Episode VII: Truth and Consequences
Sometime late in the night, a tone came from the ship's intercom. While most of the crew slept below deck, Arus sat at the helm. The siege on Del'Carjhal weighed heavily on his mind, accompanied by the images of Chief Morsul's final moments. The child. The bomb. The blast. There had once been a time when Arus would've called the kyrosen the most savage individuals he'd encountered. But the Viochiati seemed to have a firm grasp on savagery.
Behind him, Juli worked hard to get a second scan jammer functioning. She'd been thus far unsuccessful in duplicating the first device, and supplies aboard the transport were limited. It didn't seem likely that she'd finish another by the time they reached Irius, but that wasn't what concerned Arus. He was far more preoccupied with Nasael's involvement in the mission. Would he cooperate? Would he follow orders?
Again, the intercom emitted a soft tone. Arus tapped the console to bring up the message. It was an incoming video communication. Finally, someone from Alliance Command! Arus rose and activated the wall terminal. The grisly image of Commander Tatel appeared, an old veteran with more combat victories under his belt than Arus had hairs on his head. The two had previously interacted only once or twice—cordial introductions, Arus remembered—but stories about Commander Tatel were ingrained in Alliance folklore. He was a living legend.
"Greetings, Lieutenant Sheeth," Tatel said with a smile. "I hope I've not disturbed your rest."
"Not at all, Sir," Arus replied. "Night watch duty. How are you?"
Tatel's smile faded. "I've been better, Lieutenant. We've all been better. The last twenty-four hours have been distressing, and that's putting it gently. I apologize that we were unable to deliver your orders to you verbally. We've got quite a few cards in play here, and shuffling them all has proven to be quite a challenge."
"I understand, Sir. A lot of innocent people died yesterday. I speak for everyone onboard when I express my sincere hopes that our mission will help bring the culprits to justice."
"Well, that's why I'm reaching out to you," Tatel said, scratching his temple. "As you've probably guessed by now, we selected you for this infiltration mission based on both your proximity to Irius and your report that the ship you've commandeered does not show up on radar. I trust this is still the case, yes?"
"Yes," Arus confirmed. "And we've discovered the reason. We have an engineer with us who developed a portable jamming device. It blacks out any scan attempts in our general vicinity."
"Marvelous," Tatel said, beaming. "Ghost ops has access to similar devices, yet the schematics have never been released beyond the covert division. I'd say your man could have a bright future with their research team."
"Woman, actually," Juli put in from the workbench. Despite the comment, her attention was focused solely on the bundle of wires in front of her.
"I beg your pardon, Voice-In-The-Background," Tatel replied in jest. "Woman, then. Fantastic work."
Juli didn't reply, so Arus spoke for her. "I apologize, Commander. That's Sergeant Juli LaGowen, G.A.T. squad. I'm sure if she weren't so focused on her work, she'd observe proper protocol and introduce herself." He hoped she'd take the hint, but her dark eyes remained fixed on her work.
"No apologies necessary, Lieutenant. But I would caution the sergeant to consider proper procedures when interacting with other members of command. I've never been much for protocol, but other officers may take it as a form of disrespect."
"No disrespect intended, Commander," Juli replied. A thin stream of smoke trailed up from the jammer, and she quickly snuffed it out. "I've just got a lot of schematics and calculations that I'm trying to organize here."
"Then I shall distract you no longer, Sergeant," Tatel said. "Please, do carry on with your work."
"Thank you, Commander. I won't disappoint."
Tatel turned his attention to Arus. "Now then, Lieutenant, I wanted to brief you on some of the environmental and societal conditions you should expect on Irius. The planet is home to a diverse array of classes and cultures, a sort of melting pot of all the worlds across Athena. Your target's last known location was Karris, a relatively isolated city in the planet's northern hemisphere. While the pirates do have facilities in the city, our intelligence does not suggest it is being used as a base of operations."
