The Death of Life
He won’t lose.
He wouldn’t lose.
He’ll never lose.
This was the mantra of a frightened little girl; the scripture I recited in my head to bring me comfort. Without it, I would’ve been driven mad by the anxiety-infused breaths I struggled to take. I was scared, and that fear is what kept me moving. It’s what kept my feet in motion and my lungs filling with oxygen. Fear was an incentive, a driver for reaching new heights. It worked wonders on my physical prowess. Too bad it left a sinking pit in my stomach, as if my insides were condensing into neat packages to be later thrown up as tiny cubes. In short, I felt terrible.
I believed in Logan, my growing trust in him virtually unshakeable. Time and again he’s come through without fail, but this time felt different. He was always confident, so assured that he’d have an easy time with any conflict. His attitude this time was different. He may have still worn his confidence like a badge of honor, but for the first time I saw a new emotion behind his eyes - fear.
Why didn’t you stay behind? Stupid, stupid, stupid!
My conscience was an expert at shoving uncertainties in my face. I fought the urge to turn back, my legs resisting my will to push on. My body wanted to fight, but I knew that was futile. I would only be in Logan’s way.
“Getting scared, are we…darlin’?”
His deep voice was unmistakable and ominous enough to halt my movements. A laugh followed, mocking my petrified state with superiority. I scanned the vicinity for him, but Honzo was nowhere in sight.
“How rude of me. I should at least reveal myself to you before I take you prisoner.” Honzo’s voice trailed off from a speck of darkness firmly gripped to the side of my bag. I swatted at the hitchhiker in a frantic attempt to get rid of him, but the black fluff evaded my attacks. It fluttered off my bag, catching the wind and drifting a few feet away. As it landed, Honzo’s silhouette took shape, casting a dark shadow that ripped through the night.
“How are you here?” The question was more rhetorical than literal, but Honzo chose to answer anyways. He brimmed with a tone of dominance as he spoke.
“I told you I never fail a mission. A child like you is nothing more than a flea annoying nibbling at my calf. No…it’s not because of you that I chose to conceal my essence and elude detection by becoming such a small form of darkness.” His body was fully reformed now, the details in his features returning in the faint glow of the night. He pushed up the brim of his hat and shot me an unsatisfying frown.
“It was because of the one who showed up late that I was forced to cower as a mere speck attached to you. Now he’s someone to fear, unlike you, darlin’.”
He stepped forward, slowly gliding across the sand. His footsteps were smooth and graceful as he closed the distance between us. I willed my legs to move, but they refused. They shook with unease, the shock of Honzo’s return crippling them.
“I can’t wait to thread my power through your nerves and deliver the most unimaginable amount of pain you’ve ever felt!”
His strings of darkness shot out from under his feet with needle-like accuracy. There were four closing in, each aimed for a different organ. After what I witnessed on the train, I knew it would only take one hit for my body to be rendered useless.
“Move!” I yelled, jump-starting my legs back into action. They sped with an urgency to survive. I escaped Honzo’s first assault, but I knew the next would be soon to follow.
I didn’t have time to plan my next move before I was forced to dodge another shock of his darkness. He folded his arms over his chest, releasing a gaudy laugh as more threads of his power swarmed. He was untouchable, encased in the center of his onslaught.
“Run and dodge all you like Miss Ava, it matters not. You were never meant to escape me in the first place.” Honzo continued his demeaning jabs. He was making my fate painfully obvious. I was at a disadvantage, and he was a monster.
First off, I was exhausted. I may have held my own against him earlier, but who’s to say that was his full strength. Even if it was, I was running on empty. I couldn’t put my all into a fight right now, leaving me with only one option - run.
“One last go at it, what do you say?” I directed the question to my only weapon. I whirled my backpack, its speed slowly increasing as darkness encased it in an unearthly flame. After the last encounter with Honzo, my bag was the most trusted ally I had. It blazed at full strength, the last of my power flowing into it like a weak circuit.
I deflected the first of Honzo’s needles, his darkness shattering like an icicle when my fiery weapon slammed into it. The ring reverberated in my ears, honing my focus.
Without wasting a second, I broke into a sprint, shooting past Honzo in a blur. My quick response left him to play catch-up, as he sent two more projectiles to pursue me. I jumped to avoid the first, the sand erupting into a flurry as it was struck by Honzo’s misfire. The second was more dangerous. It weaved back and forth, leaving me guessing as to which direction it planned to strike from. Countering it would require perfect timing. Even the slightest delay would spell out my demise.
I didn’t slow my pace. Honzo wouldn’t matter if I reached Animus. Logan said that was where we’d be safe. I already knew winning was impossible right now, and Animus held the only hope I had at escape.
Honzo’s thread made its move, swooping in from the left. I twisted, spiraling to counter the attack. At the last moment, it changed trajectory, as if being controlled remotely. It shot straight-up, scraping past my cheek. I managed to avoid a direct hit, but the tingling on the left side of my face warned me that I wasn’t unscathed.
I continued to run, the numbness spreading down to my shoulder. Honzo’s attack came in for another pass. I was ready for it this time. I knew Honzo had great precision with his power, and I wasn’t going to misjudge things a second time.
