The closest compound near here is in San Francisco. It'll take several days, but we have no other choice but to go there until we can find another place like the hotel.”
“You won't.” Sam comments. Nadia turns their head and narrows their eyes, but Sam doesn't elaborate.
Nadia continues, “There we can restock our supplies,” they look at Eric directly when they add, “and your mother might be there, too.” Eric's eyes widen, and hope washes over his face which makes Sam frown slightly, but she doesn't say anything.
“So, San Francisco then?” Sarah asks aloud as if anyone would oppose it. She stands up and leaves the kitchen without another word, and the silence left behind grates on Sam's patience. Nadia looks at her with their lip curled before following Sarah out of the kitchen.
The group departs once everyone wakes up, and in the light of day Sam cannot ignore the trail of blood left by the bandits only a few hours prior. Her blood runs cold, and she swears she can taste something foul on her tongue once she tears her gaze away from the bloodstains.
Alissa walks close behind Sam while Nadia and Sarah lead them. Their pace remains constant as they trek between forgotten buildings ruined by time, and they finally stop at a highway near afternoon. Most cars line up behind each other in a permanent traffic jam while others have already been moved to create temporary shelters for the travelers who stop to rest. Sam rummages through her backpack for her water bottle and doesn't move her eyes from the horizon as she drinks. She puts the water bottle back between the spare pair of jeans and jacket Sarah had given her and looks down when she feels someone tug at her sleeve.
Alissa looks up at her, hope swimming in her eyes. “Do you think my mom and uncle will be at San Francisco?” she asks.
“Maybe.” Sam murmurs and Alissa smiles. The girl skips over to Sarah and Nadia where they talk on the hood of a Beetle; Nadia looks down at Alissa and gives her a genuine smile before looking at Sam and scowling. Their attention turns back to Sarah, so Sam looks away. Eric sits with the others, smiling feebly at something a boy with glasses and dark skin says. She walks outside the ring and watches the horizon while she rests on the hood of a truck. The wind picks up around her, fluffing up her hair, as she spots something moving towards them on the horizon. For a few moments, they remain just another speck on the land until an outline of their body appears. When they're close enough that Sam recognizes it as a hellhound larger than the building they had stayed in, she's too caught up in the rush of emotions to realize it's being chased by something much larger.
She stands abruptly, causing all attention to move on her as she draws her sword. But as the hellhound approaches, she notices its gait is not one of a hunter, but one of a terrified animal being chased by a predator. She pauses, then –
“Oh my God.” Sarah breathes. A gigantic serpentine creature barrels toward the hellhound at a terrifying speed, yet the hellhound still remains in front of it by a few yards. Muscles ripple beneath its tan scales, and its limbs all end in claws the size of a Sam herself. Its tail drags behind it and tosses cars to the side as if they weight only a few pounds, and its claws dig chunks of concrete as it chases the hellhound.
Sam grabs Alissa's arm and takes off to the nearest side of the highway. The others' hurried footsteps are close behind, and once Sam reaches the side of the highway she flattens herself in the overgrown grass, panting. She closes her eyes and swallows as the others do the same nearby, but that doesn't block out the sound of something huge skidding into a car with a gut-wrenching howl. A few moments later the sound of flesh being torn from the bone is heard over and over.
No one moves or speaks for what seems like hours until long after the gigantic beast eventually moves on to find another monster to kill. Sam stands up from the bushes, brushing the leaves out of her hair and off her clothes, and she finds herself staring at the carcass of the hellhound. She expects the hellhound to reform from the carcass like some kind of phoenix, so she hides her surprise when nothing happens for minutes. She imagined the monsters could never be killed, yet it seems there's a way after all.
Finally, Nadia speaks. “What was that?”
“I think it was a drakon.” Eric responds slowly. “My...my mother told me about them, but she said they were incredibly rare so it was unlikely I'd ever see one.” Before he can stay anything else Sarah walks over to the carcass and inspects it by nudging it with her foot, then with her baseball bat. When nothing happens, she motions the others to come forward. Sam tightens her grip on her sword as she steps forward and doesn't relax even though she knows the drakon isn't coming back.
“Let's keep moving.” Nadia says and they begin walking. The others follow them, and once again the group makes the trek to San Francisco in the hopes that a compound will await them.
The group doesn't stop until the moon rises in the sky and another stretch of suburbs appears before them. They split up to search for a house in decent condition; the boy with the glasses finally finds one with a garden and lawn so overgrown with weeds that the pathway to the front door is barely visible.
Dark green drapes cover the windows purposefully, and Sam gets the distinct feeling that someone else has already claimed the house right before someone opens the door from the inside. A Filipino boy with black hair tied into a ponytail stares at them while raising a hand holding a pistol. He looks at Nadia who is the closest, and the corners of his mouth dip in a frown. “Get away from our house.” He starts closing the door, but Nadia stops it with their foot.
“Wait, we have a kid with us who needs to rest, and this is the only decent house around here. Let us stay a night at least.” Their voice causes Sam to narrow her eyes, yet she doesn't stay anything as the two stare at each other.
Finally, the boy shouts, “Daniel, can you come out here?” A few moments later, a Latino boy the same age as the boy standing in the doorway appears. He looks at the group with wary eyes before murmuring something to the other boy. The other boy sighs, then reluctantly nods in agreement before opening the door completely. “You can stay the night, but by the time the sun rises you're gone.” Nadia nods and leads the group inside. They pile themselves into the lobby, waiting for some kind of instruction. The other boy murmurs something to Daniel, kisses his cheek, and disappears further into the house.
Daniel points upstairs. “There are two spare bedroom upstairs and a couple other rooms that have been cleaned out that you can also use. There's blankets in the closets and towels in the working bathroom downstairs, but you're going to have to take care of yourself with anything else. There's a trading outpost a few miles down the nearest highway that has supplies every Monday, but get there at first light before anyone else if you want anything good. If you need anything for the kid Aaron might be able to help.” He gives them a brief smile before disappearing after his boyfriend, and Nadia leads everyone up the stairs.
Sam takes the nearest bedroom, and Alissa follows her. Alissa immediately sits on the floor before Sam can stop her, and Sam finds herself startled at the girl's selflessness. “Alissa, you take the bed.” Sam tells her, and once the kid buries herself under the covers she falls asleep instantly. Sam smiles at her before disappearing into the hallway after everyone else has come back from the bathroom. The stairs creak from beneath her as she walks and supplements the low conversation Daniel and Aaron share in the living room. She slips into the bathroom and locks the door.
The room reeks of cleanliness, and she can't help herself from turning on the faucet and immediately splashing water onto her face. Dried blood and dirt that once caked the skin slide away with the water and swirl down the drain as she scrubs her face, her arms, her hair. Once she's finally finished, she dries herself with a towel and stares at her reflection in the mirror. Small, faint freckles dot the skin of her face, and a small mole situates itself in the space where her neck and jaw meet. Her hair has grown slightly longer since she first cut it, and while it's still uneven the strands are beginning to even out. A scar she doesn't remember having runs an inch down her right cheek. Dark circles that no amount of sleep will fix hang under her eyes.
If there had been any constant to her before it's long since disappeared by now. Since she was a kid, she swore she wouldn't let anything get to her, but she was a hypocrite and a liar back then and that hasn't changed now. She does what she does and she tells herself that will never change, and yet..
When Alissa looks at her, what kind of person does the kid think she sees.
When Sarah and Eric see her, what kind of person do they mistake her for.
With her back leaning against the door, Sam exhales her sleepless thoughts through her nose as she listens to the uneven intervals of creaks in the floorboards. Her fingers drag against the carpeting before she springs up and opens the door. Silence greets her as she slips into the hallway, and she frowns as her head inclines slightly in the direction of the person whose outline looks too docile even amidst the shadows the hallway provides. “What are you doing?” she demands, then she realizes too late that he and his partner have good reason to be wary of them, who appear bloody and dirtied at their front door begging for shelter.
Aaron sighs; his back thuds against the wall as he steps into it, and he slinks down to the floor as he mutters a halfhearted “nothing.”
Sam narrows her eyes, but before she leaves he adds: “We heard about a hotel several miles from here that hundreds of people were living in. Did you come from there?”
Sam hesitates. “Yes.”
“What happened to it?”
“It burnt up.” Her eyes focus on the wall behind his head as the word falls from her mouth, yet before she leaves she asks, with some gruffness: “Why are you here? You could be anywhere else a thousand times more safer than this.”
Aaron doesn't say anything for a few moments. “My grandpa lived in this house, and when he died a couple years after all this happened it felt like I had to say here. He loved this place so he wouldn't have wanted it to fall into disrepair.”
Just as Sam opens her mouth to respond, her body tenses. She backs herself into the wall as Aaron stares at her, perplexed. “Something's wro-” she starts before a crash breaks the silence of the night. Voices both familiar and unfamiliar rip through the calm, and as Sam's mind works to remember these people her eyes widen and her heartbeat quickens. The hallway still stretches far away from the stairs, so they at least have time before the bandits come up.
Or, they don't because it's more than likely the bandits will split up. Sam swears softly. “I shouldn't have come here.”
“You? What are you talking about?” Sam doesn't answer and instead opts for grabbing her stuff out of the bedroom. Alissa watches her with bleary eyes.
“What's happening?” Alissa asks, but if she was expecting a response she's strongly misjudged Sam's character. Once Sam reenters the hallway with Alissa in tow, she focuses her attention on Aaron whose eyes widen when he looks at her.
Before either of them can say anything, someone shouts with glee, “I've got someone! Doesn't look like a demigod, though.” Aaron's face pales; his body shifts but before he can go anywhere Sam grabs a fistful of his shirt.
“Do you want to get yourself killed?”
“They've got Daniel!”
Sam sighs. “If he's not a demigod they won't do anything to him. Probably.” Confident he won't run off, she lets go of his shirt just as a silhouette appears at the end of the hallway where the stairs are. Sam steps back, her eyes widen, yet she stays frozen in place as the bandit shouts out: “There's more people up here!” The figure runs towards them, and finally Sam bolts down the hallway with Alissa in tow. Daniel follows close behind as the others spill into the hallway.
Nadia shouts something Sam pays no mind; she eyes a room with the door ajar and runs inside. Alissa skids to a stop at her heels, and to her surprise Nadia shows up as well. They close and lock the door, then they push a desk against it. “We're going to have to climb out the windows.” they say, their eyes fixated on Sam as if asking her to protest. “But once we do escape we can't run away from them or else we'll be in the same situation.”
“If we face then head on we'll all be slaughtered!” Sam points out, fear steadily slipping into her voice. Nadia narrows their eyes and shakes their head.
“No, we won't. They only go for demigods when there's one in the vicinity, right?” Any other person might have expected a twisted smile to appear on Nadia's face, but they only grimace at the what they are suggesting. “I have to protect them.”
Sam's arms fall slack at her sides, yet despite the growing fear in her gut she doesn't immediately say anything in return. She would do the same in an instant to protect herself just as Nadia does to protect their own group.
What a difference between she and them.
Alissa's gaze shifts between the two, not completely understanding the sudden rise of animosity between them yet knowing enough not to ask what happened. Sam narrows her eyes at Nadia, whose grimace doesn't change, when the doorknob rattles. Sam's head snaps to the windows as she mutters something under her breath, and she doesn't hesitate in climbing out the window.
Once her feet connect with the ground, she feels a presence a few feet behind her. Fear beads at the pit of her stomach, sprouting into ivy that wraps itself around her lungs, making it harder to breathe. She swallows, as if the action might disappear her trepidation, and she realizes, briefly, that she's never been this terrified in her entire life.
Reluctantly, she turns around. A well-lit lantern catches her attention first before she notices the wielder – a tall, pale skinned woman with braided dark blonde hair. Her clothes look brand new aside from dirt caked into the shoes, and she looks healthier and brighter than anyone else Sam has encountered so far. Someone tries to shrivel behind her, but the woman roughly grabs them by the arm and forces them into Sam's line of sight. “Is this the demigod?”
Richard doesn't answer for a few minutes, causing the bandit to click her tongue impatiently. Finally, he mumbles a hurried “yes” under his breath that Sam wouldn't have caught if she wasn't straining herself to hear them. Behind her someone jumps to the ground.
A toothy grin spreads on the bandit's face as two other bandits appear on either side of her, and another chill washes over Sam as she eyes the knives strapped to the bandit's belt. The other two bandits spread out so that they form the semblance of a semicircle around Sam, Alissa, and Nadia. “Now we just need the redhead and we're done here.” The blonde bandit nods to Nadia from where they stands behind Sam as if the two are simply doing business, but at the mention of the Sarah the temperature suddenly drops several degrees. Nadia steps forward with a protest on their lips.
“No! No, what did you do?” Nadia unsheathes a dagger as they approach Sam, but she moves her foot so a vine erupts from the ground and wraps itself around Nadia's ankle, making them fall to the ground. Nadia glares up at Sam who mimics the expression.
“They already knew about her.” The vine's grip loosens as Sam's anger fizzles into dread, and as the vine disappears back into the soil someone from above cries out, “Nadia!” Sam looks up to see the boy with glasses and Aaron being pushed in front of another bandit.
The blonde bandit's grin spreads. “Chlorokinesis... That'll give us a nice reward. Too many minor demigods out there who aren't worth anything.”
Two other pairs of feet drop down to the ground a few yards away; in the dim light cast by the lanterns Sam makes out Sarah and Eric who stand outside the bandit's semicircle. “Nadia!” Sarah yells as she brandishes her baseball bat, and Sam feels the misplaced excitement radiating off the her.
The blonde bandit turns around to face her, and her grin grows at the sight of Sarah's hair. “That's the one?” she asks Richard who nods. A knife sprouts in the space between Sarah's neck and shoulder, and when the baseball bat falls to the ground, several things happen at once.
Alissa, the youngest and the likely the most terrified out of all of them save for Eric, shrinks back against the house as if making herself smaller will protect her. Nadia rushes the bandit nearest to them, resulting in a gash against their leg and a dagger embedded in the bandit's neck. The other bandit who appeared tries to attack Sam from behind, but she unsheathes her sword and blocks their machete. Sarah pulls the knife from her body and throws it at the blonde bandit, but instead of embedding itself into her skin the knife falls to the ground after hitting armor underneath the bandit's clothes.
Someone shouts from above; Sam can't risk seeing their face but from the gist of their words she assumes they are the bandit in the window. Likely two, as another voice joins them. Pain radiates from a circular point on her right shoulder, and the hesitation is enough for the bandit she'd be fighting to force the sword from her hand and pin her to the ground. Pain from the bullet wound clouds her head, and combined with the tip of the machete digging into her neck something inside her to snaps.
A thick mass of green erupts from the ground, spiraling out and separating to create multiple ropes of made of stems, fungi, and flowers varying in reds, oranges, blues, and yellows. Something akin to cactus needles grow from goosebump-like mounds in the green, and as the ropes extend upward from the ground they pierce through the bandit's arms, torso, and abdomen and curl around their body. Flowers still bud and bloom even as the bandit's eyes go glassy, and the scent of honeysuckle fills the air, mingling with the metallic tang of blood that splatters in Sam's mouth and on her clothes.
Pushing herself away from the body, she stands as nausea overtakes her. Her eyes threaten to slip closed, and she sways on her feet only to be steadied when Alissa takes her hand in an iron grip. Something wet drips from her nose, and when she wipes it away she sees blood on her hand.
“Eric!” Sarah's scream practically rips through the atmosphere; Sam turns her head just in time to see Eric's body fall to the ground with two arrows embedded deep into his upper torso. The blonde bandit looks up at the other two in the windows with a reprimanding look you might give a child who's misbehaving, yet she doesn't say anything as Sam feels herself fall to the ground. Alissa tries to catch her, but Sam pushes her away with the strength she has left a she looks at Nadia opening as they yell something to Sarah. They pull Alissa away; Sam's gaze wanders to the windows where she sees the outlines of the others from Nadia's group, two bandits and a crossbow in the arms of a man with a shaved head, and before her vision goes black she sees the butt of the bandit's sword connect with the back of Sarah's head.
Blurry lights dance around Sam's vision when her eyes finally open. Blues mix with whites, and the yellows of sun ray's streak between them as the images in front of her become sharper and clearer. The first thing she notices is how her hands are tied behind her back and her ankles are tied together. Sarah sits across from her with a faraway look in her eye as she stares off into the distance. Blood stains her clothes and her hair is matted; Sam imagines she looks much the same way.
The supermarket they've been left in has been picked clean of everything with several shelves - which Sam and Sarah are tied to - pushed together to create a kind of barrier which protects them from outside forces.
