She called me stranger.
The thought lingered on the Prince’s mind like an obsession. It gripped him, held him down, forcing him to stare truth in its unpleasant face and revisit the burden he had striven to put behind him all those years ago.
He stopped to assess the pathway before him, poised on the edge of a low rooftop. There—the wall to his left just reached past a length of chain that hung almost to the ground. Backing up to gain speed, the Prince launched himself at the roof’s end and at the last moment threw his feet against the wall and ran. Now moving horizontally, he kept the chain in the corner of his eye. Only when he was directly parallel with it did he push off from the wall and easily seize hold of it, quickly upending himself to wrap his legs about it and slide headfirst towards the unsuspecting guard below him.
The Prince stopped, having descended as far as he could go, and waited for the guard to move into place. He saw the clouds of sand issuing from the distorted, Dahaka-like face—or was it a mask? The Prince had long since ceased to care—as the sentinel breathed, slow and heavy.
It turned, and—
Dropping onto the stone, the Prince withdrew the Dagger in a fluid, practiced motion. Its leather handle was worn but well preserved, as he knew, and the feel of it in his fingers brought back memories every time he held it.
He continued toward the sand creature’s back, crouched low. It stood motionless, oblivious of its impending demise, but its killer was far from feeling merciful. The Prince clutched the guard’s shoulder in his left hand and with his right drove the blade’s straight edge into its spine.
It grunted in pain, nearly masking the subtle snap of its back breaking in one place or another, but the Prince heard it—heard it and reveled in it. He took advantage of the creature’s shock to leap up and over it, delivering another slicing blow as he landed. A final thrust into its hard belly, twisting the knife as he did so, and it was over. The black, armored body dissolved into bright sand almost before it hit the ground.
Even as the remains were absorbed into the Dagger, granting the Prince more of its legendary power, the thrill of the kill was fading. He was beginning to enjoy it too much—or rather, continuing to. It was with deep shame that he recalled his thoughts and deeds on the Island of Time; he had been consumed, infatuated with his own survival, up to the point where selfishness and bloodlust had become second nature to him.
He had finally realized his greed and tried to turn from it, encouraged by his recent encounter with Farah. If she knew what he had done, what he had become…
She couldn’t—she wouldn’t know. He had lost her once. He could not bear to lose her again. The Prince’s heart was already sore at the opening of old wounds; the fact that the woman he loved remembered nothing of their past cut into him worse than the Daggertail that, even now, lay half-submerged in the flesh of his arm.
Well, aren’t you the poet?
The Prince made his way up a nearby ladder, ignoring the voice that was dripping with sarcasm.
Disregard me as you wish, it snapped, but we’re wasting our time here.
“I heard you the first three times,” the Prince responded coolly. He reached the next rooftop and in one nimble movement jumped over to another. Silently he added, Unfortunately.
The voice made an impatient noise. Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. With that, it fell silent.
For a while, the voice—the Dark Prince, as the Prince had come to call him—had gone into an irritated retreat, goaded by his counterpart’s actions. The Dark Prince hated Farah, as well as the change she had prompted in the Prince, and working with her was nowhere on his list of priorities. He was eager for battle, and the sudden lack of enthusiasm angered him.
Ironically, he had at first been pleased by Farah’s appearance. The shock of seeing her again had temporarily weakened the Prince’s will to resist the dark influences inside him. In the end, however, he became more stubborn than before.
The Prince leaped again, this time onto a towering pole just within reach. The sun-baked wood was warm against his chest as he wrapped his arms around it, but he had to grit his teeth as he slid down to the street. The burn already fading, he took in his surroundings warily.
Crumbling buildings surrounded him, their once fair exteriors now cracked and destroyed. These were so close together that the only way out of the area was a broad alleyway, blocked by a mass of piled rubble.
Would you have a little more patience? the Prince retorted. Honestly, to think you’re a part of me…
Whipping around, he watched half a dozen guards file into the clearing, the door of their entrance slamming shut behind them.
