Underneath the capital city, seven people decided the fate of the nation.
A quiet girl sat in the back of the room. She couldn’t have been more than twenty, but in her eyes she carried knowledge far beyond that of the average adult. She scanned the room for signs of danger every few seconds, seeing every movement as an attack, every word a threat. She wanted nothing more than to slip away.
Another girl sat perched on a countertop, swinging her legs and giggling. She, too, was young, but her youth was much more obvious. The urgency of the discussion didn’t seem to phase her. It seemed like a joke. This girl had grown up among the same caliber of man she was surrounded with now. Nothing could surprise her. She, more than anything, wanted to be impressed.
Speaking was a tall, intimidating man with dark eyes and scarred hands. His words had driven crowds to action in mere moments, had sparked riots and protests and fights, and had nearly ended a war. Here, though, much like in the place he desperately wanted to reach, his words were powerless. His greatest wish was to be heard.
Listening intently to his words was a younger man, beady eyes staring down the people he saw as prey. This man had taken it upon himself to rid the world of all that he hated, and he stuck to his mission well, though the list of things he disliked grew longer each day. He wanted revenge.
A attractive boy in a suit sat lazily across a bench, drumming his fingers on his knee and rolling his eyes every few moments. He came from money and power, and relinquishing it to anyone, even for a moment, caused his extreme distress. He was an actor at heart, playing the role of whatever suited him best at the moment. He, above all else, begged for attention.
A woman with bags under her eyes and wrinkles too plentiful for her age stood against a wall, leaning on a cane for support. She was the strongest of them all, battling sickness and death every moment, searching desperately for a cure to her ailments. Her aching bones weighed her down just as the strength of her spirit raised her up. She hoped to be free.
And in the center of the room, watching the proceedings with well–hidden dissatisfaction, was a figure behind a mask. They were the reason this was all happening, the force that had brought the other six together. They promised to reshape the world, to raze and then rebuild. They promised power.
Underneath the city, seven people readied an attack that would change the world. And above them, two people promised to destroy it.
At any given moment, I am three different people.
They get along, mostly. Just looking at me for a moment you wouldn't be able to tell. But they are there. And sometimes they split.
There's the one I like to call the face. Their job is to regulate the outside, what happens once a signal leaves the brain. They control how I move when my mind goes on autopilot, how I speak when I have nothing to say. They are the facade that allows me to function without spending hours on a single action.
They are also the barrier between myself and the world. Some days I will split, and the others two "me's" will watch my life play out from behind a glass barrier. The face will take over completely, and if the rest of me wants to join they have to wait for the signal to reach through the glass wall, like a swimmer trying to push their way through rough waters. It takes time, and once it reaches behind the barrier it has been bleached, faded, the color drained from it and any urgency with which it might have been used is forgotten. Very rarely does the face ever hear back.
The other two, I have named calm and color. Color is my heart, my soul, all the emotions that could ever be. Calm is concerned with which emotions I get to feel. Calm makes sure that every feeling fits the situation, both in type and intensity. Color is what lets me feel at all. It is the rush of adrenaline and the quiet of peace, it is the bright light of glee and the torrential rain of anger. The two are in my mind, hidden from the outside.
On a good day, the three work together perfectly. The face will see an event and relay it to my mind, color will react, and calm will filter out the unnecessary emotion and send what's left to the face. On a good day, everything is normal, and they work so well together that they are almost one person. One me.
On a bad day, any number of things can happen. Sometimes calm and color will be trapped behind that glass wall, leaving the face scrambling to keep up. Those are days when two-thirds of me are gone, leaving what's left to act on pre-recorded patterns.
Sometimes, the glass wall breaks-
No, it shatters.
Color wins on those days, and everything is different. Everything I could ever feel, I do. I cry at invisible things and scream at the slightest movement, I slam my head against the wall at any frustration and I hide at any sound. I am nothing but color, and everything is so vibrant and powerful that I think I might go blind. I am drowning in a three-inch puddle and there is nothing I can do. The face disappears and everyone sees exactly what my mind tells me.
