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Death and the Maiden

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A strangled gurgling permeates the otherwise empty silence of the house. It comes from a man who lies bleeding out on the area rug in the kitchen, a carbon arrow protruding like a flagpole straight up from his chest.

A slender woman, dressed dark with a green and black flannel tied around her waist, slips in through the front door. Dishwater eyes flick back and forth, ears pricked for signs of any other cultists. The radio secured at her belt crackles to life suddenly instead and nearly makes her heart leap into her throat.

“Oh, shit. Deputy, I’m pickin’ up somethin’ new out of Holland Valley. It’s a broadcast from John. You anywhere near a television?” 

Diana’s face contorts. She steps around the dog bed on the floor beside the couch, all but forgetting the man still slowly dying in the kitchen off to her right. One hand grips her bow almost too tightly while the other goes for the radio. She presses the talk button and turns a quick 180 to scan the living room. “Yeah,” she replies as her gaze centers on an old box set in the corner, “got one right here.” 

“I’d suggest you turn it on,” Dutch’s voice comes back, cut through with static. 

She chews her lip for a moment, casting another glance around the open space before responding. A bark resounds from outside, followed by a series of low whines. There’s a dog locked up out there; presumably Boomer, star hunter and Rae-Rae’s main attraction. Aside from the pumpkins littering the fields all around the property, of course. 

“Ten-four.” She holsters the radio and makes her way around the leather couch, swivels her head one more time to check her blind spots before pressing the power button on the television and taking a step back. There is a hum of electricity before the screen flickers to life. 

It is like an evangelical infomercial, the recording that jumps up on the screen. The man she remembers catching a glimpse of in the back of Joseph’s church smiles, warm and friendly, welcoming. This is the first time she’s ever heard John Seed’s voice, and she has to grudgingly admit he looks and sounds the part of poster boy. For all that she knows these lunatics have done, he is adept at painting a pretty picture even as he traces his fingers almost lovingly across Joey Hudson’s neck. She can see it, though; the threat that’s implied. He looks right at the camera - right at Diana - when he says they’ll be coming. 

It sends a shiver up through her. She grimaces, the image of Joey’s smeared mascara and the duct tape over her mouth now firmly stamped into the junior deputy’s brain. His bullshit recruitment speech almost sounded enticing, before he’d started parading around a fucking hostage. 

They didn’t deserve this; not Pratt, not Whitehorse, and certainly not her new partner. Burke probably deserved it a little bit; if not for his insistence and enormous sense of self-importance, they wouldn’t be in this fucked up situation. But the others - she needs to make an effort for them. They’ve been kind to her, a hell of a lot kinder than most. 

She’d tried getting out of Hope County first two days ago. As soon as Dutch had turned her loose from the safety of his bunker, she’d made a mad dash for the county line and found it blocked. High wire-fencing ran as far as she’d attempted to follow; breaks where the road ran through were heavily guarded by members of Joseph Seed’s fanatic militia. She didn’t know when they’d managed to put it all up, but his people had been settled in the area for a good ten years already, and it was apparent now that they had not been idle.

Dutch had prattled on to her over the radio for an hour after that about how the feds wouldn’t even touch this whole thing, anyway; it wasn’t nearly high-profile enough, and that meant it was up to them to try and help the innocent people trapped here and tear the thing down from inside. 

Diana didn’t appreciate being thrust into the position of Hope County’s one and only savior, wasn’t even sure how it had happened in the first place. Their particular piece of Montana was already chock-full of doomsday preppers and ex-military. So why her? Just because she was a cop, like that title meant anything now? Or maybe because she was an outsider; she’d only been transferred to the Sheriff's Department a month ago, and under probationary conditions at that. She hadn’t been here to witness Eden’s Gate slowly expand its influence across the entire county, engulfing both the people and the land like a plague. Just one more fucked up thing in a fucked up world, as far as she was concerned. But somehow she’d fallen - no, crashed - into the middle of it.

She snaps out of her thoughts and hastily shuts off the tv; it’s just playing the goddamned recording over again on repeat. When John Seed finally goes silent, she hears the distinct sound of tires squealing at the end of the dirt road. The barking picks up again, sharp and insistent now. She curses to herself and cranes her neck to look out the window. Rae-Rae’s is some sort of transport hub for the cult, and somebody must have noticed their communication had gone silent. 

And there are six of their very definitely dead friends scattered across the property, right in plain sight. She takes a second to think about her options before planting herself squarely in front of the window - thankfully it’s been broken out already - and reaching over her shoulder to grab another arrow from the quiver at her back. She nocks it, keeps one arm straight and firm while the other hand draws back the bowstring, shifting her gaze back up to the driveway. 

A dirty white truck careens to a screeching stop out front, kicking up a thick spray of dust in its wake. Diana wets her lips quickly, adjusts her aim toward the driver’s side. She can hear them yelling over each other now between Boomer’s frenzied barks. After the doors open and slam shut, she takes her shot. The arrow flies, embeds itself between the driver’s ribs and he crumples to the ground, trembling hands grabbing at the offending presence buried four inches into the side of his chest. 

