We Will Rise Again
Chapter 9 - The Voice
Joey's assimilation into the Hope County Jail's routines had gone about as smoothly as Winston expected. Joey was always quick to the draw, so her being quick to adapt to the new environment was no surprise. Within her first few days on duty, she had become another essential pillar to the Henbane resistance like Mayor Minkler, Tracey, and Sheriff Whitehorse. Barring Deputy Pratt, the remainder of Hope County's police force had been reunited under one roof.
The following day, Winston spoke to Kenny about Pratt. Being that he was trained in the Whitetail Mountains, Winston figured he may have caught wind of Pratt, but Kenny said he didn't hear anything about another deputy being held in the region. That dead end led Winston to consult the man who knew a little bit about everything that went on in the county.
"Yeah, Dutch, I understand that, but I just wanted to know if there was anything new. I mean, it's been a long time," Winston said.
Winston could just about picture Dutch sitting in his map room, rubbing his temples and thinking about how to best let Winston down. "I know, kid, I do. Really. But the Whitetails can barely keep track of their own asses right now."
That was about the answer Winston expected. The Whitetails were on a figurative seesaw with Jacob. Sometimes they were on top, but most times they were at the bottom. In all the chaos of trying to stay afloat, there was no way they'd be able to track a specific prisoner, especially if said prisoner would be of no immediate use to them.
"Still," Dutch said after a moment, "I'll see if I can get in touch with Eli or Tammy. See if they heard anything new."
Winston and Dutch had gone through the song and dance of getting information on Pratt several times over, and each of those times Dutch would offer to get in touch with Eli, Tammy, or even Wheaty to see if any of them knew more about Pratt's situation. None of them ever did. That likely wouldn't change this time, either.
"Sure, kid," Dutch said. He then let out a heavy sigh, and Winston could hear him scratching his beard. "You know, I have a niece that sticks around the Whitetails. We haven't spoken in a while, but I'll see if maybe she's heard anything, alright?"
"Sure. I'd appreciate it. Thanks," Winston said.
"I'll let you know if I hear anything back."
The noise on the other end was silenced with a click. Winston returned the radio to his belt and furrowed his brow. Dutch typically came off as neutral, being so far removed from the intense fighting, but speaking about his distant niece seemed to have struck a chord in him and he was quick to end the call afterward.
A cramp in his leg pulled Winston out of his mind and forced him to reposition himself. He had found himself amongst the hills that sloped up into the towering Raptor Peak. It wasn't a comfortable spot to be in, but it was concealed and in clear view of the Cougar's next target–The Misery.
After repositioning himself amongst the damp shrubbery, he brought a pair of binoculars to his eyes and examined the area. The Misery was a well-fortified structure strewn along the bank of the Rock Bass lake, just a stone's throw away from Faith's bunker. The run-down structure, once owned by the Catamount Mining Company, had been transformed into a sort of gulag by the cult. According to Whitehorse, this was where Eden's Gate sent some of their unfaithful for correction. More recently, Whitehorse had heard rumblings of Cougars being captured and held at The Misery and implored Winston to check the validity of those rumors.
In the hour he'd been there, he observed a rigid defense of the facility. Cultists at ground level acted as sentries, maintaining a strict perimeter of the former mining station while Angels toiled in the adjacent Bliss field. The upper floors were just as secure with rotating patrols and mounted machine guns, an alarming commonality in Hope County. While Winston could hardly see into the facility, he could imagine that it was just as well-defended as the rest.
He lowered the binoculars and readjusted his footing once more, maintaining a low crouch. The place was as defensible as he'd expected a military base to be. But when he looked to his right, it was no surprise, considering just how close Faith's bunker was to it. He could see the bunker's concrete exterior jutting out from the ground atop the hill, blooming in the sunlight. Below, Bliss wafted down the dirt road from the main entrance in thick sheets, as if the drug was coming out of an industrial smokestack, just inviting someone to try a direct assault.
They were smart to keep the area a higher priority, but Winston recalled Whitehorse mentioning that after the business with Joseph's statue, the cult's forces shifted and grew more present in the entire region. Whitehorse's observations proved to be accurate enough, given how many more patrol trucks Winston had dodged on the way there. But defenses aside, he found nothing to substantiate rumors of Cougars being sent there.
