I wanted to claw out of my own skin. It didn’t take long for the safe house to become stifling. Jules’ personality alone took up all the vacant space, which left me in a smelly corner that reeked of mice urine and mold, agonizing over the guys’ safety.
Tallis repeatedly assured me that my note to Maverick was delivered, but that was two days ago. Despite telling Maverick that we would save him, here I was, still sitting in the safe house and waiting for someone—anyone—to respond to our plea for help.
Today, I allowed myself one six-hour nap to combat the delirium. When I wasn’t pacing the floors, I was reliving my desperate goodbye with Maverick. Many times, I found myself daydreaming about our kiss while dancing my rough fingertips across my lips, as if trying to recreate the sensation of his mouth on mine. My body was an accumulation of conflicting emotions—giddy anticipation and debilitating fear. Would Maverick or the others kiss me when we were reunited? Would I ever see them again?
My Galla style dress felt stiff and tight against my chest, making our already helpless situation feel even more constricting. Tallis tried to keep a strong front for us. He was a natural leader, willing to reassure and fake a smile for my benefit. But I didn’t want false hope, I wanted action. Resolution.
Fear and anxiety gripped me so tightly I had to constantly remind myself to breathe. Two days. Two days without word or confirmation that our plea for help was received. We watched the news. Clung to the whispers broadcasted in Scavenger resistance groups. And yet? Nothing. Silence.
Tallis paced the floors with a grim expression. The weight of the world made his shoulders slump, and occasionally he’d notice us watching, then force his posture to straighten. Jules secluded herself, only interjecting to complain.
"Anything?" Jules asked. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked down at the floor.
"Nothing," Tallis replied with a frown.
"Maybe they didn't get it? Or maybe I wasn't clear enough? Motivating enough?" she asked.
This wasn’t the first time I sensed her insecurities. She, too, wore the burdens of this situation, and each minute that we didn’t get a response, she lashed out more. Jules' eyes flashed to mine and her expression hardened.
"I'm sure they got it, Jules. It's treason to go against Emperor Lackley. People are scared, and now they know just how much power he wields," I said. My voice felt scratchy against my throat. How long had it been since I drank water?
"You'd be surprised how motivating anger can be," Tallis said while pacing the floor. "They'll come." He looked to Jules, and she resumed picking at her nails.
The sounds of my fidgeting echoed across the empty walls of the building. Each breath I took coated my tongue with sand and dust. Debris stuck to my sweaty pores, making my skin feel gritty.
“Could you please stop tapping your fingers? It feels like you’re knocking against my brain,” Jules complained for the millionth time.
I wanted to scream at her, but it would be wasted energy. How could she seem so calm, so unaffected? I wished that I could turn down the volume of my thoughts like she could.
“I’m sorry you aren’t as burdened with concern for your brothers as I am,” I countered, leaning back against the musty wall. I looked at the ceiling and noticed an exposed wooden beam covered in dust. A mouse scurried past, and I squinted my eyes to stop falling dust from getting into them. My entire body felt constrained by my tight dress. If Tallis weren’t here, I would strip down to my undergarments for relief.
“I’m just better at channeling my efforts, dear. It’s a skill you’d do well to learn,” Jules replied in a pretentious tone.
Her demeanor both confused and infuriated me. I was jealous of her ability to keep calm and collected. Although she looked upset, Jules didn't have the restless energy that Tallis and I had. She remained still and pensive, only occasionally piping in to ask for updates. She didn’t respond to conflict like everyone else, it just made her cruel but calm. Perhaps it was a conditioned response.
“Will you two stop?” Tallis pleaded, checking his tablet. It had become a cycle of sorts. Tallis scolded us, then checked his tablet for updates. Jules kept pushing. She wanted a fight, and I was about ready to give it to her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled halfheartedly, and he rolled his eyes in response, obviously not fooled by her attempt at an apology.
“And, uh—Ash. The tapping is a bit nerve-grating. Perhaps you could expel some energy with a walk?” Tallis politely suggested while eyeing Jules.