The passenger yells in shock before starting around the hood. The cab’s back doors open and another man and a woman emerge, scrambling in panic. Diana drops the bow in favor of the pistol holstered at her thigh and takes a deep breath as she crosses the space between the window and the door before plunging outside. 

She heads for Boomer first; runs up to the cage and shoots the padlock right off the door before hauling it open and ducking around behind it. The dog shoots off like a bullet, beelines for the cultists, launches himself and tackles one of them to the ground with his teeth sunk into their throat. Diana only has a moment to stare in open-mouthed shock before a series of shots ring out and the siding of the house just behind her splinters from the impacts. A potted plant explodes off the porch railing, sending bits of ceramic and clumps of soil flying.

She ducks low and strafes across the backside of the cage, heading for a huge crate full of apples that sits about ten feet away. Popping up before crossing the distance, she quickly takes aim and unloads two rounds into the third cultist, who goes down with her finger on the trigger of a semi-auto. It unloads a spray of bullets wildly in all directions and Diana dives behind the crate, curling in on herself instinctively until the sudden onslaught is over. 

“Fuckin’ sinner,” the last man shouts, loud and hateful. 

A yelp comes from the driveway and Diana clenches her jaw a little too hard at the realization the dog has probably been kicked. Right as she’s about to lurch back to her feet, a loud bang startles her and the world goes entirely gray. The flash from the detonation blinds her for a moment and she can’t help inhaling the chemicals from the smoke grenade. Her throat burns and she coughs, doubles over, has to put one hand up on the side of the crate to keep herself steady. 

Boomer is back to barking. She has no idea where he is. No idea where the fucking cultist has gotten to, either. But he’ll be able to find her just from the sound of her hacking her lungs out. She forces herself to move, trying to quell the irritation in her airways, trying to listen for footsteps coming at her. She’s made far too much noise already, and she doesn’t want to be around when another truck full of Peggies rolls in to investigate. 

Diana tries like hell to get her bearings, but the grenade took her by surprise. She almost stumbles straight into a tent pole before sidestepping it and whipping around to check back behind. A sudden blow to the back of her head sends her careening face first into the dirt, the pistol flying from her hands as she cries out in surprise. 

It feels like she’s choking on gravel now instead of whatever’s in those smoke grenades, bits of sand grinding between her teeth as she clenches her jaw and rolls over onto her back, kicking her feet out in a desperate attempt to keep the Peggie at a distance. He takes a boot to the shin and it’s enough to send him stumbling back, snarling. 

She grabs for the hunting knife she keeps at her hip and and plants the heel of her other hand against the ground to lever herself upwards and forward, adrenaline fueling her as she lunges for him and sinks the blade into his gut. Her weight is enough to knock him off his feet and she follows, pinning him on the ground. The Peggie howls in agony, his hands grabbing and clutching for anything and everything, any means of thwarting her. He’s squirming and struggling too much for her to try retrieving the knife, so she reaches back, grabs one last arrow from the quiver and impales it under his chin with all the force she can muster. 

He finally goes still, hands dropping away, eyes turning glassy. Diana straightens up, chest heaving, heavy breaths puffing errant strands of dark hair away from her face. She knows she should collect the arrows, but time is of the essence. She is beginning to learn that she can’t afford to linger in any one place for too long, or they will come. She only grabs the necessities; the hunting knife, the pistol. She leaves the bow in the house. Her goal is to make it to Fall’s End, and once she gets there, she’s hoping there will be other weapons. She’s going to need them. 

She sees Boomer out of the corner of her eye as the smoke finally starts to clear. The dog looks relatively unscathed, and she is thankful for that. He didn’t deserve any of this shit, either. He whines and stands up on his hind legs when he comes up on her, front paws flattening against her abdomen. As the adrenaline drains away, the dog’s weight is almost enough to push her over, but she steadies herself and manages to run a hand over one of his ears. His muzzle and chest are covered in Peggie blood. 

“Good boy,” she remarks breathlessly. 

She’s getting a gnarly headache from the spot that’s surely bruising on the back of her head. She reaches up to grab the sunglasses she’d had perched over the brim of her ballcap, but they aren’t there. Must have flown off in the scuffle. Turning around, she spies them some ways away, one lens popped out and shattered in the dirt. She sneers and scoffs wearily, resigning herself to having the sun in her eyes for the rest of the afternoon.

 

.    .    .    .    .

 

Hours later, Diana sits on a barstool in the kitchen of an abandoned house some ways southwest of Rae-Rae’s. She’s kept the lights off, only has a candle lit on the kitchen counter, upon which she leans her elbows heavily. Boomer lies on the floor by her feet, nose tucked between his front paws. He hasn’t left her side since she freed him. The ballcap sits on the counter beside her, adorned with a new pair of sunglasses she’d purloined from an end table in the entryway. 

