A/N: We have reached the end of book 1. A huge thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed this story, but especially to Alouise Briggslay. You are LITERALLY the best! Be sure to keep an eye out for the second installment in the Escape From Muna Chronicles: Swarm. It probably won't be out for a while considering I haven't done any writing for it yet, but I do have plans.
Lately, I've been feeling an itch to return to the Changeling universe. So, I think my next project that I start posting here will the be prequel, Fairest.
Once again, thank you all (I know I've said it so many times that I sound like a broken record, but I truly mean it). I have one last twist, and like I told Alouise, kudos to you guys if you totally saw Cricket's secret from a mile away. There were a few hints here and there in earlier chapters. ;)
With that said, enjoy the final chapter.
(Prompt: "You don't have to do this."
"I wish that were true.")
ELEX & CRICKET
The Remembrance Celebration was the final day that Elex would be home for a long time. After that, he would be out with the Transmission Team to track down the current location of the transmission. Not that he really thought of the Castle as home anymore. The only reason he ever willingly came back was his sister and daughter-in-law. If not for Estelle and Cricket, Elex would be happy to never lay eyes on the Castle ever again.
This place held too many ghosts for him. As a child, he lost his parents, and then as a young man, he lost his wife. As a middle-aged man, one who felt older than his actual years, Elex lost his son. Now Cricket, the one child he still had, was pulling away from him no matter what he did or said. Soon, Estelle will be the only one he had left, and she herself was far from unbroken.
Holding his paper lantern delicately in his hands as he walked amongst the trees, Elex heaved a sigh. The little candle flickered feebly against so much darkness.
How many people could one lone candle burn for, he wondered. When would the countless death toll of his family and friends become too large for that little flame to shine through? Whenever that day arrived, Elex desperately and selfishly hoped that he would not be alive to see it.
He stopped walking while he was still well within sight of the Castle; no one ventured into the forest too far at night for fear of becoming lost. People even stayed within sight of each other while they performed this annual ritual. Even without turning in a circle, Elex could see five other silhouettes nearby hanging their lanterns. If he looked behind him, he was positive he would see many more. He had walked farther than most people to get some added privacy.
In the dark, Elex couldn't tell what kind of tree he had selected. All he cared about was the thick, low-hanging branch that his old arms were able to reach.
He was never one to make his own lantern like some of the other residents at the Castle. He and Estelle weren't crafty like that. So, he bought his lantern from Tatiana Buckley's stall at the market. The paper was a soft pink color, like the feathers of the whooping bird. Darker colors were splashed on top of the pink: purple, blue, green. There might be some golden yellow in there too, he couldn't remember.
Elex hung his lantern and then stood back to observe it.
In the dark, it looked the same as every other lantern he'd hung in previous years. He recalled those past lanterns had given him a sense of peace as he'd placed them in a tree. When his parents died, he and Estelle lit the candle, hung the lantern from a branch, and it was like they weren't truly gone. When his wife died, he hung the lantern and it felt like she was watching over him and their son from wherever her spirit lingered. In recent years, though, Elex went through the motions and didn't feel anything but emptiness.
He looked upon this year's lantern, willing himself to recapture that same sense of peace. The candle within glowed prettily like it was supposed to, but Elex still felt like just the husk of an old man. He stroked his graying beard and allowed his shoulders to slump in defeat.
In the last four years, ever since Cricket started distancing herself from him, Elex had struggled to move on with his own life. Here, in the dark forest that was alight with glowing lanterns, he could admit to himself that he was stuck. It was such an enormous effort to find things that made life worth living anymore, and he didn't know how much energy he had left to keep fighting that fight.
Cricket would rather he was gone anyway; it would be one less reminder of her own tragedy. And Estelle was strong. She would be hurt by his absence, but she had built herself a sturdy support system of friends and coworkers—something he had never managed. Besides those two people, who else was he living for? Who would be irrevocably scarred if he just didn't come back after his next stint on the Transmission Team?
No one. The answer was no one.
Elex was about to turn away from his lantern and head back to the Castle—he wanted to try to enjoy himself even if Cricket was avoiding him and Estelle was too busy with patients—when something caught his eye.
