There’s only so many times you can wake up to the chaotic cacophony of war; the strident, singing shots of gunfire and the screams of dying souls before you learn to hate it.
For Kaetheia, it only took one morning—one morning that turned into 25 years, thanks to the contract she wore chained around her throat.
Peeling her eyes open, she ignored the sounds of the skirmish brewing outside of her small tent, instead immediately raising her hand to touch the small, red stone strapped against her neck, clasped so tightly, it didn’t dangle or swing, but laid flat and unmoving against her chest—covering the burn scars underneath that would always mark her for what she was, whether the stone was attached or not. The stone was still hot, causing sparks to fly from her fingers, but she didn’t flinch.
If she did her job, by the time the sun set, she would finally be rid of it. Finally be rid of her contract—as if being forced into slavery to the Cause for the past 25 years could be labeled something so agreeable. She’d be a free woman for the first time since she was a child, free to leave and go wherever she wanted, retire from her life as a Flameslinger and try to create whatever semblance of a normal life a forced war veteran could. It’s all she ever wanted since the ceremony that bound her life to General Hask so many years ago. She almost couldn’t believe the day of her freedom was so close upon her.
She dreaded it.
As if cued to come in and ruin any semblance of hope by reminding her of the reality he’d forced her into, General Hask strode into her tent without a care in the world, as if it he owned it. Which, technically, he did. He owned everything within that tent, from the bed she slept in and the clothes on her back to the weapons they gave her when they commanded her to slaughter. Even if it was the weapons she possessed herself they actually used her for.
Kaetheia didn’t bother to hide her glare, same as the General didn’t bother to hide his grin.
This was not the first time they’d gone through this routine.
Spending over two decades conquering the rest of the continent did have it’s disadvantages, like that.
He strode over to the small table where he often shared her meals, before taking other things he wanted, in the only fashion he knew how to obtain anything: by force. His hands were held tightly behind his back, his body turned away so she couldn’t see what he held there, while her own knuckles turned white as she dug her fingers into her harms to keep from lashing out and setting the entire tent on fire, both of them caught within the blaze. But what good was a curse and a contract if it didn’t include death if you killed the owner?
“Rude, isn’t it,” the General asked, glancing sideways towards her before answering his own question, knowing she wouldn’t. “To start the party so early without you.”
More screams echoed in the distance, sounding much closer than she would like.
Kaetheia sat up, but she didn’t climb out of the bed, not fully. She knew what he would ask her to do. The latest campaign in this bloody war—lasting almost two years—had all been building to this moment. They had to win the war for her to be free of her contract to help the Cause conquer the Dominion. Just last night, she’d gone to bed after breaching the wall of their last sanctum. The men and women making up the infantry had spent most of the night conquering their way through each layer of their inner chambers. Hask would only be here if they succeeded in reaching their last defenses.
Or, last defense, she should say.
Singular, with only one purpose.
The only thing preventing her from her freedom.
And the only person who made her question if she wanted it; if they price had finally become too high.
Damn you, Arduin, she thought.
Hask placed what he was holding behind his back down on the table and Kaetheia finally flinched, her back brushing against the tent and causing the fabric to ripple and shudder against her distress. Though she’d never seen it before—not in person—she’d recognize that vial from anywhere. The blue liquid shone inside the slender, ice-white vial, pulsing a soft rhythm of light, reflecting the magic within.
She had no idea where Hask had managed to get a vial of the poison—except it wasn’t poison, not really. Slinger’s Bane was unique in that it was only used by Slingers to help them survive attacks from other Slingers. The magic laced within the liquid helped stave off the effects of being too near another of her kind, preventing her body from betraying her until it eventually killed her. It was different for every Slinger, but for a Flameslinger like her, to be too near was like putting an open flame too close to a stick of wax.
It would take time, but eventually, the wax would melt away, until it became nothing.
So would she, if she was forced to fight in one-on-one combat against the Dominion’s Flameslinger. For only her element, used against her by other Slinger, could kill her. Bullets couldn’t pierce her flesh and blades chipped off her skin like it was made of rock, despite the smooth and human-like appearance she’d always had. Slinger’s Bane—supposedly—would stop her from melting long enough to get close enough to land a killing blow, if her opponent didn’t melt, first. A dozen years ago, it would have been a lifeline, her last line of defense against the rival Flameslinger she had spent half of her enslaved life trying to get close enough to kill.
That was until she met him.
Then, she spent the rest of her life falling in love with him.
Damn you, Arduin, she thought again. She knew he was hiding just beyond the walls the rest of “her company” had spent the entire night knocking down. She knew, even though she hadn’t seen him in years, he had the same orders she did. That his freedom, his own contract, was contingent on making sure the rival Flameslinger was nothing but ash.
