A chill wind rattled the branches of skeletal trees as ice shattered and dropped to the ground from bare twigs. A few drifts of snow whirled in the wind, flurries swirling in small eddies within the forest. Nothing stirred within the heart of winter–nothing, save one creature.
At first glance, you might think he was a man. He certainly looked like one–he had two legs, a head, two arms. He trudged through the snow like a man, head bowed slightly against the bitter cold, the furs that clothed him covered in ice and frost.
But you’d be wrong.
His face was pale–paler than death itself. Hunks of frozen hair hung in bloodied clumps around his eyes, the color of blue ice. It wasn’t a man, but Death itself that haunted the woods of winter. And within his stiff arms, he held a bundle that squirmed and moved–that cried. Within his arms, he held Autumn. Within his arms, he held Amaroq–for he was born of Death itself. And that is how his story began.
“Do you know what this is, Jeanie?”
The Iron turned, her eyes fixed on the man before her. The glowing rock cupped within his hands emitted an eerie light, flickering across his features like rippling water. He smiled, his teeth greenish in the glow, “This is ascension.”
The woman looked back at him, her hardened fists clenching at her sides before she replied, quietly, “You’ve gone too far with it. You’ve taken hearts and minds unwillingly. They didn’t want it, and you didn’t care.”
The man’s smile only grew wider as she spoke. Then he replied in turn, transferring the glowing rock into one hand, “True. But you will come willingly–or not. It doesn’t matter, in the end.”
Jeanie didn’t have time to respond. With a quick movement, the man reached forward. Jeanie tried to jerk back, but she was too slow. Instead, the man’s fingers sunk into her chest, past her rib cage to her heart. She couldn’t breathe–couldn’t move. All she could feel was the pain and the steady thump, thump, thump of her heart–the feeling as it slowed. The feeling as it stopped.
She wasn’t sure if she screamed.
It might have been minutes later. It might have been hours. All she knew was that she woke again. The man was gone–and she could no longer feel her heart.There was only a faint, green glow where it should have been.
You’re almost never without some form of light. Even at night, there’s the subtle gleam of the moon, the shimmer of distant stars that silver forest leaves and pattern the ground in shifting shadows. There’s the golden shafts that pour from windows, the wavering form of candlelight, the steady shine of an Iron’s glow.
And yet within the tunnels, there was only darkness.
Makita crept quietly through the deep, making sure to keep her breathing slow and still. She could hear the faint drip of water coming from further down the passage, the shuffling and squeaking of rats in the dark. She felt hard stone against her bare feet as she carefully picked her way through debris.
And then she heard it. It was the sound of another–the whisper of a sigh in the tunnels. Her muscles tensed as her lips drew back from over her pointed teeth. Her fingers tightened on the rusted metal in her hand.
That’s when the other attacked. Makita could sense her–the way she moved in the darkness. Makita jerked her head aside and felt a whisper of wind pass her cheek–the feeling of a blade that had nearly taken her head. She lunged forward with her own dagger, missing her opponent by inches.
The girl was almost as good as Makita was–almost.
The opponent lunged again, but this time she was ready. Makita grabbed the girl’s arm. There was a faint gasp and then a cry as Makita plunged her dagger into warm flesh. Something wet trickled down her fingers as she twisted and then withdrew the blade.
There was a soft sound as the body collapsed.
It was time for dinner.
“Have you ever wondered why the way you are, Rasputin?”
The woman’s voice sounded through the room–soft, delicate. It was the sound of cobwebs brushing against silk, the sound of rustling paper and falling petals.
Rasputin turned his head to watch the woman, wrapped in brown cloth so that only her yellowish eyes showed, gleaming in the dim candlelight of the small room. He paused for a moment and then spoke, “I do not know what you are referring to.”
The eyes slanted slightly. If Rasputin didn’t know better, he would have said she was smiling beneath the cloth wrapped around her face, “Why you separate yourself so much from your emotions. Why you only function on logic. Have you ever wondered why that is?”
“It is because I am not stupid like most people.”
