Already their numbers were depleted, but he knew he was strong enough to stay safe, until the end at least. Sure, his crimes were ugly, but that made him a great person to have as a Justice Seeker inside The Grid.
They called him a serial killer, but there was much more to it than that. He hated the word killer, he considered himself more of an artist. Every person he’d ever killed had been like painting a picture, it was a multi-layered thing. Starting with the idea, the rough sketch, then building up the layers, step by step.
The word ‘killer’ made what he did sound commonplace or ordinary. What he did to his victims was far from ordinary. His unique skill was in drawing out the moment of death. It fascinated him how much of the body you could actually remove and still keep a person alive, in sustained terror and pain. He’d have to improvise a little in The Grid, they could not provide him with his usual tools, not straight away, but he’d been told to make his first move as soon as possible. If he created tension and fear among the Justice Seekers, Fortrillium would keep him alive a little longer, that was the deal. They’d even given him a weapon, which he’d kept concealed.
The survivors from the fireball were tired and exhausted from their first challenge. They were in need of rest before the trial continued. They’d have to use the daytime to find food and shelter, plan their defence, and prepare for what came next. They were never safe, but the best trials most often came in the evenings when more people in The City were gripped by what was playing out on the screens.
Now that they thought they’d reached sanctuary, for a short time at least, he’d make his first move and break off from the primary group. So far they were sticking together, but if past Justice Trials were anything to go by they’d be split up within the first twenty-four hours and pitted against each other.
He surveyed those who were left and wondered who he would pick as his first victim. This was the artist in him, a regular killer would not be so fussy. Then the decision was made for him. One of the women was getting up to explore the woodland environment in which they’d been placed inside The Grid. Lots of cover and many places to hide, just how he liked it. This would be his first masterpiece. He’d conceal her somewhere safe where he could work on her deliberately, allowing him to savour every one of her final minutes as he killed her, slowly, painfully, over a number of hours. They’d never even guess what was going on.
But this wasn’t killing to Schälen, this was artistry. And who better to target for his magnum opus? As Lucy got up quietly to scout around for food, he followed behind, excited and exhilarated that his first kill would come so soon.
Wiz typed fast at his console. He was so close, but they were onto him, there was no time left. If only he’d realized what Matt had done sooner, they’d have had more time to work with the information. Matt had had to make it secure, of course he had, and he must have had a lot of faith in Joe to think that he’d finally be able to crack the encryption.
Well, Joe was gone, and it was up to him. He’d seen them enter the building moments before, as he looked down from Harry’s apartment. How long would it take them to reach him? They wouldn’t move as fast as Wiz could – they had equipment to carry, those black suits to wear. He had ten minutes surely, maybe even as much as fifteen if he got lucky. He’d never considered having no elevators a blessing, but today he was grateful that everybody had to use the stairs. It might just save some lives. If he could just see what Matt had left them and send it over to Talya, it wouldn’t matter so much if they got him now. Talya would be able to take it from there if it came to that.
He kept entering the codes, cursing that Mitchell had betrayed his whereabouts. What had he been offered in return? What had made it worth forsaking his companions and sending them to almost certain death? Wiz hoped that Mitchell could live with himself after this. He thought they’d been friends. He’d been sure they were friends.
Every time he entered a new password, an obstructing beep would sound on his console, denying him access. He pictured the staircase, trying to assess how far the Centuria would have made it by now. Level 10 maybe, Level 15 at the most, and there was debris at Level 17 that slowed everybody down.
Then there was a different electronic sound. He almost missed it, he was so used to being blocked. His console began to run a program; it was like nothing he’d ever seen before, and he wasn’t sure what was happening. It took about half a minute. The device drew what little solar power it had managed to store in Harry’s apartment and, like a ghost from another world, a holographic image of Matt appeared in front on him. He looked tired and bloody.
Wiz had never known Matt personally; his death was before he’d even met Joe, but he realized who it was anyway, there was only one person it could be. He wished Joe could see this – he knew how much he’d have liked to see his own father again.
