Here’s another story which made the rounds. I’ve decided it’s time to retire it. I had fun writing it, and there’s some description that I am particularly proud of. Enjoy!
Dana emerged from the reedy woods, shoes soaked, jeans muddy, and all that remained of James on her hands. Her heart still beat, and the air chilled her skin, but it felt like she’d never noticed them before. She would have thought she’d feel something. Anything. After what she’d seen, after what she did, all she felt was calm indifference. Because it didn’t matter. James. Nika. All the people who never paid her any mind before. Why would she care? She wasn’t one of them.
Dana remembered too well the day she found out Angel was not a really cool girl from Glencoe. No one made fun of her outright, none of her peers being quite so cruel, but the number of invitations she got to hang out with Angel after that made her mistake clear. As much as everyone seemed to like her well enough, she would have been hard pressed to call anyone a friend, no matter the circle of people around her. It didn’t trouble her so much as leave her lonely. That was simply her life.
For this reason, Dana might’ve known to be suspicious when Nika began hanging around her. Nika, funny and confident with her throaty laugh, never appearing awkwardly out of place, or caught eating her lunch alone, had never really been mean, but also never talked to Dana about anything besides homework. Even then, only if she needed help with it. They never swapped lipgloss or tied a sweater around one another’s waists to hide a surprise period stain. Nika’s interest started with an invitation to sit at her lunch table, though only Nika noticed she was there. A few days later, Nika joined her in the far corner of the cafeteria, keen on knowing more about her. A few days of shallow conversation and mildly probing questions later, Dana figured out Nika’s real interest–her knowledge of Hebrew. Honestly? This didn’t upset her. It was kind of nice that someone was inquisitive about something she enjoyed.
If not for that interest, Dana might have been suspicious when Nika asked her to ditch class together. She should have been. Nika never invited her anywhere other than a lunch table. Whatever it was that the annoyingly popular people did when they ditched and slipped off into the soggy woods that gave West Marsh its name, Dana had no idea. Another thing which should have given her pause. But, no, she let rare excitement at being included by a cool kid get the best of her. Despite Nika’s tendency to tease her for being shy and always at the periphery of their overlapping friend groups, such as they were, she agreed to go. Curiosity was a heady drug, after all.
“Where are we going?” Dana enquired.
She knew the answer she’d get before it ever left Nika’s lips. “You’ll see when we get there.” The smile on the pale girl’s face featured mischief. Probably another sign Dana should have just gone to Bio. The hope of making a friend with, well anyone, overrode her good sense.
So, Dana did not go back to Bio. Instead of Bio, they tromped through the field of thigh high grass bordering the far end of the soccer field behind the school, to the hole in the chainlink fence. Tossing their bags over the top, lined with spirals of concertina wire, each girl slipped through the bent opening and retrieved her belongings on the other side. Dana tried not to think too hard about the clanking sound in Nika’s.
“What are we doing?” she attempted to get information one more time.
“Going for a walk. I thought that was obvious.” Nika looped an arm through Dana’s, as if they were just the best of friends and did this sort of thing all the time. As if she were about to whisper to her about a stain on the rear of her jeans, or share the latest gossip on who was dating whom. “Just relax.”
Yes, relaxing was what Dana was known for. She stopped walking and pulled her arm free of Nika’s. “Just tell me what we’re doing, okay? I already agreed to it.” Without knowing what it was she was agreeing to. Brilliant.
With a roll of her brown eyes, Nika shrugged her bag off her shoulder, catching the loop in her hand as she tugged at the zipper to open it. She pulled a thick book out, the cover redone in a library binding a sure sign of its age even if the yellowed pages didn’t give that away. “Let’s call it science.”
Science? “Where’d you even find that?” Dana looked at the proffered book, her brow furrowed. Obviously, the library, but it didn’t look like a school book.
Nika shrugged, peeking at Dana from under the dark lenses of her cheap aviators. “I know people.” Digi-camo pants and strappy tank top hung from her frame, drawing attention to the sharp angles of her collarbones. She lowered sunglasses back over her eyes. “You ask a lot of questions.”