"Speaking of pirates," Arus began, putting a thumb to his chin, "we were confronted by a group of pirates calling themselves the Viochiati during our escape from Del'Carjhal. Are you at all familiar with that name?"
The commander chuckled. "Indeed, I am. They're rogues within the pirates, a subgroup struggling for power. Over the years, we've observed signs of dissention within the ranks. Occasionally, we'll see small battles erupt between factions, but they never last very long. You'll likely hear of other groups once you're on the ground, too."
So the Viochiati weren't alone. "Are there any others we should watch for specifically?"
"No, I don't think so. The individual groups matter little; their goals are, for the most part, the same."
"And Jakub? What do we know about him?"
"Jakub is a scientist," Tatel explained. "Weapons development, to be precise. I'll spare you the drawn-out details and just say that we have evidence to suggest that he had a hand in at least eight of the attacks on Aeden outposts."
"Do we have any more specific information about his possible location?" Arus asked him. "Our orders were pretty vague in that area."
"Unfortunately, no," Tatel frowned. "From what we can gather, he moves around a lot. But last reports placed him in Karris two days ago, and we do not believe he has left the planet just yet."
Arus nodded. "Very well, Sir. Is there anything else we should know?"
The old man hesitated, pursing his lips as one does before delivering bad news. "Well, there is one other thing. This is extremely classified information, so be sure that your crew knows not to share what I am about to tell you with anyone under any circumstances." He paused and took a deep breath. "The Council has made the decision to launch an assault on Irius. Fleets are being dispatched as we speak. The pirates have been flocking to the planet for quite some time, and the Council wants to seize the opportunity to begin a retaliatory campaign."
"So we're to be caught in the crossfire, then?"
"Not if you work quickly. Alliance ships won't arrive for another forty-eight to seventy-two hours. But I want to be perfectly clear: the attack will commence regardless of whether or not you've still got boots on the ground. And it will happen regardless of whether or not you've found Jakub."
Though he knew the answer, Arus had to ask the question anyway. "I can't persuade you to give us more time, can I?"
"The Council has already voted, I'm afraid," Tatel told him with a shake of his head. "This is a pivotal moment for us, Lieutenant. Thus far, the pirates have attacked almost exclusively from the shadows. Their guerilla warfare tactics have made it extremely difficult for the Alliance to make any progress. Now, they are gathering. And it is too important of an opportunity for the Alliance to pass up. We must make our move now to show them that we will not tolerate their actions against the Alliance and her allies."
Arus tried to bite his tongue, but the words slipped out anyway. "Forgive me, Commander, but is the Council sure this isn't a trap? I mean, why would they present themselves as targets in the open after having remained concealed for so long?"
"The Council has taken that into consideration. Do not worry, Lieutenant. The situation is well in hand. In the meantime, I shall serve as your liaison during this mission. My private communications frequency will be delivered to you at the conclusion of this transmission. If you need to contact me at any time for any reason, please do so. I vow to do all I can to see that you are successful."
His assurances didn't exactly settle Arus' concerns, but Alliance Command had far more information than he. Additionally, Tatel was an honored and respected solider. If he believed in the Council's actions, Arus would do the same. "Very well, Commander." Arus said, saluting. "We will report as soon as Jakub is in our custody."
The commander returned the salute. "Do be careful out there, Sheeth. Alliance Command believes in you, else we would not have trusted you with this assignment. But you are still young, and your team brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table. Rely on them, trust them, and respect them. In turn, they will do the same for you."
"I will, Commander. Thank you."
The screen went blank, and Arus returned to the helm. Having a man like Tatel in his pocket helped ease the weight on his shoulders, but it was going to be difficult to locate Jakub with so little information. Asking around would be dangerous, too; the wrong word spoken to the wrong person could send their target into a panicked flight. They'd have to find their way to Jakub without crunching leaves or snapping twigs, and it had been a long time since Arus had done any hunting.
