My heart aches more and more as the day goes on.
It’s not just because of what I fear about tonight. Yes, the weight of what might happen presses on me greatly, and I long to see my sister Helena again, but the hurt I feel is more about me than anyone else. Hours later, it is still difficult coming to terms with the shock that my sisters are alive, and that I was lied to for so long by my father. Even if he had good reason, it still hurts. It makes it hard to feel anything at all.
A numbness spreads throughout my body even as Cassandra stands here next to me. We are listening to Brogan explain the plan for how his men will get Helena back. I keep losing focus as he goes on, periodically glancing at Cassandra and thinking about how she’s come back from the dead and why I can’t simply let myself be happy about that. Why I can’t push these bitter feelings away when they are so childish and unfounded.
“Kaela has informed us that we’re out of time for other options,” Brogan says, catching my attention. “We will have to do our best with what knowledge of the tunnels we possess.”
Cassandra reaches over and squeezes my hand. The corner of my mouth lifts in a weak attempt to smile. This is stupid, these stubborn feelings of frustration and confusion. Everything I’ve learned today should fill me with joy and peace, at least more than I had before. It should help bring out my optimistic nature. But it doesn’t, and I don’t know how to even begin fixing whatever’s suddenly so wrong with my heart.
“You okay?” she mouths, so quietly I can only read her lips.
I smile a little bigger and squeeze her hand back, yet I can’t bring myself to give any audible reply. She respects this and doesn’t pry any further, turning back toward the platform Brogan is speaking from.
He isn’t really looking at us or his soldiers because we already heard the plan in greater detail an hour ago. That’s part of the reason why I don’t feel the urgency to fight my melancholy and listen. This speech is for the counselors of the Six Hills, particularly their most influential member, Lionel.
This place is not the forested wild I thought it was when we arrived on the beach. While most of the land is covered with dense vegetation, it conceals the ruins of what was once a great civilization. Something happened here long ago, a strange sickness that caused many of the people to mindlessly turn on each other. The violence that ensued ultimately became the destruction of this world, or most of it at least.
The Six Hills are the last places of refuge for those who survived the madness unaffected. They are heavily-walled fortresses that protect their occupants from the dangers of the infected, those who dwell within the many dark caves and tunnels beneath this ancient city until the night comes. That is when those who guard the walls of the hills must be on high alert for when these once-human creatures attack.
Each hill is guided by a counselor, and each counselor represents his or her hill in a grand council of six members who in unity lead the people of the Six Hills. For us to have any hope of rescuing Helena from the twisted creatures who have imprisoned her, the council must approve, or at least allow, Brogan to take his men beneath the city.
“What you’re saying is that we don’t have a choice,” Lionel says, his voice defiant like he doesn’t care for being dictated to.
“There’s always another choice,” Brogan replies respectfully. “But in this case, that choice is to wait for the inevitable night. Will we really be able to hold up in these hills forever?”
“These hilltops have been safe for long enough to stop believing archaic prophecies of an imminent doom,” another counselor says, two more nodding in agreement with her.
“Our forefathers came to these hills with the hope of escape, of salvation, not of complacency,” Brogan says back.
“And we are grateful for their sacrifices,” Lionel says condescendingly. “For the many lives given that we might have these places of sanctuary for our children. But we are not bound to their intentions or ambitions. We are the masters of our own destinies, not the slaves of ghosts long silent.”
“There’s no need to be petty,” Cassandra interrupts as she steps forward to join her voice with Brogan’s. “I understand that you don’t want to endanger Lieutenant Brogan or his men for something that seems so improbable, but this is the only hope left for your people. I have seen the same darkness that ravages these shores in the world I came from. It won’t stop until you seek out and destroy it. Choosing to ignore it will only lead to bloodshed for those you seek to protect.”
The room goes quiet, except for some whispering between Lionel and the other counselors.
“You have our blessing to try and find your sister,” he replies firmly, “but do not confuse this with a belief in your cause. Brogan supports you, princess, and we are not ones to rule by constraining the people in these hills to obey us like the tyrants of old. We expect that he will allow any in his unit who do not share his convictions to remain behind.”
Lionel then looks at the ten soldiers standing to my left, but none of them moves. His scowl shows disapproval and disappointment as he studies them in silence. Then, unexpectedly, his eyes shift toward me. He doesn’t say anything, he just stares. I try to return his critical leer with resoluteness, but his penetrating eyes leave me feeling defeated instead. I look down, filled with the same sentiment that I sense he has concerning this mission and its fate. That he is already holding me accountable for the bad about to happen.