Another question died on Dana’s tongue at the teasing. Taking the offered book, she flipped a few pages, frowning at the strange language. It wasn’t Hebrew, but it had a familiar feeling to it. Before she had enough time to determine what it was, Nika snatched the book away. A breath of wind sounded in Dana’s ears, despite it being still around them, and Dana felt a twist of loss in her chest.
Dana narrowed her eyes just a little as if she was angry, though the giggle that slipped out gave away her excitement. “All the hookups, huh?” She still didn’t have all the information she needed to decide if continuing this outing was a good idea or not, but Nika fed her enough drips to provoke her wondering. A compulsion drove her, and now she needed to get her hands on that book once more. What was is? What language was it? Why did Nika invite her?
Nika did a thing where she half-smirked, a scarlet eyebrow peeking out from behind the frames of her glasses which matched high ponytail bouncing with the side to side motions of her head. “It helps to know college boys.”
Right. College boys. Nika dedicated a lot of effort to impressing college boys, which might have been a little more acceptable if they were older than fifteen, and the local community college wasn’t little more than a dumping ground for the type of man who preferred to stay local because younger girls fluffed up their egos. Dana’s feet all but dug in place as Nika put the book away. She didn’t really feel like dealing with the inevitable teasing that would come from college boys, and for the space of a long breath in and hard one out, considered turning back. Her mind lingered on that book, though, her thirst for it impossible to ignore, and what it had to do with being in the woods in the middle of the day with skeevy guys.
They trudged into the woods a little further, the dampness of the marsh squishing around their feet, making Dana wish she’d worn something a little more trail-friendly than canvas shoes. In all her pre-planning for a day traipsing through the marshes.
College boy waited in the only copse for miles which wasn’t halfway under water. He dragged on a hand-rolled cigarette with that air of smugness that Dana found off-putting about most of the guys they met from Lakeside. As if the community college credits and legal cigarette gave him some sort of bonus to his cool factor. Even that seemed obscured in James. He certainly wasn’t the type that usually caught Nika’s attention, not much taller than they were, skinny as the saplings that fenced in the clearing and limbs still frozen in pubescent gangliness. He did have a sort of prettiness to him, though. Not in an obvious way, but the kind you couldn’t quite put your finger on to explain.
“This her?” James asked. He bent, snuffing out his cigarette on the toe of his boot before crumbling the remaining ash and tobacco from it and tucking the filter into the pocket of his ill-fitting skinny jeans. So, he had some kind of awareness.
Nika did a complete turnaround, her rich laugh replaced with a high giggle, suddenly about a hundred SAT points shorter as she fussed with her shiny orange ponytail, stark against the muted colors of the wet woods. “Yes, James. This is Dana. My friend who reads Hebrew.”
“Dana. Right.” He tilted his chin up in casual greeting, giving her a once over that was appraising but not invasive. “So you’re the smart girl?”
Well, she wouldn’t describe it that way. “I guess? I get good grades.” She sounded like such a loser under his scrutiny, and felt her face heat.
“You can speak and read Hebrew?” Dana nodded. James shrugged. “Smart girl. Smart enough for our needs.”
“Why?” That curiosity of hers reared its head once more.
“Are you interviewing him for the school paper?” Nika likely only gave a shit about James because he fell on her sliding scale of useful. James’ ability to get things like obscure texts and cigarettes rated, and Dana’s usefulness rested in some hope she could read it for James’ benefit.
“You bring the book?” he asked, tipping his head forward so he could look at her from under a creased brow.
Nika scoffed, offended that he’d even suggest she was so irresponsible as to forget. This was their purpose being here today, after all.
“Where’d you get it?” Dana asked, flushing pink when her words barely squeaked out.
James looked at her, an indiscernible smile turning up his chapped lips. “I’m in college.” Well, that cleared that up. “People ask us fewer questions because we’re not children.” She didn’t like that answer, evident in her pinched expression. She knew nothing new about the book, which was about as much as she already knew about it. Still old. Still priceless. Still in Nika’s backpack. Still calling to her with an unheard voice of its own. And here was James, less funny than he thought he was.
