You Must (Not) Let Go
The ground flew beneath her feet. Soft, feathery grass and wildflowers whipped by, smacking her skin, releasing clouds of pollen in her wake. The wind moved with her, carrying her and the pollen through the spread out trees, fresh and new. The warmth on her head became too heavy. She and the wind parted ways, she heading down where the trees hugged each other closely, their fingers lacing together to create the cool dark. A clump of leaves, rotting and slimy from earlier wetness, gave way beneath her foot. Her leg slipped from under her. She grabbed hold of a nearby tree. The rough bark bit into her skin, sharp pain tearing through her fingertips, alertness flaring up her spine.
--pain, anger, swirls of smoke and fear wrapping around her, clogging up her lungs, smothering her skin, loneliness, loneliness, loneliness--
She shook herself off, stepping round the black pit of agony. Brushing her hand off, she licked the palm clean, soothing the skin with the flat of her tongue. It stung, tasting of salt and dirt and blood. She ambled down through the trees, crushing sweet-smelling leaves and bark between her teeth, everything a dappled sea of greens and browns in her flat half-vision. The air was damp and smelled of growing things. It clung to her skin, running in rivulets through the pollen coating her, burning her weary lungs. Her muscles ached, grew tired. The trees creaked and rustled above her head, clacking and whispering their hellos to each other as she passed. She felt like stopping, so she did. Finding the softest patch of foliage, she curled up and closed her eyes. The creature slept.
Blue eyes widened with shock, a spark of anger kindling in their depths. She quailed beneath their baleful gaze. It was her fault. It was her fault. It was her fault.,/p>
She shook her head, knocking herself free. The bright heat from above was warm on her back, loosening her contented, sated body, soaking into the rock below her. She stretched, luxuriating in each cracked joint, each pleasantly wrung out muscle. A titanic yawn split her jaw. There was a stickiness painting her lips and cheeks. She flicked her tongue out, tasting intense sweetness spiced with something that tugged at her brain. She licked it up greedily, sweeping her tongue around the crevices of her mouth to capture every last morsel.
Warm lips pressed against her own. She opened her mouth, tasting herself on the other’s tongue. She moaned, desire coursing through her veins. A soft laugh reverberated through her chest. The other wound her fingers through her hair, inscribing her love on her skin. The other’s heart beat next to hers. Beloved arms tightened around her, legs entwining hers, pulling her close, holding her tight. She kissed the raised lines ringing the other’s neck.
The blow caught her across the jaw, angry blue eyes burning into her. The air turned to lightning. She wrapped her arms around herself, bundling into a cocoon. It was her fault, her fault she was hurting so much.
She thumped her head against the rocks to stop the thoughts. Then rolled on the ground clutching at her forehead and crying. She scrambled to the narrow water running close by, shovelling it into her mouth to obliterate the deceitful, lying taste. The clear water glittered on the rocks and the moss, impossibly pure browns and greys flashing silver as they tumbled over each other, soft green waving as they passed by. Light caught the droplets on her skin, turning them into jewels on smooth brown rock. She smacked the water gleefully, throwing a spray up into the air. She did it again. It was beautiful. She itched with the need to show it to somebody. Where were they? She was sure she remembered… Where was her mate? She should be right here. Her insides ached. She missed being touched, missed it by a particular other. She wanted it.
don’t deserve it, the face in the water said. don’t deserve happiness.
She shied away from the water's edge. Where was her beloved? Why wasn’t she close by? She called into the trees and the rocks, longing and distress pulling at her.
don’t deserve it. too much blood. The face began to pour red from its eyes, from its mouth. too much death. too much pain. all because of you.
The water gushed red, flooding all the beauty. The rocks burned, splitting, cracking, roasting flesh. Above her turned black, acrid clouds choking and searing, stinging eyes and lungs. She saw a flash, pale skin, dark brown hair disappearing into the woods. She cried out, reaching, reaching. The blackness followed the path of her hand, snuffing the figure out of existence. She wailed.
The sky boiled above her head, terrible gobs of oily residue dripping from the firmament, leaking onto the broken and split ground. Everything was dead all around her. Everything was dead and it was all her--
you shouldn’t have tried. you will only hurt her.
Everyone, everyone. Everyone who had ever gotten close to her. She hurt them all. Tearing into them like a wild--
she’s going to leave you. after all this, after everything you’ve put her through. all of them are going to leave. not a single one is going to stand by your--
Shredding them with her teeth, her claws. None are safe from--
and they will be right.
Not even those in the farthest reaches of the galaxy could escape her ravenous hunger! No peace could stand, no rest or solitude or fellowship. She expanded, a bloated, grotesque corpse where a person should have been, eating everything, covering everything, blotting out all--
--hot, stinking blackness, blood and sweat and piss and shit pervading every pore and nostril, the stench of death blossoming in the briny dark, the cry of a child--
this is why you shouldn’t be around others. especially the young and the impressionable.
And then when she was done with them she wouldn’t even bother to remember--
you will hurt them.
