Hack n’ Slash #999

by Carla E. Dash

The Beginning

Before: nothing. Now: a field. The grass tickles your thighs. The sky is blue. The clouds are white. The sun is round and bright and hot on your skin. There is a sword strapped to your back. An impossibly, improbably large sword. The sun-scalded scabbard burns the backs of your knees.

You’d like to unbuckle it and stretch your shoulders, but you are not in control of that. You are not in control of anything. You cannot even move your eyes off the horizon. So you stare, getting used to the feeling of existing in your skin: the thump of your heart, the bellows of your breath, the tautness of your flesh, the heft of your muscles, the weight on your back.

There is a noise behind you, a rushing sound, like running or falling. It is worrying, but you can’t turn your head to look. For all you know, the world is dropping away, crumbling back into nothingness. It would be nice to have popped into existence just to see this sight: the sun, the sky, the grass.

The horizon is odd. It bulges, almost convex, and the sunlight bounces back to you, as if reflecting off a mirror. If you walked far enough, would you smack into a wall, invisible, but solid? Could you touch it? Your shoulders and neck prickle, as if there’s someone standing close, breathing and watching.

The sound behind you changes, takes on a more human note. Someone is making a loud, shrill noise. Someone is screaming.

Your feet move, and finally you turn. There is a house, a huge house, a mansion, and it is on fire. A man is running toward you. His soot-covered skin drips off his bones. The smell of his smoking hair causes a strange feeling in your stomach, like a little man tumbling end of over end, once. Your face is frozen and unresponsive, disconnected from the horror ricocheting through your chest.

“Master! Master!” His voice is weak and strained. The insides of him, where his voice comes from, must be bloody and raw. He reaches out, yards away. Your feet remain planted.

“The scoundrels, betrayers…your family…you have to – ” The man stills, his eyes blown wide, his mouth a circle of surprise. He falls. Dirt and blades of grass stick to his face. A dagger protrudes from the flesh of his back, high on the left side. The thrower stands a few paces away, right arm extended.

You want to ask, Who are you? Who was he? Why did you do that? Instead you grab the hilt of your sword and pull. It is ridiculous and unwieldy, almost as tall as you are and blocky like a meat cleaver. Still, you dash to the attacker and slice her left hip to right shoulder before she has time to fling another dagger. Above the black fabric of the mask obscuring her mouth, her eyes are angry. Who are you? you think again. And, I’m sorry.

She collapses in blood-sodden pieces. You shake off your sword. And then you do a terrible thing. You squat in the dirt and riffle through the woman’s pockets. You take her money, her daggers, a smoke bomb, and a vial of poison. You unwind the scarf. Beneath, her mouth is pretty: pink and soft, like a cherry blossom. You leave most of her clothes and armor, though you do unclasp her vambraces, lovely ivory coils engraved with iridescent, many tentacled sea creatures. You do not know why this is the line, why it’s okay to steal from this woman, this woman that you killed, but not to strip her bare.

You move to the other body and do the same, though all you find are a few copper coins. You place the items in your pockets, which feel endless. The fabric does not distend, and you feel no weight in them.

You stand. You tie the scarf around your face, covering your nose and mouth. Then you turn your back, leaving the bodies to rot in the sun, and run into the burning mansion. But when you look back, a quick glance over your shoulder, the bodies are disappearing, flashing and fading, as you move away from them.

This frightens you, but your feet do not pause. As you sprint across the mansion’s threshold, blue sparkles shimmer in the air, there and gone so fast you’re unsure you really saw them.

* * *

Your feet carry you from room to fiery room. It is misery and terror. Your fingers grasp scorching, iron doorknobs, not impervious to pain, but nigh impossible to burn. Your gargantuan shoulders force open sizzling, wooden doors, releasing roomfuls of smoke that scrapes down your throat and scratches your eyes.

This is not what you would do, if you could choose, but you can’t, so you run through the mansion, room after room, floor after floor, head swiveling, beginning to understand that the thoughts inside your head are irrelevant to what your body chooses to do. For you, there has only been the field and this burning terror. But this body has a family, the burning man said, and it searches valiantly for them while inside you cringe and shrink from the flames.

You find the corpses in the basement. Mother and father and daughter face down, hands clasped, heads severed. More blood than seems possible pools around them, staining their collars red. It is gruesome and sad, but in a general way. Nevertheless, your legs collapse. Your knees hit the stone floor and your eyes water, but you can’t shift your stance or blink away the irritating drops. So you kneel, fists clenching, Adam’s apple bobbing, body trying to master a pain your mind doesn’t feel.

* * *

A smudge of dark fabric slinks between the wine racks. You leap to your feet and run, sandals pounding against the stones. Your head swivels over your shoulder, taking one last look at the bodies on the floor as you dart up a set of stairs after the assassin. You wish it wouldn’t. Though the heavy cellar door is still closing when you reach it, you can’t push through. You bang your shoulder uselessly against it, but it doesn’t move forward until it has first completely shut.

You emerge behind the mansion, frustrated by the holdup. After the dim glow of embers in the basement, the sunlight burns your eyes. Ahead, an orchard of apple trees, their branches crackling with flames, stretches for what looks like miles. The dark-clad assassin darts between the trunks, and you follow.

Fire rains onto your shoulders from the canopy and smoldering fruit crunches beneath your feet. If you could stop, turn around, quit, and never see another flame so long as you live, you would. But your body presses onward, chasing the shadow through the trees. The distance between you and the woman does not shorten or lengthen. But she runs and you chase, never tiring, never slowing, never choking on the smoke, though you only have the flimsy cover of the first assassin’s scarf to filter the air you suck into your lungs.

The landscape changes. The burning orchard falls behind. It is followed by a flat, prairie stretch, and then an emerald bamboo forest. Your prey still bounds ahead, but now other shadows dart between the shoots. The bamboo thickens, and then thins into a clearing. You shift momentum barely quick enough to avoid the telescoping end of the runner’s blade. She flicks her wrist and the metal retracts, like a sharp, glinting whip, back to the size of a katana. You pull your sword from its sheath and grip the handle. Shadows blot the periphery of the clearing, clinging to the tops of the bamboo stalks, as patient and still as insects. The bamboo bends and sways under their weight.

The woman you pursued stabs the ground and leans against the handle of her yo-yo katana like it’s a cane. She raises her eyes to her companions, and they attack, quickly, from all sides, with weapons you can barely see.

What would be most effective is a sweeping attack. You need to spin, slashing your blade as you go. You need to clear some space. But you can’t. You hack up and down in front of you, turn ninety degrees, and hack again, up and down. You do not have the strength or skill for a spinning attack. So the assassins cut you with their darting attacks while their boss watches, eyes somber above her dark mask. You fell a few assailants, but they are many and you are one, and eventually you topple, belly up, onto the ground. Blood flows out of you like air hissing through pinpricks in a balloon, leaving a flattening husk as it goes.

The attacks stop and the original runner approaches. She holsters her weapon in a sheath strapped to her right thigh. Up close, her eyes are golden and her skin is sun-bronzed. She pulls off her balaclava. Beneath, her loosely bound hair is a shocking bright purple. Her mouth is as dark as a plum.

“You die because you stand in my way,” she says. “Your family are the rightful owners of this land. But I say leadership belongs to the strongest and the smartest, not to those born into rich families, who suck their silver spoons while all around, those more deserving gnaw the bones of their cats to survive.” She crouches and touches your cheek, dragging her fingertips through the heavy stubble.

“Never fear, you won’t be alone. Your family is only the first in a long line of those will know the error of their ways.” She stands. To her minions, she says, “Let’s go.”

Leaping into the bamboo, with her back to you, she says, “You fought well. Be proud and go in peace to your family.”

You want to call to her, reach out for her, make her explain. Or tell her that you have no idea what’s going on, that you don’t know anything about silver spoons or that very specific scenario of people eating their cats, but you are not in control of that. Or maybe you are just too weak. As your vision dims, vibrations shuddering beneath the ground, like frustrated pounding on an elevator button when the elevator won’t move. Is there someone there? you wonder. And, Will they save me?

* * *

Introduction of the Love Interest

You wake to the scents of lavender and sandalwood. A blue haze pulses and then disappears. A woman is dabbing your forehead with a wet cloth. Her skin is fair and her hair is long and straight. Her mouth is a perfect, pink bow. Cherry blossoms smatter her kimono. When she sees you are awake, her eyes widen and she pulls back her hands, placing the cloth in a wooden bowl beside your head on the floor.

You shift on the tatami mat beneath you, blinking eyelids that feel too heavy. The myriad slices you received in the bamboo forest sting under the neatly wrapped bandages the woman must have applied. There are many questions you want to ask. You focus on the most burning ones. Where am I? you try to project. And, Who are you?

Instead your mouth says, “How long have I been here?” garbling around a leaden tongue. Or maybe that’s just the normal sound of your voice, like river rocks grinding each other down over the course of centuries. The woman lowers her eyes.

“Three days.” Her voice is high and soft, like swaying wind chimes. You jerk upright and grunt, pain sizzling across your torso.

“You mustn’t tax yourself,” the woman says, placing gentle palms on your bare chest. “You’ll pull your stitches.”

You feel nothing for this woman, this stranger with her huge, inky eyes, but the back of your neck heats, and you understand that your body will betray you in this. You tell the woman your story, or the story of this body and its family, anyway.

After she says, “I’m so sorry,” and her voice is full of pain, but her eyes are dead, useless, blank orbs in her face. You would never choose her. She is a simulacrum of tender and caring. You expect an evil spider creature to crawl out of the disguise of her skin. If you could, you would scuttle into a corner. But you can’t. So you don’t. Instead, you smile, a small, shy smile, and let yourself be pressed back into the tatami.

