Contains depictions and themes not suitable for all readers
“I’ve been waiting for you, brother.”
A voice similar to mine echoed from the depths of a dark alleyway. I lifted the hood of my cloak and saw a figure similarly shrouded from head to foot in black.
Shadowy, lithe-fingered hands emerged from within deep pockets. He pushed back his hood, revealing a mirror image of striking ice-blue eyes and sun-tanned skin.
He stepped toward me, passing momentarily through a thin shaft of sunlight. The bright beam bounced off his penumbral clothes and even darker hair as if compelled to: as if the daytime sun’s beams were too light to ever mix with his features without first being forced into submission.
“Well?” My doppelganger asked. His eyes focused on my hands still concealed within my pockets. “Did you get it?”
I held out my hand and unfurled my fingers to reveal a coarse, sand-colored lock of hair.
My brother’s eyes narrowed and his expectant smirk turned sharply down. He undid several of the buttons fastening his cloak and splayed it open under his arms like a pair of bat’s wings.
Dozens of locks of hair in various lengths were tied into the lining of his coat. Each bundle was carefully arranged from dingy, mud-caked brown to delicate, silken gold. They varied in length from a fraction of an inch to several years of careful growth. Some glistened with moisture from having been recently washed, while others were speckled with crusts of blood and dirt.
“You’re a bad liar,” he said. He hit my arm with the back of his hand and I dropped the lock of hair to the ground. The green string tied around it came loose and individual strands separated from the bunch. Before I could pick it up my brother stomped and ground the limp heap into the dust. “Don’t you remember what she looked like? What it felt like to breathe the same air as her?” He shuddered. “It should be long, finer and smoother than silk, and it should shine purer than gold.” He wound his fingers around the free-flowing ends of an arm-length cutting from his own collection as he pressed the toe of his shoe deeper into the ground. “Trying to fool me with such an obvious fake… that frayed mess you have there wouldn’t pass for so much as a farmer’s haul of sun-burnt fodder. Her eyes… were they even a shade of green?”
“I couldn’t tell you, Aion,” I replied. “Apparently she’d been more ill than we were led to believe—she was already dead by the time I could locate her body.”
“So the eyes were shot too,” my brother spat. His coat closed like a curtain around him, concealing the shades of gold beneath a layer of impenetrable darkness. “She dropped early then, even for a line of sows that never live longer than 35 years.”
I let out an irritated sigh. “Let’s just go. The Soleilian Sovereign is dead. We won’t gain anything by continuing like this.”
My brother growled and roughed his hair in frustration.
“It was difficult enough holding myself back from killing those four dozen highbreds before I cut their hair. It’s taken three decades for these damn Soleilians to replenish their numbers, now you want me to just let it go when we’re so close?” Aion growled at me. He jabbed at my chest with his finger, “Having the fresh hair and eyes from the Sovereign’s line is the most important part—it’s less than useless if she’s already dead when you harvest it.” His acidic voice sounded so similar to mine it made my stomach turn. His foot tapped fast against the ground, “If it weren’t for you not keeping an eye on that girl when father had her and a load of other highbred stock at hand, we wouldn’t be—”
“He’s dead, Aion. Everything he was working toward is nothing but ash now,” I hissed at him. “Whatever he was trying to do—having his own children kill each other, collecting the most ancient bloodlines from around the world—it’s over. The only reason I even came with you was to keep you from getting yourself killed, not to help you achieve an impossible goal.”
“You’re wrong about that, and I can prove it,” Aion chuckled. His hands slammed down on my shoulders. “I heard while I was doing my part that she managed to produce two daughters. Father and I can forgive you for not killing that woman in the past if you find just one of them for me.”
“Even children who had nothing to do with it…?” I mumbled, gnashing my teeth at the thought. “I’m not interested in his forgiveness.” I brushed one of my brother’s hands from my shoulder. “Don’t forget that it’s only because of Alloysia I don’t let you die.”
“L’Aeon Ferren, you will do your part! Now bring me the hair and eyes of one of the Soleilian Queenlings!”
