Somehow it didn seem real, somehow it was the only thing that did. She found herself asking that same question, asking how she could have ever believed that they would not come for her after they had come for her parents, for Ashs parents, for the Rosehips and so many others. All she could do was run, her crossbow slung across her back, her steps fast but silent as she raced through the trees. He waved at her, only a flick of his wrist really, but she caught it, both of them going still, their eyes and ears peeled and listening. Her eyes scanned around, her Radar diving between the trees and she spotted that fox. So quickly, so quietly she clicked her tongue at Ash, not waiting to see if he would follow her as she started running again. They were almost there, she spotted those familiar markings on familiar trees, and she knew that she was close.
It was just at the treeline that she heard them, and she fell to lie on her front, shaking her head and trying to breathe. Those men in her gardens were wearing boots, heavy boots, City boots, and now there was no doubt that they had come for her. She felt him creep up beside her, crouching over her so his cloak would shield her too, and he squeezed her hand again. She did not need to ask him what he was thinking or what that hand around hers meant. He did not need to tell her that there were Head-hunters at her house, she knew that, she knew it without needing to open her eyes and see them.
But she did need to do that to see if someone else was. Her head flicked up, her Radar diving on ahead and scanning her house. She almost gasped when she caught sight of Iris, crouching in one of the safe-rooms, feeling her body going stiff, her face going tight as she watched Iris sit there with no weapons and only waiting for the end to come. He must have seen her too, his head bowing, his hood sliding away almost like he was hoping he could change her mind over what she still had left to do. He squeezed her hand again, tugging a small tug, a gentle one, and she knew her time had come.
She looked up at him, not needing to say a word, not needing him to say anything to know what he would do next. So slowly he reached down, pressing his forehead to hers and tapping his fingers to her chest. She wanted to tell him that he would not need to keep her memory safe, she wanted to tell him that everything would be fine, but she knew that it wouldn be. So slowly she slid out from under him, grabbing at the material at his chest, her face scrunched up in a tight wince as she pressed her forehead to his one last time.
And then she let him go, her eyes only fixed ahead, her Radar scanning, her mind plotting. That was her home, that was her family, who would stay to protect it if not her? She took a deep breath, feeling that burning in her stomach grow bigger and her heart racing as she slipped out from the trees. Already then she wanted to turn back, her mind already ringing with the rules her people had used to survive this long, but not knowing how they would serve her now. She crept forward, her boots so light, not making a sound as she climbed up to the open skylight on her roof.
She had to try, that was all she knew for sure, that was the only thing that mattered now. She was so quiet as she slid in, diving and slinking in the shadows, and pressing herself up against the wall of one of her storerooms. Her sensors had bought them both enough time, Iris was hidden for now and she had made it back from The Forests, but not before they had as well. They were already in her house, creeping in the shadows just like she was, and searching for their prey. She could see one of them through the wall, knowing her suit was not as good as Ashs cloak and he would see her soon. So she waited, a steady hand reaching for the right pocket and then she had what she needed. One click of that metal orb, no bigger than a plumb, and she was armed, that orb burning hot, twisting and growing until it became a thick rod and hummed with current.
There was a taste on the tip of her tongue as she watched him come closer, one she didn like, one that somehow burned both hot and cold and left her breathless. She wanted this to be over, she needed this to be over, but it needed to be done right. She heard the sound of his boot on the floorboard beside her, knowing that it would not be long now and he would not get his prize tonight, that much she knew, and she knew it for certain. He slid into view, his gun raised, ready to fire at any moment, his eyes scanning ahead and barely blinking as he moved in the darkness, and she hit his head with her rod, a part of her enjoying the feeling of it, a bigger part of her only thinking on what she had to do next. She caught him before he could hit the floor, his heavy, clumsy body smelling like Ash would after a long hunt, warm and musky and salty. It was a strange thing to smell, so normal yet anything but. He was a man just like they were, what was he doing here, thinking his life was worth more than anyone elses?
