X - Til He Heard the Voice

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D I A N A

Whitetail Mountains
Hope County North
Present Day

In the twilight hour, she stared at the sun from the lookout on the ridge and watched as the skies turned blue, then green and orange, until the velvet crush of navy covered the county like a blanket. What felt like an eternity while underground had only been a day or two, tops, and she felt both fulfilled and wasted in negotiation with Eli. He was a hardass, and she knew that going in, but she thrived on the fact that he could sit down and talk to her without drawing his weapon to blast her into bits. It was more than enough to keep her focus.

Diana stopped at a small house by the main road, a shack that was a Ranger's rental by the looks of it. There were plenty of these littered through the Whitetails, places her and Jacob's men would set up as a small camp or ammunition stop for hunters. Now, some had been burnt to ash, or left with messages from Whitehorse and his men left to rally the Forsaken in hopes to convert or exterminate the remaining church members.

This one was the latter; there were bodies hanging here—or what appeared to be dummies dressed in the old Eden's Gate robes. The bodies were just sacks filled with straw, cartoon faces with x's for eyes drawn on the burlap made it more comical than what the grim display was meant to give off. Their heads hung low, suspended on the noose strung up over the broken light post. Their fake arms and hands were expertly bound with chains and rope behind their backs as they dangled there. It was a warning from the Forsaken. Slashes through the fabric on the church's insignia made her heart drop but painted beneath them scorched into the wood was a message that worsened that dread.

"Caritas. Industria. Patentia. Find your peace in Virtue."

Hudson.

The Iron Lady of the Holland Valley, they called her, or so the billboards they erected over John's old propaganda had read. The scorch work was her way of leaving a mark in the sister-region, the Whitetails, a symbol that her reach with the branding iron stretch as far as the mountains.

Diana could still smell the furnace, the fire blazing so hot and the metal Joey Hudson wielded glowed a brilliant red before marking its victim. Hudson had her own arsenal of tools in her dungeon, a dreaded hammer to crack bones and a pair of shears to claim fingers, toes or anything else she could clip. She worried about her brother John now, recalling he'd been seared with Hudson's trademark torture weapon, marked with his own virtues. Those burns were rife with infection and had a hell of a time healing over when she retrieved him from Falls End.

Everyone had their titles in this place, whether they liked it or not, which gave the County a medieval feel. But that's what it felt like to Diana; that she was wandering through the rural county with laws set by brutal rulers and ruthless barbarians of the country. Her position as the Regent was appointed to her by Joseph and John, after her marriage to Jacob. She'd been his right-hand for some time, climbing the ranks of his soldiers quickly to advise and attack. In their home, there was a lot of bitterness and slander to her name since she was fucking the boss meant she took the easy ticket to power. They would even go as far as mock her husband saying she was the one in control of the army, and if anyone wanted to get to Jacob, they'd go through her, his bitch. Anytime this came to Jacob's attention, he was quick to defend her even though she could easily defend herself. They paid for running their mouths, even when Diana said she could easily brush it off. The title of Regent always seemed silly.

"I'm still your wife," she'd say to him, confirming that she had no intentions of leaving his side or that post, but he was adamant to ensure they knew their place. This rule, this power that she had, acquired by her skill and association, meant she was the final piece that had not yet clicked into place for the Forsaken's board. Joseph and his Heralds had been removed from play but if she was in the wild, she was an enemy of theirs, and a liability to keep Hope County safe.

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