That was another thing I’d noticed during our time together. There was much between the Scavenger Chief and Mistress Black. They weren’t obvious in their affections, aside from the kiss they shared the day Jules recorded her plea for help. However, Tallis subtly found ways to show support while giving her space. I’ll admit that it made me jealous to see their easy relationship that didn’t need words. He provided her gentle yet consistent emotional support. I wished one of the guys were here to help me cope with the stress of not having them.
On shaky legs, I stood and began pacing. They didn’t like the tapping, but I needed to get rid of all this pent up energy somehow. My eyelids felt heavy with exhaustion, and sweat dripped down my forehead. I needed rest, but I couldn't keep still.
"Here she goes again," Jules groaned while watching me pace. I felt her judgmental stare, but I couldn’t be bothered enough to care. “I think this is worse than the fidgeting.” Her dark eyes followed my movements as she puffed out air in frustration.
"I just can't sit still," I said softly, still pacing. With each step, the wood beneath my feet creaked and groaned at the force of my stomping steps. Jules winced at the noise.
“Maybe you should try to sleep, you look terrible," Jules added, scrunching up her face. I forced myself not to roll my eyes. Despite the less than stellar accommodations, Jules looked clean, polished, and prepared for whatever would come. Luckily, there wasn’t a mirror in the safe house. Otherwise, I was afraid my own reflection might scare me.
"Maybe you should sleep," Tallis agreed. "I promise to wake you if I hear anything." He, too, followed my pacing with annoyed eyes.
My desire to do something was wearing them down, but I ignored their frustrated scowls. There was no way I could rest knowing that Cyler, Maverick, Patrick, Jacob, Kemper and Huxley were somewhere in danger. I needed to know that they were ok. I needed them here with me.
Jules let out a long and low sigh. I sensed another snide comment coming, so I decided to put some space between us. "I'm going to walk outside," I said while making my way towards the door. Despite their curious stares, Tallis and Jules didn't argue with my need for open space. I knew that they were relieved to have a break from my compulsive fidgeting just as much as I felt relieved to be free from them.
I paused at the cracked door and tightly gripped the handle while collecting myself. The past two days were full of these little moments. Moments of doubt, crippling fear, and grief. I took in a deep breath, pushing down all the negativity, and opened the door. I’ve spent a lifetime in control of my emotions, and I didn’t plan on losing that now.
Outside, the ground, covered in red dirt and sand, was so dry that dirt kicked up with each step. I walked around the debris and dead plants, following the trail my boots created as I restlessly paced the perimeter of the safe house. Fear for the ones I loved settled deep in my gut. Each step pounded my anxiety deeper into my bones. I wanted to cry out at the injustice of it all. I finally found a home, a family. Requited love. And the world was hell-bent on taking it from me.
I had faith that Maverick would do all he could to save everyone, but I still had lingering doubts. What if he failed? I couldn't help but obsess over the consequences of Emperor Lackley's mutating disease. What if I lost them all before I even had them?
"Excuse me, Miss?" a smooth voice said with an accent that danced over the syllables. I looked up and spun around. A man wearing an orange uniform and black hat smiled at me. He had a mustache and eyes that appraised me with forced friendliness.
"You wouldn't happen to know a Jules Black, would you?" he asked. I stood there for a moment, considering my options. In the distance, I saw no one, but I couldn't know for sure if this man was alone. Desperation made people do desperate and deplorable things. He was well-groomed and polite, but I knew best that sometimes hell can hide in plain sight. The only thing I did know was that if he was looking for Jules, he could very well be an enemy. Speaking against Emperor Lackley made her a target.
"Depends on who's asking," I replied in a rough voice, crossing my arms over my chest. I took a deep breath and went through my options. There was something off about this man. But at the same time, I was curious. I could either scream for help or see what he wanted. I chose the latter.
