The story so far:
The survivors of this world summoned her to be their hero. She ran away from the ceremony and fell to her death. Then she got better.
She learned that she’s not the first hero, but they hope she will be the last. Convinced that her help will only guarantee their demise, Jack ran from the library and found herself back in the market.
The wall behind me was stained with old paint. I could still make out the image of a proud, magnificent unicorn emerging from a cloud of darkness. There was nothing cute or girlish about the image though. This was an animal of war, its single, golden horn raised defiantly like a weapon. Blood flowed from a gash in its front leg. I wondered if it illustrated history or fantasy for these people.
A smell of something spicy caught my nose, and my stomach urged me to check it out. My nose proved to be an unreliable guide. The smell shifted directions as people milled around, and I became distracted by conversations that I couldn’t understand before.
“They haven’t come back yet,” a vendor explained over the large kettle of soup he was stirring. “I can’t put in vegetables I haven’t got.”
I moved so that I could catch glimpses of the woman he was talking to. A faded yellow shawl covered her hair. “It’s been weeks,” she sighed, sounding broken. “Poor Ellie.”
The vendor shook his ladle at her. “You don’t know that. They could pop out of the bridge any minute now.” But the look on his face said different. He knew she was right. They lapsed into silence as he passed her a steaming cup, and she nodded her thanks before the crowd swallowed her up.
I wanted to ask him about the bridge. If it could go down… the prospect of not falling off of this mountain a third time was pretty appealing. It sounded dangerous down there, but I wasn’t afraid of the apathy. It didn’t know what it was up against. I had plenty of my own.
“How much for a cup?” I asked, taking her place. A small table of empty cups rested beside him. The vendor wore a forlorn scowl when he looked up at me from his stool beside the pot. He pulled the top cup and passed it to me full.
“You talk funny,” he observed with a wry grin.
I grinned back and put the edge of the cup to my nose. “This smells funny. What’s in it?”
His eyebrows rose doubtfully. “That smells fantastic, or you’d be at any other stall giving them your trouble.”
My grin spread into a more honest smile. I liked him already. “Fair enough,” I allowed, and took a sip. It was little more than water with a heavy bite of cumin.
“Eh?” he prodded, fishing for a compliment.
“Delicious,” I conceded, and took another sip.
He smirked at that. “Didn’t know Heroes could lie.”
“You just said it smells great.”
“Smells great; tastes like garbage.”
I coughed into my cup with surprise. He slapped his thigh as he laughed at me, then leaned in to say just for our ears: “No, no. I’m kind of relieved. If you showed up acting all perfect, I don’t think I would have believed a word that fell out of your face. Especially after last night.”
“Why last night?” I asked, sensing that he was asking permission to share a juicy bit of gossip. Since it was obviously about me, I was all ears.
“When that lost kid pulled you up on the travois. You had this thick, black smoke just clinging to you, and you was missing bits all over. Looked like a monster, you did. We all thought it was the apathy. Some are whispering that maybe we picked up the wrong hero.” He sat back, one eyebrow arched in a silent question.
I swallowed. “What do you mean wrong?”
“Don’t know much, do you?”
I chuckled back. “Nope. They forgot to summon a manual when they kidnapped me.”
His laugh sounded genuine. “There’s always two sides to a tale. Two faces on a coin. When we did our summon, the apathy’s hero came too. It’s out there,” he nodded at the horizon, then fixed his eyes squarely on me. “Somewhere.”
I handed him an empty cup back. “You think it’s me.”
“I did,” he admitted, not at all worried if it insulted me. He was going to tell me his truth, whether I liked it or not. I liked him a little more for that… even if it gave me shivers. “Then you went to see Kal, and here you are still breathing. So, there’s that.”
“He thinks I’m a hero,” I muttered, more to myself than him. “I told him he was wrong.”
He laughed again, but this time it didn’t sound so nice. “It don’t matter what you think. I can believe I’m not a Blue all day long, but it don’t erase the scars.” He pulled back his sleeve to show off an ugly, puckered blue patch of skin. Patiently, he waited for me to meet his eyes again. “World don’t give a shit what you think or feel, lady. You’re old enough to know that.”
“So I should fight someone else’s battles because they asked nice?”
He grinned at me and nodded. “Better than sitting on your arse and waiting for nothing.”
He pointed past me and I turned to see the woman in the yellow shawl. She knelt beside a small boy propped against a wooden cart. Her hands shook as she tried to get him to drink from the cup they held, but his blue lips parted only reluctantly. Fluid dripped from the corners of his mouth onto his shirt. His eyes trailed off, focused on nothing. Her frustrated sob drew no attention in the crowded market. She shattered the cup against the ground, and people stepped around it without a word.