The bandit with a shaved head sits across from them with a paperback copy of a book in his hands. He looks up from the text and frowns. “Tell your friend to stop staring like that. It's weird.” The lack of malice in his voice makes Sam's eyebrows rise, and her lip curls at his words.
“You murdered her friend in front of her, what did you expect?” The words rush out of her, but she finds that she doesn't regret them as the bandit's frown settles into a scowl.
“The kid was in our way.” he says as if that settles it. His attention goes back to his novel, and for a fleeting moment Sam thinks this would be a perfect opportunity to do what she did before. No one else is here, and with the bandit distracted she could easily surprise him with her powers.
Yet when she moves her mind goes fuzzy; if she were to do anything that would sap her energy that much she might kill herself due to overexertion. And, glancing at Sarah, she knows the she would be little help in her state. Not that Sam can blame her, yet it only lessens their chances of getting out of here. For now she can wait and regain her energy, then she will do something to save them.
The next time Sam wakes up it's the afternoon, and she and Sarah are tied up in the back of a pickup truck. Cardboard boxes push lazily to the side give them space enough for one person sitting upright, but with Sam and Sarah both lying tied up it doesn't do anything for their comfort. The bandit with the shaved head sits on one of the cardboard boxes, but from the snores he produces he's been sleeping for some time.
With her right foot, Sam prods Sarah's sleeping form but there's so response. Sam awake enough that she could pull off something, but with Sarah sleeping and without any direct contact with the ground she's basically useless. The thought makes her scowl up at the clouds.
She doesn't want to die. She's always had that thought in her, yet she never actively thought about dying until now because she's never been this hopeless. As the truck moves passed crumbling buildings, all she can do is hope her death is painless. It's too much to hope that someone would see the bandits and risk their own life for two young adults they barely know about.
As she fidgets to make herself somewhat comfortable, she feels something sharp against her wrist. Her eyes widen. She shifts her arms so that the object presses against the ropes tying her wrists together, and slowly she begins cutting the fibers.
Her gaze on the bald bandit never wavers even after the rope severs. She flexes her hands, getting a feel for what's underneath her, when the truck stops. She shuts her eyes and forces herself to relax as one of the doors opens and someone steps out.
There's a slapping sound then aggravated huff. “Johnson, if you're going to sleep I'd be happy to leave you out here without any supplies.” Someone pokes Sam's leg, then grumbles something other their breath before walking away from the truck. Suddenly the truck moves, and someone's landing on the ground.
Sam opens her eyes to see Sarah staring back at her. While her eye still takes on a distant appearance, something else also clouds them. Figuring it's now or never when she notices the necklace of fangs around Sarah's neck, Sam motions Sarah to slowly turn around with her now-free hands. Sarah complies, and with the piece of scrap metal Sam unties the rope around her wrists, then severs the rope around both of their ankles.
Sam watches Sarah as she unties the necklace and holds it in the palm of her hand. She looks out of place without it, and the absence makes Sam stare at the hollow of her throat just a few seconds too long.
Sam tears her gaze away and quietly jumps to the other side of the truck. When her feet meet the pavement, she crouches down so that she can see two bandits arguing. When Sarah jumps down next to her, Sam tightens her grip on the scrap metal, shifts her body, and jumps up in the passenger seat where the fourth bandit waits. She grabs their head through the open window, smashes them against the door, and drags the metal's sharp end against their throat.
The thud of the bandit's head against the dashboard whips the blonde bandit's head around; San barely has enough time to duck before a throw knife thuds embeds itself in the truck door. Her eyes meet Sarah's, and she nods before bolting away. Sam goes the opposite direction, and once she has the blonde bandit's gaze she shifts her right foot and the pavement splits open.
Sam was vaguely aware of what the consequences in doing this would be. As her own energy level sharply decreases, the thick mesh of vines wraps itself around the bandit's throat, forcing her down on the ground. With the strength she has left, Sam pushes herself where the blonde bandit struggles against the mesh of green, and without hesitating she drives the metal through the bandit's heart.
With the blonde bandit dead, Sam focuses enough of her attention on Sarah to see her stabbing the bald bandit in the jugular with a harpy fang. His body falls to the ground.
For a few moments nothing happens. Sam falls to the ground, chest heaving as she gasps for air. She wipes the sweat from her forehead with her palm; when she pulls away fresh blood is left in its place. As she turns her head, she finally notices onslaught of tears rolling from Sarah's eye, her mouth ajar in a silent scream as she pounds her fists against the bandit's unmoving chest.
Sam is so caught up she almost doesn't notice the nosebleed she's sporting is much worse than the last one. The collar of her jacket staunching the flow is soon sticky with her own blood. She forces herself into a sitting position as she catches her breath, yet dizziness still threatens to overtake her. Closing her eyes, she lets her thoughts wander.
San Francisco should be their priority. As far as Sam knows, it's the only compound in the area, and just the thought of fresh food and a bed to permanent bed to sleep in makes her want to start running in that direction. It'll give her time to get back on her feet before she sets off again.
She imagines Nadia will still take Alissa and the others there. It would only make sense for them to focus on what lies ahead than the ones left behind.
When Sam opens her eyes, Sarah's stopped pounding her fists into the bandit's body and instead has resorted to looting the bodies among them. Daggers are strewn in a pile among a crossbow, and a few pistols. She tears the elegant jackets from their bodies and tosses them into the back of the truck, and although the work keeps her busy there's still something clouding her eyes.
When Sarah notices her she tosses her a water bottle. “You look half dead.” Sarah comments, yet her voice sounds monotone. Sam drinks more than half of its contents; before she can actually think about it she pours the rest over her head to wash the grim away.
The same nausea she felt last night slams into her when she stands. Her hand gropes for the stability of the truck as she stumbles towards it, and her hands tears open the boxes as hunger swarms her gut. Her fingers graze over a plastic packet of dried meat which she eagerly tears open. She tears the jerky with her teeth, relishing the taste of salt on her tongue. Once she finishes the packet, the rumble of her stomach settles down. It's not enough to last her the rest of the day, but it's something for now.
Pain throbs in her shoulder when she leans back against the side of the truck, reminding her of the bullet wound. She shrugs the jacket off only to find that the wound has already been covered by a white bandage. When Sam peels it away, the wound is still open with the bullet lodged between muscle. They didn't care enough to actually treat it, apparently, only to stop the bleeding so it wouldn't be a hinderance to them.
After digging around in the boxes then front and passengers seats, Sam finds a decently used first aid kit.
“Sarah, I need you to sew up this wound.” she calls as she steps away from the truck, though when she really looks at her she doesn't think she could trust Sarah to do anything right now. Sarah, while she's not crying, stares toward the sky with a distant look in her eye. It's pitiable.
Yet when she hears her name she turns toward Sam as if nothing happened in the last twenty-four hours. The necklace, bloodied, hangs in her right hand. “Okay. Okay, where is it?” She reties the necklace around her neck, steps forward, and manages a lopsided smile that looks more fake when Sam takes in the blood on her clothes.
Sam turns around and points to the bullet wound on her shoulder. “Here.” When Sarah's close enough, she hands her the first aid kit. “You should wash your hands with water first.” she adds. Sarah does just that, then disinfects her hands with whiskey she finds under the front seat. When she touches Sam's skin, her hands are cold. Yet as she cleans out the wound, they're steady. Steadier than they should be.
“This is gonna hurt.” Sarah murmurs as something thin slots between the bullet and muscle. Sam grits her teeth and balls her hands into fists as a steady hand pulls the bullet out and tosses it somewhere on the ground. A sharp sting follows as whiskey runs down her shoulder into the wound. Fabric presses against it, drying it, and finally Sarah begins sewing it shut.
Her nails aren't long when they press against the skin. Rather, they're all cut as evenly as possible and smoothed down with a filer. Her fingertips aren't calloused, either, and her touches are feather-light. It's strange. It's not something Sam expects.
Finally, Sarah applies a fresh bandage. “Done.” she says. It comes out morose. As if she could sleep a thousand years. She'd probably need it like Sam would. “We should get moving,” she adds to fill the silence as she steps away. Sam nods, but neither of them move to open the truck doors. Something still hangs between them.
“Did you know the bandits were after you?”
Sam exhales. She tips her head to look up at the sky baby blue. “Yes.”
“Did you know they wanted me?”
“Yes. But I didn't think they would find me with a group. I took a gamble and thought they would be looking for someone on their own.” And it didn't work. But now the bandits are dead, so Sam shouldn't still have a pit of dread in her stomach anymore. She should be okay, but something at the back of her mind is still nagging her that not everything is alright.
For a few moments, Sarah doesn't say anything. She piles the looted weapons into the back then slides into the driver seat. She pointedly looks at Sam until she clambers into the passenger seat, yet even when Sarah starts the engine its hum is the only sound apart for the birds.
Finally: “You should sleep.” Her voice is barely above a whisper once the truck begins moving, leaving the cold bodies of the bandits behind them. It's what they deserve, Sam thinks bitterly, and apparently Sarah agrees with her. They pass fallen street lamps, bent stop signs, and abandoned buildings before Sam finally drifts off to sleep.
There's someone standing a few feet away from Sam, yet their features blur even more every time Sam tries to blink away the fuzziness around her eyes. Gradually, the space around them evolves into a child's bedroom with pictures hanging on the walls. Greens of mint, emerald, and everything in between fill Sam's vision, and she's vaguely aware that this is a dream.
On the bed a green and blue striped comforter is tucked in around a child-shaped lump. Snores fill the room as a desk and small wooden chair slide in place along the wall closest to the bedroom door. There's a small ball cactus on the desk, and next to it children's drawings are strewn about. Sam remembers everything from this room as if she left only an hour ago and not over a decade. Something fills her chest, and finally when she tears her gaze away from the room the person's face gradually sharpens.
Freckles splatter across the man's cheeks, and his skin glows from the constant exposure to the sun. His eyes crinkle when he smiles, and Sam's eyes widen as his fingertips skate over the scar on her cheek. She can't decide whether the mole on his cheek should be on under his right eye or on his chin underneath his mouth, so it constantly moves. Sometimes the freckles fade, and then they multiply, and right when Sam decides on the perfect balance her father's body liquifies into a puddle of water at her feet as the lump on the bed starts sobbing.
Sam opens her eyes to the midnight sky. Stars cluster around each other, twinkling against the night sky through the smudges on the window. They've parked along the side of a highway somewhere, but Sam doesn't recognize it. Sobs none too gentle escape Sarah's parted lips from where she sags in the driver seat as if the weight of the world is crushing her. Tears stream down her cheeks, creating lines through the dust, and she looks so weak it's unnerving. She looks so fragile, yet Sam knows she's anything but. Sarah bumps her elbow against the steering wheel as she moves to wipe her eyes when she notices Sam staring at her. Her eyes dart everywhere around Sam.
The apology is weak. Even her voice refuses to allow actual sorrow to mingle within the letters.
“It's not your fault.”
Sarah's words are less reassuring than Sam's own apology, yet her voice still rings with honesty. Directly, no, it's not her fault, yet she still unknowingly led the bandits to them. She shouldn't care, yet she does, and she imagines that the guilt will eat her alive once it holds enough influence over her heart.
When Sarah steps out, Sam follows her to the back of the truck to stretch her legs. Flames flicker in the lantern Sarah holds, casting a surprisingly good amount of light over the boxes filled with, likely, more food along with other necessities. To prove her hunch, she opens one of the boxes and stares reverently at the boxes of soap.
Another yields pants folded neatly on top of either other among t-shirts and shoes, and others reveal canned food, packets of dried fruits and meat, and bottled water. Boxes of matches sit neatly between boxes of ammo, and a small smile spreads on Sam's face. “This is incredible,” Sarah breathes, voicing Sam's own awe. “this could last us months if we let it.”
Sam takes one of the packets of dried apples and rips it open. The taste is different, but she still finds herself eating at least half. Sarah takes the rest along with a bottle of water. Around a full mouth, she starts, “The others - “ then stops. Her gaze falls to the ground, focusing on nothing in particular. If Sam knew her better she might have said something. Instead, she just takes her sword from the pile of weapons and waits awkwardly until Sarah forces a smile on her face.
The silence that stretches out between them as they start on the highway again is uncomfortable, and when they do talk Sarah never sounds like she should. So, trying not to focus on it, Sam watches the stars from the window and counts them. She makes it to one hundred before she's being thrown forward in her seat as the truck screeches to a halt.
Wide eyes stare back at them and hands stay outstretched in front of the two women. One has long dirty blonde hair which is unkept and matted whilst the other woman's – at least ten years younger – is near immaculate. She wears well-kept clothes and looks well fed compared to the woman next to her. After standing dazed in the headlights for a few minutes, the oldest woman starts banging on the hood. “Please, please help us!” Even with her screams muffled, Sam notes the desperation in her tone. Still, she shakes her head at Sarah.
“We don't know who they are.” she mutters as her hand ghosts over the hilt of her sword. The familiarity gives her comfort enough to realize how helpless she felt without it. A chill runs down Sam's spine the longer she stares at the woman's desperate eyes, and the grip on her sword tightens. Something's off. She doesn't know what, but something's telling her not to trust them. “Sarah, we need to leave.” she practically shouts, and finally Sarah swerves around them. When the rapid beating of Sam's heart diminishes, there's a bang and the truck lurches before Sarah slams the breaks.
Sam's blood runs cold. Her heartbeat speeds up and sweat forms at the back of her neck as she watches the women's outlines approach the truck leisurely. Sarah's grip tightens on the steering wheel before she flings herself out of the truck. Sam briefly notices a spark in her eye that'd been missing before she jumps out to prevent Sarah from getting herself killed.
The older woman with the gun lunges at Sam surprisingly quickly for someone so weak and, dropping the gun, her hands lock around Sam's throat. Sam has the curiosity to wonder why the woman wouldn't just shoot her before she digs her nails into the woman's frail wrists. A high pitched shout escapes the woman's lips, yet her grip still tightens. Sam stamps down on the woman's foot hard enough to break a few bones, and finally the woman releases her grip. Sam pushes her away, pins to her to ground, and almost drives her sword through the woman's head before the woman wails, “No! No please don't kill me! My sister, she hasn't eat for days, and then you two came along and you don't look stringy like everyone else. Please, my sister has to eat or she'll starve without me! Don't you understand?” Sam responds in by way of a sword through her skull.
She stands up just in time to see Sarah stab the other women in the neck with a dagger. Her eye reflects something too happy although her face doesn't betray her emotions. She turns her head to face Sam. “Are you okay?” she asks and Sam nods.
“You really like fighting, don't you.” Although Sam doesn't mean it, her words bite. Sarah doesn't respond until after she kicks the popped tire.
“It gives me something to do. It feels natural. It's not like I like it when I fight people, I just act on reflex as if they're the same as monsters. What does that say about me?” Sarah swallows the rest of her words.
“That you're just as much of a monster as everyone else.” Sam adds, “You can't run from your emotions like that.”
“Neither can you.”
Sam doesn't say anything, so Sarah continues, “We're going to have to walk from here on out. Sleep in the truck or find something better?”
“Anything is better than walking down a highway at night.” Sam tightens her jacket around her body before saying, “I'll take first watch.” She clambers onto the back of the pickup, situates herself on a sturdier box where her back leans against the rear window, and looks up. Enough clouds begin dotting the night sky that rain isn't unlikely in the near future; she just hopes it'll rain before the sun rises.
Even so, the rain would wash the blood from her body.
Despite knowing those people tried to leave them stranded so they could be killed and eaten, Sam finds herself pitying them. The older woman truly did care about her sister, in a twisted way, yet she still finds herself involuntarily shivering at the fact that someone could care that much to the point of mindlessly wasting away for the good of the other person. It's nothing she wants to think about, yet the night provides few options for her when she isn't sleeping.
As the steady chorus of insects fills the silence, she lights a lantern and opens the box filled with clothes. She takes a few t-shirts out, cuts the sleeves and collars with a dagger, and starts sewing the bottoms. She stuffs the makeshift bags with soap, food and water, clothes, shoes, ammo, matches, and anything else that might come in handy. As she digs through the boxes, she finds a swiss army knife which she pockets.
Once she finishes, the half-empty boxes stare at her. This isn't enough, yet before she can create more bags someone sits across from her. Sam looks up to see rays of light beginning to streak across the sky and Sarah smiling at her. “I can help.” she offers and starts creating another bag. Once she finishes, she stuffs it with mostly food, water, and soap. She tops it off with the bottle of whiskey and the first aid kit.
“How do we get to San Francisco from here?” Sam asks, although she never found a map in the truck either. Sarah shrugs.
“I don't know. We should start walking before the monsters wake up though.” Sarah slings the crossbow over her shoulder and puts a pistol in the waistband of her jeans. As an afterthought she takes one of the daggers. Sam takes the dagger she'd been using and straps it to her thigh. She jumps out of the truck with Sarah right behind, and together they start walking.
