Killian grabbed my wrist before I could take a single step, and he yanked me back down to my seat. It was too late. I know Stilla had seen me.
“We need to get out of here,” I whispered frantically as I tried standing again. He pulled me back down again. “What are you doing? We need to go now.”
“You need to listen to me,” he said in my ear. “When I get up, I want you to follow me. As soon we’re outside, run. Take the back alleys and go straight to the house. Lock all the doors and don’t let anyone in but me. Do you understand?”
I nodded, and without another word, he stood from his stool and began walking towards the exit. I barely got my legs to move as I followed him, just as he told me to do. It took everything in my power to keep my eyes forward. Stilla’s eyes were on me—I could feel them. It was only a matter of time before he recognized me. Maybe he already had. Maybe the people that had stared at me on the streets had reported it. Were there wanted signs for me out there on the walls? I couldn’t remember. But then, did it really matter? I was done for either way. We were done for. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stilla move.
“Faster,” I heard Killian say to me.
I didn’t need telling twice. However, as I quickened my pace, Stilla did the same. Out of pure instinct, I looked back at him. Instantly, tears blurred my vision and I stumbled as I quickly looked away. A flourish of forgotten memories suddenly came rushing back to me.
I hadn’t realized I was outside, and I probably never would have if Killian hadn’t said anything. As I forced my legs to move faster, I realized that my body was completely numb. It felt as if I was simply gliding across the pavement, time slowing down to a halt. My mind was buzzed not only from the amount of alcohol in my system, but also because of the fact that my nightmare had suddenly become reality. All I could think of was when I was sixteen, desperately fighting off assassins after escaping Twixton—how they had followed me into the forest to avenge Hyler’s death.
As I turned into one of the alleys, my feet somehow managed to become tangled up in themselves and I tripped, falling hard onto the ground. A sharp, throbbing pain shot through my jaw, and I cried out. Knowing that I needed to get up, I tried pushing myself off the ground, only to stifle a scream at the agonizing pressure in my wrist, my bones groaning in protest. I ignored it as much as I could, brushing myself off once I was standing again. Then, I heard something behind me. I whipped my head around just in time to dodge Stilla as he came at me. I stumbled back, falling to the ground once more, and landed directly on my hands. There was no time to think before he was on me, wrapping his fingers around my neck.
“Stilla,” I squeaked, grabbing his arm. “Don’t do this. I didn’t mean to—”
“He was like a son to me,” he growled, blinking through his tears. “You left him there…”
My heart wrenched at the sight of him in so much pain—the pain that I had caused him.
“I was scared,” I sobbed.
“You were a coward. You should have died there with him.”
“I would. If I could go back, I would.”
“But you didn’t.”
The remembrance of what had happened that day shredded me to pieces. Hyler, I prayed, what could I have done to save you?
Stilla’s hand tightened to the point where I could no longer breathe. As it became harder to keep my eyes open, a random memory came to mind.
“We shouldn’t be up here, Hyler,” I said, shifting uncomfortably on the tiles of the roof.
“Relax,” he said with a grin as he leaned back, using his hands to support his head. “I do this all the time.”
“Why haven’t you brought me up here before?”
“I know how you are about the dark, Jianna,” he said. “Besides, being alone up here gives me time to think.”
I gnawed on the inside of my cheek nervously, hardly paying attention to what he had said. The only light came from the red glow of the two moons, but even that wasn’t enough to make me feel comfortable in the darkness that surrounded us.
“Look, you don’t have to stay up here,” he murmured. “I just wanted some company tonight.”
I furrowed my brows and gave him a fleeting glance before hesitantly leaning back to lie down next to him.
“Why?” I asked curiously. “What’s wrong?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just feel strange. Almost like I’m sick.”
“Na-Na just bought some medicine from Abundance. It’s in the—”
“No, it’s not that kind of sick,” he assured. “It’s something else.”
“Are you nervous?”
He shrugged again, but stayed quiet this time. I turned my head to the side so that I could watch him. He continued to look up at the stars, even when I moved closer to rest my forehead on his shoulder. I brushed my fingertips over his face to comfort him. Hyler closed his eyes after a minute or two, and he stayed like that for a long time. After a while, I thought he had fallen asleep. I jumped when he spoke.
“Jianna?” he said quietly.
“I won’t let anything hurt you. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, Hyler,” I said. “We’ll always protect each other.”
“No, Anna, I mean it,” he said. “If I’m there, you can guarantee you’re safe.”
“What if you’re not there?”
He was quiet for a second.Then he said, “Light a candle. It’ll be your guide.”
“A guide to what?”
“To be strong. You’re right, I’m not gonna to be here forever, and until you find someone who can promise what I am promising you, light a candle to guide you.”
“Why can’t you be that someone? Why are you saying all this?”
“Because I need you to know,” he replied. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I couldn’t say these things. I need you to promise that you’ll find the right person. Do you promise?”