Nika settled into sitting on the ground. She brought the book from her bag and handed it over to Dana, feinting once with a laugh. Dana didn’t like this, but she still wanted to know what was in that book, so she sank to the ground herself, spreading the cover in her lap. If she’d expected anything in the pages, it was not what she found. The yellowed pages were brittle at the edges where the paper had chipped away from careless perusing. The words themselves were incomprehensible, the font unfamiliar. She could even tell it was a copy of whatever the original text had been. All of that told her nothing. Dana turned another page, canting her head as her eyes met the print once more, only this time, it didn’t seem so impossible.
“This is ancient Aethereal.”
“Didn’t I tell you that you’re smart?” James settled onto the ground, cross-legged. His chuckle made it sound like it wasn’t a compliment, or at least not meant in any sort of flattering way. The excitement shining in his blue eyes conflicted that theory.
“I’m just saying I don’t know what half of these words mean.” She studied Hebrew, which might have been a foundation for Aethereal, she didn’t know. Her classes didn’t cover that. Maybe if she’d been in Glencoe, where they had an actual language department, she might have the knowledge to figure it out. High school in West Marsh was a joke that was laughed about by half of the known county. How did she know it was Aethereal anyhow? A forgotten fairy tale language supposedly meant only for the working of magic by a fictional race of half-divine people who remained in the same obscurity as this text. No one actually spoke it because the Aethereal–children born of the couplings of humans and dominions–did not exist outside of stories. Half angel beings with divine blood, part of the real world and part of the realm of spirits, but never really belonging in either.
“Don’t have to.” Nika opened one of those new-aged books she liked to read, pointing to an illustration and smiling at James, though he wasn’t looking at her. There were people who followed pagan and Wiccan traditions, and none of the ones she knew put any stock in these sorts of books. Another sign she promptly dismissed. “Everything you need to know is right here.”
Dana’s dark brow lofted at Nika, but her protests died when James openly laughed. Her face warmed and she looked down at the drawing again and tucked a loopy curl behind her ear. She shouldn’t be here. Her eyes narrowed at the text in the ancient book, all the same as she willed tears not to form in her eyes.
“This–this is weird stuff,” she murmured as she ran a finger along the key for the illustration in Nika’s book. “What is it you want me to do?”
“Just read it,” James told her, then hastily added, “if you can.”
“I don’t know,” she trailed off, tugging her lower lip between her teeth.
Nika laughed, too loud to actually be amused. “Will you two just relax?” She finished dumping out the contents of her backpack, including a small bundle knotted up in a flannel shirt which made a soft clink when it hit the grass in the middle of their circle. The light tilt to her head and the way she nudged James with her shoulder was meant to draw him into her mocking as she undid the bundle. Bottles, a few pints of alcohol, already opened and partially emptied, and a breath mint tin. “Be cool, Dana.”
Nika started laughing again and Dana wrapped her hands up in her sweatshirt pockets, frowning. “I don’t drink.”
“Of course you don’t, kiddo.” James rolled his bright eyes, chuckling weakly as they slid to Nika. He picked up the clear of the two bottles and cranked the top off before taking a large swig. Had she been in a better mindset, Dana might have laughed at the way he gagged and coughed.
James didn’t waste any time beyond that. He had a purpose and would put it off no longer. He opened the tin, filled with gel-tabs, and took three. “It’s supposed to help.” So that explained everything.
“No, dummy,” Nika said, seizing a chance to impress James. “It’s DXM.” When that didn’t clear anything up for Dana, since it looked like the tabs her mom gave her when she had a cold, Nika added, “Angel? Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it.”
Dana busied herself, trying to make sense of the text with her grasp of Hebrew. There weren’t enough similarities to give her any sort of traction in understanding. Alcohol made her uncomfortable, and she didn’t want to mess with drugs at all. “Of course I know what it is.” Another nod to another fairy tale, where the children of angels and humans slip their minds into an in-between place, not here nor there, without having to exist in either one. The space between worlds reportedly gave them access to magic. Or demons. She couldn’t remember. She’d not read angel stories in a long time. “No one can actually do that, exist in two places at once.” Supposedly, Angel allowed stupid people like Nika and James to pretend they could experience it.