Other days, calm wins. Often this is after color's rampage, but who can tell? Certainly not me, on days like these. Days when calm takes the wheel are days when color has no voice, when there is no emotion to be found. The face operates as normal, told mechanically when to laugh, when to cry, when to speak and when to be silent. But now there are two glass walls: One between my mind and the world, and one between my heart and my head. Color and calm. Nothing can pass through that barrier, and I am drained. Calling the world black and white would be generous, because it's more like grey. I know when I should react, but I don't. I have no control over myself. I am on autopilot, saying what I think I mean but not being quite sure, wanting to quit every second of every day but not knowing why. Wanting nothing more than to close my eyes and sleep but not having the energy to drag myself into bed.
At any given moment, I am three people. Occasionally, thankfully, they are one. But there are days when they break into pieces, and on those days I cannot even remember what it is like to be whole.
Excerpt from “The Definitive History of Aeldra” by Petra Corsian.
The first attack only confirmed what we’d already known: The Blights had been with us for years.
Starting with the dawn of humanity, it seems, there have been creatures in the dark. Monsters that feed on human flesh, blood, souls. Always in different forms, but always there, lurking behind us and ready to strike. Over time these stories became legend and speculation. Superstition, only for those with little intelligence and too much time on their hands.
Of course, there have always been those who knew the truth. Humans who turned our species from prey to predator, who started a war against the parasites of our people and nearly won. After centuries, the Blights were almost entirely gone, barely even a threat to humanity’s new dawn.
Then, out of nowhere, they returned. Stronger than ever, legions of them crawling up out of the dark and striking back with a vengeance. The city of Embren was the first to fall. The rest of the world came crashing down within a matter of years.
Everything humanity had was lost. We were back in the stone age, huddling around fires and flinching at noises in the dark. We travelled in packs, too small to be called tribes and too fractured to be families. For ten years, humanity was a thing of the past.
That was almost a century ago. Now, the city of Embren, the Blights' first target, is the center of a new empire. One of many states that sprung up in the world’s reconstruction, the Aeldran Empire is humanity’s stronghold. It brought our technology further than ever before, allowing us to finally fight back against the Blights. Embren is the face of a world-wide resistance to the monsters in the shadows.
The Blights still haunt us. Every day there are more stories of destruction and death. But for the first time in human history, we can haunt them.
"Please, Jack, don't forget me!"
For as long as he could remember, Andrew Browne had started his days at the Old Street Cafe. This day was no different, and he entered the building, taking refuge from the blistering bright sun that had become more common as the earth drew into summer. The cafe, always crowded on Mondays, had filled every table within half an hour of opening. Andrew found the only available seat in the small cafe, which was sitting exactly opposite a woman.
Andrew strolled over to her. “I’m sorry, is this seat taken?” he asked. The woman looked up at him and did a double take before shaking her head.
“No,” she said. “It–It’s fine.” She avoided looking at him directly, instead opting to stare at the table.
Andrew felt out of place with the woman, which was strange, as in most situations she would be the one who didn’t belong. Still, the moment she’d first seen him the very air around him had seemed to halt, as is waiting for a crucial decision.
His curiosity, as it often did, drove him to questions. “You seem a bit agitated,” he said. “Am I making you uncomfortable?”
She looked at him, shocked. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, no, it’s not you. Just…Been a hard week.”
Andrew nodded. “Seems that way for everyone,” he said. “I mean, normally I’m away from politics, but even I can’t help but feel uneasy.”
That explained her. The near assassination of Dr. Cain had been jarring for everyone, no matter their feelings on the woman.
“Well, I suppose I should stop worrying about it,” the woman said. She gave him a half-hearted smile. “It’s not like it affects me, personally.”
Andrew smiled back. “Everyone feels anxious about it, trust me,” he said. “You’re perfectly normal.”
The woman chuckled. “You know, sometimes I feel like I’m the most normal person there is. Boring, don’t you think?”
Andrew shook his head. “You don’t seem boring to me. And I don’t think there’s anyone who can be called normal, really, if you look deep enough.”
The woman smiled, but it vanished in seconds. A cloud spread across her face.
“How are you, these days?” she asked, expressionless. “Doing well, I hope?”
Andrew nodded. “As well as always, I guess. You?”
“Perfectly fine,” she answered. She turned away, clearly done with small talk. Andrew drank his coffee in silence, trying to ignore the sensation in the back of his mind. Something felt odd, and he couldn’t place it, no matter how hard he tried.
There was a pause. Then, the woman started humming.
