24 July 2024

12 – In the forest hides a light

Dana had been involved with Jacob’s militia for several days now. In fact, it looked more like an army, as the group was so organized, precise and heavily armed. The various units were split between the Stone Ridge cabin, the St. Francis Veterans Camp and Jacob’s bunker.

She had been assigned to train the men at the cabin, and the task was complicated. Most of the recruits were ex-military, but many civilians had also joined the cult, willingly or not, and had improvised as soldiers. They had no idea how to hold a weapon, how to aim or how to move quickly and discreetly.

She now understood better why the elimination of a significant part of Eden’s Gate members was not a major problem for her, and how idiots like Hurk were also able to easily decimate them. The situation was extremely sad when she thought about it. These men and women should have been with their families instead of training to kill their peers.

The schedule was exhausting and started before daybreak. The twenty recruits were divided into four groups of five. The morning consisted of course training. After a short break in the middle of the day, the exercises resumed, this time focused on shooting and close quarters attack, and did not end until late in the evening.

All the teams would then gather to share dinner in the canteen, and everyone would go to bed in their own small space in the common dormitory. Some would scream while sleeping, others had totally adapted to the training’s rhythm and violence. Dana couldn’t get used to it and always had trouble falling asleep at lights out, despite the tiredness caused by the day’s physical exercises.

She earned respect, and the recruits knew not to mess with her. Not only did her reputation precede her within Eden’s Gate, but Jacob seemed to consider her as his equal or almost, at least in public.

This night though, she understood that his apparent respect was only a facade. The former soldier had convened her in his office after dinner. When she entered, he was sitting in his folding chair, his legs nonchalantly stretched out on the table.

— How’s it going, deputy ?
— Not too bad, except for the fact that I’m getting seriously tired of it.
— Tired of what ? Training weak people to be strong, knowing that the effort is futile ?
— No. Of all this gratuitous violence. Of the hellish hours without a day of rest, of the uselessness of this guerrilla warfare and…

He raised an eyebrow and grinned sadistically.

— And ?
— And having no contact with anyone outside this damn training camp !
— You mean with John ?
— I didn’t say that !
— I’m reading you like an open book, little bird. Every time I mention his name, something lights up in your eyes. That’s very interesting !

He pulled his dirt-coated boots off the desk and stood up to walk around the table and stand in front of her.

— But you know, if you need… anything, just let me know.
— I don’t need anything !

She clenched her fists so tightly that blood was barely circulating in her knuckles. Her contracted jaw echoed the dark look she was giving Jacob, not taking her eyes off him. A Machiavellian smile played on the soldier’s lips as he continued.

— Everyone needs to blow off steam sometimes. You’re no exception, and neither am I. It’s been about a week and a half since you’ve seen my brother. That’s quite a long time, I guess you must miss your “activities” ?
— Not at all, and it’s none of your business !

She instantly regretted her words. In a sudden rage, Jacob grabbed the back of her head and brutally smashed her face against the desk. He seized her two wrists, immobilizing them behind her shoulder blades. He raised his voice to the point of barking.

— I think you didn’t understand well. EVERYTHING that happens in my area is my business ! Everyone who works for me, including you, belongs to me. I have a right of life and death over you. You are NOTHING, you are weak and I can wipe you away from the surface of the earth with a snap of my fingers. Unlike John, I don’t fear Joseph and I don’t give a shit about his new Eden, heaven and hell stories. The only reason I’m following is because I’m grateful to him for getting me out of the shit Uncle Sam threw me into after I sacrificed the best years of my life to it. And my desire to see the whole world burn.

Only Jacob’s heavy breathing now echoed through the room. Dana was sure he could hear her heartbeat, as it was so wild. Seed gradually loosened his grip on her wrists and let her sit up, and turn to face him.

A bruise had appeared on her right cheek, where her face had hit the desk. He approached his hand closer to the bruise and she instinctively moved out of the way.

— Don’t move !

He re-engaged his motion and she remained still this time, afraid of the violence he could show. He grabbed a strand of hair stuck to her face and gently tucked it behind her ear.

— I really enjoyed the show in the church, you know. The way you obey him is fascinating. You submit to his every wish and come over as soon as he tells you to. But behind the scenes, you lead him on. Your little game doesn’t work with me. Only I give the orders. Unlike John, you will not use me against Joseph. If I show you mercy in front of my men, believe me, it is only to make them respect you and listen to what you have to teach them. But in no way are you my equal. You will never be.

He grabbed her jacket collar to pull her face to his. She could now feel his hot breath on her lips as his steely gaze pierced her. He was so close that she could clearly see the smallest crater on his chiseled cheeks, that betrayed heavy war scars and burns. She was overcome with fear and could hardly breathe.

