Writing this a bit disjointed as taking my mother into hospital today as she's had throat problems. Not COVID according to a test, and she's fully vaccinated against it, but it could easily be a more seasonal flu that she's susceptible to because of her weak immune system due to various cancer treatments. Chapter may or may not be slightly shorter as a result. I'll probably have a lot of spare time to write on a laptop while waiting in the hospital anyway.


Cover Art: Kirire

Chapter 32


Travelling through Mountain Glenn with Juniper was an altogether different experience to travelling with the rest of ARC Corp. She knew the city in a way they did not, and she moved purposefully toward a destination that Blake wasn't aware of. What pauses they did take were only ever to look for citizens or let some pass by. There was little hesitation, little timewasting and no fear. Then again, she didn't have anything to be afraid of.

It was Blake who would have to deal with any consequences.

All the while, Juniper talked. Blake hadn't asked her to, but the woman did, and she wondered if it wasn't because this was the first conversation she'd had in years. The topic could have been nicer in Blake's opinion. Juniper talked about the divisions in the city and the various groups

She talked about the "Blooded Ones" and their twisted, gladiatorial culture, about the faction that lost their minds to rage and bloodlust and fought in terrible arenas to sate their desires and distract themselves from their existence. She talked about the "Cartel" and their great and terrible shows that saw people forced to engage in sick, carnal delights and then sometimes even kill themselves after in what they saw as the ultimate expression of passion and lust. She talked about the "Red Gallery", a wandering group of artists who saw fit to revel in the limitless possibility for creation and how blood became their paint and skin their canvass. She talked about the "Faithful" and their beliefs that this existence in Mountain Glenn was punishment for some great crime that they had to atone for, and who not only welcomed the cleansing fires of Atlas' missiles, but would gather the unbelievers and tie them together, then set them alight in great pyres as an offering to the gods.

Every story was another nightmare, another reason she should never have come here. One factor the groups all shared was that they pursued some goal to escape their reality or distract themselves for it. Be that in fighting to the death in an arena, losing your mind to excess, throwing yourself into art or blindly believing deep inside that there was a way out through prayer. Whatever the case, no one could be called happy in Mountain Glenn.

At least in that sense some sanity remained.

Blake wondered how much was left in the woman she was following through the tunnels beneath Mountain Glenn, and whether she was throwing her life away doing so. By her own admission, Juniper was not the woman she once was. It's not like I have much of a choice, thought Blake. I'd never make it on my own.

They left the tunnels eventually. Juniper brought them to another great crack in the world above, likely caused by one of the many bombardments from Atlas. The road had collapsed down and left something of a tarmac ramp for them to walk up. The street above was not empty – there were about eight people here and there – but Juniper stepped out without fear and said, "Act natural and they will not bother us."

"What counts as natural in Mountain Glenn?"

"Confidence." Juniper Arc's coat swept behind her with every step. She did not run, nor walk overly fast, and Blake could feel eyes turn their way. She swallowed and tried to mimic the woman. "Death is meaningless here," she continued. "Unless someone actively seeks your doom or you're chasing something down, there's no reason to run about. Fast movement draws the eye."

"Didn't you just tell me that all these people are part of one twisted group or another? What's to say they won't try and take us as prisoners?"

"Again, confidence. You are a huntress. I am an agent of ARC Corp. There are many more people here easier to attack than us." Her voice dropped, "Though the moment it becomes clear you're not one of us all bets are off. Even the weakest scum will risk their life for the chance to experience something new. That's what is missing the most in this repetitive city – the novelty. All the more reason to act like you belong."

That must have been their mistake with the APC at the broken down bank. They'd been clear outsiders, and they'd reacted as such when the citizens came back to life, which was as good as throwing meat and blood into shark-infested waters. Those people had been momentarily confused to see them, but their instincts had kicked in once ARC Corp panicked and ran for their APC, turning them into ravenous monsters. She wasn't sure things would have been any easier without the APCs or if they hadn't reacted as such, but they might have had the time to calmly walk away while the freshly spawned citizens gathered their wits.

That was all just a theory, which was why Blake was almost shaking when the two of them walked straight toward, and then past, two women crouched over the body of a man, stabbing him over and over and over. He had long since died but that didn't stop them carving his body up. One of them tensed and looked up as they approached, baring her teeth and stabbing a jagged shard of glass toward them. It had cut into her own fingers.