“The apathy seeps into us until even wanting to be alive is too much effort. The topside scars are just for show. The real damage is on the inside, and in the people who love us.”
I tore my eyes away, feeling like I’d been shown something too private. “What about Kel’s magic? If he’s such a badass, what do you need someone like me for?”
He shrugged. “I think if he could have fixed it, he would have done it already. Before it took his wife and kids.” The ladle made another circle around the pot. “I guess he showed you that. But did you know he was gone when they gave up on living? Off looking for a cure, they say.” Sounding grave, he pointed at me and added: “It’d be a damn shame if what he found didn’t even want to try.”
I rubbed my tired eyes, then pressed my hand against my forehead like it could push out all of the things I didn’t want to know. It didn’t work, but the pressure still felt good. “You can’t guilt me into this, soup guy. I’d just fail, and what then?”
“Then we’ll all hate you for the rest of our lives.” He chuckled at my look of shock. “Don’t worry. Most of us can count our time left in days and not use all our fingers. Besides, you won’t have to endure it for long. We all saw the shadows in you. You’re infected, too.”
I stared down at my hands, looking for blue echoes. “I’m infected?”
“Yeah. Does that change the game for you, now that it’s under your skin?”
I shrugged. “If I answer yes, I’m a selfish asshole. Answer no and I’m a liar.”
Around us, carts were starting to pack up for the day. I hadn’t noticed that the shadows were growing longer. I looked for the yellow shawl, but mother and son were both gone.
He stood up, his joints popping. “Well, if you figure yourself out before I bite it, come by for another cup of soup. I rather enjoyed the company.” He spun his stool up into his cart and folded the small table. With a dismissive wave, he carted his things back into the mountain tunnels.
“Hey, what’s your name?” I called after him, hoping he might stop to chat a while longer.
He waved over his shoulder without slowing down. “Go save the world and I’ll tell you,” he shouted back, “but be quick about it or you’ll never know!”
A heaviness settled across my shoulders as I leaned against the cliffside wall. Reds and yellows danced through the clouds as the sun set behind them. It reminded me of the stained glass in my room that morning. That felt like ages ago.
I buried my face in my arms. The vendor’s melancholy humor tinted my view of the world, giving it a depth that hadn’t been there before. Now that I’d felt it, I couldn’t set it aside. It felt too big to bury.
But I knew they were all wrong. I could feel the truth of that boiling inside of me, daring me to scream it into the painted sky so that everyone else would finally have to accept it, too.
What if they weren’t wrong, though? What if I could do something and chose not to? Then it would all be my fault.
Maybe we have days left, but you won’t be far behind.
What was the apathy really? Feeling safe against the solid wall, cradled in my own arms, I dared to look down. Shadows raced through the valley below, retaking land that had been claimed by the day. It wasn’t the heights that were terrifying, I confirmed. It was the memory of what happened at the bottom.
And I could see it down there: the apathy they all talked about. The dark clouds that gathered over the land like a low storm. I could feel its need to snuff out anything bright and hopeful. I could feel its will in my blood like a genetic song that dared me to listen.
Lies. Those people lie to themselves, and call it hope. They argue about whose hopes are more real, dividing them and tainting them until what they pull to their chests are shards of despair that cuts into their flesh, all so they can bleed the lies of a martyr and call even more people into their hopeless game…
I shook my head to dislodge the dark thoughts, but I could still feel them curled inside of me. I pushed away from the wall, as though being a few steps further away from the valley would make any difference.
They will use you. Every bit of you. And when you are a spent shell they will leave you in the dirt and search for another sucker to take your place. They did it before, Second Hero. You are a tool to be broken for someone else’s cause. You are nothing. Give up your body and be smoke, like me. Be free. Help me show them their lies. They will lose the ones that deceive themselves the most, but the strong will survive and thrive.
Like Mir. My darling, perfect Mir.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and snapped back to myself like a broken rubber band. Kel stood beside me, the sunset casting strange patterns in his eyes. Except for us, the market was empty. The silence of the place felt odd after the cacophony of the day.
“You can hear it too,” he told me. “The apathy.”
“That’s a stupid name,” I countered brusquely.
“It was just a word we all thought fit. Then it became a name.”
“What do you want?” I interrupted again, angry that he had only come to get what he wanted.
“To make it a memory.”