He sat back on his rear to give his legs a break and pulled his pack into his lap. He removed the canteen, still nice and cool thanks to late September temperatures, and took a swig. Barring any exceptions, he would stick around until the next sun threatened to rise, but he hoped he would not need to wait so long.
About fifteen minutes later, he saw out of the corner of his eye a white glint to his right on the road. He knew what he saw was a small convoy of cultist trucks before he even looked through the binoculars. Two trucks and one van, all bearing the cult's insignia, kicked up dust as they pulled up to the front of The Misery. A belt of trees blurred the view, but Winston could see someone coming out of the main entrance as the vehicles arrived.
It was a young woman clad in what seemed to be a multi-layered white robe that flowed down to her ankles. Her blonde hair drifted with the wind as she extended her arms to the incoming cultists. Simultaneously, gaseous Bliss spilled from the entrance behind her, threading itself around her.
Winston could only assume that the woman he was looking at was one of Faith's priestesses. Supposedly, they functioned as an extension of her rule, watched where she could not, and acted per her will. For a moment, he considered taking a shot at her, but being so entrenched in enemy territory, he'd have nowhere to run after the fact. And if he missed, he'd have died for nothing. He extinguished the foolish idea on that account.
Soon after, the proof he was looking for, five ragged and beaten Cougars bound by leather and chains, were marched towards the priestess. The priestess showed a glimmering smile to her prisoners as she reached into the pouch strung along her waist and pulled out something that Winston couldn't make out. When the captives were right before her, she raised her hand to her mouth, opened her palm, and blew.
Powdered Bliss scattered, instantly surrounding the five captives. Winston couldn't see their faces, but he saw their body language slack as their stiff postures languished and swayed. The priestess stepped to the side and ushered the captives through the maw of The Misery, and willingly they went.
Winston lowered the binoculars. There were a few things to consider. First, Whitehorse had heard correctly. Somewhere within The Misery, Cougars were being held. Second, one of Faith's priestesses was on location. It was likely that this woman was there most, if not all the time, guiding the operation.
Storing the information in his head, Winston observed further movement a minute later atop the highest level of The Misery. The Cougars, slow and lethargic, were being guided by cult soldiers into cages suspended by iron arms over the river. From a distance, the priestess watched and admired their work. She stepped forward, and so did her twin.
Winston squinted. He couldn't have been seeing correctly. There were two of them now, standing on the blurred roof of the distorted building. He dropped his binoculars and felt the weight of the strap on his neck as everything before him blurred and split in two. The trees doubled, the river seemed to rise and split, and that dreadful chemical odor made itself known to him. As his senses deadened, he realized they had caught him.
When he awoke, Winston found himself sprawled out on a patch of warm grass. Fighting the heavy lethargy, he struggled to his feet and swayed with the gentle wind that flowed past him. It didn't take long to recognize Faith's world: the world beyond the county, seemingly in some other plane of existence.
Unlike last time, there had been no sign to warn him that something was coming. No twigs snapping, no suppressed breathing, nothing. One moment he was fine, the next he was in another world.
Looking around, he saw that the Bliss world was as tranquil as he'd last left it. Calm waters rippled through the surrounding clearing, separating into a myriad of tiny channels like the roots of an old tree. The churning of the water and the rustle of the trees and greenery melted together into a gentle ambiance that soothed his mind.
Like last time, Winston didn't feel any fear. The aptly named Bliss was efficient in nullifying negative emotions. There was no concern about his abduction, no second thoughts about his safety. There was only peace. Finally, a voice reached through the ambiance and grabbed him as it had before.
"I'm glad to see you again," the voice said.
Faith stood at the bound of the clearing, hands clasped behind her. Her expression was difficult to read, but Winston knew she was studying him. He could only imagine the thoughts running through her mind at that moment.
"You've been busy," she said. Those words, though spoken without a touch of malice, cut like a razor.
Images of Joseph's statue falling to pieces surfaced in his memory just as he recalled Faith's words over the radio. He didn't need to see her then to feel the fear and hurt in her voice transcend the radio. As much as he expected her to lash out at him as John would have, she didn't. Rather, she walked towards him and parted her lips.
