Nathan, Please Don't Die!
Ben dug his fingers into his scalp, hard. He smashed his palms into his ears. Nothing eased the pressure. Nothing eased the pain.
Please, no more! It felt like every cell in his body was thrumming. Every little tiny bit of him, from the hairs that stood up on the back of his neck to the prickling in the soles of his feet-- it was all moving at once and in all different directions. Tremors that started in his clenched teeth went all the way down to his bones.
No matter how hard he squeezed his eyes, he couldn't stop what he was seeing. It began as patterns in the little sparkles of light that flashed through his inner darkness. Then it started to pulse into a pattern, an elusive suggestion of imagery that refused to be pinned into one shape. From somewhere deep in that pulse, faces begged him with their hollow eyes, pleaded with their soundless, gaping mouths. Somehow he knew they were desperate for him to hear them through the whispers. They were there for a moment, then gone, then they burst up from the darkness again. They looked like they were drowning, but instead of air they needed his attention.
I don't understand! He staggered. He could barely find the ground with his feet. He knew it was there, knew the sand was sliding beneath his sneakers, but his feet felt like they were sliding out from under him, like his body was trying to squirm off him and slip away. He couldn't really tell where the ground was anymore, but he didn't dare open his eyes. I don't want to see any more!
The girl held her right leg, her foot dangling useless. She grimaced against the pain, but gripped her shin tightly. She took tight, short breaths, gathering her strength.
"Aren't you even going to ask me..." She started pulling on both ends of her broken tibia, the effort making beads of sweat stand out on her pallid forehead. "why the harvesters haven't come?" She set her jaw, and pulled harder. "Why they won't?" She let up, panting from the effort. "They're such distractable creatures, really..." she panted. "Give them a more interesting thing to do..."
"I don't really care." Nathan was already dusting himself off, and he turned to walk away. "See, that's why you monkeys make such lousy additions to this war. You never grasp the back and forth of it."
Nathan took a few steps, and turned to face her. His eyes were burning, a pale blue fire that consumed everything in them. There was no trace of black in those eyes, no pupil, just scintillating colour. Golden strands of hair teased loose from his ponytail, floating around him as though lifted by an unfelt wind.
"You were a message. That's all," he said, his voice getting richer, more layered. "If I don't receive the message, the messenger keeps sending it until I do. For eternity."
Nathan lifted his left hand, curling it as though covering a cough. Gently he whispered something indistinct into the space, and brought it down to his chest. There was a hum in the air now, a thrumming that made the buzz in Ben's chest get stronger, but warmer too. He opened his eyes.
"Your master wants me to listen," Nathan was telling the girl, "so he keeps distractions at bay. It's hardly a mystery." Even with his eyes open, Ben couldn't make the faces go away. They bubbled up out of the scenery, out of the sand, out of everything Ben could see. They crowded his mind so much that they threatened to close over everything, and Ben wasn't sure he'd ever get himself back if that happened. He fought desperately to keep his mind on Nathan's voice.
"So I play along and put up with these stupid games... to a point." Nathan kept his left hand cupped against his chest, and his eyes seemed to get brighter. Little pulses of turquoise seemed to escape those fiery irises, consuming the white that showed around them. The sockets were filling with that light, emptying everything human out of Nathan's face as they changed. "But we're done here."
Nathan... Ben tried to say it aloud, but the words wouldn't come. Out of the chaos, a silken whisper grew stronger, winding the others together into its voice. I still don't understand Ben thought, straining to hear it. There's too much noise, it's all too noisy!
The whisper grew stronger. The harder Ben struggled to hear it, the more the horrible cold in his blood receded. A gorgeous warmth kindled in his chest. Little fragments began to reach him-- not words so much as ideas. I'm trying! he pleaded, and the warmth suffused his chest in response. The faces contorted in terror, fleeing from the sound of that whisper. Those whispers. There were so many voices, all trying to curl into one silvery sound.
There are too many voices! Ben was still so scared, but his body felt strangely calm. He just had to hang in there, he realized, just had to reach out for those whispers and pull them into his mind. If he could just hear them... What are they trying to say?
The whispers around Ben seemed to fold into less distinct sounds, like the slide of his mother's silk benefit dress slipping into her garment bag, or the way the tablecloth sounded when his sister gathered it off the table after a fancy dinner. The sounds wrapped around him, and slowly those agonized faces faded into a silvery-white mist at the edge of his senses.
Nathan's voice reached him again. "Believe it or not, I'm sorry I've had to provoke you, and cause you pain." He turned his left palm upwards, as though cupping that hidden puff of breath there. "I had to be sure I heard it all."
