Spine

“What’ll you do when you run out of mountains to climb, and footsteps to chase? What kind of world awaits you back at home for you to start? Don’t say you haven’t changed with chasing me, sister. Don’t say you’re still like them. You’re different. Denial is an ugly thing. Don’t deny what’s happening to you,” the man said to her. He was on top of a red roof with curled metal, which could catch rainwater in a downpour.

He used to be her brother, Liam, but since he’d wandered into the night and pointed at the moon, he wasn’t himself anymore. A nightmare woke up when his narrow hand angled towards that pale button in the sky. If you’re an elf, you never point at the moon. They teach you that law at the onset of your life. There is a bargain struck with the lost forces living in the shadows. No one tries to understand why a ghoulish part of the natural world turns on them with such a simple gesture. They just avoid it. They just never ask questions. You never lift that rock up to see what’s squirming underneath.

“Get down, Liam. Come back to the village. You can’t keep crawling across these cliffs drinking blood. I can’t let you keep killing people,” the woman said. She was tall and narrow, like the point of a perfect dagger. She had blond hair that sat on her waist. Her armor was skin-thin, like there was no separation between the laced green metal and her flesh. She had a black holster hanging on her waist. Inside was a red crossbow, which had been worn by the cold like a bad memory. The weapon looked oblong and unnatural against her delicate form, like an angel with a chain around her wrist.

“What? You can’t go home and be the hero? Mom and dad will worship you even more. It might even be endless,” Liam said. He jumped off the roof of the temple. The mountains they were climbing on were dotted by these shrines with crimson hats, like a rash on exposed skin.

Liam landed and made the earth drum. A few rocks came loose on the mountains around them. Neither sibling could see where they tumbled in the winter night, but both heard them echo like lost voices.

She had a hard time breathing with Liam just yards away. Sourness opened the air in peculiar odors. Liam’s body was alive, but decomposing. It made the torches in the gloom wither down to candlelight.

“Are you going to hit me with that, sister? Those arrows are infused with spells and others things. They weigh me down for exactly 15 hours. You could even carry me back home,” Liam said. His voice sounded like an out-of-tune piano. Liam was born tall, but since his possession he’d curled over. The gravity of evil pulls you into the dirt. His body was wrapped in white robes he’d peeled off of dead monks he’d eaten. His hair was still blond like his sisters, but it was clumpy with dried blood. His long face was cracked apart by frost. His stretched eyes had a brewing orange to them, like parts of him were always on fire.

She pulled her crossbow out, and spiked an arrow into his left arm. The thud of meat didn’t startle her. Liam pulled over himself like a pill bug. He laughed. His throat sounded like little feet clattering across an abandoned house.

“Again, nothing vital. You don’t want this to end, do you? There is no safe return with me. I’m tainted. I’m corrupted. There isn’t a cure for me,” Liam said. Something bubbled out of his back. A shadow ascended out of his skin like the final smoke on a dying campfire. It stopped a few feet up. Parts of his skin popped away from the opening, like sauce being boiled. The shade grew pointed and wide. Two arms opened. A mask topped the shadow. It was a pearl version of Liam’s face, only his mouth was curved into a playful grin.

She fired another arrow into his shoulder where the darkness had sprouted. Liam screamed, and tried to wiggle free. She could’ve fired more arrows. She wanted to. She didn’t love her brother anymore. He could come home alive or dead. She didn’t know who she was if he was gone.

“Come home with me, brother,” she said. The words whistled slightly. They were being forced through her teeth. The earth beneath Liam’s feet stretched upwards into a rocky pillar. The shadow on his back could cast spells too. He jumped back to the roof. The stillness of the night slowly consumed him. All she could see was that white smile drift into the dark. The torches died as he retreated. They weren’t sure of who to follow.

“How many more? How many more mountains do we have until we fall off this spine of the world? There is no head for you to sever besides mine. There is nothing besides me, right?” Liam said.

His phantom face vanished further into the night. It looked like a single star dying on the edge of deep space.

“Common sister, be honest. There is nothing besides me, right? You like hunting. You like being just a few mountain tips away from the gates of heaven,” he said. He was just an echo now.

She lowered her crossbow and sighed. She waited until the silence was completely there.

“I like it,” she said to herself with a subtle smile.