Betsy mindlessly wiped away the blood trickling down her chin. The small trail of blood following behind the path she made through the forest disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared, fresh snow hiding the crimson of her sins. She made the only sound in the night, besides the wind. Her eyes followed her footsteps through the crispy white snow, glazed over in thought, searching for memories, answers, explanations.
A branch snapped.
Her feet stopped, her eyes flicked up and darted through the woods, searching for what her next fight was going to be. She heard a rustle and her gaze locked onto something small. Something dark.
‘Black Squirrel,’ she thought, breathing out slowly through her nose. She watched it for a moment as it rustled hurriedly through the snow, trying to find where it buried its food. The water from the snow made its fur glisten, even in the dark. It was a eerie sort of beautiful. Sparkling, unexpected, calm. An image of that Semper flashed through her mind. She reeled like she’d been struck in the face. Her brain started to fire too fast, with too much information, too many feelings, too many memories. Betsy covered her ears like an overwhelmed child, knowing full well it wouldn’t stop the sights or sounds her mind played on a slowly changing loop.
A branch snapped. Betsy let it be an anchor, and she snapped back into the present.
The Squirrel found what it was looking for, after moving its search a little to the left. She gave a sad little smile and quietly wished the animal luck as she continued her trek.
The memories were like the tide. Some would flood in in massive waves, knocking her to the ground. Some would slowly trickle in, gentle and needed in the right moments. It started to get easier as she realized it was just the state of things for a while. It got a lot easier when she realized that most of the tide was memories she knew, ones she’d had.
The new ones were heavy. Spotty. Haunting.
Betsy made a point to never do things that would cause her to lose more than one nights sleep. It was a good rule to live by, a good makeshift moral gage. It allowed her to sift through the jobs to find the right ones, to have some grasp of morality, and mortality. Betsy also made a point to never be an animal, to never be captured, poked, prodded or trained.
‘Suppose if you’re gonna break one rule, might as well break the rest,’ she pondered with a sad chuckle.
A scent on the wind caught her attention. She scanned the treeline as she tried to place the faint smells. Mold.. Dirt.. Something old, like an old world cologne? What was that last scent? Betsy’s pupils dilated as fear, passion, rage, desire and dozen other things filled her chest. She frantically looked through the woodline, trying to find his face.
‘SEMPER, SEMPER, SEMPER’ her mind screamed, like an alarm going off. The top of her head started to burn like hot iron was being poured on her skull. She felt the panic attack started to creep into her chest, like a black ooze seeping its way through her bones. She summoned all the rage she could muster to hold her ground. She forced out thoughts of his face and filled her mind with what she was, who she was, and what that meant.
Her eyes scanned the treeline again.
There he was.
The silence in the air was deafening. She stared at him, he stared at her. She was still dripping with blood, mostly hers, some of his. She still had leaves in her hair, “a Final Knight Natty One” the town had joked. She still wore the shirt that wasn’t hers and the jacket that was, both reeking of his scent. He was stern faced, expressionless in the moment. He was covered in blood, mostly hers, some of his. The hood that covered his head made his eyes gleam in the night. Sparkling, unexpected, calm.
“Betsy,” he said, gruff and low.
Her breath caught in her chest. She felt the last month of brainwashing and reprogramming fighting for control of her brain as her name rolled from his lips. Betsy had never wanted to bash her head on a tree until knockout until precisely this moment.
“----,” she replied, managing to keep her voice level and rough. The grin that grew on his lips froze Betsy in her tracks. ‘Breathe, in, out. It won’t happen again,’ she thought to herself, rubbing her fingertips together inches away from the blade in her pocket.
“You know it wasn’t me.”