It's not long before they spot the harpies. Sam notices them first, and when she stops Sarah goes still when she notices the group of feathers and leathery skin crowded around something several yards ahead of them. Sam suspects it's a carcass of some sort, and when she catches a whiff of the scent the wind carries her thoughts are confirmed.
“If we go around them we might be able to sneak past.” Sam mutters as she ducks behind a green Beetle with Sarah right behind. Still, even as she says the words she doesn't believe them. What they need is a distraction which they can't provide, or they need to wait it out which could very well lead to more monsters showing up due to the smell of meat. Sam doesn't do anything for several minutes; in the meantime her fingers drum against her leg as she figures out a way to get past them without fighting.
Before she can even say anything, a voice speaks up. “I smell humans.”
Sam's body tenses up. Beside her, Sarah slowly and quietly opens the car door enough that she can slip inside easily. Sam follows her and ends up with her body squished on the floor in the back while Sarah presses her body into a ball in the footspace in the passenger seat. The air is stale and smells faintly of onions.
The muffled chatter from outside steadily increases in volume as both footsteps and wings beating against the air fill the silence with trepidation. Fit partially underneath the seats and bags, Sam's quickening heartbeat cannot be slowed even when her fingers clutch at the hilt of her sword. The weeks of sweat and blood must make them reek, yet neither of them can do anything about that now. Storm clouds had been appearing; maybe if they're lucky it'll rain.
The sound of wings flapping approaches the Beetle they're in. Sam shuts her eyes, stills her body, and slowly breathes in and out. The slow pitter patter of rain on the windows begins slowly yet surely, and soon there is a downpour drowning out all noise except for indignant squawks and shouts.
Although Sam's heartbeat gradually returns to normal, she doesn't dare go outside just yet. When her eyes open, she traces shapes in the dust-caked window before raindrops create pathways for water to wash the grim away and allow for something new to begin. Mild pain radiates in her legs as they start to cramp, and when she starts to adjust her position as quietly as possible she hits her right elbow on the floor.
Pain shoots down her arm. Sweat beads on her forehead. A piece of hair falls across her lips. Her eyes close again to the grays around her as the sound of wings fighting against the wind quiets down until it's a distant memory. She allows a sigh of relief to escape her lips. They're both fine.
When she sits up, she doesn't notice the beady yellow eyes until glass showers the two front seats. If the sun were shining on them, the seats would sparkle in the sun like a display of art, but the only thing that drips down are raindrops against the dashboard. The harpy cackles, makes a wild grab for Sarah, and wrenches her left arm away from her body. Sarah's arm snaps just below the elbow with a faint crackling sound, but even as a short scream falls from Sarah's lips she finds the strength to slash her dagger against the harpy's wrist.
The harpy shrieks like a banshee as her hand flops against her wrist. The grip her talons hold on the hood of the Beetle loosens, so she falls into a heap on the cold ground. Sarah swears up a storm as she cradles her broken arm against her chest whilst simultaneously trying to escape from the car. After Sam steps out, she pulls open Sarah's door and she nearly falls in a heap on the ground.
Sam steadies herself and Sarah, then when her attention turns on the harpy she unsheathes her sword. Looking closer, the harpy's feathers shine with brilliant reds, and yellows and blues sprout amongst the red feathers of her wings. White and red freckles decorate the skin around her ears, cheeks, and forehead close to where vibrant orange hair flows from her head. Her eyes are a quiet yellow, and whilst she looks delirious with hunger she looks incredibly young compared to the other harpies Sam has seen.
Once the harpy stops wallowing on the ground and her wrist heals, she leaps at Sam who calmly raises her sword so the harpy skewers herself on it. “Stupid humans!” the harpy screams as she pulls away horizontally so that the blade cuts a line straight through her body. Blood spills on her feathers and clothes, yet she ignores this and instead barrels Sarah over as her skin starts knitting itself back together.
Sarah yelps as she falls backwards into a puddle. The harpy claws at her arms, her legs, and her torso as she rips a small chunk of flesh right out of Sarah's shoulder, clothes and all. As blood drips down her chin, she grins wide. “Mm, mortals taste delicious!” she croons before Sam slams her body into the harpy. She unsheathes her dagger with her free hand and drives the blade into the harpy's heart. She gives a dying squawk reminiscent of squealing tires as her eyes cloud over. To be safe, Sam slices off the harpy's head with her sword and kicks it a few feet away.
Sam stumbles away, breathing heavily. She pulls Sarah up from the ground and inspects the wounds all over her body. Most look like small gashes so shouldn't be too much worry. The only thing that immediately requires attention is her shoulder. Blood stains her shirt at an alarming rate, and Sarah's face already looks much paler than it usually is. The addition of dark circles under her eyes make her look like she's dying.
Sam opens the backseat door and pushes Sarah inside. She falls onto the seat with Sam kneeling next to her, and for someone with a broken bone and blood running out of a mouth-shaped wound in her shoulder she's very calm. When Sam starts cutting the fabric around the bite wound, Sarah finally starts fussing. A stream of swears leave her ajar mouth as Sam pours whiskey on the wound. She wads up a sock and presses it to the wound.
“Keep that there. I'm going to set your arm.” Sam orders. Sam complies with a weak nod even though her eyelids begin fluttering. Sam sighs and tapes the sock over the wound with tape as Sarah's eyes finally shut for the last time.
The rain doesn't look like it's going to let up. Raindrops relentlessly pound the car so quickly that Sam can't even get a clear look of what the outside looks like anymore. Even so, Sam steps out of the car. She straightens her legs as she spots a storm-damaged tree off the highway, so she jogs over to it and picks up one of the longer fallen branches. She strips it of its leaves, snaps it in two pieces the length of Sarah's forearm, and jogs back to the car. Using strips of cloth, she ties the branches on opposite sides of Sarah's forearm to create a kind of splint. She then creates a sling out of the leftover long-sleeved shirt she'd been using and fits Sarah's broken arm in it. It's not the best work she's done, but it's something.
A sigh escapes Sam's lips as she gently pushes Sarah further into the car so Sam can sit next to her unwounded side. Sarah mumbles something incoherent as she leans against Sam's body for warmth. A few strands of hair fall in her face, and she almost looks peaceful despite the fact that she's sporting a broken arm and a bite wound that she could die from. A mass of faint freckles cover her face, but they're only noticeable if you look closely enough. They look like stars sewn into her skin, and if she drew lines between them they could form countless constellations.
Sam supposes it would she would be disappointed if Sarah died from this considering she survived the hotel fire. She wouldn't be able to carry the rest of the bags without Sarah's help, either, and although she's lived on her own for a decade it would be strange going back to her solitude after being around all those people for so long.
Strange, she tells hers, but not unbearable.
Sam doesn't know when she drifts off to sleep, but she wakes up with Sarah's head on her shoulder and the tapping of rain on the hood of the car. When she shifts, Sarah's eyes open gradually. She shifts so that her weight presses against the cushions rather than Sam, then she takes notices of her splint. “Thanks,” she murmurs.
Sam shrugs. “You're welcome.” Her eyes flicker towards the rain, and at the very least she figures it will wash out her and Sarah's scents while they bunker down in here till it stops.
“No,” Sarah begins so that Sam looks at her, “thank you for saving my life, not just for patching up my arm.” And her eye burns with such an intensity that she looks like she wants to say more, so she says. “I'm glad I met you.” The words pulse with more than just their overt meaning, and Sam wants to say she has no right to picture her as some great person. That she has no right to feel so positively about her when all she's done was run away when the hotel was burning and lead the bandits straight towards her group so that Eric could die and they could both be captured. But she doesn't say this.
Instead, she asks: “How are you feeling?”
“Awful,” Sarah says frankly, “but I'll get better,” and Sam almost thinks there's a double meaning somewhere in her words.
Once the rain stops, Sam gets out of the car to find another one. The harpy's head lies several feet away from its body, now, carried by the rain to the edge of the highway and the eyes glassy and mouth gapping, and something curls in Sam's stomach at the sight.
The two pile into a blue Chevrolet that has a tank a little over halfway full. Sam hotwires it after putting her bags in a pile in the backseat. Sarah does the same, then shifts in the passenger seat as Sam drives. It isn't long before she speaks up.
“How'd you end up alone?”
And some part of Sam actually wants to answer her truthfully, but instead she offers a halfhearted shrug. “It just happened that way.”
Sarah snorts. “Bull.”
The next few hours they drive the sun sinks and the landscape seems to melt into buildings in muted grays and browns and the few shards of vibrant reds and oranges someone likely did with spray paint in order to give some life to the ruins. Street signs bend over, cars sit forgotten in the road yet never blocking the path, doors rest thrown open and windows are smashed in. Sam puts her foot on the break and parks haphazardly in front of a fire hydrant where the paint is peeling off. The green handprint of a child wraps around the top.
Sam steps out, Sarah does the same, and she grabs her bags. Sarah does the same. “I'm going to look for some place with running water.” Sam tells Sarah, but admittedly it's less about cleaning herself off and more about finding a bed to sleep on for the night. Still, she enters the nearest apartment with Sarah in tow. She kicks open the doors that are stuck and wrinkles her nose at the smells the bedrooms produce until, finally, she finds an apartment that looks as if it's been recently inhabited. Dust still rests on the windowsill and bed when she checks them, but apart from the obvious signs of being uninhabited for several weeks it's in surprisingly good shape.
The bathroom isn't disgusting either, which is a plus. Sam showers languidly, yet she isn't sure if it's because it takes ages to clean herself or because she relishes feel of warmth sinking into her bones. She dries her hair, then she scrubs her salvageable clothes clean in the sink after running her fingers through her hair to get rid of the knots. She sets her clothes on the rack to dry, then puts on a clean tank top and a pair of jeans a hair too large.
When she steps out, she finds Sarah sitting on a couch spooning green beans out of a can with her fingers. Once she finishes eating, she disappears in the bathroom and doesn't reappear for another hour. Her hair's pulled into a messy, damp bun, and her shoulder wound covered with a wad of a shirt tapped on like a bandage. Her necklace sticks out plainly, now.
Sarah stretches herself on the other couch opposite Sam and drags a thin blanket she must have found in the bedroom across her body. Before she has the chance to fall asleep, Sam speaks up. Perhaps it's the steam getting to her head.
“I didn't just end up alone.” she starts. She shifts so she's facing the television that likely hasn't worked since everything began. “A woman helped me through all this when I was younger. She was another demigod, but I never asked who her parent was and she never used her abilities so she wouldn't attract attention.” She pauses, letting the words mold themselves on her tongue. “She died when I was fourteen. She was killed by some infection, so I travelled around California by myself.” Something blurs her vision, and when she wipes at her eyes she pulls her hand away wet, but she can't fathom why she'd be crying. It isn't as if she was particularly attached to the woman.
Except, she's probably crying for other reasons. Sarah asks, “Sam?”
“I'm fine.” she mutters without looking at her. Her eyes catch the blue and green colored portrait hanging on the wall, and her hands ball into fists. “What an asshole.” she mutters. “You don't leave your family,” And she's yelling, now, except she doesn't have any real reason to. “you don't leave your kid alone on the street to die in the winter and wonder why I was never good enough.”
Sam rolls on the couch so her back faces Sarah, and she curls herself into something vaguely resembling a ball. “Sam, are you okay?” Sarah asks.
“Fine.” And if she's lying, it isn't as if it's the first time.
The following morning, Sam wakes up to find Sarah reading an old paperback with a tearing cover too dirty to decipher. Sarah looks up when she enters the living room and offers a smile. “Morning.” she says before turning her attention back on her book. The pages are clipped back with a binder clip, and while Sam doubts its simplicity it does solve the problem arisen from Sarah's broken arm.
Sam digs around one of the bags for her canteen. “What are you reading?” she asks after she drinks.
“A Tale of Two Cities.” she responds. “The people who used to live here must have been obsessed with classic literature. There are a ridiculous amount of books everywhere you go.”
“Wonder what happened to them,” Sam says, but the words are spoken more to fill up the silence rather than because she is genuinely curious. “We should get going.”
Sarah shuts her book closed. “Why?”
Sam slings a few bags over her shoulder. “If you stay in one place too long you start to get too comfortable, and once you're too comfortable you're as good as dead.” She laces up her boots, then pulls on her orange jacket now tearing in some parts and stiff with grime.
Sarah doesn't move. “This is about what you said yesterday, isn't it?”
“We need to leave.” Sam repeats.
This time, Sarah doesn't say anything. She instead packs what she has while Sam finishes packing all of her things; they leave the apartment in silence.
Sam drives for several hours, and as they break into the suburbs something pops. The car swerves, and Sam hits the break so it skids to a stop. She leans back in her seat, catching her breath for a few seconds as she looks at the horizon. Only houses stretching for what will seem like miles when they walk through. Sam gets out of the car, kneels down, and pulls a paw with its claws extended from underneath the popped tire.
Sam tosses it to the ground after she stands up. Just her luck. As Sarah gets out of the car, Sam grabs their stuff and slings them over her shoulders. “There's a hellhound in the area, maybe more than one. We'll need to be careful.”
“I'm always careful.” Sarah responds.
Sam doesn't answer and leads them into the suburbs. The trek begins without so much of a scratch on either of them, and the silence between them festers into something that could have been almost comfortable if not for what happened prior.
Sam figures they can't have walked for more than thirty minutes when it happens. The shouts prompt Sam to stop in her tracks and draw her sword; Sarah reaches for her pistol, but Sam stops her. “Wait,” she mutters.
Two seconds pass. Then ten. Then twenty. Sam almost relaxes, then –
Two people run into the street screaming: one looks like a teenager with dark skin while the other looks like an adult. A mass of dark fur larger than even the houses around them bulldozes a house. The wood splinters and the bricks dislodge; Sam, against her judgement, runs towards them so she's only a few feet away from the scene. The teenager looks back at her with tears streaming from her wide, dark brown eyes. “Help us,” she gasps before whipping around and dodging the hellhound's paw as it rakes the air in front of it. The adult isn't so lucky, and he goes flying into the pile of rumble.
A shot rings out. Sam's hands raise to press against her ears as she looks back at Sarah's face. “Be careful!” she orders, yet it's less of a command than it should be. In response, Sarah nods.
“Kill it quickly.”
As soon as the hellhound sets its paw back on the ground, vines emerge from the splitting concrete and wrap around it. Immediately, Sam's body sways. Something wet drips from her nose, and her eyes narrow. The hellhound rips its paw free, and another shot rings out. This time, the hellhound's right eye goes in a bloody, fleshy mess, causing it to pause.
Sam turns her attention towards the girl, then the dagger in her shaking hands. “You!” The girl turns toward her. “Attack the hellhound's back paws. I'll attack it from the front. Are you the only ones here?”
The girl nods. Another shot rings out. “Are you gonna kill it?”
“I'll try.” And Sam stamps her foot on the ground. This time, the dizziness hits her like a punch to the head as the vines with blooming passion flowers and roses and stinging nettle burst up from the ground and wrap around the hellhound's front legs and torso. The girl bolts towards the hellhound's back legs, and as the beast howls loud enough to deafen Sam's eardrums she imagines the kid is doing her job.
Sam wipes her nose with her sleeve, then she darts towards the hellhound's face right as it rips a paw free and shoves her into the overgrown front yard of a house. “Sam!” Sarah shouts.
“I'm fine!” Sam replies as she gets up. She spits out the grass and blood in her mouth from her nosebleed. “Keep shooting it!” As the hellhound turns its head to face Sam, it bares its teeth in a snarl. She wrinkles her nose, steps backward, and presses a hand to her forehead as her body sways. Still, she digs her heel into the ground so that the vines tangle around the hellhound's limbs, and still her nosebleed worsens. Her vision blurs at the edges, and she knows she's about to pass out. The shot Sarah fires she only registers as a faint ringing in her ears, and the pouncing hellhound compresses itself into a giant dark spot in the middle of her vision.
Sam wills herself to stay awake, and she lets her sword fall to the ground in favor of the dagger strapped to her thigh. She grasps the hilt, moves her arm back, and throws it with all her might into the hellhound's gapping mouth where it embeds itself into its tongue. The howls which follow force Sam to cover her ears as she, slowly, approaches Sarah who runs towards her. Sarah wraps her good arm around Sam's waist and, for once, Sam is so exhausted she allows the contact as her head falls on Sarah's good.
“What happened? I thought you had a handle on your abilities?” Sarah practically has to shout over the hellhound's howls. Sam shrugs against her, and it takes nearly all her strength to keep her eyes open.
