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What you hold dear and what you hold ransom…should never be one and the same.

I was so accustomed to running, dodging, fighting…that the concept of something I didn’t entirely have to bleed for was somewhat unsettling. I ran minor errands, trying to keep myself out of trouble and the line of fire. I had enemies still; people whose loved ones had met bad ends at my hand in the struggle. And of course, Linkon’s faction. But I was comfortable on my side of the line, and intended to remain as such.

It was another pointless night at the bar until Colt was carried in. Covered in blood, rivers forming with each step he was dragged. It was becoming a familiar scene, with soldiers on each side taking the cost. Why Colt was out there on the front lines I don’t know, but it was too late to wonder now. Irish jumped the bar in a swift leap and helped pull him underground while I ran down ahead for the medical junkies.

The med kids were street smart, nothing fancy. They could sew, they understood the meaning of “sterile” and were pretty proficient with their fingers when it came to finding things like bullets. The best we had were always the last kids you wanted to speak to, but when lives were on the line, you made exception.

The best young apprentice we had was a kid named Jekt. Don’t know where his training came from, or the boy himself, but he had a talent with injuries. Kept to himself, smoking and playing guitar, speaking as seldom as possible. He ran jobs for the gangs when they needed a neutral face. Nothing too fancy. I ran as deep into the underground as I could until I found his corner, the familiar cloud of smoke hanging overhead. I grasped him up off the ground and took off with him – offering as much explaining as I could manage.

Colt had been laid out on a bed while Irish mopped up as much as she could. I cleared a space for Jekt to work and helped her stop the bleeding. She looked up at me defensively, but went back to work. Whether there was an underlying reason to her protectiveness, or she just wanted me to watch my place, I don’t know. But something about her apprehension around me made a small grin slip across my face.

A few hours later, our fearless Leader was sleeping soundly, minus a few pints of blood. Irish was passed out in the chair at his side, leaving me standing by awkwardly. Jekt had left some time ago to clean up, retreating to his corner again. I took a few steps backwards to the door to try and slip out…and then Colt coughed. His eyes fluttered open momentarily as he searched the darkness for any sort of release. Irish was out cold; I stepped up to speak to him. He smiled weakly.

“I do believe this is how we first met,” he whispered, coughing up more. I got him some water, finding the comparison humorous.

“I suppose you could say that, things were a bit reversed though.”

He nodded slowly. “So they were.”

“You went to speak to him?”

He nodded again. “Sneaky bastard.”

“He doesn’t play fair. I could have told you that. There’s no talking to him now. His mind’s made up, none of us can stop him now.”

“So why aren’t I dead?” Colt’s eyes turned to lock onto mine with a ferocity I hadn’t seen. The enemy had more than ample opportunity to put a bullet in Colt’s head. The body ripped apart in front of me was here by Linkon’s graces alone.

“Because as is family tradition, it’s no fun to kill a man when he’s down. Killing you would be far too easy, too fast. He wants you to hurt, to remember, what it means to fuck with a Ransom. He wants you to be unable to protect those you love not in death, but in life. Laid out in bed for a few weeks leaves everyone vulnerable. At the same time, according to your history, you were a vital officer to Rev Ransom, our ancestor. Your service to him has earned you another chance to surrender peacefully.”

He smiled weakly again, reaching to pull me closer to him. I knelt down at the side of the bed, startled at my own knowledge. I had operated so long outside of my family’s code of honor; the fact that I remembered it was amazing. He seemed content with the answer, holding my arm tight.

“So how do we stop him?”

“We?” I smiled slyly at him, raising a brow.

“You’re not going to make me go beat him up by myself looking like this are you?”

“We need to wait.”

His eyes widened in a silent outburst of fury. Considering the cost, the blood spilt and lives lost, waiting wasn’t the option he wanted to hear. But somehow he knew that it was the only one I would offer him. I knew Linkon, I knew my legacy, better than anyone else. And I knew that there was no force at our disposal that would sway his decision. His most loyal officers would have already been recruited.

I explained to Colt that Linkon needed to prove his brutality to the community. I needed the true evil inside to be revealed before we could attack. We couldn’t risk the loss of communal support, as the people represented a vast and dangerous power beyond our control. We had to stress the importance of our mission, our justification. Otherwise, the consequences of our position could be severe. Our safe havens compromised. We had to retain a steady moral stance.

Long story short, there would be blood, and we had to make sure of that. As long as it wasn’t on our hands, we’d be fine for the long haul. Colt didn’t like the idea of allowing victims to be made, but some examples were required. You’ve got to break some eggs, right?

So that would be the plan. We would do everything in our power to stay alive, taking the beatings and threats, with minimal retaliation. We’d do our damnedest not to be the first to take a life. We needed to leave the true animalistic actions to Linkon. And with enough time, he would succumb to his temper. His anger and arrogance would breed hatred and bloodlust. And God help whoever got in his way at the time.

