It all boils down to what we become at our worst moment.
What you find yourself capable of if…say…
You get stranded in the middle of the ocean with a lone piece of driftwood that will support one person’s weight and not a single ounce more—while floating beside a nice person that needs it as badly as you do.
That’s the moment that defines you.
Will you relinquish your only hope of survival to save the stranger? Will it matter if the stranger is old and has lived a full life or young and not yet had the chance?
Will you try to make the driftwood support both of you, ensuring both your deaths?
Or will you battle savagely for the coveted float with full cognizance the argument could be made—even if you merely take the driftwood away without hurting the stranger and swim off—that you’re committing murder?
Is it murder in your book?
Would you cold-bloodedly kill for it?
How do you feel as you swim away? Do you look back? Do tears sting your eyes? Or do you feel like a motherfucking winner?
Impending death has a funny way of popping the shiny, happy bubble of who we think we are. A lot of things do.
I live in a world with few fences. Lately, even those are damned rickety.
I resented that. There was no straight and narrow anymore. Only a circuitous route that required constant remapping to dodge IFPs, black holes, and monsters of every kind, along with the messy ethical potholes that mine the interstates of a postapocalyptic world.
I stared at the two-way glass of Ryodan’s office, currently set to privacy—floor transparent, walls and ceiling opaque—and got briefly distracted by the reflection of the glossy black desk behind me, reflected in the darkened glass, reflected in the desk, reflected in the glass, receding into ever-smaller tableaus, creating a disconcerting infinity-mirror effect.
Although I stood squarely between the desk and the wall, I was invisible to the world, to myself. The Sinsar Dubh was still disconcertingly silent, and for whatever reason, still cloaking me.
I cocked my head, studying the spot where I should be.
Nothing looked back. It was bizarrely fitting.
That was me: tabula rasa—the blank slate. I knew somewhere I had a pen but I seemed to have forgotten how to use it. Or maybe I’d just wised up enough to know what I held these days was no Easy-Erase marker of my youth, scrubbed off by the gentle swipe of a moistened cloth, but a big, fat-tipped Sharpie: black and bold and permanent.
Dani, stop running. I just want to talk to you…
Dani was gone. There was only Jada now. I couldn’t unwrite our fight. I couldn’t unwrite that Barrons and I moved those mirrors. I couldn’t unwrite the choice of mirrors Dani made that took her to the one place too dangerous to follow. I couldn’t change the terrible abusive childhood that fractured her, with which she dealt brilliantly and creatively in order to survive. Of them all, that was what I really wished I could erase.
I felt immobilized by the many ways I could screw things up, acutely aware of the butterfly effect, that the tiniest, most innocuous action could trigger unthinkable catastrophe, painfully evidenced by the result of my trying to confront Dani. Five and a half years of her life were gone, leaving a dispassionate killer where the exuberant, funny, emotional, and spectacularly uncontainable Mega had once stood.
Lately I’d taken some comfort in the thought that although Jericho Barrons and his men were way the hell out there on the fringes of humanity, they’d figured out a code to live by that benefited them while doing modest damage to our world. Like me, they had their inner beasts but had spawned a set of rules that kept their savage nature in check.
I’d settle for mostly.
I’d been telling myself I, too, could choose a code and stick to it, using them as my role models. I snorted, morbidly amused. The role models I had a year ago and the ones I had now were certainly polar opposites.
I glanced up at the monitor that revealed the half-darkened stone chamber where, on the edge of that darkness, Barrons and Ryodan sat watching a figure in the shadows.
I held my breath waiting for the figure to once again lumber forward into the pallid light streaking the gloom. I wanted a second thorough look to confirm if what I suspected at first glance was true.
When it shuddered and stumbled to its feet, arms swinging wildly as if fighting off unseen attackers, Barrons and Ryodan uncoiled and assumed fighting posture.
The figure exploded from the shadows and lunged for Ryodan’s throat with enormous taloned hands. It was rippling, changing, fighting to hold form and failing, morphing before my eyes. In the low light cheetah-gold irises turned crimson then blood-smeared gold then crimson again. Long black hair fell back from a smooth forehead that abruptly rippled and sprouted a prehensile crest. Black fangs gleamed in the low light, then were white teeth, then fangs again.
I’d seen this morphing enough times to know what it was.
The Nine could no longer be called that.
There were ten of them now.
Barrons blocked the Highlander before he reached Ryodan, and suddenly all three were blurs as they moved in a manner similar to Dani’s freeze-framing ability, only faster.
Make me like you, I’d said to Barrons recently. Though in all honesty I doubt I’d have gone through with it. At least not at the moment, in the state I was in, inhabited by a thing that terrified me.
Never ask me that, he’d growled. His terse reply had spoken volumes, confirming he could if he wanted to. And I’d known in that wordless way he and I understand each other that not only did he loathe the idea, it was one of their unbreakable rules. Once, he’d found me lying in a subterranean grotto on the verge of death, and I suspect he’d considered the idea. Perhaps a second time when his son had ripped out my throat. And been grateful he’d not had to make the choice.
Ryodan however did make that choice. And not for a woman, fueled by the single-minded passion that drove the Unseelie king to birth his dark court, but for reasons unfathomable to me. For a Highlander he barely knew. The owner of Chester’s was once again an enigma. Why would he do such a thing? Dageus had died or at the very least was dying, lanced by the Crimson Hag, battered and broken by a horrific fall into the gorge.
Ryodan never gives a bloody damn.
Barrons was furious. I didn’t need sound—although I sure would have liked it—to know down in that stone chamber something primal was rattling in Barrons’s chest. Nostrils flared, eyes narrowed, his teeth flashed on a snarl as he spat words I couldn’t hear and they attempted to subdue the Highlander without using killing force. Which I suspected was more a damage-control technique than a kindness, because if Dageus died he would come back at the same place they do when reborn. Then they’d have to go wherever that was to retrieve him, which would not only be a pain in the ass but make a tenth person who knew where the forbidden spot was—a thing not even I knew.