My eyes widened when my brother’s once stupidly haughty face twisted into something infinitely more sinister. His ice-blue eyes stained themselves the color of dry blood and cut into my heart and mind like a suicidal assassin’s blade. Pressure built within my veins and drove my heartbeat ever faster.
“You would try to invoke Sansere against me?”
The world itself seemed to shiver in terror as my eyes focused on my brother whose life lagged only a moment’s breath behind mine. “Our father couldn’t even control me with that and yet you, my younger brother, think you can?”
I threw Aion’s remaining hand from my shoulder. The red color in his eyes flushed to icy blue and I immediately felt the pressure lessen. But it was too late for apology.
My eyes clouded to black… and a second later a loud crack pierced my ears.
The sound woke me from the darkness clouding my eyes just in time to reveal my brother crumpled in a heap on the ground before me.
A thick, crimson-stained bone protruded from his upper left thigh. He curled his fingers into the black cloth of his slacks and shredded it off his leg from several inches above the bone. He jostled the bone back into the jagged wound in his flesh, completely ignoring the rich red blood already pooling on the ground around him.
In moments the fleshy gash closed as his body quickly stitched his soft flesh together again.
“You’ll be fine by sunset if you just stay still and try not to bring any attention to yourself,” I mumbled. I couldn’t bear looking at his all-too familiar body lying helplessly before me.
I pulled a small vial from my pocket and tossed it into my brother’s glistening lap. He ripped out the cork, threw back his head, and sucked down all of the amber bottle’s contents. He licked at the bottle’s mouth, desperate for even the tiniest drop before he threw the empty shell against the nearby wall, shattering it into countless tiny pieces.
My brother’s face slowly untwisted, but his eyes continued to pierce into me with the severity of a storm at sea brewing before a sailor’s eyes.
I thrust my hands deep into my pockets and turned away from him. “I’m going to find an apothecary’s.” I thumbed the hollow bottles in my pocket and pulled one out. There were a couple drops left inside, but it wasn’t enough to be useful for more than a scratch. “Be satisfied I allowed you this much freedom. Remember our deal—we’re done here. I’ll meet you at the west gate at sundown.”
A small bell rang.
The whirring of doors, boxes, and drawers being opened and shut, pushed, shuffled, and pulled nearly drowned out the cheerful sound of the bell. The steady hum of activity pulsated within the windowless building. Apprentice herbalists, druggists, and apothecaries buzzed around within the largest collection of herbs and ingredients in Soloasis. They moved like shadows without bumping into each other in what little space wasn’t dedicated to storage.
Curiously colored jars of countless shapes and sizes lined the hardwood shelves and made haphazard, wandering aisles that would leave an unfamiliar person headed one way one moment and a totally different direction the next. Drawers along the outer walls towered up to the high ceiling. Each jar and drawer gave off a different bitter, sweet, or spicy scent. Whenever one of the rushing workers pulled a drawer open or unfastened a bottle a new jolt of aroma added to the already overpowering mix. Just walking among them affected the body in even stranger ways than whatever medicines the many apprentices and masters were arranging.
I pulled my hood down over my face and made my way to a dark corner at the back of the room. An elderly, pasty-skinned and crow-eyed woman sat at a counter in that conspicuously quiet corner. She was scooping small teaspoonfuls of pea-green powder from an earthenware jar into a pill press with the help of a small child, likely her newest apprentice.
I slid a piece of paper under her chin and she snorted. Her apprentice, a little boy probably hardly more than ten years old, jumped at the sudden sound. A puff of green rode on her breath into the air. The bittersweet cloud slowly settled and formed a new layer atop the dust coating every surface of the shop.
The old apothecary narrowed her eyes at my obscured face and put down her jar. Her steady fingers trembled slightly from the moment the silver spoon’s handle touched the countertop. She ran her finger down the list, scanning it with her beady black eyes in the badly lit corner. Her finger stopped at the final ingredient, and a large, toothless grin revealed itself beneath the old woman’s beakish nose.
“15 pounds of Malona root,” she cackled. She let the slip flit back down onto the countertop as though it were just another layer of dust adding itself to her collection. “I have the rest of what you want, but you won’t be able to find that much Malona root even if you searched the entire country.”