A shiver racked Betsy’s body as her eyes followed the blood trail behind him, the sounds of his footsteps filling her ears like static. He took two steps forward, she stepped one back. His smile grew, her hand inched closer to the blade handle. When he got close, that kind of- almost too close, Betsy took a breath and prepared for impact. Her breath escaped when he stopped abruptly, and pulled out her most loved cleaver, the one that old white coat bastard pulled off her leg. She looked him in the eye, as hard as she could. She knew he couldn’t be trusted, that goes without saying but what was this? The cold air blew, biting like a snake and filling your bones with chill like a poison. They remained still, like animals squaring before a fight.
After what seemed like too long, he shifted his hand a few inches forward, quietly insisting she take the cleaver. Betsy couldn’t stop the visible shake of her hand as she slowly reached for her weapon, keeping his gaze in hers to say that now is not the time for games. She felt a surge of power as her fingers slowly wrapped around the handle, and all at once had it ripped away as his fingertips brushed against her hand as they pulled away.
The rage was back. Hot, bubbling, threatening implosion. She hated every bit of him and herself in that moment. Hated what he’d done to her brain, herself for being weak enough in a moment to let it happen. She stepped back harshly, three steps, wide steps. That half grin he loved to throw crawled back across his lips and he moved a bit forward, so the moonlight hit his face.
“Dramatic,” Betsy said, loud and disgusted.
“I’m the dramatic one,” he snapped back. “Me, not you, who had the whole place in a tizzy. Certainly not you, who had Sempers baring teeth at one another. Definitely not you, who pulled emotion from the most cold hearted while laying on that table.”
Betsy flinched like he’d struck her face. She felt the crimson rush of embarrassment flood her chest into her face and her mouth opened in response. “How fuckin’ dare you. My brain is still three quarters mush and the parts that aren’t rack with pain as they start to remember what happened, what you motherfuckers made me do. How dare you-”
“How dare I?!” Rage replaced with sense, fear with alertness as the Semper moved faster than Betsy's ever seen one move. His blade came so fast, the only reason she saw it was the moonlight glimmering off it’s edge. She caught it in the back hook of her cleaver and threw it back towards him. His eyes locked to hers, and she saw anger, but she saw desperation more than anything. She pulled her cleaver back and slammed her elbow into the middle of his chest, stepping back as he gasped and stumbled.
“I’m not fuckin’ stupid. I know you still need him for your stupid bullshit pack.” The Reaper leaned over, resting one hand on his knee and rubbing his chest with the other. He stared at the ground and growled in response.
“Just..” Betsy trailed off. He looked up. She was staring into nothing. Her hair had fallen out of her hat in the scuffle and down her back. It was still matted with leaves and mud and blood, but it shined in the moonlight just as well. The blood that coated her pale skin was dried and flaking, almost shading her face like a painter had born her image. The Semper waited.
“Just, tell me why.”
“I had to.” Her eyes shifted to him. There was pity on his face now, and regret.
“That’s some bullshit, you need to give me more.” He took a step towards her. She refused to flinch, no matter how much her brain screamed for her to. She was getting back to herself. She wasn’t drunk and high and hallucinating. He didn’t have a warrior army. She could kill him, and they both knew he’d be stupid not to realize it. He took another step.
“They’ve been gone so long, Betsy. They’re all I’ve got. The things I’ve done, the people I’ve killed, the deals I’ve made..” he trailed off for a minute, and Betsy cut in.
“Those aren’t my fucking deals, problems or haunting. Those aren’t my fucking responsibility and yet you wrapped me in. You killed me in the only way you can kill a person without sending them through the ‘Mind.” Betsy took a step towards him, pointing her cleaver at his chest. “You tied me down, knowing that labrat fuckface was going to take away all that was me, and you come to me after, telling me of your deals and promises? What the fuck is going on in that baby Semper dome of yours? How long have you been out the fucking tube?” She stepped again. Her cleaver pressed into his chest plate and she got close enough that he could feel the heat from the anger that filled her face. “You warped my fuckin’ brain goo into thinkin’ that you’re my goddamn Reaper. That I was goddamn property. That I needed to kill my babs, my Heartbeats. You need to have a real good next sentence.”