Or such was the plan.

After Colt’s recovery, there was an eerie peace in the streets, while both sides recruited their armies. Linkon had put a new price on my head, as predicted. Colt took a new interest in my safety and security, considering my life at constant risk. The war wouldn’t officially have started until someone died – those were the rules. A life lost, a sacrifice made to the gods of war; such was the start of a new age of demons. With my importance to both sides, my death would not only be the catalyst, it would be monumental. Lowering the ranks of the Ransom family to a solo heir, Linkon’s place in history would be secure as his monstrosity was instituted. However, such a move would require a massive set of balls that I knew Linkon lacked. He was hoping that with time, I might see reason and take my place at his side. He was praying he would never have to face me and do the dirty work himself. But we both knew otherwise.

What I didn’t count on was Colt’s true feelings. Or mine.

What started as a sort of hostility between enemies eventually cooled into a friendship. A casual friendship soon became a partnership as we took lead against a new mutual enemy. That partnership would grow into a relationship with time. Shaky and unsure, but the best we could manage with what we had. Colt respected my opinion as an officer but loved my heart as a warrior. I had no problem getting into the trenches after outlining the battle plan. He loved me because of my internal fire, whereas I loved him for his composure. If such persons are even capable of such a thing as “love”…perhaps it was more something of convenience than actual affection.

Either way, it was how things were.

Tell me something true.

I made a habit to pace through the underground at night, when things were cooling down. Make mental notes of who had come home to us, who had left. Try to keep count of those injured or threatened in some way. I wanted to be familiar with my new home and its inhabitants; the people we would live or die protecting. Each had their role, whether it was something as simple as “exist” or not varied person to person. But they were our ward and we would guard them as such. I moved down the winding paths, past casual rooms to the more important chambers.

Interrogation and torture cells, established long ago by the founders. Usually vacant and quiet at these hours, both rooms were home to echoing thuds. I slowed down – trying to listen to the voices of the officers, establish what importance this exercise was. Outside of the main interrogation room was the cleaner, pistol loosely grasped in his hand. He would be waiting outside that door for anyone who had failed their task. His job depended entirely on loyalty and obedience; only he could ensure that our soldiers were all without cowardice. For weeks I had merely noticed the black outline as a dormant figure in an ancient machine, but with time I came to learn who really held such a prestigious and heartless position.

Edward.

Relic’s unofficial boyfriend, and Harley’s new bar hand; the supposed clean slate we all prayed for. He was a levelheaded lad, obedient and pure, his morals incorruptible. He had stood for years, the ever-vigilant watcher, taking life when his position commanded it. The one person we thought had no ties to any of the treachery of our circle was one of the most depraved souls of all. His job made him cavalier and detached when dealing with mortality, a topic very dangerous to Relic’s young mind. She had fought long and hard to deal with the constant death and pain surrounding her, and had an even longer battle yet to contend.

What worried me more about Edward’s place in the underground was Harley’s apparent approval of his position. With her return came her insistence on involvement; she wanted to be familiar with every major player in the cycle. She had known exactly what the boy did with his spare time when she returned to us. She was almost expectant of him, familiar but unsure of his person when she laid eyes on him. There was this brief moment of recognition, followed by an insecurity that set us all on edge. Did she know something we didn’t? Was there more in her mind than we cared to consider? All valuable questions, all impossible to answer.

Depending on whom you know.

I decided to go to someone equally suspicious and mysterious in the area – Saint. If there was anyone who seemed to hold all the pieces, it was him; not to mention he was usually a lot more social after a few drinks. So to the bar I went one night, a good deal of cash on hand to keep the booze flowing, and hopefully some explanations.

He sat in the most reclusive corner he could find, distant from the vulgar mob. He was leaning back casually – drink in hand as he analyzed me, down to the smallest detail. I was being weighed and measured right now, my worth determined. Was I devoted enough to deserve his honesty? Should he pass such sacred and controversial knowledge to a punk like me? I kept my cool, my back to the bar as I downed half of my own drink. A bottle of whiskey sat between us that we were both pulling from straight.

“You want to know what’s what, don’t you kid?”

I smiled warmly, staring over the glass. “Anything you think I should know?”

He smiled slowly back, his eyes locked on my own. “Everything.”

I had already read The Timeless Martyrs Cycle, the first collection of stories following the ancestors of all clans. It was Harley’s story that was still curiously absent. Some explanations of origin yet to be fulfilled. Saint reached into the depths of his coat and pulled out a manuscript of sorts, tattered and weathered. But it was whole, and he slipped it to me across the table.

“There’s your missing section. Volumes VI and VII. The only request I have to its publication is that it is held until after the deaths of the Mason family. You have some questions for me?”

“Only if you’ll answer them.”

