The Older Brother

He didn’t know his body was capable of withstanding such pain. When he mustered enough of his mind to focus on the concrete crushing too many ribs, the weight finally eased off him. He was trying to decide if his visions was flashing white or black before he blinked into his dim surroundings.

Then he made the blunder to sit up. A fitful, wet cough reminded him of his stupidity. How many times was he shot again? He laughed inwardly.

Hey, if agony meant that he was alive, he’s all for it.

Then everything became really funny. He couldn’t contain his laughter as he attempted to wipe his hands clean, gave up, dared to stand up but gravity betrayed him for the first time in a long time. He heard a pathetic cry as he fell back down, realized he was even more pathetic than whoever made that sound since he wasn’t going to admit that it was him.

What?

He rested his pounding head against the pillar he didn’t know he was leaning against. He will just wait it out, he could already hear his bones snapping back to place, scoffed, wandered if he might as well throw himself off the building to make his brother’s job of finding him easier. Or just to end it all. That would be nice.

Then he listened to the ring of silence, the creak of crumbling concrete and a busted pipe somewhere dripping away, each drop shot into the earth, drummed his throbbing skull.

One, he counted. He saw the bullet sailing. He was at his limit, though, he could only hold so many collapsing buildings in place at once. He was desperate enough to resort to misleading human means, pulled a pistol and aimed and shot, twice. She was blind, a blind bitch she was, blind to him and deaf to the clink of his shot colliding into the first, the wet thunk of his second shot enter the thick skull of a dispensable goon.

Still, she didn’t trust him. God he tore his heart out for her, he never was a romantic, never really made the effort to maintain a proper conversation before: whoever he was talking to always label him as an asshole and the “meaner” twin and make some snide comment about their disbelief of someone so nasty being a twin to good, ole, cute, sweet Gabriel.

God, they don’t know Gabe.

Still he said things to her, stupid things like a lovesick teenager…God he should throw himself off the building now. He still don’t know her real name.

She drew her own pistol, that bitch was wrong on so many levels. Did she really think he can’t aim if he wanted her head? Did she think he would bother saving her ass so many times if he wanted her dead?

At this point he still wants himself dead more than her.

He spat, discovering for the first time the iron bar protruding from his chest. He scoffed, plucked it out and measured the warmth and texture of his blood as hands were washed in it again. God, he was still not fucking dying.

Two.

The searing heat found his shoulder first, made the building across from them sag from its suspension just a little. It was a mall. A popular one. He can’t drop that one now. Three, found his side, he crumbled to his knees, he could almost hear the screams of the people in that mall, felt the ground beneath him rumble and screech. He called for his brother.

Four.

Five.

Seven. Oh, shit. He meant six. Ha, he went to college, he can count.

He heard her despair ring in the clicks of an empty magazine. His brother was screaming something. That’s unusual.

He drew a scarlet smile on the concrete he brushed aside earlier, his eyes adjusted to the dark enough.

“Fuck.”

The voice was a pretty solid croak. He can’t find the powders that was left of the lenses of his glasses. Fuck.

He tried standing again a nap later, stretched and brushed the dust off. He brushed off the notion of throwing himself off that inviting edge.

What a shame, he picked up the broken frame of what was left of his glasses and tossed it up and down.

Two things of his won’t heal themselves. He strolled towards the caved in entrance.

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The Silent Gulf

She was stabbing at the drowned brisket — the culprit is…school dining halls and BBQ sauce — with a viking’s viciousness and a mastery of table manners to match: I was contemplating if I should offer her my knife as the lengthy table shook with each anxious saw of her spoon.

Really, a fucking spoon?

This whole time her eyes were glued to her phone, I tried to make eye contact and be friendly but she darted me a glare. Can she be self-conscious about her manners or lack of? As she clenched her teeth about her fork and wrenched off the smothered chunk of pasta I cringed internally as the sound lead me to a recent memory of a chapter just published, where my heroine may or may not have broken someone’s finger. Or two.

I cringed not at the imagined pain or visual, but the strange, unintentional parallel I drew between this ill-mannered stranger who chose the seat opposite to me as supposed to the large expanses of open tables literally anywhere else and my beloved character.

That’s besides the point.

My attention was ripped away from one loud-chewer to another faster than the girl could rip another string of ruined pork apart. The boy sitting diagonal to me, two empty seats away from the girl, gave up on angling his phone with the phone-case-stand and just held it in his spare hand, the other mirroring his neighbor’s murder-spree-style of eating.