"They're sending us in to find a guy who may or may not be on the planet days before they plan to invade," Juli muttered. She stood beside the workbench with a broom, sweeping up wire clippings and bits of other discarded electrical components. "We'll need to move fast."
"Don't worry," Arus replied. "I have no intention of being there when Alliance ships touch down."
A cool breeze blew through the tent's flaps early the next morning, causing the tiny hairs on Trista's arm to stand on end. She'd barely reached for her blanket when Hodge appeared from the left and pulled it over her. Throughout the night, each of the others took turns watching her like wolves guarding their young. Even Ellie stayed up late to help—much to Jack's dismay—by bringing water and singing soft lullabies. Truthfully, the songs had the opposite of their intended effect; Trista couldn't sleep a wink while Ellie sang. But there wasn't a snowflake's chance in the Abyss that she was going to admit that.
The breeze chilled Trista's face again, a soothing touch of wind that made her bedroll feel all the more comfortable. Ellie slept soundly on the opposite side of the tent, but Misha's bedroll was vacant. Hodge sat on its edge, his eyes drooping every so often as he struggled to stay awake.
"You should get some sleep," Trista whispered to him. "I'm fine, really."
Hodge shook his head. "I'm fine. How do you feel?"
"I'm okay," she said, smiling. "Is everyone else awake already?"
"I don't know," he replied, rubbing his eyes. "Misha was getting the fire going when I came in, but I don't know about Jack and Fynn."
Ellie groaned and rolled over. It had taken quite the effort by both Jack and Misha to convince her to visit with Trista, but once she finally saw that Trista was alive, Ellie didn't want to leave her side. Jack protested, of course—Ellie needed her sleep, after all—but Misha overruled him. She was insistent that Ellie be treated as an equal rather than a child. Trista knew Jack was only concerned for Ellie's well-being, but she agreed that an exception was warranted in this case.
"Are you in pain?" Hodge asked. "I think Jack plans to get some medicine for you this morning."
Her wounds burned with even the slightest movement, but she didn't want to make Hodge worry. "It's not too bad. What is he going to barter with this time?"
"I thought I heard him say that Misha offered her ring," Hodge replied, suppressing a yawn. "But I'm not sure."
Jack purchased the first tube of medical cream by trading his mother's crystal brooch. Trista nearly cried when she found out; that brooch was the only family heirloom he owned. But the suggestion that Misha would sell her ring made Trista's eyes bulge. "That's Mila's ring! She can't sell that!"
"I could be wrong," Hodge reiterated. "Either way, I doubt Jack would let her do it."
"I've got to talk to him before he leaves," she said. "Can you help me up?"
Hodge held up his hands and stood. "Not a chance. Jack would kill me. Let me go get him for you, okay?"
"Hurry. I can do without medication if it means saving Mila's ring."
Hodge nodded and headed outside. At the same time, Ellie sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Trista, are you alive?"
"Alive and well, Munchkin," Trista replied. "And I have your excellent care to thank for that."
Ellie tied her hair back with an elastic band. "Do you want me to sing for you again? I have a new song you haven't heard yet!"
Anything but that. Trista loved Ellie like a sister, but she was not prepared to endure more singing. "Maybe later," Trista told her. "I'm getting pretty hungry. I want to go sit by the fire, but Jack—"
As though summoned by the mention of his name, Jack's voice came from the flaps. "May I enter?" he called. "Are you both decent?"
Ellie was still dressed in her oversized nightshirt, but she jumped back into her bedroll and hid beneath her blanket. "Come in!"
He carried two small wooden boards as he entered—one in each hand—and set them down beside the girls' beds. Each had a slice of bread and a couple of cherries. "Breakfast is served," he said with a smile.
"Ooh!" Ellie squealed, reaching for her food. "Cherries!"
"Thank you, Jack," Trista said. The simple act of extending her arm sent streaks through her shoulders and back. She clenched her teeth until the pain calmed, then picked up the bread. "Did Hodge talk to you?"
