The acrid smell of burnt skin and hair still hung heavy in the night air, its inescapable stench wafted by the dry wind that blew through the dusty town. Warped trees rattled, the sound of branches mingling with the worried voices from the nearby saloon. Light shone outward from windows, scattering box-shaped patches of brightness on the dirt. A few men and women still remained standing near the cracked, wooden tables outside. They milled around, paying little attention to those still bleeding—still dying.
Alexa sat with her back against one of the tables, her chest rising and falling as her breath mingled with the wind. Each inhalation sparked pain, blood oozing from the slashes that cut straight through her armor and into her flesh. Stitches pressed against her skin, holding together the gashes as they healed. She had been stupid to allow herself to be cornered—stupid to not run and instead take the blows. She inwardly cringed, remembering his words.
“You were one adrenaline shot away from dying.”
She leaned back slightly, turning to watch the man on the other side of the table. He had his head resting against the wooden surface, brown eyes peering at the sky. His mouth stretched into a faint smile—almost a grimace. Sometimes if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. One of the doctors was quickly stitching him up, needle working through his skin as wounds closed. He needed the help after their encounter. The creatures that leapt out of the darkness had torn into both of them as their howls echoed through the gloom. Makes me not like dogs.
Alexa exhaled slowly, feeling how her newly-sewn stitches strained against the motion. There was less pain than before, though—soon all she would have were scars. And even those would slowly fade away. She was lucky—very lucky. If it hadn’t been for Stew’s gift, she might have come off worse than she did.
“Take a look at tha’.”
His accented voice startled her from her thoughts. She turned her gaze to follow his, peering up at the darkness. No clouds marred the starry sky as flashes of light burst from horizon to horizon. Alexa grinned faintly as she slowly laid her head back against the table, her eyes tracing out the patterns above. It was beautiful—the type of starry night that came along only once a year.
You shouldn’t relax. There could still be things in the dark.
It was true. There could still be things out there—lurking, waiting. For a moment, Alexa’s muscles stiffened. She lifted her head again to scan the surrounding area. Nothing. Slowly, she placed her head back on the table. Couldn’t she relax—just this once?
No, you shouldn’t let your guard down.
Alexa stared upward at the night as she felt the welcome itching sensation of her wounds finally closing. Slowly, she pointed toward one of the brighter points, pale fingers stretching toward starlight, “That one looks yellow—different than the others.”
There was silence for a moment. She couldn’t see him, but she could hear him shift slightly, armor and cloth moving as he turned his head to see where she pointed. Then he replied, “You’re roight. Don’t get skies loik this up north.”
Don’t let your guard down.
Alexa’s hand reached toward the sword at her side, fingertips brushing along its hilt. The cold materials of metal and leather felt almost comforting within the darkness. I won’t. Her eyes continued to trace the heavens stretched above her—endless. I can’t afford to. A point of light streamed across the sky, fading into nothingness. More stars followed, mingling with the other brilliant sparks of light embedded within the blackness.
But for just one second, one minute, one moment, she pretended like she could let her guard down. She counted the stars.
The paths we take can twist and twine, leading us in directions we didn’t expect. But now my footsteps have taken me into the dark, leading me so deep that I am now lost. Do I call out? Or do I keep walking forward, hoping to find my way again?