— Know that your life is mine. You are not so different from my judges, your aggressiveness only needs to be tamed to be used for good. You are my battle bitch, and this is how it works : you work well, I reward you. You try to do it the other way around : I’ll kill you. It’s as simple as that, you just must get it into your head. You may leave, little bird.

Still in shock, she waited a few seconds when he released her before daring to leave the room. Once in her bed, she realized Jacob was certainly the worst Seed brother. He was ruthless, didn’t let anything pass and she shouldn’t expect to get along with him.

Her eyes got wet. Seeking comfort, she thought about John. Things were certainly better on his end, and he was the main reason she’d taken his brother’s deal. Her own life had been on the line ever since she’d arrived in Hope County, and she wasn’t particularly afraid of the elder Seed, at least not until tonight. John, on the other hand, had everything to lose if their relationship was discovered. She finally managed to fall asleep. Her sleep was filled with nightmares.

Jacob had settled back into his chair in a relaxed manner, his legs once again stretched out on the desk. He liked this she-wolf, she had character and courage. However, he did not want her to think that he was under her thumb. Whether she ended up on John’s side or his didn’t matter in the end, the only imperative was that she fought on their side and not against them.

He was starting to see what Joseph had predicted when he mentioned a prophecy that she would spearhead, and destroy or lead Eden’s Gate to victory. She had never been a soldier, but her bravery was the same, if not greater, than that of many of his wartime comrades. He had great plans for her.

* * *

The days had followed each other and looked the same in Stone Ridge. Sometimes she had come across Staci Pratt, often glued to Seed’s boots, to whom he obeyed with his finger and eye like a good attack dog.

That day however, on the morning after her interview with Jacob, something changed. One of the recruits told her she was being transferred to Camp Breakthrough. She wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but at least it would give her a change of scenery.

That morning, she boarded a convoy that was taking the judge training group to a new place of work and life. She was amazed when she was indicated her personal space. It was a fully equipped bungalow in which she alone was housed. A great luxury compared to the infamous Stone Ridge dormitory she had to share with five other recruits. She settled in and waited for instructions on her new assignment.

When the door opened, Jacob himself entered the room. Her heart pounded as she froze on her bed.

— So, do you like your new room ?

Intrigued by the relatively soft tone he used, she felt obliged to answer him.

— Pretty fancy compared to the Stone Ridge dorms !
— You’re telling me. You’ve done well, I’m extremely pleased with the skills you’ve taught my recruits. This new assignment is a reward for your work. Today, I’d like you to be a simple observer and understand how the place works. Wayan will show you, and then you can assist him. Have a good day.

She felt relieved when he finally left the room. She decided to follow his instructions and got up to meet the man he had told her about, equipped with a notepad and pen. She had no trouble finding him, as he stood alone in the empty pens.

She greeted him and introduced herself briefly. She accompanied him throughout the day, taking notes on how he trained captured wolves. Bliss alone was not enough to turn animals into war machines, they had to be taught to obey. The taste for blood, on the other hand, seemed to be innate in the canines. They did not hesitate to fight among themselves to be the first to tear apart the animal carcasses their captors threw at them at night. The scene took away all sense of hunger from Dana, who immediately retreated to her bungalow after the workday was over.

Knocking on her door startled her. With her throat in knots, she opened the door for the trainee, who asked her to accompany him to Jacob’s office.

She tried to keep a calm face, despite the fear that was gradually gaining on her as she approached the lion’s den. The young man knocked on the door and announced her. Jacob’s voice rang out to command her to enter, which she did.

The bungalow’s interior looked suspiciously like his Stone Ridge office. He really had no taste for originality and seemed to need an orderly setting to perform his tasks efficiently. He gave her a big, creepy smile. It was the first time she had seen him like that.

— Sit down. How was your day with Wayan ?
— Pretty good. I must admit that, from a scientific point of view, the work performed is remarkable, even if the animal mistreatment disgusts me. I can’t believe I just complimented him.
— I knew you would appreciate it. Wayan gave me his report. He said you were studious and asked him a lot of questions, which I’m glad about. So, let’s keep working together.

He quickly cut the interview short and asked her to return to her bungalow and be ready by daybreak the next morning.

All sorts of thoughts went through her head during the night. She hated Jacob for his violence, whether it was against her or anyone else, but he had been strangely pleasant to her since her transfer. What’s behind this ?