The string took aim for my weakened side, something I knew a sleaze like him would aim for. I swung to intercept it, my bag shattering it without mercy.
I never let up.
Logan was risking his life for me and Honzo was not going to make that be for naught. My heart pounded in my chest, its rate rattling the bones of my ribcage. I felt like I was vibrating, each jolt from a footfall a swift shock to keep my body moving. I could make out Animus through the dark. It was so close now.
Feeling a moment of relief was my undoing. It’s the same mentality as ‘don’t look back’. You let your foot off the gas for an instant and that’s when all hell breaks loose. I knew it to be true, and yet, I still failed to hold back my elation from seeing home.
The sand in front of me burst open, a cloud of dust masking the darkness that shot out from the hole with deadly speed. As it struck me through the chest, I knew it had to be the strand of Honzo’s that crashed into the ground earlier. I wouldn’t have guessed he’d be so clever as to secretly be pursuing me underground. It was enough to convince me that he never failed a mission. I was merely another body to pad his stats.
Those thoughts dissipated the moment I felt the first ripple of electricity coarse under my skin. It originated in my heart, near the point of impact. It burned, like an army of ants tracing the nerves in my body, biting every millimeter along the way. I was on fire, my insides boiling over in pain. The sensation traveled to my spine, my back arching in response. My legs continued to run, locked in their last command to reach Animus.
Honzo’s curse circulated throughout my upper body, contracting my muscles in disjointed ways. I tried to scream, but my body couldn’t produce a sound. It felt like my vocal cords had been fried when my body short-circuited.
Run! Run! Run!
It was the only thought that ran through my mind repeatedly. It became as homeostatic as breathing, the command my reason for pushing forward. Any moment now and I would cross into Animus. I would be safe.
“Not many can fight my nervous injection like this. Even if it’s only with half your body.” Honzo whispered in my ear, gripping the back of my jacket firmly in his burly hands.
My legs ran aimlessly, even as they left the ground. Honzo held me in the air, effectively ending all hope of reaching Animus I still clung to.
“Oh, darlin’. Your face is quite disastrous. You’d be ashamed to be seen with foam around your mouth like that. You look like a rabid dog. An animal that just lost all sense of hope.”
It was a struggle to focus on Honzo’s chilling smile, my eyes seeing everything as if watching it on a static television screen. I felt anger in my gut. Anger that I couldn’t break free, hate in myself for letting Logan down, and rage that I would never see Milo again. So much anger and no way to release it. I felt like a caterpillar trapped in a cocoon, still too feeble to burst free in a blaze of glory. I would be forever stuck in this budding phase of life.
It was the only sound that I could produce, but I roared like I was declaring war. With a crooked arm I managed to swing my hand around and deliver a swift punch cloaked in my last reserve of darkness. It did the trick, Honzo losing his grip on me for just long enough for my feet to hit the sand and continue to propel me onward. I wouldn’t stop running - I wouldn’t stop fighting until I reached Animus.
“Stupid girl! Screw the judges, I’ll take your head and add to my own personal display!” Honzo yelled after me, shooting another strand of his power towards me. It struck like lightning; the shock ending all movement in my legs. I crumbled to the ground, my body convulsing violently.
I felt no pain.
My nerves were numbed, the continuous electricity surging through them desensitizing them completely. I stared blankly in Honzo’s direction, my mind struggling to stay focused on one thing for very long.
“This will teach you!” Honzo had lost all composure. He raised his hand a bolt of darkness forming in a cloud of black.
“What was that I heard you say earlier, Honzo?” A new voice rumbled around us, the presence sending noticeable fear though Honzo’s expression. His hand shook as his attack sputtered out with a small spark on his fingers.
“I believe you said something along the lines of killing our prey. Am I wrong?”
Honzo never had a moment to reply. A looming figure appeared behind him, easily towering him by a whole foot. A gust of cold wind accompanied his entrance, the screams of suffering souls clinging closely to the chill.
A dark hand clamped onto Honzo’s scalp, hoisting him off the ground like a doll. He was in complete control, his essence flowing off him like a haze. It sucked the life out of everything it touched, small bushes of ferns withering up and turning to ash.
“Lord Otis, please forgive me! It was a lapse in judgment, a slip of the tongue, you see.” Honzo spoke fluidly, like the clever fox he was.
“I would never go against your wishes as-”
Honzo never finished his plea.
Otis tightened his grip on his head, the pressure shattering Honzo’s shell and obliterating the darkness that dwelled underneath. Black blood exploded in all directions. I watched as a wave of it fell on me, but I never felt a drop. Honzo’s body slowly faded, no trace of him ever existing left behind. When his body fully dissipated, Otis finally stepped closer. He kneeled to meet my eyes. I could see my reflection in the dark pits on his face. They were like glass beads that you’d see sewn onto a stuffed toy.
“I can’t believe I had to come to the realm of the living myself for you, Miss Angelo. As a judge, you’d think I’d be above such trivial tasks. Nonetheless the outcome will be the same.” Otis drew in a deep breath, as if the question he was about to ask was a difficult one that needed mental preparation. He closed his eyes for a brief second before they shot open, and his mouth creased into a worn-out smile.
“Are you ready to enter the Underworld?”