"He did. Don't worry, I'm not going to let Misha sell it. Fynn is going to try to find some work in the city. In the meantime, I'm going to have Jass come look at your wounds to see how you're progressing."
"Is it still raining? I want to sit by the fire," Trista told him.
Jack started to shake his head. "I don't think—"
"Let me rephrase that. I'm going to sit by the fire. You can either help me or get out of my way."
That prompted a laugh from Jack. He shook his head in what appeared to be a mixture of frustration and amusement. "You're as stubborn as you are tough."
Hours later, Jack and Hodge set up a cozy space next to the campfire for Trista to relax. Using a folded blanket to pad her back, she reclined with her favorite book in one of Fynn's wooden chairs. With Hodge out fishing and Jack keeping Ellie occupied by the water, only Misha remained with Trista. The conversation between Jack and Misha stood at the forefront of Trista's mind, but she hadn't yet worked up the courage to address it. Now was as good a time as any.
"I'm sorry that everyone has gone through so much trouble to take care of me," Trista said. "I hate being such a burden."
Misha shook her head. "Don't be silly. You've taken care of us in the past, haven't you? Remember when I came down sick last year? You held my hair back for me while I emptied my stomach into the river."
"This is different," Trista replied, closing her book. "You all risked your lives to rescue me and have been at my side ever since."
"You would've done the same," Misha said, staring unfocused into the fire. She mindlessly poked the logs with a long stick, but her expression made it clear that her thoughts were elsewhere.
"Sure would. I just hate putting everyone at risk. What was it like? Jack hasn't told me a whole lot about that night."
"It was . . . scary."
Trista danced around the subject for a bit hoping that her questions would lead Misha to explain. "Did anyone see you?"
"Yes," Misha replied. She did not elaborate.
Something was terribly wrong. A part of Trista wanted to just admit that she'd overheard Misha's conversation with Jack, but she didn't want to seem nosy. It wasn't like Misha to keep information from her; she often spoke with Trista about subjects she'd never address with the boys. Today, however, she was quiet. Guarded. Withdrawn.
"Are you okay?" Trista asked. "You seem sad."
Misha stared at the ground for a long time before finally looking up. "I'm sorry. We thought we'd lost you, is all."
That wasn't it. That couldn't be it. "Misha, please be honest with me. You've never held back from me before. What's bothering you?"
For a brief moment, Misha's lower lip quivered. She quickly turned away. "I can't." Her voice was barely audible. "Jack told me not to bring it up."
It was now or never. Trista lowered her voice. "Does it have anything to do with the conversation you two had outside the tent yesterday?"
Misha's head whipped around, her expression now one of terror. "What?"
"It's okay, Misha. I just want to know what Jack is hiding from me. What happened that night?"
Tears streamed down Misha's cheeks. "It's not just you. He hasn't told anyone. He and I are the only ones who know."
In a stern voice, Trista pressed one more time. "Know what?"
A shout came from behind the cove. The girls looked back to see Fynn scrambling down the hill as fast as he could, waving both arms over his head. He shouted again, but Trista couldn't make out the words.
"What did he say?" she asked.
The blood drained from Misha's face. "They're coming."
Before Trista could ask what that meant, Misha leapt to her feet and ran for the river. Jack met her halfway, and she grabbed both of his arms in a panic. "I told you!" she screamed. "I told you they'd find us!"
Jack's voice was considerably lower—so much so that Trista couldn't hear what he was saying. He seemed concerned, but his expression was one of calm resolution. Fynn panted heavily as he dashed past the fire, stopping only once he reached Jack's side. He collapsed to his knees there, gasping for breath. After a brief exchange between the boys—again, it was too quiet for Trista to hear—Misha let out an agonized wail and dropped to the sand. Ellie stood to the side looking frightened and concerned, but she did not speak.
