I’m standing on the battlements, overlooking the wide expanse of trees and grass laid out before me like the sea. I know that it’s coming, and I know that, after four months of hiding and hoping that everything will be ready in time, I can withstand its assault. The last few times, it managed to break through, shattering a few more memories each time. Each time, I picked up the pieces and built my fortresses even stronger, and I am finally ready for it to attack.
I see it in the distance, the inky shade sliding across the land. It utilizes the quickly setting sun as it slips from shadow to shadow in a clever attempt to remain undetected.
I am confused. How could it possibly know to keep itself hidden?
Never before has it employed any form of tactics in its assault. Never before has it been clever or sneaky. Never before has it been intelligent enough to think of such methods. Of course, since it could never come up with these tactics itself, there was only one conclusion to draw, and it made my breath hitch.
Someone else was helping it.
In that moment, I realized that I was by no means prepared for its assault. Everything I had done was in preparation of a massive frontal assault. I had not considered how I might defend against a more sinister, shady attack.
I managed to catch a glimpse of the creature’s long, spined back as it slipped across the field in pursuit of another shadow to hide in. There, clinging to the spines, were two humanoid figures.
One of them, I recognize. She is tall, her brown hair hangs past her shoulders and her ice-blue gaze rips through me whenever she looks at me. I once tolerated her presence in the fortress I built. I thought she was a natural, inescapable part of existence, hovering over my shoulder and whispering in my ear everything I’ve ever done wrong. Whispering all my insecurities, all my shortcomings, and all my embarrassments as some sort of twisted verbal poison. But someone gave me a glimpse of life without her there, and I found the strength to throw her out.
It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t keep coming back.
Time after time, she has assaulted me in once futile attempts to slide back into her position as my earworm. Those attempts are seeming less futile now.
I call her Krissie.
I do not recognize the second figure. The masculine shadow gives away few details, but the milky white gaze that rips through me would be visible from miles off. The sun is setting, making it ever-harder to tracks the new shadow on the back of my old enemy. The next time I see the shadowy mass, Krissie is still prominently clinging to its spines, but the new figure is gone. He slipped back into the shadows without my noticing... he could be anywhere.
I decide to call him Eli.
I feel my heart begin to hammer in my chest. It is a fear I have not known before - an incessant dread that I have never been more wrong before. That there is no way I could possibly defend against such an attack - not one with my worst fears whispering in my ear while another, unseen force works behind-the-scenes to ensure my downfall.
I fail to scream as a clawed hand curls around my face, the second hand latching onto my shoulders and tearing me backward. I manage to steal a glance back towards my attacker and see a pair of crimson orbs staring back at me. Black hair in tangled clumps clings to the back of her head, and her clothes are torn and loosely draped over a thin, skeletal frame.
She... looks like me.
She looks like what I will become... should I fail. A monster, skeletal and decrepit from neglect, with only a taste for revenge. One without consideration or care for those who are unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire.
I decide that I cannot name her, for the only name that springs to mind is my own, but I am not her. She tears us from the battlements and we crash into a cart full of hay, scaring a horse. The frightened beast tears out of the stable and easily tears through the weakened front gate, enabling the full force of the attack to come spilling into my fortress. Krissie is leading the charge into the courtyard.
In the same moment, I see Eli emerge out of the corner of my eye, finally allowing me to get a good look at him. His short blonde hair is slicked back, revealing a sharp widow’s peak and giving me a clear view of his pupil-less eyes. His stare is blank, yet somehow still holds a surge of hard bitterness that gives me chills. He is the only one out of the three with a weapon: a long, gleaming scythe that drips with blood. I know by looking at it that it is not the blood of those already lost - it is the blood of those who will be.
He holds the weapon across his body as lines of people are marched out from where they had hidden beneath the city streets. I know now what Eli’s purpose is - to infiltrate and amass a series of bargaining chips. He has every possible reason I might fight back in front of me, staring at the sick metal that will see at least one of them dead.
I know what they want. I’ve always known what they’ve wanted, and I’ve refused to give it. People have gotten hurt, and people have nearly died because I could not protect what I say I would. I would protect those people lined up with my life... until I’m told to prove it.
That is the trade: my life for theirs.
All I can think is a single, repetitive thought that can be driven by sheer terror alone:
How did it all go so wrong?