The OF encampment was in a tizzy when we arrived. Kieran and I had trouble finding Hallam and Marlena. No one seemed to be able to talk to us. People were outside the church, standing in groups of two or three, frantically talking to each other. Several of the women were crying.
Kieran grasped the shoulder of one of the guys outside, wrenching him from his conversation. “What’s going on?” he asked him.
It was Gus. He looked past Kieran at me. “Everything’s falling apart,” he said. “Headquarters won’t let us do anything.” He glared at me. “Why won’t you stop this?”
“Where are Hallam and Marlena?” I asked, but Gus had already gone back to his conversation.
Kieran and I went into the church, dropping off what supplies we’d gathered in the sanctuary. We searched each room, calling for Hallam and Marlena. Finally, we found them in Hallam’s office. There was another bloody bundle on Hallam’s desk. I went to it. There were more fingers. More toes.
I gulped and stepped away.
Kieran stayed behind me, peering down at the gory pieces. I watched Marlena, sitting dejectedly on a folding chair, while Hallam glared out one of the windows. Both of them looked beaten and tired.
“This is insane,” said Kieran. “Did you really report this to Headquarters?”
No one said anything.
“Well, should I get on the radio myself?” Kieran asked.
Hallam turned away from the window. His voice was like ice. “Did you find your magic book?”
“No,” I said. But I was pretty sure I knew where it was. And I was going to get it. The body parts were just a good excuse.
“We found some food,” Kieran said. “We dropped it off in the sanctuary. Did you radio headquarters or not?”
“They told us to stand down,” said Marlena. She was staring at the floor.
“They’re well-armed,” Kieran admitted. “Still, I don’t get the impression Jason’s just going to stop at cutting off fingers.”
“The bundle came with a note,” Hallam said. He handed it to me. The paper was stained with blood. It was Jason’s handwriting. It said, “Still think I shouldn’t drag it out, Hallam?”
Kieran reached for the paper. I handed it to him.
“I don’t get it,” I said to Hallam.
“The night with the girls. In the sorority house,” said Hallam. “I said something to him like that. He was explaining to them why we were doing what we were doing, and I said, ‘Don’t drag it out.’ I meant for him to just go ahead and kill them quickly.”
Kieran still looked confused. As briefly as possible, I explained to him that Hallam had helped train Jason for the Sons. His father, Edgar Weem, had been a twisted man who thought Jason needed the ability to kill. He’d lied to Hallam and Jason and told them they were taking down a brothel, when in fact it had only been innocent sorority girls. Hallam and Jason had killed them all.
“This is all my fault,” Hallam said. “I turned him into this monster.”
“The Sons did it,” I said. “And you’re not a monster, Hallam. You choose not to behave like he does. Jason has a choice too.”
“He’s going to kill them,” said Hallam. “Don’t you think the note implies he’s going to kill them?”
I considered. Jason might be bluffing. He knew that Hallam would react emotionally to the note. He might be trying to trick us. But I wasn’t sure if I cared. Jason might be twisted and a criminal genius, but he wasn’t infallible. He was out of control. Maybe I did need to just find him sitting down and reach inside his head…
But that didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t kill people with my mind. I could influence their decisions or plant triggers, but I couldn’t just kill them.
“We’re going after them,” I said.
Hallam and Marlena both looked at me, a bit of hope in each of their eyes.
“We have orders from Headquarters,” said Kieran.
I shrugged. “The OF doesn’t know what’s going on here.”
“Wait,” said Kieran. “You said that the group here was no match for Jason. He’s got an entire town in there.”
“She’s going to use her powers, aren’t you?” asked Hallam, sounding triumphant.
“No,” I said, “I’m not.” I walked out of Hallam’s office and into the room with the stockpiled weapons. We had a good bit of ammunition and enough guns to arm everyone in camp.
“Why not?” Hallam called after me. The three of them appeared in the doorway.
Because I hated using magic. But that argument wasn’t winning me any points these days, was it? “Kieran and I ran into two of the townspeople out there. Jason’s spun some ridiculous lie to them that across the river the government’s turned into a fascist state or something. They’re just people. They’re misguided. I’m not going to hurt them.”
I turned to look at the guns again, thinking fast. If we stormed in there, all of us at once, we’d create quite a spectacle. No. “How long would you estimate Jason’s been here?” I asked.
Hallam and Marlena gave each other quizzical looks.
“Not long before we showed up,” said Marlena. “Maybe a month or two?”
“So, he won’t have had time to really train all the people he’s found,” I said. “Right?”
“Absolutely not,” said Hallam.
“Okay, then, so Jason is good at what he does, but Hallam was trained by the Sons too. I was trained by Jason. Marlena, you’ve always been a badass. And I’ve worked with Kieran. He can hold his own.” Although I had to admit that Kieran and I had never really been in a real fight before, I thought he’d be okay.