“You don’t think so?” James asked, prompting Nika to roll her eyes.
Dana’s brow pricked together. “You do?”
“I think I can.” He held up the liquor bottle as some sort of explanation Dana couldn’t grasp.
“This doesn’t match any Hebrew I know,” she offered, turning her focus back to the book.
“Do you speak Aethereal?” James was leaning back on his elbows, watching her. Nika scooted closer, leaning across him to reach for the bottle and making a point of brushing against his chest. He handed her the bottle without looking and moved away from Nika without comment. Or really noticing.
“I don’t,” Dana told him slowly, in the way one might speak to a child, or a grown man on drugs, “because no one does, but the other book you brought claims to be a translation of Aethereal into Hebrew.” As unlikely as that was.
Nika rolled her eyes. “This isn’t a vocabulary test. We’re just having fun. Calm down. Don’t make me regret inviting you.” She held out a hand to Dana, already holding lightly to one of James’. “We have to make a circle.”
“Then pretend you didn’t invite me,” Dana snapped, pushing to her feet while still holding the old Aethereal text to her chest. A cool chill ran through her, as if all the blood in her body had dropped in temperature very suddenly, making the air around her feel hot. Not uncomfortable, but notable and foreign to her skin. “I’m going back.”
“Oh, don’t do that!” For a moment, just a brief flash across her face, Nika looked apologetic. Was she really sorry to see Dana go? More likely she worried James would leave, too. “Look, I’m sorry I laughed. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
James smiled up at her, his sunglasses falling from their perch on his head and obscuring his eyes, giving his smile a gentle and dreamy effect. “Yeah, don’t go, Pretty Girl. Can I call you ‘Pretty Girl’?”
“I’m fifteen,” she reminded him. He held up a placating hand. Was he actually nicer when he was stoned? She didn’t say anything for a time, then nodded. But that didn’t mean she was staying. Dana’s eyes skimmed over the pages of the book again. -all around us, making it vital to remain vigilant at all times in the liminal space-
Her mouth dropped open, the ability to hide her surprise completely lost to the moment of shock. That wasn’t possible! Yet the words began to wiggle and shift until they made sense.
“What’s wrong?” Nika asked, her tone one of exasperation.
Dana looked to her, and shook her head. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. I was just-” Just what? What was she doing differently now that she was not doing a minute ago? “I was reading it wrong.” She laughed, nervously, her eyes running along the words. It made no sense, but somehow she understood everything her eyes touched. Open the mind to find them, step back from the world that anchors you, and remember the blood that chills your veins. Never turn your back on them, for they covet your gifts and humanity as much as humans do the divinity that glows in your features.
Dana lowered to the ground once more, unable to tear her eyes away from the page, her breathing quickening in wonder. “Okay. Tell me what we’re doing.”
“Yes!” James whispered, pumping his fist in the air just out of her direct line of sight. Dana looked up, still wary of his turnaround. “You’re still with us, Pretty Girl! Now, prep up!” He offered the tin to her, and she leaned away as if touching it might instantly set her on fire.
“No, thank you. I do this my way.”
“We’re just goofing around,” Nika insisted. She set the occult book in front of the three of them, the drawing and the cute, rhyme-y little incantation poetically shaped around it easier for Dana to read. “I thought we’d get high and do Ouija board shit. Not pretend you’re gonna sprout wings or whatever.”
Ten minutes ago, Dana would have laughed at the absurdity of that statement. Something itched at the back of her mind now, some part of her only now awake and paying attention. This was not a good idea, not by a long shot. She didn’t even believe in spirits and magic, or the existence of the Aethereal. That changed nothing, because now she could think of little else. She forced an awkward chuckle, shrugging in response, because what was she going to say? Making sense of the text snapped the steel trap on her curiosity. Of course she wasn’t walking away now. “Aethereal don’t have wings. Didn’t. Wouldn’t, even if they existed.”
James tipped his glasses up once more to peek at her.