There was a face emerging from the black of night, illuminated by the orangish-pink glow of the candle inside his lantern. It faced him from the direction of the treacherous forest and not from the safety of the Castle.
"Hello?" Elex said and stepped closer.
His voice caused the figure to flinch. They pulled back and nearly disappeared into the shadows again. They didn't outright flee, though. The only parts of this person that Elex could faintly see were dark brown cheekbones and a shock of blue hair that rested against their shoulder.
"Who—" he started to ask when the familiar sound of a flare interrupted him. Elex looked up to the sky and turned until he saw the fiery trail of red that lit the night like a beacon. By the time he turned back to the stranger in front of him, he found that he was once more alone.
It would be foolish to walk deeper into the forest all by himself, and if someone was firing a flare gun, that meant he could be more useful somewhere else.
With one last glance at the spot where the stranger had stood, Elex then set off in the direction of the flare.
Nights were always cooler than days, but Cricket concluded that nothing could put a chill deep in your bones quite like the dungeon. Cricket felt like she was entering the cave with the hot spring as she marched Akira into the open air outside of the Castle.
Akira was unsteady on his feet. He could walk what was the length of his cell before he stumbled and needed to pause. He seemed to still be partially blinded as well. Verbal directions from Cricket and the feel of the smooth walls under his palms kept Akira moving, although he was unsure of himself whenever they had to round a corner.
When they finally stepped outside, Cricket could feel sweat dripping down the middle of her back. Her heart pounded as she furtively scanned the area. She could hear other people and see their glowing lanterns from a distance, but no one was near enough to notice the two of them yet.
Akira complied, probably because he was very wobbly out here on the narrow ledge of the rocky hill that comprised the Castle. Cricket doubted it was because he was threatened by her in the slightest.
"Turn to your right," she ordered him. Pebbles and small bits of stone went tumbling down the steep incline when Akira's bare feet moved too close to the edge. Cricket attempted to swallow, but her mouth was too dry. Instead of doing that, she used the hem of her cloak to wipe the sweat from her brow. She'd never been so nervous in her life.
She jumped when Akira cleared his throat. "Unless your plan is for me to reach the bottom head over heels, then a little assistance might be required." He put his arm out behind him, reaching for her hand.
He was right. There was no way to avoid touching him this time. The path was too narrow and too steep, and she didn't want him to break his neck just yet.
Hesitantly, Cricket crept forward. She splayed her fingers and stretched her trembling arm out to meet him. An imaginary spark shocked her when her skin touched his for the first time in four years. His hand was cold and clammy while hers felt far too hot. The second her hand made contact with his, Akira's fingers latched onto her and squeezed. Squeezed her so hard that her knuckles felt like they were going to crack. She hated that it made her think of hugs that were too tight.
He didn't immediately move, just stood there and held her hand while Cricket held her breath. This was the part where she slowed down long enough to almost come to her senses. She didn't want to be doing this; she wished Akira was still back in his cell, and she wished that she hadn't betrayed Bryn's trust. More than anything, she wishes that she could take it all back and that Fever and Raf hadn't gone to ready the Cloud Skimmer.
Akira closed his eyes and raised his face to catch the light breeze. His chest expanded as he inhaled as deeply as he could. Moonlight bathed his face in silver, accentuating just how hollow his cheeks were.
Cricket's breath hitched, and she tugged on his hand. "Come on, let's go."
Walking down to the ground was slow, but that was where most people were at this time of night. The majority were all out hanging their lanterns. The whole time, Akira kept an iron grip on her hand. Whenever his feet slid on loose or wet dirt, or if he tripped over an errant tree root, his fingers would tighten around her fast and hard, almost like a spasm. And despite the fact that his skin didn't seem to warm at all, her hand continued to sweat like her life depended on it. The contact between them was slippery, both literally and metaphorically.
"So..." Akira managed to pant in a conversational tone. Frankly, he was breathing so hard that she was surprised he attempted to talk at all during their labored descent. "I assume… that you have… the Ground Runner… hidden somewhere… around here."
Taken aback, Cricket stepped on her heel and tripped herself. She regained her footing before she sent them both over the ledge and then fixed Akira with a glare. "I would ask how you know about that," she replied, "except Muna has eyes everywhere, doesn't it."