* * *

Jacob himself knocked on her door in the early morning, asking her to join him quickly. She dressed in a hurry and met him on the stoop. He was carrying an extremely flashy red hunting rifle. She wondered what was the point of wearing a camo outfit if a simple reflection on the weapon could make him detectable. Anxious not to upset him, she kept her reflection to herself. He handed her a more conventional weapon and briefed her.

— Today, we are on a monitoring and recon mission. We’ll go into the woods and observe how the wolf retrieval men are doing. Then we’ll go ahead and spy on your little buddies, the self-proclaimed fake soldiers who call themselves Whitetails. I think I found their hideout. Follow me and don’t talk unless I tell you to.

She grabbed the gun and silently followed Jacob’s lead. The idea of shooting him in the back crossed her mind, but she preferred to keep it low. It was the attitude she had always adopted until now, and which had saved her life many times.

She smiled inwardly. Thinking back, she had not acted similarly with John, quite the opposite. It was the only Seed that she had deliberately provoked and pushed in his retrenchments. She was glad of that now, because without her casual attitude, she would never have gotten into a so passionate and platonic relationship at the same time.

They walked for two or three hours until they reached the foot of an observation platform built into a large oak tree. Jacob climbed the blue metal ladder to the top first, followed by the deputy. Once at the top, he knelt down and brought his gun scope to his eye. She bent down beside him and imitated him.

— What are we aiming at ?
— See that metal structure looking like a tower ?
— Yes, what is it ?
— It’s a wolf decoy. At the top, there are amplifiers that broadcast animal cries continuously. These are the sounds of the wolves’ natural prey, which attracts them. Once they get close, my men that you see there trap them in these cages and then they’re sent to Elk Jaw Lodge to be trained to become ruthless judges.
— Why are you aiming for this decoy ?
— Just to make sure my guys are doing their job. I don’t need any unnecessary or weak elements, which is why I want to make sure for myself that the troops are suitable and the objectives are met.

As he spoke to her, he shifted his rifle barrel with the movements of his henchmen, moving from one to the other and then to the cages. She imitated him throughout the observation. After a few minutes, he put his weapon down and took a metal flask out of his backpack. When he handed it to her, she stared at him suspiciously. He immediately understood what she was thinking and addressed her a smirk.

— Don’t worry little bird, you have nothing to fear this time.

Bringing the bottle to his mouth, he took a generous sip before offering it to her again. Reassured, she drank in turn. They watched the team in operation for almost an hour, during which Jacob interrupted from time to time to tell her anecdotes from his soldier past.

She had a feeling he was attempting to connect with her, though his manner of addressing her was not cordial. He explained that he had deliberately set fire to the farm of the couple who had adopted him and his brothers. He described how he had repeatedly driven an axe through the man’s head, while his wife was screaming in the flames. He concluded his story with a sentence that made her blood run cold.

— Violence is everywhere, in all of us, in everything. Nature is nothing but violence. I have always loved spending time in the woods, there is so much to learn from the forest.

They quickly swallowed some of the survival rations that Seed had also brought with him. She winced as she bit into it, which made Jacob smile. He sighed.

— Don’t complain, this is better than my brother’s mac’n’cheese.

She stared at him. If you only knew how much John put himself through for me. Really, no one has ever tasted his cooking.

They descended from their lair and went deeper into the forest. As they walked, the surroundings became more and more familiar to Dana. She seemed to recognize the place.

They climbed to a new platform, which gave them a clear view of the Wolf’s Den entrance. She was shocked.

Jacob went back to watching in the same way as he had at the wolf decoy. Noticing that she wasn’t imitating him, he lectured her, irritated.

— Don’t disappoint me. They’re just pseudo-soldiers who think they’re saving the world by putting it to the sword, there’s nothing heroic about them. They hole up in there all day, afraid to face their fate. How pathetic !

Noticing she wasn’t receptive to his arguments, he added.

— Have you ever seen any of them fight on their own initiative ? Or did they always ask you to do it for them ? Did any of them ever go with you when you were attacking an outpost ?

Touché. The ploy seemed to work. Wrath was building up inside her as she recalled the many situations in which she had been relied upon but not reciprocated.

— And during the trainings you did at my place, did they come to rescue you ? What about the last two weeks ?

The remark could have shattered her last doubts, but it was a Whitetail that did so.

A projectile shot close to her ear. Jacob slammed her into the ground with his right hand, still holding the rifle with the other. Neither of them had noticed Wheaty, Eli Palmer’s subordinate. He was crouching over the Wolf’s Den among the steep rocks.

Events followed one another extremely quickly. Seed rose to his feet to aim at the young man, but the boy was quicker. Dana watched in horror as Jacob fell to the ground beside her. Panicked, she reacted with adrenaline. She stood up and looked at the spot where the blow seemed to have come from.