--rotting flesh, desperation, the sting of disinfectant ineffective against the infestation, bones hanging loose from each other, muscle, skin separating, the sick worm of guilt eating her intestines--
It was her fault. Everything was her--
this is what comes from wanting things. it was better before. when all there was was the duty and nothing else.
--bone-crushing weariness, blessed text blurring before her eyes, thin shell cracking, familiar, tasteless powder coating her tongue, fulfilling her base needs, a flash in the window, she tugged her robe closer, concealing her wretched shell of flesh and matter--
People were tearing at each other. The air hummed an anxious, atonal note through the claustrophobic mass of life, throbbing, pulsing, maddening. She opened her mouth to tell them to stop. They frenzied, ripping flesh, gnashing bone. It was her. It was coming from her. It was--
There was a stalky thing in front of her, chubby, creamy pale with a round, toasted cap on top to protect its head. There was a bite taken out of it, fresh white flesh winking out of the jagged hole. She didn’t blame whatever creature had munched on the poor thing. It looked tasty. Familiar, even. In some strange…
--warm, yeasty steam rising from the bag, curling into her nose and stomach, an arm snaking around her neck, pulling her in for a kiss, hot mug warming fingers--
She took a swipe at it, her mouth salivating. Odd. It didn’t taste how she expected. Not bad, just… She took another bite, her head pressing against the problem. It could be better. It needed to be… made different. Ripened. Or something. Cold, wet leaves stuck to her cheeks and chin as she rooted for the rest of the stalk. She licked up the crumbs, snagging some dirt in the process. Someone had already devoured the rest, a brace of butchered stalk ends peeking out of the fallen foliage. Pity. She had hoped to solve the mystery of the not-quite-right tasty thing. She would have to seek out further samples.
Everything was a soft grey, silvery and blue, dripping from the trees and the sky. The hair on her body stood on end, protecting herself from the refreshing cold. She shook herself, scattering dampness from the thick fuzz covering her head. The ground was soft and full of water beneath her feet. Leaves and dirt stuck to her skin. Blades of wet grass kindly wiped them off, depositing little gifts of pollen and tufted seeds in their place. The sky grumbled softly in its sleep. She yawned, scratching idly at her stomach. An uncomfortable fullness sat in her hips and groin. She cleared a patch of twigs and creeping vines with her foot, careful to avoid the delicate shoots, fresh green against the dark earth, as she released her excess liquid and food waste.
you’re a fraud.
She tensed, then wiped herself clean on a helpful leaf, studiously ignoring the shadow voice. She groaned a little as she stood, tiny bursts of pain flaring in her hip and leg. Some part of her brain told her this was normal. She strolled slowly downhill, pulling and stretching the muscle gently, letting the activity heat it. It helped. As she had known it would. But there was a better way to do this. A different way. If she could only… There was something she was supposed to be doing. She wasn’t supposed to be here. Why couldn’t she…
Something prickled between her shoulder blades. She froze in place, breathing shallow. A sick spike of fear split her, twisting, familiar, drowning every cell in dread. Her heart thundered in her chest. Her head felt light, like it was going to float right off her neck.
you can never bring them back. you can never undo what you’ve done.
--the ground exploded at her feet, a wet spray of atomised remains splattering her cloak, the air in her throat rank with the stench of cooked flesh--
Running, running, running. Plants snapped and whipped against her legs, the world a confusing, flat blur of green and brown. Instinct alone kept her from splitting her skull open on an unseen tree, shattering her limbs, driving splintered ribs into her lungs. The forest whispered behind her back, chattering and pointing as she passed. She could hear them. She could hear them sniffing out her scent, gnashing their teeth as they plotted their revenge.
this is why they all left you.
A branch snapped, calling out her position.
it’s what you wanted, isn’t it? it’s what you were made for.
The forest bayed. They were all around her, she could hear them. They were going to make her pay. They were going to divide her up, peel her skin, roast her flesh. Vines snaked out to grab her, to trip her up. She jumped free of them, turning sharply to confuse the pursuing ghosts.
“You’re a fraud.”
The air barked and snapped at her, the clouds pelting her with their disdain, their disappointment. The ground turned slick beneath her, pushing her feet this way and that as she ran, undermining her, trying to overthrow her. The river roared for her blood. Light flashed out to catch her, to sear her, growling angrily as she slipped through its fingers.
“Everybody thinks you’re so great, so righteous and just but you are not.”
--the mites crawling over her skin tore at each other, ripping, tearing, choking. A great bang hit her. She quaked, tilting. Her skin rippled, burning, all of her air was burning, ghosts were screaming in her pores--
She slipped, twigs and weeds clawing at her skin with their tiny barbs, rain pummeling her into the mud.
“You are empty.”
--she was beautiful and free, the neck of her blue and gold paisley shirt left fashionably open, heavy gold chain showing expert craftsmanship where it hung against her dark skin. She was leaning on her knee, one foot resting on a low table, her friends, all young and beautiful, sitting around it or standing by her side. A bottle opener hung loosely in one hand, a bottle of something pink and cheerful grasped in the other, fine rings gracing the strong fingers. She popped the cap off the bottle and handed it to one of the attractive young women with a shrug and a comment. Her friends laughed, their faces lighting up in her presence. She smiled. Effortless. Charming.