“Whatever power I used to kill that bandit must have done something to me.” With her eyes still closed, she asks, “How's your arm?”
“Broken.” Sarah says shortly. “Worry about yourself.” And Sam wants to laugh because that's all she ever used to do. She almost does, then her vision finally goes black.
When Sam wakes up, she's laying on a mattress in a familiar living room with boarded up windows and the couch pushed against the wall. A single table sits in the middle of the room with the map still resting on it. The soft glow of the lanterns is inviting. Comforting. The orange tabby cat is curled into a ball on her stomach, so when she sits up, it jumps off and runs into the kitchen. When Sam gets up to find Sarah, she notices the adult sleeping on the couch. A giant bandage covers his right cheek, and his eyes are the same shade as the girl's. He looks about Sarah's age.
When Sam enters the kitchen, Sarah looks up from her book and smiles at her. Sam returns it, albeit with a smaller one. Sarah's eyebrows raise and a flush appears on her face. “How long was I asleep?” Sam asks.
“Over twenty-four hours.” the girl pipes up from across Sarah. She has frizzy black hair and a warm smile that creates obvious dimples in her cheeks. She grins at Sam, looking as if she wants to tackle her into a hug. “Thank you for saving me and my brother's lives.” She looks as if she's about to start crying. “I'm Lena.”
Sam shrugs. “You're welcome. How did you escape the hellhound?”
“I stuck a dagger in its throat,” Sarah replies, “and as it stumbled everywhere Lena helped me carry you to safety. This safe house was close by, so we set you on the mattress in the living room and went back for Lena's brother.”
“Sarah was telling me about how you escaped bandits, then ended up here on your own,” Lena adds, “you two are amazing.”
Sam wants to deny that, but she decides against it if only to keep the kid smiling. Her happy disposition will disappear completely eventually, and for once Sam doesn't want to be the catalyst for that. Lena then asks, “Where are you going?”
“Sam Francisco.” Sam replies. She takes a seat next to Lena and allows her fingers to brush against the soil of the now-dying plant. To her relief, a small venus flytrap bursts from the earth without any hint of dizziness. Starting slowly, she supposes, and going through the motions again should bring her back to her full strength.
“My brother and I are going there, too. We should go together.” Lena suggests.
Sam nods. “Fine. When will your brother be well?” she asks.
Lena looks at Sarah, then back at Sam with a frown on her face. “I don't know,” she admits. “He was badly bruised on impact, and I think he's concussed. We've been waking him up every two hours, though,” Lena adds, “and his hasn't shown any signs that his condition is worsening. We'll need to rest for a least a week or so.” She sighs, suddenly, and leans back in her chair. “I wish we had ice for him, though. Then I could help with any swelling that might be happening.”
Sam stares at her, nonplussed. “How did you figure that out? You can't be over fifteen.”
Lena grins. “I've always wanted to be a doctor when I grew up, so I asked my mom thousands of questions a day when I was younger. Everything happening just put what I learned to use.” She gestures to Sarah. “I made her a better splint, too.” she adds.
“Thanks for that again,” Sarah says, and Lena's grin widens. Something furry brushes against Sam's leg, and the cat jumps on the table, knocking over the pot now harboring two plants. As Sam cleans it up, Lena stands up.
“It's been two hours,” she informs as she disappears into the living room to leave Sarah and Sam alone.
Neither of them say anything at first, then Sarah clears her throat. She pushes her book aside. Sam situates the pot upright again. “I was worried about you.” she admits as her finger traces the creases in the cover of the paperback. “But your powers seem to be working right again.” Her eyes flicker towards the plant for emphasis, but Sam shakes her head.
“I don't think so.” she informs. “I think I'll have to practice my abilities again to regain my strength.” She concentrates on the soil, and a thick green stub grows into a red rose blooming one ruby-red petal at a time. “While we stay here,” Sam begins, more to herself than to Sarah, “I'm going to hone my abilities.”
Sarah frowns, perhaps remembering the battle with the hellhound. “Don't push yourself.”
“I never do.”
Over the next few days, Sam plants herself in the front of the house and wills small vines to erupt from the ground. The soil crisscrosses with scars and lumps where the vines have appeared and receded, yet every time Sam tries to wrap them around something – often herself – a wave of dizziness hits her. The nosebleeds only come when Sam exerts herself, which is mildly comforting.
Lena often comes and watches, and she encourages Sam through cheers and clapping which only serve to disappear Sam's concentration. Sarah appears less often than Sam would expect, but on their fifth day waiting for Michael to heal she steps outside with frown.
“Sam?” she asks. Sam releases her hold on the vine which disappears back into the ground. “Can we talk?”
Sam turns around to face her. There's something indescribable in her eye. “What?”
Sarah sucks in a breath. “Well, we'll probably be passing Daniel and Aaron's house when we leave for San Francisco, so I want to see them. I want to know what they did with Eric's body. I want to know if they buried him.” She stares at Sam, and Sam nods.
“Okay.” she agrees, because it's only fair that she get to see his body. She turns back around, digs her heel into the ground, and the vine that shoots up wraps itself around her leg. Sam shifts her foot slightly, and the vine tightens around her calf. It releases tendrils that poke small holes in her jeans and dig into her skin. The tiny tendrils withdraw when Sam relaxes her foot, and the vine withdraws from her leg.
When she straightens, she feels the same. Immediately, she stamps the ground and two vines latch around the base of the trees. She moves her foot slightly, and the same tendrils appear and dig into the tree's bark. Sam's head starts to go fuzzy, so she relaxes and the vines retreat into the ground. “You're getting better.” Sarah observes.
“Not quickly enough.” Sam retorts as she grows a green bean plant and rips the pods from it. As it withers into the ground, she follows Sarah inside as she eats them. She tosses a handful to Lena, then passes some to Sarah. “How's your brother?” Sam asks Lena.
“He's getting better. He doesn't have headaches anymore, and he's been drawing more.” Lena informs. She looks over at the couch where he sleeps, and smiles fondly. “We should be good to leave in four days.” Sam finally notices the paper stacked in a neat pile next to Michael. Before, she would have been relieved to finally get back on track, but after her conversation with Sarah, she finds herself strangely dreading getting back on the road. She pushes the feeling aside.
The final days they spend at the safe house are spent mostly relaxing. The bruises Sam once sported gradually fade away, and on the second to last day Lena lights candles in the kitchen and living room. Michael, now mostly healed saved for the scabbing on his right cheek, helps her. Even the cat Lena's dubbed “Butterscotch” gravitates around them until she curls herself on top of the empty refrigerator and watches as they work.
“What's the occasion?” Sarah asks with a smile.
Lena brightens. “It's my birthday.” she replies. “I'm fifteen now.” She rolls her eyes at Michael when he says she's grown into a worse brat, and she shoves his shoulder.
Sam's fingers brush over the flowerpot, and from it an iris blooms. She breaks the stem at the middle then hands it to Lena. “Happy birthday,” she murmurs.
Lena takes the flower and tucks it behind her ear. “Thank you, Sam.”
Sam shrugs and doesn't answer as her eyes fall to the table. Sarah flushes when she realizes she doesn't have anything to give Lena, but Lena waves her off. “I get to spend my birthday with other people,” she reasons, “so I think that's a gift in itself.”
Lena spends the night singing with her brother and awkwardly dancing with him in the living room. They have the same enthusiasm, Sam notices, though for different things. For Lena, she invests herself in taking care of people, and for Michael he makes sure his little sister is as happy as possible. Subconsciously, Sam crushes a fallen leaf in her hand as she watches them.
When Sam turns her head, she notices Sarah has the frown she wore when she talked to Sam about visiting Daniel and Aaron; Sam imagines she could have been happy for Lena and Michael if she had not gone through what she had. “I'm sorry,” she tells Sarah, yet the words fall hollow from her lips.
“Don't be.” Sarah says, yet when she turns to face Sam her eye says anything but.
Sam half feels as if she should say something, but Sarah's shoulders slump back as her back hits the chair, and she has the distinct impression any words she might say would be useless.
“Sam,” Sarah begins, “what you said at the apartment -”
“Don't.” Sam interrupts, yet there isn't a much bite to the word as there would be normally.
“You don't have to bear that alone.” Sarah pauses. Lena bursts out laughing in the other room; Sam looks over at the two siblings smiling. “You aren't alone, Sam. You have me.” Sam looks over at Sarah. The words refuse to form in her throat so, giving a jerk of her head that could be taken as a nod, she allows herself to think about such a declaration.
She supposes she does have Sarah, considering everything that has happened so far. The hotel, the bandits, she's been a constant throughout everything, a stubborn force that refuses to disappear for better or for worse. She almost says something, then the alarm shatters the quiet of the night.
It blares nefariously loud; Sam presses her hands to her ears as Michael moves away from Lena and towards the door. He peeks through the circular glass peephole. “I think there's something out there!” he warns, and immediately he backs towards Lena who looks up at him with apprehension in her gaze.
Sam stands up. “What did you see?”
“I don't know,” Michael admits, “something was moving. Something human.”
Sam's eyes catch Sarah's gaze, and she shudders to think their thoughts might be right. Sarah blows out the lanterns so the house is swathed in darkness, and in silence the four of them sit, save for the car alarm in the distance. Sam tenses in her seat as someone begins breathing heavily, and Lena shakily whispers, “Michael?” into the night. If Sam could see her, she imagines she would be shaking, her chest rising and falling rapidly.
“Lena, I'm here.” Michael responds. “You're okay. I'm here.” His reassurances fade into whispers, and once the car alarm stops Sam allows her body to relax. Then, the commotion outside really begins. The boom shakes the house, and through the gaps in the wood nailed to the windows light flickers. The explosion prompts Sam to look at Sarah. Sarah nods, and as she relights the lanterns Sam gathers their things.
“We need to go,” she tells Michael and Lena, yet her eyes stare up at Michael as if he might protest.
And he does. “Sam, whatever is out there might kill us!” His hand wraps around Lena's. “Our chances are better if we stay here.”
Sam shakes her head. “They aren't.” She looks out the peephole, noting the flames licking upwards towards the sky and the neighboring trees. Soon, the flames will reach them from the house next to them; their only chance is to leave, even if that means running out in the darkness. “Whatever started that fire will likely burn more houses, and even if it doesn't the flames will eventually spread over here. There's enough stuff between here and the explosion to spread the fire.” She backs away from the door then looks at Michael. “If you won't leave, Sarah and I are going without you.”
When she faces Michael and Lena again – Lena, with tears streaming down her face, and Michael with sweat beading on his forehead – Michael sighs. “Fine.” His hand tightens around Lena's as he gathers their things, and they set off.
The first thing Sam notices when she steps outside is the acrid smell of the smoke. She covers her nose with her arm, then nudges Butterscotch's leg so the cat darts into the open street. She figures the cat will do a better job at hiding away from them and will have enough sense to leave the area as quickly as possible. Lena, to Sam's surprise, doesn't voice any objections. Perhaps because she knows the cat is better off alone.
Sam leads them through the street, and as they walk she notices something bulky moving slowly towards them. The fire silhouettes its body: large, lion-esque, with three heads sprouting from it. She swallows as its eyes gleam in the firelight, and she pauses. It looks larger than when she first saw it, but only barely. The snake head bobs up and down as if dancing, and Sam swears she sees the burning hotel.
“Sarah,” she murmurs, “that three-headed monsters is back.”
Sarah stops abruptly. She turns her head towards Sam, and her good arm instinctively moves towards her pistol. “The Chimera?” She turns her attention back towards the flaming building, and Sam swears she feels the blood run from Sarah's face. “Oh, no.” And without saying anything, she runs away.
“What's see doing?” Lena whispers, “She'll mess up her arm even more that way!” Her voice falls when she notices the Chimera behind them, then she and Michael run after her. Sam brings up the rear, and as she runs her hand tightens over the hilt of her sword. She can practically feel the future flames the Chimera will exhale on her back, and its gleaming eyes stick in her memory, nagging her.
It kicks up gravel as it runs, and in Sam's peripheral vision the world turns to flames as it sets fire to the lawns and houses around them. She picks up the pace, her heart beating furiously in her chest, and she quickly ends up beside Sarah. She makes a sharp left into a driveway, nearly running into the smashed in car sitting there, and pushes the gate open. As she presses her body against the brick wall, Michael, Lena, and Sarah catch their breath around her.
“We should have lost it.” Sam says, yet when she catches Sarah's eye she has the nagging suspicion that she's wrong. She moves slowly towards the backdoor, then nudges it open with her foot. She slips inside the dark room, bumping into what feels like a dryer. She hears Sarah's footsteps behind her, and, feeling a chair behind her, sits down so the others can get inside.
Suddenly, the door opens and a lantern floods the room with dim light. Holding it is a woman in her thirties, and in her free hand she holds a rifle. Her clothes are arranged in layers, and her eyes narrow when she sees them. “You're here because of that monster outside, aren't you?”
No one says anything. Lena curls her arm around Michael's, and the woman sets the rifle on the dryer along with the lantern. “There, I'm unarmed.” She holds her hands up for emphasis.
“Yes.” Sarah finally says. “We'll only be here several minutes.” The woman's green eyes fall to Sarah's broken arm in its sling, and her lips quirk downward slightly.
“Fine. While you're here, I can heal your arm for you.”
“No.” Sarah doesn't even hesitate to say the word. “Why would you help me anyway?”
The woman shrugs. “Just trying to be a good person in this hellhole. I didn't shoot you and I offered to heal you, so I'd say I'm doing pretty well.” Another explosion sounds in the distance, and the woman clicks her tongue at the ceiling. “Damn Chimera. Someone's agitated it good. I might even have to leave this place, now, like the others who lived here.” She turns her attentions towards Sam and asks, “What's your name?”
“What's yours?” Sam replies. She's faintly aware that every minute they waste here just allows the Chimera to catch up to them, and with the fear they're building up it won't take long at all.
“Sam.” The others say their names in response, and finally Sam stands up as she catches a whiff of something burning. Curls of smoke waft into the room, and Michael and Lena are the first to exit out the backdoor. Sam and Sarah follow with Grace trailing behind. Her company isn't pleasant, but Sam can't find it distasteful, either. She is simply there. And, Sam knows, when Sarah agrees to have her arm healed she'll be useful in the future.
Michael leads them between houses and back into the streets. Sam can't help but look behind them at the burning houses, and briefly she wonders what could agitate a Chimera like that, and she doesn't know whether a monster or a human would be worse.
Eventually, the burning buildings become little more than specks of flickering light on the horizon, and the wind ruffles Sam's hair and clothes enough to create chills down her spine. The sky gradually brightens, and as the moon fades to reveal the rising sun they find themselves at a highway familiar even without the pile of bones adorning the concrete. The cars still pile around each other as if they had been knocked over, and within the shelter they create the five of them finally stop to rest.
Sarah sits next to Sam on the hood of one of the cars in better condition, and Sam's faintly aware of the way their thighs brush each other. In the light of the morning sun, Sarah's hair reminds Sam of the fire the Chimera creates. “Do you trust her?” Sarah asks after she drinks from her water bottle. Sam's eyes follow her gaze to Grace who's being pestered by Lena about something.
“No. But she is a demigod so will be good at fighting off monsters.”
“Yeah, I know.” Sarah's gaze turns towards Sam, and the creases in her forehead lessen. “Do you think the drakon will come back?”
Sam shakes her head, but she ends up looking at both side of the highway anyway. “I doubt it. It would go wherever the other monsters are, and they only exist in a place as long as there's fresh meat.” She looks back at the burning buildings, then at the way ahead of them, and says, “We'll be reaching Aaron and Daniel's place soon.” She looks at Sarah then and notices the way her eye falls to her lap. Her fingers twitch as if she wants – needs – to dismantle something.
“He'll be there.” Sam tells her. Sarah doesn't look up, but she still nods to show she heard her. Her shoulders slump forward, and suddenly she looks as if she's been awake for weeks: her clothes scuff with dirt and her shirt sports small holes at the cuffs; her glass eye too obviously a fake one rather than the one Sam knew at the hotel. Sam's never truly noticed her age until now, or the exhaustion and sadness she holds back in favor of a facade that might sink into her soul one day. Sam doubts, then, that she looks much different herself.
She nudges Sarah's good shoulder. “You should sleep.”
Sarah looks up at her. “But the Chimera –“
“It won't get here in ten minutes.”
Sarah smiles at her, and something tightens in Sam's chest at the sight. Sarah jumps lightly from the hood of the car then situates herself inside of it on the passenger seat. Lena herself falls asleep sitting against the side of a truck's wheel along with Michael soon after, and silence stretches out between Sam and Grace who sharpening a dagger sits on the concrete. It's Grace who eventually breaks it.
“I'm surprised kids like you have made it this far.”
