The sun shone down brightly over Episemon, bathing the grasslands in warmth. Hartley sat outside on his front porch in the shade as he watched the clouds float by. The street was empty and quiet as usual. He relaxed his shoulders and slumped back in the outdoor chair the family had since before he was born. His mind wandered to the old photographs they had from when he was a baby, him sitting in his sister’s lap in that chair. It was his first birthday. He didn’t have any memories of that day at all, but the photos made him feel like he could slip back in time and relive his life. Hartley took a deep breath as a cool, smooth breeze blew across the ring. His whiskers twitched a bit as the wind tugged on them. His eyes shot open, and he looked to his right to see his sister trying to sneak up on him.
“Come on, dad’s got dinner ready,” Lyra replied as Hart stretched and got out of the chair to head inside. As he stepped in, the smells of freshly cooked noodles wafted over him, pulling him inside. Steeped in a rich, savory sauce and served with stir-fried vegetables, the family ate up and talked about their days. Hartley brought up a temp agency to help find him some work. Lyra and Kara talked about the latest SSF news and how restructuring is opening up new positions all through the company. Tate told about the new investments and opportunities he’d found through Episemon and how the new influx of revenue would pay for a long family vacation, much to everybody’s jubilation.
A knock at the door pulls everybody’s attention. Hartley looks over and gets up to shoo away whoever was there, expecting it to be some marketing canvas. He opened the door, and a gunshot rang through the house. Everybody looked back to the door as Hartley stumbled back a bit as the elongated barrel of a suppressed handgun entered through the door-jam. Hartley looked down at his right shoulder, seeing a large, black spot form. He brought his hand up to touch it before another shot rang out, striking him through the arm. A third grazed his lower abdomen as he fell backwards and hit the floor. Both Tate and Kara leapt from their chairs and ran to their son.
“Geezus, T, you gotta learn to shoot better,” a masked female chupa said as she stepped into the house and held a submachine gun up at the parents, “You two stay put!” she yelled as Kara clutched her son. The masked woman planted her foot on Kara’s shoulder and kicked her off of Hartley. Hart laid on the floor, breathing slowly and holding his wounds and then up at the woman. She wore a dark tactical outfit with kneepads, holsters, and pockets with various tools and restraint devices like handcuffs and zip-ties. Lyra shivered and got up out of her seat, her eyes wide and her mouth agape. Tate growled and quickly took control of the SMG’s barrel, pointing it away from his family before swinging to punch the masked chupa. His fist came inches from connecting with her head before another gunshot rang out. Tate hit the floor, blood pouring from the back of his head. Kara screamed out in horror as the masked female shoved her gun into Kara’s face, “Quiet, or you’re next!” she yelled out as Lyra sprinted towards the door. Lyra screamed as she broke down on all fours, slashing at the female assailant’s leg. The female yelled out as she went to the ground, clutching her leg. Two more masked figures entered the house as well, guns drawn. They managed to get Lyra off of their partner and had her down with their guns trained on her.
“I’m getting M out of here,” one of them said, clearly a male. He wrapped the female’s arm over his shoulder and helped her out of the house.
“Yeah, she’s bleedin’ pretty bad,” the other replied as he walked up from behind and put his foot on the back of Lyra’s neck. Kara began to crawl back towards her son and husband, clutching both of their hands. Tears ran down her cheeks and dripped onto the floor as she slowly stood up. The gunman that shot Hartley stepped forward into the house as well and grabbed Kara’s long, black mane. Kara bared her teeth before grabbing the man’s gun hand and wrenching the firearm away. She then reeled back and slammed her fist into the gunman’s face, clawing and ripping his face mask off. “Dammit!” The man restraining Lyra said as he got off of her. He ran over to Kara and grabbed her arm, pulling her off of the first gunman. Kara screamed and yelled as she thrashed in the man’s grip. The first gunman stood up to his feet before pulling his mask back up over his snout. He took his handgun and pressed it against Kara’s neck before shooting straight down through her heart. She went limp and fell to her knees as blood began to drip from her mouth before collapsing to the floor, staring into her husband’s glassy eyes as her vision began to fade. She looked for her son but couldn’t find him, only a large, black smudge leading out from the dining room and in through the hallway. Kara couldn’t spot Lyra either. Her hands began to clench but couldn’t make a fist before the life slipped from her body. The two gunman were preoccupied with dealing with the corpses of the Harms parents to notice the sound of a car starting in the house’s garage. The first gunman looked for Hartley and his eyes went wide.