A grin crept over his face. "I sure do." He turned his head halfway toward Cricket wearing a cold, self-assured expression that had never before been aimed at her. "Did you know... that she likes... to visit me?"
She had to remember that he was playing mind games. Akira had always been good at that; she guessed that it was part of the reason he was valuable to Muna.
"Your roommate, Fever."
They were almost to the bottom of the path, and yet those words nearly sent her sprawling and rolling the short distance to their destination. There was no way he should have known who Fever was. The only reason Fever knew about him was because Cricket had told her, and she was confident that no one else at the Castle would have said anything about Akira to a relative newcomer.
"The phooka, right?" he continued. "She's been visiting me for… oh, roughly the last two years."
Cricket saw red. Two years? Two blinking years? The entire time Fever had been living on Muna, and she had been sneaking around and lying to Cricket. She trusted Fever, and then Fever went behind her back and… and….
"She didn't tell you?" Akira asked innocently. Then he smirked. "I wonder what else she didn't tell you."
"You're lying," Cricket snapped. Her voice came out sounding strangled.
"Sure, you can tell yourself that."
Before Akira had the chance to say anything else, Cricket tore her hand out of his. Consequently, he tripped the final few steps down to the forest floor. Akira fell on his hands and knees with a muffled groan. While he was distracted, Cricket swapped her more lethal gun for the flare gun under her cloak. Akira struggled to his feet, although he accomplished the feat more easily than when he was back in his cell. His pant legs were now ripped at the knees, and blood began to stain the fabric.
Wincing, he wiped his palms on his thighs.
"I see I hit a nerve," he said deadpan.
"You're not Akira, and you don't know my friends," she snarled at him. "Stop trying to confuse me."
"If you're convinced that I'm really not Akira, then what's confusing?" he asked. Her blood simultaneously went cold and boiled when he sneered at her. "You can't actually think that I'm naive enough to believe that you're setting me free. You brought me out here to feed me to the lykos, right? If your intent is to kill me by proxy, then I would be stupid if I didn't try talking my way out it."
His eyes were somewhat unfocused when he took a step toward her. Cricket leveled the flare gun at him.
"Stay back!" She couldn't have him too close when she fired the flare. Once she did that, Cricket would have to sprint for the Ground Runner, and she couldn't have Akira slowing her down by latching onto her again.
Akira stopped but didn't back off. He raised his hands as if in surrender. "If you truly believe that I'm not Akira—the man you've known since we were children—then shoot me right now. Don't wait for an angry mob to kill me. Muna and I won't do a thing to stop you."
He spoke softly again, the voice she needed to hear to loosen her finger curled around the trigger. And while he spoke in that soft tone, he resumed stalking closer.
"If you're so sure," he murmured while almost gazing into her eyes, "then do it."
He came so close that he rested his forehead against the barrel of the flare gun. She should have backed up or threatened to shoot him if he didn't retreat—not that it would have been much of a threat to him. There was a knot in her throat that silenced her, though. A knot that burned and clouded her vision with tears. This was the reason she had never gone to see him in prison. What made her think that she could handle seeing him in person after so long? Deep down, Cricket knew that no one else would have been able to spring him from his cell or convince him to walk outside at gunpoint. But why couldn't she have been stronger than this?
Cricket hesitated for one too many seconds, and suddenly Akira's hand was a blur of motion. In an instant, he stole the flare gun from her and reversed their positions. Now she was the one looking down the barrel. It was only a slight comfort that Akira didn't know she'd switched the guns. The flare might not kill her, but it would blinking hurt.
Akira sighed, disappointed. "I guess we'll do things your way, Cricket." Then he pointed the gun in the air and fired the flare. A loud pop echoed throughout the woods, a pop that sounded nothing like a regular handgun being fired. And Akira didn't look at all surprised by this.
Cricket frowned in confusion. How did he figure out that it was a flare gun? It looked and felt so similar to a normal handgun that, without seeing it, he shouldn't have known the difference. Was his vision back? She didn't think so since Akira still didn't seem able to focus on anything in particular.
He smirked and tossed the flare gun to the ground. "Remember? I have eyes everywhere."
