A Stockholm Sacrifice

“Oh, no, no, no, no,” the girl crooned, rocking violently as she ran her hands through her scraggly hair. She was curled in the corner of the dark room, as filthy as the dirt floor. They had unchained her over twenty-four hours ago, but she didn’t move outside of the five foot radius she had become accustomed to. She continued to mumble and was restless in her fidgeting.

“Why, Aiden, why did you kill him?” Sruthi pinched the bridge of her nose, exasperated. Her other hand gripped her side, grabbing at something besides Aiden’s throat. She had sent the rest of her team outside to run the perimeter. While she wasn’t officially trained to keep it a priority, she put the safety of her squad at the utmost importance.

“He deserved it! Keeping people, children, chained up like that!” Aiden was indignant, rightfully so. “He shouldn’t have been allowed to live as long as he had! We should have killed him as soon as we found him the first time.” His eyes brimmed with rage, his clenched fists remained at his sides, trembling. He kept his chin out, proud in his stance. And stupid, Sruthi thought to herself.

“Did you stop to consider,” she said, using a tone and cadence befitting speaking to a child, “that alive, he could lead us to other potential dens? That this horror show he was a part of could have been more than just him?”

Aiden’s face fell slightly, realization sinking in. The girl in the corner continued to stare at the dead body of her captor, stress radiating from her movements and constant murmurings.

“Or possibly think through the fact that I kept him alive,” her voice grew sharper, louder, her inhalations labored, “in order to use him for more information?” The dynamic in the room shifted, Aiden’s rage dimming as Sruthi’s became more palpable.

“No, ma’am, I didn’t think about that.” His voice was quiet, shamed. He lowered his head, cupping his hands together behind his broad back.

“You don’t think about anything!” She exploded, her arms splaying outward, causing his larger frame to shift back. She glared at him but didn’t move. She huffed, her frustration expelled in one swift demonstration.

She straightened and softened her voice, this time without the condescension. “Aiden, I understand why you were done keeping him alive. He was vile and awful and did not deserve to breathe. But this wasn’t your call to make. If you cannot take orders, I will have to take you off of my team.” Aiden’s head shot up at this, eyes pleading.

“Ma’am, no, please,” he began to beg. Sruthi knew he had been gunning for the open spot on her squad for months prior to getting it. She almost didn’t take him on since he was so green, but he needed to get experience somewhere. She knew it, that he, was a gamble, and this may have set them back a few days, but she knew didn’t regret having Aiden with them.

“But,” she threw up her hand, cutting him off, “I will give you another chance. You have to trust me, Aiden, and I have to be able to trust you. Otherwise this will not work.” Her voice gave no room for consideration of anything else.

“Yes, ma’am.” He sounded determined, and she really hoped he was.

“Dispose of the body, burn it out back,” Sruthi’s voice took on her default professional tone. “Make sure the perimeter is secured first, check with Taven or Haley. We don’t need to be caught unaware.”

Aiden turned with a curt nod, pausing in the doorway. “I won’t let you down again, Sruthi. I am sorry.” He walked out before she could say anything else. She took a deep breath and turned toward the distressed girl, who was still muttering frantically. The girl’s eyes widened at the attention. She looked an awful lot like a drowned cat, cornered and threatened. Sruthi didn’t move closer but lowered herself to a crouch. Now eye to eye, she spoke softly to this poor girl.

“My name is Sruthi. What is your name?”

The girl held her stare, having gone quiet at the direct attention. She said nothing at all now. Sruthi gave a small smile and sat down all the way. She made a conscious decision to stay out of range, outside the obvious area the chains allowed the girl to be in.

“Okay then. Can you tell me where you are from?” Sruthi tried again, pausing to give time for a response. “Do you have any family? Anyone who might be looking for you?” She heard quiet voices outside, indicating Taven, Haley, and Aiden were speaking. She couldn’t hear the deeper tones of Preston’s voice yet. He must still be securing the area.

“Any loved ones?” The look on the girls face suddenly twisted, angry. Finally, a response, Sruthi mused to herself.

“The only person I loved is dead now, thanks to you monsters!” Her voice was venemous and sounded as though her throat was scratched or scarred. As if she had screamed for a long time. Surprised at this proclamation, Sruthi raised her eyebrows.

“Him?” She inclined her head to the body Aiden hadn’t yet removed. She didn’t for a second look away.

“Yes!” hissed the girl. Suddenly, her mood shifted as her body wracked with an unearthly sob, her face crumpling in a different way. “You t-took him from me!” she wailed, an awful screech of a sound. Sruthi kept her face neutral but internally cringed.

“I am sorry for your loss,” Sruthi began slowly. She contemplated her next line, not wanting to risk ending the conversation. “Did he not hurt you?”