Her heart was heavy then, heavy with faces, heavy with names, and she wanted to kill him. That would at least make some of this right and pay for some of the pain he and the others had caused, but she didn have time and she did not know if he was chipped. She laid him down, another click of that rod and it twisted around his wrists, a quick look at that Radar on the side of his head and she had a plan. She tried not to let her heart grow too light, but her chances of making it out of this had just grown. She just had to make it to her room and get her hands on something she had built a long time ago. Her Radar was better, better than theirs, that much she knew for certain, and it would survive that device while the others would be fried. They would be in the dark then, their boots still clumsy, this house still foreign to them, and she would have her sight, her ears, and she knew all the ways out.
She crept along the corridors, her Radar showing her where they were throughout her house, her steps light and quiet. She had it in her hands then, feeling the weight of it and watching them. One press and she would be a step closer, but she would also give them what they wanted. They would know without a doubt that someone was there the moment she pressed it. They would hunt, they would chase, until they found somebody, anybody, to take back as their prize. She would have to be quick, smart and alert, more alert than she had ever been before when she was already so tired, but she knew that what she held in her hand was the only chance she had at getting Iris out of this alive, so she pressed it.
They smiled when their Radars died, some of them turning to look at each other, some of them laughing loud enough for her to hear all the way upstairs. There was a part of her that wanted to scream, to go raging, her crossbow humming and shooting and ending them all there and then, but she could still see Iris downstairs. The only thing Phoenix could do was creep, take them out one by one, until their group was small enough for her to manage on her own. She already had her next target, a man who was rummaging through Iris room, grabbing and pulling at things, and sifting through her clothes. He stood straight, her hairbrush in his hands, a flick of a button on his glasses shining a light on the pale blonde hair still caught inside. He turned, smiling and bringing his hand to the side of his mouth as he shouted, ”Weve got one! ”
It was only then that she realised this was actually happening, that they were in her house and they were really coming for Iris. She had to stifle a gasp, her stomach burning, her heart racing as she crept towards him. They couldn take her, they could take anyone else, but not her, not Iris. The feel of the rod in her hand was heavy, but not heavy enough to help her feel any less like she was somehow caught in some terrible dream. She waited until hed turned back around, tucking Iris hairbrush away in a pouch around his waist, and then she pounced, hitting him and catching him just like she had with the one before. It was so much harder not to kill this one, with him standing in Iris room and with Phoenix knowing without a doubt what he had come here for. She thought about it, really thought about it, but then she couldn think at all, all she could do was crouch there beside him, frozen and still, her eyes wide as she listened to Iris scream. It was such a terrible scream, shrill and loud, louder than she had ever heard anyone scream before. She watched them drag Iris through their garden, laughing and smiling, as she kicked and fought, and she knew what Iris was doing.
Iris was warning the others to stay away, her, Ash, the Rosehips, anyone who could possibly hear her this deep in The Forests. It was the brave thing, the right thing, to do, but Iris was only seventeen, did she really think that Phoenix would leave her to face what came next alone? Phoenix pressed her back to the wall under the window, thanking her luck that it was open and she would not have to waste any more time.
”Let me go! ” Iris shouted.
”How many more of you are there? ” one of those Head-hunters asked, but Iris did not answer.
He sucked his teeth, nodding a little as he stared at the girl, and then he slapped her, Iriss head lolling, her lip already split. It took everything Phoenix had not to fire then, and she couldn shoot yet, not when Iris was surrounded and she didn have a clean shot. That was the least she could do for her now, make it quick and painless and save her from where these men would take her if she left this garden alive. Phoenix heard a snort, a loud, crass snort, and that man hit Iris again. She couldn take it then, not knowing how long he would keep going and how much pain Iris would be in before he was done. Phoenix stood, loosing two bolts, one into his shoulder and one into the men behind Iris. She did not see if he died, she did not care, the only thing that mattered was that her next shot killed. She squeezed the trigger, a part of her just wanting to cry, a part of her just wanting to aim that bolt at herself and not have to do this, but her knees buckled, her eyes rolling as she stumbled. It took her a moment to realise what was happening, her head banging against the floor, her joints so stiff and her muscles aching. There was a smile on his face as he stared down at her, a rod of his own in his hands, and then she knew without a doubt that The City was taking Iris, and it was taking her too.
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