The young Native American was now standing among the rocks, he had not noticed her presence and thought Jacob was alone. As he was grabbing his radio, she took advantage of his inattention to aim at him.

She did not miss. Wheaty collapsed, a bullet in his chest.

* * *

She leaned over Seed’s body to check the damage. He was unconscious and a red halo covered the left side of his jacket. She pulled his shoulder free to determine where the point of impact was. A gaping hole opened up next to his collarbone.

What should I do ? Watch him bleed to death and pay for all the evil he has done ? Have pity on him, rescue him and then regret it ? The temptation to let him perish was huge. After all, Jacob had personally persecuted her, in addition to the many deaths caused by his fault in the county. Her mind shifted to John. He’s his brother. He loves him. How can I live with that burden ? Hurting John was the last thing she wanted to do.

She removed her own jacket to press it as hard as she could on the wound, trying to slow down the abundant flow.

The situation was bad : she had no radio and could not contact anyone. They had been walking for several hours and there was no station close by, she could only rely on herself if she decided to rescue Jacob anyway. She searched his backpack and found some basic medical equipment. She quickly bandaged the injured man’s shoulder and torso.

She had to get him to a doctor as soon as possible. Even no medical knowledge, it was obvious that he was losing a lot of blood and would not survive for long.

Gathering all her strength, she climbed down the first few steps of the ladder and pulled Jacob’s lifeless body to her. She swung him onto her shoulders. She continued to climb down, patiently, bar by bar, the rungs in the reverse way.

Once on the ground, she had to reconsider her positioning. She arranged herself so Jacob’s upper body rested against her back while she hugged his legs to her chest. His massive build not only made it difficult to balance his load on her, but also added significant weight. Still reeling from the adrenaline, she didn’t linger to think however, and immediately started walking, picking up where they left off.

She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw a wolf decoy and the men assigned to it. She yelled for someone to assist her as she approached them. She recognized some of the faces. Among the team, she had trained a few recruits at Stone Ridge. There was no doubt in their minds that the deputy was on their side.

The men rushed over to her and grabbed Jacob to put him in the back of one of the pickup trucks parked in the area. She climbed into the passenger seat. One of the henchmen took the wheel and drove them to the St. Francis Veterans Center, while three soldiers remained in the back to care for Jacob.

* * *

It took the elder Seed a good week to get out of bed. Luckily, Eden’s Gate had some very good doctors, the best of whom had come to make sure Jacob was well.

During his recovery, the deputy had stayed at the veterans’ center, not knowing what to do. She feared that if she fled, Jacob would be even more upset than before their hunting trip and decide to send his troops to kill her. Or even worse, that he would act on his threat by going to talk to Joseph.

She had spent her time visiting the prisoners and making sure they were treated as well as possible under the circumstances. Since Jacob’s men thought he had respect for her, they naturally bowed and obeyed her orders. She took the opportunity to command the hostages to be fed and clothed properly and to have at least one walk a day, which was done according to her wishes.

As soon as Jacob was on his feet, he had her called into his office. When Staci Pratt asked her to come in, she feared the consequences of the orders she had given during the elder Seed’s incapacity. She had no choice however, and now had to take responsibility for her actions.

When she entered the room, she was surprised to be greeted, for the first time, by a big smile. He opened his arms and addressed her cordially.

— Deputy ! My men told me about your rescue prowess. That’s a lot of character and determination. Your attitude once again convinces me you would make an excellent member in our army, despite the questionable way you handle hostages.

She swallowed with difficulty. Here we go. What is he going to do to me this time ?

— But I’ve decided not to blame you.

She widened her eyes. He continued.

— Now that I’m back in command, the usual methods will resume. I am grateful that you rescued me. I heard that Palmer’s little asshole assistant didn’t make it. Congrats, the training paid off.

He had stopped talking and was staring at her in silence. Unsure of how to respond, she turned to leave the room. He called out to her before she could leave.

— Wait, little bird. I have one more thing to tell you.

She turned around to face him, waiting for any punishment to come.

— You may leave. A bliss convoy leaves in half an hour for Holland Valley. Feel free to join it. But I am asking you to stay available in case of need. A family is supposed to stick together.

She pretended to ignore his remark, which had shocked her.

— What about deputy Pratt ?
— He’s staying with me. I didn’t appreciate his little betrayal when he helped you escape during a previous training. He needs to take responsibility for his actions.

She wanted to insist, but it was clear Jacob would never give in, and he might even change his mind about her. She resigned herself to leave her colleague in his hands. For now. I’ll come back for you, Pratt.

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