I wasn’t hungry, disgusted. The only question is with which of the three.

The general addictions to small screens that help us evade the bigger picture, the lack of manners, my rush to judgement.

I watch my offering a knife fall into the dark abyss between yet another stranger breathes away from me. Just another night with realizations only a dosage of loneliness could reveal.

LXVI.

She saw its brown feathers bristled as it hurled a spearman midhurl. A loose circle of archers drew their breaths and bow. Still, Jiube became distracted: its narrowed pupil melted into soft, round disks upon finding her amongst the sea of hostility. It squeaked in a way that she knew usually precede cuddling, but the rebels ensured that wasn’t happening.

The random array of weapons became more numerous, a miserable sight, as fighters originally resting in a dreary afternoon was rushed to all states of unpreparedness to face this mythical beast. She found the thinnest point of the closing circle, kicked the poor man in the back, evaded the thrust of a spear, planted it across circle before casting a shield against the onslaught of arrows. The familiar instinctively tugged her under its wings, but she shrugged out of the shelter, ruffled the beast’s head.

“Who are you,” A captain demanded: apparently, her presence was only known to the tip of the hierarchy.

“I am Lyra of Lunzeldine, daughter of Eztion,” She couldn’t believe the ease of speaking to citizens in her own skin. “I am aware that you label me as your enemy, the daughter of the Devil himself, and it still surprises me that your commander kept me alive for so long — ”  A discord of complaints was amplified by the growing tensions of stagnant months littered with defeats; Mercutio, who had elbowed his way to the front of the throng, saw the strings she was pulling, but she persisted. “Let me tell my side of the tale: I know the monster that my father was, I watched him kill my own mother, knew he murdered his own brothers out of ill-temper and lecherous envy, and yet, he remained in power, all because of his birth and nothing more.”

The crowd was awed into silence, unsure how to disagree.

“I am no fool,” She measured her words. “I was relieved by the rebellion, the knowledge that the world cared. But, I cannot stand your leadership. For the past months, I have travelled the empire, I felt disgusted and mortified to find it so battered by war. But it was not only from the Capital, but also from you, the rebels.” Some were already in denial, shaking their stubborn, thick skulls. “Why have you resorted to the methods of your enemy? My uncle, the Great Commander Lucem, has never touched an innocent life under his watch, yet your commander lead your fellow rebels to pillage and rape and –”

“That’s enough,” Mercutio reemerged, and by him two goons blinded by pride enough to dare to flaunt the fragile form of her belo…she drew a breath.

She breathed out, “Let him be,” Her blood boiled, powerful curses surged at her fingertips as the men put their swords to his throat; she noted his wings bent at unnatural angles, his head bowed to infinite agonies. She heeded one of the most underused side of her mind, the optimistic voice: Alde was, at some point, well enough to warrant such violence to contain him. And of course, the lack of exercise deemed her optimism flimsy, and it was soon muted by silent wrath.

Her instincts wanted to burn those insolent fools, but her eyes fell upon the rebels. She could almost feel it, those minds as moldable as the mud caking their worn soles.

She mustered her act by acting less, let anguish escape her facade of calm, “Please, I will do anything.” Jiube was ready to pounce, but she coaxed it into its owl form.

Silence was amplified by sympathy. Unspoken questions filled the air along with dust, “Why would the commander silence something if it’s not true?” The gap in their wavering faith widened, she saw from the corner of her eyes the gazes that followed her as she was roughly escorted out of attention. They whispered.

“She was chosen by a messenger of the Creator.” “Why didn’t Commander Mercutio say anything?” “We are cursed, we harmed a Nokshan.”

She could sense Mercutio’s seething rage, saw his hand clench and unclench by his side, predicted the palm that came down the moment the tent flap fell behind her; she analyzed the sting and savored the salt and iron where her teeth, his strike and the inside of her cheek clashed. She shrugged off tears, turned back to behold the anger-glazed eyes of the rebel.

“Who do you think you are?”

“I am confused, Commander Mercutio. For someone so upset with my little speech, you didn’t seem to have listened to it. I am Ly–”

“Enough,” He growled, his hand clamped about her throat. “I see what you are trying to do, manipulating my people with your witchcraft.”