Dana set the book in her lap, allowing her to see both. She looked at the little poem, and with an odd instinct, skipped a few pages in the older book. Her fingers knew how many pages to turn, her eyes where to fall on the page. Her breath caught in her throat for a moment as she found a corresponding passage. The words basically said the same thing, as impossible as that was, though the Aethereal text in front of her did not rhyme. She swallowed thickly, remembering to breathe, before she took both of their hands. While James’ hand felt natural and comfortable, Nika’s felt hot to the touch. Searing. Dana gripped them tight, letting the sensation dull with familiarity. James’ pulse felt slow, his breathing sounded shallow. Did Nika notice? Dana hadn’t paid attention, so maybe she missed seeing her so-called friend take Angel as well.
“You gotta like, clear your mind and stuff.” James was a child who laughed too hard to whisper a secret, his voice booming in the hushed marsh. “Let go of the here and the there. It’s where we belong, Dana.” What? He curled forward, bowing his head, giving the image of a child at prayer with his eyes closed. Nika mimicked him, a grin wide on her face. Dana, with a half dozen new questions on her tongue, followed their example.
Instead of the hazy red of the sun shining through her eyelids, Dana’s vision went clear and bright white. Like walking through a morning mist illuminated into opacity by early sun, except her eyes saw everything with perfect clarity. Wisps of light in dull colors darted in and out of the edges of what she could see, and her mind filled with whispers. A few at first, and then a swirling barrage.
Dana blinked her eyes open now to see if Nika and James were keeping theirs closed. Had they heard the whispers, too? Their faces could not have been more different; James with a detached reverence, and Nika barely containing her giggles. Dana couldn’t feel the ground beneath her or the air on her skin anymore. Nothing seemed real, not behind her eyelids, and not outside them. An explosion of magpies taking wing out of the trees around them made her squeak. Nika lost control of her giggle.
“Do you think this is a joke?” James demanded of Nika. His words might have held more bite had they not been breathless and warbled, but the intent of rebuke was clear.
“Actually, I do,” Nika shot back.
James sat up, blue eyes wide and round and fixed upon her, if somewhat unfocused. “It’s not, Nika. This is serious.”
“Serious? We’re sitting here with damp butts, high on cough medicine, waiting for the weird girl–who’s not that pretty, by the way–to sing us a poem.” She laughed, shaking her head. “Spirits. You want to talk to spirits. Or angels, I don’t know. Yes, James, this is a joke, and I’ll go along with it as long as it stays funny.”
The frown deepened James’ face. “It’s a sin to covet, Nika. It’s not our fault you’re not one of us.” Dana blinked. Was he including her in that? “Okay? Anyway, we need three for the circle.” Stoned James didn’t seem so frivolous, but he was speaking nonsense. Nonsense or not, it had the desired effect, and Nika lowered her head once more.
With Nika placated for the moment, Dana closed her eyes again, letting out what she needed to be a calming breath. It was not. Her heart leapt to a gallup, and with her eyes closed, off in the distance yet directly in her ears, she heard a buffeting of wings. She could feel a forced breeze sweep across her skin, only it wasn’t really here. It was somewhere else.
“Sprits from the other side,” James started, his voice heavy with purpose, “we seek your guidance.” Nika drew an unsteady breath. “We need your wisdom to reach across.”
Reach across to where? Dana’s eyes opened again, the mist inside her mind now all around them, and she closed them once more, quickly, when the first glimpses of moving shapes and figures appeared. Closing her eyes did not make them go away. It only served to embolden them.
Dana could feel James’ fingers sweating, trembling. Like he was going to shake out of his skin. “I can see them,” he whispered. “Dana, can you see them? They want to help us.”
“Just read the stupid spell.” Nika’s annoyance emerged in the sharp edges of her words.
James mimicked her with a squeaky breath, but looked down at the occult book, and slowly recited the words in the image. Even high as he was, he maintained a measured pace, each syllable clear and precise from frequent practice. Did he actually expect something to happen? No. It wasn’t possible. But even as she protested the idea, that little itch at the back of her mind niggled more. The sound of wings grew more steady.
