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27. Imagine.

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Back sooner than I thought I’d be.

I ran minor errands in the underground to keep myself busy, and keep all the major players fresh in my mind. I wanted to know whom I could trust and whom I couldn’t at all times. The Brogan boys were the key players, and they seemed pretty reliable for the time being. Colt seemed fascinated with me, and I let him creep closer so I could assess his own strengths and weaknesses. He was rational, which was an immediate change from the typical around here. I was glad for it. He was doing everything in his power to achieve a peaceful solution with minimal bloodshed, a strategy nearly unheard of. His brother, Dusk, was the sideshow ringleader, keeping the entertainment going and thus, the distraction. He wasn’t as patient as his elder, but he had a way of quietly taking notes about his surroundings. He was the eyes and ears as Colt was the voice of the operation.

The bartenders were our eyes above ground, and worth their weight in gold. The enemy doesn’t usually wander into your home base and lay out his plans. But every so often, you’d get an overeager street demon saunter into the bar. After a few rounds, he’d sell you his soul for a song. And we counted on those rare occasions to learn how close Linkon was to making a move. Sometimes they were plants, sent there to intentionally mess with the works. Sometimes they were very lost and very helpful. Somehow, we never saw the helpful ones again.

Everyone knew who I was so my place in the underground was sketchy at best. They were sure I would turn traitor at the drop of a hat and run back to Linkon’s side. He was family, true enough, but he was entirely out of his mind. I knew better than to assist in his madness, blood or not. It was curious to watch his actions from the outside, marveling at his ego. I knew how his mind worked; we were siblings after all. But I was the more patient of the pair, the more calculating. I would wait for his plan to crash and burn – as I knew it would. And I would be there to help pick up the pieces and laugh at his misery. Assuming he survived. Ransom men don’t have the longest life expectancy you know.

Harley however, was always suspicious. As she had every right to be. She had seen and heard so much in her time, she knew that nothing was as it seemed. Not to mention my being a Ransom by birth. I allowed her to suspect everything – I would have done the same. I tried to be as friendly as possible, but still kept my distance, which I’m sure she respected. I passed through the bar quickly and quietly, eager to keep her pleased. If my presence began to hinder her financially or personally, I’m sure she had the kind of power to have my throat slit while I slept. I respected her space – she respected my right to oxygen, so all was well.

Relic I kept my distance from entirely. A really easy way to piss off a Mama Bear is to fuck with its cub, and I wasn’t touching that with a ten-foot pole. She was flirting with one of the new bartenders, as is typical of young love, but we all kept watch nonetheless. She was the child of us all – her death would bring the fire of hell down from above.

I never did explain the Solaces, did I?

They are the grand masters of all we survey. They, Layne and Serkis, make all the rules and govern everything we enforce. The peace, the war, is theirs as well as ours. They raised a few of the demons personally, demons who barely survived into their late teen years. The devastation of the loss kept them as disconnected from things as possible. They pulled the strings and made any decisions that left us at odds but we mostly ran things ourselves. When the war broke, they declared what side we would fight on. And in such an emergency, were the only people who could supersede the rules and decide who lived or died.

How would I know all of this?

Because a long time ago they ruled against me. And I was charged with treason. I was condemned to die. And as I sat awaiting the shot to the back of the head, I was granted a reprieve. The vote had been cast after Harley’s apparent death. I sat in a room as black and empty as my soul at the time counting the minutes as they passed.

We didn’t believe in wasting too much time on things. Three days a prisoner would be given to find forgiveness in their soul. Or for their case to be reheard. 72 hours, no more, before the final shot was delivered. Nobody pled my case in my stead; nobody saw reason why I shouldn’t be blown away. So I waited my three days in silence, finding my own inner peace. I made no plans for revenge, gave no thought to a future beyond the darkness. So I waited until a specter came from the depths to collect me. To bring me to the final scene that would sum up my career.

Who would my executioner be?

I waited to see who had been selected for the task, whose loyalty was on the line today.

It was Irish.

She opened the door as calmly as one can for this sort of thing, motioning that I should walk past her on my way to the theoretical gallows. It was more of a solitary room where rulings were carried out. I walked towards the wall, awaiting my next instruction.

So why the cloak and dagger, the theatricality of it all? Why were the damned brought to a room by themselves with their executioner? A number of reasons; let me explain:

The Solaces believed in punishment, but they did not want to inspire fear. Despite the dark and dank atmosphere of the underground, they didn’t want the condemned to be confronted by a hoard of people as they faced their fate. The executioner was always different until every Officer had proven their worth. Then it went to lesser soldiers. If the criminal was notorious for one reason or another, a specific person might be called in.