She stared, unbothered by the vice on her neck as she snapped those fingers back. She ignored the wet cracks, imagine that was not the same sound as breaking wings. Sheer power was coursing through her, and she didn’t mind, there was no voice but her own. But it was unstable, she could lose control.

She slowly made her way to the hunched figure of the rebel leader on the floor, who was attempting to draw a sword but only drew a string of curses and calls for help.

When the guards rushed in, she was suspending the Commander by a choking grip, “A simple request,” She looked into the tip of the blade inches away from her eyes. “Let me see the Nokshan, then I will save you the time of piecing your Commander’s spine back together.”

A twitch and a pant from Mercutio was assuring enough; besides, she had the means to dangle him off the ground, hold him to his words.

So she lets go, he crumbled to the ground heaving and coughing and immediately the guards closed in.

To her surprise, Mercutio raised his intact hand, wheezed, “I-I w…will keep my word.”

One of the guards, gulped, gestured, “This way, Your Highness.”

She granted the man a nod, followed.

Fool, again

I can’t believe my own stupidity.

The propensity to forget and sail on, for wounds to heal and not scar.

Reach far and fall short, flat on the ground as false hopes of one too many hangouts wove a tapestry of a narrative that turns out to only be a rug ripped out from under my feet.

Face defeat, love is not my strong suit.

My wrongs doomed me to simply imagine, smile and pretend that I was never involved in the first place.

Heavy Rain

“I miss a proper blanket.”

The comment was meant for herself, though his ears were acute enough. Without tearing his gaze away from the distance grayed by the wrathful downpour further dulled by the steady drum of merciless rain. It was a wonder to her how the small, abandoned shack they chanced upon and took shelter in persisted under the battering of the Creator’s tears.

“I am sure Jiube will be back in a moment or two,” He mused, trying to reach out to his familiar. “I would prefer for the fluffball to hide out the rain somewhere then getting washed away by the rain,” She drew her arms tighter against herself; her traveling cloak was soaked and hung out at the other side of the small space to dry, and the thin planks of a wall did very little to keep out the cold. Her teeth chattered and she tried to feel her toes.

Then she saw that her companion finally lost interest in the small, dusty window and the blur of a possible flood.

“You are stupidly cold.”

“Wow, an acute observation, Alde,” Even bitter jests failed to bring her any warmth, and her chatter killed chuckles until he scoffed, thought, and moved to sit next to her upon the straw mat that collected more dust than provide comfort.

She appreciated the faint hum of body heat, but was surprised when he asked, “May I?”

She regarded with defiance that shattered with each chatter and shiver his outstretched arms, “Fine,” She shuffled into his circle of warmth, rested her head against his shoulder and tried to pretend she was not confused about where her arms should be. He drew his wings over her, their soft underside already restoring senses to her numbed nerves. Only then did she realize how sore and fatigue she was from their demanding travels.

“Sleep,” He assured her. “I am sure no one is insane enough to be hunting for any runaway princess in this weather.”

“Or a runaway assassin-king.”

He scoffed, “Just sleep.” She didn’t offer further rebuttal, and her arms finally decided on their own to find their home wrapped tightly about him.

“I am not just a ‘proper blanket,’ now, am I…” The comment was meant for himself, and she was too sleepy to differentiate dreams from reality while he, too, treated himself to some much-needed rest.

LXV.

She found herself in the familiar darkness. It had been too long: ever since she met Alde the shadows of her pasts seemed to have evaporated except for those occasional, dark, feverish nights when she laid twisted and wounded.

But she was here now, willingly so, and it was there, its signature, sickly grin and multitude of voices.

“Lyra, child.”

“Let him go,” She didn’t sound as fearful or angry as she knew she was; there was no time for her to see the Fallen as it used to haunt her, she was not here for herself and even as it approached her in her father’s form with those cold, icy eyes that are identical to hers she didn’t tremble.

“He broke his people’s code,” A cold statement. “He disobeyed the Creator.”

“When had you grow any regards for laws and the Creator?” She just realized that she wasn’t armed, but somehow she was far from afraid.

“Sweet child, everything ultimately falls under the Creator’s will,” The Fallen regarded her with curiosity, as though seeing her for the first time. “Not even we acted against Him.”

“So all those deaths you authored, destruction you wrought, diseases you sowed are of the Creator’s will?”

The Fallen’s silence concurred.

