She rolled out of bed, yanked on her heels, and arose – shedding all traces of reality.
Savyna woke up, groaning at the pain in her head and peeling away the covers.
She climbed out of bed, slipped into her slippers, and arose. Sleepily she crossed the room and came to a mirror, watching her reflection stir on the other side. She scowled groggily at its movements—movements she could not recall making—and began to dress. The reflection, detached and unconnected though it was, still shared her image: a blue gown and tumbling ponytail.
Savyna sighed at the sight of the dress. There was only one way to explain her ownership of it, and it was simply that she had been called to attend the Imperial ball. A wave of anxiety washed through her at the thought of it; if only there was a way, she lamented, to escape. Too many of the Imperial elite that she would rather not have to face again would be there. Too many memories.
Of course, Kalas and Xelha and the others would be there, but still she felt uneasy. What if she was caught alone? What if she got cornered? That was the only danger to her—meeting all the people that would gladly take a dive into the hell of her memories. There would be stories of Operation Sweep and Nihal Desert, burning images, ugly phrases meant to tip the balances of her mind. She hated to admit her weakness, but there it was. Though they had long since returned to the Earth and its feeling of gravity and finality, she was still floating out there somewhere. Locked into a place and time no one else could reach, alone.
Savyna jumped, noting her reflection's sudden lack of movement. How long had she been still? She quickly checked the clock on the wall, figuring that the sooner she met her friends, the better. But the clock seemed to be broken. Strangely, its hands spun counterclockwise, almost as though time had tripped and fell down backwards. She frowned. Something was amiss.
But time was running short, and she was expected in the ballroom. No time to worry now—she opened the door to go.
The wall was like a block of ice. She leaned back and pressed her palms against it, fingers sinking into the cracks and crevices. The air of the room stifled her; her face was flushed with the heat. The enormous swarms of the dance floor oozed before her. The people looked... strange.
Strange, because there were no people.
The transparent figures fluttered before her like wraiths within a dream. The glowing chandeliers cast shadows on the men's uniforms, magnifying their disrepair, their tattered rags and worn-out medals. Of the women nothing could be seen but the fake gleam of their jewels. They swept across the room like waves of sand, spurting to and fro in small leaps, though there was no wind; they moved of their own accord.
Savyna inhaled, feeling the filth of the room's air build in her throat. This poor air couldn't be normal, either. And she hadn't seen a door since she had come in.
She swallowed, a small lump of fear building in the pit of her stomach. Maybe...
Maybe she had been drawn into some phantom world, like Lyude once had, or maybe she was caught in some sort of dream. In that case, she told herself sternly, she would wake up soon enough. But until then... In a glance around the room, she noticed an open window on the opposite wall and her heartbeat began to thud. She felt that the window was an escape from suffocation, that the walls of the room were all that separated her from freedom. This world made her dizzy, uncomfortable. Mind suddenly spinning, she rocked on her heels.
The moment of decision passed and she parted from the wall, stepping as though off the edge of a cliff, off the face of the earth. The crowd consumed her and human features bobbed around. She couldn't discern anything as one face melted into the next, and the air reeked of sand and skin. Her throat jogged nervously for water. Then, she stumbled.
The ballroom fell silent and the people faded out; even the shadows disappeared into darkness. Someone had seized her arm.
She turned to face her captor, her arm clenched in the grip of ice.
It was a puppet, its eyes glowing red.
Her lips parted in a quiet gasp. With her breath, the room was again filled with people who brushed against her, stifling her, hiding the room from her view. She fought to see past them, to look at the puppet, but collided around her, sometimes lending glimpses, sometimes making walls. She began to feel sick, but calm. But this was all in her head, wasn't it? The puppet existed no more than the crowds did, she decided, feeling cold metal fingers slice into her arm. Ghosts didn't exist, so what did she have to fear?
"Come with me," the puppet said.
"Where?" she whispered, her voice deep and rasping.
For a moment the curtain of bodies parted, and she saw its arm slide out and one of its crooked fingers pointing away. "To the center of the floor. There's someone I think you should meet there. Are you coming or not?"
She stared. To the center of the floor? She didn't want to, but this crowd... Anything was better than this crowd. Even the puppet and his friend.
So she held her tongue, and nodded.
It pulled her away and she could hear some heels striking the floor, and the sound of their echoes ricocheting around the room. At one point, she saw the window from before; it grew wider as they drew closer. The ridiculous dress of hers flapped against her legs as she ran.
At the center of the floor the puppet halted—but still she experienced a strange sensation of motion. The window leapt out of sight. She dropped back.
Her head cracked against the floor, and she was in pain.