The sky darkened quickly when the last rays of light were extinguished. The wind took on a chilly edge. I shrugged a little deeper into my baggy shirt and folded my arms for warmth.
“What if you got the wrong hero?” I asked at last. In the sunlight, where people could see me, I felt like I had to be tougher. Under a darker sky I could give some of those fears a voice.
He didn’t hesitate to reply. Either he anticipated the question, or spoke without needing to choose his words. “It’s possible. A darkness clings to you, inside and out. When you touched the key you destroyed generations of magic in a moment.” He finally looked at me. “Do you think we got the wrong one?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
Thoughtful, he tapped his chin. “I wonder why.”
“Because the things the apathy said sounds like me.” A shiver tore through me. “It feels like a part of me.”
He surprised me by laughing, then he turned his head to look at me. “Do you think you’re the only one to ever have dark thoughts?”
“Of course not, but…”
He gave me a moment to finish the thought, but I didn’t know how to. At last, he broke the awkward silence for me. “You know my story. I knew I was doing the right thing, but that day branded me. It was the first day I heard the apathy’s voice in my head. But because I can, I knew it had enough power to fuel its side of the summoning. It’s how I knew you would come if we called.”
He looked at me and I could finally see it in him. The lines around his eyes. The hint of a permanent frown around his mouth. I could almost see a familiar, heavy blanket that wrapped itself around him like a sort of armor.
“How I knew you would come. Not just any person with a pulse, but someone who could hear the apathy because they had their own reason to.
“No one has ever defeated a monster by running away from it, or pretending it doesn’t exist. We needed someone who wasn’t afraid to look into their own darkness. Someone tough enough to keep going even when it looks like a reward is hopelessly out of reach.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully again. “Someone willing to jump off of a cliff.”
I frowned at him, but my tone was joking. “I wouldn’t say I was willing to. The ground just stopped being where I thought it would be.”
“But under the weight of everyone’s expectations, you had the strength to say no. And keep saying no. You knew we would be disappointed, and you did it anyway.”
I looked up at a shining moon. “Strength, huh?”
He pulled a large, oblong piece of amber from his robes. “This is what was inside the First Hero’s key.” When I retreated a step he held up his free hand and urged me to wait. “It’s okay, I’m not going to make you take it again. You looked horrified when you thought it was broken.”
He grinned at me, and it made me feel uneasy. “Generations of magicians poured their lives into it, trying to unlock its secret. You opened it with a touch. Eventually, you will have to face the apathy. Either you will go down there, or it will come up here and finish the job it started. When that happens, I believe that the power that did this,” and he lifted the amber a little higher, “will defeat it, too.”
Did he really believe that? Of course not. He’s manipulating you. I shivered because it was getting colder, but also because I couldn’t tell if the voice was mine or if it belonged to the evil that lurked in the valley below.
“You are my hero. All of the things that you think are your weaknesses are the exact things I think we need if we’re going to survive this catastrophe. You probably don’t believe that, but I think you can hear it in my voice. I believe it strong enough for both of us.”
He held out his hand for me to take, and I couldn’t. I stared at it, afraid to try. Afraid to fail.
“You sound different tonight than you did before,” I stalled.
“So did you.”
I fidgeted. “Some things can’t be said in front of an audience, I guess.”
He smiled sadly. “And some things had to be.”
Something about how he said that felt heavier than it should have. I recalled the vendor’s words: Then you went to see Kal, and you’re still alive. So, there’s that. “You knew they thought I was the apathy’s agent. The bridge and the library… that was all just a show for their sake.”
“So they wouldn’t toss you from the City without a bridge. Yes. I hated to watch you go, but other things had to happen before we could talk like this.”
“You wanted me to see the market. Talk to people.”
He grinned sheepishly. “You’re giving me too much credit now.”
I shook my head. “I thought you were an idiot.” I looked down at his hand, still hovering in the air between us. “Instead, you’re too manipulative, and too patient.”
He laughed. “I’ve been waiting decades. A few fleeting minutes isn’t enough to make me give up now.”
I smiled at last, and it was real. I put my hand in his, cognizant of the layers of meaning that small gesture conveyed. He closed his fingers with the lightest of pressure. Maybe he understood that he had my hand, but my resolve to keep it there wasn’t so strong.
I smirked. “I haven’t done anything yet.”
“You trusted me,” he countered, “and that’s all I want for now. Tomorrow will be a different story.”
My shoulders tensed. “Why? What happens tomorrow?”
He smiled sadly. “We find whatever this key opens.”