"Do forgive me. The world goes to shit, and I forget my manners!" he exclaimed while stepping closer to me. I didn't have time to analyze the invasion of my personal space because, in one swift movement, the tall man grabbed my hand and kissed it. His soft lips were tender yet intrusive. I shivered in disgust and pulled away. Upon closer inspection, I saw that he was slightly older than me. He had tanned skin and wrinkles on his forehead. Hints of grey hair collected around his hairline, but his eyes were youthful.
"I'm Commodore Sebastian Cavil. It's a pleasure to meet you." He didn't blanch at my retreat or even seem offended as I wiped the feeling of his kiss off my hand. He stood close as he widened his stance, looking like a predator attempting to appear approachable.
"How can I help you, Commodore?" I asked tentatively while slowly backing away. Sweat dripped down my neck as my heart pounded. I knew there was a window just a few feet away. If I could just get Cavil in front of it, maybe Tallis would see. I wanted to think that I could handle this on my own, but the truth was, I was an unprepared and sheltered Walker. Without the guys to protect me, the world seemed much more dangerous.
"I'm sure you're wondering what my intentions are. If you just let me speak with Mistress Black, I'll answer all of her questions," Cavil replied. His lip quirked up in amusement, but his eyes flashed towards the exposed ridge of my ear where my Walker ear tag once was attached. His dark, brooding irises made me pause and once again doubt his friendliness.
"Jules Black isn't here," I replied automatically. I might not like her very much, but she was still Cyler’s and Maverick’s baby sister. I would protect her. "She's gone to Dormas to care for her people." My explanation seemed fake even to my own ears, but I hoped he believed it.
Commodore Cavil's eyes squinted at me as if assessing the truthfulness of my statement.
"I see," he replied in a slow, accusing tone. He wordlessly began digging in his pant pockets.
I took another step backward, placing myself directly in front of the window. I prayed Tallis saw. I had no doubts now; Cavil was dangerous.
"Well, that is simply a shame. You see, I brought my big, bad army to rescue her family," Cavil said while pulling out his tablet and pressing down on the screen. With a flick of his wrist, a shimmer of light filled the empty dust field beside us, and an army of a couple hundred men appeared. "It’s fancy technology," Cavil explained as my eyes widened in shock.
They were completely invisible before. The smell of gasoline and sweat filled the space, and the wind picked up, brushing my curly hair over my neck as Ethros flags waved above transports and tents in the distance.
"I have absolutely no clue how it works. I stole it from Emperor Lackley himself. Lets me keep my men hidden so I don't scare pretty little Walkers wandering alone outside," Cavil said. I stiffened.
“What makes you think I’m a Walker?” I asked.
“Aside from the hole in your ear?”
My left hand shot up, grabbing my exposed ear, a subconscious knee-jerk reaction to his obvious prejudice. I once again moved closer to the window, praying Tallis saw my distress.
“Let me teach you a little lesson,” Cavil said with a manic grin. “If you want to survive in this world, you must learn to exploit the weaknesses of everyone you meet. I saw your timid, jaded eyes before you knew I was even standing here, Walker.”
“I’m liberated,” I explained hurriedly. I felt like I was shouting out my truth. “I’m free in Dormas.” I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to correct the man with an army at his disposal, but I couldn’t help it. My time in Dormas made me brave.
“There's no such thing as a liberated Walker. If you’re born to a parent who can’t afford the vaccine, no matter how you get out of the Zone or how you obtain the cure, you’re still a Walker. There’s a certain pedigree to survival, I think.” Cavil spit out the word ‘Walker’ like it was too filthy for his mouth.
I dug my toes into the soles of my boots, curling them and flexing to combat the terror I felt. The movement seemed to ground me back into my purpose. “Jules isn’t here,” I said through my gritted teeth. I didn't bother forcing myself to be pleasant.
"Well look at that,” Cavil said with a smile. “A brave Walker. What a pleasant surprise. Usually I find that people of your breeding lack a backbone. I think you're brave. Brave enough to lie to me about whether or not Jules Black is in this house." Cavil nodded towards the run down safe house with a smile. I saw a flash of white hair behind him, and relaxed when I realized Tallis was coming to the rescue.
