A calm summer breeze rolled through the open plains, the grass swaying and shining under the pale light of the full moon that rose high into the night’s sky. Every star shone as brightly as they could, clear of light pollution. Picking up speed the wind approached a rise, spilling into the small bowl like hole on the other side, ruffling the clothes of the two individuals that sat around their small fire. As quick as it arrived, the wind was gone again. The only reminder was the earthly smell that it carried.
“Do you think Manaia will be back soon, I am starting to get quite hungry,” Seth said, clutching his grumbling stomach.
“She can’t be far now. But more importantly do you think she will take the news of us splitting up well? She has not taken this… change of management well,” Logan replied, poking the fire with a stick which let loose a torrent of embers that drifted towards Seth. Shielding his eyes Seth let out a moan of aggravation as the embers burnt his skin.
“Sorry,” Logan said putting the stick down. “I can get the first aid.”
Seth waved Logan down. “It really isn’t that bad, just a sting. Don’t you think you are taking this being nice to an extreme?”
“Maybe. Never did any of this under Anodyne’s rule, we were always too… hard? Tough?”
“Stupid?” Seth laughed, Logan joining in. “Anodyne put us in a position where being nice was dangerous, we don’t have that with Xarius. He is a good god; he cares for us.”
“Yeah, I mean we would never get to sit so freely with Anodyne ruling. We would be buried in muck, trying to avoid the roaming nightmares. Chilled to the bone under those frigid winds that seemed to be everywhere.”
“This fire would be a beacon, we would be slaughtered in seconds by anyone and anything that could see it,” Seth added, moving a little closer to the orange glow. Trying to get as much as he could from the fire.
“But you have to admit, the thrill of nearly dying made every day a day worth living.”
Seth looked confused. Lying down he shut his eyes, took in a deep breath and spoke calmly.
“Look, I am heading north to start my farm. You are heading south to live in the Opeos, like everyone else who wants to have a good time. But if you keep talking like Manaia, you are going to end up with her. Sinking back into the old routine we used to have. Things don’t have to be that way anymore.”
“Things don’t have to be what way?” Manaia said, cresting the hill that surrounded the pair. Her clothes muddy and tattered, the opposite of the other two. While they were by no means clean cut, they did manage to keep their clothes free of the layer of mud Manaia had managed to accumulate. In her hands, she held three rabbits by their hind feet. Blood dripped from crudely made holes in the back of their skulls.
Logan and Seth looked at each other and then back to Manaia, neither of them speaking.
“What? Didn’t expect to see such a magnificent haul? Well you should, Xarius has made everything easy. I have never failed to catch something under his rule.” She kissed her blood-soaked fingers and raised them to the sky, speaking out sarcastically. “And long may he reign.”
Manaia threw her catch at Logan, splattering blood across his clothes. “Skin them would ya? You got that fine knife work that makes no waste.”
Logan threw the rabbits off and took a small water skin canteen to wash the blood out.
“Damn, that is going to stain,” Logan said, rubbing the blood harder. Seth looked up at Manaia with an expression of disappointment that a father would give his daughter.
“Those are Logan’s good clothes. Why couldn’t you just put them down like a normal person?”
Manaia sat down chuckling to herself, her eyes widening as she looked at the stern face of Seth, and the silent determination of Logan.
“Wait, you are serious? It is just a little blood. The damn squirters sprayed me when I bashed their skulls in.” Manaia raised her arms. Her tattered sleeves were covered in splatters of blood and the fire in front of her illuminating the specks of blood on her face.
“Yeah, I can smell that. Those clothes were clean before you left, how did you get them so dirty?” Seth quizzed as Logan finally gave up on cleaning himself and pulled out a knife to start skinning the rabbits.
“Well one of the buggers got out of my snare trap, so I chased the fucker down and caved his head in with my elbow as I dropped on top of him. I ended up sliding through a mud patch a little. Then once I stood up I went for another slide, since the first one was so fun.” Manaia cleared the mud from her elbow, revealing a deep red stain. Then she reenacted the act of falling onto the rabbit.
“Urgh, I am going to have a smoke. I assume you two can start the cooking while I am away.” Seth stood up heading away from the fire.
“Yes sir, anything for you, Boss. But if you come back dirty your father and I are going to have a serious talk with you,” Manaia spoke out with a gruff voice.
Logan laughed under his breath, sparking a feeling joy in Manaia.
