Malachi stumbled and the pavement rushed up to meet him.
He smelled burning. The ground was broken and all around him lay ashes and the empty husks of school buses, a few of them still aflame, and he was the only living thing in sight between the phantom smoke and flickering firelight. The Chosen was gone. The army was gone. Darius had been burned away from the inside out. He wasn’t sure what had happened to the townspeople. Some of them must have escaped. Some of them must have made it out.
Malachi pushed himself to his feet and stumbled on. He didn’t think he was injured – not physically – but the world felt strange, faded out and distant, and he felt like he was floating, detached from the sights and sounds and the feeling of pain in his hands and knees, and too aware of them at the same time. The swaying back and forth between feeling like he was wrapped in a cloud to feeling like every inch of his being was being stabbed by white-hot needles was nauseating. He might’ve thrown up.
He thought he felt the ground shake, and he fell again. He felt wet warmth on his hand, recognized it as blood, and realized with a detached sort of interest that it was, technically, the first time he had bled in millennia.
Quickly, or slowly, with his thoughts floating just on the edge of reach, he tried to tally the years, and realized he didn’t know how long it had been. He knew the year he had left the Valley – 804 after the settlement – but that calendar wasn’t used anymore, and he didn’t know what calendar was, or where he was. Everything had changed so much.
Meztli would know. Meztli had always resisted falling back into the dreamless death-like sleep that covered the years or centuries between the battles, and even though it was nearly impossible to do, he had at least sometimes been successful. He must have some idea
It was so dark. Malachi tried to summon light and when it didn’t come, it felt like the world tilted again and he fell, though he couldn’t remember standing.
When he pushed himself to his feet, Meztli was standing in front of him.
The ground wobbled, or maybe it was Malachi. Meztli’s eyes glinted like ice, cold, sharp, and brittle, or like ghosts, and for a moment as Malachi’s vision fuzzed to only shapes and shadows, and he was standing once more in front of the painted Pale-Eyed Death, loose from the stone and roaming the world.
This is his fault.
Malachi lunged forward, summoning the sword, swinging for Meztli’s neck, but, of course, nothing came, and where the hilt should’ve been his hand closed on air. Meztli stepped to the side. Malachi fell to the asphalt.
His scraped and bleeding hand closed again and again on where the sword should have been, and he could’ve sworn he still felt the magic, that it was still a part of him, but nothing answered, nothing came.
He lay there for a moment, reaching after smoke, waiting for Meztli to produce a knife or sharpened shadows and kill him with it. Nothing came.
A long moment passed and Malachi pushed himself up, just enough to sit. He didn’t have the energy to stand.
Meztli still stood over him, unmoving. His eyes glittered down like blades.
“You’re pathetic,” he said.
Malachi didn’t move. Against his will, his fingers inched closed again and his knuckles pressed into the asphalt. Smoke and ash and dust filled his nose and stung his eyes.
Meztli just stood and stared at him.
Malachi tasted blood when he spoke. “What are you doing here? Come to watch?”
Meztli was silent.
No magic. No Light. “This is all your fault.”
Now Meztli moved, sharply. “No, not this,” he hissed, stabbing a finger at the wrecked school buses and smoldering fires. “Don’t blame me for the work of your Chosen One.”
“If you hadn’t interfered with the balancing-”
“-We’d still be trapped, yes.”
“In a war you started!” Malachi lurched to his feet.
Meztli rolled his eyes and groaned in disgust. “Oh, don’t bother.”
Malachi swung a fist for Meztli, but he was too disoriented, too off balance, and Meztli’s dodge almost seemed slow before he grabbed Malachi’s wrist and shoved him back to the ground.
Meztli crouched by his head. “My point stands,” he said. “I started it, I finished it. Whatever happens next, the battle is done.”
“The world is ending!” Malachi tried to rise, but Meztli pushed him back down.
“Well, that’s a little melodramatic. It’s been ending for a while now.”
Ash swirled in front of Malachi, settling back to the pavement. “This isn’t how it was supposed to go.”
Meztli shrugged, stood, and started walking away. “Nothing ever went the way it was supposed to.”
“Thanks to you,” Malachi pushed himself up.
Meztli whirled. “Yes, thanks to me! I started the battle, I killed the Tree, I destroyed the Valley! I was born, when it should only have been you! So you know what, go ahead,” he spread his arms, gesturing to the wreckage and the ash. “Blame me for this. It’s my fault. Blame me for all of it. I am the source of everything that is wrong in the world.”
Malachi couldn’t help it. He laughed. “Who’s being melodramatic?”
Meztli kicked him.
At least now I know I’m coming back around, Malachi thought as he hit the pavement again. There was no fuzzy, cloudy feeling separating him from the clear, sharp pain where Meztli’s foot connected with his ribs. But he still felt drained, wobbly, and weak. I must have been more reliant on my magic than I thought.
He expected another kick, another blow, but when he looked up Meztli was backing away, teeth bared, left fist clenching and unclenching, the shadows around him dangerously dark. “You’re disgusting,” he hissed. “Pathetic. I hate you.”
Malachi coughed. “Alright.”
Meztli came at him again, but now Malachi was quick enough to avoid his foot, and in just the right position to take his legs out from under him and send him crashing to the pavement – at least, if he didn’t have the shadows. Meztli caught himself, and a blunt shadowy fist knocked Malachi once more onto his back.
When he pushed himself up again, twenty sharpened claws of darkness arched from the ground, quivering inches from his face and chest. Meztli stood behind them, hand up and open, fingers tense, ready to close at any moment.
“I should kill you,” he hissed.
Malachi stayed frozen, eyes wide.
