I pause, leaning my head against the wall sandstone wall of some building beside me. I can feel a scream rise up in my throat, fighting to be let out, but I push it down.
Behind me, the footsteps grow louder. But they aren’t the ones I heard before. No, these are the footsteps of people. Less foreign, perhaps. But no less dangerous.
Dangerous in a different way.
I don’t stop to glance back. From what I can hear, it’s a group, four or five. A voice suddenly shouts out.
“There! It’s one of them!”
The footsteps quicken behind me, and I run faster, blind to where I’m going but desperate to evade whoever’s following me. They’re faster. Suddenly a force collides with me, knocking me to the ground. Hands grab my shoulders, forcing me to the ground. Desperately I reach for my knife, but one of my assaulters clamps a hand around my wrist and wrenches it away from my belt. Pain crashes across my face as a fist connects with my cheek, and blood sprays onto the pale stones.
The blows keep coming, and though I struggle, I can feel the energy seeping out of me, mingling with the blood that spills out from wounds opened on my face. They’re not using knives or weapons, but there are so many of them. They are like beasts, hot breath and dripping fangs thirsting for blood, anyone’s blood, but better to have a reason to hunt.
They’re going to murder me. They’re going to kill me, right here.
But death doesn’t come. Something tugs me away. I can feel it like a blanket, falling over me, numbing the blinding, aching pain. Finally, the blows cease, and someone leans close to my ear.
“You’re the one he was protecting, aren’t you?” growls one of them. “This is for Daishikha. You should go back to Jagas instead of murdering our citizens!”
I can hear them move away, laughing and shouting loudly as they return to the main street to search for their next victim. I lay alone in the dark for a long time before sitting up. The blood has begun to dry on my face, crusting and itching around my eyes.
Someone pushes me back to the ground.
They didn’t leave? One of them didn’t—
“Luirlan,” the voice hisses. It’s too dark to see who’s speaking, but it’s a vaguely familiar voice. “I have something for you to do.”
Someone grabs my hand and forces a cool, round object into my open palm.
“This is a vessel of utbretse,” the voice growls. “Take it to the Assembly’s citadel. Go to the meeting room—they’ve already evacuated. Set this vessel in the center, twist open the lid, and set a torch to it.”
“Who are you?” I croak hoarsely.
“Don’t recognize me?” He chuckles. “It’s Juase. I’ve been given orders by the Assembly to initiate the final stage.”
“The Incitement,” Juase says, and I can hear a smile in his voice. A smile, because I know they’ve gotten to him, too. First Sarofa, now Juase, but the whole city, really. We’re all infected now.
“What’s happening? Why are the crowds—”
“They were looking for you,” Juase tells me. “After you killed that woman. Oh, they were angry. But they were angry for so long already, weren’t they? And then Nazka hid you away—they thought he was protecting you.” He chuckles with manic glee. “They’re angry now. They’re so angry now.” His chuckle turns into a hysterical laugh. “You’re all doomed.”
Then he’s gone. Disappeared into the darkness, or the crowd, to aid the destruction. That’s what we’re doing. Destroying each other.
But I have to do this.
The final stage.
I limp back into the streets, where the crowds are still yelling, louder now, more frantic, more scared. Nobody has been hurt yet, from what I can tell.
I see some are crumpled in corners, leaning against doors, coughing, whimpering, howling in agony. I remember what Chiqu said about diseases from Jagas and move away from them. I close my eyes, ignoring the rotten, musty scent, the mumbling of those who wish for death. A coolness settles over me, and I look up.
I’ve wandered into one of those thin, winding streets. There are no torches here. A faint motion catches my eye, and I see it, a twisted heap at the end of the street. My stomach lurches. A body. Gleaming blood just beginning to pool. It’s new. Fresh. Someone has finally chosen death over the chaos. Silence falls over this place, despite the screams from the crowds beyond.
There’s another motion, and I realize a figure is bent over the body. It raises its head, bares its teeth, dripping with the gore. She delights in death. She feeds off of it.