Enough was enough. Trista was going to get some answers. Pushing any thoughts of pain to the back of her mind, she carefully rolled onto both knees and stood. Her body screamed its objections, but determination kept her legs from buckling. Finally, with anger and frustration fueling her voice, she screamed, "Would someone please tell me what's going on?!"
Everyone looked back at her. Even Misha's sobs stopped for a brief moment. Jack frowned, clearly frustrated by her refusal to stay down. Eventually, he helped Misha to her feet, and they all approached the fire. Jack seemed as though he was trying to decide what to say, or perhaps how to say it, but Fynn had no such reservations.
"The Viochiati are coming for us," he said. "For me, specifically. I got into a bit of a scuffle with a couple of guys on my way out of District Seven the other night. I guess someone must have recognized me in District Five today, because two Viochiati approached me while I was asking around for work."
"What did they say?" Trista asked.
"They demanded that I come with them for questioning," Fynn replied, looking back and forth between her and Jack. "But here's the thing that confuses me: they said something about a murder. I didn't kill anyone! One guy tried to grab me after I set off the last flare, and I punched him once or twice in order to escape. That's all that happened, I swear!"
As he spoke, Jack's eyes scanned the cove's perimeter. "And you're sure they're coming here?"
"I don't know," Fynn told him. "I thought I lost them entering District Four, but when I passed the farms, I saw a bunch of them questioning some field workers. If they're searching the area, they're bound to find us here eventually."
"How would they know where to look?" Trista wondered aloud.
"They've seen us around this part of Karris plenty of times before," Fynn said. "It's not improbable that they would remember our faces."
Everyone looked to Jack. He was clearly contemplating their options, but he made eye contact with nobody. Finally, he shrugged and said, "Well, we can't stay here. Whether they find Fynn or not, anyone still suspected of being associated with him will be taken. We'll have to make for Jass' bunker and take refuge there for the time being. We can decide what to do once we're in the clear."
"That's going to put Jass at risk," Fynn noted. "The last thing he needs is any sort of trail that might lead the Viochiati there."
"I know," Jack agreed, "but I don't know what else we can do short of fleeing Karris, and the six of us would stand out in the wastelands."
Misha drew a deep breath. "What about Hodge?" she asked, her voice cracking. "How will he know where we've gone?"
"And how will we get Trista there safely?" Fynn added.
"I can make it," Trista lied. The truth was that she wasn't sure how much longer she could stand, let alone walk. But the situation hadn't offered any alternatives.
Jack looked from Misha to Fynn to Trista. Finally, his focus came to rest on Ellie. He kneeled down and extended his arms. "C'mere, Munchkin."
Ellie didn't budge. "You're leaving again, aren't you?"
"I'm sorry, Ellie. I need to find Hodge. You want to know he's safe too, right?"
Ellie looked at the ground and bit her lip but did not reply. She was old enough to understand the dangers of being captured by the Viochiati, but her attachments to everyone were strong. She didn't want to lose Hodge or Jack. "Promise me you'll come back," she finally said. "Both of you."
Jack took her hand and put it over his heart. "On my life."
As he and Ellie embraced, Trista tried her best to hold back tears. The cove was their home, and she'd come to find comfort in the sound of the river and the sand between her toes. There was a chance that the Viochiati wouldn't raze the camp, but the odds were against that. Especially if they suspected one of its inhabitants of murder.
"We leave in two minutes," Jack said, standing. "If any of you have anything here that you can't live without, get it now. One sack per person at maximum. Misha, you are responsible for Ellie. Get her to the bunker safely. Fynn, you are responsible for Trista. Follow the river's edge to avoid leaving tracks. The ridge should keep you hidden most of the way. Be sure you're not seen anywhere near the wharf. If you are seen or stopped by the Viochiati or Kinsem, run. There will be no reasoning with them this time."
It seemed odd that Jack would mention the Kinsem, but Trista didn't raise the point. A nagging feeling in the back of her mind insisted that there was yet more to the story than had been revealed, but if the Viochiati were already searching the farms, it wouldn't be long until someone tipped them off to the camp's location. Her questions would have to wait.