"Look at you," she said, brushing his cheek with her thumb. "You're exhausted."
Faith pursed her lips and looked him over again, a small frown on her face.
"You're a good person, Winston. We don't have to fight each other. I don't want to fight you. And I don't think you want to fight me, but..."
There were thousands of things Winston wanted to say to her at that moment, but every word was doomed to silence. The Bliss would not let go of him. No matter how much he tried to fight it, it always pulled him back into the haze.
"Come on," she said, grabbing his hand. "I want you to hear him."
Faith led Winston down a straight path through the dense forest, almost as if they were walking through a hallway. As they walked, he could see his shoes sinking into the mud, but the soles of his feet still felt like they were on solid ground.
Winston was still focused on the mud when he and Faith entered another clearing. This one looked like the forest grew over a sanctuary, with trees and vines stretching around and pushing through the four gray walls. Overhead, there was no roof, only the open sky.
Looking ahead, he saw rows upon rows of neatly lined pews, many of which were occupied, but no one paid Winston or Faith any mind. Instead, they focused on the man standing behind the oak podium at the head of the aisle, Joseph Seed.
As his sermon came to an end, Joseph's hands were outstretched to the sky as he focused on something far beyond this realm. When he lowered his hands, his eyes, shielded by gold-tinted aviators, settled on Winston. They stood opposite each other, separated by the length of the aisle. Joseph didn't say a word, and his countenance betrayed no emotion.
Faith walked ahead of Winston and stood before Joseph as he laid his hands upon her shoulders and pressed his forehead to hers. His fingers dug into her skin as he whispered something in her ear. His lips hovered beside her ear, letting his words sink in before he let her move past him.
Faith recoiled and stiffened at Joseph's touch like it was instinct, and Winston recalled her words at the statue. The fear combined with the action brought him back to his dealings with John. John had an overwhelmingly dominant personality that no one could challenge. Except for Joseph. He was the only one that had ever given John pause.
Now, that very man walked towards Winston, the leather soles of his shoes echoing off of the marble floor.
"I spent many nights thinking of what I might say to you when I saw you again," Joseph said as he closed the distance between the two. "I even thought of what I might have to do to you for what you've done."
Joseph's presence peeled away the calming effects of the Bliss, leaving Winston with a feeling of cold dread. And even though he stood taller than Joseph, he still felt powerless.
As if Joseph could sense Winston's budding animosity, he shook his head and loosened his posture. He released a heavy breath and closed his eyes for a moment, mouthing something to himself. When they reopened, his expression returned to its same unreadable state.
"But I was wrong. You see, when I look at you, I see that you're lost," he said. "Like I was."
"So, let me ask you this: Who did you think you were putting those handcuffs on?" Joseph asked. "A murderer? A cheat? A liar?"
He drew his fingers over the threads of his rosary, a wan smile tugging at his lips. "I know you've heard all of those things. And surely, you've heard even worse."
Joseph was right. The scorn directed at him was unanimous, and it seemed like everyone had their own stories of how Joseph Seed was the devil.
Joseph stepped forward. "But have you ever considered that perhaps I'm just like you?"
His words prompted a visible reaction from Winston as he raised his brows and stepped back with uncertain footing. He was nothing like Joseph.
"I was in foster care, just like you. And those—" Joseph paused for a moment. "Those were amongst the hardest days of my life, as I'm sure they were for you. Bouncing back and forth between homes all to be thrown back into the system like trash. Nobody should have to live their formative years like that."
Winston bit the inside of his lip. Joseph's own experience mirrored his, and he remembered the many homes he'd seen that would never be his. He fought to suppress a cauldron of emotions that the Bliss vied to surge forth.
"And there are so many others like us, lost and alone. I have a place for them. I can save them. You don't need to stop me, Winston," Joseph said. "Just look."
A blinding flash of light forced Winston's eyes shut. When the pain subsided and his eyes opened again, he saw that the Bliss world had been utterly transformed into a hellscape of fire and ash.
