I crouched behind her, waiting.
The muscles in my haunches were bunched, burning with tension, but I barely allowed myself to breathe as I watched her silhouette, stark against the starry sky. She stood for a moment at the top of the hill, less than three leaps away, her hands limp and useless at her sides.
I could kill her now. Before she moved, before she even knew. Sink my teeth into her spinal column, right at the base of her skull. It would be a quick death. Almost painless.
I didn’t move.
I heard her sigh into the soft breeze, heard the rustle of her jacket as she lifted her arms outwards, her body creating a perfect human T. I held my breath, then exhaled when her shoulders drooped, her arms lowered. She gave a shiver against the cool air and tucked her jacket’s hood over her face, hiding her thick hair. A wayward curl wrapped around the side of the hood rebelliously.
She lifted her arms again, feet shoulder-width apart, a stable stance. My heart hammered against my chest as I squinted, trying to see less and more clearly all at once. Seconds passed. A minute. Two. Five. Neither of us moved.
At last, two stars in the sky brightened. Slowly at first, inexorably, then gaining in speed of lumination like an incoming freight train. I steeled myself against the urge to flee, to dodge, to move.
She dropped one arm and turned the other over, and just like that, caught the glowing orbs of light in her palms. They hovered, casting a surreal light over her fingers and up her wrinkled sleeves, stars plucked right out of the sky and brought down to this hill outside a sleepy little town.
The tension in my legs was unbearable; I would fire my body at her, spring-loaded and clawed, involuntarily if need be. A geas was a geas, after all, and no one had ever really broken one before.
“I know you’re there,” she said then, and those words iced the blood in my veins. My entire being came to a stuttering halt, and for a moment, the urge to go leap kill be done with it eased, drowned out by my surprise.
She sounded like a young girl, a teenager, the middle child of a mostly-happy family. Somehow, I expected her to sound… older, wiser. More suitable to hold the power that floated inches above and below her hands. But she was just a child.
What will you do about my presence? I asked her, my jaw working soundlessly, the words impressing themselves into the forefront of her thinking mind. It took effort to communicate this way, but she would not understand my tongue, and my teeth would not let me form the sounds of her language.
She didn’t turn around to face me – she never moved her hands, her firmly-planted feet – but her head swiveled a little inside the hood, her hair rustling against the noisy fabric. I imagined her peering sidelong towards me, trying to find a shadow hiding in all the other shadows. I was invisible to human eyes, and she knew it – or, if she didn’t already, she would soon learn.
“Nothing,” she answered quietly. Her voice was thin, a little shiver in it from the chill. I wondered if the lights she held was cold against her skin. “You’re here to kill me, right?”
I am, I confirmed. No point in lying. She probably already knew. My kind don’t show up for casual conversation.
She made a noise like nodding; her hood bobbed a little. The stars never wavered in her hands. “Even if I convince you not to, or if I try to kill you, more and more will come until I’m dead. There’s no point in that.”
I wondered if those stars could destroy me, if their clear light would pierce right through my shadow-woven flesh. You’re willing to die, just like that? I had to ask; I had to know. If she lied, surely I would hear it in her voice.
A little, nervous laugh escaped her lips. “Oh, I don’t want to die. But I don’t see a way out without having to kill a lot of things like you, and maybe put my family at risk. I knew that being able to juggle stars would be fatal.”
Yet you still do it, every night. I eyed her, searching for weakness, for manipulation, for deceit.
I only found sorrow.
“I do,” she said softly, sadly. “It’s like… knowing that you’ll go blind if you keep reading, but reading is what makes life worth living, so you’d rather have a really good life that’s sort of short… instead of a really boring life that’s a lot longer.”
I thought about that. What a strange choice to make – what a terrible one to have to make. But then, isn’t that what my kind did? In order to keep living, we kept taking jobs, kept accepting employment – servitude – slavery. Because living without those anchors meant we would cease to exist that much sooner. Even if we hated the work, we still took it. And the geas that accompanied each task made sure we always succeeded. My flesh was on fire with the battle between geas and my will – strike, stay, strike, stay. Strike! Stay. I quivered like the long grass in the breeze.