As Misha and Ellie ran to the girls' tent, Jack approached Trista. "I'm sorry," he said. "I wouldn't ask this of you if we had a choice. Do you think you can make it?"
It wasn't as though she could decline. "I can walk, but I don't even know where we're going."
"Jass' storage bunker. It's beneath the wharf," Jack explained, pointing north. "He took us there for supplies before we came to rescue you."
"Do you think he'll approve of our using it?" she asked.
"We don't have any other options." It was rare to see Jack so serious—and honest—about their situation. "Just do everything in your power to remain unseen."
Though she knew it wasn't the right time, Trista couldn't resist. As he turned away, she asked, "Why do I get the feeling there's something you haven't told us?"
He stopped for a moment—a brief moment—before continuing toward the boys' tent. "It's a long story. I promise, I'll explain once Hodge and I reach the bunker."
A sour feeling churned in Jack's stomach as he made his way along the west bank. There'd been no sign of Hodge of either of Fynn's usual fishing spots. No fresh footprints. No clippings of fishing wire. Since Hodge didn't fish often, it was difficult to guess where else he might have gone. What if they already got to him? If they suspect that he knows Fynn, they'll exhaust every option to get the information they want. What if they . . .
Jack tried to force away the thought. Fear would resolve nothing. The Viochiati had nothing to go on but a description of Fynn and a dead Kinsem. There was no hard evidence, no solid link, no real proof that one had anything to do with the other. Besides, Fynn was innocent.
That won't stop them. Think of all the people they've killed based on suspicion alone. The Viochiati in Karris often doled out punishment without just cause, and the fact that Fynn fled when questioned would most certainly be held against him. Not that Jack blamed him for running—guilty or not, the Viochiati would exhaust every option to uncover the truth. Had Fynn cooperated, Trista's injuries likely would've seemed insignificant by the end of the day. Running was the best option.
"C'mon, Hodge. Where are you?"
A light rain began to fall. Jack slogged along the river's edge taking care to remain concealed below the rocky ridge. Jagged stones peppered the sandy shore, forcing him to choose his steps carefully. A careless slip could easily land him in the river, and the undertow was strong. Jack considered himself a good swimmer, but he had neither the time nor the inclination to test that theory.
A sharp incline in the ridge ahead marked the southern edge of the cove. If Hodge wasn't back at camp, Jack's next logical step would be to search north. He hoped the others had already run into him on their way to the bunker. But if not, Jack would walk the entire length of the Garmaine and back again. Hodge would not be left behind; it was not an option.
As he neared the edge of the cove, Jack slowed his steps. Though the camp itself remained obscured by the ridge, dark wisps of smoke rose into the sky, and voices floated through the air. Jack inched closer to the beach, pausing momentarily each time they spoke. He stopped at the end of the ridge and waited until he could hear nothing but the babbling river before peering around the corner.
The camp lay in ruins. What few possessions the group owned were strewn about the cove. Torn clothing and pages from books littered the sand between the crumpled remains of the tents. Everything was broken and trampled with no rhyme or reason to the destruction. It looked not like the aftermath of a group of soldiers searching for a criminal, but more as though a pack of wild dogs were set loose at a picnic. For a moment, Jack began to wonder if this was truly the work of the Viochiati.
As he stepped through the debris, Jack noticed a chemical smell in the air. Though he'd glanced at the fire upon approach, he'd only noticed blankets and books within the blaze. Now, however, his eyes came to rest on a pair of feet protruding from underneath the burning pile. Despite being ravaged by flames, Jack recognized the weathered boots immediately.
"Maker's breath!" he swore again. "No. Hodge, no!"
It was too late. The fire had already eaten its way through the worn corners of Hodge's boots, suggesting he had been there for a significant amount of time. There was no way to avoid the reality of the situation. Hodge was dead.