I stumble away in a daze, heart racing as I force myself to not look back. Have to get away from her. She could be following, any moment, any moment her hands wrapping around my throat and pulling me down—
My eyes are set on the citadel. When I reach the wall, I don’t hesitate in pulling myself over.
The citadel flickers with torchlight in the night, casting ominous shadows in corners. I push aside the curtain and slowly begin the climb up the winding staircase. From here, the screams of the city are muffled. Less piercing. I’m thankful for the quiet.
I finally reach the meeting room. Unlike Nazka’s building, this place is eerily silent, untouched. Abandoned, but untouched. Because their war is not against the Assembly.
I step into the center. Set the vessel of dark liquid on the ground. I can’t decide what color it’s supposed to be. It seems to shift in the firelight. Here a flash of blue, there a ribbon of green, sometimes even a whisper of red.
My numb brain is sluggish in its slow, searing execution, withered and collapsed as I search it for Juase’s instructions.
Torch. I need a torch.
I leave the vessel on the ground and yank a torch from the wall. Then I crouch over the dark liquid, holding the torch close.
I don’t know what it will do. It could kill me.
Could I die? Here, now?
“Death is a test everyone fails,” Mara whispers. “But sometimes you get points for creativity.”
I don’t want to die. I want to burn myself into the earth until no creature can destroy me.
Exactly. They won’t forget me this way.
I gently touch the tip of the curling, dancing flame.
Nothing happens at first. Then the liquid bursts into a black flash.
Black. That’s what it was. The other colors…just illusions.
Time slows down, then speeds up into a blur. Everything erupts at once, exploding into destruction and flames. Then I’m thrown backward, my useless body held in the air for just a moment before crashing into the stone ground as a massive fire splits my skull. I slump to the ground as a deep rumble echoes in the citadel. I can’t see what’s happening, the room is white and silver and frozen in a horrible, twisting, screeching monster. Bits of dust and stone hit me in the face, raining from a distant cloud.
Shattering the last of Dele. Ripping apart every stone with an anguished cry.
I can feel the flames licking my feet, hungrily climbing up my body and covering me in warmth. I watch, listen, wait, paralyzed before the flames close my eyes and melt my face into a blur.
My eyes open to grey.
Perhaps they have been burned out of my head, shriveled into unseeing, charred skeletons. But all I see is grey.
Then a glowing spark sails through the air, several more following close behind.
My body is frozen to the ground. Every bone in my body feels broken. And only ringing silence fills my ears.
I can’t move.
I can’t move. I’m paralyzed. No. No no no no—
Then darkness envelops me once more and fades away the panic.
Nazka’s face, close to mine.
I can’t hear. I can’t reach him. All of it has faded away now. I’m useless. I’m a corpse.
Let me go.
Flash of a blood-filled street.
Bodies limp and broken, bones shattered, heads cracked open, blood and brains spilled around, the stink of rotting flesh choking, moaning corpses scattered across the streats because they can’t remember how to die. Then a boy, gasping on the ground, a wide gash opened across his throat, mangled all the way to the glinting bone beneath.
Flash of a wide desert, sand creeping under my eyelids.
Flash of something warm, then something cold. Salt. Dust.
Wings tear bodies break skin rips and everything
Consciousness. Why can’t I hang on to it? And where is Mara? I am dying. I died.
Darkness is blanketing my vision. Then I am standing, and she is before me. She looks the same as she always has. Unchanged.
“Hello, Luirlan,” she whispers. “You’re back here again.”
This is it. This is the last time.
“You’re right,” she agrees, listening to my thoughts. “This is the last time. Because it’s time to choose, Luirlan. Me…or them?”
A tiny window appears, and I can hear the chanting screams of the crowd. Mara smiles, then waves her hand. The crowds vanish and silence falls, save for her cool, melodic voice.
“The heart of a person is what gives them life,” she says. “But you, Luirlan…you traded your heart to me in exchange for survival. I make you survive, but you don’t live. You merely exist. Your morality died that day, at the Ofre. And you let me take over. You thought you wanted glory, but you really wanted revenge. You were jealous of those who lived.”