It had to be Ben's imagination, but he thought he saw little tongues of flame lapping at the air from Nathan's palm. Nathan's right hand hovered over them, as though shielding them from the wind that picked up around him. The little licks of flame leapt higher, then swirled between both hands, chasing one another until they formed a wobbly sphere.
"Heh..." a little mirthless laugh bubbled up from the girl's throat. She let go of her leg, then tried to stand. Her first attempt twisted her features in obvious pain, and she stopped to rest. "Hah... hah..." the laughter was weak, and it seemed so hollow it might echo if her voice were any louder.
Nathan didn't look at her. His head was bowed, the blue tassels at his temples sailing in the gathering wind. They shimmered, picking up the unearthly light of his half-closed eyes. The wobbling sphere of light between his hands began to spin faster, distinct licks of flame beginning to twine together into a cohesive shape.
"So now I'll finally get to see what you're made of..." the girl muttered darkly. She put her weight down experimentally on her good leg, and tried to lift herself again. "...the true face."
"If it comforts you to think so," Nathan said softly.
All the whispers, all the yearning, all the longing suddenly focused themselves into one white-hot jolt of urgency. Ben's head jerked up, his eyes went wide. However he knew it, there was one thing he knew with all of his being.
"Nathan!" Ben yelled, "STOP!" He put everything he had left into the yell, but Nathan didn't look at him. "NATHAN!" Ben screamed. Tears began to well up in Ben's eyes. He took a tentative step towards Nathan, then another.
"Nathan, please don't die!"
Nathan didn't seem to hear him. His attention was focused on the girl. She had only made it to her knees, but her neck was stretching up, as though someone were pulling her by the head. Her eyes were rolled back, and her speech was slurring so badly Ben could hardly understand her.
"Yes... I finally see it... the mark!" Blue veins stood out against her skin. Every tendon seemed stretched to its limit, every muscle stood out so clearly.
Ben stared at Nathan. There it was again, the swirly glyph he'd seen on Nathan's forehead. There was a central spoke, and something like a cross-piece slashing through it. Around that spoke, a swirl curled and dove. An echoing curl balanced on the opposite side of the spoke, echoing the dive of its companion. Two small tick-marks carved down across the ends of the cross-piece, completing the symbol.
"What you see is my name and seal," Nathan said, his voice oddly musical, his eyes so far from human Ben could barely recognize them. "By it, you perish." He didn't even sound like Nathan anymore. Ben stopped mid-step, terrified of the change. Bright light suffused those blue eyes, pulse after pulse making them harder to see as eyes at all. Nathan drew the little sphere of fire up near his face, and it pulled tighter, got more organized, as he spoke. "It is time to relinquish that body."
The girl threw her head back. She opened her arms, her palms spread out almost parallel with the ground. Her body drew so taut, it made Ben's stomach suck in sympathetically. Her chest thrust out. She looked like somebody getting ready to face a firing squad. Only, her head kept going further and further back, and her hair was thrashing wildly behind her. Strands of her brown hair started to lift, as though she were falling through space and it couldn't catch up with her. Ben's skin crawled, his blood keening in response to unseen sparks leaping between Nathan and the girl. The world seemed to dim around them, as though reality itself had to withdraw from forces building up between the two combatants.
Ben swallowed, hard. He looked at the girl, then at Nathan. Nathan's eyes were closed now, and the ball of light was growing brighter between his hands. Ben broke into a frantic run. It was a small distance to close, but it felt like he'd never make it. Nathan's eyes flew open, and he drew his arms back, as though preparing a throw. Ben grabbed Nathan's right arm, and held on with all his might. Nathan's hands separated, and the light he held began to escape-- it split into diffuse shards that refracted as they slid off into the air.
Nathan saw him now. The whites returned to his eyes, though the symbol stayed burned into his forehead. He looked down at Ben, fury pulling his lips back from gritted teeth. He tried to yank his arm free, but Ben just held on.
Then something indescribable hit them both.
Ben was on his back. At first, that was the only thought he could form. Thinking felt too hard, like thoughts were too heavy to lift and sense was too far away to reach.
Nathan was sprawled, face-down in the sand. That was the second thought Ben managed to wring from his addled mind. Nathan wasn't moving. Ben let his head fall back against the sand. It felt like something was crushing his chest, and it wouldn't let him breathe. He didn't care if he breathed, not anymore.
"What... what the hell..." Nathan sounded like himself again. Maybe weaker. His voice was thin and ragged, and that wasn't how he should sound. Ben closed his eyes. The relief was so overwhelming, it made him want to cry. But he didn't have enough left. He didn't have the strength in him to shed a tear.
Nathan struggled, trying to get to his feet. He lurched towards the girl, crossing the distance one agonizing step at a time. He kept swaying from side to side, like he was sick, or drunk. He clutched his stomach as though his guts might fall out if he let go. On the best of days, Nathan was a pretty pale guy-- now he looked whiter than brand-new sheets. His eyes looked dull and sunken, and his face was going slack.