The sound was familiar. After a few seconds, Andrew could even place the lyrics of the melody.
“Alas, my love, you do me wrong, to cast me off discourteously,” he sang. The woman jerked her head over to him and stopped humming.
Then, she sang, gingerly, “For I have loved you, oh, so long…”
“Delighting in your company,” Andrew finished, beaming. For the first time since he’d met her the woman smiled and the joy in it reached her eyes.
They sand the next lines together, her smile growing wider every moment.
“Greensleeves was all my joy, greensleeves was my delight, greensleeves was my heart of gold…”
In the woman’s voice, soft and yearning, came the ending. “And who but my lady greensleeves?”
For a breath, they were both silent. The woman was beaming now, tears in the corners of her eyes. She stared up at Andrew with admiration and a quiet kind of longing.
“You knew the song,” she said, almost a whisper. “You remembered the song.”
“You sing beautifully,” he said. The woman paused for a moment at that, then began to laugh. She wiped tears from her eyes, pure joy bursting into her smile, giggling like a young girl on her birthday.
“Do you know where that song came from?” she asked, anticipating the answer with more excitement than Andrew could remember seeing in years.
He thought for a moment. He smiled.
“I don’t think it really matters, does it?”
The woman’s smile faltered.
“Are you sure?” she asked, words slow and deliberate.
Andrew didn’t understand how he had upset her, but he elected to tell the truth anyway.
“Of course,” he said, still smiling wide. “It’s a lovely song; I don’t see what the past has to do with it.”
The words sunk like an anchor into the sea. They hit the seafloor with a small thud, at the exact moment the woman’s smile broke.
“I see,” she said. Her voice was far away, her eyes not present. She nodded, repeating the action as she stood. Slow, painful movements, forcing her body through the water without the energy to swim.
She reached into her coat. Her hand emerged with white knuckles wrapped around a pistol.
“You have a gun?” Andrew asked. No wonder the woman had been so worked up over Dr. Cain being attacked; she must have been part of her personal guard. That was the only explanation for the weapon that he could think of.
The question never made it to the woman. She didn’t react to Andrew’s voice, nor the slight movement he took toward her.
Her eyes were fixed straight ahead, locked onto something he couldn’t see. She was calm. A still pond. Not a ripple in sight.
She took a breath. Closed her eyes.
Hummed the melody.
Alas, my love…
Pulled the trigger.
The prince watched as the burning ship sank, attempting to feel pity for the lives lost on it. Instead, he could only feel disappointment at the waste of a perfectly good vessel.
“My lord,” said a man, the captain of the prince’s ship. The prince didn’t bother looking at him.
“You saw her, didn’t you?” the prince asked. The captain blinked.
“We all saw her,” he said, confused. “Were we not supposed to? She was right in front of—”
“I’m not talking about Itrelya,” the prince said. “I know you saw her, you were shooting at her. I meant Avanya.”
The captain gasped. “Do not say her name so carelessly, my lor—”
“Shut up,” the prince said, rolling his eyes. “I am a descendant of the goddess herself, I can speak her name if I like. I’m asking you if you saw her.”
The captain stared at the prince, then seemed to register the question. “Oh,” he said. “No. Did you?”
“Avanya was right over the water, you idiot!” the prince screamed, frustration coming to a head. “She was right there, watching us.”
“Well, that’s nice,” the captain said, a dumb grin on his face. The prince glared at him.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “You don’t understand. None of you understand.”
“Understand what, my lord?” the captain asked. The prince pushed him aside and strode toward the edge of the ship, staring into the water below.
The goddess had been in front of him. She had been watching their battle, had smiled when the ship went up in flames. Had laid her hands on his shoulders as he drove the blade into his enemy’s heart, a caring mother in his time of desperation.
And she had watched the bodies fall from the ship. She had stepped, carefully, into the water and gazed at the fallen form of the enemy captain.
And then there was a ray of light and the captain changed.
Something had happened. The prince had watched his childhood friend, his greatest enemy, become something other. And it was wrong and horrible and the best kind of justice.
The prince stared at the water, trying to get a glimpse of the aftermath. Instead, all he could see was the churning waves, and pieces of driftwood and shrapnel, and dark red blood staining the water.
The prince’s lips curled into a smile. Wherever she was, his enemy was suffering.