"Here." She struggled to move. She felt... broken.
"Sit up, woman."
Clutching the floor, she grunted. "What—"
It said nothing for a moment. Then, "It seems as though you fainted."
Savyna frowned at the darkness.
"You look dizzier than an Olifant after a stampede. Why don't you try opening your eyes?"
She did; light poured in. She heard voices from far away, but the moment she focused on them, they seemed to burst in her ears. She blinked several times, trying to grasp the meaning of why she had fainted.
The puppet stood up, looking impatient. "Can you walk?"
Squinting up at it, she did not answer. For a moment she could not, but at last the room stopped spinning and she was able to see clearly. Its outstretched hand went ignored as she climbed to her feet, all too aware of the throng of eyes behind her. The phantom people had stopped dancing to watch the two of them. Of all the imaginary nerve... She flushed and turned her face away.
"The girl's father is waiting for you. He said he wanted to see you in person. Will you still see him?"
So there was a girl. Savyna felt her heart sink. It was foolish to go if there was a girl involved. And yet—
The puppet nodded and went back into the crowd. She watched its retreating figure.
Why had she just agreed? She should be finding a way out of this room. But she had given her word... She shook her head and followed.
Behind, painfully, she heard the voices. "Lady Death..."
She left and they faded into silence again. Just a moment ago the room had been a clamor of voices and laughter, but now all she could hear was the sound of her own breath. It coursed through her like the wind, stirring her blood. The people around rocked and stumbled, pushed by the hurricane inside her. Soon they began to fade, too.
The puppet froze in front of her and she stopped behind it—here was release. The winds settled down and the chandeliers tinkled into place.
It turned, body twisting in the dark, movements sliding, and bowed its head. A strip of cloth fell from its inclined torso without its notice. The cloth tumbled to the floor and began leaking a dark liquid.
No, she realized, magic.
The puppet's eyes glittered. It didn't seem to have noticed the deterioration. She stared at the puddle, silent.
"We're finally here, and after all these years, too. Now let me introduce him to you." The puppet stretched an arm out to the darkness.
Then, right before her eyes, it disappeared.
Savyna tensed. It was really gone, leaving not even a memory of its departure. She stared around the room, unimpressed by the trick but slightly confused. Figuring that it was gone for good, she decided to dwell on the arrival of the man, rather than the departure of the puppet. She held still, listening for the rustle of movement, and for once, the world waited and time stopped flowing. There was calm like the kind that comes before a storm, and she crouched down, waiting.
There was a tremor, and then entire room shuddered violently, knocking her down, and a sudden flash blinded her eyes, stunning her. When the white receded a giant stood before her, his gun pointed at the space between her eyes. She didn't waste a moment on fear; instead she ducked and rolled to the side just as a shot thundered next to her. She found her feet and pushed off into a dash.
One man with a gun? This would be easy.
But she reminded herself that there was no time for overconfidence, not until the fight was over. She forced her way past the ghosts of the Imperial elite, the withering soldiers and the faceless wives. She was sure that's what they were, though there were no children among them, and there was no girl. She shoved an old man out of the way and caught a whiff of blood and explosives. It reminded her of—
No. Like the wind, she dashed along the outer edges of the huge crowd, hugging it as though it were the curve of a wall. Once past she slowed, discovering refuge in an empty corner of the room. She jogged up and sank into the crease in the wall, and somewhere nearby another shot rang out.
Then the crowd came and began to undulate around her. These people, this beast, moved as one and breathed together, a dragon of unanimous thought, one whose movements at one end of the room were repeated almost instantaneously on the other side. And here she was, the foreigner, pushed around by their grumbling activity. She tried to keep to the corner, but she was pushed in.
They surrounding her, crushing her, upsetting her balance until she felt she was nearly drowning in quicksand. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide; the enemy was everywhere and nowhere. She gasped, pushing the bodies away from her. If they would just leave her—
They writhed, pulling back in. Just as suddenly as they had taken her, she was dumped.
She collapsed shivering on the floor, the breath of the people still curdling in her mouth. She glared up at them as they drew away, coughing, climbing up from her knees. They had caught her defenseless and unaware, and she hadn't done a thing.
—Another shot crumbled the wall behind her. She stood cursing herself. There was no time to waste wallowing in shame, not while the real enemy was getting closer. She stood and moved past the bullet-blasted wall to a place where the people couldn't reach her. She tried to breathe but her throat burned like fire. She swallowed. There had to be some way to escape from this room. All she had to do was find it.