The old woman hopped off the stool she was perched on, completely ignoring her apprentice’s outstretched hand meant to help her down. Her sharply arced back had her standing only about a foot taller than the prepubescent boy. She tottered several feet to the wall behind the counter. Her stature put her right at the same level as the tiny drawers checkering the corner. Unlike the other large drawers in the room, these tiny compartments were individually sealed with tiny locks.
The old woman reached into her robe and pulled out a tarnished key. She slid it into the keyhole of one of the drawers at the very bottom. She pulled out a small teal root and cradled it like a newborn child in her veiny hands.
It was a single Malona root, and not a very high quality one at that.
“I’ll take whatever you have right now, and scale the rest of what I want down with it,” I told her as I set a handful of plain bronze coins on the countertop.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” the woman said. She shook her head, “This is an exceptionally difficult to grow herb found in only the most remote locations. It’s rarely requested, much less in so large an amount,” she ran her chiseled fingertip along the bumpy root. She eyed it and talked it up like a gold nugget that she herself only found by chance sticking out of the earth. “A sister shop of ours bought up everything they could find in the city to fill a large order that was placed several days ago. I have the last you’ll find—even a rush order from our southern supplier wouldn’t arrive until spring. I couldn’t possibly part with what little I have. What would I say if one of Soluna’s Children should need it? Tell them I sold it to some foreigner for a few measly coppers?”
I thrust my hand into my inner cloak pocket and pulled out a black-speckled velvet pouch. I threw it onto the counter in front of her and several dozen shiny gold coins impressed with suns poured out onto the table. Flakes of ruddy black crust broke off of the pouch and glowed red atop the shiny coins. The old woman’s already pale face turned ashen, and even the young boy’s wide-eyed astonishment clouded quickly with fright.
“Whatever you have is enough. I’ll need privacy, and the use of several of your instruments, too.”
When I emerged from the shop, the sun had fallen in the sky and dyed the world with its blood-red hue. The many odors of the Marrow Spice Shop perfumed my clothes and slowly dissipated in air that’d been cleansed by an afternoon thunderstorm. I held up a thumb-size amber bottle to the sunlight and peered into the dark brown glass.
Four hours of work and all I’d managed was one third of a bottle of the tinctured oil that kept my body from burning itself out each time I suffered anything more than a scrape.
I returned the bottle to my pocket with the jumble of empty ones. Even if my brother didn’t want to leave without a Soleilian Sovereign’s hair and eyes, there wasn’t any time left to locate a suitable donor. I certainly wasn’t about to go back on my word and give him more time and the chance to find one.
We were so far from home, and after stripping the city and many of its outlying boroughs of their supply of the materials to synthesize more oil, I would have to keep both my brother and myself out of harm’s way more than ever before.
I especially couldn’t afford to let him goad me into lashing out at him again.
I sighed. My shoulders always started to hurt whenever I had to deal with my brother.
Mud squelched underfoot in a chorus of sloppy footsteps in the twilight hour. A legion of men, some women, and even children dressed in coarse, rye-brown clothing were coming in from the fields for their suppers. After a short rest they would return to the fields and continue harvesting guided solely by the full moon’s bright white light.
I pulled my hood low over my face and garnered little more than a flickering glance from their variably olive-green and sandy-gold eyes. I stayed in the long shadows cast by the peat, stone, and rarely wooden walls of their homes and businesses where I would attract the least attention from their sunlit gazes.
I caught sight of an unusually dark-haired woman in the throng whose eyes sparkled with only the faintest hint of forest green. She held her stomach tenderly with sun-reddened hands and stood waiting in the doorway of her thatch and bricksod home.
The woman’s eyes seemed to brighten when I looked her way. She left her shadowy doorway, but instead of coming toward me she headed in the direction of a lean-cut man with sawdust hair and haggard, olivine eyes. A child tottered after her into the busy street.
It was a common scene repeated countless times up and down the road as the farmers and their helpers came in with news of a large harvest going well.
An uproar far louder than the farmers’ tired murmurs crashed through the bodies choking the scantily paved byway. A muscular bay draft horse bucked through the crowd and trampled people underfoot who couldn’t escape its path. A broken yoke cut bloody red gashes into the massive animal’s thick neck and broad withers. Parts of its harness dragged behind it and lashed the air, injuring itself and others nearby.