The Reaper took a deep breath. He pulled back just a bit and put his hand on the head of the Cleaver, taking the weight off his chest.
“My name is Dante, and I’m one of the surviving members of CB-455. Fifteen of us managed to survive what happened during the Fall and pulled from the same Cryobank. We’ve been managing our own for quite a few years now, we were doing fine. About six months ago, we we up North a bit, searching for food and supplies. We ran into a ship on the bank, full to the brim of Saltwise. They took every single one of us, except me. The only reason I’m not where they are is because I killed enough of them that they pulled back. I know my pack is still alive. I can’t get them back alone. I need another Semper. I need your Semper.” His gaze was unbreaking, and shimmering with truths. Betsy grimaced as she felt her old heart start to soften.
This was the town’s fault. A year ago she’d have killed him three words in. Betsy sighed. She dropped her cleaver.
“It was the only way, Betsy. I’m sorry I tricked you. I’m sorry I helped do this to you. How else was I to test his skill or his determination or his senses? I-” his words caught in his throat as Betsy threw a hand up to summon his silence. Her hair covered her face as she stared at the ground. The Reaper felt his heart in his throat.
“Dante,” Betsy said softly, meeting his gaze once more. The Reaper felt his heart start to drop and speed up. He wanted to touch her face and grab the handle of his knife at the same time.
“I don’t.. And I can’t. Not right now.”
He nodded profusely. “I expect nothing of you at present time. Nothing. I can’t, couldn’t, leave you to the darkness of the world and your mind. I will kill without thought, I will maim and mutilate at my whim but I fought dirty, and for my own gain. I’m not without honour. Can I-” Betsy’s hand rose again.
“I’ve earned the fucking truth,” she demanded. Her eyes were full of fire, and impatience.
He stared at her for a moment, and she stared back. “I know that “bullshit” you fed me about your people looking into finding the cryo-bank records wasn’t fucking bullshit. You goddamn tell me, and you tell me now or I swear to all unholy I will open a gateway in your fucking living room!”
She gasped as he moved with that speed again, and pressed his chest to hers, cupped her face in his hands and growled,
He examined her face for a moment longer, threw her to his right and disappeared in the darkness. Betsy stared past the trees, looking for movement. She didn’t care to find him, really. She trudged back to her path, and started walking again, hands in pockets, cleaver hanging from it’s handle. She looked up and let her gaze stick to the stars, tripping over roots and sticks in her path. She relished the silence she was gifted in that moment more than most things she had in her life. She felt the moonlight shade and dropped her gaze back to the world in front of her. She sighed a sigh that was so full of relief that she almost felt tears in her eyes when she saw her front door. She picked up her pace, a level of excitement filling her that she hadn’t experienced in over a month. She reached her door, that old brown oak, that old iron door handle. Her fingertips brushed over the wood, and gently rested her forehead against the door. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting the smell of home consume her. She smiled a little bit, unlatched the door and shoved the door open to the view of home.
“... GOD DAMN IT DANNY!” Betsy roared. There were empty bottles on the floor. The fridge was half open with a shelf fallen out. The few eggs she’d managed to keep for herself cracked and beginning to rot on her floor. “I swear to fuckin’ god..” Betsy kicked a bottle across the room and sighed before starting to pick up the house. After a few minutes she stopped and looked around the house again. Her bed was unmade. The ashes in her fireplace sat untended and cold. The walls full of paintings and drawings of faces long since gone, some her brain still too frazzled to recognize. Betsy took a step back and collapsed in her favourite armchair. She put her head in her hands and reminded herself to breathe. That the memories would come back. That she’d be herself again soon.
Memories flashed of T.C.
Memories of the fight.
Memories of trying to eat Dodger.
Memories of begging the room to kill her.
Memories of Dante’s face.