I pursed my lips. “Yes.”
“No, you have to mean it.”
“I do mean it.”
“No. You can’t just say that. You say ‘yes’ all the time. It doesn’t mean anything to me anymore—I have to feel it.”
I frowned as I turned my whole body to face him, and looked him right in the eye.
“Hyler,” I said firmly. “I promise I will take care of myself if you, for some reason, are not there. I will find the right person to fill your shoes.”
He seemed to relax, a smile twitching up at the corner of his mouth as he nodded.“Okay.”
The process of dying was an incredible feeling. In a way, it was much simpler than living. I didn’t care to find my mother or travel to Nou Vil with Killian. For once, I was accepting my death, and even gladly welcomed it. There would no longer be a need for anyone to worry about me. Eventually, they would all move on. At least now I could finally be with Hyler among the gods.
Then, a strange sensation filled my body. It was warm, like a flicker of fire on a cold night, breathing life into me. I felt something on my face. Hands, I guessed. Then, I could hear my name being called over a loud ringing in my ears. My heart was practically beating out of my chest as the darkness bled with shapes and colors. I was happy to see that the afterlife looked very much like Acadia; otherwise, I felt I would have been lost wandering through the Gods’ Kingdom. For some strange reason, though, I saw Killian as everything came into focus.
“Did you die, too?” I croaked.
He sighed in relief as he brushed the hair from my face.
“No,” he said. “Although, I imagine that would have made an interesting end to our story.”
I looked around me and gathered my surroundings. My eyes immediately found Stilla’s lifeless body next to me, blood seeping from a gaping hole in his chest. My throat tightened at the sight of the gore. His vacant eyes were fixed on me, still filled with tears from the emotional encounter we had had just a minute ago. Then I felt my own tears, which were now drying, tightening the skin underneath my eyes. Reality slowly came crashing down on me.
“I’m not dead?”
It was supposed to be a question, but it came out more like a statement.
“I would have come sooner,” Killian said, “but there were more outside. It seems that someone must have spotted you and told them where you were.”
“I was ready,” I said in a tremoring voice. He gave me a quizzical look. “Why didn’t you let me die?”
His face went blank. Without a word, he stood, lifting me up with him, and took me by the arm.
“Come,” he said. “I’m sure your parents are worried sick.”
“I was happy,” I said, jerking my arm away from him. “You should have let me die.”
“You can still finish it,” I whispered.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I want you to. Killian, please—”
I flinched. I had never seen him so furious before. His eyes were raging, his hands were shaking, and the veins on his neck were bulging. For a second, my voice was lost, scared away by his outburst. As if he had flipped a switch, I came to my senses. Killian had just saved my life. I should be thankful of him, not begging him to finish the job. I glanced down at Stilla to find that his heart was sopping wet with blood oozing out of it, soaking the ground beside him. I looked up at him fearfully.
“What did you do to him?”
He looked away, then said, “You should probably change your clothes. If your mother sees you like that, she’ll never let me to take you out again.”
Without another word, he turned and walked away.
“We’re home!” I called as Killian and I walked through the door. “Na-Na? Poppy?”
They both appeared from the kitchen with wide smiles on their faces.
“Congratulations!” they said at the same time.
“Oh, what a nice little dress!” Na-Na exclaimed.
“Killian got it for me,” I told her as I smiled up at him.
My nerves were still rattled from the action we had encountered only an hour ago, but the walk home helped to calm me down.
“Just in time for the celebration,” she said.
We followed her into the kitchen and I gawked at the decorations that were set up on the table, along with an endless supply of food. they really had gone all out for this. It almost made me want to cry.
Instead, I said, “Wow.”
“You really like it?” she asked. “I’m sorry it’s nothing special. We didn’t have much time.”
“No, Na-Na, it’s…perfect,” I reassured, pulling her into a hug. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
I really couldn’t. All I ever wanted my dalliance celebration to be was with my immediate family and my partner. Though Killian wasn’t my actual partner, he was close enough. Even if the food wasn’t that special, I was satisfied.
We ate until we were nearly bursting at the seams. It was obvious we were trying to make the evening last. Small talk wasn’t exactly my forte, but I would do it if it meant staying there as long as possible. Eventually, we gathered outside. As Na-Na gave us a bag filled with food for our trip, I glanced nonchalantly over my shoulder to see if there were any officers prowling about. We said our goodbyes, and started walking down the street. I stopped and turned around. Na-Na gave me an encouraging smile, then I dropped my things and ran back to her and Poppy. I couldn’t leave like this. Not without saying something other than goodbye.
“You told me not to dwell on the past,” I said as I embraced them. “The same goes for you. I want you to move on with your lives. You shouldn’t stay here for the rest of your days. You both deserve the world, and I want you to have it, but you won’t if you sit here and think about me all the time. I will see you again someday. This isn’t the end. I promise.”