“Just the four of us?” said Marlena.
I nodded. “We can sneak in.”
She agreed. “Right, exactly. The objective is only to get the prisoners and get out, not to take on the entire camp.”
Furthermore, I thought the grimoire was in the camp. I could find a way to sneak off and find it.
“No,” said Kieran. “No, we’d be violating orders directly. We were told to sit tight and wait it out.”
“Wait until he kills them?” asked Hallam. “I don’t think so.”
Right. I wanted that damned grimoire.
“When?” said Hallam.
I thought about it. “Tonight,” I said. The sooner the better.
There were problems with my plan. First of all, Columbus-Belmont State Park was 165 acres–way too much ground for the four of us to cover. We had no idea where Jason was keeping the prisoners. Hallam suggested we put off the actual raid until the following night, and that he and Kieran go in and scout it out.
Neither Marlena or I were having that. We weren’t getting left behind. Furthermore, I pointed out that we had a better chance of trying to get in once undetected than in trying to get in twice.
Instead, Kieran and I watched from a distance and saw that there was a guard placed at the gates to the park. They seemed to change up the guard every four hours or so. At twilight, the guard changed. We were all in place.
The trees were tall and dark in the vague light. The sky was turning purple in the west, over the river. Columbus-Belmont State Park looked practically untouched by the power outage. Its signs still stood proud by the entry roads, proclaiming its name. Kieran and I had been able to see a little bit of the campgrounds from where we’d watched earlier. There were RVs and tents set up. It looked, for all anyone would be able to tell, like a typical spring for the park. Lots of campers around the camping loop, all there to enjoy the serene beauty of unspoiled nature.
Hallam and Kieran looked at me anxiously. Marlena was calmly watching the guard.
“What if this doesn’t work?” Hallam asked me, whispering furiously.
“It will work,” I said. If it didn’t work, I’d make it work.
As soon as we were certain the changing of the guard was done and that the departing guard was out of earshot, we took off for the gate, moving quickly but quietly.
The guard was lounging against the Columbus-Belmont State Park sign, his hands in his pockets. He was whistling.
We crouched in the shadows behind him. I nodded to Hallam and Kieran. “Now,” I said.
The two darted forward, tackling the guard. He went down with a thud. Hallam covered his mouth so he couldn’t cry out. Kieran secured his hands behind his back. They propped him up so that I could approach.
I put a gun under the guy’s chin. “Hi,” I said. “I’m gonna get my guy to move his hand. You’re not gonna make any noise. That clear? Nod if you understand.”
The guard’s eyes were wide. He shifted his gaze between all of us, but he nodded. He was young, like the kids Kieran and I had seen earlier. Too young. I kind of hated being so harsh with him. It reminded me too much of the way I’d been forced to act when Jason and I were on the run. I didn’t want to be this cold, callous woman, but it was worth it if I could find the grimoire and make this stop once and for all.
I inclined my head at Hallam. He moved his hand.
The kid yelled. “Help, there are invaders–”
I shot him in the arm. I didn’t think twice about it. I just did it. I would have shot his face off, but then he wouldn’t have been much good to us. The violent reflexes I had just kicked in like that sometimes. It was disturbing, but I didn’t have time to worry about it right now. I had a mission to accomplish.
The kid screamed, a piercing shriek.
“Shut up,” I told him, my gun back under his chin. “That was a warning. Now call out and tell anyone who might have heard you that that was a false alarm.”
The kid’s voice shook. “Sorry!” he yelled. “False alarm.”
“Tell them you’re fine,” I said.
“I’m fine!” he yelled. He looked down at his arm. Blood was seeping through his jacket. He whimpered.
“Worried about your arm, aren’t you?” I asked him.
“Well, the sooner you help us out, the sooner you can ask someone to bandage it up for you,” I said. “Take us to the prisoners.”
“Your boss has been carving them up and sending us souvenirs. Now where are they?”
The guard whimpered again. “The lookout house. All the way back by the river. But you’ll never be able to get to them. There are at least six guys guarding them. None of the people from town are supposed to know about them.”
I stepped back. “Get him up,” I told Kieran.
Kieran wrenched the guy to his feet. The guard didn’t want to stand on his own, so I put the gun back on his head.
“You will show us where they are, or I will kill you. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” squeaked the guard, who suddenly seemed able to put weight on his feet.
Kieran patted the guard down. He found a gun and a knife. We took both of them. I stood behind the guard, my gun on the back of his neck. Kieran and Hallam flanked me, their guns at the ready. Marlena brought up the rear.
“You lead,” I told the guard. “And don’t think about leading us right to someone who’s going to shoot us. I guarantee you I’m fast enough to blow you away before they take me down.” I leaned close, whispering in his ear. “Besides, you’re my human shield.”
“Please,” said the guard, “they’re guarding them. I can’t take you without them seeing–”
“You get us close,” I snapped.