“Captain!” he barked. The captain stiffened.
“Take us toward shore,” he said, turning away from the carnage in the sea. “We’re done here.”
And the ship turned and sailed away, leaving monsters in the deep and men in watery graves.
Ever heard of Icarus?
Of course you have. It’s the famous story; Icarus makes wings out of wax, dad says don’t fly too close to the sun, your wings will burn. Don’t fly too close to the water, they’ll get wet and drag you down. Icarus flew too high and he drowned.
We heard this story in preschool before we knew what dying was. A few years later we understood, at least, that it was tragic. Our parents quoted it, our teachers read it during naptime, we found paintings and murals and music and books and poems and everyone famous enough to have a wikipedia page has a quote about it. It’s everywhere.
And the things about Icarus isn’t that it’s a sad story. There are a lot of sad stories out there, but only one Icarus. It’s a universal story because it’s a cautionary tale. It says it right there at the beginning: Don’t fly too high, don’t fly too low. Icarus ignored that and he died.
So let’s forget the greeks and visit right now. 2500 years later, we’re still quoting this story. Why?
We tell our kids, ‘Fly high. Be ambitious. The sky’s the limit. Well, more accurately the sun, but what you should worry about is the water. Don’t fly too low. Don’t fly too low, don’t screw it up, don’t fail this one simple thing.’ And what did the kids do? For the most part we listened. We ignored the sun, because unlike the greeks, we know that it’s too far away to melt our wings. We know that it won’t hurt us as long as we stay in the atmosphere.
So we look out the window of that tower and we jump. And for a few years, we’re flying, and we can’t see the sun or the water. And our parents are cheering us on and we think, ‘I’ll go just a bit higher. Just until I can see the sun.’
So we do. We work harder. We apply for that internship, we ace that test, we start wearing headbands so the halos have a place to go when they get here. And we’re sprinting through our lives and flying higher and higher and the sun’s still nowhere to be found.
And then something happens. Maybe the wind got a little faster, and we flew higher to avoid it. Maybe we saw someone else above us and we raced to get there. Maybe someone told us the view was better above the clouds. Whatever the reason we move too high, and then there’s the sun, right in front of us.
And we think, ‘Okay, I know the story. I’ll stay right here. I won’t go any higher and I’ll be safe.’
Fast forward to somewhere around sixteen. Halfway through highschool, starting your first job. Things are getting worse. You’ve got tests you’re not ready for no matter how long you study, parents that want you moving faster than ever, a social life that you’re somehow supposed to maintain. And things are piling up and you don’t know what you’re doing but it’s just Junior year it can’t be that hard. You’re not even old enough to have senioritis yet.
So you push yourself and you move faster and you forget about the sun because surely you won’t be this high for long. Surely you’ll back down eventually.
But you don’t. The year moves on and you’re staring at the sun and you dare it to set you ablaze because how could it? It’s miles away. And you work harder at your job and you study non–stop and those perfect grades you had for years are slipping but you won’t let them get that far because you have wings and you’re going to fly and the sun can’t hurt you if you close your eyes.
And what does it get you? Minimum wage and mediocre grades. It gets you disappointed teachers and frustrated parents. It gets you enough money for vape but not therapy. It gets you everything you never needed and takes everything you did.
And eventually something breaks. And those wings are melting, the wax is dripping off the feathers are peeling away and you look at the sun one more time and you see it for what it is, finally. But it’s too late and you fall.
And you wonder how everyone else could get this high without dropping but what you forgot, what everyone forgot, is that depending on what time of day you jumped off that tower the sun is higher or lower in the sky, and depending on the rain the ocean is rising or falling, and none of us are in the sky long enough to see these changes and even if we were we wouldn’t notice because we’d be too busy staring ahead at the horizon wondering what was next. And maybe that's the important thing here, or maybe it isn’t.
Maybe the real question we should isn’t why we tell the story of Icarus. It’s how. How did we tell our children not to fly too high right before warning them not to fall? Maybe the real story of Icarus wasn’t a naive child who flew into the sun out of his ambition; maybe it was the story of a scared kid following his father’s lead, trying to escape a desperate situation. And he’s trying to listen to the rules but Daedalus is right behind him screaming fly faster or we’ll never make it. And he does, and he falls, and we close the storybook.