The holographic image was unstable, and Matt had taken a few moments before he’d begun to record his message. The projected image of Joe’s dead father started to speak. Wiz heard the smashing of debris from the stairwell out on the landing – they’d reached Level 17. He hoped he’d have enough time to catch the message.
‘Joe, if you’re watching this you’ve turned into the man I knew you’d become. I’m so sorry about what happened, but when I tell you what was going on you’ll understand why I did what I had to do. Joe, I wish I could be with you. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life to leave you, Dillon and Jena. But if you’re watching this now, it could soon be over. You must never let Fortrillium know about this, Joe, whatever they try to do to you. If they know what I’m about to tell you, it will all be over. Joe, I know this will be difficult for you but ...’
The holographic image of Matt hesitated – he seemed to be a man who had a lot on his mind. He stared directly into Wiz’s eyes, and it was almost as if he was there. The sound of heavy boots could be heard thundering up the stairwell – there wasn’t much time now.
‘Joe, this will be difficult to believe, but you have to trust me. I know what you saw on the screens. I know what everybody saw. But the truth is, Joe, it was all a deception. I’m still alive, Joe, and you need to come to me now ...’
The creature ran directly at them, and at the last possible moment, when the tusks were about to plunge deep into Joe’s body, he moved out of the way, leaving the beast no time to stop.
It went crashing into Ross’s spears, both of which cut straight into its neck. Joe leaped on top of the monster and thrust his spear deep into its brain. For a moment it just stayed there, impaled on Ross’s weapons and stunned by Joe’s attack.
Then it sank, heavy and lifeless, one tusk either side of Ross who was still sitting against the wall of the labyrinth. It took a moment or two before they both began to breathe again.
‘Nice one, Joe!’ said Ross.
‘Good job, Ross. I thought it was going to be too strong for us. We’ve lost Lucy again, though. Did you see what happened? They’re splitting us up, and I’m worried about Schälen – she doesn’t have a weapon anymore.’
‘She can look after herself,’ Ross replied, ‘but we’d better try and find her. Do you think Clay managed to kill the other creature?’
‘Difficult to tell. We’ll need to keep listening – they could be anywhere in here. They haven’t changed the Mode yet. The trial must still be ongoing. Let’s head out and find Lucy, are you alright to walk Ross?’
‘Yes, I’m good, I’ll use Lucy’s spear as a stick. It’ll help to keep some weight off it.’
It was a struggle to retrieve the spears from the creature’s flesh. It was tough and sinewy – it had been much easier when the blades had slid in.
Ross managed to stand up again, stepping over the creature’s tusks, and started making his way with Joe along the tunnels. It made no difference which tunnel they chose. They felt completely blind in the labyrinth – there was no telling which way they were heading.
Joe tried to work his way back around to where he thought Lucy had been before the wall had crashed down and separated them, but it was no use. There was no sign of her anywhere.
Warily, they made their way along the passageways, with spears at the ready. Occasionally the eerie silence would be interrupted by a scream or a roar, but they were too far away. It was like chasing echoes trying to reunite with the other group.
This continued for some time. Joe felt that they were being steered by Fortrillium – doors would open and tunnels close; they were walking in circles.
Then it all changed without warning. As if from nowhere, there was a loud roar behind them. They turned fast, their spears at the ready. Something moved by their feet. They were in the shadows – it didn’t seem to be alive.
At first Joe thought it might be rats. He’d seen enough of them in his time living in The Climbs. But whatever had come to rest by their feet was not living. Joe turned to the side to allow the light from the nearest torch to illuminate the object.
He flinched when he saw what it was. Grace Makins’ severed head had just rolled along the tunnel. The thing that had killed her had begun its charge at them. It had taken them by surprise, it was almost upon them.
They’d got caught in an ambush and they weren’t ready. The creature had tasted blood and now it wanted more.
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