"He's ours!" snarled the woman. "We found him first!"

"You can keep him, child," said Juniper, walking past them – so close, in fact, that either of the women could have slashed at her legs. "I prefer my prey capable of putting up a fight."

Blake toed a wider path around the killers, her eyes locked on their faces and the body. They looked young, about sixteen to eighteen, and it was hard to tell how old the man was, so carved up was he. It was when her eyes lingered too long on his body that the woman hissed and brandished her glass at her, and the other looked up as well, face smeared with blood. She growled and made to stand.

"Stop antagonising them," chided Juniper.

"I'm n-"

"You're looking at their prey. They think you want him."

Like a wolf guarding a deer carcass.

Blake swallowed and tore her eyes away. It was the hardest thing she'd done, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Turning her back on two confirmed killers with weapons was hard enough but taking her eyes off them was worse. Her aura flared, ready to defend herself, but as they walked away the sounds of stabbing returned, and they were quickly forgotten by the two.

If this was what Juniper meant by acting like they belonged then she wasn't sure any of them could have pulled it off before. All of ARC Corp had been horrified by the cannibals before, but she had the feeling Juniper would have happily walked up to one, asked them for a bite to eat and then taken whatever body part was offered. If that was what it cost to play along then Blake wasn't sure she could pull it off.

"Where are we headed?" asked Blake.

"I believe the anomaly to be located in the city centre. It's the busiest part of the city with the largest buildings and the core infrastructure of Mountain Glenn."

"Any place in particular we're looking at?"

"Not specifically. I conducted most of my earliest searches on the outskirts of the city, working my way in. The outskirts were easier to look through," she added, by way of explanation. "I, too, checked the CCT, but found no luck there. I've wanted to scout the inner parts of the city for a while now, but the problem has always been digging my way through."

"It's buried?"

"My apologies," chuckled Juniper. "I meant digging my way through the bodies. People spawn again where they first died, and naturally that means the city centre is bustling. Like any good ecosystem, the fields with the most prey attract the most predators. That doesn't make searching it easy, especially when I only have twenty-four hours to do so before I snap back to the place of my death on the outskirts."

That tickled something in Blake's mind. "You died right as you and Jaune were leaving the city, didn't you?"

Juniper smiled. "Told you that one, has he? That must mean he trusts you greatly. Few people will candidly tell a stranger of the time they let their mother die."

"Let?" asked Blake, frowning. "Jaune tried his best."

"A slip of the tongue."

One Blake wasn't willing to let go. "He gets enough shit from his sisters blaming him for your death. Don't tell me you're the same."

"Is this really the time and place for such a conversation?"

No. Not really. "You said we should act all confident and unconcerned. That means we should talk as we walk."

"I did say that, didn't I?" Another sigh. "Fine. I do not blame my son for my death. Is it his fault? Yes. Technically. I pushed him through a tunnel and out to safety, and then trusted him to pull me out. He failed twice before the fires took me." Juniper sighed and ran a hand through her golden hair, staring off into the distance as they walked through the city. "Neither was particularly his fault. He was desperate, we were running low on time, we were both exhausted. It might have been poor footing, sweat making his hands slippery or any one of a hundred perfectly reasonable things that caused him to lose hold of me. The result is the same. I died."

"In the moment, I was running on adrenaline, afraid for my – and his – life. I was tired, angry and pushing him harder than I had ever pushed him before. When I heard the flames coming in and knew my life was over, when I knew that I would be taken by the anomaly, I felt such a rush of emotions. Fear, obviously. Grief, for the fact I would never see my children again. However, I also felt irritation and disappointment, and a small, niggling feeling deep inside that had it been anyone but Jaune, they might have pulled me out in time."

Blake scowled. "That's not fair."

"It's not," she agreed. "And I know that. But in the moment before death, I felt it all the same. And it is that same feeling I wake up with every time I come back to life. I know, both objectively and subjectively, that such feelings were fed by fear and loss. I also know that I love all my children deep inside. However, even as the decades have drained my anger, they have also drained me of positive emotions." She eyed Blake shrewdly. "Yet more reason why I feel it best not to announce myself to them. I could have, you realise. I could have shown myself to Atlas and left a message with them, to be taken back to my children. I chose not to. I believe, with what love I have them left for them, that this is for the best."