“Get out of my way, Tharin…” Martin said as he tried to push his boss aside. Tharin grabbed him by the neck and thrust the scrawny chupa against the wall.
“You think you’re just going to walk away?!” Tharin yelled as he ripped his mask off as well, “The mission isn’t over.”
“It was a failure!” Martin replied, “you fuckin’ screwed it up. You fucked it all up!” he said, taking Tharin’s hand and pulling it off his neck before pushing his boss away from the door, “NONE of this was part’a the plan! If you had just stuck to the fucking plan YOU made then we wouldn’t be in this mess!” Tharin growled and looked away, “I’m done here, we’re through, ya’ got that?” Martin asked before Tharin raised his gun at Martin’s face.
“You’re done when I say you’re done,” Tharin said menacingly as his finger laid on the trigger, trembling a bit, “now get back to the fucking van. We’re going back to the safehouse to figure out our next move.” Tharin grabbed Martin’s arm and turned him around to face the door. He shoved his subordinate through and pushed him to the van where Dante was tending to Maxine’s leg. “Did either of you see those two leave?”
“We heard it…” Max said as she tried to sit up while laying across the van’s seats, “but neither of us could get a look at their car.”
“Dammit…” Tharin muttered to himself as he leaned against the van, “Martin, get in. We’re leaving for the Lactan safehouse.” Tharin said as he went around to the driver side door and got in. Martin climbed into the van as well and began helping Dante dress Max’s wound. Martin looked back out the window at the Harms household, the front door left ajar as they drove off in the opposite direction Lyra took. Everyone in the group was silent as they drove west, each reflecting on what had happened. Tharin tightly gripped the steering wheel as he drove, grinding his teeth and staring intently at the road in front of him.
The group drove for hours before finally stopping in a wide, open field for a brief respite. Everyone got out of the van except for Max who sat on the floor and held her legs out. Martin walked off a ways to keep his distance from everyone else as Dante circled around and confronted Tharin.
“Do you mind telling me what the fuck THAT was?” he asked angerly as he leaned in and got in Tharin’s face, “What happened to our plan?” Tharin didn’t say a word, but he didn’t look away from his subordinate, “You just thought you’d pick him off because you saw him outside?” Dante stepped away for a moment to compose himself, putting his hand over his face before turning back to his boss, “And what the hell were those shots? Have you never fired a gun before? Never been hunting?” Tharin started to shake as he stepped forward and grabbed Dante by the neck.
“Don’t fucking talk to me like that,” he said in a calm, yet dark tone. He let Dante go and went back to the van, “We need to form another plan.” Dante looked at him but didn’t say a word, “We had the luxury of knowing where he was, but that’s gone now. There are only a few places I can think of that he’ll be at.”
“It’s possible they’re hiding in a shrine which won’t be easy to get into,” Tharin said as he thought about the other possibilities, “The only other places I can think of would be with the SSF.” The group groaned and Dante sighed.
“Well, that’s that then, the mission was a failure,” Dante said, “there’s no way in hell we’re getting him if he’s being protected by the SSF.”
“Do you think he recognized you?” Max asked, trying to stand up to stretch out a bit. She stumbled a little as Dante caught her and helped her up.
“No, I don’t think so. He looked unconscious when my mask came off, so I think we’re safe for now,” Tharin answered, “as safe as can be, at least… I think the smartest move would be to split up, for now.” The group looked around at each other, “Martin, you’re with me. Maxine and Dante will be the other team. Martin and I will circle west while you two head east to try and find them. We will meet back up again in Stigma.” The group nodded in agreement as Tharin stared towards the jungles of Lactan. Evening was drawing in as Tharin handed over the keys to the van and some cash to Dante before he and Martin set out on foot. The pair walked into the deep, orange sunset as Dante and Max drove back to town. Only one thing was on all of their minds as they journeyed, that this was far from over.