"What was that..." he struggled to speak. Speaking and standing proved too much for him to do at once. He tumbled down onto his knees, and he could only manage to lift one foot when he tried to stand. "Urgh..." the sound struggled its way out of his throat. "Auhhh!" he moaned. He gave up on standing, and rested on one knee next to the girl. "FUCK, that burns!"
He coughed, a small spasm wracking his slender frame. His hair was limp now, bits of it clinging to a clammy sweat that stood out against his chalky skin. The girl had collapsed on the sand, dull blue bruises standing out against her complexion. Ruptured veins traced blue webs everywhere her skin was exposed. He put a hand on her hair, and tilted her face enough so he could look at her.
"That attack wasn't human!" He shook his head, as though trying to knock the thoughts loose from his addled brain. "How the hell could something like you learn to strike at the spirit?"
"I told you..." the girl mumbled. Nathan reached out to her with a trembling hand. His fingers snaked under her chin, and he lifted her face up towards his. Her eyes were rimmed in dull red. A blackish ooze wept from the corners of her mouth, and gathered at the rims of her nostrils.
"I was..." She gasped, and a choking cough brought up more of the red-black goo. "... different. And now..." She gulped air, but couldn't draw it into her lungs. She struggled, and finally found her voice.
"... now I've killed you."
Nathan coughed again. He ground his hand uselessly against the pain in his stomach, and sank down on his knees until he was sitting on his feet.
"The best part is..." the girl gasped, a shudder running through her. "... some part of you already knows it's true." She tried to smile, but only half her face would respond. The other half was drooping, falling slack against her skull. "That's your virtue-- Isn't it, Nathan?"
His brows went up. So she did know about him, after all. His eyes were exhausted, but curiousity had begun to spark in them. They were unfocused, little pinpricks of black beginning to open up in their centers as the pupils drew open.
"Ha... yes..." She let the half-smile go. Peace came over the half of her features that could move, making the slack half all the more disturbing. "Acceptance of the inevitable, right?" She stopped struggling for air-- stopped breathing at all. Still the sound came from her throat, a softer and less human sound than before. Her mouth flapped clumsily around the words, like a puppet at a children's show, but the words wouldn't stop coming.
"It's probably already calling out to you. Telling you to accept your fate." The words seem to weigh on Nathan, to draw his frame down. He rocked forward. His free hand dropped her head, and hit the sand. It was all he could do to hold himself up that far. "That's right," the girl soothed. "I know exactly what and who you are. I warned you just to see you blow it off. I've been waiting a long time for my revenge."
The girl's frame heaved, and a wet splatter spilled onto the ground-- a mixture of blood and bits of black clot that stuck where they seeped into her hair.
"Didn't have to... break your bones..." Her eyes rolled back, and a frantic jerking seemed to run down her spine. Another spasm, and the blood erupted from her mouth again, little bubbles forming around each flap of her lips. "... or break your spirit. Just had to keep you here..." The blood began to leak around her eyes, ruptured vessels turning the whites a lurid red. "... until I could see the sun in your eyes."
Nathan's eyes went wide at that last phrase. He jerked his head up sharply, and stared at the girl. "But... how..."
"Your question to ask forever." The girl let out a rattling sigh, and a last clump of blood and foam splattered against the sand. "And every time it's answered another piece of you will die."
The next words used no breath. They formed in her unmoving mouth, they did not even stir the blood now stilled on her lips. They rippled through everything that was left of her, and the air obediently picked up their sound.
"Tsabastz ado sothai!"
Nathan coughed. His head fell forward. His eyelids were too heavy to keep open. When he spoke, his voice was weak, barely a rattle in the back of his throat.
"What are you babbling about..." he asked the girl. "What 'function'..." He sagged, curling in around the pain in his guts. "... what function am I supposed to perform?"
But she hadn't said those words to Nathan. Her unearthly command reached its target, and plunged Ben into darkness. He felt as though he were falling through the world; it felt like everything he'd ever known was spinning away from him. His head was splitting, a clawing pain that grabbed onto his brain and dug its talons into everywhere a thought might hide. Ben curled into a fetal position, grabbing desperately at his scalp as though he could catch hold of that pain. If his fingers could break through bone, Ben would have tried to dig the words directly out of his brain.
Distantly Ben heard someone screaming. What a terrible sound. It sounded like someone's life was being ripped from their body. It was a scream they couldn't stop, a sound that didn't wait for breath or for choice. After a while it didn't even sound human, anymore. It just kept on going, louder and louder, and all Ben wanted was for the sound to stop.
But he couldn't stop the sound. He couldn't stop screaming. So Ben gave up, and surrendered to the dark.