Such was my case. Irish had been serving the bar and the underground for years, but had never been called upon to prove her loyalty through cold-blooded murder. She was a force to be reckoned with, but never pulled the trigger in anything less than self-defense. The Solaces felt that it was time to put her dedication to the test and find out if she was prepared to go all the way.

Now here’s where the situation gets curious. What if the executioner breaks down, can’t handle it? What if they can’t pull the trigger? Do I go free? Of course not. There’s a failsafe; the guard outside the door with a pistol ready to murder anyone who cannot accept their duty. He is always the same, always at the ready to make the deciding vote. His true identity was a mystery to us all, hidden under layers of black, but he was always faithfully perched outside the door, awaiting the verdict.

Had anyone ever failed in their test of devotion? Yes. And they were promptly removed from the realm of the living. If you cannot face your fear before picking up the pistol, you have no right to carry a weapon in the first place. Such was the mindset attached to these policies.

So I was led into a dark room, reeking of bleach where blood had been washed out recently. It was a time of traitors. I faced Irish as calmly as I could bear, the pistol hanging loosely in her hand.

“Miss Dacien Ransom, you are charged with treason against the Family proper, associating with a known fugitive, and accessory to murder. Do you have anything to say in your own defense?”

I shook my head slowly. She nodded her consent.

“Do you have any last words?”

I smiled a tiny smile I remembered growing up with, this sort of shifty grin when you’ve got something up your sleeve. Even when you don’t.

“Kill me faster.”

And with that, I turned around and dropped to my knees, listening as her shoes scraped forward to set up the shot. Her arm would swing up and lock straight, barrel pressed to the back of my head. I remember the safety clicking off, the shot being chambered. The last things I remember hearing in that room, as the shot rang out and my body was clutched and dragged off before ever hitting the ground, was this:

“Trust me.”

I would wake up some time later in a hospital upstate without any idea how I got there or how I had escaped a bullet leveled at the base of my neck. I remember a doctor explaining repeatedly that I was alive – there was no real bullet wound, just a graze at the neck. I’d be stabbed in the chest at a curious angle. That nothing I remembered was true.

I struggled with the facts for weeks, until I could finally convince them to release me. My ID showed up at random one day and they allowed me to carry on from there. I didn’t question the curious events that kept me breathing until much later.

Irish had the gun leveled at the nape of my neck. With no gunshot, the cleaner outside would know there was a problem. She moved the weapon enough to just graze the skin, but still fire the shot. How to cover up my lack of physical injury? At the precise moment of the shot, she had stabbed clear through my chest, at enough of an angle to miss anything fatal. Her chances were slim, but had paid off. When the door opened, she handed the firearm to the guard and carried my body out, praying her cut hadn’t been too close to anything vital. How I made it so far upstate without more of an investigation, I’ll never know. But after months of intense remembering, putting the pieces back where they began, I realized that Irish wasn’t the mindless pawn I had envisioned.

Her true origins and motives were both as aimless as the girl herself, but I couldn’t begrudge her any sort of eccentricity. She had saved my life at the risk of her own. I’m sure the Solace family let the boys takes turns beating her senseless when I came back to town. What’s curious though…is how she escaped the gallows herself after such a reckless act. One can only wonder. Perhaps she was of more importance than any of us cared to think, but who knows. She played her part backstage so well it’s hard to think of her anywhere else.

I went back for answers and found headhunters instead, which led me to where we first met. Dodging beatings when and where I could, I found myself amazed at my survival skills day by day. To think, someone can put a price on your very existence, it’s almost sickening. But it happened, and I ran and dodged until the truth finally came through. With Harley.

But her return meant more than just the old boss. It meant the stories, the origins of all, were up for grabs. Harley’s written account of the Solaces’ rise to power would be priceless, if anyone should find a way to possess it. The other stories were being mass produced as we speak, hundreds of copies being made and distributed all over the underground. The Timeless Martyrs Cycle would live again, through a new generation and with an entirely new following. And the stories that came after, that chronicled the aftermath? They would be worth their weight in gold…if we could get hold of them. Harley’s exploits, the accounts of my ancestor Rev Ransom – ex Street Boss, the memories of Maven Merrick – last of her kind and of course, the rise of Angyl Hunter; all hidden in these streets on scraps of paper and fading notebooks. Desperate to be shared, told, revisited and remembered. Most of it was in Harley’s custody, never to see the light of day.

Or so we thought.

They say the enemy you know is always better than the one you don’t. But when you don’t know whom your enemies are in the first place, it’s pretty tough to gauge which is worse, wouldn’t you say? Blood is thicker than water, and for good reason.

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