“So you are a blind follower after all, your mischief but a false facade of pointless rebellion, a dirty hand of the omnipotent.”

“You little, puny human mind knows not what it speaks of.”

“Oh?” She turned to face, them in their scattered form. “Have I touched a nerve?”

“Ignorant child dabbling in things too large for her mind –”

“– You are envious,” The emotion was easy to read, the dominant theme that plagued her father, plagued so many, too many: all the sudden, the Fallen was more pathetic than frightening. “Aldebaran and I could defy the Creator, but you can’t.”

“You think yourself out of the Creator’s grasp, but ultimately, you will fall, too.”

“Does my disobedience make me a better candidate for your position?”

“No…no, you are delusional.”

She could grasp it now, the the multitude, the lost spirits conglomerated since the beginning of time and their exponential despair. A ball of tangled strings, infinite. Amongst them she could hear her name, their pleas, her own voice, even, buried in the deepest chasm until she found herself, found him. One by one, she untangled the strings, drew it out, watched them bloat then float to freedom like they were supposed to millenniums ago, foam in the long tides of time. She was there, undoing the rugged tapestry of time, pulling it apart one string at a time, one blessing at a time until only one was left, the original, the sufferer.

“Come back with me,” A simple command, the Fallen was confounded. “You held your faithful post for too long.”

“No, no, no,” The multitude was reduced to one, the last, shaky voice sounded like an insignificant squeak.

The Fallen was but a small, weeping child, abandoned, flightless, until she stooped with it, “Go on, now.” The tears dried, the eyes looked up and faded.

At last, the darkness was hers. All hers. She forgot why she was afraid it, it enveloped her and embraced her like a childhood’s blanket. The contract? Some voice raised a question, but she paid no mind as she walked on, found a track she needed to follow, the steps she came here for.

She felt lighter than any sprites. She called, he heard, she saw his back. He turned, a translucent spirit. She caught up, threw herself into his opened arms. She cupped his cheeks, traced his jaws and found the runes marring his neck.

“I’ve failed you,” he muttered, she shushed him and brushed her fingertips across the words.

“You’ve done enough,” She thought, felt the cursed contract crumble beneath her touch. “Thank you.”

She felt his hand on hers, a gentle smile graced his lips as his fingers intertwined with hers. Her cloak of darkness fell from her shoulders for him, and she stepped into the light so warm and welcoming and all the sudden she understood what he was trying to say that one night they sat on the branch sharing stolen pears, what he was trying to say moments ago before everything crashed and burned, “Come back with me.” She mused, held him with no intention of letting him slip away again.

His smile spoke for him, she loves it, loves him, “Shall we?” For once in her life, she felt so free, free of the shadows that plagued her, felt so complete.

Then she opened her eyes.

Her hand grasped air, there were no bright blue skies but a cream, grey of worn canvas and the stench of reality and mud. Her head was wrecked by a deep, drumming ache.

“Ah, I see that you are awake.”

A foreign voice, alarm. She sprung to sit despite the pain and was briefly blinded by a ray of sunlight from the raised tent flap, “Who are you, and where am I?”

“Don’t worry, princess,” The stranger was closer to her than she liked, and she bore into his being with a skeptical eye: he was young, a grin too boyish and eyes too dangerous for his age.

“We won’t waste a catch as precious as you.”

So, he knows her, but that hardly narrowed down the pool of possibilities, “I would like a more direct answer.”

“It amazes me that you still find yourself in a position to demand,” He mused. “Very well, I shall continue to entertain your spoiled whims: the name’s Mercutio, son of Francis of the Rebellion. You, Princess Lyra, shall remain our captive until you choose to enlighten us of your father’s whereabouts.”

She was tempted to fall back to the makeshift bedding and ask sleep for a different nightmare, then a familiar screech pulled her through her headache.

“Jiube?”

“What?”

She shot up to her feet, brushed the rebel aside and ran into the blinding light outside.

LXIV.

Pure instincts seized the coming strike, guided the stab past him and into a puppet with its sword in a downward arc that never finished. As the puppet flailed and crumbled, Eridani ripped the stolen blade free viciously. Aldebaran darted away from the wild swings that followed, distancing himself far enough to summon the spirits; he was far away from care enough to prescribe anything but an immediate cure despite the consequences: it was his fault that she had suffered this long, and he had to save her.

As she rushed forward to meet him, he waited.