“I'm surprised a demigod as old as you has.” Sam retorts.
Grace gives a lazy, vaguely condescending smile. “I'm a minor demigod, kid. Monsters can't sniff me out easily.” She turns her attention to the spread of buildings beyond them, and something pensive passes over her aged face where the gray hairs sprout and wrinkles settle in too soon.
“Minor...so your father is Apollo?” Sam questions. Grace turns her attention back to Sam before shaking her head.
“He's not a minor god, kid. Aceso is my mother. Was my mother. She was so unknown I didn't even have a cabin at Camp Half-Blood like the other minor demigods.” She shrugs as if the memory holds no meaning to her, but before Sam can ask what Camp Half-Blood is something large slams onto the concrete. Sam jumps off the hood of the car to witness the monstrous drakon tearing the Chimera's body apart with its gigantic teeth; the sounds of flesh peeling off the bone make her stomach flip. Sam has half the mind to wake up Sarah by knocking on the windshield before Grace tells her to stop.
Sam looks back at the drakon feasting on the Chimera, ignoring the way her instincts are telling her to run away as quickly as she can, and notices that whenever the drakon looks at them its expression is distinctly uninterested. She imagined that the drakon would attack other monsters and eat them only as a last resort rather than exclusively. She doesn't particularly want to find out whether or not the drakon will decide to eat them, however, so she starts packing her belongings. Sarah, as soon as she registers the situation, does the same while Grace remains stationary. She looks at Sam who finally realizes Grace never was with them for the long run, rather just to ensure her safety throughout the chaos the Chimera created.
Now that it's dead, well, they're strangers again.
Yet, for the first in years, Sam feels an inexplicable pull towards the life she might have had in Grace – if only because she experienced first hand what the normal life of a demigod was at this so-called Camp Half-Blood. Sam has only ever longed for her biological father to return, never has she cared so much about the origins of her mother, yet now...she almost wants to know.
Instead, she says, “You're going to get yourself killed.”
Grace smirks, vaguely condescendingly, and shakes her head. “You've got a bit to learn about this world, kid.”
As Lena and Michael, woken up by the commotion, begin walking away, Sam watches the drakon devouring the Chimera and painting the concrete scarlet and realizes Grace might be right.
“Do you think she died?” Sarah asks Sam a few hours later as they walk into the suburbs. The houses nearly identical and the lawns overpainted with greens and saturated with sunlight. Sam has the brief thought that she might be able to control them if she wanted, but even if she did care to try she doesn't want to drain her energy in case of a monster attack. Or worse, since the back of her neck burns as if she's acutely aware she's being watched.
Sam kicks a popped soccer ball out of her way so it rolls half-heartedly across the sidewalk into the street. “Doubtful. Why?”
“I don't know,” Sarah admits. “maybe because I'm starting to regret not taking her offer to heal me even if –“
Sam stops so she's facing Sarah. “That only would have hurt you.” she tells her, and even after the words come out she's surprised she said them. From the way Sarah's eye widens, she is just as surprised. Sam turns away and starts walking again; she ignores the waver in her voice. “Come on, we need to move.”
They don't reach Aaron and Daniel's house until the bullet grazes the skin of Sam's left shoulder. As the blood wells up from the space between her fingers where she presses her hand to the hold, Sarah locks her eyes on the boy standing on the porch with his pistol raised. His hands don't shake like they should.
“You okay?” Sarah asks as Lena ties a bandage around Sam's wound. Michael looks up at the house with apprehension etched into his features.
“I'm fine,” Sam assures Sarah. She faces Michael and adds, “You don't have to go in if you're worried about Lena.” Michael sighs in relief. He and Lena stay back as Sam and Sarah approach Aaron. His eyes widen as they grow closer in distance, his finger presses on the trigger, and Sam and Sarah stop.
“We aren't here to ask you for your hospitality,” Sarah says, and her voice wavers even when she's avoiding the subject. “I came here to see Eric's body. Did you bury him?”
The temperature of the atmosphere seems to drop several degrees. The wound on Sam's arm still throbs, yet she barely notices with her undivided attention on Sarah. She has the almost-premonition of her breaking, or perhaps it is less of a premonition than a fear. She feels Sarah beside her steeling herself for the answer before Aaron answers a feeble yes and motions towards the backyard.
Any composure Sarah held onto disappears as she nearly trips over her own feet as she rushes to find Eric's grave. The rectangular mound of earth rests almost exactly where Eric had fallen and drew breath for the last time, and at its top a piece of brick has been ungracefully put into the ground as some sort of tombstone. It doesn't serve its purpose without Eric's name scrawled on, Sam decides, as Sarah's body collapses in front of the grave. Even the birds go silent as the grass brushes against Sam's ankles; something tightens in her chest at the sight of Sarah's shaking shoulders, so she kneels beside her. This is, after all, something she should not do alone.
The tears roll down her cheeks as if it imitate a waterfall; Sarah's cheeks redden and, without warning, she digs into her left eye socket, takes out the glass eye, and balls her fist around it as if to crush it with her fingers. “Eric,” she exhales shakily, “what am I supposed to do without you? You're the only family I had left –“ A bought of sobs shakes her body even more, yet she still brushes away the tears with her good arm as if she can hide the evidence if she's quick enough. “Your parents saved me, Eric, you saved me, now what am I supposed to do now that you're dead? Who do I have left? Liana, your mom, your dad, everyone died and now you...” Sarah's teeth dig into her bottom lip, and right before she spews more words Sam's fingers curl around her wrist. Sliding down, her fingers entwine with Sarah's own as if to offer some misguided comfort. Sarah would do the same, she tells herself.
The force of Sarah's hug knocks the wind out of Sam's lungs. Her eyes widen as Sarah's fingers grip the material of her jacket, fisting it in handfuls, and as the wetness of Sarah's tears soaks through the shoulder of Sam's jacket her lips part. It's what Sarah did, she tells herself as she says, “I'm not a replacement for you family, Sarah, but I'm here.” The words feel awkward tumbling from her lips, but she can't take them back, now, and even if she wanted to there is some part of her that does wholeheartedly believe those words.
When Sarah finally pulls away, her right eye is puffy while the left still an empty socket. She looks so much her age, then, and Sam laces their fingers together once again as if she could truly understand Sarah's plight. “Sam,” Sarah breathes. She pulls her good hand out of Sam's grasp and instead uses it to cup Sam's face. Sam subconsciously leans into the contact, her chapped lips parted, before she remembers who's supposed to be comforting who. “I'm terrified of who I've become.” she admits. Sarah's breath feels hot on Sam's cheek, and their close proximity sparks something within her stomach; her fingers feel too warm as she covers Sarah's with her own.
Sam swallows. She shouldn't be acutely aware of how close Sarah's face is, how she could just – she bites her bottom lip – press their lips together. “That's fine,” she manages. Her voice cracks. She's nearly overcome by the sudden impulse to tangle her fingers through Sarah's hair. “I am, too.” She doesn't know why she's saying this, perhaps because Sarah's own outburst has triggered her own.
“You're so beautiful,” Sarah says, then, and the words that Sam might have said before die in her throat. “you know that, right?”
Sam's lips part as if she's going to say something, then they smack shut. I never thought of that before, she wants to say, it didn't, it doesn't matter. Except suddenly it does. God, what happened to her? Ever since she took in Alissa she's been figuring out why she suddenly cares more about others than herself, but she can't blame a kid for that.
But, she decides, looking at Sarah's eye so impossibly blue, perhaps it isn't a bad thing.
“My father left me in an orphanage when I was a baby.” Sam admits as she slowly pulls away from Sarah's space. Sarah's hand falls from Sam's face, so she instead grasps Sam's hand with her again. Never has Sam been so perceptive of touch before, nor has she ever wanted it so much, but she figures there is a first for everything as Sarah's fingers slot against her own. “When I grew up, even after I was adopted by a young couple I couldn't stop thinking about why he left me.” Her vision blurs; the tears drip down more silently than they had on Sarah's face. “Family is supposed to stick together, and he left me.” Sam brushes away the tears with the sleeve of her jacket. “I always wondered what I did wrong, and I always hoped he would come back when he realized his mistake.”
Sam finally looks up at Sarah's expression, notes the sympathy in her gaze, and immediately takes her hand away from Sarah's in order to curl her body inward. “Don't ask me about him again.” she tells Sarah in a voice she tries to make sound demanding. Sarah nods.
“I won't.” Sarah's cheeks are distinctly tear-stained, yet the smile which spreads on her face makes up for however disgusting she looks with the grime caked into her clothes and skin and hair. She's beautiful, Sam thinks, even if her hair doesn't look quite like the fire the Chimera exhales anymore. Sam imagines Sarah has always been beautiful but Sam never noticed until now.
Sam finally turns her gaze away towards the head of the grave. She concentrates, and a clump of daisies blooms in the uneven earth as if it were only natural. They white petals brush against the brick in something reminiscent of a farewell.
Sam is the first to stand up. She pulls Sarah up before wiping her cheeks of any evidence that she'd been crying while Sarah does the same. Their shoulders brush too frequently as they walk back towards Lena and Michael, but the other two either don't notice or don't comment on it.
As Michael and Lena walk ahead of them down the street, Sam and Sarah lag slightly behind. “Your glass eye.” Sam says as to Sarah she points towards her left eye.
Sarah shrugs. “It hurt too much to have it.” she replies; in lieu of a response, Sam brushes her shoulder against hers so that their fingers touch. It's comforting, she realizes now, having someone beside her. She doesn't quite know what this means for them, but she wouldn't mind finding out.
“Michael, can we stop? I'm tired.” Lena asks some hours later after they leave the suburbs and find themselves in a small town that might have been quaint and homely, once, but now the blue paint chips off the now-unreadable welcome sign at the city's entrance, and the windows of nearly every building are smashed in. Most of the buildings have caved in roofs and gapping holes with missing rooms, but some still look decent.
“'Course.” Michael tells her and leads the four of them into a small corner store where the windows have been broken in. Michael opens the door after a few tries and gestures the three of them inside. The sunlight filtering into the store isn't much, and Sam wishes they had brought lanterns with them from their last safe house. She internally scolds herself for not having the forethought. Some of the shelves have been previously pushed to create a sort of a endoskeleton for a tent-like structure, and there are still a few stray cans of food on the tiled floor.
Lena pulls a sheet from one of her duffle bags and covers the broken windows with it using duct tape while Michael pulls out a distinctly torn sleeping bag and lays it out next to the wall closest to the door. “I'm going to look for a mattress in one of the buildings. Sam, can you help me?” Sam looks at Sarah before nodding. She sets her bags in a corner of the store near the broken, empty refrigerators and steps outside with Michael. He's about an inch shorter than her, with a birthmark on his right cheek and drooping eyes from lack of sleep. His skin is dark like Lena's.
Even as they leave, he looks back at the corner store enough times that he nearly trips over the bricks littering their path as they walk towards a bed and breakfast that looks almost ready to fall apart. Sam catches him by his jacket before he falls face-first on the ground. “Your sister will be fine,” Sam informs him after she kicks open the door. A greyhound that looks thin and sickly bolts outside as soon as the door opens even a fraction.
“You don't know that.” he retorts, yet after he says the words his shoulders fall. He sighs deeply as Sam pushes open the fading floral curtains so the rays of light can stream into the house. “I'm just worried about her. She's only a kid, and we lost our parents recently – I don't know how she's coping.”
Sam pockets a box of matches in one of the kitchen cabinets and grabs a kitchen knife from the cutlery drawer. She tosses another to Michael who barely catches it. “You're her brother, aren't you? Help her deal with it.” She kicks away a chair as she wraps the knife's blade with a kitchen towel and stuffs it in a back pocket of her jeans. As she rummages through the other rooms, she finds a pile of bathroom towels which she takes, a couple bobby pins, and a pen. The bobby pins and pen she stuff in her jacket pocket while she tosses the pile of bathroom towels on the cleanest mattress she can find after striping away the yellowing sheets.
“Every time I ask her about it she pushes me away.” Michael admits as he lifts his end of the mattress. Slowly, he walks backwards, frequently turning his head to look behind himself, and they both carry the mattress out of the bedroom and outside of the house.
“She'll let you in when she wants to, then.” Sam informs him as they slowly walk back towards the corner store. He mutters something under his breath at that, but when Sam looks at him he averts his gaze. “It sounds like you're pressuring her to talk to you.”
“I'm not,” he claims before nearly tripping over a rock. As he rights himself he adds, “I just want what's best for her.” Sam raises her eyebrows yet doesn't say anything. “She's so young...I don't want this world to ruin her so soon.”
Once they approach the corner store, Sam opens the door with vines so that Michael doesn't have to stop and open it. “You don't have a choice in that, Michael.” she informs him before helping him bring the mattress inside. They both drop it on the floor at the same time; Michael kicks it against a wall. Before she weaves through the upright shelves towards her stuff, she looks back at him with something she thinks is pity in her eyes. “Sorry.”
At her little corner of the building, she takes off her stiff jacket and bunches it into something resembling a pillow after spreading a blanket on the floor. She fits the jacket underneath her head when she lays down and immediately falls asleep.
She wakes up to the store filled with darkness, unlike light how she anticipates. As Sam sits up on the blanket, she imagines the activity of everything that happened yesterday must have kept her from sleeping enough. Oddly, however, she doesn't find herself fighting exhaustion. After her eyes adjust to the dark and she can barely make out the shelves in front of her, she takes out the box of matches and lights one with a fair bit of difficulty.
The dim light casts a faint shadows across the shelves as Sam stands up and walks silently out of the corner store. She kneels down on the sidewalk where she can dimly see the weeds poking through the cracks, and she wills a small tomato plant to grow. After the tomatoes change from green to rich red, she digs into them as if she hasn't eaten in ages. The plant curls back into the ground once she's finished eating, and she almost leaves before she hears the scuff of shoes against concrete. Her body tenses before Sarah says, “Sam, it's me.”
Sam shifts so her legs are stretched out in front of her. Sarah sits down next to her closely enough that their shoulders touch. The stars glitter up in the night sky above them; they look almost as if they were painted on their nighttime canvas that's gradually growing brighter as the sun rises. “What I said at Eric's grave yesterday...I'm sorry if that made you uncomfortable.” Sarah murmurs. “I shouldn't have said that.”
Sam shakes her head even though Sarah isn't looking at her. “It's fine, Sarah.” More than fine, Sam supposes, but she doesn't want to admit that.
Sarah looks at Sam, and in the dim light of the match Sam notices the misshapen eyepatch covering Sarah's left eye. “You feel the same about me?” she asks. If it was day, Sam knows she would see Sarah's face grow red.
“I think so.” Sam replies. She gives Sarah a small smile, and Sarah smiles back. Yet Sam can't help think that they will never find actual happiness in this world. Not until they reach San Francisco at least, which Nadia claimed was the only compound close to them. They're still a few days away from it; anything can happen in a few days. Sam tells herself not to think about any of that, however, even if the dread curls in her stomach.
Sarah's fingers tangle with Sam's; she squeezes her hand as if she knows the doubts plaguing Sam's mind. “We're going to be fine.” Sarah reassures her, yet Sam doubts if Sarah even believes that herself. Nothing about this world has been kind to either of them, so there isn't any reason they should believe in the brightening horizon otherwise.
“We'll be at San Francisco in three days if we keep moving northwest.” Sam says instead as she looks towards the sunrise. She half-expects something to come from the skies, but nothing does. She could be thankful, but she can't help but find the peace unnerving. “What will you do after we get there?”
“I don't know.” Sam admits. “I'll see if Alissa made it back safely, and if she has I need to help her find her parents.”
“You really care about her, don't you?”
Sam exhales slowly. “Maybe she reminds me of myself when I was young.” How she wished so much for her own father to return, how she clung to her own naivety for comfort.
“You should come back when you find her parents.” Sarah tells her, and Sam notices the underlying meaning to her words. She gets it, but she can't see herself staying in the same place for too long. Sarah undoubtably understands that as well, but everyone she has lost are too close to her memory for it to not hurt her. “You don't have to stay.” Sarah adds. “I know you wouldn't want to.”
“I'll come back,” Sam assures her. She finally turns back to Sarah, noting the way her freckles stand out on her cheeks now that she washed away the dirt from her face. Without thinking about it, she leans forward and asks in a whisper, “Can I kiss you?”
Sarah licks her lips. “Please.”
So Sam does.
Sarah hands Sam a water bottle after she steps inside the corner store, although her gaze wanders towards Lena's sweating, fragile form on the mattress Sam and Michael had brought in over a week ago. Her legs tangle in the sheets, her body writhes, and as Michael presses a ruined, damp shirt to Lena's forehead his hand reaches out to grasp hers. Lena stops thrashing, if only for a moment, and then Michael begins to hum. Even Sam finds herself admitting his voice is soothing. After a few minutes, Lena finally falls asleep, but even in Michael's awkward sitting position he refuses to leave her side.