“The quicker I leave, the better.” Seth muttered under his breath as he walked off.
Seth wandered till the grass was hiding his waist. Sticking one hand into his pocket he pulled out a cigarette. Several more fell to the ground.
“Ah shit, I really need a case for these things.” He said watching the white sticks disappeared into the grass, bouncing off the blades as they went. Seth frowned as he looked at the one he had grabbed. Fiddling with two hands he straightened it as good as it would go.
“Good enough, I doubt a kink will do any real damage,” he muttered, sticking it into his mouth. Patting down his pockets he pulled a metallic lighter from his pocket. With a flick and a spark, the cigarette was lit. The embers at the end flaring with every inhale. The other two were getting noticeably louder, their chatter overflowing from their campsite.
“Logan you are going to throw your life away if you talk to her for too long. She won’t change. She will never accept the world that Xarius has built. She is going to suffer under this new world. You are going to be dragged down if you are not careful,” Seth said staring over the open plains, watching as the calming winds swiftly parted the grass, revealing their silky shine.
“This world is beautiful now, we have a second chance at life. You shouldn’t throw it away because of her.” Seth looked back with distain, taking one last long drag he tossed the filter away. The orange glow snuffed by the damp grass it collided with. “Don’t worry Logan, I won’t let her corrupt you.”
As Seth made his way back to the camp the laughter became one of hysterics. Coming back into sight both Logan and Manaia’s laughter became louder, both of them holding a wrist and imitating the sounds of an injured person.
“What can possibly be so funny?”
“You!” Logan exclaimed.
“We were reminiscing when we found that bar underground. The one with all the drug lords and Imps. Do you remember how much fun we had there?”
Seth sat down, looking at the poorly placed rabbits. He adjusted them to make sure they would cook evenly.
“I remember the pain that lasted for weeks after that little encounter, probably longer for you Manaia. Seeing as you got stabbed through the hand. Twice.”
Logan reached across to Manaia, grabbing her hand he held it closer to the fire.
“You can barely see any scars. Can’t have been that bad of a stabbing.”
“But we are sure that you got proper messed up when you punched Fetayne and he broke your wrist with his demon hand. It looked like he turned it to powder.”
Manaia grabbed her wrist again, making more painful cooing noises. Logan joined in for a moment, before being stared down by Seth. Feeling uncomfortable, he stopped. Leaving Manaia to jest all by herself.
“We could have died that night, is that the life you want to live? One where you could die just for entering the wrong room?”
“Oh lighten up would ya? You are making Logan boring like you. We were having a great time before you came back.”
“Would you prefer it if I went away?”
“Come on Seth don’t do that,” said Logan.
“No, why not? He is being nothing but a downer. Sucking the dick of Xarius, and swallowing his bounty without thought. Why don’t you leave? Let Logan and I reminisce on the good times.”
Logan let out a long sigh, drawing all the attention to himself. “What good times are those? Let’s face it Manaia, we suffered before Xarius. Now we get to live.”
“Fuck off with that shit, this is not living. We are just waiting to die. When Anodyne ruled we lived, he made sure every day was a reward for surviving the last. He made life have purpose. What the fuck do we have now?”
“Nothing.” Seth said.
“Thank you, finally someone talking some sense.” Manaia yelled.
“Nothing, yet. But I am heading north, I am going to start a farm, and Logan is heading south to live in Opeos. Isn’t that right Logan?”
“What the hell are you on about. Get a farm? You need money for that, you daft bastard. Good fucking luck buying land. You are nothing but a highway man. As soon as you realize that you can’t afford this farm of yours you are going to steal and murder again.”
“No, I will work. This is a new world, Manaia. Better adapt or die.”
“Firstly, us true Holites, the ones who don’t change, are going to run this place as we spit in the face of your rules and burn you weaklings to ash.” Manaia turned to Logan, continuing her rant. “Secondly, what are you going to do in Opeos? It is filled with ash that calls itself Holite. Soft, drifting souls that disintegrate when you crush them in your fist. We used to laugh at them, now you want to join those weaklings?”
“So what if I do?” Logan argued. “It is better than just sitting here talking about the old times. Or dreaming of owning a stupid farm. I just want to do something. Opeos has a lot of things to do.”
Seth turned on Logan. “What is wrong with owning a farm? Better than being a vagrant in Opeos. What are you going to do down there? Learn how to juggle and join the gypsies?”