“Dana, here.” Nika dropped her hand and picked up a small dagger. The moment her fingers broke with James’ a cold rush flooded over Dana, except the air already felt so hot that it created an equilibrium around her. The colors and shapes came inside the circle now, darting in and out.
James’ head popped up, having felt the same thing she had. He looked at Nika with a frown. “What’s that for?”
“We probably need virgin blood,” she managed through a laugh. “Shit like this always needs virgin blood.” The whispers ran circles in and out of Dana’s mind, too fast for her to catch even snatches of the words. Words that were foreign to her senses and yet, she knew them for a caution.
Nika handed the dagger to Dana. “Just a little nick. It’s not like we need to bleed you dry.”
“Me?” Swallowing, Dana wrapped her brown fingers around the hilt and stared at the blade, gilded with sunlight shining through the trees. If Angel made her uneasy, cutting herself was right out. But, if she did it, they would likely shut up and stop haranguing her. Hand shaking, she laid the sharp edge against her palm and went so still she could feel the world moving around her. She stared, willing herself to just cut. Just do it so they’ll shut up. She couldn’t. Something, someone, a voice, a whisper, stopped her. Cautioned her. Would not let her make the quick flick needed to part her skin and let her blood.
“Give it here, you damned baby,” Nika snapped, deeming Dana to have taken too long. “I swear. You’re so useless, I don’t know why I thought you’d help.” Nika snatched the knife, using the same motion to flick it across her own palm, absent Dana’s hesitation, making a cut deep enough to bleed instantly. She clenched her hand around the cut, squeezing drops onto the ground. With an eyebrow cocked at Dana, she repeated the poem James had read moments ago.
Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. Nothing was going to happen. Because this was all ridiculous.
“Give it here,” James commanded with a stretch of his arm. Without care for cleaning the blade, James nicked his own finger. The drops of his blood reflecting the sunlight, just as the blade had moments ago, fell to the ground, losing themselves in the patchy grass and wet earth. He repeated the incantation once more. Nothing. No, not nothing. Something. Another breeze she couldn’t feel. Another thought she couldn’t think. Another caution she couldn’t heed.
“Are you two ready to give up, yet?” Nika groused.
Dana was no longer convinced nothing would happen, but she was quickly coming to believe that she needed to make them believe nothing was going to happen. If she did it, if she spilled her own blood, and read the damned poem herself, would they accept that nothing was going to happen when nothing actually happened? Dana huffed a sigh and flopped her hand in front of her. “Not yet. Here.”
This time she didn’t hesitate. This whole stupid thing needed to be over. She wanted to go home. She’d even go back to school and accept consequences for ditching. The faster she did it, the faster they could all see how ridiculous this was, and she could go back to being useless and invisible to the likes of Nika and James. She cut her hand just enough to draw blood, turning it over, her eyes hard and determined as she gripped her palm. Dazzling drops of her own blood dripped to an untouched spot of earth.
When she looked down to read the poem, her eyes fell on the corresponding page in the ancient book. She felt helpless to stop herself from producing the words. Her tongue formed them easily, her lips spoke them with barely a stumble, each sound foreign but comprehensible. It wasn’t exactly the same; the original text took some of the cutesy flourishes off until it was just a simple request. Not of spirits. Of angels. Beseeching a power that was the birthright of the speaker. Is this what James meant? Was this their birthright? She felt a welcoming coolness inside her, and a clarity that came so fast she thought it might split her head in two. She squeezed James’ hand.
James screamed and jerked his hands away. Both girls whipped their heads towards him, where he was clutching fingers into his fluffy blond hair, rocking back and forth. “No. No, get out of my head.” He sobbed, outright, his knuckles whitening as he gripped his hair harder. He was vibrating, his lean muscles twitching, making him curl in on himself as the twitches grew into convulsions. “I can feel it, I can!” His voice broke off into another scream. “Do you hear it?”
The strangest part? She did. Off in the distance. That buffeting again. Wings hard in the wind, cutting sound through the air with feathers of metal. Bronze.
“What’s happening to him?” Nika shrieked. She was on her knees now, rocked back to her heels, poised to run but not sure if she should. “Dana?”