“How is she doing?” Sam asks him.
He frowns, furrows his brows, then looks up at her. “Not good.” he admits with a tremble in his voice that warns the inevitable breaking of a threshold. The bags under his eyes grow darker each day, now, and Sam feels sorry for him knowing there's nothing any of them can do. Any sort of sickness can lead to death, now.
“The Stymphalian birds are moving closer.” she warns him even as Sarah's fingers brush the inner part of Sam's wrist. “We have to leave soon.”
Michael swallows. He doesn't answer for some time, instead letting his gaze drop back towards his sister. She has always looked so young, so fragile in Sam's eyes, but now she's forcibly reminded of how much of a kid Lena actually is. “I can't. I can't just leave her alone.” Tears slip off his nose, creating damp spots on the sheet. “I'm the only one she has left.”
Sam doesn't respond, so Sarah pulls the blanket from her makeshift bed on the floor and gives it to Michael. “I know.” she murmurs as he tucks it around Lena's body. The sunlight highlights Lena's body as if she's some holy figure, not someone fighting back sickness with every inch of her life, and the shadows slipping down Michael's back give the impression of someone breaking. Sam almost worries what this will do to him.
When Sarah turns to face Sam, she isn't smiling. With the Stymphalian birds darting in and out of their line of sight, offering faux promises of their disappearance that none of them believe, and Lena's sickness keeping them caged in this small building Sam can barely breathe in, everything might end here. Michael's devotion to his sister will get him killed, and Sarah won't let him stay here by himself, and Sam finds herself in the middle with the realization that no one should by themselves to watch their sibling die. They have to leave eventually, the question is when, and how many of them will remain.
“Michael,” Sam finally says after a moments, “you need to rest. You're no good to Lena barely awake. Sarah and I can watch her.”
Michael opens his mouth in a protest, but when he glances at his sister his shoulders relax and he curls into himself with a nod of agreement. His arms wrap protectively around his torso, as if protecting himself from some threat as he nods off; his back leans against the wall and his head hangs forward – Sam practically feels the neck cramp he's going to have when he wakes up. Thin stubble dots his face; eventually, the hairs will grow into wisps if he continuously forgets them. Sam pulls blanket over his body, her gaze pausing at the creases on his forehead, before she steps away.
“He'll be fine.” Sarah murmurs. Her hand slides down Sam's wrist so their fingers entwine, and Sam finds herself leaning into the touch.
“He will be.” Sam replies as her gaze darts to Lena's form. Once, Sam herself had contracted a small cold several months after the woman taking care of her died. She had been miles away from her house, then, as if subconsciously she wanted to run her fingers over the banisters and look out her bedroom window to watch the sea kissing the beaches as she promised herself the hum of cars foretold her father's return. She had been still experimenting with her powers at the time, so assumed she could grow anything even if she made it up in her head, so naturally tried to grow a cure for herself. It didn't work, in the end, so she had to wait for herself to recover. She swore she was dying.
Sarah pulls Sam towards their makeshift beds of pulled couch cushions, blankets, and sheets and lets herself land ungracefully so her broken arm jostles against her body. Sam sits cross-legged across from her. “Nadia will be in San Francisco.” Sam reminds her as her fingers trace invisible shapes on Sarah's palm. She's found it has become a habit, nervous or otherwise, yet Sarah never objects to it.
“I know,” Sarah replies. Her gaze falls from Sam's towards their hands. “I don't know what else you want me to say.”
Sam frowns. “You aren't angry?”
Sarah shakes her head. “Of course I am.” She doesn't elaborate, instead she changes the subject. “What are we going to do about the Stymphalian birds? They're too fast to land an attack on all of them, and even your shield was ruined the last time you ran into them.”
“We'll have to leave before they get here, then.” Sam replies. She looks back in Michael and Lena's general direction deliberately; Sarah pulls her hand so Sam redirects her attention on Sarah.
“Stop,” Sarah murmurs. “it isn't their fault.” She laces her fingers with Sam's again, pulling her closer so Sam is basically sitting in her lap. Sam's free hand settles on Sarah's waist.
“I'm not dying in a corner store.” Sam mutters, yet her eyes don't quite meet Sarah when she says it.
“Show some empathy for once.” Sarah replies. Sam's body tenses briefly before relaxing against Sarah's. Several minutes pass, the shadows settle in the store, so Sarah asks, “What did you want to be before this?”
Sam lifts her head where she'd been resting it on Sarah's good shoulder. “What?” Sarah shrugs. “You know, what did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a teacher.” At that, Sam lets out a snort and barely manages to muffle her laugh in time. Sarah shoves her lightly with her arm. “Shut up.”
“I can't see you as a teacher.” Sam admits. “What would you do, teach them how to brawl?” When Sarah doesn't respond immediately, Sam raises her eyebrows in disbelief.
“It was mostly because I wanted to prove my classmates wrong,” Sarah admits, “they always made fun of me because I had awful grades, so I decided I would become a teacher and be perfect in everything.” Sarah pauses before adding, “It wouldn't have worked out anyway. So what about you?”
“An artist.” Sam says after a few moments. “I liked drawing. But I would have been anything to get my name out there.” She doesn't elaborate, but Sarah's smile still slips off her face.
“I'm sorry, Sam.”
“Don't be. I'm over it.” But Sam figures it's obvious she isn't. She lets her forehead fall on Sarah's shoulder again, curls her limbs around Sarah's body whilst mindful of Sarah's broken arm, and tries to remember how she became so dependent on this. Perhaps it's only natural, considering what happened to her in her life, to gravitate towards positive touch. That, and Sarah's body is like a furnace. “I think about my foster parents sometimes. About how I lost them in the crowds, about how they must have worried about me, never knowing if I was alive or dead in all the chaos happening around them.” Sam doesn't register her body shaking until Sarah's hand pulls away from Sam's and rests around her waist. “I should have been better to them.”
“You were a kid.” Sarah objects. “You wouldn't have known what you were doing was wrong, you were just confused and upset.”
“I never tried to find them, Sarah, I just assumed they were dead. They probably did die early on while they were looking for me.” Sam has half the mind to distance herself from Sarah, as if the physical space between them might separate herself from her own emotions. “They probably died when the plagues hit. Sickness – that's the worst way to go.” She looks back at Lena, where she imagines she can see her body behind the shelves separating them. Even back then, it was always the worst way to go, and now it's only grown into something practically unsurvivable.
“It isn't your fault.”
“Maybe not their deaths, but I've killed other people. Days before I came to the hotel, I met this kid hunkered down in a car. I killed him without a second thought because Medusa was following me. That kid we saw with the bandits, Richard, tried to get me to save his sister from the bandits and I refused. I got us into that mess at Daniel and Aaron's house. I got Eric killed –“
“Sam.” Sarah shifts so her hand is cupping Sam's cheek, forcing Sam to look at her. In the dim lighting, the shadows arcing across her face make her look nearly statuesque, something carved by time. Perhaps Sam looks the same, or perhaps she looks like nothing more than a ghost hollowed by this world. “Eric's death wasn't your fault. You're different now, okay? I didn't know you before the hotel, but you went from someone fleeing a burning hotel to someone who risks her own safety for the comfort of people she barely knows.” Sarah smiles, the upwards curving of her lips promising nothing. “I'm glad I met you.” she says like she had done weeks ago.
Sam swallows. Realistically, she knows she doesn't need anyone to survive, and yet. “I'm glad I met you, too.” And it isn't a lie.
They take turns looking after Lena and sleeping. Sam presses the damp rag to Lena's forehead as Lena's fingernails dig into the flesh of Sam's wrist. What nightmares Lena's dreaming of, Sam doesn't want to know. Anything that terrifies the kid that much isn't something she wants to experience, even if only through word of mouth.
The rain comes several hours later, just on the cusp of dawn. The droplets tap against the windows in a rhythm even enough to fall asleep to but loud enough to prove bothersome. The only reason the others are asleep, Sam imagines, is because of exhaustion. Lena curls into a fetal position on her side, and for once the only sound are the raindrops. Occasionally, a thunderclap will arise after a flash of lightning; it's almost peaceful sitting here in the corner store, away from the monsters and bandits and whatever else lurks in the night. It has been a while since Sam genuinely felt this way.
After a disruptive crack of thunder, Lena jolts upwards as if she herself had been struck by lightning. Sam immediately tries to push Lena back on the mattress, but even in her weakened state Lena doesn't budge. “M-mom?” she whispers.
“Sam.” Sam corrects, but if Lena means to say anything it's interrupted by a coughing fit. She pulls the blankets more tightly around her body after Sam pulls her hands away from Lena's shoulders. Whatever Lena hasn't isn't contagious, that much all of them know, so at least no one else will die from it. At the thought, something bitter rises in Sam's throat.
“How are you feeling?” Sam asks. She already knows the answer, but the question might relax Lena somewhat if she knows other people care about her, even if it's only two others.
Lena shrugs. “The same,” she admits, “but I'm not as cold anymore.” If only that was the solution to this. If only all it took was the love and comfort of family to be whole. Sam shifts beside her. “You should sleep to regain your strength.” she tells Lena, but with the girl's moon-wide eyes she knows her words are meaningless.
“I can't,” Lena whispers, as if her words will wake up the others even though their snores say otherwise. “because when I sleep I always see my mom.”
Sam almost wants to say something. Maybe I see my father in my dreams, too, or I'm sorry, or You should talk to your brother about it because he worries about you. Except she doesn't, and Lena speaks instead.
“I see my dad sometimes, too. We're on a cruise ship, usually in Europe, and my mom's telling me about the popular cities and the food and the languages. She knew French, but she didn't know enough to teach us properly. That didn't stop her from telling us random words in the language.
“Michael said we used to go on cruises when I was little. He always told my mom he couldn't wait till I became a world famous doctor. I think he wanted a famous sibling he could brag about.” Lena leans against Sam. “I'm scared.” she admits. “I don't want to die.” And as if in a sick joke, she starts coughing.
The bags underneath Michael's eyes grow steadily darker with each passing day, and even if a smile splits his face as Lena smiles at him and manages to hold a conversation before dissolving into a coughing fit, his eyes don't quite sparkle. His fingers brush against the pulse point in Lena's wrist even when she's conscious, and his eyes only part from Lena when the dark dots on the horizon grow steadily darker.
Lena never grows stronger. It was inevitable, Sam tells herself, and they all knew it. All they can do is make sure she's comfortable and well-rested; eventually, she begins sleeping more often, and it seems like a sign that she will get better. Seems.
Sam never tells Michael what Lena told her, and perhaps she's misguided for keeping the information from him. It feels wrong to betray the dying wishes of a child, however.
“I'm not leaving her.” Michael says several mornings later when Sam is reorganizing their supplies. “You two need to leave, when Lena gets better we'll follow you to San Francisco.” It's the most commanding he's been since Sam first met him, and she allows herself to appear surprised. He gestures towards the bag Sam now fills with supplies, and Sarah's gaze moves between the two as if she wants to say the words on everyone's mind.
Instead, Sarah nods. She hands Michael her pistol, then reaches in her bag for a box of ammo which she tosses to him. “It won't be much,” she admits, “but it's something.” When he stands, she pulls him into an ungraceful hug that has Sarah on her tiptoes. His hands linger on her shoulders, and he manages a smile. “Take care of yourself.” she tells him, yet there's a certain grim quality to her words. Michael nods at Sam before she and Sarah leave; it's almost haunting.
It's strange to think how only weeks ago Lena was healthy and celebrating her birthday. How she had been laughing with Michael as he spun her around a living room not yet consumed by flames, how her smiles reached her eyes, how Michael smiled with her rather than frowned at the possibility of living in a world without her.
And now, they're parting. Michael and Lena will succumb to their own fates – be it dying in the corner store or dying elsewhere miles away – and Sam and Sarah will finally move towards San Francisco once again. Then Sam will leave with Alissa in tow, assuming she's even at San Francisco, but now the thought of leaving Sarah behind leaves a bitter aftertaste. She was used to leaving people by now, but this time she knows she'll experience collateral.
“Sam, are you okay?” Sarah asks once they leave the town. The Stymphalian birds are steadily growing on the horizon, not enough to warrant immediate fear but enough for Sam and Sarah to pick up their pace. They'll smell Michael and Lena first, then the residual odor Sarah and Sam give off, so with any luck they won't run into the monsters at all.
“Fine.” Sam replies. She's alive, which is more than Lena and Michael will be eventually. “We need to keep moving.” she adds, if only to rid them of the silence.
Mere hours later, the shrieks fill the air. Sam pulls Sarah against a truck laying on its side as the barrage of bronze feathers rains down on them. They thud against the metal, and the dents which form are just dents Sam reminds herself. With her heart hammering in her chest, she swallows. “We'll hop from car to car,” she says as she looks back at the stretch of land ahead of them. The street looms ahead with abandoned vehicles dotting it in odd places.
Sarah nods, then she leans over and kisses Sam, but slowly as if they might die. Sam supposes there's a sort of relief in knowing they can do this now, even if she wishes the circumstances are different. “We'll split up,” Sarah tells her after she pulls away, “it might help.” She smiles as if the action reassures them, then her hand grasps Sam's own before she disappears.
Sam runs away immediately after. She ducks when she sees the bronze feathers, yet some still manage to stick in the bags at her back. She slides towards an upright van just as a feather graze her leg only just enough to barely break the skin. She brushes her hand against the wound, thankful that there isn't any bleeding so far, and after a few seconds catching her breath she sprints towards the next vehicle. Sam does this again and again, chancing glances behind her, until a Stymphalian bird dives.
In retrospect, the sight of the monster pulling in its wings and rocketing towards her is almost beautiful. The white-spotted feathers grow more prominent as the bird approaches, and strangely enough the other six stop their relentless attack as if knowing the one shooting towards her will take the kill for all of them.
Sam turns and pushes herself to run as fast as humanly possible. Out of the corner of her eye she notices Sarah running a few feet away from her and still taking cover behind upturned and upright vehicles. Sam tries not to pay attention to her as she dodges vehicles and strewn tires, and instead she relishes in the thought that if the bird is hurtling towards her her sword might be some use.
She doesn't get the chance, and instead just as she unsheathes her sword pain rips through her calf in the shape of talons. She looks down at her left leg, at the white talons poking through the flesh now bubbling red blood, and with all her strength she drives the sword through the bird's head. It falls lifelessly to the ground, and as Sam crumbles to the ground she rips the bird's foot from her leg in a way that she knows does more damage. Yet all she's thinking about now is getting the thing out of her leg.
Before the other birds can react, Sam ties a spare shirt around her leg, pulls herself up, and limps towards a truck both upright and with both tires intake. Sam doesn't register Sarah getting in, but suddenly Sarah's voice is echoing in her head as Sam struggles to hotwire the truck. Bronze feathers thud against the glass, prompting both of them to sink in their seats, and after a few moments the truck is steadily moving. Sam practically stomps on the gas, and the truck speeds down the road.
Only seconds pass before Sam's head starts swimming. She's half aware of the pain in her leg, of Sarah's hand clutching her arm, of the Stymphalian birds attacking the truck, of the world passing before her eyes. When her eyes close, she barely registers Sarah's nails digging into her skin.
Sam's dimly aware that she's on something harder than the ground. Her left leg is propped up, yet she can't feel it after her knee. She thinks someone's crying beside her; she has half the idea to open her eyes and ask them about it, about why they would cry over her, yet instead of doing that she feels herself fade away.
Sam's fingers weave around the leaves of the plant before she even processes that she's awake. She sits up, her eyes immediately drawn towards her now now-missing left leg where a belt has been tied over a fresh shirt covering the stump, and feels Sarah fling her arm around Sam's neck. Neither of them say anything for what feels like hours while Sam processes what's happened and where she is, and Sarah cries what feels like a year's worth of tears onto Sam's chest.
The scent of wood assaults her nostrils next, after the metallic of blood, then she takes in the stained glass of the church, the ceiling as far away as the sky. Sarah's sobs echo throughout the building – the sound is almost assuring because it reminds Sam they're both still alive. She'd never been to a church before. Her foster parents weren't religious enough to go daily, and they figured that Sam would show her own inclination towards religion in time.
“I thought you were dead,” Sarah finally admits some years later with her voice muffled. Or, they feel like years. She can't feel the stump of her leg as if it has been years. “I thought you were dead.” she repeats after she pulls her face away from Sam's chest. The diminishing warmth replaces itself in her face, her neck, her shoulder, as Sarah slides her hand across Sam's neck and her lips press against Sam's cheeks, lips, her throat fluttering as she swallows.