* * *

You spend two weeks with the woman on her sprawling plot of land. In the mornings, you train in the courtyard, swinging your giant cleaver at the wood and straw dummies left behind by her father and brother, who’ve gone off to support the emperor in the fight against the rebel ninjas, the same who killed your family and torched your home, but for some reason skipped this defenseless manor. No, you have to remind yourself. Not your family. Not your home. But still, a family. A home. And also, there was the humiliation and the fear of lying belly-up in the dirt, helpless and dying. You don’t resist this body’s urge to improve. The purple-haired woman should be stopped.

So you swing your sword, straining your wounds, every morning. And every morning the woman stands beneath the cherry trees, watching, patient, like a spider in her web. And every afternoon she pours tea as you kneel at her low dining table. And every evening she remakes your sleeping mat. All in silence. This body tries to talk to her at first, especially at night, when she bends over the cot, but it is useless.

“How did you end up here all alone?” you ask.

“My father and brother went to fight for the emperor,” she says.

“How did you end up here all alone?” you ask.

“My father and brother went to fight for the emperor,” she says.

“How did you end up here all alone?” you ask.

And, “My father and brother went to fight for the emperor,” she says. Neither of you change your tone or intonation. Neither of you grow impatient.

Beneath your feet, though, the ground shakes. The waves ripple rapid, impatient, and frustrated, though the woman doesn’t seem to notice. Please stop, you think to your savior outside the glass, beyond the horizon. Can’t you see that’s all we’re going to get?

You are glad when the pantomime ends. It frightens you. Is this body’s mind going? Can it not hold information for more than a few seconds? And the woman? Is she some sort of robot after all? After you give up trying to communicate, the weeks pass in a blur of dead-eyed, silent staring and routine.

* * *

On the morning of the fourteenth day, instead of going to the courtyard, you strap on your armor, secure your blade, and gather your belongings. The woman meets you at the front gate, unsurprised, as if you’ve already discussed your parting.

“Thank you for all you’ve done,” you say, looking down at the top of her tiny, fragile head, still fearing some monster will unzip her skin and step out.

She tilts her head and blinks her alien eyes at you. “There’s something I’d like you to have,” she says, retreating into the house. Your legs follow her through unfamiliar corridors. She picks up a candle from the family shrine, and then descends, under the house, into the basement. The stone passages narrow and your shoulders scrape their rough edges, but still your legs follow.

The hallway dead-ends at a wooden door. The woman pulls a skeleton key from her obi, and unlocks the door. Though the door is tall and wide, as at the mansion, you must wait for it to shut behind the woman before it will budge for you. The room inside is so large the far edges fade out of sight, beyond the reaches of the little candle’s light. But the nearby surfaces gleam and glint, draped in finely crafted, jewel-encrusted armor and weapons. Rich families, who suck their silver spoons, the purple-haired assassin said. You are beginning to understand. The treasures collecting dust in this room could feed a village, surely. You look at the woman, more pale and angular than ever in the dim light, and feel a new, more personal disgust.

She places the candle on a table and moves to a dummy. She unbuckles the armor cinched around its frame. You follow and tap your knuckles against the gold-plated mail. It seems sturdy. A stylized hydra is etched into the breast.

“I can’t take this,” you say.

“Then don’t,” the woman says, securing the armor to your chest. “Borrow it, and bring it back safe.”

If you could shudder, you would, at the promise of those words: that you might die or that you might come back to this place, to her. You’re not sure which would be worse.

Back outside, you push through the gate and head north, toward the capital, where surely the assassins are also heading. You feel the woman’s soulless eyes on your back, biding her time. You look at the blue, blue horizon. Please, you think at it. Please never return here.

* * *

Tutorial: Dying

North of the town, the landscape changes. One moment you’re walking through fields, and the next your sandals are sinking into scalding sand. A desert stretches, empty and endless before you. Your body doesn’t hesitate, though your toes burn with every step.

You walk. And walk and walk and walk, long past discomfort, long past hot and thirsty and exhausted, long past when you shouldn’t be able to continue. But it doesn’t seem so strange. You’re getting used to this uncomfortable, semi-invulnerability.

The horizon has that glassy and convex look again. If you focus, you can feel the sand rumbling under your feet, slow and indolent, bored perhaps. Come on, you think at it. This isn’t so bad. Which is, of course, when you come upon the gorge.

It is a humongous, jagged tear in the earth. The drop is so sharp, your feet almost walk right over the edge before you notice it. The walls plummet, sheer and rocky, so far down that the bottom is obscured in darkness. The opposite edge of the gorge is far away, 30 feet at least, not an impossible distance, but an improbable one. There is no way around the gorge; it stretches east and west far away and out of your sight.

The sunlight flashes blue. Blue, blue, blue, then stills golden again. Your legs turn and walk away from the precipice, back in the direction you came. Am I giving up? you wonder. So much for justice? So much for revenge?

But no. Ten paces away, you pivot. And then you understand. No, you think at the tank-glass sky, at the sometimes rumbling ground. No, no, no. Please. But your wishes don’t matter. You lope toward the hole, feet sinking into the sand with every step.

You want to close your eyes, but you can’t. You have to watch as the sandy ground shortens and disappears, and the maw of the gorge enlarges. You know the moment your feet sail over the edge that you won’t make it. You didn’t give yourself enough running space. You didn’t build up enough speed. You’re going to fall.

You fall. You don’t even almost make it. You don’t even hit the edge of the other side and grapple with the ledge. Your arms stretch, searching for purchase, but there’s nothing to grab.

The drop is long and dark. You try to think of what you should. You try to think of your family, unavenged. But they were never your family, really, and you can’t regret. You try to think of the purple-haired ninja, standing smug above you. But she was nice, after a fashion. Never fear, she said. And: You fought well. And: Be proud and Go in peace. And maybe, once, she had to eat her own cat to survive. And still she could say such nice things to you, whom she must have loathed for your wealth and privilege. You can’t hate her. Even the spider woman, whose presence prickled the primitive, fearing part of your brain, you cannot hold onto right now. All you can think is, I am going to die, with your heart pounding in your throat.

You try to summon the detachment you felt at the burning mansion. You try to remember that you came from nothing and that having seen this much of the world is a privilege. To return to nothing is fair. But it’s no use. You don’t want to die.

You throat releases a roar, defiant and disappointed. It is a relief, for once, to be in agreement with your body. The air vibrates, your beyond-the-glass god trying, too late, to save you perhaps. But it’s no use.

You hit the ground with a sickening crack. You limbs contort improbably, and pain explodes everywhere. And then nothing.

* * *

You stand at the lip of the gorge, unharmed and confused. It feels like no time has passed. No, it feels like time has wound backward, instantly, like a switch thrown or a button pushed. You didn’t black out. No one lifted you out of the pit. No one healed your wounds. Rather, it’s like the terrifying drop didn’t happen. Falling and the you who fell were erased from existence. But you remember it.

Your body, it seems, does not. You turn and walk away from the gorge, double the distance this time. And then you spin and run full tilt at the hole. There’s no sense in fearing, you tell yourself. You won’t die, apparently. But still, you dread the pain of the landing, the temporary nothingness, the loss of time and experience.

As you lift off this time, a massive shockwave thunders through the ground. You jump, high and far and fast, but you’re still not going to make it. Perhaps you’ll hit the edge this time, though, and be able to lift yourself to the other side. As you reach the apex of your arc, another shockwave jolts the air, and you jump, somehow again in mid-air, extending your leap. You land easily on the other side, knees quaking with the impact, but otherwise unharmed. Thank you, you think at the sky.

* * *

Tutorial: NPCs

The town appears out of nowhere. The heat wafting from the sands makes the air waver. The sparse, weathered buildings sprawl like an illusory blemish on the flesh of the desert, or the saddest mirage.

As you step through the entry post, light flares blue around you, then returns to normal. You are both comforted and set on edge. Now you know, if you die, you will return to this spot unharmed. But also, you might die. There could be something dangerous ahead. Your feet, as always, ignore the wariness of your head, and plow on without hesitation through the sandy roads of the town.

The town is odd. The clapboards that form the buildings are brown, but unwhorled. The cactuses on the sides of the roads are green, but unprickled. The dune cats prowling the scant reeds move in unsettling, horror-movie hitches. The whole place seems flat and unfinished. Your palms sweat. The hair on the back of your neck spikes. Your body moves on, seemingly unperturbed, to the center of town.

There you find a circle of shopkeepers, listlessly hocking wares out of shabby stalls. A leathery woman stands before an array of desert blooms, a flask carved into the wood above her stall. Young men stand at either side of her. One sells weapons: wooden clubs, bronze blades, and a few bows. The other sells hide armor: leather and fur. Across the circle, a teenage girl slumps behind her counter, surrounded by random baubles.

You stop at each stall and have the same exchange.

“What’ll it be?” say the armorer, alchemist, blacksmith, and general goods merchants in flat, uninflected voices.

“Let me see your wares,” you say.

They push their inventory lists at you, and you drop your head, grateful to examine their goods, for the faces of the shopkeepers are blurry and untextured.

The only money you have is what you stole from the pockets of the corpses of the assassin and what must have been your butler outside the burning mansion. But, you sell the armorer the vambraces you looted from the assassin, which improves your monetary situation greatly. You do not bother to look too closely at his goods; the golden armor the spider woman gave you is more finely crafted than anything he is selling. From the alchemist, you buy a few healing poultices. The blacksmith you only ask to sharpen your blade.

The teenager, the general goods merchant, has only ten puppets in her inventory. The description in the ledger says they can be used to cure paralysis. Your hands close the book quickly, uninterested, so you cannot stop and stare, but the image stays with you: the still little bodies, deaf, dumb, mute, and motionless.