Had Jack been certain of his own safety, he would have screamed until his throat bled. Anger, sadness, frustration, rage—they all boiled just below the surface, clamoring for release. But there was no telling how far the Viochiati were from the camp, and Jack didn't want to draw attention to his presence.
With fists clenched, he wiped tears from his cheeks. Looking around, the pieces of the puzzle started to fall together. The trampled camp suggested a struggle had taken place. Judging from the number of items piled on top of Hodge's body, he was likely dead before the fire was set. He must have returned to the cove after everyone else fled. Not long after, the Viochiati discovered the camp, questioned Hodge, and killed him. Then, to send a message to Fynn and his friends, they buried his body beneath the group's belongings and set fire to it using some sort of chemical accelerant.
"Curse them," Jack growled. "Curse them all to Kuldaan's hand!"
With nothing more to be gained, Jack reluctantly gave heed to caution and started for the bunker. Memories replayed in his mind, a vivid tapestry woven of everything from Hodge's fantastic campfire stories to the day he and Jack first met. Like the rest of the runaways, he and Jack vowed to stick together to the day they finally found respite from the war, a time when the shadow of fear no longer loomed over every moment and they could be free to pursue all their wildest dreams. Even back then, for whatever reason, Jack had managed to convince himself that their family would be together forever.
"Rest in peace, my brother. You don't have to run anymore."
The moisture inside Jass' bunker collected in beads on Trista's forehead. She was on her stomach again, stretched along two brown crates filled with who-knew-what. Though short, the journey from the cove had reopened some of her wounds. Fynn worked to stop the bleeding as best he could using one of his old shirts. Every time he applied pressure, Trista's stomach churned.
"It looks bad," he whispered. They were all hesitant about talking—even Ellie—for fear that someone might hear them. "The skin around a few of these cuts is puffy and purple. They feel warm, too. I think they're infected."
Great, another thing for Trista to add to her list of worries. It certainly made sense; her back felt as though someone had doused her with boiling water. "What should I do?"
Fynn didn't respond right away. When he did, there was obvious uncertainty in his voice. "I'm not sure. I remember reading about a facility in Shasta that treats injuries like these. But I have no idea how we'd get there safely."
Shasta was a village southwest of Karris. If they were to somehow escape the city and make it through the wastelands safely, it would take about a month to reach—maybe more—by foot. The lower class tribes would eat them alive long before that. That is, of course, if the wildlife didn't do the job first. Trista had never been down south, but a few of the reference books she'd collected over the years described large reptile-like creatures that supposedly nested in the valleys.
In other words, Shasta was impossible to reach without armed escorts.
"It's a shame," Fynn continued. "From all accounts, the Viochiati have very little interest in Shasta due to it's small size and population. They want cities they can fortify with young men and women to conscript."
"Jack will know what to do," Trista whispered. Speaking the words jolted her with the realization of just how much they all relied on Jack's leadership. Still, he had yet to buckle under the pressure. "If that's our only option, he'll figure out a way."
Footsteps shuffled through the sand beyond the door, and everyone froze. After a tense moment, a quiet voice came from outside. "I'm here, guys," Jack said. "Open up."
Misha and Fynn rushed to the door, and together they slid away the heavy crate they'd used as a barricade. When Jack entered, he was alone, and the look on his face was one Trista had never before seen. His cheeks were red and wet, and he refused to make eye contact with anyone. He was crying! He was openly crying!
"No," Misha said, shaking her head. "No! Tell me they didn't!"
Jack didn't say a word, and he didn't have to. Everyone knew what happened—everyone except Ellie. She tugged at the leg of Jack's pants.
"What's wrong, Papa?" she asked. "Where's Hodge?"
Jack scooped Ellie into his arms and brushed the hair from her face. "I'm sorry, Ellie," he whispered. "Hodge won't be coming back to us."
She scrunched her little eyebrows. "Why not?"