“I'm fine,” Sam replies. She cups Sarah's face in her hands before kissing her, once, on the lips. “I'm fine.” she murmurs, because the repetition is a comfort and if she says the words long enough she will be. She kisses Sarah again. She knows she could stop, if she wanted, but their close proximity is something she's quickly grown attached to.
Her fingertips memorize the smoothness of Sarah's jaw, then the slight uphill of her skin marking the moles in her flesh – still, her hands dip to her neck where the necklace of teeth hangs as a bitter omen. The stained harpy fang rests in the hollow of her throat; Sam's thumb grazes the skin before she dips her head and presses her lips to the skin. Not hard enough to leave a mark, but perhaps she would want to. Perhaps Sarah would let her, if the bleeding knuckles weeks ago were anything to go by.
“I had to cut it off.” Sarah says into the air, but her words feel displaced. Spoken only to fill the silence with something. “Your leg would have been infected so you wouldn't have survived otherwise. I knew it was a risk. I thought you would die.” Sarah shifts so her forehead presses against Sam's, and anything else they might do will feel so much less intimate than that. “I was terrified.” Sarah's fingers curl around Sam's wrist; for a moment, Sam waits for the inevitable pain of nails digging into her skin. The pain would be welcome, she realizes, because it would be a testament of her living body. Perhaps Sarah has the same thought.
“I'm alive, Sarah.” Sam murmurs. “I'm alive.” Her eyes close so that darkness fills her vision, yet the steady rhythm of Sarah's breathing reminds her she's okay.
They must spend days in the church. Maybe weeks, maybe more than that because Sarah finally begins moving her broken arm again – or perhaps she's just overeager. Sam ties the left leg of her pants, changes the shirt over the stitched up wound, and wakes up imagining her leg is still there. She can still feel it more often than when she can't, yet Sarah's always there to catch her before she crumples to the floor.
It should be embarrassing. But perhaps, because it's Sarah, she doesn't care as much. Perhaps she knew it would happen the second the talons tore through her flesh. Perhaps she simply stopped caring.
Sarah disappears one day for several hours and returns with crutches. She admits that she wants to build a prosthetic but knows she can't unless she has the proper materials or even the skill. Or time is left implied because according to her the Stymphalian birds aren't far away. They aren't smart enough to have tracked the truck, Sarah reassures Sam, but they're smart enough to know she and Sarah are nearby.
Sam begins walking again as soon as she can. It takes a few days to get used to walking with crutches, and it takes longer to remember why she has them in the first place. She knows she doesn't have a leg, how can she not know, but Sam doesn't quite process it. When she's minutes from sleep, she swears she can feel her toes. She swears she wiggles them against each other. She swears she curls them against her foot.
She grows flowers up from the gaps between the tiles, and the stems push away the tiles as if they're stronger than they really are rather than being controlled by an external force, and the droplets of blood stain their green leaves. Hyssop for her. Lilac for Sarah. A mix of roses and geraniums and lilies for practice, Sam tells herself, yet she can't deny she's grown fond of their colors.
“Don't strain yourself.” Sarah warns. Her hand slides against Sam's – she uses her healing arm much more, now, more than she should. But as long as she's careful, Sam tells herself, then she smiles because when ever would that occur.
Sam squeezes Sarah's hand. “I'm fine,” she tells her. “I'm getting better at this.” For emphasis, she coaxes the strawberries further from the ground, further than they should go, and takes a few for herself. She leaves the others for Sarah. “You should be taking care of yourself.” She adds when her eyes fall on Sarah's still-weak arm.
“I am.” Sarah tells her. She bumps her own shoulder against Sam's as if they're only children. As if the world hasn't yet caved in on itself.
“We could stay here,” Sarah whispers. Her legs stretch out in front of her as if seeing how she fits in space here. “We would need to scavenge for supplies every now and then, but it's warm here. It's spacious.”
“We would hate it ever after a few days,” Sam reminds her. In the darkness, she can just make out the statue of Jesus overlooking them, observing them like he's met to. It's lonely here, something Sam admires, yet the air is so stifling that even being here out of necessity has become a chore. “and you would get bored once you stop fighting monsters.”
“But we would be safe.” Sarah comments, as if their safety is worth their sanity.
Sarah leaves, sometimes. With her arm mostly healed, she comes back with bruises lacing the skin, lacerations around her knuckles, and blood staining her fingernails. Sam will wrap the cuts in bandages with a care she doesn't remember having for other people before, and with the brushing of her fingers against Sarah's wrist she asks her to stop.
But, as Sam knows, some things have become too much of a habit. And some things have just run too deep.
“The Stymphalian birds have moved on,” Sarah informs Sam. She leans against the back of the pew, stretching her left leg out so it brushes against Sam's right leg. “It looks like they were feeding off the animals in the area and whatever else they could scavenge.” Her injured hand rests in her lap, not quite cradled yet not quite ignored. “We can leave tomorrow, if you want.”
She smiles at Sam, one that doesn't reach her eye. Her lips look as if they would be rough underneath Sam's, they look as if ridges have healed into the skin as if Sarah had been working her teeth into the flesh. Her red curls cascade down her shoulder in a manner easily described as ungraceful, and her jeans tear at the hems, and the purple bruises on her arm will eventually go green then yellow in some rancid mimicry of an incomplete rainbow. “I'm here for you, Sam.” she murmurs.
Sarah shifts. She looks at the tiles around them, at the pews displaced from their columns long before Sam and Sarah ever came here, at the flowers slowly dying beside them. Sam could revive them if she wanted. She could cause them to live forever and outlast all of them if she wanted. But her eyes shift towards her left leg ending in a stump.
They leave the following morning.
Sarah piles their belongings in the truck before getting in the driver's seat. Sam stretches her leg as far as she can in the passenger seat once Sarah begins driving, and she imagines that San Francisco isn't far now. The closer they get to the city, the closer Sam gets to a prosthetic. A bed. A shower. Fresh clothes. Perhaps she's only imagining it as a paradise and it will turn into anything but. If Sarah shares her thoughts, she doesn't voice them.
Their hands entwine in the space between them. Their callouses don't match, and Sarah's hands birth more scars than Sam's ever will, yet something blooms between the two not unlike how a rose springs from the earth. Sam doesn't mention it. She wonders if she's too afraid to acknowledge what ever is between them, to recognize it as anything more than attraction.
Still, warmth bleeds into Sam's skin upwards from her hand to her shoulder then the rest of her body.
“Are you okay?” Sarah asks some hours later as the landscapes still pass before them. Sam can count on one hand the people she has seen walking along the road who look up when Sarah passes them. Most of the cars they've seen have been striped clean, leaving only a skeleton behind. Animals root around the once-structured piles of metal, and in the sky the birds seem to follow them.
Sam squeezes Sarah's hand. She likes her hands, she decides, and the way her fingers weave in Sam's hair now down past her shoulders. The warmth of them is comforting. Sarah traces shapes into Sam's skin with her hands as if there's something to be desired from the action. The skin cracks where the moisture has left them, causing angry red marks to squeeze in between defined lines, yet Sam doesn't find them hideous. There will be scars there, eventually, more than either of them can count. Scars Sam will trace with her own fingers over as if to memorize them and soak in the stories which they tell. Eventually, no new scars will appear. Or, perhaps Sam is only thinking hopeful thoughts.
Sam doesn't respond right away. “My leg.” is all she says when she finally does, and she swears her vision begins to blur. She blinks her eyes rapidly before anything can become of it, and she pulls the back of Sarah's hand towards her mouth. She kisses it once, as if the action absolves her of something.
Sarah has good hands.
“I know.” Sarah murmurs. “I know.” she repeats, and Sam supposes she does.
The ocean comes into view before anything else. As the sun gradually dips in the sky, the orange rays glitter the waters and makes them look near-ethereal. The buildings seem to spiral off of it, yet their birth is not a happy one. The buildings now grayscale decay and crumple as if the weight of the world is crushing them, and oh, how unkind time is to everything.
“Eric should be here.” Sarah's voice is barely above a whisper because if she spoke any louder she would be breaking something fragile, something sacred. “He would have loved to see this up close.” Any of them would have. Any person would have wanted to see this up close. And yet.
Sam squeezes Sarah's hand. It isn't much, she admits, but it's something. The promise of companionship is a cruelty so sweet, Sam has come to realize.
The wall Sam notices next.
It must be larger than the wall that once bordered the hotel by feet. Even from the distance, Sam imagines it was crafted through some care of the people it protected because there are no visible faults it in. It's a grayscale color with splotches of brown and red – perhaps paint, or worse – and Sam imagines the gate lies somewhere beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. Somewhere beyond the miles of walking, their refuge exists. The people they were taken from. The people who left them behind. For a moment, Sam wishes the sea would swallow the city whole.
The truck dies before they reach the bridge. Sarah kicks at the interior, but with a sigh she jumps out of the truck and gathers their things while Sam follows suit. She grabs her own bags, then reaches for the sword no longer in its scabbard.
“We'll find you another one.” Sarah tells her with a smile. She reaches over and presses a kiss to Sam's cheek. “I'm sorry we have to walk.”
“Don't be. I can handle it.” Sam replies as she shifts on her crutches. She gives Sarah a smile of her own, and they set off as the sky changes colors.
After only five minutes of walking, Sam stops and looks out at the sea. The waves crash against the shore, against the beams, and as the light dissolves in the water Sam almost imagines something emerging from the depths. “You believe in the Leviathan, don't you? What if it was under us right now?”
Sarah laughs. “It's probably too large.” she replies. Her shoulder brushes against Sam's. “You still don't believe it exists, do you?”
“I don't have any reason to.” Sam replies. The crutches thunk against the bridge as she starts moving again.
The gate comes into view not unlike how paradise should appear. It towers over them, as it should, and sentries walk on top of it with objects that look like rifles on their backs. Sarah presses on before Sam, her steps nearly overeager, and the sentries stop. Sam's stomach drops even before the shot rings out.
Something in her heart aches at Sarah's scream of pain, and when her body topples like a house of cards Sam doesn't even register tossing her crutches away from her body as she reaches to catch Sarah's body. Her hands grope for the bullet wound in her limbs first, but finding nothing she steels herself before her hands feel the damp fabric of Sarah's shirt.
Sam pulls back her bloodied hand from Sarah's abdomen, and this time when her vision blurs she lets the tears fall.
It's been hours.
Perhaps only seconds.
Perhaps days have gone by. Months, years, decades. Sam doesn't care much for the intervals of time, and instead focuses her gaze on the red splotches on the porcelain sink. The water runs cold, a fitting reality, and underneath the fingernails her skin is permanently stained red.
She tastes the blood in her mouth. She tries to remember when she would have brought her fingers to her lips. Maybe she was praying. But no, she isn't religious. Maybe she was crying. Yes, she was definitely crying. Even now, she can't see her face in the mirror clearly; the edges of her vision blurs.
Her hair hangs wet against her face. And her face – her scar looks so prominent, now. She thinks of the scars on Sarah's hands, the scar on her thigh running upward, the scars on her right hip, the scar she will have. Will she have it? Sam hopes she will. If she doesn't that means she'll die. And Sam. She doesn't want to watch her die. Know that she's dead.
Sam wonders if she should be sobbing.
The boy – child, couldn't have been more than fifteen – had started dry heaving when he saw the body. He claimed it was an accident. He'd been spooked by the noise. Bandits, he had claimed, they had been at the compound before. It was Karen, he blamed, she was telling me stories about them. I never even wanted the rifle, he added. I was just on kitchen duty before this. I was good at that, he said with a forced smile. Snot was streaming down his face and mingling with his tears. Tell me she isn't going to die, he begged as Sarah's body was gently placed on a cot.
They have a good system, Sam remembers thinking before she pushed the kid out of her way with one of her crutches. She doesn't remember standing up. She might have touched her lips, then. Accidentally. She remembers trying to follow them, then two people pushing her away.
Some paradise, she remembers thinking.
She would take the Leviathan over this.
Someone knocks on the bathroom door. Sam pushes herself away from the sink before realizing she doesn't have her crutches and falls subsequently against the bathroom wall. She pushes herself up then leans against the sink while she grabs her crutches. She wipes her face with her arm before opening the door to an elderly woman who pushes Sam aside gently. When the door shuts in Sam's face, she immediately moves towards the reception desk of the hospital. It looks too much like it was before everything happened, as if nothing ever did. Perhaps this is why this is the only compound for miles, Sam thinks, because no one else can imagine anything better.
The receptionist is a man in his early thirties. He's attractive, but not overly so. “A young woman was taken here,” she tells him when he looks up at her with a smile that's too cheerful. He has a name tag that reads BRIAN pinned to his uniform. “she had red hair and was shot in the abdomen. Where is she?” Sam's eyes fall towards the vase of daisies. She has the thought to kill the flowers.
The man shakes head. “She isn't available for visitors, I'm sorry. You're more than welcome to wait here if she recovers.”
Everyone still has the same odds, even here.
Sam swallows back a retort as her face knits itself into a scowl. If she shows anger, she blocks out the sadness. It's easier if she doesn't cry. It's easier if no one sees her do it.
The first chair Sam sees she collapses into. Her leg stretches out on the floor and her crutches lean against the chair as deadweight. The smell of disinfectant curls something foul in her stomach. Sam had been in a hospital once before. Her foster mother had been in a car accident. Nothing major, she told Sam and her husband with a smile as she lay in the hospital bed, just a few stitches on my arm. I didn't even get any broken bones.
If only Sarah just had broken bones. If only the kid didn't have the rifle. If only the kid stayed on kitchen duty. If only Sam had anticipated it and pushed Sarah away. If only Sam had been shot instead. If only Sarah hadn't been hit in the abdomen. Back then, she would have a chance, but now Sam wouldn't be surprised if she only lasted a few hours.
She can coax life back into flowers, she remembers thinking sitting next to a dying Lena, so why can't she coax life back into people? Sarah is more important than any flower she could grow, any vegetable or fruit that would keep her alive.
Sam doesn't remember falling asleep, but someone prods her shoulder. As if she's a thing in the way. As if they have no regard for why she's here. She might have dreamt something, but she's forgotten now as she glares up at the woman prodding her shoulder. She has warm brown eyes, but Sam only registers the way the fingers probe into her shoulder. “Sweetie, are you okay?” The woman can't be less than fifty years old, but she sounds much older. Maybe everything dulled her voice.
“Fine.” Sam replies. She pushes herself out of the chair, narrows her eyes at the way the woman's eyes linger too long on her stump, and drags herself towards the reception desk. The clinical lights flicker overhead as if to remind everyone here they still exist in the world after everything. Hope is too cruel, even in the hands of the healthy.
“Looking for your friend again?” The voice is light, sweet as honey. Sam looks at the woman a few years older than her, a few inches shorter than her, and wishes her hair wasn't red. She's wearing a smile framed by a mole on her chin and has thick glasses. She wears a nurse's uniform – or what was once one. Now, Sam supposes anything could pass for official as long as you had the experience to fit the job.
“Can I see her?” Sam doesn't even bother to try to hide the desperation in her voice. Briefly, she thinks there should be more people here. But, perhaps for a compound such as this, they have more luxuries than Sam would have initially thought.
The woman shakes her head. She's still smiling. Sam wants to wipe it off her face, replace it with something foul. “Not yet. You're new here – I suggest you tour the city while you wait. We could even make you a prosthetic if you want one.” Why would I want to wander a place like this, Sam wants to say. Why act as if the world has begun spinning when she doesn't even know Sarah's fate.
Sam shifts her weight on her crutches. “You could make one for me?” she asks. The woman nods, and when she turns around her ponytail brushes against her back. Not red enough, not curly enough, yet Sam's eyes still follow its movements. It's almost like a pendulum, except that would entail its eternal motion and Sarah –
She banishes the thought.
The apartment is too clean. Her foster parents, they always kept their house messy as if they forgot they should keep it tidy for their daughter. The coffee table in the living room was covered with ring stains, and papers spilled out in stacks beside the banister – courtesy of her foster father, usually, although her foster mother did tend to pile books in their bedroom.
The kitchen always smelled of candles. Both her foster parents enjoyed their scents, but neither could agree on where to put them. Her foster father said they belonged in the bathroom, wherever smells the worst he often said as if that was the most logical solution, but her foster mother preferred the living room because the colors contrasted with the dull drapery and walls – “And we need to put them somewhere where someone is always watching them to prevent a fire breaking out,” she frequently argued with an upwards curve of her mouth. Her foster mother's hair was too light, her foster father's smile too giddy. They were good people, Sam concedes, but they weren't the same. She wishes, more often than not now, that she realized their presence sooner.