The trees that surrounded them were no more than ashen toothpicks, bent by a devastating shock wave. The blue sky, once all-encompassing and tranquil, had been choked out by ashen clouds that choked out the sun. At the center of it all was a mushroom cloud that punched up through the sky. Its molten heart pulsed in glowing swirls of gold and amber as the cloud rose higher and higher.
The sight cut Winston's breath and his heart thundered in his chest like a machine gun until he realized what he saw wasn't real. He'd had to remind himself of that many times already in the Bliss, but the sudden imagery that Joseph projected felt more real than anything he'd ever seen in this world. Even the heat from the fires had him sweating.
Joseph turned from the mushroom cloud to look at Winston. "You look surprised, but I know you've seen it, too."
A great raspy wind ripped past Winston, throwing him out of balance. Joseph's eyes, lit by drifting embers, bore into him like he could read every thought that crossed his mind. He took a step forward.
"You've seen our leaders and our citizens, all selfish and vain, pushing and pushing," he said through gritted teeth and took another step forward. "And all for what? So that they can continue to divide the world into smaller pieces for themselves while they ignore the rest of us. Because they're weak. They're cowardly.
"And now." Joseph turned back to the mushroom cloud and gestured. "Now we're at the brink, and there's nothing more that can be done. Their pride won't allow it."
Winston understood what Joseph was driving at, and although he didn't entirely agree, he could see why so many had fallen to his silver tongue. He spoke with such conviction that it was almost impossible to not think about what he had said. But Winston knew that society would persevere. It had to. Joseph couldn't be right.
"So what do you want me to do?" Joseph asked, still clutching Winston's shoulders. He seemed earnest in his questioning but was so resolute that no answer could turn him. "Should I just step away and wait for the inevitable?"
Joseph shook his head.
"I tried. I ran from it for years," he said, voice clear and powerful. "I just wanted to grow up like everyone else: Go to school, get a degree or maybe find a trade. I wanted a family. I wanted children of my own so that I could raise them better than I was. I tried... I really did."
Joseph ran his fingers over his right forearm where a tattoo of a young woman, adorned by flowers lay. He closed his fingers into a tight fist, turning his knuckles white. "But my efforts were in vain. God was unrelenting in showing me my true purpose. I was to be his messenger."
Winston saw in Joseph's eyes a distant sadness that had twisted him mad, leaving him unable to see the reality of what he was doing.
"I can't save the world. That time has passed." Joseph reached out and rested his hands on Winston's arms as an old friend would. "But I can save you. You just have to believe."
It was the last thing Winston heard before his world went black again.
Joseph watched as Winston collapsed into a heap before him. He touched the Bliss flower to Winston's nose until his breathing slowed and his body loosened. Joseph let a knee touch the ground as he twirled the Bliss flower between his fingers.
He settled into the silence of the room and relaxed his posture, removing his glasses and pressing his fingers to his nose as he shut his eyes. A long sigh drifted from his lips. It was days like today that let him know that God was still watching him. Still testing him.
Joseph had followed God's word diligently for the past several years, sacrificing the things he wanted most in service of his creator. He trusted Him more than he trusted himself, so he listened intently and carried out His will as best as he could. He'd become the perfect vessel for God, and yet days like today shook his faith. To come face to face with his brother's murderer had brought forth a wave of anger he'd not felt in a long time.
Joseph bit the inside of his cheek and felt a fever-like dizziness as the loss of his brother made itself known again in the pit of his heart. After he accepted God's plan, he hoped he would never have to experience such a personal loss again.
He'd heard the pattering of footsteps on the floor before she'd said a word. Faith stood in the doorway of the room Joseph had led Winston to. She seemed to hug the doorframe as she looked between Joseph and Winston. Joseph could read the concern on her face like words off a page.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"He'll listen," she said after a hesitant beat.
Faith bit her lip and cast her eyes to a corner of the room, picking at the tips of her fingernails. Joseph rose to his feet and spun around to face her. She recoiled, pressing against the doorway as if someone was about to pull her down the hallway. Her jittery behavior was becoming an increasingly difficult commonality.
When Joseph took her in and gave her new life, she looked at him with such affection. She was grateful and worked hard to prove that Joseph was right to save her. But her brightness had long faded and now she was a shell of her former self. Her joyful facade may have fooled her flock, her soldiers, and even Jacob, but she could never fool Joseph. It was the way she walked with apprehension around him. The way her tone wavered when she reported her failures. How her complexion would pale before he could even open his mouth.
