- 65 -

26K 1.9K 795
                                    

When we returned to my home in Evergreen Acres, the Sin wordlessly removed the stash of papers from the briefcase I had left untouched upon the table. Each paper was an employee record like the one we had burnt at IMOR, like the ones Darius had stolen from G&R. He taped each individual dossier to the wall with John Pier's and the two cultists from the van. There were nearly forty documents papering the expanse all together.

They hung untouched for a brief moment. Then, the Sin set in with his red pen.

Over the next four days, I would emerge from my bedroom and walk to the wall. Sometimes, the Sin would be there to watch me with his dark, unnerving gaze. I would survey each printed face and find another slashed with a brilliant red 'x'. Each mark fell upon my heart like a red brand, like another droplet of ink blackening my soul.

There was no more smoke to delude us. No more mirrors to blind us. The Exordium Insaniam was dying like an over-pruned rosebush. Each snipped flower was felled by Darius's hand. By my will. I crushed the petals of the cult's ruin between my fingers and felt as though I could paint my entire world red.

I didn't go to work. Amoroth didn't call. Darius took Tara's cat to my parents' house with a note telling them Tara wanted them to look after him. I watched the news when I could stomach it, sighing every time one of Darius' murders was mentioned alongside Balthier's. The reporter interviewed a woman on the street clutching the hand of her small child. "The city is losing its mind," she said.

I snorted. Verweald had lost its mind a long, long time ago.

The gallery of little red crosses grew and grew. Something akin to dread was born inside my chest, because as fewer faces remained unmarked, I knew my end drew near. The Exordium would not fall alone. The contract that had seemed so impossible weeks ago was nearing its completion, and once the final cultist met his or her end....

Darius would claim my life. My soul.

I would die.



On the afternoon of the fifth day, I sat cross-legged on my messy bed with my photo album open on my knees. I wasn't indulging in lachrymose daydreaming—though the temptation to do so was there. I searched for evidence of what Rick had said. I could recall his words still and would randomly remember throughout the day and night. I dreamt of those words, and of a woman who looked like my sister but couldn't possibly be Tara.

I didn't want to believe Rick, but my doubt would not relent. So, I reviewed a photo album filled with snapped pictures of me, Tara, and Rick. In most of the photos, we crammed together into the frame at whatever locale or venue we had visited that day, smiling. Sometimes there was a fourth person dragged along by Tara to be my date. Sometimes it was just me and my sister in the photo, or just Tara and Rick.

The woman Rick described did not exist within those pictures. The Tara within my photos was vivacious and brimming with love; she was my twin, the woman I grew up, a central part of my life. I traced each snapshot of her with a loving hand, wishing I could see her one more time. I was about to slam the book shut and proclaim Rick nothing more than a cruel liar, but I continued. I had almost reached the final page when I found something odd.

There was a photo taken earlier that year at a New Year's party. It initially caught my attention because neither Tara nor Rick were in the picture. It was just me and my date, and it took a moment of thought for me to recall that his name was David, and he was—had been—a colleague of Tara's. We'd enjoyed the party together, though no romance had bloomed between us. I used to see him at the hospital from time to time when I stopped by for Tara, and we would share a friendly chat.

I'd never noticed that, in the back of the photo, past the crowd David and I found ourselves ensconced in, Tara and Rick were barely visible. They were...arguing. Rick was in Tara's face, gesturing in my general direction. Tara looked...smug. Arrogant, as if she had been laughing at Rick. That was not a face I had ever seen Tara use before.

I closed the album as I wiped my fingers across the plastic cover. Perhaps my sister hadn't been as virtuous as I thought she was. Perhaps her relationship with Rick really had fallen apart—but that did not lessen my convictions nor my love for my sister. The revelation that Tara was not a perfectly perky human being made me wish I had been a better sister, that I'd known her better. Had Tara felt unable to come to me with her problems? I would have helped her. I would have done anything.

Just like I had done anything to avenge her murder.

It did little good for me to ruminate. Tara was gone. I returned the photo album to its shelf in the closet and stretched my arms above my head. I left my bedroom to find something to eat, though I was not especially hungry. Everything I ate tasted flavorless.

Darius' presence in the dining room was unexpected. He perched like a stone gargoyle upon my table's edge, long fingers curled over his bent knees, and I drew a breath to tell him to get his dirty shoes off the table, but I paused and followed his unmoving stare to the garage wall.

The gallery of red crosses had grown upon his return. It always did. Like a harbinger of grim tidings, Darius' silent presence in my house meant someone had died out on Verweald's already blood-soaked streets. I knew he used the Tongue of the Realm on each prospective cultist—as per my request to ascertain their guilt before killing them—but the disquiet remained. I wished I could help in some way, but Darius insisted I remain behind while he ended the Exordium.

The longer I looked, the more complete the gallery seemed. I could not find a single face that had not been marked. There wasn't a single cultist left alive. "There's no more...." I whispered. I clutched a hand over my wounded side.

As I spoke, the Sin of Pride revealed a folded page in his hand. "One more."

Relieved, I took the page and smoothed it out. "This is...Mr. Strauss." I sighed, but I was not surprised. I imagined nothing would ever surprise me again, not in the short amount of time I had left to live. "He was the head of advertising."

His home address had been crossed out, and Darius's handwriting replaced it with another. I knew the address. "He's in Verweald General? How ironic."

Darius nodded as he snatched the paper back. "Yes. He's been moved to the hospice, apparently. It's the reason I left the man for last. It's not as if he's going anywhere."

I laughed. The sound was meager and strained, falling like warped leaves from a dead tree. I quickly cleared my throat and took in a breath. "Do you think...I could come, for the last one?"

Darius said nothing as he slid his feet from the table and landed upon the hardwood without a sound. He extended his hand with his palm facing upward. Deciphering his silent acquiescence, I found my car keys in the back pocket of my jeans and placed them within his grasp. The Sin's fingers curled about the keys in a languid motion as he stated, "Let's go."

Startled, I asked, "W-what, right now?"

"Yes. I see no reason to wait. Do you?"

I saw plenty of reasons to wait, but I did not give voice to them. I didn't believe any of them would persuade the Sin to linger. He wished to be gone from Verweald before Balthier came searching for him, and I didn't blame him. I wanted to be gone as well, and yet....

I didn't want to die. God help me, I didn't want to die.

"Sara? Do you not want to go?"

Blinking, I realized I had been standing in place for several moments without responding or moving. I shook my head to stir my thoughts as I lowered my gaze to the floor. "No, it's...it's fine. Let's go."

As we tromped through the garage and out the raised door, I looked back over my shoulder. I couldn't help myself.

Was this the last time I would ever see my home?

BereftWhere stories live. Discover now