Furious, Cricket started to reach for her handgun tucked into a hidden holster but paused. Akira claimed that Muna would do nothing to stop her if she shot him right now. How much did she trust his word? Images of her brain melting and pouring out her nose filled her mind, causing her to hesitate. Perhaps he only goaded her because he had known that she was holding a flare gun. If she changed weapons, Akira might change the rules.
"Oh, and those friends that I know nothing about?" he added, that gleeful grin still stamped on his face. "They're leaving without you right now."
One of those traitorous tears fell from her lashes and rolled down her cheek. "That's not true," she retorted unconvincingly. Some of the smugness faded from his expression, and his smile softened into something melancholy.
"Yes, it is."
Cricket clenched her teeth to keep from sobbing. She had to believe that he was lying, because if he wasn't… If he wasn't, then this was all for nothing. She knew the odds of failure were high when she made her escape plan, but she had thought that failing to escape Muna would mean death. It didn't cross her mind until now that failure might mean something far worse.
Running footsteps and shouts from the forest were fast approaching, and impulsively, Cricket started to look in that direction. She only took her eyes off Akira for a moment, but that was all the time he needed.
His arm whipped out to grab her cloak and yanked her body against the front of his.
"Hey!" Cricket shouted and struggled against him, but there was a hidden strength lurking beneath the veneer of his gaunt frame. Akira slung an arm around her neck to hold her in place and to prevent her from getting to her new staff strapped across her shoulder blades. His other hand snaked under her cloak and deftly stole her handgun from its holster. He pulled the weapon free of her cloak just as the first person arrived to investigate the source of the flare.
Elex ran into the small clearing and skidded to a halt. Cricket felt the cold metal of the gun pressed to her temple. At the sight presented to him, Elex could only stare at them in complete and utter shock.
"Akira?" Elex gaped at him and then at the weapon pointed at Cricket. "What are you… How did…" The man trailed off, apparently incapable of choosing which question to ask first.
Akira was not so lost for words.
"Hey, Dad." Cricket could hear the vicious smile in his voice. "How've you been?"
The agonized look in Elex's eyes was an icepick to Cricket's heart. Yep, the consequences of her impending failure were going to make her wish that she'd burned up in Muna's atmosphere.
Elex quickly reined in his shock and held out an imploring hand to his son. "Akira, please. Let her go."
Cricket felt Akira shrug. "I'll pass, thanks," he replied cavalierly. Elex's gaze shifted from Akira to Cricket.
"Are you all right, Cricket?"
Akira's arm constricted around her neck tighter when she drew in a breath to speak. "I've been better," she wheezed and tugged on his arm again. Having at least a smidgen of assurance that Cricket wasn't in immediate danger, Elex once more looked to his estranged son.
"Akira, you don't have to do this. This is your wife—"
Whatever he had intended to say after that was cut off by Akira's throaty laugh. "My wife, huh? Not according to her." Cricket winced as he prodded the side of her head with the gun none too gently. "According to Cricket, her husband is dead, and I'm the one who killed him."
More citizens of the Castle started to arrive. They were trying to be good neighbors and come to somebody's aid when in reality they were all wandering into a crapshoot. From her limited point of view, Cricket saw Krizzo, Hugo, and Mila, along with a handful of other familiar faces. As soon as Hugo caught sight of Akira, his entire demeanor changed. He went from looking merely concerned to stone-faced and brimming with fury. He pulled a gun on Akira faster than Cricket could blink.
"Drop your weapon, Akira!"
Behind her, Cricket felt something odd happen. Akira's body suddenly felt colder, and a strange scent wafted off his breath. It smelled metallic and a little like burning rocket fuel with a hint of something putrid, like vomit left to bake in the noonday sun.
"How about you drop yours, Hugo?"
Hugo didn't react right away, however his reaction was only delayed by fifteen seconds or so. Hugo looked as if he was about to bark more orders at Akira when he abruptly became very, very pale. And then he did indeed drop his gun as he doubled over and emptied the contents of his stomach on the ground and on the tops of his boots. He fell to his knees, clutching his stomach and moaning in pain. Mila rushed to Hugo's side and rubbed his back with a tiny, soothing hand.