The woman’s eyes squinted more in response. She slowly reached into the folds of her clothing and drew out a box. Rasputin’s eyes settled on it for a moment, tracing the warped wood that made up its casing. The woman spoke again, “I thought you’d say that. But no, it’s not because you’re less stupid. It’s because long ago, you gave something away so that it wouldn’t cloud your judgement–your logic. You gave something away, and I have kept it all these years.”
Rasputin frowned faintly, “What do you mean? Who are you?”
The woman reached up and slowly lowered the cloth from around her face. White teeth gleamed as she replied, “You gave away your humanity. I am Justice, and I am here to give it back.”
The world stops when you look down the barrel of a gun. Your heart seems to beat slower and faster all at once as adrenaline rushes through your veins. Your eyes can’t seem to focus on anything else except for that piece of metal pointing at you–threatening you. It’s all you can do to tear your eyes away.
At least, that’s what Dakota felt when the man pointed his pistol toward her head.
“I ain’t foolin’ ’round here, girl. Y’all are gonna give me what I want, or else yer pretty brains are gonna be spattered over that there wall right quick.” The man was tall, his grizzled salt-and-pepper stubble covering a lined face. He kept his greasy hair long, falling to his shoulders as he jerked his head toward the side, “Now hurry up.”
Dakota stared at him, her heart pounding in her throat as she spoke slowly, “I ain’t quite sure what y’all want. My cred? Don’t got much of that. And you don’t look like y’all can use a shield.”
The man shook his head, “I ain’t ‘ere for your stuff. I’m ‘ere for a person.’
Dakota swallowed hard as she told herself to stay calm–that she could get out of this. After all, she’d been in worse situations. If he wanted her, then she’d fight, “What do y’all want me fer?”
The man smirked at her, shaking his head again–almost pityingly, “Don’t be stupid, girl. I ain’t here for Deliverance.” His eyes slid to the side, focusing on something only he could see.
“I’m ‘ere for Mercy.”
There are no monsters in this world. There are only people.
For those who suffer from the sickness of emotions, this is a terrifying thought. For me, it is merely fact–a statement of truth. But people like Templeton cling onto morals just as they cling onto emotions. It’s an addiction–one that cannot be given up so easily.
My hands feel light as I run them through the lake, the moonlight glinting off the water and reflecting the stars. Is this why she uses water to write in her letters? My fingers tingle as minnows tear off peeling skin.
I am sitting in the waves, knees drawn up to my chest as I tilt my head upward. My clothes float around me. It is peaceful here. But her voice makes me turn. I remember my knife is on the beach and I fall still.
“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be more than you are, Smiles?” She is tall–willowy. White, matted hair falls around a face that is too pale to be alive.
I remain silent. Silence is better when confronted with a threat.
“Have you ever wondered why you are different?”
I keep my silence.
“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to actually live?” The woman smiles, a hollow gesture with yellowed teeth. “I sometimes wonder. Because you are like me, Smiles. We are both dead.”
Pain wracked Stew’s body as he stumbled backward, staring at the monster before him. He could feel the slow, steady trickle of blood down his arm where one of its claws had sliced peeling skin, raking through rot and dirt. He gritted his teeth, hefting his shield and weapon once more.
He couldn’t allow it to win.
The creature grimaced at him, showing pointed, bloody teeth. Dark, matted hair hung in front of a face twisted by death–hollowed by time spent within the ground. It snarled once, clawed hands extending outward.
Stew growled back, hefting his shield, and the monster charged again. It slammed against the sturdy wood, and Stew took a step back from the impact. He heard a screech as the creature scrabbled to get past the defense. Quickly, Stew pushed forward, shifting his grip on his weapon. He’d only have the one opening–he knew how fast it could be.
He shifted his shield and then slammed his weapon into the monster’s temple. There was the feeling of crunching skull, the sickening thud of a body, a spray of blood, and then everything was still. His heart thudded.
Stew slowly approached the creature on the ground–or what was left of it. Pale eyes stared upward at nothing as its mouth worked with no sound. He lifted his weapon, intending to end it, and then the monster’s eyes focused–turning from white to green in an instant. It gave him a fanged smile as it spoke in a hoarse rasp.
“We both know who the real monster is.”
Then there was silence.