He nodded slowly. “Listen closely, I know exactly what you are. Your family lineage of madness does not make me any more trusting of you. I’m telling you this because every great streak of madness is prone to an exception. I’m hoping with your position in this whole sordid affair, granting you this knowledge may keep the train on the tracks a bit longer.”

I nodded slowly, allowing his words and tone to seep in. He had no debt to pay me but would step over the line on this occasion.

“What I just gave you should help you evaluate the background of the major players, understand what they’ll do next. With that, I grant you three simple truths, information you are better served to keep to yourself lest you wish to face more treason charges. First off, Irish is my daughter, and as such, I would appreciate highly if you kept a good eye on her in this upcoming hostility. She’s survived without my involvement for many years now- I won’t break that pattern now. Second, Relic is one of a set of fraternal twins. Her surviving sibling is closer than you think, his origins hidden, like Irish’s, to protect him from himself. And third, no matter how hard you dig, how many stories you collect, you will never know the Ransoms from which you were sired. Your true identity is long gone, lost to the general mystique of the Ransom family name.”

“Why are you telling me all this? What do you need in return?”

He emptied his glass and poured another. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time. I’ve buried friends and family both, wondering how I keep evading the blow. You’ve been to Hell and back already, yet retain your morality. I respect that, and find solace in your resolve. However, being young and fiery, I wonder if you can maintain that attitude. I’m willing to risk it. Like I mentioned, Irish will need looking after, and I shall do everything I can to enforce that. If certain parties were to learn of her true origin, her existence could be in jeopardy. I want someone with an undying spirit who will keep by her side.”

“So this is all about protecting a daughter you abandoned at birth?”

He grimaced a bit, unhappy with the truth of the matter. He knew I was right, but facing facts wouldn’t keep her any safer. Anyone who knew that Saint collected the stories would realize his value as a hostage. His background put everyone close to him at risk. Loved ones were a favorite of those trying to make a point. He didn’t want Irish getting special treatment all around, or endangering her with a connection to himself openly. I’m sure she knew the truth, but facing her would just push the point that much closer home.

“I did what was best for her,” he paused. “And she forgives me for it. I don’t need you to. I just need you to make sure she keeps on track and keeps breathing.”

“Only if you grant me one all important answer.”

He paused, considering his options. “Shoot.”

“Who is Relic’s brother? The son of Lucid Mason, the madman, the martyr, my master?”

He smiled slowly to himself, considering the weight of the truth. Was it worth sharing? Would it play a part in things down the line?

“As Irish was hidden from me to save her reputation, the son of Lucid had his background stolen as well. Who in your world of freaks and outcasts comes bearing the most ironic family story? Any ideas?”

I started piecing through the tales of each kid, their histories and issues. Running through all the males, one at a time…my mind slammed abruptly into the solution.

“Edward, the cleaner.”

He nodded slowly. “They call him Hyde you know, like Edward Hyde, in the story. But yes, Edward. That’s why he’s taken to Relic so, they’re twins. He connects with her without understanding why. He ended up in a role just as sinister, but with more morality behind it now. The son of Lucid Mason could not be let loose to avenge his father and lay waste the current order.”

“Do you guys get some sort of sick fun from hiding people, changing life stories and entirely removing someone’s identity?”

His eyes narrowed momentarily, slightly insulted at my stab. But they softened as he pulled a long sip from his glass, considering his options.

“So you understand the importance of doing all that is necessary to ensure the safety and survival of innocent lives? Do you accept the cost of freedom? Sometimes what is right is not the same as what is real. Remember that.”

The line ended with such an abrupt emphasis, I knew that I would receive no more answers. He had told me all that he was prepared to share, hoping I would put my newfound knowledge to good use. His information had made me reconsider a few details more carefully; making mental note of things that might be important later.

Who raised Edward, if he was cast out from his normal family? A foster family, or some gang family? His loyalty to us suggested the latter, but he was amazingly morally sound for not having a proper mother and father. How did he fall into the position of murdering “disloyal” soldiers? With all the stories running rampant, how has he been able to hide from himself?

I’d need to keep a closer eye on Irish. As long as everyone penned her as a mostly neutral third party, she was in no danger. But any favors performed for our side of things would upset the balance.

And Harley’s accounts of the last decade or so might prove useful in understanding not only the current cast but the previous one. Who had built the establishments we held dear, and why? Why was there an underground subculture of kids running a circus under a bar? How was such an establishment profitable as a drug front as well as shelter to the city’s endless runaways?

Saint’s background might be hidden in the depths as well.

And what was with the new trend of missing children and secondary lives? Families you never imagined, relatives you couldn’t dream up, all running rampant to complicate matters. You couldn’t write a script for daytime television this complex.