He started walking. His limbs were stiff. We walked along the road, away from the camping entrance, further and further into the woods. I could hear the crickets again, and if I looked up, I could see thousands of bright stars. The stars were so much brighter these days. I’d never realized how much electric lights blotted out the sky. It was a gorgeous night.
We came in sight of a flag pole, obviously another entrance to the park. The guard veered off the road then and led us into the woods. He tramped over the leaves and branches, making a lot of noise.
I told him to tread more carefully.
He started sobbing. Maybe I was pushing the kid a little too far. I didn’t really want to hurt him. I just wanted him to take us where we wanted to go. Still, I wasn’t sure what we should do with him once we were done with him. He could run off and get Jason. Then what would we do?
Also, I really wanted a chance to look for that grimoire. How was I going to manage that?
The guard took us through the woods in a round about way, but eventually we reached a clearing. He stopped and pointed through the trees at a gazebo-shaped structure that stood on the edge of the river bank. It was round, with a pointed roof. The foundation was made of stone. There was a large stone chimney jutting out of the top of the building. Was this one of those things left over from the civil war? Had the soldiers stood in it, looking out over the river watching for the enemy’s approach? Was there a chimney so they could have a fire in the winter? Wouldn’t the smoke have tipped off the enemy to their location?
We could see that the lookout house was surrounded by armed men. It was too dark to see who was inside it. I glanced from the lookout house to the kid who’d led us here. I considered. The easiest thing would be to shoot him in the head. Of course, that would probably alert the guards at the lookout house to our presence. Still, I didn’t want this kid running loose in the camp.
“How’s his arm?” I asked Kieran.
“He’s losing a lot of blood,” Kieran replied.
Great. I didn’t want to leave the kid out here to bleed to death. I had the kid take off his jacket. Marlena and I made a tourniquet to tie around his arm, hopefully stopping the bleeding. Then we tied him to a tree with the rest of the jacket. I didn’t think it would hold him for very long, but that was fine. We didn’t need too much time. At least, I didn’t think so.
Hallam ripped some cloth off the jacket to gag the kid. We couldn’t have him yelling out to the other guards and warning them.
The four of us crouched just inside the trees and spoke in low voices.
“There are six of them,” said Hallam. “Four of them are in our sight.” The other two were behind the gazebo. “If we all shoot at once, can we take those four out?”
“Are we shooting to kill, Hallam?” I asked.
He hesitated. I knew he was weighing the options. On the one hand, dead guards were dead and therefore out of the way. On the other hand, Jason hadn’t killed any of our people. If we killed first, it would give him the reason to launch a full-scale attack on us. And there were a lot more people in their camp than there were in ours.
“I can’t guarantee a kill shot,” said Kieran. “Not with only one chance.”
“Legs,” said Hallam.
I nodded. Marlena nodded. Kieran sighed. “I’ll try.”
“Okay,” I said. “So we shoot and then?”
“We shoot,” said Hallam, “and wait. Hopefully the guys on the other side come around to see to their friends, and then we shoot them too.”
“We shoot them in the legs, and they can still shoot at us,” said Marlena.
Duh. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Why hadn’t Hallam?
He took a deep breath and set his shoulders grimly. “Shoot to kill,” he said.
We each sized up our targets and took aim. I was shooting the guy closest to the river. Right then he was looking out over the water. I wondered what he was thinking. Then I told myself not to. But it wasn’t fair. These guys were all young, and they were all just following Jason’s orders. They didn’t deserve to die.
“On three,” whispered Hallam. “One…two…three.”
I squeezed my trigger, bracing against the force of the shot. Immediately, I heard the sounds of the others’ gunshots. The guys at the lookout house all tensed one second, looking up. Then the bullets hit them. My guy went down, clutching his chest. Good.
Hallam’s guy’s head exploded. Of course. Trust the guy trained by the Sons to make a shot like that.
Marlena’s shot took her guy in the stomach, and he went to his knees.
Kieran’s shot went wide. He didn’t connect at all.
Kieran’s guy began returning fire in our general direction.
I hit the ground. Kieran ducked behind a tree. Hallam and Marlena took cover as well. Kieran peered around and got off another shot. This time, his bullet drilled the guy in the neck. Nice. I was impressed.
Unfortunately, the other two guys did not come around the lookout house. Instead, they took cover behind it and were shooting at us from there. Marlena’s guy was hanging on too. He returned fire, even though he was lying on the ground.
We exchanged bullets for a few minutes, neither side hitting anyone. I did my best to hit Marlena’s guy, but he was difficult to see now that he’d flattened himself against the ground, just a dark shape in the shadows.
What were we going to do? If we broke cover and raced for the lookout house, they’d see us. On the other hand, if we stayed hidden in the trees for too long, more of Jason’s people were likely to show up. I knew Hallam would suggest that I use magic, but I wasn’t going to. I could figure this out.