Oh, good. Company.
The tone was sardonic, but the Prince detected excitement under it. He, too, looked a little forward to ridding his city of the monsters that had overrun it, even if he had to do it bit by bit with nothing but his own two hands.
Yes! the voice pushed, sensing the Prince’s growing anger and thirst for battle. That’s it! Do not waste your pity—spare no one!
The first guard reached him. It swung its scimitar, right to left, but the Prince merely bent backwards at the waist and the pointed edge passed harmlessly over him. Coming back up, he switched the Dagger to his left hand and threw what he could of his momentum into a blurred slash. His attacker fell to the ground in two pieces, severed neatly at the torso.
From that point on, the fight was a sand bath. His enemies were solidly built, but the Prince’s speed, agility, and determination gave him an advantage. The Dagger of Time’s powers were hardly needed; clumsiness earned him a few nicks here and there, but nothing worth turning back time for.
All the while, the Dark Prince spurned him onward. His taste for killing was unsettling, but simultaneously fitting, filling the Prince with a deeper hate for the invaders with each one that fell.
Partway through the battle, the Dark Prince became unexpectedly cautious. Watch yourself, Prince. Don’t be too proud of yourself yet; you’ve taken down at least ten of them, but their number keeps growing.
He was right. Somehow, more of the bull-headed beasts were making their way into the area.
Running between two of them, the Prince threw himself onto his hands, kicked outward, and connected his heels with their grotesque faces, and then flipped forward to land on his feet again and withdrew two weapons—the Dagger in one hand and a stolen sword in the other—and drove them through the staggering guards’ throats. They each collapsed without a sound, one on either side of him.
He hesitated, catching his breath and trying to count the survivors of his rage—and without warning a searing, white-hot pain cut across his bare back. His fingers twitched as he hit his knees, the Dagger threatening to fall from his grasp.
No! Go back, you fool! Use the Dagger!
More out of instinct than will, the Prince began to focus. The power of time was his to command, limited though it was, and it took only a thought to turn it back.
He did it now and, as always, everything about him slowed, more and more until finally nothing moved. A sound like a revitalized breath broke through the frozen silence—in, and then out.
The Prince was rising, back onto his feet. Something hard and cold touched his shoulder, running along the wound in his back; but as it went, he could feel the skin closing, the splattered and spilling blood returning to his body. The attackers before him, who had been running in his direction, now took several steps back.
Not until his most recent victims, the two guards who had died together, started to rise did the Prince relinquish his mental hold on the Dagger. The two dropped to the street again, dead a second time, and everything moved at a normal pace once more. None but the Prince was the wiser.
He turned and raised the blade: right on cue, his silent assaulter and would-be killer swung up, locking weapons. They both fought, struggling to outdo the other in strength, but the guard struck the Prince’s knee with its leg and sent him down.
The young man was streaming with sweat; dirt and sand clung to his back when he hit the ground. He groaned under the monster's weight, which was forcing the point of its sword closer to the Prince’s heart. The Prince had the Dagger caught against the opposing weapon’s hilt, but it was nearing by the second. He pushed, now against the guard’s entire weight, as it had placed most of its bulk forward in the effort to kill him—
It growled and went limp, and the Prince grimaced as its hot, rancid breath washed over his face. He shoved it aside and was on his feet a second later, observing the red-feathered shafts protruding from the still form.
“Prince!” He searched the rooftops for the source, knowing who to look for but unable to find her. “Behind you!”
Another arrow whisked past his ear, triggering a dying cry at his shoulder. There—Farah stood on the nearest building, bow bent and eyes on him.
Why is it that I always appear helpless when she’s around? he wondered.
Because, like any woman, she’s brought out the worst in you ever since she arrived.
I wasn’t asking you. Besides, I thought you were the worst part of me.
