The sky is grey the morning we bury Anna.
A shallow grave, because we don't have the time for anything deeper. It's been a long while since anybody had a proper funeral 'round here. Anna was our leader, but that doesn't mean anything. She gets no special treatment.
She didn't expect it, either.
"We lay our friend to rest," Gaje intones, "wishing her well and thanking her. Not only for the time she gave us while she lived, but for the protection she will impart to us now in death. Artemis rest your soul, sweet Anna. May you hunt with us forever."
Gaje is the most melodramatic of all of us—we've come to expect it of him. But secretly I like to hear him administer the last rites; our version of them, anyway. Every time somebody dies, it's another soldier down; another step closer to The End. We've got to mark those moments. We've got to take stock, at least now and then.
Because The End is coming.
It's just a matter of when.
I close my eyes and drift towards sleep, trying to forget that Anna's blood is still on my hands. I haven't had time to wash, and the blood seems to itch, even now that it's dry. But I need my sleep—I'll clean up when I wake.
If I wake.
There are no guarantees there.
I wait patiently for sleep to come. I'm not relaxed, never can be when I know what's waiting in my dreams. Let alone what's waiting when I'm awake. Still, I'm tired enough that fear won't stop me falling. I don't really call it sleep anymore—it's more like memory. Or seersight, maybe.
Sleep wraps me in its arms and the red wings beat, creating their own humid breeze. The red wings beat at the thick air, drawing the face towards me. It is leering and terrible, and oh so familiar. Its eyes glow and its teeth shine.
Artemis does what she can for me while I'm awake, but she can't keep me safe in dreams.
That's why I only give myself twenty minutes.
Opening my eyes again, I stare up at a dead brown canopy. The leaves are illuminated by the blue glow of the soil that is my mattress. The earth glows radioactive—everyone assumed it would be green. Instead, it is electric blue.
I have a secret. I believe the world looks beautiful at night.
I share it with no one, as it's too close to blasphemy.
We sit around the campfire, planning our next move. We're out in the open, exposed and vulnerable. But even if we found a cave, we still wouldn't be safe. Nowhere is safe. We'd probably be better off just sitting here, waiting. And yet none of us is happy with that plan. It's an old plan, and new. No matter how hopeless things are, we can't bring ourselves to adopt it. But still we suggest it, each and every time.
Anna was the last of our laughter. She went, and took all good humour with her. Nobody can think of any jokes to crack—good ones or bad ones. Anna laughed in the face of death, she actually laughed as she fell. But none of us have her strength, or her grace. We're lost and frightened, bewildered by our fate.
Stunned by it, and by the realisation we're not dreaming.
This is real.
The progeny of war, I find myself thinking as I stare out across the dark, twisted plains. Here and there, half-rotted trees, stripped of all leaves, claw at the sky, bent crones begging for scraps. Not receiving.
Beg, and ye shall not receive.
"This used to be London," Gaje murmurs, squinting into the grey-skied glare. There is a faint tinge of radioactive blue in the distance, but the plains are dark and dead, entirely sans glow.
Even the ravens don't come here.
"Check it out." Sandris is pointing, and we all stare at a metal half-circle in the distance, protruding from the charred earth. "The Eye, right?"
"I can't believe anything survived," Loran says. "Can't even credit it."
"You call that survival?" Gaje asks dryly. One of his brows is arched.
Loran shrugs. "Hey, at least that thing's got its own tombstone. More than anyone we know can say."
Even Gaje has no comeback for that. We all stand and stare at the remains of the Eye, in newfound appreciation of its resilience. Even nuclear war couldn't destroy. Not entirely.
It, and the cockroaches.
That's how it'll be.
"Well, let's get cracking," Sandris says, and starts walking. He's always the first to start walking.
Gaje catches him up, and the rest of us follow. We strive for the other side of the plains—for whatever waits there for us.