Faith was becoming undone.
It brought Joseph back to her predecessor, Selena. Selena was the picture of devotion. Always eager to spread the word of Joseph to her followers and help them walk the path. But her heart had never recovered from the indignities set upon her by the world and she strayed from the light. Despite Joseph and John's best efforts, she was beyond saving, so Joseph had given her a quick death. After all she had done for them, it was only right that he should spare her from the Collapse.
It hadn't bothered him to deliver Selena to God early, but to think that Faith may be on the same path now left a dull ache in his chest. Seven years of memories flashed by and suddenly he realized the crossroads he stood at as God's words rang in his ears like a rushing current, unable to be ignored.
Joseph knew loss was inevitable, John's death proved that to him, but he had raised Faith like she was his own child. He took her from her lowest point and made her perfect, molding her into the model of purity. She was his daughter and his Faith. The last thing he wanted to do was let her go.
Joseph adjusted his glasses, taking care to make deliberate movements. "You know, Jacob told me that he wanted to take Winston off your hands," he said. "He said it would take the pressure off of you. Off of all of us."
"No. I can handle him," Faith responded quickly. Her eyes fell on Winston for a moment. "Jacob's too…"
"He wouldn't let him choose on his own."
She spoke much about Jacob's character with very little, and Joseph knew that she was right.
"And you can?" he asked.
"Yes." Her response was instant and vacant of any hesitation.
Joseph's very presence before Winston had come from his desire to help Faith. If that wasn't enough for her, then nothing would be.
With a deep breath, Joseph decided to himself that he would give Faith another chance to turn Winston. Even though they were running short on time, he'd have to believe in her. And if the worst would come to pass, he would do what he must.
Winston sat hunched over on an uncomfortable dining chair across from Sheriff Whitehorse, resting his elbows on his thighs as he clasped his hands and chewed on the insides of his lip. The Bliss withdrawals had come and gone already after a Cougar patrol found him wandering in a field near the jail hours ago. They brought him back, let him rest, and released him to Whitehorse, who had been on a tangent for the past hour.
But Winston hardly heard Whitehorse. They blended into background noise as Winston's mind fell to Faith. She was right there. Right in front of him. And he couldn't do anything about it. It was like the world was teasing him for thinking he could do anything to help her.
And as Whitehorse droned on in the background, Winston thought that maybe he was wrong about her, and his cheeks burned even hotter. Maybe he was just a fool, tricked by Faith like so many others. He heard enough from the locals for the idea to not be so far-fetched. But there was still this nagging sensation deep within that drove him to keep trying. There had to be substance to Tracey's account.
Just seeing her reaction to Joseph dismissed his doubts. If Joseph was as wonderful as Faith said he was, then she would have never reacted the way she did when he reached out to her. Winston bit his lip and felt a pressure on his temples that pushed inwards as he replayed the scenario in his mind again and again like a movie.
"Winston." Whitehorse's voice was short, loud, and teeming with impatience.
Winston's eyes flew up to Whitehorse, and he raised his eyebrows as a fresh hot flash of pain lashed around the inside of his skull.
"Look." Whitehorse sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I know you're not listening to me, so I'll make this short: We're going to go ahead with our attack on The Misery. Just a quick get in and get out sort of deal."
Whitehorse had been apprehensive when he sent Winston to survey The Misery. He clearly wanted to avoid a fight right in Faith's backyard, if at all possible, but that conflict was now unavoidable.
Whitehorse paused for a moment, leaving his lips slightly parted. He folded his hands on the desk and leaned forward, expression severe. "After what happened to you today, I think it's best that you hang back for this one. We'll have Joey and—"
Winston was on his feet before he fully registered what Whitehorse had told him. "I have to be there," he said as his headache raked at his skull again.
He immediately felt Whitehorse's glare burning into him, but the older man soon calmed himself. He reached across the desk and grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. A moment later, the smell of burning tobacco filled Winston's nostrils. Whitehorse leaned back in the chair once again, his expression softer than before.