"Can't blame me," I replied with a half smile, full of relief. "It’s hard to know who to trust these days." Tallis put a finger up to his lips as he crept closer. I made sure to direct my eyes back to Cavil so he didn't notice that my attention was elsewhere.
"Trust can't be built when you lie in the first five minutes of a friendship, ahh...what’s your name again?"
"I didn’t tell you, and is that what we are, Commodore? Friends?" I asked. I was stalling, and prayed he didn't notice.
"Well, I don’t usually make it a habit of befriending Walkers, but there are always exceptions!" Cavil exclaimed with a laugh. "I have been very close to some of the Walkers in my employment.” The way his voice danced over that insinuation made shivers shoot like rockets up and down my spine. Hunger flickered in his eyes for a brief moment that felt like hours. “Tell your friend that’s trying to sneak up on me that I'd like to meet you all in an hour at my camp. I have a proposition for Mistress Black."
"What kind of proposition?" I asked.
"The kind that involves me saving your people in exchange for you saving mine." The lines of his face deepened, and I recognized the steadfast resolve in his expression. “When I learned of the vaccine rejection, I immediately realized that we would need a team of scientists to solve this problem.”
Commodore Cavil was a man on a mission. I considered what we could possibly offer him when the realization dawned on me.
"You want Maverick," I stated before biting my lip. There was no use asking. Mav was the only one capable of curing this mutation, and by putting the word out, we unintentionally made him a target. Although Maverick would be more than willing to share his research, the leaders of this empire were fickle. It wasn't just a cure they wanted. It was power and recognition, too. Emperor Lackley rose to power because he cured a disease that he created. It was only a matter of time before others saw this as an opportunity to rise up the ranks. My heart raced as I worried about what that meant for Maverick’s safety.
"I want to survive, yes. I have a lab comparable to Emperor Lackley’s, as well as a beautiful guest house." Cavil kissed his fingers before continuing. "You should see it! Water fountains, tile imported from Lutheras, and a state of the art kitchen. You all can come stay in Ethros while we sort out this little vaccine reject problem," Cavil explained with wide eyes and a smile as if this solution was ingenious. “In fact, I think I’d much enjoy having another pretty Walker around.”
"We've all heard what you do to pretty Walkers, Cavil," Tallis said. His voice was harsh and unyielding.
"You’d think a Scavenger would know better than to listen to rumors," Cavil replied tauntingly. "There are people in Ethros convinced you all run around in the nude. I'm sure some of them will be disappointed when I go back and tell them you’re fully clothed,” Cavil chuckled. “You must be the Scavenger Chief that sent out the distress video." Cavil thrust out his hand for Tallis to shake, but instead, the Chief crossed his arms over his chest, brushing him off. Cavil didn’t falter.
"I have the resources necessary to get the Dormas Leadership Council out safely. All I need in return is for you all to take a little vacation to Ethros. This could be an opportunity to not only build an alliance, but find a solution that's mutually beneficial to our providences. I want to understand this mutation and find a cure. I'm not a bad guy, promise. You might even like it! Ethros is known as the Home of Love," Cavil said while wiggling his eyebrows.
“And how are you capable of saving the Dormas Leadership Council?” I asked. My voice wavered as I spoke, emotion crashing through me. Cavil gave me a calculating gaze, as if cataloging my reaction and processing how he could later use it to his advantage.
“I have the best army. The best weapons. I can have them in and out in no time, little Walker. I’ll keep your Holders safe. Your loyalty and concern is truly admirable.”
"We'll do it," a soft but solid voice said, and my eyes zeroed in on a shaken Jules who stood behind Tallis. Her chin was raised in confidence, but the small droplets of water that gathered in the corners of her brown eyes suggested otherwise. "Save them." Tallis stiffened at her words and took in a deep breath. “I don't care what you have to do.”