She reaches out for the Pabst she’d found in the fridge, set on trying to drink herself to sleep. She’s bruised and battered and tired. But mostly, whenever she closes her eyes, she’s back in that helicopter, and it’s crashing, and goddamned Joseph Seed is crooning Amazing fucking Grace into her ear while the world spins and fractures and crumbles down around her. 

She drains the rest of the beer and swipes the back of her hand across her mouth. Dutch had radioed in again earlier, filling her in on what John Seed was doing with all the farmland and supplies to be found in the Holland Valley. Confiscating people’s crops and personal property, bullying, marking, whatever the hell that was, muscling people out of their homes and livelihoods. Free his prisoners, Dutch said, disrupt his supply lines, get to Fall’s End. A tall order. One that makes her feel like giving up before she’s truly even started.

She thinks she should cry. She killed twelve people today. She impaled a man in the throat with an arrow. But the knowledge only sits in her gut like a lead weight nestled in the sediment at the bottom of a lake. Still and uninterrupted. She only feels the same emptiness she always has; the same dull, disinterested spark of recognition, punctuated occasionally (more than occasionally these days) by anger.

She doesn’t even feel the need to reason with herself that they would have gladly killed her, were trying quite hard, in fact. For all she’s tried to beat back the monster that lives within her, she can at least separate its presence from the lines she’s been forced to cross just to keep herself alive. Those Peggies are not innocent, and there is no possible way in hell that they could be doing God’s work out here. 

Static suddenly fills the quiet of the kitchen as she’s lighting up a cigarette and thinking about grabbing another beer. It makes her whip her head in the direction of the radio, resting on the countertop beside her hat. Boomer’s ears perk and he angles his head up from the floor, whining low. She sets down her lighter and goes to reach for the CB, but her hand stops in midair when the voice that comes through isn’t Dutch’s.

“Sin is pervasive. It drives us to do unspeakable acts. I know the feelings that drive you; I know them...intimately. But I can help you, deputy. I can wash away these sins. I can cleanse your soul. It will be difficult, and it will be painful, but...it will be worth it. My people will come for you. They will bring you to me. Don’t fight it—because the harder you resist, well...the harder we’ll have to scrub your soul.” 

She stares at the radio for a few moments, brows furrowed. She wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise even if she tried. It is immediately obvious that John Seed wants only to threaten and intimidate her. He isn't remotely interested in hearing what she has to say. 

So, she scoops the radio up and holds it in front of her face for a moment, gray-green eyes drifting toward the ceiling, following the smoke from her cigarette. “I’m afraid I’m not interested in having my soul scrubbed.” 

A beat of silence goes by. She takes a drag and lets the smoke cascade from her nostrils, sets the radio down and spins on the stool until she faces the fridge. She absolutely needs another beer. The CB crackles to life once more just as she reaches out to pull the door open.

“You should be. You murdered a dozen innocent people today, deputy. That mutt you took was intended as a gift for my brother. You are attempting to meddle in matters far beyond your limited scope of comprehension.” 

Diana frowns as she twists the cap off the fresh beer and tosses it. She picks the radio back up, presses the talk button once more. “I don’t know what you’ve done to those people, but I’m fairly fucking certain they are not innocent-”

“Wrong,” he snaps back, interrupting her. “They are doing what they must to ensure that we are prepared for what’s coming. We will not tolerate meddlers, deputy, and we are rapidly approaching the proverbial event horizon. But...I am willing to create an opportunity for you. Those left behind, those...not willing to atone, will not know the glory of our New Eden. I am going to offer you the chance.”

Diana snorts and takes a long sip from the bottle. She burps roguishly and ashes the cigarette over the edge of the countertop before responding. “Listen, buddy. I said I’m not interested in your delusional end-of-the-world bullshit,” she hisses back into the radio, suddenly very tired and annoyed. “You want to talk, you let the hostages you took go free before this becomes a full-blown act of domestic fucking terrorism. Until then, I’ll be out here playing Call of Duty with your little toy soldiers.” 

There is another generous pause before his voice cuts through again, icy and calm and unsettling. “I’ll be seeing you soon, dep-“

Diana switches off the radio before he can finish, chugs the rest of the second beer and fights the urge to hurl the bottle at the wall as hard as she can. “Fucking lunatics.” 

She drops the butt of her cigarette down into the bottle instead and stands up, almost trips over Boomer as he scrambles to his feet to go wherever she’s headed. She hastily plants a hand against the refrigerator to steady herself and bites her tongue, only managing to sigh loudly. 

“C’mon, doofus,” she says after a moment, sidestepping the eager Heeler and making her way down the hall to find a bedroom. She’ll loot the place for supplies before she leaves in the morning. For the time being, all she wants to do is try and sleep. She even lets Boomer climb into bed with her. He helps her keep her mind off wondering who might have lived here before and what might have happened to them.