“I don’t know! Why do you think I know?”
“Because–” Nika looked at her, hope of help dashed from her face. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
If Nika had words beyond those, they never came. James’ screams filled the woods around them, echoing as in a vast canyon despite the dense foliage around them. The trembling increased, and Dana had one moment to wonder if he was going to shake apart before a sound, like wet silk tearing, heralded in the anguish and pain of what was tearing James apart. Dana blinked once, and he was twice the size he’d been when her lashes had met. His skin pulled tight and took on a glow, divine and beautiful and painful to see. His shrieks became deep, shaking, bellows as his skin burst open, beams of golden sunlight spouting out of him like righteous lava and flooding the visible world. Everything around them grew hot, the air wavering in her vision inside the inferno. Scrambling back on her hands and feet, butt dragging over the ground, Dana trembled before falling off the copse and into the spongy ground.
Nika screamed, chilling and terrible, clutching at her eyes as she faced James. “I can’t see. It’s burning!” Screams became harrowing sobs, and blood poured between her fingers, forcing Dana to look away.
When Dana looked up again, it wasn’t James in front of them. Or it was, but he was taller, brighter, slashes in his flesh and pieces falling from him as he melted away. The light flowed from him like blood, in rivulets over his skin, dissipating into steam. He lashed side to side, the sounds he made incomprehensible.
Or she thought. I am too weak. The cries sounded in Dana’s mind but nowhere else. Too weak for what? What was happening?
Dana scrabbled to her feet, throat tearing with a screech as fiery viscera and sunlight blood splattered over her, inexplicably cold against her skin. Hold yourself together! The forest benefitted in claiming another pained shriek from Nika. Dana hauled herself back, hitting a tree, her hair snagging on the bark and tears blinding her before she clawed at the trunk to lever herself off the ground. “James! What’s happening?”
No answer came from James. It was too late for him. Too late to hold all of what flooded into her mind, her body, her blood. His body was broken and couldn’t contain it. He’d let his mind go too loose. So desperate to reach for whatever this was he forgot to prepare to accept it. The sound of wings deafened her to even all of their screams. She was full to the brim and didn’t know if she could hold onto it. A dread gripped her, and she worried if she’d follow James. She held her breath tightly in her chest, knowing that if she let it go, it would be her last.
The ground shook beneath her feet in an echo of the thoughts quaking in her head. Branches fell all around her as she begged to be released from whatever this was. It wasn’t right. She couldn’t hold it, despite the whispers of the dull shapes around her, coming more and more into focus. They had faces, glorious, painfully beautiful faces that some part of her just could not comprehend, even as whatever the pressure was pushing against her body from the inside felt natural and blessed. The faces watched her with rebuke, sorrow, and something far uglier and coveting.
Dana dropped to her knees once more, a deafening cry tearing itself from deep in her chest, taking her precious breath with it and launching it into the air as a column of light. When she looked up, walls of flames grew around her, towering towards the sky above, but she wasn’t scared. There was peace in all of it, a connection she’d never known in her life. The dirt beneath her and the air around her. The flames licked cold at her skin as they crawled towards her, a ring of blaze. Unharmed. Untouched. Dumbfounded. And then, with a ringing gasp that filled the entire clearing, the fire, the wind, the light, all sucked back into her, as if it were never there, as if it had been inside her all along. Because it was hers.
Nika wept with intense soundlessness on the ground, and James pooled around them in glorious reflective puddles. Magpies screeched, shattering the still day once more, and Dana flopped forward as the world went black around her.
“Dana?” The voice, far away, drew her back to the light. The sun, dappled through the trees, clung to Nika, and yet seemed so dull. “Dana, are you alive? Please be alive!” Nika grappled for her, reaching out with fumbling hands to blindly seek her out.
Dana pushed to her feet, the exhaustion and pain she expected from their ordeal absent. She looked at her hands, which didn’t seem different in any way, apart from how everything else dimmed in comparison. “I am.” Eyes searching Nika’s bloodstained face, Dana frowned, but felt indifferent to the sight. Because they weren’t friends. They weren’t even both human. “I’ll walk you home.”