The creature was lumbering away and now she was alone against the wall, a single target outlined in shadows and accentuated by torchlight. The room stretched out before her, a long carpet that rolled up to the wall. She edged along it, feeling restless but acting cold, so cold. In truth she was slick with sweat. Sweltering. The torches burned and death crept near, threatening blood—or suffocation.
Now she had an idea.
She knelt down to appear as small as possible. Knowing that her movements would attract the man's attention, she began to hasten along the side of the wall. Her shadow hurried after her and a light wind followed in her tracks. As she ran the click of a gun sounded through the place. She tensed.
The shot exploded behind her.
As debris hit her back she whirled and doubled back down the path against the wall. There was a crack in the stone where the bullet had ripped through, and rubble lay scattered on the floor. Looking grim, she put one hand next to the split while drawing back the fist of the other. She struck the wall.
Swiftly, she began to work the broken rock, tearing it open into a hole as pebbles filled her skin and blood rolled off her hand. The stone slowly crumbled away, leaving rubble to pile on the floor. A cool breeze started to flow through. Her knuckles ached, and she wished for her Battle Claws. She paused; now night filled the emptiness like a pool of water. The hole was just big enough to fit through.
She turned to look back. The shadow of the man stretched across the room, pitch-black as it advanced across the dance floor.
She'd had enough.
Savyna faced forward, closed her eyes, and slid through the hole in the wall. A thud, and deep blue surrounded her.
For a moment she hung in the air.
A bullet whizzed by.
Then... she began to fall.
She fell and fell and fell—and as she fell the wind coiled and the night blanketed her. It was almost as though she was floating on the air. She slowly opened her eyes to see a banner of stars unfold above; a small cloud paraded by.
The night supported her gliding form, and she wondered. Strange—it didn't feel as though she was falling at all.
Was this a dream, too? Perhaps this sensation was one of sleep. This wandering off and sailing away, this lightness in her limbs and heaviness of her eyes. She filled her lungs and allowed herself to drift, immediately wrapped in a lush, quiet darkness.
And there was nothing.
It was peace. The kind for which she had always strived. The total lack of pain and fear and light and sound. The escape.
There she found her dreamless sleep. For once, she was content.
She savored the feeling.
Then, from far off in the distance, in the darkness, a something began to hum.
At first the annoying noise seemed to exist outside of her world; it seemed to slide up and down, playing on beats of silence and sound, yet playing in some other dimension. She realized, as the noise increased, that it was the sound of human voices, and that they were the deep tones of men. For now, it sounded like nothing more than whispers, but steadily they grew, encroaching upon her silent place and becoming louder. The voices were distinct now; they were beside her, rushing in her ears, echoing around the place that she was in.
She realized from the quality of the sound that she was in a wide metal chamber with distant walls and no corners. A draft rose from below where she lay, washing over her damp skin, drying the layers of sweat. She heard the crackle of electricity somewhere; it seemed to come from the depths of the chamber. She opened her eyes. It was mostly dark, save for a few sparks of yellow. She climbed to her feet. Her entire body hurt. She braced herself and went to look around.
As she faltered along the wide platform, she saw two figures in the darkness—a small body leaning over a lump of black. She squinted. The next spray of electricity revealed that the body was a little girl dressed in white and red, bright-eyed though her sweater looked a dull orange in the poor light. Savyna felt her mouth go dry.
She parted her lips to say something, but no sound would come out. She tried again. Her throat was hoarse and dry with thirst, so hoarse that she couldn't speak. She swallowed and, drawn by some strange force, began to walk toward the little girl and the figure who was crumpled at her feet. Savyna's footsteps echoed in the void, louder than anything she had ever heard before. She was compelled to walk forward. She had to know. The little girl barely stirred as Savyna crouched beside her; she was much too busy staring at the man at her feet.
Savyna pulled her gaze from the little girl to the man. There was a pain in her chest as she realized who he was, and before she knew it she reached out to touch his corpse, if only to see if he was really...
The shadow of her hand moved over the collar of his clothes, his neck, his whiskered face. She hesitated before pressing her fingers to his neck. The flesh was still warm. She bit her lip and searched for a pulse. She felt trapped and choked up suddenly.
There was none.
The chamber began to slide apart, disorienting her, ushering her into confusion—there were bursts of sound, light, people—people, wasn't this room just filled with people? She could have sworn it was filled with hundreds of people, swarms of them, all crushed against her, stifling her breath, so close and so near to her, dispersing once she looked at them. She experienced a strange, familiar sense of falling and now the room was as empty as a graveyard.
She realized, suddenly, that the people weren't gone. They, too, were dead.