The sawdust-haired man ran back into the street and tried to grab the horse’s loose reins. The horse reared and struck him in the chest with its powerful mud-caked back hoof. The man instantly went limp and his body launched to the side of the road like a rag doll thrown by a child mid-tantrum.
Continuing on its rampage, the horse headed straight for the woman who’d curled up in the street. She huddled protectively over the child who followed after her and had her back to the horse barreling straight toward her.
I leapt out of the shadows and planted my feet into the gunky street between the woman and the rampaging horse. Its hooves plummeted down over my head, grazed my right temple and pulled my hood back from my face. Blood poured from the gash into my eye as I caught the animal at its breast and held the one-ton creature’s front half suspended in the air. A shockwave of pressure from its downward thrust pulsated through my arms and down my spine.
A snap followed by a sharp stab of pain radiated from my collarbone, but I stood my ground. I held both myself and the animal steady even when what little brickwork there was beneath my feet shattered under the strain.
The shocked animal calmed as the similarly astonished farmers quickly moved in.
“What the… who the hell was using beat-up tack to haul such a big load?” I heard someone say. Together they quickly removed the horse’s broken tack that’d been what startled it in the first place.
Once the horse’s iron-shod front hooves were on the ground, I crumpled beneath its massive head and neck. I wiped the blood out of my eye with my left arm. The gash in my temple was gone, and what little blood stained my face was quickly thickening into a coagulated red crust. The horse curiously nuzzled my right shoulder before it moved to tousle my hair with its velveteen lips as if it were kissing me in apology.
I staggered to my feet and hid in the shadow of the horse’s mane. I plunged my left hand into my pocket and shakily pulled out a handful of tiny bottles.
Pain seared my right shoulder and radiated along my spine. A break… several fractures and torn muscles too.
Empty bottles fell through my fingers and clattered to the ground as I searched—until I finally found the one-third full bottle that I’d only just finished trying to fill.
I held the open bottle with my teeth around the neck, and grabbed my right shoulder. The broken bone was already mending into an irregular shape. I grasped the still-weak jointure and in a single jolt, re-broke the bone. A grunt escaped from both the horse and myself. I leaned against the giant animal for support as I trembled and tried to withstand the pain.
I held my shoulder in its proper place until the bone once again began to suture, and then swallowed what was left in the bottle. My frenzied blood slowed in the same moment that the putrid liquid reached my stomach, saving me just as much as it kept my injuries from completely healing. I gratefully leaned against the horse’s strong neck as the last bottle clattered emptily alongside the others scattered at my feet.
The crowd of farmers and their extended families had mostly recovered. People were helping each other back to their feet and already working together to pick up after the miniature disaster. A handful clambered around the man who’d been knocked out cold when he tried to help rein in the horse. He was moving again and aside from a gash in his head from the fall, appeared to be stunned but alright. I held the horse’s face close to mine and hid in its lengthy jet mane.
I could see the dark-haired woman standing several paces away. Her pale hands trembled as she clutched at the child beside her with one and held her stomach with the other.
“Thank you,” her pale-flushed sun-darkened face huffed. She bowed her head and directed the oblivious child beside her to do the same.
While she had her head bowed I hid my face with my hood again and slipped into the crowd.
The red haze of twilight colored everyone with its hue. It made everyone look so similar that it was easy to forget I wasn’t in Lunue’ya, but among the enemy in the very heart of their country, the city of Soloasis. I was surrounded on all sides by the killers of my kind, a people who slaughtered my family and friends in the name of their Sovereign rulers known not by name, but simply as “Soluna’s Heir.”
My shoulder and spine zinged as my body surged in and out of its mending rhythm. One-third of a bottle wasn’t enough to completely quell the reaction after the injuries I sustained.
I ducked to the side of the road and alone into the darkness. Normally such spaces were filled with the unsavory, drunks, addicts, and the homeless poor, yet I’d never come across anyone while in this city.