Betsy lashed out and threw a vase across the room. The worst was yet to come. For her, for the town, for the Sempers, for the Keepers. This was nothing, and the weight of it was crushing in the moment. She flinched as it shattered. She lay her head back against the chair and closed her eyes.
The labrats voice.
She opened her eyes.
She closed them again.
A soft voice, black hair, green eyes.
Murder, murder, murder.
She opened her eyes. She groaned like her old bones when she stood from her chair. She started to clean again.
Who needs sleep anyway?
"Betsy's New Home"
You know that dull ringing you hear once in a while? The one that pierces through all barriers of sound? You shake your head and stare off at nothing for a moment until it fades out and you go back to your business.
It was Betsy's personal soundtrack for a few days now. She groaned as she rolled her head up from her shoulder and set it back on the post, closing her eyes. She felt the ropes that tied her wrists behind her to the post tighten and she hissed. She was surprised her fuckin’ hands we still attached, she’d pulled so hard. Dried blood stained her hands.
'Not anything new,’ she thought with a sad chuckle.
Her eyes flicked to the door of the shitty wooden shack she'd been held up in. Someone was outside. Seemed like they were dicking around; hard to tell if they were opening the door. Betsy had always hated what she called her “natural disadvantage”; her inability to see without her spectacles. Never could tell which shadows were which with foggy eyes, and these shitbags knew it.
The door flung open, and with a steeled glare Betsy saw three forms.
“Still awake?” one question.
“Shit, still alive?” one said. They all laughed. Harsh, sharp laughs. Betsy spit a mouthful of blood at their feet.
“I'm plenty awake and I'm certainly fuckin’ alive. Y'all best enjoy our shared states while you have the means.”
One of them stepped forward, close enough to lift the fog. Tall. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Scar on his cheek. His image burned into her brain as his boot lifted in the air and found its home in her rib cage. She roared and coughed, gasping as she felt the bones snap and stab into her lungs.
“Real tough now, huh butcher?”
Betsy gasped in a lung full of air and rolled her eyes at him. “I've known stills that kick harder than you.”
Rage consumed his face. He was as done with her as she was him. They spun on a boot and left her shack, slamming the door and angrily locking it. Betsy waited for their footsteps to disappear, and sadly laughed. If only that that Rotburt cat could see her now. She fully grasped the irony of her situation, considering she'd just had Pureblood chained up for far too long.
'Even children are wise some days, I guess.’
She brought her knees up to her chest, put her head down and let herself start to pray.
Suffering brings strength. Strength brings power. Power brings vengeance.
Her thoughts flashed to the Gala. To Dodger, in her cute tie, hands and voice trembling. Betsy thought of the suffering she'd endured, watching one of her own kind be forced to ask for her company. She thought of how weak she felt, blood drained and pale in her out of place red dress. Like a dog wearing socks. How lonely she knew she was, no soul who understood her in sight. How angry she was at herself, for losing control.
Egg nog, hallucinations.
Blowcaine, off a blood note, the right way. Whatever that golden toilet piss Sam made was.
Betsy didn't know up from down when they grabbed her. She saw Hawk spin and heard “oh shit.” She looked over her shoulder and laughed. Raiders! Betsy the fucking butcher don't run from no Raiders!
Betsy flinched as she remembered being grabbed by both arms and ripped away from the door. How their fingers burned like hot iron.
She looked up. ‘War Chief,’ she thought. 'Fuck.’
First shot knocked her glasses off.
Second shot almost knocked her off her feet.
Third and forth broke two ribs.
She stopped counting, very swiftly. Her mind whirled as she heard the town yelling. As she heard that beast of a man tearing through her Heartbeats, swinging freakishly hard. She thought of Sam. Sweet, ancient bastard was probably so drunk he won't know she's missing til next trade meet. He probably could've helped. He's so strong for a decrepit old rotmouth.
Betsy opened her eyes and stared at the door again. Still haven't come back. Lazy fuckin’ shitbags.