One of the few moral lessons I had come to live by was this: Don’t waste time questioning why providence has granted you redemption. Just take the chance, while you have it, and run like hell. The longer you stand around and ponder the obvious, the sooner someone will come steal your knowledge from you. And with details this precious, I wouldn’t want to lose hold of them.

I needed a safe haven, far away from all connection to the family. I wasn’t sure if what I had was something that could be shared at this time, so I opted to just keep Colt out of the loop until the coast was clear. Assuming such a time would ever exist. But where to go? The list of places we didn’t have eyes on was dwindling ever faster by the day. I decided to return to my old home – Lucid’s safe house. The church. Abandoned for decades, it withstood the test of time because it, like us, would not collapse. Some paperwork loopholes kept the legal wolves from tearing it to shreds, so it remained as desolate as it started. I crept there as quietly as I could, trying to steal away from Harley’s ever-watchful eye. She knew I was there, speaking to Saint, uncovering the truth, and she allowed me to walk out the front door without a second thought. Or so it seemed. She was keeping track of everything as it occurred, and I would do very well to remember that.

I was able to curl up in the darkest corner of my old master’s den and find a candle to read by. The place hasn’t changed much, despite the bloodstain where Lucid’s life ended. It took a few minutes to step past it, to remember that dark day when my memories would count for nothing. But I had to move past it now, grasping the collection of stories in my fist with desperation I’d never known before. What truth was I hoping to find? Was I going to be able to better predict my enemies? Would it grant me a better appreciation of my friends?

A good 200 or so pages later, I was back where I started. The stories had granted me only a marginal edge over everyone else in terms of knowledge. There was nothing of severe substance and worth in there. Except for Angyl’s confessions. Yes, hidden in the pages of Harley’s memories were a small series of events penned by Angyl herself. It was probably the only proof of her accepting her fate, taking responsibility for her actions. She had murdered a number of people in her lifetime, brutally and violently. She had little to no conviction about the morality of her actions. But her words on paper made that shockingly clear. No matter what she ever said or did, she would always maintain the ability to eliminate anyone that threatened her. No matter how much she swore she’d never hurt you, she’d be quick to the blade if you ever crossed her.

There’s this theory about sleeping with someone who sleeps with a gun under the pillow…you’re just asking to have your head blown off. Being anywhere near Angyl Hunter was like sleeping with someone who kept a loaded shotgun pointed at your head while going through night terrors. As much as I could respect her for what she was doing now, it was hard to forget all the bodies that lay in her wake.

She would be an important player in the upcoming chain of events, depending where her loyalties lied. Assuming she survived long enough to lay loyalties. The fact that she continued to breathe this long was perplexing, considering the murders. She has killed some very important people in the chain of command and lived to tell about it. Such treachery usually does not go unpunished. Was there a greater plan in store for Miss Hunter, was her life serving some greater purpose that none of us had considered? She had burned down the tattoo shop, killed the owners, killed the children of legends in an effort to stop the great families. Yet, the Ransom line, my line, prevailed. And she allowed us to.

There were inconsistencies. Minor…but they were there. What purpose could Angyl serve, besides that of a murderer? It seemed to be the one thing she excelled at. And maybe that was the goal they had in mind. Murder is a dark business, corrupting both body and soul internally. The Solace family wouldn’t want to corrupt an entire family if they could just send one hell-bent warrior to clean up the mess. But would she work for them? Would she yield to some higher master now that she was free? She murdered the man who gave her targets to kill in a bid to enjoy a life without chains, without restrictions. A life where she could raise a son without issue.

And Saint’s reasoning in giving me these stories started to come together – Angyl’s dark past would be the warning shot. He was trying to tell me not to get too close. The trail of bodies was his evidence, the charge of treason that was no doubt leveled against her. But my knowledge of her actions now, knowledge that somehow Saint must also possess, about the child, could not be used to weaken what was overwhelmingly true – she was a murderer. But why would Saint be protecting me in this upcoming pissing contest of wits?

Because I had Colt. I held the interest of the side he was rooting for, had the attention of all the major players. And he knew that I held the secret of Angyl’s son. He knew that I had intentionally kept that secret against all odds, and that gave me a few notches of character.

But how did he know? And how did Harley’s troubled childhood help me understand the collected but equally troubled woman before me?  The stories did give me a glimpse of a younger Lucid, a more playful lad than the man I served. It also chronicled some of Relic’s upbringing, conveniently, and predictably, leaving out the details about her brother. Harley wanted the truth hidden away in memories and minds, far away from the definitive nature of words. Can’t say that I blamed her.

A lot of vague answers laid in Saint’s contribution, but nothing I could concretely put to use at the moment. I kept the stories safely stored away in the underground, in a corner where only I would find them. I’d go back over them from time to time to try and pull out any important clues to help me sort out how things would play out from here, if more martyrs would be made to the cause. And how many more lost children would crawl out from the fray.

I guess it would just be a test of patience for the time being.

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