Weakness forced me to my knees. I wound my arms around my body, incapable of anything more as my blood spiraled out of control. I could feel my bones weakening throughout my body to repair what had been broken, while my muscle and flesh were devoured as food to fuel my recovery. The fever of a self-cannibalizing body overwhelmed my conscious mind. In this place where there was nothing left to dampen my body’s reaction, I had to do something. I needed food. I needed bones. I needed blood.
The rye-and-sunlight colored bodies around me drew my hazy eyes. Even a single bite of their flesh would provide my body with enough fuel for a moment. Chewing through their bones and sucking their marrow would replenish my own blood and bones… it was the least they could offer after all they’d done. It was only fair.
A rat bounced along the edge of the road. The tiny red-gray blob drew my eyes just as much as the herd of Soleilians bumbling through the streets. My stomach growled loudly in my ears and demanded what my mind was already consumed by the drive to acquire.
“Are you okay, Mister?”
A burst of light surged into my eyes. My hood shifted back out of my face. The eyes of another pierced into me with excruciatingly vivid, lime green color nested within flowing crests of shimmering golden-brown silk.
Somehow the presence of the little girl in front of me tranquilized my pain, but the surge of my body’s desire drew my eyes instantly to her hand. She was holding a bright green apple. Even one of her tiny fingers would be enough to form a suture of bone and would relieve me of a fraction of my pain. My stomach growled, urging me now that what I needed was right in front of me—
“Are you hungry?”
The question asked by such a tiny voice ripped my mind loose of its strain. My stomach and eyes balked at the apple thrust into my face. There was a tiny bite mark already made in the crisp, smooth flesh, but the girl fearlessly placed the fruit in the palm of my trembling hand.
I devoured the entire apple—core, seeds, even the stem—wolfing it down like a mangy stray would when presented with even the most desiccated piece of rotten meat. The fruit filled my stomach for only a fraction of a second before being broken down. Even though my body continued to rage beneath my skin, the simple offering refreshed my desperate mind.
The girl reached into the small bag slung over her shoulder and produced a second apple. She watched me, fascinated and enchanted as though she were observing an exotic animal.
“You have such pretty eyes, Mister,” the girl noted. I adjusted my hood and bit into the second apple with a loud crunch. I sucked up the tart-sweet juice and put what little it could offer my body to use straightaway.
It was better than nothing. Barely.
The child leaned closer, her green eyes peering curiously at me beneath my hood. “They’re just like the eyes of the boy from my mother’s story.”
“Was it a scary story,” I asked her acidly. I licked the last of the juice from my gloved fingers. Soleilians only spoke of those like me as monsters, demons… or beasts of myth if they never saw us before themselves.
“Of course not,” she shook her head. Her wavy golden half-curls cascaded like freshly unfurled ribbon over her shoulders. Reflections of red twilight sun shot in all directions around her. “They’re wonderful adventures,” she said. “They can be scary sometimes, but the boy with ice-blue eyes and raven-feather hair always wins!” Her voice darkened, “Sometimes other grown-ups try to tell me that the boy is bad, but….”
Twilight flickered again in my eyes. I had to get to the edge of the city soon. If I wasn’t there when my brother arrived, there’s no telling what he might get himself into should a group of Soleilians cross his path on their way back out to the fields.
I stood with renewed energy in the middle of the girl’s story about her make-believe hero, and pointed myself in the direction of the setting sun. She followed close behind and told me more of her mother’s stories on the way. All at once I realized that my body’s fervent healing had, for some reason, slowed to a bearable degree. When we neared the border of the city the girl latched onto the edge of my coat and pulled.
“I would love to go on an adventure with someone like the boy in my mother’s stories. Mister, where are you going? Are you going on an adventure too,” she asked.
I held my hood down to hide my face from a passerby.
Even from across the street I could hear people whispering of a series of brutal murders, supposedly being done by a foreigner dressed all in dark clothes. No matter how well off the family was, nothing was taken—except for the victims’ hair, and in some cases, their eyes were gouged from their sockets.