An erupting fire geyser takes Gaje that night, incinerating him before he can loose more than a surprised grunt. The screaming is left to the rest of us. Gaje is gone. He was the only semblance of a leader we had left.
Loran sinks to the ground, staring in a teary stupor at the place where Gaje's last step fell. She loved Gaje—he was her one and only.
"Well," Sandris says, grimacing into the distance, "at least we don't have a body to bury this time. Who's going to say the last rites?"
Because our last rites man now needs his own.
I volunteer for the job, and make a dog's breakfast of it. At least he got some words, I try to tell myself. It could have been worse.
Hours pass, and we keep walking. Then Loran halts our progress, sinking to the millennia-old lava underfoot and hiding her eyes behind one grimy hand. Sandris and I exchange glances, then reluctantly take our own seats. We watch Loran, and we wait.
When she finally lowers her hand, about an hour later, her eyes are dry. I find myself surprised—quite rare these days.
"Why don't we just wait here?" Loran's voice is husky. She wipes a streak of black lava dust from her cheek. "I've had enough of walking. Of making all this pointless effort. I mean, why don't we just…?"
"Wait her until we die?" I ask.
We stare at each other, and Loran nods slowly. "Yeah. Or, hang on, we don't even have to wait. I'll kill you. You kill me. We'll do it at the same time."
"What about me?" Sandris is sitting a short way off, arms crossed. "What do I do?"
"We'll all kill each other at the same time," Loran says calmly, craning her neck to stare up at the sky. "'Would that I had some wings to fly,' she murmurs, reciting some old song lyric. "Anyway…what say you all?"
"I say fuck that shit," Sandris puts it bluntly. "I'm walking. I don't give a shit if a fucking geyser gets me—or if one of the Damned comes to chow down on my soul. I'm not just going to let you kill me. And I'm not going to kill you."
"Suit yourself," Loran murmurs, fixing her gaze on me. "And you?"
I chew on my lower lip, weighing up my options. None are particularly light and fluffy. None remind me of fluffy bunnies bouncing through fields of wildflowers. None give me cause to smile.
But that in itself seems funny, somehow. I very nearly start laughing. Except that I'm feeling pretty shitty.
"Can I sleep on it?" I ask, gazing up into the sky myself. It's not grey now—it's the colour of smog. Dirty, brown and choking.
Loran snickers. "Sure. Sleep on it. Why don't you do that?"
There is something threatening in her tone. And suddenly I wonder—if I go to sleep, will I wake up?
I decide that I don't care. Waking will only show me this same twisted dark vista. I've had about enough of dead landscapes. If Loran wants to kill me in slumber, I won't hold it against her.
But wake I do, and Loran is gone.
Sandris is sleeping as well. I go over to shove him awake. "Where's Lor?"
He frowns, yawns, shakes himself awake. He sits up and looks around. "Shit," he mutters. "Guess she made your decision for you."
"But…" I stand up and turn in circles. The world looks the same in each direction. We're in the middle of a seriously ugly wasteland.
"Let's just get going," Sandris grumbles. "She wanted to die. Well, I'd say she's dead by now. Or well on the way."
I shrug. "Okay. Whatever. But I've got to wonder—what the hell is Artemis's game?"
Sandris snorts with derision. "I think she's fled the universe, mon ami. I think she's abandoned us. I think the Hunt is well and truly over, my friend, and our time has come. But I'm not going down easy, I'll say that much. I'm walking till it's over."
And no one could accuse him of just talking the talk—because he's always the first to start walking.
There are just the two of us now.
Two days later, there's only one.
The way I remember it, Sandris just sort of flickered and disappeared. His eyes widened and flooded with horror. His mouth opened, as if it wanted to scream, but it gave no sound. He stared at me with wide eyes, and then he flickered and disappeared.
I've decided it must have been The Damned, come to collect his soul. And collect they did.
I wonder why they don't want mine.
I wonder how I can possibly be the only one still standing. Still alive.
When's my turn?
For the first time in forever, I feel lonely and causeless.