She let the fog take over her eyes again and fell back into her memory. A blur of red. A road in the dark.
She flinched again, as it played like an old TV reel in her head, watching him hit the ground. Watching Dodger hit the ground.
Her eyes were too covered in blood after that to see. The blows seemed like they'd never stop. These sap suckers were mad as hell. She remembered how much the gravel hurt her shins as they dragged her towards the hill. How the ground almost rumbled when T.C. tore his way back out.
“Disgusting.” Betsy said out loud to herself, as she remembered screaming his name. Begging him not to do anything stupid. Reminding him he's blood drunk, and they're just tree fuckers, they don't know no better. She started to black out when she heard herself scream a name that gained no response. A name that was supposed to call him to her.
Betsy snapped out of her thoughts when she heard footsteps. More shadows. They brought friends. They stopped in front of the door for a while. Muffled arguing filled the air. The fog took her eyes one more time as she stared into nothing.
'Did he.. Set me up? Did he give me the wrong information?’ Her memory formed the strange bloodied Semper who'd met her in the woods. Who'd told her about T.C. Who'd said he was to follow his path. 'Trusting strangers is a part of our business,’ he'd said.
The lock turned and the door flew open. There were 6 blurs this time. They brought lots of friends. Betsy took a breath as they shifted, expecting too many swift kicks. Instead they parted, and up stepped a tall man in a white coat. He crouched down, face to face with Betsy. She stared into the empty black eyes of his empty black plague mask with all the rage and defiance she could manage.
“I can. Not. Wait.” He hissed. “Take her to my lab.”
Betsy's eyes widened and she attempted to kick him. “Oh fuck no, you keep me right fuckin here with this nice pole. I ain't going to no fucking lab and you're not gonna god damn touch me.”
She heard him laugh again. She watched the butt of a rifle raise. “Pussy.” She spit.
One bright light on. The ringing in her ears was far stronger than it was before and her head was pounding. She tried to move. 'Fuck. Strapped down.’ She tried to open both eyes. One was swollen shut. She gulped as she heard hushed talking and realized there was an iv bag by her head and a needle in her arm. White liquid. Looked an awful lot like something made to knock you out.
“She'll be fine. I've practiced on a few of the animals.”
'Bird face fuck,’ she thought, hearing the voice behind the plague mask. She closed her eyes to hear as much as she could.
“I'm sure. I'm not worried about her, I'm worried about you. They'll come looking for her.”
‘Whose voice was that?’ she thought.
“It'll take them weeks to find us. Calm down.”
“I'm plenty calm “Wise One.””
Betsy half smiled at the dripping sarcasm lacing the strangers voice. She heard something scrape and then a loud clatter, like something metal was thrown. Someone's mad.
“Is this a joke to you?!”
“No. Is it to you? What happens when- hey. Is she awake?”
Betsy caught her breath. She felt body heat near her as someone leaned in to examine her. Silence..
“Shit!” Betsy growled as something stabbed into her thigh.
“She is indeed,” said her Wise stabber, emotionless. “Up the dose.”
She heard soft squeaks and a noise she couldn't describe and then.. Whoa. Lights are going out. Her head turned to the side. Her eyes closed. She was filled with rage.
“You'd better be done by the time they come for her.” The sarcastic stranger growled.
“Yes yes. I will.”
“I'm not going to protect you from the Semper when he gets here. Or from her if she finds out we lied.”
Betsy let tears fill her eyes. She knew it. She knew it wasn't right, that they lied about his name.
She felt a hand gently touch her head and fingers weave through her hair. Claws scraped the top of her scalp. “Even the strongest can be gullible, little butcher. You'll certainly suffer through this. It'll certainly make you stronger.”
Her brain screamed and the image of the Semper in the woods filled her mind. That was the voice. She felt lips on her forehead. Fangs brushing her skin. The rage quelled for a millisecond.
“Move, leech. I need to open the cranium.”