“Oh you talk down about them like you have never tried to join them. I recall meeting you in a slump behind their carts. Crying because they told you to fuck off.”
“I wasn’t crying!” Seth yelled.
“Oh shit. You little cry baby,” Manaia laughed. “I have heard crying makes a good impression, makes everyone want you to join.”
“Talk it up Manaia,” Seth retorted. “But what about when Logan found you?”
“What about when Logan found me?”
“You were bloodied in a dumpster, left for dead. From memory your man got mad when he knocked you up, so he threw you out in the trash.”
“Damn straight, and I fucking lived. I had three men, and I mean true Holites, beat the shit out of me, and I survived. You got denied access to a little club and cried in the street.”
“You little bitch!”
Manaia stood up, arms spread wide. “Come at me cry boy. But stay clear of the fire, wouldn’t want ya getting a boo-boo.”
“Sit down Manaia, Seth isn’t…”
Seth screamed and launched himself over the fire, tackling Manaia to the ground. Logan pressed his head into his palms, disappointed in his two travelling companions. Grabbing her by the throat Seth slammed her head into the ground.
“What do you have to say now, huh? This what you were looking for. Is this how you like your life?”
Manaia’s hands tapped furiously at Seth’s grip, desperately attempting to speak through closed airways. Seth lowered his head, tilting his ear to the wheezing gasps of Manaia.
“What is that? I can’t quite hear you,” Seth taunted. “Here let me loosen my grip.” He let go and Manaia coughed, saliva flying from her mouth.
“Come on speak up, what do you want?”
“Harder daddy, I am so close.”
Logan had heard enough, he grabbed his pack and a rabbit from the fire and started heading south.
“Think you’re funny do ya? Well let’s see how much you like it when we turn up the heat.”
Seth gripped Manaia’s shirt as she choked out laughter.
“Now under Xarius’s rule, hair dressers use scissors,” he growled. “But we don’t want such ordinary methods do we?”
“Course not, give me the Hollow method.” Manaia said, the popping red veins her eyes now looking like a road map.
“Well the Hollow method is much quicker, but a little riskier. We just cram your head in a fire and hope.”
Seth pulled her head close the fire, the pungent smell of burning hair rose into the air as her hair landed on the hot embers. They sizzled and bounced, melting the tips and setting the rest on fire.
“Is this enough off the top, or should I take it back to the skull?”
“Seth, you are, and always will be a pussy.” Manaia said calmly as she drove a knife into the side of his knee.
Seth cried out and collapsed, kneeling onto the embers. He panicked and rolled through the fire, spreading it through the grass. Manaia patted at what was left of her hair, her scalp reddened from the heat.
“Look at that, all that effort and all I got is a sore neck and new haircut. But oh no, I might have blisters on my head for a week or two.” Manaia looked down on Seth with pity. Watching as he screamed, still trying to roll out of the embers. She grabbed the knife and pulled it out with one swift movement.
“Cry me a river, it is only a small knife. You better roll on an ember to cure that bleeding you got going there.” Manaia looked around at the camp, distracted.
“Did Logan leave?” she asked. “Should have known you two weren’t tough. No one helps anyone like you two did. You’re just a couple flakes of ash.”
Seth, finally out of the fire, let out one final roar as he pressed an ember into his wound to stop the bleeding.
“You better watch your tongue. If it wasn’t for us you would be dead,” he gritted out through a tense jaw.
Manaia was distracted once again.
“Do you hear that?”
“Let me guess: the sound of a whining girl?”
“I am not talking about you Seth. I think I hear thunder.”
Manaia walked up the hill, leaving Seth behind. He used this moment to take advantage of Manaia’s distraction. Manaia stood at the top of the hill. Over the nearby forest a heavy black cloud writhed and exploded with violence. Beams of blue light lit up the cloud and lightning give flashes of light to the ground beneath it. From the front of the clouds a figure emerged, eyes glowing blue and his arms raised high.
“Is that Anodyne?” Manaia said with glee in her voice.
A loud crack of thunder resonated in the air, behind it the sound of footsteps. Manaia spun around right as Logan bludgeoned her in the ribs with a branch.
“Stay down, you psycho bitch.”
Manaia vomited red mixed with green. Logan grabbed Seth’s pack right as he was grabbing a pistol from it.
“No time for that. We are leaving.”