The claws stayed still. Meztli’s hand stayed open. Only his face moved, the corner of his mouth twitching and his eyes narrowing.
His fingers closed. The claws shot down.
And just a hairsbreadth from Malachi, they stopped, dropped back, and melted into the pool of darkness on the asphalt.
Meztli straightened up and dropped his arm, and for a moment they just stared at each other.
At last, Meztli snorted and turned sharply away. “You’re not worth it.”
He started to walk away. Malachi stayed on the ground, speechless, watching as the dark shadows flowed away and the patch around him lightened. His mind was blank. He should be dead twice over now.
“Wait!” He pushed himself up and scrambled to his feet. The world was coming back into focus, confusing though it was.
Meztli stopped, and, after a moment, glanced back. In the dark and shifting firelight his eyes were so pale they almost seemed to glow. The shadows around him tensed and circled in.
“Where are you going?”
“What does it matter to you? Maybe I just want to get a better view of the end, like you said.”
“You’ve already missed a lot of it,” again, Malachi found himself trying to summon the light. Meztli may have just spared his life, but he didn’t like being so close to so much Dark and being unarmed. Not that I can do anything about it, now. “Where have you been hiding all this time?”
“I wasn’t hiding.”
“Do you have some new plan? Is that why you’ve just come out now?”
The shadows around Meztli were too still. Meztli was too still. I should stop.
He took a step forward, brushing loose some of the ash and small stones that had embedded themselves into his palms the many times he’d fallen, and wiping the beads of blood that welled up onto his once-white shirt. “Have you come up with a way to make everything even worse? Spread the destruction even farther?”
Slowly, the shadows rotating with him, Meztli turned around. “And how are you planning to stop me if I have?”
Of course, Malachi couldn’t, not now, not without his magic, but he couldn’t just stay there, drained and stumbling through the streets, doing nothing while the Light and the Dark tore the world apart. So he said the only thing that came to mind.
“Why did you do it?”
Meztli glare turned into a frown of confusion. “What?”
“The Well. The Tree. The Valley. Why did you do it?”
Meztli sneered at him. “Why wouldn’t I? I’m the Dark, remember? I don’t need a reason.”
Part of Malachi wanted to take that answer without thought, and he realized that it was what he’d believed all along, though now he realized that he had never stopped to think about it. Meztli was the Dark, and the Dark was simply bad, and there would be no point in asking for explanations from them. That had always made sense. But now…
“You weren’t then,” Malachi said, “not when you did it, you weren’t yet.”
Meztli’s glare deepened.
“It was the only safe place in the world,” Malachi realized he was shaking. “It was home, we needed it.”
“You needed it.”
“You left everyone to the monsters!”
“That’s your reason?” Malachi shouted. “That’s your excuse? You think what you did was justice?”
“Maybe I think there is no justice.”
“You could have just left!”
“And gone where?” Meztli took a step forward, hands clenching into fists and shadows knifing up in front of him. “There was nowhere to go! There were monsters everywhere, they hunted me day and night! Do you even know what was outside the Valley? There were the mountains, and then there was nothing but desert and scorching heat. I tried to cross it. I tried to die in it! You probably never saw more than a few feet over the borders.”
Malachi didn’t respond. Meztli was right; the Valley guards patrolled the edges of the encircling mountains and picked off any monster they saw wandering too close, but Malachi had never been out of sight of the Tree, never more than few minutes’ run back to the grassy fields spreading down the slopes. He’d never even wondered what the land looked like on the other side of the peaks.
“If you were the hero you were supposed to have been, you could have stopped me. If I’m a failure, so are you.”
Another thing Malachi hadn’t thought of. How hadn’t he thought of it? Now, and only now, he could remember the feeling of guilt and grief that had settled over him as he watched the Heart of the Tree cracking and crumbling around him, the chaos of Light and Dark, and then unconsciousness. He’d thought he was dead. Until he was pulled back. Until the first battle. And the grief… had just been gone.
I’ve felt strange ever since I woke up for this Battle. Strange, he thought, but also right in a way. He shouldn’t have forgotten his grief over the loss of the Valley, and he didn’t think he could have without something else interfering. Something that hadn’t loosened its hold until
very recently. Something like the Battle itself.
I thought the Light was good and perfect until… what? An hour ago? Ten minutes ago?
He must’ve been more affected by the magic than he’d ever thought possible.
“What?” Meztli was talking again. “You don’t have anything to say?”
What is there to say? I failed. My magic is gone, and I can’t stop anything now.
Firelight flickered across the broken asphalt and for a long moment Malachi watched the orange and black shifting like smoldering embers. Neither he nor Meztli spoke.
After a while longer he spoke. “Well, what are you doing here? If you’re looking to get yourself killed, you’re looking in the wrong place. The Light’s not here anymore.”
“I didn’t come here to die,” Meztli said. “I came to do the only thing I know how to do. Fight.”
“That sounds like a good way to die.”
“Not the way I have planned.”
Malachi frowned and looked up. “What are you talking about? The Chosen One has her army, her magic, and mine; she’s stronger than ever now. And the Dark is scattered and hiding, you can’t gather them, and you can’t fight the Light on your own.”
“No, I can’t,” Meztli started walking away. “That’s why I have a plan.”
Malachi followed. “What plan? There’s nothing you can do!”
“Things are changing even faster now,” Meztli said. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
Almost as soon as the words left his mouth, the ground quivered slightly and Malachi nearly fell, then froze in place, eyes wide. What? Before, he’d thought the shaking ground was just a part of his disorientation, but now his head was clear, and loose stones were bouncing at his feet…
Meztli was walking ahead, not looking back. After a moment, scrapes and bruises throbbing, Malachi hurried after him.