It’s the truth. All of it is the truth, and I hate hearing it. I hate hearing out loud what I’ve hidden.
“You built yourself a cage and called it your kingdom. But here’s the thing, Luirlan – you can’t run from a cage.” She smiles at me. “And if your throne is made of the bones of the people you stepped on to get to where you are, don’t be surprised when the bloodthirsty ghosts come knocking at your door.”
She sighs wistfully, then locks eyes with me.
“Come, Luirlan. You know which choice is the right one. Wouldn’t it be so easy?” she croons. “To give in now, while you don’t have anyone. Die here, with me. So easy, just slip that knife under your arm and let it wash away into black. Then we would be together for the rest of time.”
Mara steps closer, hand closing over mine. She makes death sound pleasant. Almost enjoyable. But I flinch away under her touch.
She frowns. “Why do you fear me?”
“I fear the darkness,” I whisper.
“Pity to be afraid of the dark,” she muses. “The darkness is beautiful. It numbs. You can get lost in it. It’s the light you should fear, Luirlan. Light exposes everything. There’s no escaping its heat.”
I can feel myself begin to tremble. “I—I need to…”
“You don’t need anything, Luirlan,” she purrs. “Just give in now.”
“I need to kill you,” I choke out. Because I know, in this moment, it’s been her. She has been the one holding the flame to the ice this entire time. She loosened the darkness. She incited the beast that had been stirring for so long. She knew it would destroy me.
Mara laughs without happiness. “You can’t kill me,” she says. “I am you.”
She leans closer, her hair encircling me and tickling my face, tightening, choking, fingernails digging deep into my flesh.
“You say you are to kill me…but we both know you are here to die.” She chuckles. “Look at you. So weak. So lonely. So afraid. Don’t worry, you won’t feel any of that once I’m finished with you.”
I feel something cool, hard, sharp appear in my hand. It’s a blade. Not even a full knife, just a crudely cut sliver of stone. But sharp. Deadly.
I look up at Mara, who smiles. “Go ahead. Kill me.” Her eyes, washed over with black, are two orbs of darkness, boring into me, dark veins standing out against her pale skin. “But know that if you do, you won’t survive the night.”
My voice is hoarse when I speak, broken open and raw. “Don’t you understand?” My hands are trembling, but I am the one controlling them, that’s what matters. “You said it yourself. I’m already dead. I—don’t—want—to survive.”
Mara looks like she’s about to say something, but I don’t wait. I don’t let her. I lunge forward, and the beast is roaring inside, and I slice with the blade, searching for anything to cut, to destroy.
It plunges into her neck, and I freeze. She’s staring at me but doesn’t show any sign of pain. I don’t know what to do. I pull out the knife, and a strange swirling blackness pours out. No blood, just an oozing fog. She begins to laugh, and from her mouth I see dark tendrils creeping out from behind her lips, shifting and writhing like they’re alive, but I know it is death that causes them to move. They slither down her face, circling her head, now reaching out for me and curling around my legs, my arms, my neck, tightening.
I rip at them with the blade. They’re tough, soft with rot and choking. But more keep coming, growing out of her, erupting from her mouth, her eyes, her ears. Now her fingers have morphed into long, winding vines, grabbing fervently and pulling me down into the darkness. Her whole body splitting apart, skin falling away, and beneath the shreds a dark, webbed carcass. A shape with no face, tendril fingers tipped with claws, empty sockets glistening. Its body is emaciated and thin, bones showing through the rough, pulsing hide. Black gouges where yes should be.
And then I see the corpse it’s hunched over. Melted skin pulling tight over the skull. Me. Neck twisted at an odd angle, head flattened into a bloody pulp on the back. The figure is bent over it, fingers winding around and penetrating the skin, hooking chunks of flesh as the corpse is torn apart.
Then the monster turns its head, slowly, to me. Exhaustion crashing down, breathing ragged as the darkness falls apart around me, and it’s over, I’m gone, destroyed by this beast of my own creation. When I kill, it is her. When I spit poison words, it is her. It has always been her. She was always the beast, the ice, the darkness. And she is me.