“No, no, no,” the girl shook her head adamantly with every ‘no’ she uttered, clasping her hands together in front of her chest. She began rocking again, the paths of her tears creating lines on her dirt stained face. “It was for my good! He only would beat me if I disobeyed, if I didn’t do what I was supposed to!” Her voice cracked periodically.

“And how often was that?” Sruthi began to wish she had been the one to take care of this monster, not Aiden.

“Well, sometimes it would be days, but I know I deserved it. I know he loved me, he was only trying to help me. He was only trying to help me, I was bad and he knew the right way to protect me, to take me out here so I could be good again.” Sruthi’s disgust of the man grew as the girl continued, knowing the amount of therapy to help reverse the abuse that had happened here was going to be astronomical. Messy and terrible work, but doable with the right help. Her heart ached for this girl, this child really. She was struck with a sick sort of gratitude that her job was to find and rescue, and not to rehabilitate. She shuddered at her own dark thoughts, rising to her feet while the girl prattled on, more to herself than to Sruthi.

Aiden and Taven walked in and began picking up the body. Haley cleared the doorway, moving toward Sruthi before they started manuevering back outside, their arms full. Sruthi surveyed the girl, watching her watch the men take her so-called beloved away. The girls eyes widened and she crawled, gollum-like, to the edge of her quarter-circle but no further. Sruthi and Haley had tensed at the girls sudden movement, but relaxed as they saw she would not go beyond, even though she was freed. Her muttering did not cease, oscillating between sounding melancholy and furious.

“What now?” Haley whispered as she came to stand by Sruthi, crossing her arms. Haley was a tall, intimidating figure, who never seemed to run out of the ability to be calm and collected at all times. Sruthi had seen Haley with the same disinterested look on her face while flirting at bars, in a closed-room interrogation, and during a chaotic gun fight they probably should have lost. Sruthi doubted even this situation would phase her.

“We stay here tonight, take turns on watch.” Sruthi’s gaze remained in that filthy corner of the room as she continued quietly. “I’ll see what more I can extract from the girl but we need to get her to a facility as soon as possible, she’s obviously malnourished, who knows what other physical ailments she has going on, and to get her psychological help.” Haley switched her attention to the girl, with that same impassivity, nodding slightly.

“Do you think we will get much of anything from her? From what I could hear, she’s brainwashed and abused at best.” Haley was usually pragmatic, and while she looked unphased, Sruthi knew better. Haley most likely hoped to spare the girl from further interrogation. From being subjected to this place, this cage, and speaking more of her abuser, her kidnapper.

“Yes, but if she knows anything, if he let anything slip, she might tell us. And that’s enough. It’s likely he wasn’t careful with what he said around her, considering she probably wouldn’t have lived much longer had we not found this shit hole.” Sruthi hoped the girl could give them something, anything. She finally turned her face to Haley’s, a weird mixture of stern and apologetic on her face.

“We need any information she could possibly give us, Haley. I’m just going to talk to her, and you can be in here too if you want, but she’ll be fine.” As fine as she can be, all things considered, Sruthi added in her head. Haley gave another small nod in understanding. “Wait here and stand watch while I check in with the others.” Sruthi didn’t wait for another affirmative before walking out under a clear, dark blue sky, visible through the sparse, new leaves on the trees.

Aiden was visible in the starlight, golden next to a fire he built about a hundred yards away. The underbrush was not quite filling in yet, allowing Sruthi to see his stiff stance as he rid them of the evidence of yet another monster she discovered. She turned to Taven, next to their own fire, cooking a ready-made chili-like substance of some sort. They were unbothered at the possibility of discovery, as anyone who might find them there were likely people they would be hunting anyway.

“Where is Preston? Is he not back yet?” She asked Taven, managing to sound only slightly concerned. He stood from the fire, adjusting the pot in his hands as he did.

“No, he-“ Taven was cut off by the sound of rustling branches as Preston bounded from behind the shack. He slowed to a stop by the side of the building, his labored breathing the only sign of his sprint back to their camp. Alarmed, Sruthi started toward him while he waved her off.

“No danger,” he got out between breaths, reassuring them only slightly. He wasn’t one to overreact, but his return to camp certainly seemed extreme for ‘no danger’. “I found something.” He straightened, clearing his throat. “I’m not totally sure what it is, some sort of shrine I’m assuming.” A tribute to his fitness, his breathing already normalized as he stood at attention, shoulders back and arms behind him. His eyes betrayed his steadiness with a haunted look, one Sruthi had never seen before.

“Okay, what else-“

“There was a human body on it. A sacrifice possibly, an offering.” Even the fire seemed to still. Taven ran a hand through his blond waves on an exhale. “Fuck,” he muttered.

Sruthi kept her focus on information, allowing herself to have feelings about it later.

“And?” she asked quietly, knowing there must be more.

Preston looked as though he was preparing himself. He met her gaze fully, with a weary look.

“Well. When I first got there, the person was still alive.”

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