You didn’t want to kill the woman with the angry eyes and the pretty mouth. You didn’t want to run into the burning mansion or fight the purple-haired assassin and her minions. You didn’t want to stay with the spider-eyed woman or jump the gorge or die. But you did, you had to. In the burning mansion, your legs stormed through flames, but your ribs shook with the fear that your flesh would melt right off your bones. There are no strings. You see none. You feel none. Right now, you feel no rumbling in the ground. You see no glinting on the oranging horizon. But you know someone is out there, moving your limbs, making your decisions. You wonder if you will ever be able to choose anything, if there is anything you can do to become free.

* * *

Tutorial: Missions

Your next stop is the tavern. The patrons lift wooden steins to their lips with jerky flails of their arms. You try not to notice their two-dimensional faces. As you make your way to the barkeep, everyone seems to be having the same conversation.

“Damn scorpions have overrun the circles. Can’t even step foot in my own fields to grab a pepper. Not even one pepper!”

“You hear about Lilly Belle? Poor child was stung seven times. Hope Willard can save her.”

“And the smell! Whole place’s full of dead foxes. Don’t think scorpions even eat foxes. Just killing for sport.”

“It’s not normal, I tell you. Have you seen them? They’re massive.”

To the barkeep, you say, “I hear you’ve got a scorpion problem.”

He continues wiping a stein. “You might say that.”

You pause. You stand in front of the barkeep, silent and still, for an unnaturally long time. Thirty seconds. One minute. Whoever is in charge, whoever makes your decisions – the ground rumbler¬ – is weighing his options, you think.

“I can take care of it, if you like,” you say, because of course you do. Giant, killer scorpions? No problem for the likes of you. Is it arrogance or kindness that makes you say it? Who is this person you inhabit? Unknown and unknowable; no point wondering.

* * *

Tutorial: Companions

And that’s how you end up trekking through improbable desert crop fields, hunting scorpions for pocket change. The fields are beautiful, lush islands between sandy waves turned purple in the twilight. The sight is ruined by the sounds, though. All around, you hear the chittering and clacking of exoskeleton and pincers. Your hands hold steady on the cloth-wrapped hilt of your sword, and your feet step confidently. But if it were up to you, you’d continue north toward the capital, scorpions be damned. You don’t care about some unfinished village in the middle of the desert. But this body or whoever controls it, apparently, is a better person than you.

The scorpions, when they come, after a wash of blue light, are a disappointment after all the hype. They are on the large side, but not freakish. You don’t even use your sword; you just bring your boots down on their backs, and they crunch and squish beneath. There are, however, a lot, more and more, in fact, the farther you get from the village. And they get bigger, up to the size of cats, then dogs. You are not sure which is more worrying, the increase in the size of the pincers or of the stingers. Soon you have to use your sword, after all.

Your body, for once, proceeds cautiously, staying out of the reach of the tails, but you are more solid than agile, and some of the pincers scrape against your armor. You hope you have seen the largest of the scorpions. If not, you may soon be in trouble.

As the clapboard buildings of the town flatten with distance, you hear the sounds of a clash: striking metal, muffled shouts, insect stridulations. You run at full tilt in the direction of the commotion, hacking at carapaces as you go.

* * *

You run until you can run no more, blocked by a ring of enormous scorpions. They’re as large as lions at least. Their pincers snap, sharp and powerful, like the jaws of sharks. Their tails lash, dripping poison that sears the ground where it lands.

In the center of the ring stands a woman. She wears a battle tunic, lightly armored at the torso, shins, and forearms. It is bleached white, though currently covered in gore. Her hair is short and choppy, but otherwise her resemblance to the assassin that killed your family is striking. Her hair is vibrantly purple, her skin brown. You see no ninjas lurking nearby, though. Her chest heaves. Dead scorpions litter the ground at her feet. She twirls her daggers, one in each hand, spinning blue blood off their tips.

“Is that all you’ve got?” she quips, diving back into the fray. Watching her is like watching a falcon dive or a marlin swim. She’s all speed and agility. She dodges and rolls. She flips behind the beasts, slicing off the tails and hacking at their legs, crippling them, then killing them as she can. All the while, she keeps up a constant stream of blather.

“Take that!” she calls. “Feel the bite of my blade!”

You plunge into the crush of scorpions. The two weeks you spent whacking the spider woman’s dummies were not in vain; your fighting skills have improved. You can block now. Thank the ground rumbler, you think, as stinger after stinger slams into your blade. You remove a hand from the hilt of your sword and curl it into a fist. It glows golden, and a ring of scorpions flies toward you. You put the hand back, hold the sword horizontal, then spin, ripping through the sucked-in carapaces as you go. Magic? you wonder, incredulous. But why not? It’s no stranger than anything else that has happened to you since the field and the fire.

The woman is standing before you, weapons sheathed, before you’ve realized the fight is over. Your arms vibrate like they’re in front of a massive, ringing bell from the prolonged and repeated impacts to your blade. Your legs feel like wound springs, ready to uncoil and hop away from danger any second.

“Who’re you?” the woman asks, flicking hair out of her eyes with her leather-clad fingertips and grimacing at the blood the action smears across her forehead. The assassin, this woman’s look-alike, would never make a face like that, you decide.

You sheath your sword. The woman bends, rubbing her hands down her forearms and thighs, trying to propel blood off of them.

“The cavalry, it looks like,” you say.

The woman slices her irises at you, head still tilted downward.

“Ha!” she guffaws.

“What?”

“Some cavalry!” she says, righting herself and placing her hands on her hips. “You showed up at the end. And you killed…” she pauses, glancing at the carnage at your feet “…seven scorpions. Not what I’d call a rescue.”

Fair enough, you think. “What? You’d have died without me!” you say.

“High opinion of yourself you’ve got there. Thanks for the help, but if you hadn’t showed up, all that would be different is I would have killed…fifty-three scorpions instead of forty-six. I hope you’ve got some altruism to balance out that ego. The mayor of this dust trap promised me a bag of gold for slaying these beasts. I don’t intend to share it with some guy who showed up and killed seven, crippled insects.”

“I don’t care about gold,” you say, voice true and sure, untouched by the shame rippling beneath your skull. Ornate tapestries draped the walls of your family’s mansion. Lush fields and orchards ringed the property. Only someone who has never had to worry for one moment about coin could ever say such a thing.

“Well, what do you care about then?” the woman asks sharply, adjusting an epaulet.

“Justice.”

“Dull,” she says, not looking at you, still focused on the leather covering her shoulder, which is why you see it first. The scorpion. The very, very big scorpion, rushing at you faster than anything the size of a small mountain ought to be able.

“Uh,” you say.

“Do you hear something?” the woman asks, as the boulder rolls toward her back. She glances at you, and there must be something on your face because she leaves off with the epaulet immediately and curls her fingers around the daggers holstered to her thighs.

“Giant scorpion?”

You nod. The woman turns. The muscles in her back bunch, and she whistles.

“I was afraid of this,” she says, pulling the daggers from their sheaths and spinning them. “That cavalry stuff I said? And the mocking you for your paltry kills?”

“Yes?”

“Forget it. I’m sorry. You fought well. Pull that butcher blade off your back and do it again. Keep the claws busy. I’ll get the tail.”

“What – ?”

“Don’t die,” she says, then runs straight at the beast. She grabs something from a pouch at her hip, a vial, and throws it at the ground. It explodes at her feet and the beast loses her in the burst of glass and smoke. It roars and rears, flinging its upper body into the air, then dropping back it to the ground so hard its feet leave depressions in the grass. You look to the horizon. Is the sky glassier, more convex than usual? It’s hard to tell. But then the ground rumbles and goes on rumbling. You pull your blade. Your watcher is with you, for better or worse.

The fight is long and bloody, blue and red. Despite your new-found ability to block and the spider woman’s golden armor, the beast’s pinchers shred your protection, sawing jagged, slashes into your skin. The pain is enormous, so hot it’s cold, so cold it’s hot, like walking on coals or grinding against icebergs.

The stinger punctures your newly exposed skin. Nine times in all along your cheeks and neck and forearms. You feel the poison coursing through your veins, boiling your blood and clouding your mind, though the power of your hacking slices does not diminish. Despite your wounds, you are not afraid. The pain is temporary. And you will not die. At worst, you will reappear a short distance away, crushing normal-sized scorpions again, where the blue light washed over you, and you’ll get to try again, fight better.

When the monster finally screeches its dying screech, the woman stands on its back, hands on hips, smiling like a lunatic. Shallow, red cuts pepper her bronzed skin. Blue blood splatters her like paint on a canvas. Her purple hair whips about her head in the breeze. She’s beautiful. You push your sword into the ground and lean against it. She hops down.

“Well, you look awful,” she says, still smiling.

“I’m fine,” you say. Her smile dims. She rummages in the pouches at her hips. She hands you a vial.

“Drink this.”

“What is it?” you ask, palming the glass.

“Poison. What else?” She turns her back on you and bends over the scorpion, drawing a dagger. She chops off pieces of its poisonous gland and some chitinous plates of its exoskeleton. The slices make wet, fibrous squelches. You uncork the vial. A scent emerges, cloying and sweet, like bubblegum. You tip the red liquid into your mouth. It fizzles across your tongue and down your throat, and sends warmth rolling through your limbs. Your wounds knit together. It tickles. You drop the vial onto the ground, and unearth and resheathe your sword.

The woman stands. “Well,” she says, “time for me to be getting back.” She pauses, waiting perhaps, for you stop her. When no words come, she shrugs, and walks past you, heading for the town.

“Wait!”

She turns, eyebrows raised. “Yes?”