Cavil’s smile took up his entire face. In two short sentences, Jules not only revealed herself, but revealed her weaknesses. I groaned at her impulsiveness. However, there was a part of me that was relieved. I would sell my soul to the devil if it meant I could have my guys back, and this certainly felt like a deal with the devil. It was still too soon to tell if he had bad intentions, but there was a foreboding sense tingling in the back of my mind that there would soon be consequences for agreeing to Cavil’s deal.
"Mistress Black, I presume? I'm so happy to see you're still here and not off to Dormas yet," Cavil said while looking pointedly at me.
“That's me,” Jules said.
“Well my dear, you are more lovely in person,” Cavil said with a slight bow while keeping his eyes on her.
“So what's the catch?” she asked while taking another step closer.
“I'm sorry? What do you mean by a catch?” Cavil and Jules were playing a game of cat-and-mouse while Tallis and I stood helplessly on the sidelines.
“Men like you always have an ulterior motive. I'm sure on some primal level you see the value in hiring my brother to find a cure. But there's more, isn't there? Let me guess…” Jules drummed the tips of her fingers against her peach lips while inspecting the army behind us.
“Well obviously,” Cavil began, “I would like the rights to whatever cure Maverick comes up with.”
“So essentially, you would like to monopolize survival, similar to what Lackley has done,” Jules said with a deep frown. I gasped. Was there no one left in the empire that did things for the greater good anymore?
“That's exactly what I plan to do, Mistress.”
Tallis opened his mouth to speak, but Jules gripped his wrist in her hand and squeezed.
“I won’t lie to you, Mistress. I’d also like an opportunity to grind Lackley beneath my boot. We have history, you see,” Cavil added.
“And you can promise me that you’ll free the Dormas Leadership Council and that they will be unharmed?” Jules asked.
“Absolutely! I have a monopoly on the weapons, and some of the best trained military personnel in the entire empire. I hope to not only free your Leadership Council, but also kill Emperor Lackley. Furthermore, I will even allow the people of Dormas to have access to whatever cure your brother comes up with.”
I watched as Jules considered her options, but I couldn't help but interject. “And what about everyone else? Will you keep the same system? Will Walkers still be forced to live in poverty, fighting for their lives while the rich survive and thrive?”
Cavil snapped his neck and looked at me with eyes like daggers. I felt his demeanor shift as he considered my words. His stare made me feel unworthy, like a disobedient child. Like an insolent Walker.
His fingers twitched at his side, and I wondered if he would hurt me. “Not that you have any say in the matter, but I plan to continue our empire’s current system with a few of my own modifications.”
“Maverick wouldn't want that,” I immediately said to Jules. Once again, Cavil threw me a murderous glare and swallowed down whatever insults were on the tip of his tongue.
Jules also seemed exasperated by my questioning. “I'm sure Maverick doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in Lackley’s prison, either,” she said. “Okay, we’ll do it.”
I opened my mouth, once again, to argue, but Tallis’ frown and slight shake of his head made me pause. Although I thought that Jules was being impulsive, Tallis’ judgment was something I could trust. It was something I'd been clinging to since leaving Lackley’s lab.
Within moments, Jules and Cavil were walking off towards his makeshift military camp outside the safe house, while Tallis and I watched them make plans together.
"Did we do the right thing?" I asked. I turned to look at him, but his eyes were still glued to Jules. There was a hint of admiration in the way his lips quirked up in a small half smile.
"Jules thinks this is a good idea,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m going to trust her judgment.” Tallis started off towards them, and I quickly followed.
"Do you think we can trust him?" I needed reassurance.
"I think he's our best option," he replied with a shrug, taking larger steps after them. "But I don't plan on letting Jules out of my sight either," he added in a low steadfast voice just as Jules laughed loudly and looked over her shoulder at us. She gave Tallis a meaningful glance before facing forward again. I clung to what little relief I could at this new development.
Although I was happy that someone would finally take on the Emperor and rescue my men, I still couldn't help but feel like we were trading one imprisonment for another.