Monday, July 29, 2013

Living with Your Past Selves by Bill Hiatt

CHAPTER 3: THE THEFT

The problem was, the shifter wasn’t bleeding from multiple flesh wounds, and his arms hadn’t started to feel like lead. I could still lose if I didn’t kill him fast.

The shifter dodged me skillfully, staying just far enough away to tempt me to lunge too far and lose my balance. Luckily, I knew that game from my previous lives and did not fall for it. Unfortunately, the shifter had created a standoff. He couldn’t get close enough to me to try hand-to-hand combat, but he moved too fast for me to strike successfully with the sword. The subtle blurring of his outline told me that he was shifting constantly, somehow using his shifting as a tactic to dispel the fatigue poisons in his muscles. His breathing was still steady, his moves as fast as ever. I was pretty sure he couldn’t keep up the shifting indefinitely, especially at that rate of speed, but he really didn’t need to. I was already having trouble keeping the blade up, and the blood loss was making me light-headed; there was no way I could outlast him.

Then I realized what I had to do. The force creating the fire on the sword was magic, but the fire itself behaved as fire normally would—and I could manipulate natural forces, at least on a small scale, almost as easily as I could manipulate people. I had enough breath now for a quick chant in Welsh, and I used it. In response to my words, the flames shot out from the sword like a laser, blasting the shifter’s chest and igniting him. He howled and tried to beat out the flames with his hands, but the fiery stream, fed by the magic of the sword in a way I by myself could never have sustained, just kept right on coming. In no time he was engulfed in flames. His screams echoed in my ears, and the smell of burning flesh was everywhere. Once I was sure his attention was focused completely on the fire, I moved in and took off his head in one swift, clean stroke.

I need to preface what happened next by pointing out I wasn’t really as much of a wimp as I’m going to sound like. You just have to keep in mind that, for all my bravado, I had never had to deal with this kind of situation before in my current life. Many of my former selves had been hardened by numerous battles, and they took killing lightly, in some cases even when they were about as young as I was now. For me it was different. For four years I had had the echoes of those past selves in me, telling me to kill, sometimes for what seemed pretty trivial causes, like Stan’s poking around near my secret. In my wildest dreams, though, I had never actually expected that I would ever need to kill somebody. Finding the sword, the training, so much else, I had done more or less instinctively, not really anticipating the immediate practical need for such things. For the last few minutes, of course, I had known that my life was on the line, that I needed to kill the shifter. But during the whole battle I had been running on autopilot, fueled by battle adrenalin and survival instinct, other feelings jammed down as far inside of me as they would go. Now, as the adrenalin faded, I knew that everything had changed. I had sometimes daydreamed about myself as a fairy-tale knight slaying a dragon. But fairy tales don’t suggest any psychological aftermath. The prince finishes saving the damsel, perhaps marries her—end of story. However, my story had no end. Yes, I was alive, and that should have made me ecstatically happy, but I had killed, and I knew with a chilling certainty that I would kill again…and again…and again. Oh, it would be self-defense, or it would be defending someone else, but my current self could not yet handle the enormous weight with which such violence would press upon my soul.

As the gory reality flooded over me, I swayed, fell to my knees, and vomited repeatedly, my stomach continuing to convulse long after it was empty. The smell of burned flesh continued to assail me, and so did one sight I would never be able to forget no matter what I did—to the very end, the shifter’s face had looked like Stan’s. When he had realized he could not contain the flames, I saw the absolute, gut-wrenching fear in Stan’s eyes. And when I took the thing’s head, I could not shake the feeling that I was taking Stan’s.

I lay on the ground, feeling sorry for myself and disgusted with myself, not wanting to ever get up. I began to cry, gently at first, then in long, shaking sobs.

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