You shift. “Have we. Uh. Have we met before?” A stupid question. It’s obvious this woman is not the one who stood over you in the bamboo forest.

The woman looks heavenward. “Oh, no,” she says.

“What? What is it?”

“Were you attacked by black sacks? Stabbed with pointy pointies?”

“Yes, actually. Something like that.”

She takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and looks you in the eyes. “Well then, you’ve had the pleasure of meeting my dear darling sister, Kiara.” Her eyes skitter away, over your shoulder. “The resemblance is uncanny, I know. Skin deep only, I swear.” She laughs, a rueful, self-deprecating whuff.

“Justice, you said,” she mumbles. “I’ve a little justice of my own I’d like to deal to Kiara.” You want to ask about it, but you can’t.

“She’s sure to be in Oreze,” the woman continues, “lurking about the emperor. I’m heading there. It will be safer if we travel together.” She extends a hand. “What do you say?”

Silence stretches between you, on the precipice of danger, like an arrow-stretched bowstring. You aren’t supposed to trust her, you think. Her sister is supposed to loom large in your mind. But you do. She leapt at scorpions and shared her potions. You wait to see what your hand will do. Slowly, suspiciously, you clasp her bloody glove with your own tarnished, gauntleted fingers. She smiles again, giving your arm a vigorous shake.

“I’m Rasha, by the way.”

“Takahiro,” you say. Your name is Takahiro. How odd, not to have known that before. But Rasha is the first to have asked.

“Well, Hiro,” she says, dropping your hand. “Let’s get a move on.”

“Let’s.”

The woman, Rasha, smiles. “So what’s your transport? To Oreze, I mean?”

“None,” you say. “I was walking.”

The smile, so lovely, drops off Rasha’s face. Two fingers press to the bridge of her nose.

“You were going to walk. To Oreze. From here.”

You rub the back of your neck. “Yes?”

Rasha blows out a heavy breath. “It’s good you met me,” she says, curling a hand around your elbow and leading you back to town. Your mouth protests. But if you could control the curl of your lips, you would smile back at Rasha, brash, and dangerous, and funny.

* * *

Tutorial: Glitches

The sensible way to Oreze, apparently, is by caravan. After collecting your coin and sleeping in the town inn (a strange experience – you lay down and the room darkened, then lightened immediately, like someone spinning the dial of a dimmer down and then back up; nevertheless, you woke rested and healed), Rasha arranges your trip. She haggles with the caravan leader, a leathery man draped head to toe in brown cloth. Eventually, awash in blue, flashing light that no one but you seems to notice, she hands over a portion of your earnings, and then you’re off, plodding across the desert atop surly, spitting camels, amid silks and crates and taciturn merchants. But that’s alright because Rasha regales you with tales along the way.

“Once,” she says, “I had a contract to kill a dragon. A real, actual dragon. Well, a wyvern, I guess. But still. Spit fire. Flew around on leathery wings. The trek I had to make to get to its aerie! The things I had to kill just to reach it! If anyone ever asks you to slay a dragon, just say no. Trust me.”

And, “When Kiara and I were kids, we made games of insanities. We climbed trees to nab eagle eggs. We wrestled bananas from monkeys. We stole meat from bear dens. Kiara was best, always. At sneaking, at grabbing, at running. But no longer, she’ll see.”

And, “There was this man in Vergrine who tried to woo me. Properly, with flowers and candies and lute serenades beneath my window. The whole thing. The clothes he wore. Velvets and silks. And his fingers, so soft. As if I could ever love a man like that. Poor guy, though. His voice was so bad the neighbors pelted him with rocks. They skipped right past the rotten vegetables thing.”

And while she talks, she waves her hands and smiles and winks, except when she speaks of Kiara. But you let the thundercloud pass, unremarked upon. The sun blazes behind her, making her eyes glint like coins and her hair light with sparks.

You are happy. You think, I wish this journey would never end.

And the world endeavors to grant your wish. First, everything freezes. The camels stop with their hooves raised like furry ballerinas. Kicked-up dust halts in mid-air. Rasha’s lips hang open, tongue curled around an unknown word. You also cannot move, but then you never could, not without permission.

The horizon flashes, like a panicking lighthouse. The ground shakes so violently, you wonder if the earth is going to split beneath your feet. Out there, wherever there is, the thing that controls you bangs on its glass, mashes its buttons, trying to have some effect. But things only get worse.

The horizon, the sand, the animals, Rasha’s beautiful face – everything – pixelates and blurs and stretches and skews, like objects pulled over an event horizon, spaghetti-ing into a black hole.

You thought you could no longer fear. You thought the worst thing was death, and that wasn’t all that bad. Just a momentary lapse, a chance to try again. But this is something else. This is some glitch in the machinery of the world. And though your limbs are frozen, inside your chest your heart gallops, like the desperation beating beneath the sands. You fear unmaking, nonexistence, becoming whatever and being wherever you were before appearing in the field. (Nothing and nowhere hisses the fear inside your skull). Now you are Takahiro. You have Rasha. You must go to Oreze. You must stop Kiara. You must warn the emperor. You must stay away from the spider woman. You are somebody. And you don’t want to be no one again.

But it’s too late. The world rips apart.

* * *

When you reform, Rasha is negotiating with the caravan leader again. You feel a lot of time has passed, unlike your other resurrection, which felt instant. When you look out onto the horizon to the glass or screen or wall that encloses your world, there’s something grimier, greasier, more weathered about the surface. And is it your imagination or are there gossamer cracks glistening there? The ground rumbler has saved you, somehow, and you’re grateful. But, perhaps, it took a while and was by the skin of its teeth.

Atop your camels, Rasha says, “Once, I had a contract to kill a dragon.” But you cannot enjoy it, not the story, not her animation, not her beauty in the blazing sunlight, because now you have this fear in your breast that you can destroy her, yourself, the very world with a thought. You once felt yourself powerless, a puppet on an invisible string. And now you find you have an immense power that you cannot let yourself wield. You must be cautious with your wishes for they can literally unmake the universe. You long for simpler times.

* * *

Adventuring

Eventually the sand runs out, dead-ending into the ocean. The caravan stops in a small, fishing village, and you gain passage on a rickety, wooden, not-very-seaworthy looking boat filled with soot-faced, tatter-clad refugees. Rasha turns sullen among them, clenching her fists and spinning her daggers and narrowing her eyes into murderous slits. You remember the camel-top stories of her childhood. She spun them as adventures, but really, she and Kiara were scrounging for food. You try not to think about their cat, what it might have looked like or how they must have loved it or how far their stomachs distended before they decided to sacrifice it.

Thankfully, Rasha does not turn her glare on you and your shining golden armor as her sister would have done. Instead she slips coins under the refugees’ beds and swims beside the boat, stabbing an overabundance of fish for the galley and not letting anyone pay her for it.

A few days from the capital, a ghostly figure appears in the distance. It grows as the hours tick by until finally you realize it must be massive.

“What is it?” you ask.

Rasha is gutting fish. She stabs a fresh one savagely in the belly. “Oreze’s guardian,” she says and refuses to elaborate.

When you get closer, you see it is a solid marble dragon. The boat passes beneath it to pull into port. The statue utterly and completely dwarfs the ship. Its legs shoot into the sky, its knees and shoulders leagues above your heads. Something rests in its open, fanged mouth, high above.

“Is that…?”

“Real gold? Yes.”

“Really? Don’t people try to steal it?”

Rasha fingers the wood of the hull beneath her forearms. “Yes,” she says. “They try.” And as she says it, you hear a scream. A man is falling this very moment from the dragon’s mouth. He smacks into the water perhaps thirty feet from the boat, probably already dead from the impact.

“We should…” you say. We should go see if he’s okay or some other such naïve thing is probably what your mouth was going to say. But the point is moot. Some creature’s tentacles, black as a starless, moonless night, and barbed grab his corpse and pull it under the waves.

You turn to Rasha, mouth open, eyes wide, a question on your lips.

She shrugs. “Home, sweet home.”

You try not to think too deeply about what kind of desperately poor person would attempt something so risky. You try not to think about Kiara’s crusade and what Rasha must think of you, sparkling in your golden armor.

* * *

On the dock, Rasha stretches her tense, cramped muscles, and you gape like a plankton-sifting whale while blue light pulses briefly around you. The ground lurches beneath your feet as if you are still a sea. You hope Rasha doesn’t notice the mook look on your face, but you can’t criticize the reaction of your body this time; Oreze is colossal and overwhelming.

The buildings rise up, chalky, white, and pristine, like the bones of massive, ancient things. Their accents – the window and door frames, the shutters, the roofs and drainpipes – are ornately decorated, gilded and jeweled. Even at the edge of the city, in this small fishing district, the lean-tos, though smaller than the buildings gleaming in the distance, are solid and beautiful.

Rasha places her palms on the base of her spine and bends backward. Face upside-down, she smirks at you, but refrains from comment. She straightens. “We should start looking for Kiara. We’ll have to troll the Brown Quarter. Or the sewers. Knock a few heads together. But it shouldn’t be too hard. I’m sure there’ll be a trail of bodies to follow.”

This seems reasonable to you; you’re here for the assassin and her ninjas. But you say, “We should go to the emperor. Warn him of the threat. Offer our services.”

Rasha rolls her eyes. “Pointless. The guards won’t let you within fifty paces of the gate.”

“We have to try,” you say, squinting into the distance. You see, very far away, atop an enormous hill, or perhaps a small mountain, what might be a palace. It is so shiny you wonder if it is made of silver or glass.

“You won’t be dissuaded, I suppose?”

“Nope.”

“Well, then, let’s go see the emperor.”

