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A Chest Filled With Diamonds and Gold

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She found Grandfather in the Lower Cathedral, kneeling before the altar, head bowed and hands joined in prayer.

"You called for me," she forced out.

He slowly got up, bones creaking like old wood, and started walking towards her, dragging his black tunic on the ground. He was ancient, with skin like the bark of a tree and long grey hair that smelled of incense, but his eyes had a sharp gleam, just like the silver blade he kept tucked in his belt. He stopped when he reached the middle of the aisle.

"Come here, Child," he ordered, rolling up the sleeve of his tunic. "You'll need to be strong tonight."

She did as she was told, ignoring the way her whole body was shaking. "What am I to do, Grandfather?"

"There is something we need, something upon which rests the future of the Family," he started, taking the blade in his hand. "I'm trusting you to find it."

She knew she could do this. And even if she couldn't, refusing a mission like this would be just as high a dishonor as failing. So she drank Grandfather's blood and ate his flesh and promised she wouldn't come back unless she had what the Family needed.

She was going to make them proud.

But she failed.

She failed.

She was weak, sentimental, she—

This could've been her chance.

This could've set her free.

And instead—

She knew what they did to those who failed. She'd seen what Grandfather did to them. They were going to find her, eventually. No matter how far she ran or how well she hid, they were always going to find her.

Always.

But she had to run. She had to try.

She had to find somewhere to hide, somewhere like—

A house.

It was an old thing, tall and lopsided and seemingly seconds away from crumbling down. If the broken windows and the ivy devouring the facade were anything to go by, the place was abandoned.

Perfect.

The door creaked open when she pushed it, and the floor groaned under her bare feet. For a split second, she thought she could feel something just underneath the wood — something beating not unlike the heart of a sleeping animal.

It was the exhaustion playing its tricks, she told herself, and kept walking, going through the foyer and past many furniture-shaped ghosts into what had once been a dining room. A broken-down table lay at the center of it, and a chandelier was propped against the wall in one corner. Both were covered by a thick layer of dust.

Narrow moaning steps led her upstairs. She trod through the corridor, careful not to step on the shards of glass that she could see here and there on the floor, checking the rooms one by one as she passed them.

Empty.

Empty.

Empty.

Empty, except not.

There was a bed tucked in the furthermost corner, with fresh silken sheets, a warm blanket and a soft pillow. But how could that be possible? It was clear no one had been, let alone lived, in this house in a long, long time. So whose bed was this?

In other circumstances, she would've sought an answer to these questions. She would've looked for hints, looked for signs that could've disclosed the identity of whoever slept here. But she was tired, and almost certainly hours away from dying, so she found it hard to care.

She dreamed and fell a few hours back in time. She was in a dark alley, her knife pressed against the throat of a girl with bright red hair.

"Don't scream," she heard herself say. "There's no need to make this more difficult."

The girl — her target — let out a gasp and went limp in her arms.

"Please, please!" she begged. "Take what you want, but let me go!"

She tightened the grip on her knife, anticipating the moment she'd sink it into the girl's chest. Oh, how she longed to see the diamonds and gold pouring out of her. Grandfather would be so happy—

"I'm scared," the girl said, and those words echoed throughout the alley.

S c a r e d

S  c  a  r  e  d

S   c   a   r   e   d

She dropped the knife.

She woke up.

It was still dark outside.

She sat on the bed alone until dawn, waiting for the Family, knowing they were coming for her.

She sat on the bed alone until dawn, listening to that beating sound, wondering how much longer she could resist it.

She sat on the bed alone until dawn, waiting and listening and wondering, but nothing happened.

She sat on the bed until dawn, but she wasn't alone.

There was no one else in the room. There was no one else in the whole house. But inside her head there were names that didn't belong to her, and languages she had never learned. There were memories of places she'd never been to, of people she'd never met, of moments she'd never lived. There were secrets, so many secrets, and they filled her mind and pushed her own secrets out.

"We gave you shelter," she said. It was her voice, but the words weren't hers. It wasn't her who put them together or pushed them out of her lips. "Now you'll give us shelter."

And it was like thousands of eyes had sprouted all over her body, each gazing in a different direction. She could see what was behind her back and under her feet. She could see the wooden ceiling above her head and the ripped wallpaper on the walls around her. She could see the corridors outside, and as her sight narrowed and turned and widened again, she could see the other rooms, and the stairs, and the rooms downstairs. She could see the darkness of the basement and feel the warmth of the sunlight against the roof of the house. She could see inside herself, but she wasn't just herself, anymore.