By the end of the night, only one of them would be free.
The other would be dead.
Bright green eyes flashed as she flicked them to look Hask in the face. “It won’t work,” she whispered, her rage barely controlled.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so hopeful,” Hask replied with a sneer. “Otherwise, the Dominion wouldn’t have planned to use it against you.”
She blanched. He’d stolen this from the Dominion? They had planned to give it to Arduin, as protection against her?
“No time for semantics, dear girl. We’ve cleared the way. It’s time to do what you promised you’d do.”
“Forced to do,” she said, the room heating up as her anger continued to rise, as if clarifying that point would change the outcome. It wouldn’t, but it made her feel a little better, but not by much.
“Again with the semantics,” he said, turning away from her as he raised his arm and touched the pendant hanging down from his neck, the twin to hers. Kaetheia managed to swallow her cries of pain, just barely, as heat rose up within her as the necklace flared in response, her entire body immediately breaking into a sweat, the room becoming too hot, too quick.
Even with the pain, she never got over the fact that the very element she wielded as a weapon was the only weapon that could also kill her.
Suddenly, Hask knelt in front of her, his giant grip wrapped firmly around her chin, her cheeks, her throat. She was forced to match his silver eyes.
“Either you can kill him himself and earn your freedom or you can stay in chains and watch as I hire another to do the same,” he hissed, before shoving her away from him. “I expect you on the battlements within an hour. There are still plenty of people for you to burn between you and your target.”
Kaetheia glared at Hask’s back as he retreated out of her tent, her breath shuddering as soon as he disappeared out into the rising sunlight—sunlight that would be blotched out and smothered by smoke from her fires before the day was done. Hask pretended to offer her a choice, but she had none. His control over her pendant, which controlled the rest of her life, made sure of that. She’d kill herself if she resisted a direct order for too long. Worse still, the only thing more unbearable than killing Arduin herself was watching someone else do the killing for her, if Hask took the order away and allowed her to live long enough to watch.
Which, without a doubt, he would.
Sweaty and shaking, Kaetheia climbed out of bed and began making preparations to kill the love of her life. When she strode out of the tent twenty minutes later, the vial of Slinger’s Bane was left behind on the table, untouched.
The rest of the afternoon passed by in a blood-fueled frenzy.
Kaetheia could barely recall how she spent her day, though she knew it well enough, even if she couldn’t picture the faces of those she’d murdered, the stringent aroma of burning hair and melting flesh forever lodging itself firmly into the crevasses of her nostrils until she couldn’t breathe without the reminder of the death she’d caused. She remembered meeting with Hask and receiving her orders, after he handed her a flask of water, which she promptly drained. Dehydration was the next biggest risk to her after a fellow Slinger in war, especially when fighting in something of this magnitude and scale. If she didn’t stay hydrated, she’d pass out thanks to the amount of power she used up to create her flames and make them dance to the tune of death and destruction.
The General gave her her orders as she downed that flask, quickly drinking the next one handed to her by his second without much thought. Kill everyone in your way to reach the Dominion Flameslinger, he said simply, her necklace glowing in response to the command he gave. Kill him and return to me with proof. Once you do, I’ll release you from your bond. Her necklace had flared particularly at that promise, as if it too recognized the significance of those words.
But the necklace had gone cold since then, hours passing since she left his side and went into the fray of two sides fighting for their lives, leaving behind nothing but undeclared graveyards in her wake. She’d rushed forward, hoping to reach the summit well before Hask and his generals followed. She knew Arduin and his own retinue would be waiting there for her, but she hoped to catch him alone—or as alone as she could, in the midst of war. Yet the General’s forces hadn’t done nearly as much leg work as she’d expected, being allowed to sleep in for so long that morning while the fight raged on around her. Instead of gaining ground, she was met consistently with more and more resistance, her strength waning with every new roadblock, whether it was a fortified structure or humans attempting to serve the same purpose.
Both were broken into nothing so she may pass.
Climbing rubble that was a wall only 24 hours before, Kaetheia pulled herself up into a room that, despite the chaos and destruction within, was obviously once the war room of the Dominion.
Of course, the guards and General being tied up like lambs waiting for slaughter next to the still-standing door was more of a giveaway.
Stepping out of the shadows, Arduin appeared.
Kaetheia’s heart leapt at the same moment it sunk.
Her necklace flared, recognizing her target. He was close enough that she could see his do the same, see both the happiness and the sorrow reflected in his eyes. It took all of her will not to raise her arms and blast him with the hottest flames she could conjure, fighting against the spell that held her captive her entire life. His entire body twitched as he did the same, before he took a step towards her.