Rasha leads you through the heart of the city. It is teeming and detailed. There are hawkers on the curbs and beggars on the corners. Birds perch on eaves and cats prowl the gutters. And there are people, everywhere, moving through their lives. Their faces twitch with life. Their clothes wrinkle and fold, textured to the last detail. Oreze is nothing at all like the shoddily crafted, barebones town in the desert. But its vastness worries you. You feel it’s all too much to keep up. You fear the world will stumble, freeze, and rip apart again, maybe this time forever. But it does not. The carts roll on, smoothly on the bleached cobblestones.

Up close, you notice some of the buildings have empty, discolored spaces, gaps in their decoration. Easier to steal gems off walls than risk the drop from the dragon’s mouth, you guess. You stop at several vendors. An armorer repairs the places where the scorpions shredded your golden mail, a blacksmith sharpens your sword, and Rasha purchases a rainbow assortment of potions in vials from an alchemist. You also stop to speak with citizens. They have requests.

“Will you slay the spiders in my basement?”

“Will you find my missing goat?”

“Will you bring this healing poultice over to the Nord in the Blue Quarter?”

“Do we really have time for this?” Rasha asks, arms crossed, boots tapping the cobblestones, reflecting your true feelings.

“Yes,” you say, to one and all.

The last leg of the journey is up a steep incline. A high, rocky cliff, you decide, navigating the wide path cleared up to the palace, not quite a mountain.

“Have you ever met him, the emperor?” you ask Rasha.

“Yes.” You glance at her. You hope Takahiro will leave it at that. He does, for once.

Rasha was wrong. You make it to the gates of the palace. You walk close enough that Takahiro can gape, dumbly at them, as he does at everything. They are lovely, you will admit. They and the castle both are made of something iridescent. Pearls or opals or perhaps a metal or stone you’re unfamiliar with. You reach out a hand to examine it. Rasha grips your wrist.

“The posts are covered in poison,” she says.

“What? Really? How do they wash them, then?”

“Carefully,” she drawls, dropping your hand. “Chin up. We’ve company.”

* * *

Though you did not hear them approach, two guards stand before you, in mail and helms as dark as the gates are light. They hold spears whose tips rise above their heads.

“Back down the mountain, continental,” says the rounder one.

Hill, you think. “I must see the emperor,” you say. The knights trade glances. One coughs, or perhaps laughs.

“Please,” you say. “It’s important. I have information it’s vital he hears.” The knights look to Rasha. She pulls a dagger. The knights tense, but she only shrugs and begins to scrape the dirt from beneath her nails.

“What? Are you kidding? The emperor doesn’t see any ole riff-raff that drags itself up the mountain. Get lost.” Hill.

You ask nicely. You appeal to their sense of duty, justice, and morality. Then you appeal to their greed. You offer money, gems, and potions. Then you ask less than nicely.

Just when the round knight has lost patience and looks sure to launch his spear through the bars of the gate, the other puts a hand on his chest. “If you’re so insistent,” he says, “there’s some work you could do for us. If you do it well, I suppose we could put in a word with the emperor.”

The roly-poly knight flings off the hand, turns, and stalks back to the castle. The one left standing before you pushes a stack of papers through the gate. You take them carefully, mindful not to touch the posts with your bare skin. The knight sucks his teeth, disappointed.

“Prove yourself a knight and you’ll be granted a knight’s audience,” he says. “Happy hunting.” Then he too leaves, whistling, duty-free for the foreseeable future.

Rasha holsters her dagger and snatches the papers. She flips through the pages.

“Clear the sewers of muck crabs. Repaint the tomb of the unsung hero. Boring. Boring. Blah. Slay the dragon of Troll’s Keep?! Oh, here’s a good one: ‘take care’ of the gray-quarter rebels.”

“Well,” she says, handing the papers back, eyes glittering like a predator’s in the dark. “You enjoy that pointless grunt work, emperor’s lackey. I’ll be looking for leads on Kiara.”

She walks a few paces, then stops, back turned. She sighs.

“If you need a bed, head to the Silver Siren, the big inn in the center of the city. And don’t try to be a hero and fight the blasted dragon without me. If you need an extra blade, leave a message with the barkeeps and wait for me. OK?”

“OK,” you say. You watch her walk away. Why couldn’t Takahiro refuse the requests? Or tell Rasha how you feel? Or at least ask her to stay? But you are careful not to wish for things to be otherwise. You don’t want to see Rasha ripped to shreds again.

* * *

Time rushes and blurs in Oreze, so that you’re not sure if you’re experiencing things for true or just the memories of them. In any event, you have many adventures and meet many companions in Oreze.

Jertag, the dwarf, stout and hale with a double-sided axe as wide as a tree trunk, hires you to descend into a collapsed mine in search of a family heirloom. You find the bejeweled tiara, but have to fight a brood of red and black striped tarantulas and their queen, as big as a house, before you can leave the tunnels. Jertag thanks you with coin and a trip to a tavern, where he fills you with bawdy tales and ale that stings your throat.

Elinaria, the slight, fey elf, has a tinkling laugh and shy, downcast eyes, but an acid-green longbow that never misses its mark. She requests your help to reestablish balance in the forest her people live in, just outside Oreze. A sacred artifact has been stolen, a ritual horn, and she must find and return it to the temple of the forest spirits. You help, interrogating the elves of her clan, and fighting your way through the forest’s twisted, corrupted creatures. Eventually you must fight a man with a stag’s head. You hack at his antlers while Elinaria stings his sometimes-glowing eyes with arrows. Eventually all is set to rights. Elinaria tries to gift you with a burning sword, but Takahiro declines. You’re glad; you’ve grown fond of your blocky cleaver. In the end, Elinaria gives you gold, then bids you farewell, in her shy, reserved way.

There are others: a shape shifter, a mage, a knight of the emperor’s guard. They all want something and you do all that is asked. And always, whenever you request her help, there is Rasha, rolling her eyes and grumbling that you are too nice, but still, standing by your side and leaping into battles she doesn’t even want to fight just to keep you safe.

Eventually, you do kill the mud crabs and paint the tomb and slay the dragon (well, you think; it disappeared at the end of the fight, but it’s gone from Troll’s Keep anyway) and take care of the rebels (Takahiro convinced them to relocate, which is certainly not what the emperor intended, but Takahiro is too dumb to know that).

And also you slay the spiders and find the missing goat and bring the healing poultice to the Nord in the Blue Quarter. These tasks, the ones given to you by the common citizens, are the worst by far.

It’s better when there’s something obvious to hit. But in the poor districts, in the places where the blinding white stones of the city are tarnished and broken, what good is running errands when the women and men shuffle down the streets on blistered arthritic limbs and the bloated-bellied children dash barely covered in rags or, more often, nothing at all? When the windows crack, are patched, and crack again? Where homeless sit listlessly on corners, dying slowly, abandoned?

A man wearing a tunic made of genuine gold thread tasked you with retrieving a fifteen hundred year old bottle of wine that he left at a friend’s. And yet in the same city, nimble, hopeful teens scale the dragon in the hopes of laying fingers on even one piece of gold to feed their bedridden grandmothers. Oreze’s guardian, Rasha called it. But who does it guard?

In those districts, where citizens sob when you bring them bread, it’s hard to disagree with Kiara. The rich deserve her vengeance. Oreze should be knocked down and built again, better and more fairly. But do you trust her blade to be that? Fair? And does Takahiro?

In any event, tales of the continental and his purple-headed assassin spread like a plague through the city, and soon it is the emperor who calls you to his palace.

* * *

The Climax

The night before, you and Rasha tuck into a tiny table at the back of the Silver Siren’s tavern. Rasha knocks back stein after stein of the establishment’s signature spicy ale, and Takahiro tries to keep up. There is a fire some feet behind you. It warms Takahiro’s cool, uninterested back and neck so that you can pretend he is feeling the same beer-and-beauty warmth as you and that you are, for once, in alignment. Though you can’t see the flames, their reflection blazes and sparks in Rasha’s golden irises.

Some hours ago, she unsheathed her daggers and laid them on the table. They were scratching her thighs, she complained. You have never seen them so close. Takahiro fingers the hilt of one, and Rasha’s golden eyes follow the motion of his fingers. There is some terrifying, many tentacled creature sculpted into the steel.

“What is it?” you ask.

“Don’t you know? You’ve seen it before.”

Your brow furrows, and Takahiro shrugs, as thick as ever, though you know what it must be. You’ve only ever seen one sea monster.

“Why,” she says, spreading her hands, “it’s the guardian of Oreze, of course.”

Your face scrunches into a mask of comical, over-the-top confusion. “But I thought the dragon was the guardian of Oreze.”

“Well, it’s the one you can see. The bright, white beacon of prosperity and strength. But how can stone protect? And who is it protecting? The idiots who scale it and fall to the kraken? No, the creature in the water is the one with flesh and bone, heart and wits.

“Do you know, the creature does not kill indiscriminately? You can, and many do, swim the waves of Oreze without fear. The creature only kills those who fall from the dragon’s mouth.

“You might think then that the two are of one mind. The kraken the shadow, the dragon the light, aligned in purpose. But there is a legend in Oreze that the two are ancient enemies, that the kraken is waiting for the dragon to break its marble shell and descend into the waves. It eats what it thinks are pieces of the dragon, perhaps arms or toes or wing tips. It is misled from time to time, but the kraken waits, patient beneath the waves for the perfect moment to pounce on its prey.”

Rasha pauses, gazing into the blaze behind you, looking so unwelcoming, so still and so distant, you feel you are drinking with a stranger.

She shrugs. “Who knows, maybe one day, the dragon will sink the bottom of the sea and the kraken will take its place, immortalized in marble, and all will know who the true savior is.”

“Uh. Right,” says Takahiro.