With this, the air caught fire and the ground beneath her began to erode, crumbling into rock and grains of sand, undermining her footing. A fire started up somewhere, and a heavy cloud of heat settled over her. Smoke curled out from the darkness, snaking around her arms and waist, pulling her away, far away, until she felt as though she were in another place, another land, entirely. With a jolt, her eyes flew open.
Back in bed? No.
The little girl screamed, "You murderer!" and began to hit her with tiny fists.
Without a word she threw her hand back into the face of the little girl; there was a sharp crack and the girl was thrown into a wall. Dust and sand scattered over her body as Savyna stretched her hands and looked away, desperate to find the man.
Fire danced around him, climbing his suit, catching in his hair. He was propped up against the side of the wall, his head on his shoulder. Through the flames he seemed to blink, seemed to move a little.
He began to lift his face, revealing eyes that were small chasms of hatred; they focused on her and burned into her soul. She saw that he wasn't the man from before; no, he was the father of the little girl from Operation Sweep.
From Operation Sweep. From Azha, in Alfard, the Empire. The blood, the stink, the death—
She covered her mouth and stumbled back, her eyes riveted to his face. No. She slipped and fell the sand, grappling at the sand and scrambled backwards, feeling one of her heels hook into the edge of a woven mat. The stiff loops latched onto her boot and held her in the fire place. She kicked helplessly, staring as the man stood up, pulled out a gun, came toward her. She wanted to fight him. She wanted to escape She was falling, falling, falling... wasn't she?
Wasn't he? It was the father who had died. Not the little girl. The girl was spared, while he had died. The girl lived; the girl had killed her father. Wasn't that it?
She felt confused. The girl had killed her father?
Or he had killed me.
Such a waste.
The man grabbed her arm and pulled her upright. Her leg twisted, the boot still caught in the rug. He shook her.
"Why?" he was yelling, waving his gun around in the air. Tears streamed down his face. "Why!?"
This was a dream, no, this must be a dream, no, she hated these memories. The little girl
lay bleeding on the floor. She regretted it all. Savyna couldn't remember who killed who killed whom
anymore because there were so many bodies, so many bones, so much death. She couldn't
keep count anymore. How many dead? Where was she now? How many dead? The words sang in her mind, another scream in the back of her
head. The memories. The traces of her own actions in the Empire. What a waste.
Those ghosts haunted her life, they were herself—
The people she killed were badges of skill and honor; she would gladly gladly tear them off and burn them. She just wanted to escape. She wanted to be free. Who was she? she was crazy Those lives were coming back to haunt her... She wasn't alone. Never alone! She was as dead as the rest of them.
Why couldn't she go back to sleep?
She loved them... Why did they have to die?
She realized that she feared neither life nor death, but the place she was in, the purgatory, the half-hell, the blade and bullet and fist. Death whirled around her, flashing skulls and skin, transparent faces. She was always at one end of these crimes deaths. Panic flooded her—what will happen to me? what has happened to me?—but she walked alone on the earth, the calm hurricane, leveling cities and mountains.
She wandered, sought silence and relief. If she could just die alone in peace.
It was the only way to end her story.
The man shoved her against the wall and her head knocked against the stone. She turned her face away, biting her tongue. Maybe he would kill her and take her to her away. Maybe there was a place where all little girls and their daddies were reunited after death. Maybe he was there. Maybe she would see him. The man broke her arm.
She cried out and squirmed, her hair lashing, the carpet still pulling at her heel. She refused to look at him and instead bowed her skull to the wall, wincing at the bruise. She couldn't kill a memory. There was nothing she could do; she couldn't hurt the girl's father; that girl had been innocent and defenseless. She couldn't do that.
And besides, he was just a memory. Not even real!
The man was wringing her neck, crying, strangling her, his hands firm beneath her jaw. She couldn't breathe, though she wasn't making much of an effort to stop him, just feebly scraping at his arms. The pressure kept increasing; she felt as though her throat would collapse under the strain. She sputtered, her fingernails sinking into his skin. The room was growing dead dark.
She realized: this wasn't happening at all. yes it is She was probably asleep in her room, camped out in some Imperial bunk bed. If only she could make herself wake up, or stop accessing these memories, or—
—there was a faint smell of blood and sand, and she glimpsed the fading light of a fire. The man's features began to soften in her vision and she felt her body grow absolutely numb.
Then the world became silent. Like the dance floor, and the graveyard, and the place where her daddy died.
For a moment she was falling in a dark blue sky.
"Nothing really mattered."
The impact of her body hitting the ground was unlike any other sensation. Pain reverberated through her skin; her muscles ripped apart and bruised; she almost lost consciousness at the spiking pain of bones entering her internal organs. She felt loose, spreading, damaged. A vagrant wind blew over her remains.
It was the only way to end it.