Trauma and tragedy. Blake wasn't sure what to say. It didn't sound like Juniper blamed Jaune, but she didn't want him to meet his mother again only to have another slip of the tongue break his heart. He didn't deserve that.

"You really do care for him," said Juniper. "I'm glad. He was always such a good boy. Soft, too soft for this line of work, but I remember that I used to find that endearing."

She remembered that she found it that way, implying that she didn't now.

"If you cared that much then why did you bring someone like him to Mountain Glenn?"

"Like him? He was – is – ARC Corp. Why would I not?"

"Because it's dangerous."

"I didn't bring a rookie here, Blake. He had training and I was confident in his ability. I wouldn't have brought him here if I didn't think he had what it took to survive. Even I know I wasn't that poor of a mother. Enough of this. You'll need your energy for when we reach the city centre."

/-/

The centre of the city was marked not by any line, or signs, or any real change in the broken-down buildings on either side of them. It was marked by bodies. Hundreds of bodies. Blood, too, splashed about the place like ten times the number had died there. It was carnage on a scale she hadn't seen anywhere else in Mountain Glenn, and from the sounds of screaming and wailing and more coming from deeper in, it was going to get worse.

"It sounds like the party has already started," said Juniper.

"What?"

"No time. We have company."

Said company came in the form of two people – a man and a woman. Both were topless, even the woman, with blood smeared in patterns over their skin like tattoos. Their hair was red as well, dyed or washed with blood that ran down their faces. The man shifted his body to point silently at Blake, and as he did she saw the severed heads tied by their hair to his belt jostle. She took a step back.

"Don't run," whispered Juniper. "He's picked you. I shall take the other."

"What happened to play it calm and no one will bother us?" hissed Blake.

"That only counts for the outskirts. I'm sure you'll do fine."

There was no time to respond because the man roared and charged forward, swinging a weapon that looked like an amalgamation of metal parts welded together. Blake was fairly sure the handle was a car exhaust pipe, that the top had the drum of said exhaust, but also barbed wire and a curved bladed edge like an axe that might have been a rounded buzz-saw at one point. All of it was rusted orange after years of abuse. He wielded it in one muscular hand, his other gripping a metal chain wrapped around his wrist, with ten or so links hanging free.

Blake ducked the makeshift axe and drew Gambol Shroud, bringing it up in time to block the chain as it whipped around her. It wrapped about her weapon and almost yanked it out her hands. The man stepped in, his face feral, and he brought his forehead down toward her. Jerking aside, she dodged the assault and drove her left fist into his jaw, then used the moment he staggered to unwind her weapon and pull it free of the chain. The second she did, she ducked low as the axe came swinging around again at neck height. He swept by above her, momentarily exposed, and she wasted no time in driving Gambol Shroud's blade up into his stomach, under his ribcage and into his organs. No hesitation. No mercy. There really wasn't the time for any, and she was too terrified of making a mistake and being trapped in Mountain Glenn to dare make one.

The man gurgled and gasped, slipped off her weapon and staggered back. He clutched his stomach and fell to his knees, then, in his last moments, he locked eyes with her and nodded once before he toppled forward and lay still on his front.

"Oh look," said Juniper, sitting cross-legged atop a dead woman's back. "You earned his respect. I guess you'll have a place in the Blooded Ones if all goes wrong here today. There are worse factions to join."

With a grimace, Blake cleaned her blade and then sheathed her weapon away under her jacket. "What the hell was that?"

"Blooded Ones-"

"I gathered that much. I meant what happened to them not bothering us?"

Juniper sighed, stood, and dusted down her hands. "As I said, those rules don't apply in the inner city. The factions here are in constant conflict for territory and souls. Meanwhile, independent groups like the Red Gallery see it as a prime source of raw material. It is hunt or be hunted here. Did you think it would be as easy as before? I told you I hadn't been able to properly search this place and I've been here years. That should have told you something about how it would be. Here, into the buildings. We can't afford to be on the streets right now."

They moved off the main road and into a block on the right. It was impossible to tell what it had once been, so burned out were its walls and furniture. Moving across ash-laden floor, they took to the far corner, to look out over another road and beyond that a paved plaza that had two broken-down statues and a fountain that had long since run dry in the centre. An entranceway down into Mountain Glenn's abandoned subway systems lay at the back, the staircase leading down into the darkness. At that staircase, a good hundred or so people fought for their lives.