Rasha turns somber eyes on you, then blows the purple fringe out of her eyes. She stands and tosses a few golden coins on the table, pinging the many empty, discarded jugs, and collects her daggers.

“I’ll meet you in the courtyard in the morning. Unless…you want to get a room upstairs?” She trails her deadly fingers across one of your knees and smirks, almost like herself.

Takahiro looks away, reddening, embarrassed.

“Ah…well…you see.”

“In the morning, then.” She shrugs, but a cold dread crawls up your spine. Does Takahiro long still for the spider woman?

Looking into those eyes, silently bleeding flames, you wonder, what does Rasha feel? Is she disappointed? Is she relieved? Is she like you, a puppet on a string, forced to act her part regardless of whatever she may think? Are the thoughts in her head at odds with her actions, her words, her expressions? Does she have a ground rumbler who only rumbles the ground for her?

You loathed the woman in the shack, with her cool hands and her mechanical voice and her dead eyes, but your body warmed for her. Rasha stands by you and bleeds for you and offers her body, but perhaps she hates you. How can you know? How could anyone ever know?

As you watch Rasha slip through the inn’s heavy, bleached wood door, you wonder if you could make her turn around. If you thought it hard enough, could you stop time? Reverse it? Make a different choice? Could you go back to your last flashing blue light and make the world go a different way?

But the ground does not shake and inside, Takahiro is serene. No one is upset but you. Shut down the world all you like, you cannot force the creature outside, the string puller, to change his mind. He’s uninterested in Rasha. Does he see something you can’t? Something underneath the façade of her face?

And what if you couldn’t make the world start again? The first time, it seemed like a near thing. Soothing your disappointment isn’t worth Rasha’s life. She’s here. She’s alive and will be at your side in the morning.

No, you will leave the world as it is and live with disappointment as, you suspect, most people do.

* * *

The emperor sends a palanquin, made of the same iridescent material as his fortress. You wear the spider woman’s golden plates, and your sword is polished and so whetted it could split a boulder in one swing. Rasha sits stiffly across from you, careful not to touch anything.

“Any advice?” you ask her.

She shrugs. “Don’t mince words and don’t be rude. Honestly,” she says, fingering a dagger, “you’ll be fine. You’re just the sort of goody-two-shoes he’ll like. It’s me who’ll need to guard my tongue.”

Two black-garbed soldiers greet you at the gates. They are anonymous, the visors of their helms closed over their eyes and mouths, though is possible they are the same guards as before. One is stocky and one is lean. They step aside for you, but cross their spears in front of Rasha when she tries to follow. She huffs. The tips of her fingers brush the holsters strapped to her thighs. “Move aside, dogs.”

“Stand back, assassin,” spits the rounder guard.

“You must have me confused for someone else,” she says, as politely as you’ve ever heard her. “I’m no assassin. Now get out of my way. I’ve been invited.”

“The continental has an invitation. Not you,” says the thin guard.

“Well, that’s just rude.”

“What my colleague means is: you’ve got some nerve even showing your face here. You think we don’t know who you are? You think we’d let you inside the palace? You’re lucky we don’t kill you where you stand!”

“I’d like to see you try,” Rasha grits, gripping the hilts of her daggers, but not unsheathing them.

The tall guard shifts his hold on his spear and widens his stance, getting ready for combat.

“It’s alright, Rasha,” you say. “I’ll be fine.”

“You’re a naïve idiot.” She blows the bright fringe hanging over her forehead. “If you get into a scrap, make a fuss, and I’ll come.”

The stocky guard scoffs. “Yeah, right.”

The other turns his mailed head toward you. “Don’t get into a scrap.”

“Right,” you say as the guards close the gate behind you. They stay to keep an eye on Rasha and leave you to walk the path to the palace on your own. So you walk.

The path is a mile at least. The chalky, white cobblestones crunch beneath your sandals. Ancient olive trees line the road, their trunks swirling upward and their leaves perked, as if the turning their noses up at you. Beyond the trees on either side, tidy rows of grape vines roll down the hill, or mountain, as the emperor’s guard would have it. Gray, thick-maned horses dot the grass in the distance.

At last, you reach the castle doors. The silver, studded panes are as tall as five men and thrown open in invitation. Blue light pulses as you step across the threshold.

But the walk isn’t over. A carpet as deep and variegated as the ocean rolls a hundred yards or more, to the base of a marble dais, up tens of steep, angled steps, to splash at the foot a bone-white throne. The ghostly bars of its frame give it the appearance of a sea creature, long since plucked to the skeleton by crabs.

The entire room looks drowned. The walls shoot far up above your head. The massive windows are full of blue and green stained glass, casting eerie, watery shadows across the whites and silvers of the interior. You feel like you’re standing in a shipwreck. Black-clad knights line the rug on each side, visors down, spears erect at their sides – like silent, sharp-toothed sharks patrolling the murk.

The man sitting the throne waves a hand.

“Come,” he says. And so you do.

Up close, the throne is impressive, with sea shells and krakens carved into its arms and legs.

The man no less so. He is dark of hair and dark of eye, with an aquiline face as hard and sharp as stone.

The two knights flanking the base of the throne thrust their spears at you.

“Kneel,” growls the fat one. Inside you balk. From the moment you arrived in Oreze, you have worked to make it better, running errands, and slaying pests, feeding the poor, and decamping rebels. And what has this emperor done but sit his throne in his lofty palace and order the murder of those who wish for more from life than the chance to plummet from the jaws of a marble dragon? Who is he and what has he done for you or anyone else that you should kneel before him?

Takahiro, though, is simple-minded. An emperor is an emperor, and speaking with this one is all he has wanted to do since arriving in the city. He will kneel. The ground rumbles beneath your feet, an almost lazy hesitance that clouds your certainty. The emperor looks down on you, patient as a rock, neither pleased nor displeased, as far as you can tell, waiting, as you wait, to see what your body will do.

You kneel. The carpet beneath your knees is worn and gritty. How many have crouched where you crouch and begged for land, for food, for their very lives, you wonder. The emperor nods at the guards and they retract their teeth, turning their dark scales back into formation.

The emperor slouches to one side of throne, resting an elbow on an armrest, his chin on a palm.

“Here stands the mythical hero from the continent,” he drawls. “The Sand Walker, the Wave Rider, the Dragon Bane. Assassin Tamer.” His lips quirk ever so slightly. “I expected more than a meaty man with a big sword. Wings perhaps. A halo.”

In your long-ago battle with the scorpions, magic pulled the creatures toward you and allowed you to cut them down in a spinning cyclone. I could yank you off that throne, you think.

“I am just a man, your majesty.”

“Don’t be so modest. I hear you’ve done a great deal of my knights’ duties of late.”

Something about the emperor’s tone, some subtle modulation, tells you he is not pleased about that. You feel the shifting of the knights behind you. You fear the bite of metal in your back. If you call, will Rasha hear you? And even if she does, can she make it to you in time to do anything but catch a glimpse of your cooling corpse before the spears fly at her, too?

“A task or two, it’s true,” you say.

“Why, I wonder, throw down such roots, reach out such helping hands? Is it your desire to be a knight? Is that why you so kindly relieve my men of their duties?”

“It would be an honor, if you’d have me. But, really, I only wanted to speak to you.”

“Well,” he says, spreading his free hand. “There you are and here I am. Speak.”

“Right. Uh. I just wanted to…warn you.”

“Ah, yes. Of Kiara and her minions, no? Don’t look so surprised. The city has eyes and ears a-plenty and you have not been quiet or subtle.”

“OK. Right. Well, you’re not safe. She wants to kill you.”

“I know.”

“You know?”

“Yes. And I knew long before you showed up. Kiara has wanted to kill me since she was a child. Her and many others. Is that your message? Your entire message?”

“Well, yes. But, sir, Kiara’s dangerous. She’s not just some street urchin cursing your name. She’s well trained. And she’s got an army. And she’s hacked her way across the world, and now she’s come back to Oreze for you. Be careful, I guess is what I want to say.”

The sharks stir and tense behind you.

“Mm-hm. I do not fear Kiara. Or you, kneeling before me in my home. You know,” he says almost conversationally, “there are those who say you are working for Kiara.”

And now it is your turn to tense. “What? I would never. She killed my family.”

“Did she? It does sound like something she would do, I admit. Nevertheless, you do her work in this city, riling the smallfolk, swelling her ranks. I neither need nor want a savior in this city.”

He stands.

“Kill him.”

Takahiro gapes stupidly. “What?” he says. “No. Why?”

If this body were under your control, you’d go after the emperor. When fighting a hydra, attack the head and the limbs will crumble. But Takahiro would never. So the emperor exits, cloak swishing as he descends the stairs on the other side of the throne, and you barely bring your sword up in time to parry the sharks descending upon you.

At first, it’s not so bad. They outnumber you fifty to one, but they don’t fight as one. Overconfident, they circle you, but only one or two at a time attack, slower, bulkier versions of Kiara’s long-ago shadows. They jab their spears. The metal tips grind and spark against your golden mail, but spears propelled by the muscles of men are nothing compared to giant scorpion claws.

The ground shakes. The light glares kaleidoscopic through the stained glass windows. And Takahiro moves as if following the commands of your thoughts. Block, you think, and you do. The flesh that shakes with the impact feels like it belongs to you. You and Takahiro and the string puller somewhere out there beyond the cracked glass are united in your desire to keep this body alive. You are not afraid.

When the first spear snaps and cracks beneath the bite of your blade, the knights’ jabs become vicious, and the number of bodies in the ring increases. Those outside the circle pace restlessly. Like sharks batting their noses against metal cages, they begin to realize the futility of their actions.

