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I raise my head, bloody, beaten, broken, and gaze into the crowd.

“Citizens, behold your would-be king.”

Staff in hand, Deltor, the conqueror of humanity, steps onto the cliffside beside me, his cobalt cape flapping in the wind. He glances at the chains binding my wrists and feet, and after shooting me a condescending smirk, turns to face the people.

“And how,” he continues, “should we treat our royal highness, the rebel? What manner of death does he deserve?”

The crystal at the top of his staff begins to glow, casting a faint and sickly light on the world below. The same magic he used to subjugate humanity flows through its center, and I shrink back, afraid, remembering all too well the pain it conjured the last time the staff and I were acquainted. Meanwhile, the crowd looks up beneath an overcast sky, sallow-faced and numb. The sight of them breaks my heart, but there is nothing I can do.

“Perhaps we should let him decide.” Deltor faces me once more. “What will it be, rebel? Ask for mercy and I’ll give you a swift death. You’ll see, I’m not without some kindness.”

After days and weeks of beatings, of having my bones broken, then healed, broken, then healed, I’m ready for it to end. I open parched and withered lips, and in a reedy whisper, I begin to speak.

“M’lord, please—”

But I cannot continue, for a child has caught my eye on the rockface below. He stares at me with zombie’s eyes, the light of hope within utterly extinguished. He’s grown up believing freedom is just a bedtime story told in furtive whispers before the light of a dwindling fire, and now, in his presence, I’m about to give up the only freedom I have left.

I think, What I do now still matters. I, their leader, was captured and thus failed the rebellion. But perhaps, by teaching the rest of humanity how to be strong, I can redeem myself. I desire death like a desert longs for rain, but I can’t give in now, not when there’s still something I can do.

“M’lord,” I say again, then stop and pretend to cough.

Amused, Deltor steps forward. He gazes down at my swollen, broken body, decides I’m not a threat, and kneels before me, close enough that I can smell the sweat rolling down his neck in beads.

“What will it be?” he whispers. “A merciful death? All you have to do is ask.”

I peer into his charcoal eyes, alight with supernatural malice. That demeaning smile has always infuriated me, but today, the corners of my mouth twitch into a smile of my own.

Deltor frowns.

“What do you find so amusing?”

I tilt my head back, and by way of reply, spit in his face.

“I will ask nothing of you,” I cry, loud enough that all the assembled can hear. “You are a blight on the world, and with my dying breath, I call on everyone who stands to strike you down or die trying.”

For a moment, those inhuman eyes widen in surprise.

That wasn’t part of the plan, they seem to say, and in that moment, I know I’ve done all I can do.

Deltor is shouting now, spittle flying from his mouth. The light from his crystal has turned a bright and angry green, and soon I will learn the true meaning of pain. I ask myself if it was worth it, then glance at the child below to find that her eyes now sparkle with a light of their own.

Courage, I think before my mind is scoured in that green and terrible light. I gave them courage, and now there is nothing left to do but embrace the pain and suffer the sting of death with dignity.

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A sword, glowing in the dark. The demon advances and Taunya strikes. Sparks fly when enchanted metal meets thick gray scales, and the demon, cursing in an unknown tongue, is shoved into the concrete wall of an abandoned building. Sweat rolls down Taunya’s neck and shoulders, and she struggles to catch her breath beneath the muted light of a cloud-covered moon.

The demon sniffles, steam pluming from its nose like dragon’s breath, and Taunya crinkles her nose in disgust. A foul odor, one she’s never gotten used to in all her years as a hunter. She tells herself it must end soon, that since they cannot reproduce and are limited in number, they can’t keep attacking the city forever. But her mother was also a hunter, and her mother’s mother before her, so on and so forth for at least nine generations, and still, a fresh terror stalks the streets each night in search of human prey.

Taunya wonders, How long can this go on? The wizard who first gave her family the sword promised that one day they would find salvation, but all Taunya has ever known is damnation. Slowly, like a creeping vine, despair climbs the chambers of her heart, suffocating her from the inside out.