The Prince was strengthened at the sight of Farah, but at the same time a painful twinge seized his heart. Their reunion—in his kingdom, of all places—had been bittersweet, and gave rise to the question of whether he didn’t prefer that she had died and remained dead from her fatal plunge seven years ago. Despite all his meddling with time, the Prince still had the scar on his palm from where he had caught hold of the Dagger’s blade back then, struggling to save Farah as she slipped away.
Had she perished then, at least she would have gone knowing of their love. Now… now only he remembered any of it, and to try and convince her of the truth would likely persuade her into thinking he was mad. It was a selfish thought, he knew, but he had been so devastated by the unfairness of it all that the idea had occurred to him more than once.
He ducked to dodge another blow and dragged the Dagger across the sand monster’s chest while wrenching away its sword. The Prince turned, plunged the blade into another, and kicked the dispersing corpse away.
All around him, enemies fell with arrows in their necks, the whumpf of their bodies hitting stone intertwined with the twang of Farah’s bowstring. Unfortunately, they seemed to be increasing, as the Dark Prince had pointed out; at any rate, their number was not declining. This would not have been such a problem, had the Prince not begun to tire.
His left arm gave a sharp throb. Other than causing him to wince, it had little effect. When the same pain shot up to his skull, tripled in intensity, he yelled out in distress and collapsed in the street, clutching the distorted and trembling limb.
“What are you doing?” Farah demanded. Her voice was annoyed, but traced with concern. Incapable of answering, the Prince was filled with horror when he realized that his other half’s presence was growing stronger. As arrows continued to fly around him, he snarled,
No! Not now—I won’t… let you…
Give up, Prince. She’s going to find out sooner or later.
The golden designs burned into his arm glistened vibrantly.
Not like this—I can’t let her see me—
He flipped onto his back with a defiant cry. The Dark Prince wavered, barely loosening his hold.
She can’t possibly be that important to you, he said, as if this were obvious.
She…is, the Prince insisted, eyes screwed shut and jaw set. I loved her once, and I won’t have her see me as a monster!
Oh, come now, the Dark Prince went on, growing aggravated, what difference does it make? She’s likely to die in this city, anyway. Once again, the tendrils of his consciousness encircled the Prince’s mind, groping for control—
“No!” The Prince thought of Farah, their past, the first time they had met—anything to hold on to, to help him resist. She won’t die again! The Dark Prince took no notice. His influence was augmenting—his—the Prince’s—their body was convulsing with the mixed efforts to subdue and awaken the dormant force.
Please! he thought suddenly. Please—I beg of you—not now!
So out of character for him was this request that the Dark Prince’s probing ceased altogether. Their two voices were silent. The Prince waited, his breathing shaky, for the onslaught of mental attacking to resume. Then, in a tone filled to the brim with repugnance:
You really have become weak, Prince. Pathetic.
The grip on the Prince slackened and fell away. He relaxed, panting but relieved, and opened his eyes. Smoke was rising against the sky. Beside him and on all sides, sand lay strewn across the stones next to broken arrows. Enemies were nowhere to be seen.
“Are you all right?”
He forced his head to the side. Peering down from the roof over him, Farah was shielding her eyes against the sun to see him. When he called up that he was fine, but didn’t move, she replied, “Hold on—I’ll come down to you” and disappeared.
The Prince smiled reminiscently. That was Farah: critical but compassionate.
“Ugh!” Before any other reaction could occur, the Prince’s tan skin darkened until it was black. Streams of gold ran down and over him. His throat felt like it was constricting as his voice deepened and his breath grew raspy.
The change took only a few seconds, and once it was complete he jumped up in fury.
“You…you tricked me!”
Aww, poor thing. Should I say please next time?
He started. No… Farah couldn’t see him in this form. Drawing out the Daggertail, the transformed Prince twirled and slung it towards an open window. It caught on the sill and he quickly climbed up and inside. He had just backed from the opening when she appeared below, looking around the street.
“Prince?” she repeated.
He turned away and headed through the house, wanting to get as far from her as possible until he was normal again. For the time being, the Dark Prince had gotten his way.
Forgive me, Farah.