Darkness was hindering us, but it was hindering them too. We had that on our side. How could we use it? “Split up,” I hissed. “I’ll stay here and keep shooting. You guys creep around in the shadows.”
The other three agreed. They broke off, each slinking out of the woods. Kieran crawled further down the bank, and headed for them that way. Marlena stuck to the edge of the woods and came at them from the opposite side. Hallam, daredevil, that he was, got on his belly and crawled straight for them.
I shot over and over again, trying to make it seem that there were still four guns on them. I don’t know if they thought so or not.
One of my shots finally got the guy that Marlena had originally hit. He cried out, forced out a couple more shots, and then was still.
For an agonizingly long time, I couldn’t see Hallam, Marlena, or Kieran. I tried to look for telltale movements in the darkness, but couldn’t see any. This was a good thing. It meant that the others couldn’t see them either. But it was terrifying.
One of the guys behind the lookout house shot a bullet that was almost too close for comfort. It wedged itself into the bark of the tree in front of me, inches from my face.
I gasped, stepping back. I couldn’t return fire for several seconds.
They were going to realize I was the only one there!
I stepped forward to shoot again, but looking out, I realized Hallam was leading the prisoners out of the lookout house. Kieran had marched the other two guards out from behind the stone structure. They had their hands in the air.
I heard Hallam yell to Kieran, “Shoot them!”
Kieran hesitated. Then he leveled his gun and put bullets neatly in each of their skulls.
Marlena appeared out of the shadows, ushering the prisoners towards the trees. There were four of them. All seven people sprinted towards me.
Within seconds they were under the cover of the woods.
“We don’t have much time,” said Hallam. “People heard those shots. Jason will have reinforcements on the way.”
“We’ll cut through the woods,” said Marlena. “It’ll be safer than following the road into the camp.” She started to lead the prisoners forward. Hallam followed.
Kieran stopped, staring at me with wide, hollow eyes. What was wrong with him?
“Go,” I told him.
He started after Hallam.
I didn’t move. I looked back at the bodies and the lookout house. I wanted that grimoire.
I thrashed forward through the underbrush of the woods to the prisoners. “Which one of you is Lily?” I asked.
One of the women spoke up. “Me.”
“Do you have the grimoire?”
“Azazel,” Hallam growled.
“They took it from me,” said Lily.
I dashed back towards the clearing. “Go on without me!” I told Hallam.
“Get back here,” Hallam said.
I didn’t pay any attention.
Clearing the woods, I was in the open. The grimoire wouldn’t be in the lookout house. It would be safe, inside shelter. Would it be inside a building on the grounds? Was there a building? Maybe Jason had it in camp. One thing was for sure. Jason had it. I had to figure out where Jason would be.
I darted across the clearing to the lookout house and crept behind it, kneeling in the shadows. Hallam was right. Reinforcements would be showing up soon. I could follow them back to Jason.
As luck would have it, Jason appeared in just a few minutes, followed by about ten armed men. Not all were young boys this time. A few were older–maybe thirty or forty. They wore black shirts and jeans, almost like a uniform. These men must be Jason’s personal guard. His highest in command.
Jason and the men surveyed the bodies.
One of the men spoke to him. He didn’t have a Kentucky accent. In fact, he sounded like he was from up north, maybe New York or Jersey. Had he moved here? A northern transplant? “I told you we shouldn’t let the locals guard the prisoners.”
The locals? These men weren’t from Columbus at all then? Did they travel with Jason? What the hell?
Jason held up a hand to stop the man. “No, this is what I expected. If you had been killed, the people wouldn’t be willing to drive the OF out.”
Another guy smirked. “We wouldn’t have been killed.”
Jason smiled. “Exactly. This way, everyone will be outraged. They’ll demand we do something. We’ll have to show the OF who’s boss.”
Wait, was I following him? This was part of his strategy? He was trying to rally the people of Columbus to fight us? Jesus, he was playing Hallam like a violin. I had to warn Hallam that an attack would be coming, but then Hallam was smart. He knew what the consequences would be when he’d ordered us to shoot to kill.
“Should we go after them?” asked one of Jason’s men.
Jason shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “Let them go.”
Jason had his men load up the bodies on makeshift stretchers. They wrapped the bodies, two to a sheet. Then the men tied off the ends. Together, they dragged the bodies away from the lookout house, back to camp. Jason didn’t leave, though. He walked into the lookout house and rested his arms on the railing. He stood there, gazing at the river, quiet. I could see the shadow of his profile. I was struck again by how attractive he was.
Inwardly, I scolded myself. I wasn’t supposed to feel drawn to Jason. Not anymore. It had been so much easier to forget about him when he wasn’t around.
“I know you’re here,” Jason said, his voice soft, like black velvet.