When we breach the crest of the incline some hours later, the galaxies overhead have started to fade, the inky black swallowing the colours in preparation of daybreak. The flat terrain feels odd underfoot after marching uphill for so long.
“I’m tired.” Conrad says. He nests himself in the grass where a green tinge casts onto his sleepy face. His flying rabbit curls up in his lap.
The woman strides onto the level plain without breaking rhythm. “We cannot stop.”
“We’ve been walking all night,” I huff, doubling over. “Not all of us have the legs of a racehorse.”
She stops and sighs. “Sounds like you wish to be dragged again.”
“We just want a break. Is that a big deal?”
“The closer we draw to Kitsune, the more the land will be swarmed with Sentries. Among other things. So yeah. It’s a big deal.”
I scan the flat, barren terrain, exaggerating the gesture to make a point. “Looks clear to me.”
“Don’t trust your tainted eyes, kid. It’s a death wish to stay out here in the op—”
“I would like a safe place to sleep please,” Conrad says. As usual the world is quick to respond. A rectangular portion of grass sinks into the ground with a crunch, followed by another adjacent to it, then another, each section descending further than the last. This pattern continues until a steep set of stairs has formed.
Conrad flips his legs over the top step and plops onto the next one. He pokes his tongue at the woman before disappearing underground.
She shoots me a look of scorn.
“Well what do you expect me to do about that?” I say, shrugging.
“Have I been unclear? If your brother continues to flaunt his magic then it’ll be a matter of time—”
“Before Kitsune learns what he is,” I interrupt. “Like I said, I don’t know what you expect me to do. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but Conrad has a bit of a listening problem.”
“Then you really don’t serve much purpose.” In a flash, she unsheathes a needle and draws it upwards, stopping with it pressed against my jugular. If the movement didn’t take me by surprise, I might’ve marvelled at the skill needed to reach this position so quickly without drawing blood.
“Alright, I get it,” I say, backing off. “I’ll talk to him.”
She returns the needle to its sheath and descends the stairs. A breeze wraps around me, seeming to tug me in after her.
The stairway leads beneath the field to a tiny square cavern. The walls are smooth like marble, as if cut by a laser. Conrad is curled on a glowing bed of grass in the corner, his rabbit next to him, one of its bat wings extended over his shoulder in a protective embrace.
We have to crouch to fit in. Once again the world shows clear intent to only provide for Conrad's benefit. The woman squeezes beside him and sits with her back to the wall, leaving a small space for me to sit opposite, where I’m forced to stare into her face.
We stay like this for a minute or two. There’s so much I want to ask her. Where is she taking us? What does she plan to do with Conrad when we get there? Each question forces the previous one out of my mind, demanding to be asked first. Then before I know it, words are spilling from my mouth.
“What does it mean to be tainted?”
The corner of her lips curl into a fleeting smile. “You've damaged someone's vessel.”
In my mind, a streak of crimson flashes across snow.
“And . . . and what does that mean for my soul?”
“Depends what you do next. Your soul is stuck at a crossroads. You live with violence in your heart, kid. Sooner or later that will lead to a choice. Always does.”
“Can I choose to be pure?”
“Nope. You gave that up the moment you committed a cardinal sin against nature.”
“I don’t understand.”
She raises a hand and tucks her thumb in. “There’s four states of being. Each state dictates the value of your soul and what will happen to it when your vessel dies. First, is pure. We’re all born pure but we don’t all stay that way. It’s a one-shot deal. You give it up, you don’t get it back. The world protects the pure. Feeds them. Shelters them. Looks out for them. And it also imbues them with spirit magic. Think of it as a mark of the world’s trust in you to act for the good of others.”
She lowers a finger so there’s three remaining. “Next, we have the tainted, those who have committed a crime against nature. Remember that trust the world had in you? Gone. You fend for yourself now.”
Another finger falls away, leaving two. “And now we have the choice of the tainted. Either path is difficult to choose and even harder to follow. If you give up the fight in your heart, your soul can heal. When it does, we call that state ‘clean’. You won’t get your spirit magic back, but the world will start looking out for you again. And when you die, your soul will move on.”
Just one finger remains now. Her voice gains a heavy, grave quality. “Or you can make a different choice.”
“Is that what you did?”
“I committed the ultimate sin,” she confirms. “By killing, I’ve forfeited my connection to this world. My soul is eternally severed. It will never know peace.”
If she hadn’t threatened me repeatedly, I might’ve felt something for her position. Instead, something else stirs within. A question I never thought would be answered has come to light.
“That means I haven’t killed,” I say. Blood pools in my mind, saturating the snow around the broken body of the boy I left for dead.
“Nope. But that’s not for lack of trying. Your eyes look pretty dark, kid. You messed someone up real bad. Was it for business or pleasure?”
The question sends a shiver down my spine. Perhaps because I don’t know the answer. “I was protecting Conrad.”
The mention of his name makes him stir, grass ruffling beneath him, drawing our gaze.
Something softer shades her voice now. Though the change is so minute I might be imagining it. "In this world, protecting Conrad won’t be easy. Eventually it will require you to make the same choice I did.”
Silence fills the space between us. Is she right? Will the dangers ahead be so great that murder is my only way out?
“What was your reason for killing? Who were you protecting?”
Her eyes stare over my shoulder, into another time and place altogether. “Who said I was protecting anyone? Perhaps I just enjoy it.”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“What makes you so sure?”
“Nothing, but . . . I guess it would be easier to trust you, if you had a good reason.”
“There are no good reasons. Whether we kill for love or hate or just for the fun of it, there's no difference in the end. I still have to carry the weight of my soul for eternity. Perhaps until l forget what my reason was in the first place.”
Another silence falls.
“Still want to kill Kitsune?” She asks.
The question evokes a flutter of nerves in my stomach. I’ve never voiced this desire to anyone. Not even in my own head, and least of all to the stranger sat before me with a knowing smirk. Yet somehow it feels as though it was there all along. Of course Kit needs to die. And if I’d ever taken the time to follow my plans through in my head, I would’ve known I intend to be the one to kill him. Was that not the promise I made on the rooftop, to win, to beat him in the most final way possible?
I weigh this new information in my head until my entire reason for coming to this world is fractured with uncertainty. Things were easier when everything ended with Kit's death. At least, easier to ignore until that time comes. Now it's different. I need to know, to be absolutely certain. Can I kill Kitsune, knowing I’ll forever separate my soul from the ones I’m saving?
“I don’t know if I can do it,” I answer truthfully.
A satisfied smile curls the woman’s mouth again. She leans back against the smooth wall of the cavern and her eyes close. “If you stay with me, maybe you won’t have to.”
A/N: In an earlier chapter, Kitsune told Henrik that his soul is "forever" tainted however I'm retracting this now. Being tainted isn't final, as descriped in this chapter.