I rise into darkness, away from the garden they watered with the blood of my friends. The Golden man who killed my wife lies dead beside me on the cold metal deck, life snuffed out by his own son’s hand.
Autumn wind whips my hair. The ship rumbles beneath. In the distance, friction flames shred the night with brilliant orange. The Telemanuses descending from orbit to rescue me. Better that they do not. Better to let the darkness have me and allow the vultures to squabble over my paralyzed body.
My enemy’s voices echo behind me. Towering demons with the faces of angels. The smallest of them bends. Stroking my head as he looks down at his dead father.
“This is always how the story would end,” he says to me. “Not with your screams. Not with your rage. But with your silence.”
Roque, my betrayer, sits in the corner. He was my friend. Heart too kind for his Color. Now he turns his head and I see his tears. But they are not for me. They are for what he has lost. For the ones I have taken from him.
“No Ares to save you. No Mustang to love you. You are alone, Darrow.” The Jackal’s eyes are distant and quiet. “Like me.” He lifts up a black eyeless mask with a muzzle on it and straps it to my face. Darkening my sight. “This is how it ends.”
To break me, he has slain those I love.
But there is hope in those still living. In Sevro. In Ragnar and Dancer. I think of all my people bound in darkness. Of all the Colors on all the worlds, shackled and chained so that Gold might rule, and I feel the rage burn across the dark hollow he has carved in my soul. I am not alone. I am not his victim.
So let him do his worst. I am the Reaper.
I know how to suffer.
I know the darkness.
This is not how it ends.
Deep in darkness, far from warmth and sun and moons, I lie, quiet as the stone that surrounds me, imprisoning my hunched body in a dreadful womb. I cannot stand. Cannot stretch. I can only curl in a ball, a withered fossil of the man that was. Hands cuffed behind my back. Naked on cold rock.
All alone with the dark.
It seems months, years, millennia since my knees have unbent, since my spine has straightened from its crooked pose. The ache is madness. My joints fuse like rusted iron. How much time has passed since I saw my Golden friends bleeding out into the grass? Since I felt gentle Roque kiss my cheek as he broke my heart?
Time is no river.
In this tomb, time is the stone. It is the darkness, permanent and unyielding, its only measure the twin pendulums of life—breath and the beating of my heart.
In. Buh…bump. Buh…bump.
Out. Buh…bump. Buh…bump.
In. Buh…bump. Buh…bump.
And forever it repeats. Until…Until when? Until I die of old age? Until I crush my skull against the stone? Until I gnaw out the tubes the Yellows threaded into my lower gut to force nutrients in and wastes out?
Or until you go mad?
“No.” I grind my teeth.
“It’s only the dark.” I breathe in. Calm myself. Touch the walls in my soothing pattern. Back, fingers, tailbone, heels, toes, knees, head. Repeat. A dozen times. A hundred. Why not be sure? Make it a thousand.
Yes. I’m alone.
I would have thought there to be worse fates than this, but now I know there are none. Man is no island. We need those who love us. We need those who hate us. We need others to tether us to life, to give us a reason to live, to feel. All I have is the darkness. Sometimes I scream. Sometimes I laugh during the night, during the day. Who knows now? I laugh to pass the time, to exhaust the calories the Jackal gives me and make my body shiver into sleep.
I weep too. I hum. I whistle.
I listen to voices above. Coming to me from the endless sea of darkness. And attending them is the maddening clatter of chains and bones, vibrating through my prison walls. All so close, yet a thousand kilometers away, as if a whole world existed just beyond the darkness and I cannot see it, cannot touch it, taste it, feel it, or pierce that veil to belong to the world once again. I am imprisoned in solitude.
I hear the voices now. The chains and bones trickling through my prison.
Are the voices mine?
I laugh at the idea.
I plot. Kill.
Slaughter. Gouge. Rip. Burn.
I beg. I hallucinate. I bargain.
I whimper prayers to Eo, happy she was spared a fate like this.
She’s not listening.
I sing childhood ballads and recite Dying Earth, The Lamplighter, the Ramayana, The Odyssey in Greek and Latin, then in the lost languages of Arabic, English, Chinese, and German, pulling from memories of dataDrops Matteo gave me when I was barely more than a boy. Seeking strength from the wayward Argive who only wished to find his way home.
You forget what he did.
Odysseus was a hero. He broke the walls of Troy with his wooden horse. Like I broke the Bellona armies in the Iron Rain over Mars.
“No,” I snap. “Quiet.”
…men entered Troy. Found mothers. Found children. Guess what they did?
You know what they did. Bone. Sweat. Flesh. Ash. Weeping. Blood.
The darkness cackles with glee.
Reaper, Reaper, Reaper…All deeds that last are painted in blood.
Am I asleep? Am I awake? I’ve lost my way. Everything bleeding together, drowning me in visions and whispers and sounds. Again and again I jerk Eo’s fragile little ankles. Break Julian’s face. Hear Pax and Quinn and Tactus and Lorn and Victra sigh their last. So much pain. And for what? To fail my wife. To fail my people.
And fail Ares. Fail your friends.
How many are even left?
Mustang. What if she knows you’re here…What if she doesn’t care…And why would she? You who betrayed. You who lied. You who used her mind. Her body. Her blood. You showed her your true face and she ran. What if it was her? What if she betrayed you? Could you love her then?
“Shut up!” I scream at myself, at the darkness.
Don’t think of her. Don’t think of her.
Why ever not? You miss her.
A vision of her is spawned in the darkness like so many before it—a girl riding away from me across a field of green, twisting in her saddle and laughing for me to follow. Hair rippling as would summer hay fluttering from a farmer’s wagon.
You crave her. You love her. The Golden girl. Forget that Red bitch.
“No.” I slam my head against the wall. “It’s only the dark,” I whisper. Only the dark playing tricks on my mind. But still I try to forget Mustang, Eo. There is no world beyond this place. I cannot miss what does not exist.