As a compromise, they put them in the kitchen where the smell of it could occasionally go foul and someone's eyes were on them constantly. It worked for them best; Sam came to realize quickly after that they liked their compromises.
Sam's fingers brush over the cool metal of the prosthetic as her eyes work over the tacky floral drapes in the bedroom. She expected the building to be empty when she first came here a few hours ago – hours she later spent sleeping, then worrying about Sarah. The hospital began to feel too empty, too small, too antagonistic, so she was put in a temporary apartment by a middle aged man named Matthew. The nurse, she told Sam to wait. Sarah will wake up in time, she said with a smile showing her unnaturally white teeth. Sam was never good at waiting before, but now it's dreadful.
She presses her fingers into the skin below her knee so her nails make indents into the skin. Small, crescent moons that will fade away in a short time. It's as if she wants to kneed the limb back into wholeness, as if her touch of life will extend into herself, then if she does this she can prompt Sarah's eye to open by sheer force of will. Sam frowns at her leg, something cold curling in her stomach, before her eyes shift towards the dresser where empty picture frames sit. In the drawers, clothes have been previously placed that are slightly too small on Sam, but the woman across from Sam tells her she can get new clothes in the department store a few streets down as long as she has something worth trading. Food usually works, the woman said, because even with the greenhouses and the farms and the fish we always need more of it. You can never have too much, now.
Sam can't say she disagrees.
The city's connections stretch miles from here, beyond the walls where people have decided to live on their own land growing things through their own labor. Trucks go back and forth between trading posts, and even the occasional messenger comes through the gates with news on what's happening outside the walls. There's a small library-converted-school where demigods learn about their ancestry, and at the gyms people now fight and learn about the immortal monsters beyond the walls. Mostly young adolescents, but the occasional adult comes too.
Sam visited these once. With her now flimsy jacket and her torn clothes, even after cleaning herself it was obvious she came beyond the walls. Several thousand people live here, but everyone seems to know the new arrivals in a matter of weeks. For a compound, few people seem to want to enter it.
It's the sea, her neighbor told her once, no one wants to live by it anymore.
That doesn't explain all the people here, Sam retorted.
Most of them lived here in the time before, the woman replied, so their families were here. How can you expect someone to walk away from their family?
Sam didn't have a reply to that.
She leaves the room, then the apartment, and gives a half-hearted wave to a person a couple years older than her when she starts walking down the street. She can see the wall anywhere she goes; its position makes her almost claustrophobic in addition to the sea around them. When she asked her neighbor why it was built if the sea naturally protected them, the woman responded that people were still afraid of the sea. Even more now that monsters came out of it.
Sam never asks her if she believes in the Leviathan, but she has a sinking feeling it isn't what her neighbor meant. She heard of gigantic sea monsters rising from the ocean by word of mouth when she was still traveling with the demigod, but Sam didn't worry about it then. She never lived by the sea; she thought she would never have to.
Sam's shoes scuff against the pavement – they had been the only thing in Sam's size at the apartment – and she stuffs her hands in her jacket pockets because she isn't sure what else to do with him. She looks behind her at the buildings obscuring the hospital from view. She doubts it was an accident she was placed so far from it. There aren't any cars here, perhaps salvaged for parts for the wall or other uses, yet there are a fair amount of people on bikes. A woman smiles at Sam before she passes her, but the only thing Sam registers are her hazel eyes.
When Sarah wakes up, Sam wonders if they could start a life here. Sam already has an apartment, and with her powers she can trade plenty of food if necessary. Sarah could work on the wall again, Sam could go where she's needed. She knows she should find Alissa, that the kid's family should be her priority, but Sam suddenly finds herself exhausted. Maybe it's losing her leg and still waking up to curling toes. Maybe it's because Sarah was shot. Maybe it's because she doesn't know if she wants to be aimless anymore.
It was nice, for a time. It was nice when she didn't have anyone to care about.
Sam freezes. Her hands tense in her jacket pockets, and before she even thinks about the consequences her foot stamps the ground and Nadia lets out a shout. When Sam looks up, Nadia's legs are covered with green vines, immobilizing them, and they stare at Sam with eyebrows slightly raised. Their brown skin is darker now from the sun, and their dark hair has been tied into a loose braid. “You.” Sam spits.
She doesn't register the blood dripping from her nose until Nadia's eyes fall to Sam's lips. “You're overexerting yourself.” they comment casually, as if the vines aren't pressing into their body.
Sam ignores them. “You let the bandits take us! You never even bothered to come back for us, for Sarah!” Sam isn't sure where her anger comes from, but it's oddly calming. It's better than whatever she's been feeling lately. “We could have killed them.”
Nadia narrows their eyes. “No, we couldn't have. Eric was already dead, and I wasn't about to let anyone else die.” They pause. “But you would have, wouldn't you? You would have let anyone of us die as long as you got out safely. Everyone else is just expendable to you.”
Sam reaches for her sword before forgetting she doesn't have it anymore. Instead, she grits her teeth and the vines creep upwards around Nadia's abdomen. She could make them bleed like she has, like Sarah has. Sam's head starts to go fuzzy, and her vision blurs. She wipes her nose with her sleeve as she relaxes; the vines slither back into the ground. “You left us to die.” she mutters as she steadies herself on the ground.
“You did the same.” Nadia replies. They straighten out their jacket.
“Sarah was shot. Do you even care?” Sam asks.
Nadia doesn't say anything for a few moments. Their shoulder slump, and Sam suddenly notices how they aren't much older than Sam herself. Only twenty or twenty-one. “She wouldn't want to see me.” they finally reply.
“It wouldn't have happened if you didn't betray us.” Sam replies even though she knows it's ridiculous. She knows it's pointless to pick fights, but she doesn't know what else to do anymore.
“I didn't want anyone else dying on me, okay?” Nadia shouts. They glare at Sam, their green eyes too bright. “I wanted to save people for once in my life rather than watch them die, and I figured you two would make it out alive so I let you go. I never meant for Sarah to get hurt.” Their eyes fall from Sam's, and they walk briskly away from her while Sam watches them leave. If she didn't know better, she would think they were crying.
Sam resumes walking towards the department store after she regains her energy; as she walks, her eyes wander towards the street lamps above her and the buildings that should be flanked by more people. She'd been in the city only once before in her life, but now it doesn't even look the same. There should be more people, she tells herself for once, because the silence is haunting.
“Do you have any weapons?” Sam asks the woman behind the counter. Glass cases still display jewelry inside, something Sam would have thought people would have considered unnecessary, and the woman notices her lingering gaze.
“Unfortunately, not at the moment. But if you want, I can give you some jewelry in addition to the clothes.” She wears a tightlipped smile.
Sam looks at the bags in her hands then shakes her head. “I'm fine. Thank you.”
“The food is appreciated.” the woman replies. She leaves to help someone else, so Sam leaves the store keenly aware that the children who were once playing soccer with each other are watching her. They're all younger than both Alissa and Lena by a few years, but Sam still wonders if the two would be as carefree here now that they found a permanent place to live. Lena would have volunteered at the hospital alongside Eric, and Michael would have been as unsure of what to do as Sam. Perhaps they would have actually been friends, here.
When Sam returns to her apartment, she takes off her shoes at the door and tosses them somewhere in the foyer. The plain white walls deserve something to cover them, and the white carpeting reminds her of gauze bandages. She takes off her tattered jacket, balls It up, and throws it on the couch before walking into her small bedroom. She tosses the bags on the bed so some clothes spill out.
Even though it's small, the apartment feels much too large for her. She owns so few things she can call hers. She lost them all, and even Sarah, now, will fade away from her. It's inevitable. Like Lena's death, like Michael's decision to stay behind with her, like her own loneliness.
The last time she entered a compound, she was alone. Now, she feels so much worse. She sits on the bed, pulls her legs both flesh and prosthetic up, and begins to cry. The tears fall slowly at first, then they arrive in a rush that leaves her shouldering shaking and her throat constricting. After everything she's gone through, this is what happens. After everything Sarah has been through, she dies because of some terrified kid with a gun. First her leg, now Sarah, what else is she going to lose? Is there going to be anything left of her in a few months?
She wipes her face with her arm as if that might stop the tears from falling. And if she stops crying maybe she'll be able to do something about all of this rather than wait.
Sarah is finally declared to be in a stable condition once Sam drags herself back to the hospital. Or, Sam only assumes its new news because it's the first time she's been back.
Sarah smiles at Sam when she enters her room. “Hi, Sam.” she murmurs before Sam leans down and kisses her.
After Sam pulls away, she pulls up a chair. “How are you?” she asks as her hand finds Sarah's.
“I've been better.” Sarah replies. She lifts her free hand to feel her bare neck. “I can get out of here in a couple days. How have you been?”
Sam smiles. “I'm better now that you're awake.” Her fingers caress Sarah's palm; she traces shapes into the skin. “I love you.” she murmurs.
“I love you, too.” Sarah replies. She tugs at Sam's hand so Sam leans down and kisses her again.
When Sam wakes up, her cheeks feel tight from tear stains. She pulls herself off the bed, changes her clothes, attaches her prosthetic, and steps outside onto the street. The lamps flicker with light here, illuminating the city in a soft glow against the backdrop of the night.
The city feels calmer, now, less unknown perhaps because Sam finds comfort in the late hours of the day. She faces a random direction and starts walking nowhere in particular – just, away from everything. Her hands ball into fists in her pockets as she walks by previous hotels and restaurants and rubble where buildings have been previous torn down either for space or because they were falling apart. She wants to want to live here, to stop traveling, but she doesn't think she can if Sarah doesn't survive.
Her feet lead her to a nearly oval-shaped marble library framed by short trees. She steps inside upon finding it open, and when she slips inside the smell of books and mint wafts around her. In the time before, the library would never have been open this long, but perhaps people have become lenient towards whoever uses their books anymore.
An older man sits at the front desk, and he looks up and nods at Sam before turning his attention back to his magazine. Sam had never been a fan of libraries when she was younger, but now she walks through the wide rooms as her eyes scan book titles that she can't always make out. She pulls a book from the shelf that looks like a cookbook, then a few others before sitting herself at one of the tables and leafing through them.
“Hey, you're the person who came through the gates.” Someone slides into the seat across from her then folds their arms on the table. “How is your friend?”
Sam stiffens. She looks up at the boy and narrows her eyes. “Who are you?”
“Jordan Myers,” he replies with a surprisingly chipper voice for someone awake during the night. “What's your name?”
Jordan's face deflates. “I'm sorry about your friend.” he says. “I couldn't live with myself if I knew I accidentally shot someone who might die.” he adds before he stands up and leaves, as if it helps at all. Sam sinks in her chair and tries not to imagine Sarah in a hospital bed or the dream she had. It doesn't work because now that she thinks about Sarah she think about how much she would like being here. She could read to her heart's content.
Sam suddenly pushes the books away from her, stands up abruptly, and wishes she had a solution to this that didn't involve running away. She isn't sure if she's ready to see her again, but she certainly shouldn't ignore her feelings about this. Before she can change her mind, however, she walks out of the library and imagines that Sarah will be there in a few weeks time. That they will both be okay.
She finds herself at the hospital some odd minutes later with fewer people on staff but someone sleeping in the waiting room. She sits a few seats away from the sleeping person, trying to ignore the smell she swears seeps into her skin, and finally notices the person's familiar braid. Sam stands up and pokes Nadia in the shoulder hard enough that their eyes crack open.
“What the hell, Sam?” they grumble as they rub the sleep from their eyes.
“What are you doing here?” Sam asks, more curious than anything at Nadia's previous statement on the street, but anger still slips into her voice.
Nadia sighs. Their eyes dart towards the clock on the wall that doesn't work anymore. “I wanted to wait for her to wake up,” they begin, “she shouldn't wake up alone.”
Sam turns a chair and sits across from them. Every fiber of her being is telling her to stay away from Nadia as far as she can, but she can't bring herself to leave the hospital now that it's pulled her back in. “Why would you care?”
“She's my friend. Was, my friend.” they add. “I shouldn't have done what I did to her, but I do still care about her.” They never break away from Sam's gaze. “We buried Eric after you left.” they begin. “Aaron and I did.”
“I know. We visited it.” Sam replies shortly. She pauses before asking, “What happened to Alissa? I haven't seen her around here yet.”
“She found her mother,” is all Nadia says.
They slip into silence after that as they wait in the waiting room as if something good is going to come out of it.
“I've changed,” is all Sam says some odd minutes later while the overhead light starts flickering. Nadia's gaze moves towards Sam and they raise their eyebrows, but they don't object to the statement like Sam expects them to.
Instead, they say, “I guess you have,” and make a casual gesture towards the hospital as if that explains everything. Sam supposes in some way it does.
Sam passes the time by staring at the clock. It's hands are stuck permanently on six thirty-two; Sam wonders if that's how Sarah's live will end, stuck permanently on nineteen years without anything to show for it but a bullet wound in her abdomen. Nadia falls asleep at some point, or maybe they've just fallen silent. Sam doesn't care enough to check, but she admits that their presence is better than none at all.
Sam goes into Sarah's room eventually; whether Nadia follows her she doesn't bother to check. Waiting in there with the empty chairs became too much after a while. She pulls up one of the chairs off to the side and sits next to Sarah. She's only sleeping. That's all she seems to be doing, now, with her red hair tucked behind her and her arms on top of the sheet. It couldn't be a coma; it shouldn't be one, after all it isn't like she underwent any head trauma. But perhaps she did when she fell. Sam can't be sure she caught Sarah in time – everything was a blur.
She swears she did, though.
There's a vase of flowers in the window. They're dying lilies which seems appropriate for the occasion. The leaves shrivel up and fall onto the floor where they gradually decay, the vibrant green going to a sickening gray that reminds Sam of ashes.
“I love you.” Sam murmurs into the empty space between them. Which is, in essence, the entire room. Anywhere they aren't talking is empty space to them; they began with empty spaces between them with Sarah trying to fill the silence, and now they end with them same ones except Sam tries to get rid of the silence. She's doing a poor job of it, if she says so herself.
“I should have said it before,” Sam adds, and her eyes fall to Sarah's hands. They look so clammy, unreal, dead. “I didn't want to admit it. I was scared to.” She puts a hand on Sarah's and squeezes it gently.
And, eventually, Sarah squeezes back. Her eye flutters open revealing a beautiful blue, and Sarah's lips spread into a small smile. Sam gives Sarah one of her own. “Hi, Sam.” Sarah murmurs, and Sam swears the light pours in.
Sarah moves into the apartment with Sam as soon as she's cleared. She takes books from the library that she tends to forget to bring back and scatters them around the too-small living room, and Sam fills mugs, vases, and glasses with flowers that Sarah points out in horticultural encyclopedias. Sarah tries repairing the sink when it breaks before finally resulting their neighbor fix it, and their neighbor Julia indulges Sarah with engineer talk that Sam doesn't bother to understand. They fall asleep in the living room more often than not, but occasionally they actually make it to their bed. They never fall asleep when they mean to, and the circles under their eyes grow too noticeable on the worst days, but they remind each other they're alive all the same.
Sarah holds vigil for Eric by lighting candles in the middle of the day and watching the flame flicker back and forth before it goes out. Her bruises finally start to disappear, and Sam still traces words into Sarah's skin as if she might believe them one day. Nadia never visits even though Sam told them where their apartment was. She supposes they have better things to do, then retracts her thoughts and imagines Nadia only feels as if they shouldn't. They never formally spoke to Sarah after she woke up, and perhaps for now that's for the best.
Sam can say she's happy, now, but in the dead of night something cold grows in her gut and she tells herself she should be moving on soon. On the worst nights, she swears she smells smoke in the house when she is seconds from sleep. It's irrational, but something inside her longs to be outside these walls. Something is bound to happen to her, to them, and she doesn't want to stick around and wait for it to happen. But, like she does for Sarah on the nights she wakes up with her sister's name on her lips, Sarah wraps her arms around Sam. And she reminds her they're both okay.
Some days, like today, they sit on the wall. There's no rule against it, and Sarah suggested it – Sam wonders if it reminds her of the hotel, of the days before when she had made something good. Sam leans against Sarah and watches the sun set into the sea.
“I love you.” she murmurs. Her fingers entwine with Sarah's like they have countless times before, and she smiles.
“I love you, too.” Sarah replies. She squeezes Sam's hand, and a few minutes later asks, “Do you want to leave one day? I know you don't like staying in one place.”
Sam doesn't answer immediately. Her eyes follow the birds flying towards the city. “I don't know,” she admits, “one day I guess. For now, it's okay here.” With you is implied, but Sam figures Sarah gets the gist. She can decide what she's going to do in the morning after the sun rises again, but for now she's content where she is.