But none of this matters to you as you’re falling. As the wind you were riding stings your face and rips your skin. As the journey back down happens so much faster than the journey up. As you hit the water and sink under.
And someone finds you, eventually. Someone finds you and wonders how you managed to mess up a few simple instructions, because all they can see is someone who flew to close to the water and then gave up. They don’t see the flight, but they remember the fall.
You don’t see any of it. You see the water, and the waves, and finally the sun in the sky. And in your last moments you look up at that star and you think to yourself, ‘It’s just light. It couldn’t have hurt me. Maybe I broke the wings myself.’
Memories surround me. I fly through them and only catch a glimpse of each one. They move in circles, hovering near me and whispering secrets in my ears that I can’t make out.
I am dreaming. I am floating in my consciousness, occasionally reaching out to touch a thought or idea. I am weightless; I am free.
A piercing screech in my mind. I am slammed back into reality. My eyes open.
The room is lit by soft blue lamps. Otherwise, it is dark. I lift my hands—no, they’re trapped. Bound by padded straps to a cold metal chair. I turn my head to see an empty room.
I cannot remember my name. The thought appears in my mind suddenly, but it consumes my consciousness. I have no name.
I list the other things I should remember, but don’t. My address. The city I live in—or the country. My parents’ names. My age. There is a fog in my brain, a mist that pushes all the information I should have just out of reach.
Footsteps. The door to the room opens and a man in a blue and grey uniform steps in.
“Good to see you’re awake,” he says. He undoes the straps that bind me to the chair and I stand. I keel over and almost fall but he catches me.
“This is normal after the process,” he says. His voice sounds far away, like an echo. “You’ll be able to stand in a few days. Most of your symptoms should be gone by then, too.”
He motions to someone outside the door and another person enters with a wheelchair. She is dressed in the same uniform as the man, and together they lower me into the wheelchair and push it out of the room.
The light outside of the room is blinding. I wince.
“Where are we going?” I ask. My voice is hoarse, and speaking burns my throat. Was there a breathing tube they gave me that is irritating my airways now? Does that mean I was in surgery? Maybe this amnesia is a side affect of the procedure. Maybe it will go away.
“We’re taking you to a seperate room to recover,” the woman says. Her voice is also far away. It ricochets across the walls and slams into my ears.
“How long—” I start. I can’t finish before I erupt into a coughing fit. When the hacking and wheezing subsides, I feel something wet on the corners of my mouth. My tired, numb arm barely manages to wipe it away. I stare at it.
“A few days,” answers the woman, and I thank her for understanding my half–spoken question. “Then you’ll go home.”
“Home?” I ask. “Where?” If I have a home, that means there’s something normal waiting for me.
“I believe it’s a nice plot of land in County Three,” says the man. “You’ll be happy to get there.”
I nod, though my muscles are so stiff that I’m sure it looks more like a spasm. I have a home, somewhere in a place called Country Three.
They wheel me into another room and lift me from the wheelchair, setting me down on a bed. There’s a window on the left wall and I stare through it, hoping for a glimpse of all the things I’ve forgotten.
“Who are you?” I ask the man that remains in the room. He laughs.
“Well, my name is Tyler, but I’m sure that doesn’t matter to you,” he says. “Most of my ebbing patients make small talk after the procedure. I don’t exactly know why.”
Ebbing. The word is unfamiliar, but the way the man speaks about it, the word carries a tone of reverence. Importance.
“In a few days,” Tyler says, “probably two if you’re a typical case, you’ll have mostly recovered and we can start to reeducate you.”
“Reeducate?” I ask, a spike of fear in my voice. Tyler laughs again.
“It sounds scarier than it is,” he says. “The amnesia you have means we need to explain the procedure we just went through again. Essentially, it’s a crash course in the last few days of your life.”
So amnesia is a normal side effect. That means my memories will come back. I smile.
“Thank you,” I say.
Tyler nods. “Anything,” he says. “Any other questions before I leave you?”
I nod. “Just one,” I say.
“Shoot,” he says.
I take a breath. “What is my name?” I ask. I don’t know why the question is so monumental to me, but as soon as I say it something in the room changes. I tense.
Tyler pulls a folder from the coat of his uniform. He grins and stares at me as he opens it.
“Let’s see what you chose.”