II.

The Stone City was built in a valley edged by steep cliffs. Several of the buildings were carved out of the side of the valley and a few rested directly into the soil. That meant, if you crawled a few treacherous feet down a sharp cliff, you could balance along the edge of a building and watch over the city.

            That was exactly what Misha was doing now. She had found her way to the outside ledge of a stone building and was watching the city below for signs of the soldier Collins. She walked carefully to avoid falling and being seen through the window — she was a lost cause if anyone found her up there. She could snipe others if necessary, but was a prime object for enemy snipers as well.

            There was little activity on the streets below; it was late and the shopkeepers had all gone home. Street lamps burned, but there was no sign of any citizens.

            A tall building with spindly towers rose in the distance. The Palace was mammoth and imposing — and it was the prime location to find the missing woman. However, if Collins was already inside, there was little Misha could do for her.

             A sound on a neighboring roof drew Misha’s attention. A pair of voices floated over and she looked for an easy escape, but knowing there could not be one on the ledge. As swiftly as she dared, she made the corner of the building, leaving her silhouette exposed to even more rooftops and windows in the city. There was no simple exit – she couldn’t return the way she came and couldn’t risk the long walk down this side down the building. Cringing, she used her elbow to break open a window. It shattered with one loud crack and a sprinkling of glass on the floor. She ducked into the building.

            Inside, she found herself in an attic. It was dusty and damp and filled with eclectic objects, all appearing dangerous. Misha put her ear against the door and listened but heard nothing moving in the building. She slowly stepped down a case of stairs, but the building appeared to have been abandoned.

            Her problem now was how to get out of the city discreetly. She would need more people to get Collins back and the sooner she returned, the sooner a team could be assembled. She considered waiting until later, until the middle of the night, but she didn’t want to risk what could happen to Collins during those hours. She needed to get back and, dressed in all black, Misha was as camouflaged in the city as she was ever going to be.

            The abandoned building had two exits: one through the main doors and one through the back doors. The back door led to alley that ended in a wall of dirt. It was the cliff she had climbed down to the ledge and there was no returning that way. The city was designed to retain its people. Misha would have to leave through the only pathway out of the Stone City, which meant making her way across the center of the city.

            She could avoid being noticed if she met a pedestrian and she knew enough to be able to mimic a local, but there were enemy military personnel patrolling the town and they would recognize the guns she carried. Even if she made it out of the city – unlikely given the only road out of the city was highly patrolled – the trouble didn’t diminish. Enemy soldiers hid in the forest.

            But she had no other choice.

            She began to walk down the street, keeping close the building and remaining in the shadows. She had taken the sniper rifle off her back and returned the Jericho to her hip. She didn’t have the silencer for the handgun and couldn’t risk causing a commotion. The sniper rifle wasn’t ideal for close-range shots, but it was quiet.

            In a windfall of luck, Misha made it to the pathway out of the city without meeting another soul. She saw the pathway disappear into a tunnel before curving into the woods. There was no way around the structure and there was no other way out. She was once again left with no other options.

            It wasn’t until she had made it through the tunnel and had been ready to take a step into the trees, that he spoke.

            “They’re sending you out alone now, Kennedy?”      

            Misha turned and saw a man she recognized coming out of the tunnel. She had met him before, in this city, but she hadn’t recognized who he was then. His name was Roman and he was the king of the people she fought. She hadn’t seen him in the darkness of the tunnel and her stomach twisted at the thought that he had been in there all along.

            “I’m looking for someone,” she said. Her voice was convincing but the confidence in it was false.

            “Looking or rescuing?” Roman asked, walking towards her. His hands were in his pockets and, for a moment, he looked perfectly docile.

            Misha knew better.

            “I have to know where she is before I can rescue her,” she replied.

            “Ah,” he said. “The woman.”

            Misha’s stomach turned again and she wondered why she didn’t just shot this man. But if Roman was out, he certainly wasn’t alone — even if he looked it. Snipers were probably hidden in the darkness that he had come from or in the forest and would kill Misha if she lifted her weapon.

            Roman’s face had an expression that said he knew where her thoughts were going. “Would it make you feel better to know she is on her way back to her home base now?”

            Misha knew she looked shocked.

            Roman shrugged. “One scout is hardly worth ruining a truce. The bands in the forest were a bit jumpy and mistook her for a larger threat. I’m having her returned now.”

            Misha said nothing, so Roman held up the conversation.

            “Your boyfriend let you come after her alone?”

            Aaron had saved her from Roman before — though she suspected the king had let them get away — and Roman knew about their relationship. Thinking of Aaron caused a twinge of pain in Misha’s side and Roman’s eyes narrowed.

            She recovered quickly. “I didn’t ask anyone’s permission.”

            Roman’s eyebrows went up. His eyes went to her wounded shoulder. “Well then, soldier,” he said, finally standing next to her. “We’d better get you back before anyone gets worried.”

            “You’regoing to take me to the Gate?” she asked incredulously.

            “Can you think of a safer alternative?”

            “You aren’t going to tell anyone I’m here?”

            He shrugged. “I see no reason anyone needs to know.”

            “I’m an enemy soldier.”

            “Have you killed anyone while you have been here?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow.

            She shook her head.

            “Are you planning to?”           

            She shook her head again.

            “Then I don’t see any reason why we need to risk ruining our little truce.”

            Misha blinked, but followed Roman as he began walking. He offered his arm, but she pretended not to see.

            There was no safer way than to walk through the Black Forest with the man who ruled it. Every combatant inside it was at his command and it was odd for Misha, who had returned the sniper rifle to her back, to walk without a weapon out and at the ready.

            The walk went faster that way. It wasn’t long before Misha could see Aaron and Skylar waiting in the open base. The lock down was over — they must have lifted it early for her.

            “Thank you,” she said, turning to Roman. It felt odd to be thanking him.

            “You’re welcome, Kennedy.”

            Aaron had apparently noticed them and yelled her name. Misha turned and rushed towards her base. She crossed through the Gate and ran over the pavement, making it inside the metal hall. Skylar let out a breath and Aaron pulled her tightly against him.

            “Kennedy,” he said against her head.

            Over his shoulder, Misha saw the General approaching and wriggled out of his grasp. Nodding once to Skylar, she said, “I have to go defend my actions now.”        

            The General wasn’t happy. It was foolish and irresponsible for her to have gone after the crew alone. He told her as much and reminded her of military protocol.

            “We were on lock down, sir,” she tried to explain inside his office. “No one would have been able to get out for hours and they needed protection!”

            She wasn’t fired but the General still wasn’t pleased with her.

            On her way back to her office, she heard that Anna was in the infirmary, suffering from shock symptoms. Aaron was waiting at her office; for once, he hadn’t just let himself in. He stood up when he saw her.

            “Are you okay?”

            Misha nodded and opened her door. Aaron followed her inside.

            “I need to talk to you.”

            “Again?” she asked. To his credit, Aaron cringed. But he never did get to speak his piece, because a voice rose above all the others and there was a great deal of fluttering outside Misha’s office and Sidney Price appeared.

            Misha had met Sidney during basic training, back when her nickname “Spice” was still new. She and Spice had become fast friends and in less than one year, would finish their second tour together.

            Spice was a pistol and Misha didn’t want to see her lay into Aaron. There was no doubt that it was all over the base by now but Misha didn’t care what was being said about her. She didn’t want to deal with it yet. She left as Spice was spouting of the first of many insults towards Aaron. She heard him try to follow her, but Spice cut him off.

            Misha spent the rest of the night in the barracks. 

The End

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