“It sounds like the work of a demon,” someone whispered. “I even heard rumors that the Sovereign…”
“I’ve never seen anyone who looks like you before—where are you from?” The girl moved her body so she could look up into the opening of my hood. She didn’t seem to notice the whispers around her at all. “Are there others that look like you where you’re from? I really want to go to other places, but everyone says I can’t,” she pouted. Her face quickly brightened again when she inquired, “Is this your first time in Soloasis?”
“Go back,” I hissed and shooed her away. “Don’t tell anyone you saw me.”
We were at the edge of Soloasis, where the brick and stone walkway slowly gave way to a sandy, wheel-rutted path worn into the fertile soil by centuries of travelers’ comings and goings. I couldn’t afford to have a child like her anywhere nearby when I met up with my brother…
… but why not?
It was here, at the border between two worlds that I truly took in the appearance of my young tag-along. Her uncanny eye and hair colors were shades that were the pride of her people. Anyone from my homeland with a girl like her before them would have killed her the moment they laid their eyes upon her. However…
When I thought back to the moment I first saw her, the revulsion I always felt towards colors like hers just wasn’t there.
The girl’s hands were soft with hardly a scratch on them, yet her strong grip refused to budge from the hem of my coat. A barely broken-in pair of shoes and a delicate spring-green sundress made it clear to anyone who looked at her that she was nothing less than the adopted daughter of some well-off tradesman. She certainly hadn’t just spent a day in the fields. Her life would be that of one destined to be adored and loved by those around her, and she would be shielded from any painful sensations of hunger or loss. She would be made a symbol, and be forever flittingly happy.
She hopped in front of me with her fingers still curled tight in my coat. She ignored my order just as well as I ignored her questions. “I feel so silly calling you “Mister.” How about you at least tell me your name? My name is Manalee Lillina Hielu…”
“Lillina,” I latched onto that part of her name. I caught myself smiling, and the golden-haired girl’s desperate eyes lightened. She lit up all the more with a broad smile. “My sister was going to name her child Lillina,” I told her, for what reason… I didn’t know.
“I’ve never met another Lillina before,” she beamed as she pranced around me. “You should bring her next time you come to visit! Then we could all play together!”
“That won’t be possible,” I shook my head. I looked over my shoulder at the castle clawing the skies above Soloasis. “Both my sister and her baby are dead.”
The girl stopped her prancing. When I looked down at her, her eyes were obscured behind her golden hair. “Oh,” she said. After a moment she brushed her eyes with the back of her arm. Droplets began falling from underneath the golden cascade of her hair.
“What’s wrong,” I asked. She couldn’t be so sensitive to cry over the death of someone she didn’t even know. I bent toward her, but she refused to look at me. I reached out to her and a single shimmering droplet fell onto my glove. When I rubbed my sore neck, the pain disappeared just like when I was satisfied by the apples the girl gave me.
She sniffled and latched her fingers back into my coat. She was bawling hysterically, and drawing far more attention than I wanted while so close to the time and place I would meet my brother. When I tried to push her away, she only latched her fingers tighter into the cloth of my coat. I didn’t bother obscuring my face in the shadow of my hood. I glared down at her with eyes of steel and barked, “Let go.”
She refused to look at me, but shook her head violently from side to side in answer.
“Then tell me where you live and I’ll take you there,” I offered. Night would soon overtake the setting sun, and if I was quick and careful, I would be able to drop the girl wherever she needed to be without being noticed. I began moving back toward the city, but the girl rooted her dainty shoes deep in the mud.
“I’m not going back,” her quivering little voice sobbed, “Not ever!”
“And why in Lucine’s name would you not—” I caught myself. I glanced around to see if anyone heard me speak the name of my ancestor.
“I want to go with you,” she cried. I could feel the gazes of others locking on our strange pair. A tall figure hidden in a black coat and a tiny sun-colored girl were hardly inconspicuous when alone, much less when together. “Dan is so busy now with the harvest, and my sister is so cruel! Mother was the only one…” her babbling voice trailed off into incoherent sobs. My narrowed, cold eyes melted at the sight of her pale skin burning beneath her tears. “Why do people die Mister,” she asked me through gasping coughs and sputtering cries. “Why did my mother die and leave me alone?”