She was everywhere, bigger than she'd ever been, stronger than she'd ever felt.

She left the house and walked. Or she watched herself get out of the house and walk. The command was coming from her brain, and the electricity ran down her own spine and to her legs. It was her body that was moving, her feet that rose from the ground and stomped back down. But she was up above, looking down on herself from afar. At the same time she was standing just behind her eyes, like a passenger in her own body. There was another person inside her, sending that command, making her feet move, walking.

Night came and day came and night came, and she walked and walked and walked. When she finally stopped, it was because of her own reflection.

"You're scared," the girl in the shop windows said, smiling.

"Am I dead?" she asked.

"What if you were?"

That question was more complicated than it seemed— or it was for her, at least. She had never really cared about her life as it was. It wasn't like she'd ever been happy, or like she had anything to lose. She had nothing, not even a name. They called her Child, or Daughter, or Sister, and that's all she'd ever been. They told her what to do, and she did it. They told her what to say, and she said it. They told who to kill, and...

If she'd never been in control of her life, would it have made a difference to be in control of her death?

"They're coming for you," the reflection said. "But you know that, don't you?"

She did.

They were not very far.

And they were coming for her.

To bring her back to Grandfather.

"Let go," the reflection whispered. "Let go, let go, let go."

She realized she'd punched the window only when the shards of glass fell at her feet.

A noise.

She turned around.

"Sister," someone sneered. "We've been looking for you."

Three figures emerged from the darkness. She recognized the one who'd spoken immediately — how could she not? She'd been there when he was born. She'd held his mother's hand as Grandfather delivered him. She'd been the one who trained him, all those years ago, and now they'd sent him to take her back home.

He was just a kid, and they thought he could beat her. He was just a kid, and still he was the oldest of the three. He was just a kid, and he was trembling, terrified. They all were.

And they were right to be.

The energy bled out of her all at once, flowing and bursting and burning as it rose and danced and screamed. The kids screamed too, as flames like claws lunged at them, scorching their skin and licking their bones. They cried for help, begged her to stop — just like the girl in the alley.

But she wasn't going to stop, not this time. It wasn't up to her, anymore.

She watched them cry and beg and die, and she let the storm rage, the lightning flash and the thunder sing. She let a sea of red waves drown out the screaming, and made the ground beneath her feet shake with her laughter. She laughed until her lungs hurt and her ribs ached, until the kids were nothing but dust and the sun was high in the sky. She laughed until tears were streaming down her face and she was back at the house.

She sat on the bed alone until dusk, sure that the Family would never touch her again, knowing that they were nothing to her.

She sat on the bed alone until dusk, listening to that beating sound, marveling at how it sounded just like her own heartbeat.

She sat on the bed alone until dusk, waiting and listening and marveling, and nothing happened.

She sat on the bed until dusk, but she wasn't alone.

Another her was sitting at the foot of the bed, smiling softly. She had a book in her hands — a brand new journal, red and shiny.

"We gave you shelter," the reflection said, getting up.

"And I gave you shelter."

"We gave you strength, freedom, life."

"And what do you want in return?" she asked.

"Immortality," the reflection answered, offering her the journal.

"Immortality?"

"When you die, we'll die with you, but if you make us immortal, we'll live on. And you'll live on with us."

"What if I don't want to do that?" A swarm of whispering voices began buzzing inside her head.

"We can't force you," the reflection told her. "But we will be very insistent.

The whispers echoed inside her skull, and the buzzing noise grew louder and louder. It was one word, repeated over and over again — a battle cry, a siren's song, a lion's roar:

Please, please!

(The red-haired girl in the alley with a knife pressed against her throat.)

Please!

Please!

Please!

(The kids as they burned and drowned and fell.)

Please. Please. Please.

(Her, in the dead of night, trying not to be heard as she cried.)

Please!

Please!

Please!

PLEASE!

PLEASE!

(Many more voices — some she recognized, some she had silenced, some she was hearing for the first time.)

PLEASE!

PLEASE!

PLEASE!

PLEASE!

PLEASE!

"I'll do it!" she shouted, or maybe just thought.

The voices stopped.

She took the journal in her hands, and opened it to find a blank page staring into her.

They send me away to find them a fortune, she wrote, red ink spilling from the tip of her finger. A chest filled with diamonds and gold.