That deterred anyone else from coming closer to the former prisoner. Although, it didn't keep them silent.
"What's your plan, boy?" Krizzo growled. "Surely you know you're outnumbered. You might be able to take out a few of us before we get to you, but you can't stop all of us."
Truly, the number of people who had arrived at the clearing was impressive when you took into consideration the fact that Akira was a one-man army. Cricket wasn't nearly as optimistic as Krizzo. If the drake would only turn around, he would see what Cricket could see from her vantage point. If any of them bothered to turn around, they would see figures dressed in coarse brown clothes slowly emerging from the forest and surrounding the clearing.
Behind Elex and Krizzo, Cricket saw the bright blue hair of Neelam Houte. Other vaguely familiar faces joined hers. Many of them she recognized as the young teens that had gone missing before Akira was arrested. Others were older adults who had been missing and presumed dead for far longer than the teenagers. And still others were faces that Cricket didn't know at all. One thing they all had in common was the blank expressions on their faces.
Gradually, Elex and Krizzo and the others noticed the newcomers. Elex staggered backward and almost tripped over Hugo's hunched form when he saw the blue-haired girl that had come up behind him. "Neelam Houte?" He stared at her in bewilderment. Then he looked around at the other previously missing people in the clearing. "This isn't possible…"
"Oh, it's possible," said Akira. "And just so you know, they're all with me." Cricket could just imagine the smug look Akira sent Krizzo's way. "What was that about being outnumbered?"
In a smart move, Krizzo said nothing more on the matter.
"That's what I thought." Akira readjusted his grip on Cricket, moving his arm from around her neck down to just below her bustline where he could pin her arms to her sides and pull her body as close to his as he could. "Now," he continued and raised his voice so everyone present was sure to hear, "as you can see, some things are going to be changing around here. But, since we've all had a long day, I vote that we call it a night and tackle the nitty-gritty details tomorrow morning. You'll find more of my friends," from the corner of her eye, she saw Akira nod to the people in brown clothing, "back at the Castle. They will escort everyone back to their apartments.
"I wish there was an easier way to do this, a way that everyone here could understand, but change comes for all of us regardless of whether we understand it. The best I could do was warn your Assembly of Elders that time for the old ways was running short. Moving forward, we won't be needing them. The Assembly, that is."
"Screw this!" shouted Rico Medina. The cocoa-berry vendor lashed out at the closest brown-clad man, a person with a lanky build that Cricket didn't recognize in the slightest. Rico threw a punch, one that the other man easily dodged by bending in a way that seemed like it should have been impossible. Then, in a move faster than Cricket could see, the man produced a thin silver knife from somewhere on his person and slashed Rico's throat.
A red stain soaked through Rico's shirt. He appeared to fall to the ground in slow motion. When his body hit the grass, Cricket saw the gash in his neck was so deep that he'd nearly been decapitated. And it all happened in one lightning-fast move. A life violently ended in mere seconds.
She felt Akira's chest expand and then deflate in a weary sigh. "I would suggest that no one test my friends' patience. They don't really have any."
Too shocked and fearful to process what had just occurred, all of the Castle residents were docilely herded together and began the supervised trek back to their homes. Meanwhile, Akira's arm constricted tighter around Cricket in a mockery of an embrace. A rib-bruising hug, the likes of which she used to adore.
"Our destination is a little more out of the way than theirs, isn't it?" he murmured to her. Akira's lips brushed the shell of Cricket's ear as he spoke. "Come on, Cricket. Let's go home."
Her instinct was to fight him the instant he released his hold on her. It wasn't his home. He wasn't her husband—Akira was dead. The man before her was nothing more than Muna's puppet. He fixed her with a warning look. Those deep brown eyes weren't unfocused anymore. Now, they were just as sharp as she remembered.
"Don't make this any harder than it has to be," he told her in a low voice.
Really, what other choice did she have but to go along with him? At least for now.
"Fine," she replied curtly. "But I'm sleeping outside tonight. Anywhere except next to you."
Cricket folded her arms over her chest and stalked ahead of him back toward the Castle. At some point, they would have to walk beyond the Castle in order to get to her home. A home that would soon feel more like a prison.