It was a mad fight the likes of which compared to the violent riots of the White Fang when the transition of power had just begun – the kind of scene where everyone was fighting, but no one knew exactly how. Men and women and children were swinging clubs of metal scrap and sometimes bits of rubble at one another. Someone had taken off a metal railing, likely a handheld barrier, and was using it like a spear to jab and prod. Blake watched as a girl who couldn't have been older than twelve lugged a heavy rock to the edge of the subway entrance and toppled it up over the side. It fell down, undoubtedly killing whomever it landed on.

"Looks like the Cartel have claimed the subway this time," said Juniper. She sounded distant and disinterested. "It's not the Blooded Ones attacking – they wouldn't be so useless. Not the Gallery, either. Might be a random mob. No, wait-" She pointed to the side, where two people were on all fours tearing into and eating a dead person. "Ravenous. That explains it. A faction must have taken control of the subway."

"The Ravenous are the cannibals, right?"

"No. The cannibals are just that. The Ravenous are the ones who have completely lost their humanity and devolved into beasts. Hunt, kill, eat. That's all they know anymore. A part of me thinks it might be a mercy."

"What should we do?"

"We wait," said Juniper, "and we see if more bees aren't drawn to the honey."

It didn't take long for the sounds of combat to spread and draw more people just as Juniper suggested. The first to arrive were the Blooded Ones, again topless – men and women both – and covered in blood. They saw the fight, roared their approval and charged in to attack everyone. It didn't matter which side. Seeing them crash into the melee and carve through it showed the difference in their proficiency, even if it was still nowhere near the level of a huntsman. The Blooded Ones were not only fitter and more skilled, but they were armed better. Not armour, but weapons. They wielded scrap weapons melded together like the man from before, but each and every one had something. One even had a riot shield – an actual police-issue riot shield.

"It's a custom among the Blooded Ones to bring your weapon back to the place you died before the bombs hit," explained Juniper. "That ensures they come back to life with their weapon close at hand, ready to start fighting again. You'd be surprised how much of an edge that gives them when ninety-nine per cent of the population is defenceless."

"I don't think I would be. Do we go now?"

"No. It's not enough. I've tried to get through these parts so many times. I've never succeeded."

"It's that bad?"

"It's crowded. Too crowded. Look."

Juniper pointed as yet more people came out to fight. Different people this time, dressed in fancy clothes like discount pimps. They didn't join recklessly, but the Blooded Ones saw them and charged, drawing them into the fight anyway. At the same time, twenty people moving in strict formation – each wielding shields made of traffic signs – marched into the plaza and forward. They moved like some ancient army, drawing up a battleline before advancing and cutting people down. Before they had even finished, an extravagant and flamboyantly robed group of three people rocked up and started drawing away the injured and fallen, ignoring the fight to focus on those who couldn't defend themselves. Red Gallery, she had to assume, as they had palettes and paint brushes on their waists.

"So many…" whispered Blake.

"Capable as I am, there's always more to fight my way through when I come here," said Juniper. "It's not that I cannot kill them, but more that I cannot kill them all fast enough. Even when I do, it causes such a ruckus that I don't have time to search for the anomaly because I'm coming under constant attack. There are just too many people here. It's no easier right after the napalm either, as this is the busiest section of the city."

"How will it be any easier with just the two of us?"

"That's simple." Juniper smiled. "I will be acting as a distraction while you search for the anomaly. We'll pick a building. You will search while I keep their attention. We'll move on once you're done."

"Wouldn't you be better at locating the anomaly than me?"

"Yes, but I am better at dying without consequence than you. I do not think my son would forgive me throwing your life away – and though I don't care his feelings anymore, I will keep them in mind to honour the woman I once was."

There was no arguing with that. Blake wasn't keen on dying either. They waited for another few minutes, just to make sure the battle was well and truly raging before they moved out the building and across the street again to the other side. They moved in the shadows of the buildings, bodies low and footfalls quiet. Once they were past the war, they had to take even more care to avoid detection, as roving bands clashed on the streets and bodies were piled up in the alleyways. In one, Blake paused to look at a terrible painting on the wall, that seemed to be a woman holding a baby against her breast – almost loving, and well-drawn, if not for the fact it was made of giblets and blood.

