XXXIII - Opening of the Final Act

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The sun beats down on us, sweat beads at our brow and slips down the small of our backs. The relentless heat bakes the pale cobblestones under our feet until they burn through the leather soles of our sandals. Our footsteps are quick, but only because we cannot stand the torture of letting our feet linger on the ground longer than a blink. Adras, Xanthos, and I exchange whimpers. They die in the air, clinging around our mouths and chins with pathetic remembrance.

We walk three abreast through the capital city, Pernathiem. It is a ghost town. Not the same way Larkhenya is still and quiet; but because the gods have told the people to hide. Curtains are drawn tight, overlapping each other so no hints of the outside world can leak indoors. Doors are bolted shut, furniture piled up on the other side protecting inhabitants from intruders. If people have cellars, they hide in them. I feel their pulsing humanity vibrating up from the depths under the street. I feel a city full of people alive and breathing and waiting, their heartbeats cloud the air and make it thick and sticky. Their panic ripples on a stale, wilting breeze with a sour, rotten-fruit tang. 

The dirt and grime of the typically bustling city have nowhere else to land except on our skin. It coats our faces and chests and limbs with a grey, gritty film. If a particular river of sweat gains enough power, it runs in dusty rivulets down our bodies, smearing away the muddy mix and leaving a clean path for more filth to adhere to.

"Where is everyone?" Xanthos asks as we stride through an entirely deserted central market. "It's past noon, this place should be a madhouse."

It is decidedly not a madhouse. Booths and stalls stand in wait, eager to bear the burden of goods, desperate to be haggled across. The wind manages enough gumption to whistle through the roughly hewn boards that make up the empty shopper's paradise. The sound is eerie and unsettling.

Despite the scorching heat, Adras rubs his arms and shivers with a chill. "I don't like this. This feels like a trap." 

He looks at me, eyebrows raised, the unspoke question clear enough between us. Is this a test?

I shake my head, "No, but I am unsettled."

Adras stoops to pick up a shard of broken pottery while Xanthos goes to draw water from a nearby well. He dumps the first urn of over him, letting the bath-temperature water sluice over him. His elaborate robe of fine, dove gray and powder blue fabric clings to his wiry frame.

"He's just ruined his silks, now we really know we're in trouble," I whisper.

Adras glowers, disapproving of my humor. There is something about the proximity of my family that turns me into a darkly snide creature. Lest you think using humor as a coping tool was only for mortals.

Adras tosses the shard and stands up, clapping the dust off of his hands. "This reminds me of our first parade in Aundus. Remember that? Everyone was so silent and creepy."

"Yes, well, at least back then they were silent because they were in awe, not because they feared for their lives."

We smile at the memory, a small bubble of familiar emotions drifting between us. We've tried over the last few days to reestablish our trust and friendship. Slowly, I feel it coming back to us. A little dinged up, a little worse for wear, but pure all the same.

"You know how to fight them, right? If...if it were to come down to it." Adras looks away and studies the empty market. His throat bobs; loose, haphazard feelings drift off of him; all the insecurity, the fear, and the worry that he does his best to ignore.

"Yes," I admit reluctantly. "I can fight them." 

If things get bad enough, if the stakes are high enough, I would find a way to end my family member's lives. With every breath, I hope it does not come to that. I'd never be able to go back home.

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