He easily seized her sword arm: she was enraged, felt belittled, but as his other hand brought up the spirits he’s gathered, his helpers, directly into her mind, she froze, the impact immobilized her, the rush of warmth worked at the chains of the contract. Each link loosened melted into burning agony and her vision swam, spun.

Before she plummeted into the earth, her brother’s voice found her, his arms about her, “I am here.”

That was all she wanted to hear, but her conscience was incapable of bearing the weight of realizations, “It’s alright.” She thrashed around, unwilling to name all the feelings cutting at her chains.

His wound was already strained enough from the previous fight against the puppets, and he was glad that he had the insight to land by a convenient outcropping of cliffs before she landed a solid blow upon his torned side. Still he bit his lips, held her in place and his mind steadfast by the spirits as he reached past her mind riddled by the thorns and bogs of darkness. His spirit was being torn apart again and again and again and all was amplified by the physical torment. Still, he persisted.

And after what felt like a century, she collapsed into him, and as he tried to steady his world and blinked away agony and the shattered state of his mind a strangled wail escaped her.

“I…a-am sorry,” she cried. “I.. am s-sorry.”

Then for a moment he could pretend to forget the pain, “You are back.”

She was sobbing into his tunic, and he felt her nod in between each choking sniffle. He pulled her back, still nestled in the cocoon of his wings, just enough to cup her face in his numbing hands, her regret and the self he love so much beaming through her teary eyes, “I-I…”

He wiped her tears and her apology away clumsily, praying that their shaking won’t betray him, “You came to save me. You knew you couldn’t do it on your own, but you still came.”

“I am…am a-a fool.”

“A fool braver than any other Nokshan, that is,” She beheld him in shock, beheld that title as nothing but another instrument to comfort her, but at the moment she didn’t care and just buried herself into his arms.

They stayed like that for much longer than it felt, the rush of energy abandoned him, and all came crashing down against his brokenness and he felt too heavy, air too thin.

She heard a deep, shaky breath and realized her tears weren’t the only thing staining his dark tunic as she drew back a her hand, a bloodied palm.

“Ahyung!” His legs buckled, she tried to catch him, his spirit was abandoning him faster than his blood. “Ahyung.” He heard her Nokshan plea like ointment poured upon the gaping hole of his entire being, useless. Undoing a spiritual contract was a feat designed for no one but the omnipotent, he tried to find the face of his dearest fledgling in the dark.

“Eri…”

So, the Creator decided to end his little rebellion. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were opened or shut. The world escaped his fingertips.

Falling star and scorching pains. Lyra didn’t know she was crying until all blurred and shimmered and caught the glare of heat. She ran. It is a miracle she had yet to be stabbed or scratched by the branches and brush she shoved and wrestled. Or perhaps she was, she paid no mind.

She felt it, felt the sudden jolt of unbearable hell that he couldn’t keep from her. He was diminishing, she was losing him.

“Alde!”

She summoned his familiar instead, the poor beast was bloodied, though to her relief mostly from enemy it felled along with a collection of small scratches. Jiube’s large amber eyes mirrored her concerns, “Take me to him,” with a swift motion it nudged her onto its back, leap in panicked strides for the faint presence.

Eridani didn’t know what to do, “Ahyung…,” he didn’t move, barely breathed, he was growing cold, his grip slipping from hers. “Please, you can’t leave me alone…” She felt herself slowly dissolving to pieces with each hesitant drum of his faint heartbeat.

So she didn’t see the human and her brother’s familiar until they were close, until the human rested a hand upon her shoulder.

Lyra fought against all instincts to leap to conclusions: the last individual she ever wanted to see, that blue-winged sister-traitor hovering over his lifeless frame. She didn’t ask, she need not to as her eyes met with the teary, swollen ones of the young Nokshan and saw a different soul. Her words beat her mind and tumbled forth, “He will be fine.” The girl looked at her in disbelief, trembling lips shivered around gratitude and shame and choked back a sob.

She knelt by his side, she felt the stir of feathers behind her as Jiube shuffled to comfort the bluejay. Gently, she shifted him into her arms; he was so pale, so fragile, glass that she could see through. She heard his cries, felt his cheeks, wiped at the bloodied corners of his lips.

Her heart ached.

She looked up at the young Nokshan by her side dying of concerns and guilt. She managed a smile and felt his faint pulse beneath her fingertips, closed her eyes and dove.