Spears are terrible close range weapons. And their reach is not the advantage they are used to, as your blade is nearly as long. You’ll shred their weapons to kindling long before they get close enough to wound you.

When five clunking knights dart at you, you remove a hand from the hilt of your sword and curl it into a fist. The men jerk into the air. Their spears clatter to the marble floor and they come rushing toward you, limbs akimbo. They halt inches from you, pinwheeling their arms and legs as if to catch their balance. You flick your fingers outward and the men shoot like torpedoes, hitting columns and walls with sickening cracks, then sliding to the ground and lying still. One rolls across the floor, knocking over a horde of his allies. They make a racket like an armful of dropped pots as they tip over.

Huh, you think. That’s new.

It was the wrong move, though. The remaining knights rush you, spears first, like a shiver of sharks.

Things get hairy. You and Takahiro and the ground shaker lose your cohesion. First one spear and then another batter the weak points of your armor. This is nothing, you think. I fought shadows in a bamboo forest. I defeated a forty-foot arthropod. I slayed the dragon of Troll’s Keep, probably.

Slam go the spears against your elbows and sides, knees and neck. Slam, slam, slam. Like a relentless tide. Inside the armor, the blows reverberate, like the aftermath of a bell toll or an underwater explosion, more a matter of displacement than sound.

So, you’ll lose. The worst that can happen is you’ll have to do it again. You’ll fall and bleed and die, pricked and stinging and alone, but you’ll rematerialize, stepping through the castle’s enormous doors, blue light pulsing. And next time, you’ll fight better and win. And if not that time, then the next.

That is what you are thinking when a jagged piece of steel punctures the seam that runs from underarm to hip, slicing straight through two ribs, then retreats, yanking a spurt of blood in its wake.

“Rasha!” Takahiro shouts, voice booming and echoing off whale-bone walls, out the door, and down the hill to its intended target, no doubt.

The icy fingers that clench your heart are worse than death. Death is nothing. But this. Why, you wonder, would he do that, call her? Make a fuss, and I’ll come, she said. And she will, you know. She always does. She will run in, flipping and spinning and slashing to save your unworthy life, and she will die. And you will have to watch.

Why did he do it? You behead one knight and then the next and next. Should you end it? Should you will the world to stop? Stop before she gets here and you have to watch the golden sparks in her eyes die?

You wonder, but you have no time to act. A knight hits your helm so hard with the butt of his spear that the world turns to bells and light. Flat on your back, you clench your sword, but are unable to swing it. You can do nothing but groan and writhe on the ground while you are stabbed and stabbed and stabbed.

* * *

The room goes dark; it’s like you’ve sunk to the bottom of the ocean, the sunlight finally too far away to see. Or like a cloud passes above the waves, blotting out the light. At first, you think it’s just tunnel vision, just your sight failing as blood gushes out of your veins. But it’s not.

It is men and women, shrouded head to toe in black, darting through the room so thickly, they blot out the stained-glass-distorted light as they did in the bamboo clearing so long ago at the start of your journey. It is Kiara’s assassins. And striding behind them is Kiara herself. Or is it?

The woman is dressed as you remember: in blacks head to heel, her hair and mouth covered with her midnight balaclava. She swings her katana at her side, like a child with a toy. Twirl, twirl, twirl in her right hand. Then she tosses it to her left and twirls again, no less gracefully.

The assassins have cleared the space around you, and your head is starting to clear, too. Fallen knights ring you as if you’re the epicenter of a blast. The assassin’s form a larger, wider ring around the dead knights. And Kiara is headed straight for the clearing around you, spinning her katana the way Rasha spins her daggers. Her eyes are flat and solemn, but golden, like Rasha’s. Her skin is the same cocoa brown as Rasha’s. Like Rasha, like Rasha, like Rasha. Oh.

You push onto your elbows and the whole room lists sideways, like a sinking ship. Liquid rushes into your eyes and you blink, eyeballs stinging, world tinted red. Your body sears and aches in a million places.

“Rasha?” Takahiro rasps, like an idiot, spitting blood with his words.

The woman stoops before you to look you in the eye. She loosens the bolt of cloth stretched across the bottom half of her face, freeing her lips. You can see pieces of the vivid hair, cropped jaggedly around her ears. Jagged it has been as long as you’ve known her, not for style, you realize, but because it had just recently been shorn.

“No. But I did have a sister, Rasha, long ago. Just as I had a scrawny, sooty cat. And before that, parents.

“That was my price, you see, for every lie ought to have a cost, and that was mine. To hear you say her name, over and over, day in and day out, in friendship and trust. Like a lash again my skin. Remember, remember what might have been.

“But now the charade is over, the debt is paid, and I do not wish to hear this name anymore. I am Kiara. Call me as such.”

“Wh-why?” Takahiro chokes.

“Why, what? Rasha, the cat, my parents? Because there was never enough – food, water, clothes, beds, money, love – anything. And whose fault is that? The emperor’s!”

“No. Why me? Why did you need me?”

“Need you? I didn’t at all. I just…liked you. The way you fought, the way you moved, how you could be so bright and righteous. Even after I killed your family and burned your birthright, I never saw you cry. You remind me of her, my sister. She’d have liked you.”

Rasha. No, not Rasha. Kiara places a vial of one of her healing potions on your chest. “Drink this, but leave. Go back to your room in the tavern and run your petty errands and say hello to me now and again when I sit the throne in this room. Or go home, back across the ocean and the desert to rebuild. Or back to your woman, wherever she is. Whatever you do, stay out of my way. I will remember we were friends, and I’ll do you no harm.”

She leans over, and kisses your cheek. You ache to put your arms around her, even though she betrayed you, even though she lied every moment you knew her about who she was.

But then, didn’t you as well? Doesn’t the flesh draped over your skull – Takahiro’s honest, naïve eyes and lips – conceal the feelings that swirl and thump beneath your ribs, the thoughts that zap and flash, dendrite to dendrite beneath your skull? Are you any less a liar? Is anyone?

“Drink,” she says, standing, and it sounds like I’m sorry. It sounds like Goodbye. Because she must know, as you know, that Takahiro will never heed her advice.

She and her shadows move off, in the direction the emperor fled, their treads soft as mouse steps. The room brightens, but your eyes slip shut, and your body goes limp. The vial rests in a dip between the scales of your breastplate, but Takahiro is too weak to reach for it.

At first you think that perhaps that is for the best. But as you lie there, stinging and burning, blood seeping from your many wounds, staring at dark backs of Takahiro’s eyelids, with your thoughts whirling as normal, you begin to fear what will happen if Takahiro dies. Will you begin again at the last flashing blue light? Or will you remain trapped in this cold, dark corpse forever? Game over?

Wake up, you think futilely, because when have you ever been able to move his limbs?

Before the burning mansion you were nothing. But nothing would be better than this. Yes, you’d rather be nothing.

I don’t want this. Go away. Stop. You think these words very clearly and you feel their effect immediately. You cannot see, but there’s a warping in the air. A sliding. A rending. And then something else. The ground beneath your back shakes.

Ah, the creature beyond the glass. The ground rumbler. Well, it makes sense. Who would want to guide a creature so far just to watch it die like this: betrayed, tricked, beaten. Pathetic, idiotic, pointless? Maybe you have more in common with the ground rumbler than you thought. Maybe you are not so different. Co-travelers, really. It the driver, you the passenger. Maybe you can communicate after all. Spur the horse or I’ll grab the reins and buck us both, you said. And it spurred the horse.

The floor quakes like the world is going to split apart. Wake up, you try again. And Takahiro does. Your eyes slit open. The room is impressionistic: watery and fuzzy. Outside the stained-glass windows, light pings and blazes like a thousand meteors disintegrating in the atmosphere.

Stiff and slow and heavy as a statue coming to life, you raise your hands to your chest and grip the vial. The ground shakes so hard your armor rattles as you pop the cork cap. You tip the liquid down your throat, then collapse again, the glass tinkling away across the floor.

The sensation is as you remember, the sweet bubbles tickling their way down your throat and into your belly. The odd pulling, fusing, but painless sensation of your skin knitting together. The warmth washing back into your body, pushing back the icy wave of death.

You push to your elbows, then to your knees, then to your feet. You sway and have to lay a palm against a marble column to prevent yourself from falling over. It’s too soon, the potion has not finished its work, or perhaps it was not strong enough to completely heal you, but Takahiro doesn’t care. You lurch from column to column, weaving across the long, wide hall behind the throne – empty now of bodies, the corpses having disappeared while your eyes were closed – until you reach a set of tall, silver doors that match the ones at the hall’s entrance. They are cracked and splintered, already forced open. One teeters, partially off its hinges. You shoulder your way through, and the world wobbles blue around you as the cross the threshold.

* * *

Beyond the doors is a long corridor littered with bodies. Knights and assassins both lie crumpled against buttresses and beneath window sills. Here and there an unarmored, finely dressed servant adds a dash of color. A window runs along the right side of the hallway, and outside, the city is in flames, all quarters alike – blue and brown, green and gray, high and low. Black plumes of smoke twirl toward the heavens from the whole of the city. You run.

Staircases branch and arc away as the walls curve and angle. But it is impossible to get lost. You follow the trail of corpses, holding your side, where a particularly bad stab still dribbles blood, barely managing to keep your feet beneath you.

When the corridor widens, fanning out into a semicircular hall, it happens so fast, you can barely process the thought, let alone stop it. You have been so careful, so of course that is how it happens. Your reaction to the thing lying, beautiful and broken, on the floor is so negative, so disbelieving, the walls start to shake and tumble and jerk sideways, rending into zigzag shapes like cloth, like a play’s backdrop. Somewhere, there is a smash of shattering glass. Nobody and nothing can move. Not you, or Kiara, or the emperor standing over her corpse. You’re all frozen as the world tears apart. As the walls and floors fall away, revealing a terrible, gaping nothing, a void, blacker than soot, blacker than night, blacker than space. From nothing you came, and to nothing you return. OK, you think, eyes locked on Kiara’s severed head. OK.