The shadow surges up before me, roaring its fury. I'd always expected I would shrink back in fear, bring up my breakfast—dried figs are all I've lived on for the last few days; odd to think they're the last of my supplies. Maybe I'd even piss myself. That would be like me. But when the shadow surges, I just stand there, staring up at it in mounting awe.
And maybe a little relief.
I never realised that they glittered so—the shadows. This one looks like a cloud of black magic dust. Dark purple, maybe, and shimmering like water at sunset. Not that I've seen water like that in a very long time.
The shadow looms, it surges towards me, it envelopes me, and the last one standing is standing no more.
He's okay with that.
The pain comes and then it goes. The flesh sloughs off my bones, and I'm a skeleton. Then I'm less than a skeleton. And I'm rebuilt, then bones solidifying, the flesh piling back on. I tingle all over, and open my eyes.
I'm staring at a ceiling, and a shaman is gazing down at me, concern in his dark brown eyes. "Orr ada!" he yells, hands raised in the air. "Esan orr ada, bi presa!" I have little to no clue what those words mean. Part of me recognises the language, but the rest is adrift on the sea of confusion.
"He is the third," the shaman intones in a language I can understand. "We have a majority—the Empress must be told! We have a majority."
I frown. My mouth moves but nothing comes out. I try to form words but only my mind is cooperating. My body is being seriously unhelpful.
"Is it real?" a familiar voice cries, and suddenly another face is peering down at me. Anna's face, beaming and bruised. "You are alive! Oh, mon ami—thank Artemis for this!"
"Artemis be praised!" someone else cries from further away. Sandris? The voice is familiar, anyhow.
Anna plants kisses on my face. "Oh, my friend, it is true—we are all alive. But…" Her smile fades, and sorrow replaces it. "You remember, yes? You remember what we saw? What the future holds?"
A dream, I want to say, but I can only think the words. None of my body cooperates with me. It was just a dream.
"No, mon ami, not a dream—it was real! It will be real. But we are in time to stop it. This time, we will stop it from happening. We are prophets, you see. You and me and the rest of our good friends. We saw the future, and we are in time to stop it!"
But then a new voice sounds—unfamiliar to my ears, but grave enough to get my attention.
"Except, of course, that the President has just declared war. Oh, and the Empress is dead."
The room is almost completely silent, as if nobody dares to breathe. Anna is staring at something or someone I cannot see, a look of acute horror on her face. "No," she whispers, shaking her head. "No, no, non! It cannot be! Zut!"
"Anna," I croak. "Surely there's still time?"
But already I can hear the distant whining, the buzz I associate with warplanes and soon-to-be bombs.
"Is this place well sheltered?" I manage to whisper before an itch in my throat sends me into fits of hoarse coughing.
"This place is a house of cards," the shaman says sadly, gazing off in the same direction as Anna.
The whining sound grows louder, and the walls of the building begin to shiver, then shudder. The floor seems to tilt and nausea wells up inside me.
Anna grips my hand, and her salty tears falling on me. "At least we know we survive, mon ami," she whispers, tightening her grip as my bed slides a way across the floor. She trots along with it, never breaking her gaze from mine. "At least we will live longer." A fierce light begins to shine in her eyes. "And we will do things differently this time, I swear. This time, we will not make those same mistakes. We will survive. None of the Damned will consume us—no flame will burn us to a cinder. No glitter cloud of death will choke us." She stares hard at me, ever the leader. "You agree?"
Inside me, terror boils. But on the outside I manage to smile. "I agree."
She grins then, and she looks quite the maniac. Her white teeth shine in the golden afternoon night. She looks fearsome and bright, very beautiful. And she makes me believe.
Against all odds, I believe.
Artemis be praised!
The whining grows louder until it is all I know.
An ominous sound, and hateful. But we will survive a little longer yet, Anna and I. For we have seen the future, and we know.
She grips my hand, and we begin to pray.