In her, I saw myself, and the children of my people sorrowing over the brutal deaths of their loved ones. They knew that their mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters were lost to them, but were incapable of understanding why. Amid the acidic mists of smoldering flesh and blood-soaked mud that carried for miles and burned itself into their nostrils, their cries sounded the same as hers.
“But you do have a home, and you have a family too,” I said over her ever-quieting sobs. I knelt down to her level and took off my left glove.
After a moment’s hesitation, I set my bare hand atop her golden-haired head and ruffled the silken strands. Whether it was the color, or the feel of her hair as it slipped through my fingers that felt familiar, I couldn’t remember.
“If you have a home, you should be thankful for it. You belong there, not with a stranger.”
“You really are just like the boy in my mother’s stories,” the girl stuttered quietly. She wiped her rosy cheeks with the back of her arm and looked up at me with swollen eyes.
The red sun glimmered its last over the horizon. The moon showered the world with cool, refreshing light as the starry sky emerged from the rippling twilight. Every other stitch of my black cloak reacted to its blanketing glow, twinkling and refracting in the soft, pure light.
“So pretty!” The girl’s eyes widened and her tears stopped as she looked at the cloth still clutched between her fingers. Her eyes followed the icy glow as it wove up toward my face. “Are you—”
Pain split my skull and a loud crack exploded in my ears. Everything went dark around me before the girl’s voice broke through the grating screech clogging my head.
“Mister!... Mister!... Are you okay, Mister?”
I woke and found myself flat on my face in the mud. My head throbbed mercilessly and dark spots flecked my vision.
Something latched onto my hood and snapped the cloth back. I scrambled to regain my footing on the slippery ground, but I couldn’t turn to face whatever it was hauling me backward.
“I knew it,” a gruff voice roared in laughter. A thick arm clenched around my throat. “I knew it had to be a Lunue’yan,” the worn male voice said. His arm tightened around my neck and two more men came closer.
“Is it really, father?” A skittish voice piqued as a thin young man with blue-black hair and sallow gold eyes came into view. His sun-reddened hands were ghost-white around the handle of his worn harvesting sickle.
“There’s no way,” a second young man scoffed. His hair and eyes were similar in color to the other’s, but his thick fingers were relaxed around the handle of his harvesting scythe as he bounced the tool against his shoulder. His eyes narrowed on my face. “How can you tell?”
“Watch,” the old male voice said as his face came into view. His roan hair was interspersed with gray and his gold eyes were milky under the moonlight as he tightened his thick arm. I felt his vise-grip crumpling my windpipe and my neck popped. In an instant the fury of my body struggling to heal the wound turned my vision redder than a blood moon.
The skeptical man leaned away while the one standing further away shook from the tip of his nose down to the toes of his worn-out shoes.
“These arms may work the fields for grain nowadays,” the old man said and flexed his strong arm. I gasped in air as he reset his hold. Layers of aging scars crisscrossed his skin and their glossy texture reflected the moonlight as he leaned close enough that I could feel his breath on my cheek. “But thirty years ago they protected this land from monsters just like you.”
“Let him go,” came the little girl’s cry. Her arm jostled against my side as she pounded against the elderly man’s leg with her tiny fists. “He didn’t do anything bad!”
“You young ones only know the war from stories,” the man clasping my throat bellowed. The girl let out a high-pitched cry when he kicked her in the direction of the other two men and she fell into the mud.
“But I was there! These monsters lived in a city built in a desert of glass, a land that killed many strong men while it nestled these beasts in comfort and hiding! Our leader made it so we didn’t have to fear these monsters walking the streets under the full moon as though they were human! We got the whole place burning, and those beasts sizzled no different than wet logs thrown on a bonfire,” he finished his tale with a hearty, nostalgic laugh.
The old man turned around with me still balking in his arms and pointed toward Soloasis’ heart. “Our leader, one of only two in our beloved Sovereign’s Household—may Soluna guide her to the next dawn—he himself killed the Lord of Lunue’ya and speared out piece by piece a child still brewing in the belly of that monster’s daughter.”