* * *

You reappear outside the throne room’s splintered doors, holding your sluggishly bleeding side a millennium, an age, an eon later. Outside the window, the city is on fire. On the horizon, between the grasping flames and the choking smoke, there is a hole in the sky. A jagged, chipped hole, like broken glass. Radiating from the hole, the old gossamer cracks have widened into ridged arms, like starfish limbs. Beyond the glass, you can see a faint shadow. A faint, but massive shadow, humanoid, sitting, and holding some object in its hands.

As before, you run, swerving around the bodies on the floor. When you cross into the hall, you try to slow your pounding heart. Accept, you tell yourself. This is the way Kiara’s story ends. And even if you don’t like it, there’s nothing to be done. Even if you could somehow throw yourself out the window or fall on your sword, you would only reappear outside the throne room. Whatever decisions you or Takahiro or the ground rumbler made that resulted in you standing here, looking down on Kiara’s beheaded body, they have already been made and it is too late to change them.

It is fair, in its own way. She cut off the heads of Takahiro’s family, and probably the families of many others. And in turn, the emperor cut off her head. It is fair. It is just. It is what she deserves. But if this is justice, then justice is only half served. Those fires outside are not only Kiara’s. If the dragon slays the kraken, in turn the dragon must be slayed. They are both monsters, not fit to cohabitate with humans. Takahiro seems to agree.

You lunge, slashing at the emperor with your cleaver. He parries with a thin blade that shines like a full moon, so bright it hurts your eyes. It’s also strong enough to stop your sword, and sharp, too, as you soon find out.

The fight is hard. You are aware of that. The emperor is no slouch, did not come to rule this city solely through money and influence. He is fast and vicious, kicking, elbowing, and spitting along with his slices. But you are too numb to pay much attention. Takahiro can handle it. The shadow outside the glass can figure it out. You can only focus on Kiara’s body in the periphery of your vision. Blood pools around her neck, like a drooping, crimson blossom. Her head is turned on its side several feet away, eyes wide and lifeless, the stump of her neck splattered and gristled.

The clash of metal on metal vibrates up your arms, into your shoulders and neck, and makes your teeth clunk against one another, but you can only think of Kiara, her life and its struggles snuffed out.

In the end, you knock the emperor to the ground and plant your sword in his chest. You feel the metal push through bone and tissue and hit the marble floor beneath his torso. He grips the blade, bloodying his fingers.

“Impossible,” he rasps, then dies, still reaching for you, trying to fight back. Well, he and Kiara had that in common then, the absolute disbelief in their own failure.

You lean against your sword and breathe and bleed. You feel lightheaded. You wonder if you will die now, finally. Kiara is dead. Your family is avenged. The emperor is dead, so Kiara is avenged. What else is left to do?

* * *

This is what you are thinking when a woman steps from behind a column. She is like a washed-out, watercolor version of Kiara. Pastel, cotton candy purple waves slither to her waist. Small irises, more buttery than amber, size you up from flesh more cream than chocolate. Her cheekbones are sharper. Her face is more narrow and pointed. No, she doesn’t seem like she can be any relation to Kiara, but the coloring bears a faint resemblance.

She claps and giggles, a chilling, warbling tinkle.

“I must thank you, Sand Walker,” she says, “for doing me such a great favor.”

“Who are you?” Takahiro asks, stupidly, as usual, for a silver tiara – its loops and whorls wrought in the shape of a coiled dragon – perches atop her delicately boned head. The woman chuckles again, close mouthed, eyes crinkled.

“Why, I am Empress Sahar. My husband lies just there, at your feet.”

“I-” Takahiro says, then snaps his mouth shut, faltering.

“Don’t fret.” The woman steps closer, peering down at the emperor’s cooling corpse. “As I said, you’ve done me a favor. Two ducks, one falcon. So efficient.” Her gaze flickers to your face. “It’s a shame I can’t make more use of you. You are…” she inhales deeply as if sniffing you, eyes momentarily closing, “…strong. Capable. Righteous. Handsome.” Her lips curl. “You’d make a good bedmate. Or even, perhaps a husband. But alas, I hardly think the city will love the man who killed the last emperor, hated though he was.”

Takahiro pulls the sword free from the emperor’s chest. The empress smiles at the blood that wells from the gruesome hole. Though she is thin and weak and dainty, you do not think he is wrong to be wary, to want the protection.

“So, you’re not…upset?”

“Hardly. My family has ruled Oreze since man acquired the patience to plant his food in the ground and wait for the seeds to bloom. Cornelio and his line were always mad, brutish usurpers. You have reestablished the rightful order.”

“And Kiara?”

The empress looks at the beloved body and shrugs. “A distant relative of mine, from a shamed, banished branch of the family who lived as it deserved in poverty and squalor. But she could not accept her lot. I am not sad to see her family extinguished. She’d have killed me as easily as my husband, blood bond irrelevant in the face of my wealth and status.”

The empress reaches into the folds of her green, silk dress. Your fingers tighten on the handle of your blade. She holds out a doll. A fragile, porcelain doll, swathed in velvet and painted in golds and silvers. The joints are held together with pins. No, not a doll. A puppet, you realize. An ornate puppet, with spider silk, nearly invisible strings that end in finger loops rather than rods.

“Now,” she says, “I really must thank you. This trinket will bring serenity and sweet dreams to its owner.”

You remember Kiara’s warning that the gates and walls of the palace were drenched in poison. You wonder if that was Sahar’s doing. You take the puppet with your left hand. The gauntlet on that hand is more intact, so you risk less chance of the porcelain touching your skin that way. Also, you can keep your right, the strong one, on your blade. The empress smirks at you, knowing, as if she can see straight through Takahiro to you.

“It is just a toy,” she says. “If you find it disquieting, it will certainly fetch a high price at any merchant’s stall.”

Once you stash the puppet, she walks to the window. She breathes deep again, as if sniffing the charring flesh below. She smiles.

“Now,” she says, back turned, “I really must insist you go. Leave the city, and do not return. Your work here is done. It will be easy to slip out of the city in the chaos. Impossible once I sit the throne properly and send guards scouring the streets for the monster that slew the emperor, as I must do. So, thank you, and goodbye.”

You slink away, fearing some weapon will fly at your back, like Takahiro’s butler, all that long time ago. But none comes. The empress just smirks into the night, oblivious to the ragged hole in the sky, as you retrace your path out of the castle.

* * *

The End

Sahar is right. No one anywhere makes any attempt to stop you. You wind your way through the city, to the docks. The heat and soot remind you of the burning mansion at the beginning of your existence. Your feet move without your consent, callous to the carnage around you.

At the docks, you steal a boat, and push off into the sea. You don’t know how to sail, you don’t know how to navigate, but you face the boat away from Oreze, and hope you don’t capsize. You don’t.

At sea, time does that odd thing that it did in Oreze when you adventured and ran errands: condenses, collapses, blends, and folds over itself.

You come ashore in the desert what must be weeks later, but feels like no time at all. A caravan is assembled nearby, the camels chewing the straggly grass near the shore, as if waiting for you.

The caravan takes you to the scorpion-plagued town in the desert. You eat in the tavern, and rent a room to sleep. No one asks you to do anything.

You make use of the repetitive merchants to repair your armor, the spider woman’s golden, hydra-ornamented armor.

You set off from the town and walk the hot sands. You jump the gorge and do not die. In fact, you jump the gorge with ease. It’s hard to imagine that once this was a task that challenged you, that could snatch the life from your lungs, even if only momentarily.

As you walk, Takahiro keeps running his fingers over the scalding armor, brushing away the sand. And he fingers the cool, porcelain puppet. And you begin to fear.

Somehow you know, deep down, you aren’t going home. You won’t pass through the lush bamboo forest or the charred orchards. You won’t see the burned out shell of your mansion. You won’t fix it up and learn to live with your losses.

You will stop at the spider woman’s sprawling plot of land. Takahiro will hang the puppet above his bed, and perhaps not forget Kiara, but be okay with her loss. He will return the spider woman’s armor and stay forever in her cold embrace. Perhaps you will marry and have children, day after day staring into her pale face, telling her you love her, while she looks at you with her insect’s eyes.

Or maybe you will arrive at her door and the world will fade to black. The end. Happily ever after.

Or maybe you will touch the puppet with your bare skin and die, poisoned and tricked again.

Can you allow it, any of it, to happen to you? Will you continue to be moved, a puppet on a string, to whatever fate the ground rumbler has in store for you? You can see it still, a shadow looming beyond the rips in the sky. And who can say where it ends? Perhaps your decisions are beyond the shadow’s control as well. Maybe you are a puppet of a puppet?

But there is something you can do, something you can choose. How much more damage can the glass take after all? If you break it enough, maybe you will be able to walk through it to the other side, to meet your god face to face. Or maybe there will be nothing, just void, just blackness.

Can you do it? Are you brave enough?

Takahiro fingers the puppet, the spider woman’s estate hovering like a mirage in the distance.

You thought you didn’t care. You thought you had nothing to live for. You thought your story was finished. You thought you’d rather choose death than be killed. But.

Later, you think. I can always choose it later, if need be.

– –

Carla E. Dash lives in Quincy, MA with her husband, two cats, and brand-new daughter. She teaches ELL students, procrastinates via video games and anime, and occasionally buckles down and writes. Her writing has appeared in Polychrome Ink Literary Magazine, Meerkat Press’s Love Hurts anthology, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, and Punchnel’s.