"Winston," he began, speaking as if he were talking to a child. "That place is right across the river from Faith's bunker. At that point, we might as well gift-wrap you for her."
Winston grit his teeth. "She's not going to do anything."
"How do you know?"
"Because it wouldn't make sense."
"It wouldn't make sense?" Whitehorse left his mouth ajar, puzzled as he looked around the room, gesturing at the surroundings. "Does any of this make sense to you? Winston, they have no idea what sense is. And hell, they don't give a shit, either. You know that."
"We need to be smart," Whitehorse told him, tapping his hands on the desk in time with his words. "Joseph wants you bad. Sending you to scope out The Misery was bad enough. Maybe you should let the others handle things for a while."
Winston took a step towards the desk, feeling the desperation of being on the losing side of this argument. "I can handle this just fine. I handled Holland Valley. And John, too."
"You know it's true. I can—"
"Sit. Down," Whitehorse commanded.
Winston felt his breath catch in his throat and noticed that his heartbeat had quickened amidst his panic. After a brief moment spent gauging his chances of pressing the argument further, he relented like a child and sat back down. Silence rumbled his eardrums as Whitehorse put out his cigarette.
Unsatisfied and unable to sit still, Winston pressed forward again, pleading with his eyes. "I need to be there," he told the Sheriff.
Whitehorse strayed from anger and instead looked perplexed as he furrowed his brows and gazed at Winston like he'd gone mad. "Why?"
"Because it's my job," Winston said, thinking quickly. He could never tell Whitehorse his real reasoning, but he could give the man a half-truth. "If Faith were to be there, we can't kill her. That's not what we're here for."
Before Whitehorse could respond, Winston added, "John was different. I didn't have a choice. But this time we have to do it right. Like you said, we have to be smart. If we can take her alive, the aftermath of this would be easier on all of us."
There would be a long, messy trial when all was said and done in Hope County. Winston knew it, and he knew Whitehorse did, too.
Whitehorse considered Winston's words for a moment. "You don't think that Minkler and I haven't drilled that into everyone's heads by now? If anyone were to see her, they're not to kill her unless they have no other choice."
"Maybe. But you hear how they talk. If someone gets the chance to kill her, they'll take it," Winston said.
"So you don't trust them?" Whitehorse asked plainly, shifting in his chair. "You know Joey is going to be there, right? I know you trust her more than anyone. And what about Miss Armstrong? She'll be there, too."
"It's not about that," Winston said, voice bleeding with desperation.
"Then what is it about?" Whitehorse asked.
Winston's face flushed and heated up as he directed his focus to the cracked tiles beneath his shoes. Whitehorse had backed him into a corner that no amount of smooth talk could get him out of. He was trapped. The chair across him creaked as Whitehorse leaned forward to get a better look at Winston, waiting for his answer.
"Sheriff, please," he said, voice small. There wasn't much runway for him left before he would have to crack and tell him the truth.
"Lord have mercy," Whitehorse muttered, rising to his feet and walking a few steps towards the opposite wall.
Winston turned to watch him place his hands on his hips and sigh. Whitehorse spun around to face him, mouth open and ready to speak, but no words came out. He closed his mouth and shook his head.
"This is just—" Whitehorse trailed off. "Are you going to tell me what this is really about?"
Winston weighed the question and its true answer's consequences in his mind. He trusted Whitehorse, but couldn't bring himself to confess the truth, so he stayed silent. The disappointment on Whitehorse's face was plain.
"Fine," he said. "Is this going to affect our people? Is this, whatever it is you're doing, going to put people in harm's way?"
"Of course not," Winston said. He was the only one in any danger.
Whitehorse sat on the desk in front of Winston with his lips tight and nodded.
"Okay. I trust you," he said. "Just… ah, shit. Just be careful. You're important. I don't need you getting yourself killed over something you won't even talk about."
His last utterance held no trace of sarcasm or resignation like Winston expected.
"But." Whitehorse held up a hand. "If you get caught by that family again, and I hope to God you make it back should it happen, you're done. We can't lose you. Do I make myself clear?"
Whitehorse nodded and slid off the desk, circled around, and sat back down in his chair. He had no more words for Winston and sent him off with a short nod.