She knows she must deliver the deathblow while the demon is still cornered, while the sword is still charged with the wizard’s magic. But she’s unable to summon the will necessary to strike again. She can already feel the energy within the blade dimming. The superhuman strength it provides has already started to recede, like the ocean at low tide, and for the first time that night, the demon is able to press its advantage, pushing her back.

Taunya thinks of her mother, the greatest hero she’s ever known.

I’ll never be like her.

The sword grows dark.

The demon swipes at her, and for a second she thinks, Fine, let it end me. Then, at least, I won’t have to deal with this.

Then she remembers something else about her mother, something the woman said only a week before breast cancer claimed her for its own.

“A true hero fights even when she doesn’t have the strength to go on.”

Her mother devoted her life to fighting demons, and in the end, when the cancer came, she fought that too, even when it was clear she couldn’t win.

Tears trickle from her eyes, and Taunya realizes she can’t give up, that if she wants to be like her mother, she’ll have to go on, on and on and on, struggling and fighting until she can’t go on any longer. Taunya’s admiration for her late mother burns the despair in her heart to ashes. The sword bursts to life, blindingly bright, and the power it provides surges through her once again.

The demon shrieks, shielding its eyes. Spittle flies from its deformed lips, and Taunya takes advantage of its momentary weakness. She lifts the sword, gleaming like Excalibur, and with all her strength, plunges it into the demon’s heart.

The wounded creature’s cry is deafening. Taunya wants to cover her ears, but she only presses the blade deeper. The demon throws back its head, looses one banshee scream after the next, and Taunya hangs on through it all, twisting, slicing, until its blazing eyes dim to smoldering embers. She pushes the sword again, and finally, its eyelids close. Its stony body crumbles to the asphalt beneath her feet, and Taunya slumps down beside it.

In the aftermath of the demon’s death, the night is quiet and still. Drenched in sweat, she stops to catch her breath, then removes the sword, which now glows with a softer, warmer light that offers her a different kind of strength, the sort that imbues the calm serenity necessary to continue her work.

“Thanks, Mom.”

Taunya slides the blade into her hilt, then steps back into the night to hunt again.

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The Fog


Fog curls around my ankles like creeping vines, and all I can think as I stand there in the dark, surrounded by death, and stare up at a cold and lifeless sky, is how the world wasn’t always like this—how it was once bright, how it was once young and new, pristine and undefiled, a shining luminescent jewel that inspired wonder rather than fear and hope rather than despair.

But those days are gone, dead and buried along with most of the population. I watch dark and dangerous clouds gather in a dusky blood-red sky, and when I tire of watching the wounded horizon, my eyes drift back to the ground and the swell of fog churning at my feet.

What secrets does the fog conceal? What hidden horrors lurk beneath its tainted gunsmoke exterior? I feel the weight of its touch as it swirls above the ground, and if I strain my ears, if I focus on the many silences of the world and the dead things in between, I can hear it speak.

Your life belongs to me.

I used to hear its call as a child, either at night before the flames of a dwindling fire, or during the day in the dark alleys of an ancient city turned graveyard. It’s always reaching out, trolling the tenebrous waters of a forsaken world in search of prey, and there’s always someone who listens. As for myself, its call has grown more insistent, and as time wears on, as I pass through the threshold from youth into old age, the lunatic cry becomes increasingly difficult to resist.

Your life belongs to me, it says every night before I fall asleep and every morning when first I wake, and every day, I find myself more inclined to agree.

Now, here I stand, broken and defeated. I can fight the fog no longer, and though my mind urges me to run away, to flee into those few remaining corners of the world where the fog hasn’t gained a foothold, I have not the strength to go on.

Once, I think as the fog creeps up my legs, life was worth protecting. Now, what is there to look forward to each day but a bloated, terminally diseased sky? What is there to pass on to future generations? The fog took away our reason to live, and now that it’s prevailed, what is left to do but answer its death call?

Your life belongs to me, it says, sweeping up my back and my chest, over my shoulders and my head, and when that fetid off-white mist pierces my lips, when it shoots down my throat and into my lungs, I give in at last.

Your life belongs to me, it says again, and just before I close my eyes, just before the last of the oxygen is squeezed from my lungs and the final darkness of death blossoms before my fading vision, I hear my silent reply.

Take me away, I say, and the fog does exactly as I command.

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