It was clear that Jack was struggling to be strong for her, but the facade quickly fell away. "I'm sorry, Ellie. He's gone. I'm so sorry." He apologized over and over as he buried his head against her shoulder.
The look on Ellie's face was one of confusion. Trista suspected that Jack's refusal to use any form of the word "death" left room for childhood innocence to consider every other possibility first. Was Hodge lost? Did he leave? It wasn't that Ellie didn't understand death; the Viochiati had exposed her to more than her share of that long before her rescue. But maybe—just maybe—her years spent with everyone at the cove had managed to heal some of those scars. Trista hoped those wounds wouldn't reopen once the truth sank in.
Misha, however, knew exactly what Jack meant. She immediately burst into tears and slumped against the wall. "Hodge," she groaned, holding her head in her hands. "How could they?! He didn't do anything wrong! He wasn't even there that night!"
Fynn angrily grabbed one of Jass' books and threw it across the room. He said nothing—he always refrained from using harsh language when Ellie was nearby—but his jaw was as clenched as his fists. He felt guilty, Trista knew. Even as he stood there in silence, he was no doubt blaming himself for leading the Viochiati back to the camp. It wasn't his fault, but Fynn had a tendency to be hard on himself.
Strangely, Trista had no real reaction of her own. The news bounced off of her like rubber. Hodge is dead, she told herself. Hodge is dead. She repeated it over and over in her mind, but it was like trying to drive a wooden peg through stone. For whatever reason, her brain refused to accept that she would never see Hodge again. Instead, she simply lay there staring at the boxes piled across against the wall. Why don't I feel anything?
Eventually, Jack put Ellie down. She wiped her eyes and ran to Misha's side. Misha embraced her, and the two sobbed in each other's arms. Maybe she understood after all.
After everyone had cried their initial tears, Jack dried his cheeks and sat on the floor. "Listen, everyone," he said, still refusing to look at anyone. "You need to know something. Something I should've told you a while ago. Something that might have prevented this."
Misha's eyes grew, but she didn't speak. Trista had a pretty strong suspicion of what Jack was about to say. The clues were all there, but she didn't want to make any assumptions until she heard it from him. If her assumption was correct, she was prepared to forgive him. After all, his actions—along with Fynn and Misha's—had saved her life.
"Um," Jack began, staring at the floor. "I don't know how to say this. When we went to District Seven the other night, Misha and I encountered a couple of Kinsem patrols. We got into a scuffle with one of them, and . . . " He swallowed hard before finishing the sentence. " . . . and I killed him."
"Jack!" Misha exclaimed. It was clear that she hadn't expected he'd actually reveal the truth. "You can't—"
Jack held up his hand. "Misha, please. Let me do this. They have a right to know."
Though her jaw hung open, Misha said no more. She only looked at him with incredulous eyes.
"How did this happen?" Fynn asked. "And why didn't you tell us?"
"I was hoping it would just go away," Jack replied. "There was no one else around when it happened. Misha and I were passing through an alley. Out of nowhere, a Kinsem was bearing down on us. We struggled, and I managed to get a hold of his knife. In the heat of the moment, I stabbed him. I didn't know what else to do. Once he was down, we ran. From what I could tell, there were no witnesses. I figured we were in the clear. But I guess the fact that the murder coincided with your actions in the residential quarter that night lead the Viochiati to suspect you might be somehow involved. That's the only reason I can conclude that they'd want to question you."
"You should've told us sooner!" Fynn growled, folding his arms across his chest. "We could've left the cove immediately! If we'd had that head start, Hodge would still be alive!"
Tears again streamed from Jack's eyes. "I know," he said, shaking his head. "I know, Fynn. I'm so sorry. I never dreamed this would happen. You have to believe me."
"Jack," Misha began, moving to his side. "You didn't have to—"
"Yes, I did," he interrupted, taking her hand. "And you were right. I should've told them right away. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to everyone, and I'm sorry to Hodge."
Finally, a tear rolled down Trista's cheek.