Betsy heard shifting and felt the drugs course through her veins. It was cold. Not as cold as the scalpel set on her forehead.
"The house was quiet, aside from two sounds.
The first was the crackling of a fire. That gentle crackle, the one that makes you feel at home.
The second was even softer, to some. Some hear it and feel relaxed. Others tense.
"Just like brushing a horse. Down, gentle, scrub, gentle, change position." Betsy mimbled to herself as pulled off the slide to her pistol and set it on the table.
Quiet, dark, comfortable.
Betsy tried to summon rage as she cleaned her new favourite gun. She slightly achieved her goal by angering herself when her summon failed.
Her eyebrows furrowed as she started to scrub harder, grumbling incoherently to the shadows in the house.
Her fingers traced over the handle and her mind filled with thoughts of Rations and how his face glowed when he'd handed it to her. How happy he was to see her. How happy some of them are to see her.
She shook her head, breaking her trance and kept scrubbing.
"We need decent people. They're all decent people." She said firmly, more to the shadows and fire than herself.
She looked at her watch. She scrubbed faster, cataloguing the reassemble.
Her watch made no sound but she heard the imaginary ticks of time in her head. They were loud.
She counted each one, assuring her hands were up to speed with their schedule.
"They're decent people," she mumbled again, this time for her. "They're good. They're kept."
Betsy finished her reassemble with a heavy sigh. She wiped the frame down one more time for good luck. As the cloth hit the table, there was a knock on the door. Right on time.
She took in the quiet of her home for a moment. She always enjoyed being so far from the rest of the world. She enjoyed the fire, the feel of the air.
A second knock. Impatient mongrels.
She rose, stifling the groan her aching knees requested erupt. She cleaned off her apron, lifted her gun lovingly from the table and softly slid in the magazine. She looked up at the mirror above the fireplace and locked eyes with herself.
"Monsters are kept elsewhere. Kept somewhere the rest can be safe."
A third knock. The rage she failed to summon simply needed a different key to turn it on.
She took a breath, tucked her gun into the back of her pants and turned the knob. She smiled.
"Oh, do come in."
Her smile faded as they stepped past her.
It returned as she closed the door."
Betsy took a breath.
She looked up out the door of her shop and half smiled at the blue skies.
"This is why I need to invest in a damn face mask," Betsy mumbled. She pushed a halved forearm out of the way, stuck her cleaver in the table and reached for her hand towel. Wiping the blood off of her face, and cleaning her hands, she went to the door, leaning on the frame heaving a sigh.
She looked out into the crossroads, watching The Unwashed heading to work drunk and heading home filthy. They always seem cocky, but these last few Earth shifts they've all seemed awful hopeful. She stared off into the woods, looking towards where the Keepers are Kept. She furrowed her brow, lost in thought, hand towel hanging from her fingers. After just a few too many moments, she was snapped out of her gaze by a throat being cleared.
Angry eyes flickered over to find Bartamus, one of the local Retrogrades, shaking, head down.
"Yes?" She inquired, less angry.
"Well.. We, uh.. My family is low on food, and I'm still unable to work, and well-"
"Come on." Betsy cut him off, turning to go inside, waving him to follow. He walked into the Butcher Shop, eyes widening upon seeing what flavour of meat was on the chopping block. "Ignore the mess. Come sit down and let ole Betsy solve your problems." Bart went from concerned to scared when heard her machine kick on. She rolled up her sleeves and pulled up a stool, patting it with her free hand. "It's alright son, it ain't your soul. Sit down."
Bart sighed, settled into the stool, and five minutes and an ink brand later had arm fulls of food, scrap, and trade notes. Betsy smiled and nodded, excusing him from the shop. Her eyes followed him out before going back to her chopping block. She wrenched her cleaver out of the wood, pulled an arm out of the pile and smirked. She gave the cold blue appendage a high five and cheerily said, "business is gonna be good my friend."
"It's gonna be good.