Pincer-like fingers dug into her arm just above her elbow. Her gaze lingered on the woman, even as the stench of alcohol and too many showers not taken penetrated her robe, dragging her back to reality. She was burdened with a feeling she could not name.
“You disgust me. You are nothing. Nothing but an empty shell inside.”--
--she caught the faceplate of the helmet in one hand, slamming the head into the hard rubber flooring covering the deck. Shock rippled through her enemy, swiftly replaced by sharp alarm as her knife bit into his neck, severing arteries, tendons. Blood gushed over her hand as she sawed the broad, flat blade back and forth, painting her glove red. She placed her knee on the spine of the knife, snapping through vertebrae with her bodyweight. She held the head aloft for the stunned crowd to see.
“Here is your leader!”
She flexed her fingers and reached out, crushing the helmeted head like an overripe melon. The ship jolted as the planet below crumpled, dragging screaming billions with it--
She was boiling in pitch blackness, flames tearing at her flesh. A soft, tart thing was forced into her mouth covered in a sweet syrup. She coughed and swallowed, then bit. The metal of reality twisted and shrieked, piercing the soft swollen meat of her brain. She jammed her hands over her ears, the sound ricocheting around the inside of her cranium.
it’s only what you deserve.
“No! I don’t want this!”
what is it you want, beast? why did you come here?
“I want--” Pain split her head. She thrashed, trying to claw her skull from her head. She was restrained. “I want--!”
--a tender smile in the morning, a shoulder jostling hers--
you don’t deserve that. you should be grateful not to be torn limb from limb.
--skin turning black as the electricity boiled blood in its veins, tiny bones crushed in the falling walls of a supposed sanctuary--
--trust curdling to the hollow, sour taste of betrayal, despair, the frantic rush for safety, for shelter obliterated by the heat and the light and the pressure, followed by the cold and the dark and the sick--
“I know, I know!” She convulsed, tears running down her face. “How can anyone stand such a creature to live? The thought makes me sick to my stomach!”
The rocks and the shadows flinched. but it had to be done, don’t you see? how many more would have suffered otherwise? how long would the conflict have continued?
“Bullshit! Fuck off! It didn’t have to be done! Nothing ever has to be done! What the fuck kind of brilliant genius manages to kill and maim so many fucking people? Rip everything, uproot families and communites like a, like a fucking plague of locusts!” --Wes’s blood was hot around her fist, the slow pulse pumping the life of him out-- She choked back a sob, biting down angrily on her grief. “Amazing! Deserves a fucking prize, fucking idiot!”
then the only answer is suicide.
She said nothing. She wrapped her arms tightly around her sweat-soaked head and turned away, wanting to shut everything out.
--the head was heavy in her hands, flesh and tendons hung uselessly from the ragged cut, what used to be a person dripping from the severed vertebra--
--the older boy’s viciously scarred head dripped sadly onto the grimy, compacted-trash floor of the hall, the young boy’s hands shaking ever so slightly as he held his prize aloft for the others, his jaw clenched deathly tight, a haunted hollowness in his eyes--
poor kid. you deserved better.
She shook her head, the stray thought confusing her. What she’d done, what she’d wrought, none of it had anything to do with anyone else. Why had she thought that? It was a stupid thing to think. The feeling lingered, though, a persistent niggle worrying at her thought processes. The kid did deserve better. No one should have to put up with what they did. It was cruel the burdens they’d been given to bear.
This was confusing to her. They were just a kid. It seemed so obvious, why couldn’t the rocks and the shadows see this.
there’s blood on those hands. and intent to gather more.
--their lips thinned, a hard, satisfied glint in their eyes.
“I have a plan to deal with them.”--
--their eyes were wide, the father, dark skin, curly hair, with his arms around his two tiny children, trying to control his fear, not fully succeeding, worrying what their captors were going to do to them--
Her stomach twisted, anger and grief on their victims behalf, fear and quiet rage at the thought that something like that might happen to someone she loved. But she would not budge. She wanted things to go better for them. She wanted them to stop what they were doing and be happier. She wanted…
She saw a figure sitting in a dark room, alone, again. Their back was bowed, their shoulders slumped, a shameful moment of weakness in their solitude. They fought against the exhaustion consuming them, the stress and anxiety poisoning their sleep, ironing out their posture with brutal firmness, putting on a good show for an audience of none. Something like pity pierced her heart. You stupid asshole…
A pulse hit her brain like a magnet brought in range of its partner. It moved through her, pulling her up, her feet moving before they even touched soil. The shadows cried out in alarm but she paid them no heed, gripped by the need to go. Sera Khan ran out of the cave and into the light.
Here is the first draft of Part 9, such as it is. I'm pretty sure it's going to need some editing because it feels, um, confusing but I'm not going to do that yet. Partly because I'm tired and all the end of year bullshit still needs to get done on top of work but also because I just need some space from it to forget what I've written already and what my intent was and be able to read it with (relatively) fresh eyes. So, I'm going to start on Part 10 in the meantime and come back to this after a week or so. This is a short chapter anyway, it doesn't hurt for there to be less time between this one and the next chapter.