“You’ll… you’ll make it quick, though, right?” Here her voice shook more than I did; here she lost any hope of sounding composed. But her hands were steady, the stars bright against them.
What is it like, holding the light? I asked. Professionally, it was a perfected tactic: ask the victim something that matters, something that sounds like you want the answer to, something they don’t think you’ll kill them in the middle of thinking about. Personally, I really did want to know. Which negated some of the other benefits of asking, but I didn’t care. My body would take over when my self-control snapped, and the girl would die, and I would go home to my employer with her blood red on my mouth.
She sighed, a long sigh, resigned. “I can’t describe it,” she murmured. “I never could, all the times I wanted to, all the times I tried. Everything else in the world is so much less than this that… I can’t even make a good metaphor. This is the stuff metaphors are made from. It’s completely impossible. Holding stars! What could be more amazing?”
I was starting to shake more than the wind from the tension in me, the internal battle, a war I had waged before every kill the past nine times. But I heard her out. What can you do with your stars? I asked, intending to use this one for the end. She would give me a list of the tricks she had learned, and in the middle of it, she would fall in a crumpled heap when I snapped her spine. I could not last much more against the geas.
“Just hold them,” she said to my surprise, and it wasn’t a list at all, and I was not prepared to making the final leap against her skin and her light – so I stayed. “I can’t do magic or anything. I just hold them for as long as I can, then I give them back to the sky, and I go to bed.”
Her words sank into my mind like cold iron. She was helpless and, more importantly, harmless. There was no need to destroy a creature that could never bring the power of the light to bear against another. If she had gone so long – nearly a year – being able to call down the stars and had never used them? She was no threat.
I felt the geas slacken, a mere metaphysical inch. The geas was created with very precise wording, and that wording included the implication that the person I was bound to kill was a danger. But she wasn’t. Then you lied, earlier, I slowly realized. You could not defend yourself even if you tried. I felt the faintest hint of betrayal at the thought and clung to it, using it as fuel, a reminder of my goal. In a hundred jobs, I had never failed.
Another nervous laugh. “I can move them, if I try,” she said skittishly, “and I thought I might throw them at you, when you came, before you struck. But I don’t know what would happen, and it could be really bad – I mean, they’re stars! what happens if they hit the earth? – so I decided not to. It’s just too much to risk, and I know, I know, even if you went away, others would come and would never stop coming.”
Not only was she not a threat, an unlearned youth, but she was afraid of doing harm to others, so she didn’t even dare exercise her curiosity and test her limits. This was absurd. This was the kind of child my employers had hoped to find and raise for their own, not the kind I should be eliminating.
Not that they would ever take a human as an apprentice…
My muscles ached from the effort to stay still, to only move so much as the wind swayed the grasses. I thought of the witch whose apprentice I had killed, years ago to mortals, not so long ago to me. I remembered how she wept, how she curled her gnarled hands into fists and cursed me bitterly. I remembered the regret I felt upon taking one of the few magical humans away from the mortal world – as I was about to do again.
I remembered exactly where the witch lived, and I knew she hadn’t died yet – witches last forever.
I looked at the girl in her hooded jacket, stars balanced steadily to each side. Prove you can move them, I said, and even to me, my voice was strained. Turn around and put them both in front of you.
I watched as she did, my thighs twitching sporadically, my heart drumming a fierce protest. Threat or no threat, the geas was still stronger than I was, and I was running out of time. But the girl turned, and she moved the stars, as steadily as the world itself turns, until one hovered in front of her throat and the other in front of her stomach, neatly stacked between the sandwich of her hands. I could see her face now, starlit, scared.
If I could press my thought-spoken words against her mind, so I could an image… or a map.
So I did.
The geas is powerful, but it is not intelligent, and all it understands is the drive to kill. I stopped resisting the urge to leap, and so my body rocketed forward, a darkness thrust from the velvet night. My claws hit the ground only twice – two strides, only two – before I flung myself into the starlight she held.
For a moment, I burned white, but a cool breeze swept through me, scattering my constituent shadows until I was nothing more than the space between molecules. The space between stars.
Inspired by this.