"Say what you will," said Juniper, "but the Red Gallery can do good art. You'd expect nothing less when it's all they've been doing for twenty years."

Crossing the street again, they slipped through a building and crouched low to let a small squad of the ancient-era guys from before move on by, jogging toward the earlier battle as one man thumped a drum of what Blake would readily believe was human skin. Not that she paid attention. It was just about what she expected of Mountain Glenn. Once they were gone, they pushed on, darting here and there, killing the occasional straggler they came across, and slowly making their way deeper and deeper toward the city centre.

Eventually, they took refuge in a broken down bus station. The bottom floor was empty, the bus having long been torn apart for scrap and used as weapons. The second floor was ruined as any other, but it had a long empty window space that looked out over what must have been the actual city centre. She could tell because of the broken statue that would have stood at the centre, and which she was sure was a replica of the one she'd seen at Beacon. When it stood, it would have been some fifteen metres tall.

Behind it was a wide, ornate building with tall pillars and hundreds of windows, surrounded by a low brick wall that looked like it once had wrought iron bars embedded into it. Those were long gone. The hedges and gardens beyond were scorched black and reduced to mud, but the building itself, barring the windows, stood.

"That's city hall," whispered Juniper. "The literal centre of the city. I've no idea if the anomaly is there, and no reason to think it is other than that this is the epicentre of the disaster zone. Still, it's one of the places I've never been able to investigate."

"It wasn't that hard getting here."

"It's not the outside that's the problem. You've seen those re-enactment wannabes marching around. Those are from the Legion, the once-police force here in Mountain Glenn, who initially banded behind the government to try and keep things civilised. That was long gone by the time I died here, driven to madness by the same that takes everyone. Nowadays, they're more like an army. They serve the remnants of Mountain Glenn's council, who died in the town hall and continue to reside there."

"Is their goal to reclaim the city or something?"

"I'm sure it started as that. Now, it's just to keep themselves safe and in power." Juniper snorted, amused. "Ironic that this is a truer representation of politics than anything else. They, themselves, are cowards. They're terrified of being hurt or dying. The problem is the people driven by duty to protect them."

"How many?"

"Enough to hound my every step whenever I've made my way here."

It sounded like a nightmare. "Are there any other options?"

"Plenty. Too many, in fact. You have the hospital over there." Juniper pointed to a large, square building that had kept itself in rather good condition. There was even an O and an S hanging above the entrance, though the rest of the letters had fallen long ago. "There's no specific faction that makes that its home, but the medical staff are… odd. Strange."

"Anomalous?"

"We're all anomalous here, Blake, and they're no more or less than anyone else. They tend to stay in the hospital and they kill anyone who enters. Or they try. The Ravenous, the Red Gallery and the cannibals usually make a beeline for the hospital due to all the defenceless meat inside. The napalm was over half a day ago now, so I expect the fighting has already happened in there."

"Then it'd be safer, right?"

"If by safe you mean filled with sated Ravenous, then sure. They'll still attack and kill us on sight. There's also the theatre a few streets down from the hospital, and – as you might expect – there's a group dedicated to re-enacting various shows and plays and shit. I've attended one or two. They're actually not that violent. The shows, anyway. The audience is usually kidnapped and strapped down and forced to witness the shows until the napalm hits, but at least they don't slaughter and eat you. Well," she added, "Not unless you heckle them, anyway. I made the mistake of booing them once, and I might as well have tossed a Beowolf in an orphanage."

"Have you searched it?"

"Not the backrooms and such. The stagehands take their job very seriously. On the bright side, I got to kill a mime."

"How is that a bright side?"

Juniper shrugged. "It felt like one at the time." She stood. "We're not going to have a better chance than this to infiltrate the city hall. Not when they've sent out squads to deal with the fighting at the subway. Come. It's time to earn your salary."


Quick reminder that you need to opt-in for alerts. I'm getting quite a few PMs about it now. I'm not sure how to fix it – I think the option is in your account settings. I also think it turns back OFF after six months, which sounds fun. I guess this is to reduce their email load for old accounts, etc, but it feels like it could get annoying fast.


Next Chapter: 5th December

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