I looked to the center of Soloasis as if seeing it for the first time. The old man’s voice faded from my ears until I could hear nothing at all—nothing but the hum of blood rushing through my body as my eyes focused until I could see clearly through a large glass window. Beyond the glass in a room lit bright as day by glowing sunstones embedded in the walls stood a man with tiger’s teeth dangling from his ears. A thick mane of sallow hair surrounded his biting emerald eyes, and greatly resembled the face I vowed I would never forget.
“Here you are again though, sneaking among us like rats, killing, thieving, and trying to steal our young ones! Here I thought your kind would’ve learned better than that by now,” he hissed into my ear. “I likely won’t live to see the next war, but presenting your corpse to him might just keep my sons from getting shoved out onto the front lines and being forced to fight other humans.”
I thrust my right elbow into the man’s stomach. The blade hidden in my sleeve pierced my coat at the elbow and sunk without resistance into the thick muscle of his abdomen. The old man’s words ended in a gasping sputter as I forced the blade through his murky insides until the thin obsidian blade burst from his back. Warm blood trickled along the length of my arm and stained the silver stitches of my coat black.
The old man’s breath gurgled wordlessly in my ear. With his massive weight slumped onto my back, I squared my feet and threw him over my shoulder onto the ground like a dead pig. Paralyzing poison mixed with his blood and coated the blade with the glistening red-gold hue of twilight beneath the full moon’s light.
I turned to see the girl being shoved aside by who I assumed to be the elder of the old soldier’s sons into his quivering brother. He snatched his trembling sibling’s scythe. The eldest roared and charged at me with both his and his brother’s rusty half-moon blades hanging low at his sides.
He may have been a farmer, but his father likely trained him like a soldier with whatever they had on hand. But it didn’t change how the dull iron glowered tiredly in the moonlight and wanted to do nothing more than its simple job out in the fields.
With nimble fingers I undid the tie fastening my cloak. In a flash of dark moonlight I drew two tempered obsidian swords, one half the length of the other, from where they had rested so long in their sheaths. The charging brother threw the smaller of his two blades from several feet away, and I dug my toes into the soft earth, bracing myself against a rock lodged in the wet soil. I launched myself forward and held up the bloody blade that’d once been hidden in my sleeve. The thin sheet of bloody stone shattered and sprayed his eyes with a backlash of glistening, needle-sized and razor-sharp shards.
The elder brother dropped the large scythe he still held in his hands. He squealed like a dying animal and covered his eyes with his hands. I drilled the two blades in my hands into his sternum, piercing through his lungs and between his ribs. His animalistic cries died away in sputtering gurgles as blood filled the two sacs and I forced the blades apart. The longer of the two shore through the drowning muscle of his heart while the shorter blade smashed like a hammer through his ribs.
The hacked-in-two corpse fell into a pool of its own black blood. The once-living flesh trembled to a halt as it suddenly found itself dead.
With two flicks I drew twin arcs of blood in the sallow earth. I faced the younger of the two brothers. He quaked in the moonlight, his hands still clutching the wide-eyed girl in his flimsy arms.
While the girl observed blankly, in the dark yellow eyes of the man behind her I saw pure terror.
His presence was one of a farmer, not a warrior. His limbs trembled beneath the clothes which seemed to be waiting for him to grow to his father’s size. A smell just as sickening as that of his brother’s relaxed corpse wafted in the air as he threw the girl forward, turned his back and ran downhill toward the dark cover of the fields. I started chasing after him, but before I could go more than a few steps a sharp squeal cut into the lax wind.
For a moment I heard nothing else.
“If I’d known this was what you had planned, I would’ve put in the effort to come sooner,” a voice like mine whooped into the wind. Pops and crunches emanated from the soft wheat before my doppelganger appeared with a handful of fleshy sticks gripped in his bloodstained hands. “Here I thought I was dreaming you got caught by some Soleilian old timer—as if someone who even I can’t kill could be offed by a broken-horned steer!” He bit into the sticks one by one as he approached, “Here it turns out you were doing just what I told you to.”
My brother licked his fingers as he passed me by. His eyes were focused on the ground behind me. I turned after him and followed with my swords still drawn until we reached the unconscious body of the Soleilian girl.
He parted her eyelids with his bloodstained fingers. His teeth glowed red in the moonlight as he smiled down at her sleeping face.