“Let me shoot her. She deserves it,” Seth screamed as Logan dragged him.
“Save your bullets, we are going to need them.”
“What are you on about you big oaf?”
“Well while I was walking away I noticed that nice cloud up there. Getting my binoculars out I noticed Anodyne, and he looked pissed. On top of that, there was a mess of nightmares spreading out from under that cloud.”
Seth found his feet, his knee still burning. Resting an arm on Logan he hastily limped away south.
“What does this mean?”
“It means Anodyne’s back. It means Manaia gets her world. So save your bullets, we got a lot of distance to cover.”
Another crack, this one quieter, and deadlier than the others. Logan coughed blood and fell to the ground, pinning Seth under him. Manaia raised her head above the cloud from her rifle shot.
“Sorry about the spine Logan, but that is pay back for my ribs.”
Manaia left her pack behind her. Using her gun as a walking stick, she propped herself up and limped towards the others. Manaia shivered and grinned at the sound of the encroaching storm. Each step she made she wanted to look back, but she knew she could not take her eyes off of her targets for even a second.
“Is that you moving Logan, or is that little Seth trying to break free?” She yelled as she cocked her rifle. The smell of gunpowder tingling the small hairs in her nose.
“I am sorry Seth.” Logan drooled as blood poured from his mouth. “But I ain’t letting this psycho leave.”
Logan brought out a grenade, gripping the pin tightly he waited for Manaia to approach.
“No, don’t do it. I can shoot her. I just need you to get off me. Don’t kill us Logan.”
“I can’t move. You can’t outrun those nightmares. We all die here. Make peace, but probably not with Xarius, I don’t think Anodyne would let him live.”
“Listen we can beat her, maybe the nightmares won’t run this way. Maybe they will all stop to feast on her after I shoot her. Or even we could highjack a vehicle.”
“Shut up. We die. But so does she.” Logan said, his breaths getting weaker. Logan’s body tensed as another small crack sounded. His eyes widened and his arms pulled apart as the second bullet tore through his chest. His life draining as the pin-less grenade fell onto Seth.
“Oh no. Fuck. Logan you damn…”
Manaia cheered as she watched the two bodies scatter outwards from the explosion of the grenade. Cocking her gun, she relished the smell of gunpowder and blood. Sticking the barrel into the soft dirt she turned to see where Anodyne was. He was barreling down the plains, heading straight for Manaia. A rush of adrenaline hit her as she started to run again.
“You are a big man Logan. you should have powdered my ribs.”
Manaia felt Logan and Seth rain down heavy over her. The blood dripping into her eyes and chunks of them getting stuck in her singed hair.
“Look where holding back got you. Weakness will always kill on Hollow; it is Anodyne’s law. And his law is infallible.” Using the flashes of lightning Manaia counted her doom. A flash flickering in the peripherals of her vision.
“One one-thousand. Two one-thousand.”
Another crack of thunder, panic set in. Her body went into overdrive, the limping from her wound stopped as she pushed herself to the edge. Lightning flashing once again.
The thunder cut her off before she could continue. Through heavy breath she screamed Anodyne’s prayer.
“Be it day or night, you are the beacon of blight. The fear in my throat that I try to swallow. You are the true god of Hollow.”
The sound of heavy footsteps reached her ears, the blue glow surrounded her before surpassing her. She looked up to see Anodyne flying above. The arctic winds that once covered Hollow pierced through her skin. Bumps forming as her body chilled to the bone. Tears started forming in the corner of her eyes, the icy winds stinging her eyes with every curl of their form.
“I never forgot the way.” She screamed. “I never forgot what it was to be a Holite.” Her hair blowing in the winds brought on by Anodyne’s rage. He didn’t change his eye line, he stared forward. More determined than ever.
Behind every word was the sound of thousands of feet, all in full sprint behind her. She could feel their hatred as they followed Anodyne. They electrified the air with fear. Looking to her sides she watched as small, light-weight nightmares ran past her, screeching at her before running ahead. Too broken to continue she slowed. The footsteps behind her felt heavier and heavier. Her feet stopped moving and she turned to watch as horrors of every size, shape, and color charged towards her. They were like a tsunami, their overwhelming presence too immense to cause fear. Just shock at the power that was before her.
Tears streaming down her face she smiled.
“I never forgot, I always acted as a true Holite. I just ask that you let me feel.”
She closed her eyes and let the thunderous charge consume her.