“It’s good to see you again,” he whispered.
“What are you doing? Stay back!”
Already, she could see the pinky of his left hand begin to morph and shift, before the flesh—slowly—began to slip down his finger, sliding down his clenched fist. Eyes wide with horror at what she was doing to him, she stepped back up against the remaining brick of the wall, trying to stay away.
Pain erupted within her as she fought against her invisible chains.
Arduin took another step towards her.
“Good, you drank it,” he continued, his voice raspy against the smoke that had infiltrated the room.
Glancing down, she noticed what he had. His flesh was melting, but hers was still intact. All the pain she felt was thanks to resisting her curse, not because their energies were canceling one another out. But how had he known Hask had a bottle of Slinger’s Bane? A bottle she hadn’t—
The water, she realized. The flask. Hask knew she wouldn’t drink it, so he made sure to put it something she would; something she wouldn’t expect, because it was too routine and she was too distracted to notice if it tasted different or not.
“Arduin, what are you doing? What’s going on?”
“I’m making sure you earn your freedom,” he said, slowly coming closer. Not so fast that his entire body combusted all at once, instead slow enough to still have a conversation; all while she was forced to watch as his body began to melt away, drip by agonizing drip, creating small puddles on the floor. He hissed in pain as he forced himself another step forward and she remained frozen against the wall, unable to leave thanks to the necklace forcing her to stay, while still fighting against it to stay flat against the wall, instead of stepping closer and finishing him.
She didn’t know how he did it, getting the jump on not only his own General, but the rest of his council and knocking them out so they couldn’t give him any further orders. She didn’t know how he continued to resist what she knew their last order had been: to kill her. She had no idea what his business with the Slinger’s Bane had been, but she knew his intent now. He knew the situation just as well as she did. Neither of them would be able to make it out of there alive.
He just made the choice of who that was going be.
“Arduin, stop,” she whispered. “You can’t do this. You have no right.”
“You’ve always been stronger,” he said, managing a wry grin before he buckled, his arms now slick as his body continued to melt. “You would have killed me in a forced fight. I can’t bear to kill you. And a life free without you in it is no life I’m interested in at all.”
“So, what? You’re forcing me to kill you instead, damning me to live alone with that choice on my conscience?” Tears fell freely, now. She’d been almost prepared to fight him, considering how she could’ve fought against her own commands, try and weaken her flames, misdirect her attacks so that they missed, so instead, maybe, he could do her in. Or, by not drinking the Slinger’s Bane, if they both resisted long enough, perhaps they both could have slowly died together, becoming nothing more than melted puddles on the fortress’s stone floor.
She had not been prepared for this.
“How is this fair?”
“It’s not,” Arduin said with a pained laugh. “It’s as unfair as it is cruel. But there is still too much to do. And only you…only you have the strength to do it, Kaetheia.”
Briefly, her mind flashed to their plans of after they had made so long ago, in stolen away nights sliding notes on napkins inside tavern walls, sitting across on opposite ends of the bar; in letters written across seas and sent across continents; plans made for after they were free and finally had the opportunity to ignite the sparks of rebellion, of revolution. Of a new war, but this time, one of their choosing.
She wanted to say she couldn’t do it without him. That it was too much to ask, too much to hope for, too much work to do for a world that didn’t deserve it; a world that forced her to kill the only man she’d ever loved after making it impossible to even be with him, enslaved or free. But Kaetheia knew herself too well and couldn’t bring herself to whisper lies to Arduin. She’d never been able to before and certainly couldn’t now, not as she killed him.
Instead, green eyes met his blue, focused in on her like nothing else in the world existed.
“Damn you,” she whispered.
Before she could change her mind, Kaetheia pushed herself off the wall towards Arduin, reaching him in two quick strides. His body erupted in flames and she quickly silenced his screams with the one thing she’d always wanted to do, but never could—not without killing them both.
She kissed him.
Nicole Evans is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. She is currently unpublished and is working fervently to get the “un” removed from that statement. With eight completed drafts in various states of revision under her belt, she has no plans of stopping. She really can’t wait for you to read these stories.
Considering she has run out of space for putting rejections letters up on her wall, Nicole now uses her spare time doing the typical things that nerds do: blogging, dying repeatedly during video games (which she believes is retribution for the characters she’s killed), wishing she was the character she’s currently reading about while trying to fight off the real world by living in her own head, with varying degrees of success. Nicole has a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Film and Media Studies, and works as an evening librarian assistant. You can find her personal blog here. You can read all of her Muses stories here.