Tannen fixes me with one of his stares, the kind that you can’t look away from no matter what. “Where have you been?”
I open my mouth to answer, but a bird comes out. Its feathers tickle my tongue and lips as it slips out and falls onto my chest, shaking its head. Its long black, glossy feathers flicker in the wavering light.
I blink at it.
It blinks at me.
I look up, but Tannen is gone. The woman remains. “You’re still feverish. The plague has decided you’re too healthy to take by the body, so it’s taking you by the mind. I’m sorry.”
I want to answer, but I’m afraid another bird will crawl out of my mouth.
The woman stands and offers me a cup of warm, bitter liquid. “Drink. You must keep hydrated. You have a long struggle before you. I hope nothing weighs your conscience. People with guilt always seem to have it worse.” Her kind eyes are perched under a mane of gray frizzy hair.
She must see the fear in my eyes, because she answers, “Then you’re going to have to find some way to deal with it.”
Except I don’t have guilt. Not really. I can’t have guilt when I haven’t done anything.
Tannen enters the tent with a burst of cold. He’s limping. “Is he awake?”
“For the moment,” she answers. “I suspect he’s delirious.”
The bird I spat out ruffles its feathers and caws at her.
Tannen takes the few steps to the side of my cot. “You need to rest, Aydrik. Conserve your strength. You’ll never make it through if you don’t get some sleep.”
The bird pecks at his face. Where the beak touches his skin, the skin puckers and erupts into a yellowish puss. Tannen doesn’t seem to notice. It must not be real then. I hope not. If he’s got plague, it might be real. I don’t really know.
“Take your own advice,” the woman says.
“Clara, you’re one to talk.”
“I’m past the worst stages of the disease. And people need to eat. So I hunt.” She shrugs. “You, though, young man, haven’t even begun to feel the pain. If you rest now, you might survive. If you’re lucky.”
Survive? No one survives the plague!
“He looks confused,” Tannen murmurs.
“He probably doesn’t know what really happens out here. No one in the Pits does.”
“I did,” Tannen responds.
“You’re not normal. You’d burn our dead.”
“You can’t respect the living if you don’t honor the dead.”
“Plenty of people don’t respect us.”
He sighs. “A man does what’s right, no matter what others do. And the dead can’t hurt the living. So yeah, I burn your dead.”
The bird’s moved on to the top of his head now, moving his hair into a nest. It clucks contentedly. I wonder if it’s laying an egg. I giggle. Another bird plops out of my mouth, this one bright blue with black marks around its eyes. It chirps a lovely song.
Tannen looks at me. “He’s giggling.”
“That’s good. Much better than screaming like before.”
“Let’s hope there’s no more of that.”
The flap at the other side of the tent cracks open and a dark shape slips in. The blue bird screeches and flaps around, looking for some sort of escape. The shadow lurks just outside my vision. I thought it might be a person, but it’s hard to tell.
And then it steps into the light. It’s a person. Maybe. I still can’t tell. Its skin is all blotchy, with dark patches covering otherwise pale skin. Hair sprouts in little tufts from the top of its head, and all the hair is white. It’s wearing dark green fabric clothes.
Wait. What is that?
It’s wearing Tala’s coat. Why is it wearing Tala’s coat? Did it attack her? Is she ok?
I struggle to get off the cot. Tannen leans over me, holding me down. I can’t fight him. He’s too strong, even with the bird pecking toward his eye, his face obscured by all the puss.
The shadow smiles. “I guess I’m stuck with you now, Aydrik. Isn’t this what you always wanted?”
No. No, it can’t be.
The thing didn’t steal Tala’s coat.
It is Tala.
“What? I’m not as pretty as you always wanted me to be? Well, you gave me plague, and now you have to deal with it. Until we both shall die.” She giggles.
Tala doesn’t giggle. She never giggled.
I must be delirious. I’m seeing things that aren’t there.
I relax, Tannen still pinning me. He tries to look into my face, but I can’t focus on him. “I think we’re going to lose him again,” he says.
“Of course we are. He’s not done yet,” the woman responds.
I slip again into the darkness.
I don’t remember much of what happens next. A few images linger; they are enough to tell me to be glad I don’t remember. Some things aren’t meant to survive fever dreams.
Eli kills Kaynie for revenge on me for bringing the plague to the Sanctuary. Eli calls out to someone named Pensley to rescue her. Sareh and Denal come, though, the brother-sister that took care of me for a little bit. They cut out Kaynie’s eyes, and she thanks them for it.
I’m getting younger and younger. I can feel myself going backwards. I’m getting shorter. My voice is higher pitched when I cry out for help. Tannen’s hair is all gray now, and he’s hunched over. He shakes his head. “The dead won’t have you, Aydrik, after how you’ve treated them. So you can’t die. You’ll just have to go backwards until you aren’t any more.” My legs give out under me. I can’t stand up. I can’t breathe.
Patr stands beside me. “You aren’t worthy of eternal life, Aydrik, but he made you worthy. He took your guilt away.”
I cling to that thought. He took my guilt away. Of course he did. I don’t have to worry about my guilt.
But I don’t have any guilt. How could he take away what I never had?
Tannen laughs at me. The dogs are all around him, an endless pack.
OK. Maybe I have a little guilt.
Tannen bends over backwards in his laughing fit as the dogs attack him, piling on, one on top of another. One snarls at me, “Thank you for supper.”
No. That’s not what happened. Tannen survived.
I see him in a tent in the Plaguer Camp.
OK, maybe it’s my fault he’s here. But I didn’t kill him.
I see the bird pecking at his face. He’s lying in a snow bank. His hands are black with rot. “Why didn’t you burn me, Aydrik?” his corpse asks. “Why won’t you respect me? Why won’t you honor me?”
I am not guilty. I refuse to accept blame. I only did what I had to.
Patr weeps as sores break out all over his body.
I didn’t bring the plague to you.
Tala snaps, “Really? What is it you’re going through now?”
I didn’t know.
Kaynie sneers, “You should have.”
And they all come to me. They all blame me. It’s my fault, they tell me. All my fault.
I feel a heat building in my cheek, in my sides, in my chest. No. It’s not my fault. It can’t be my fault. I’m a good person. I would never hurt anyone on purpose.
Tannen utters, “But you did.”
No. It’s not my fault.
I’m so hot. Why am I so hot?
At last, I open my eyes. I know it’s real this time. I’m not hallucinating. Not now.
I wish I was.
The tent burns around me. I hear screaming somewhere. Flames leap from the canvas and onto the blankets that smother me. I shove them off. I can hardly breathe. The smoke burns my eyes. Tears run down my face.
I stumble to the entrance flap. I grab my coat. Another coat.
Something else. Do I have anything else?
Doesn’t matter. I run through the flap and into a dark night.
Except the night is not so dark. In the whipping wind that carries wet snowflakes, I see flickering light all around.
The entire Plaguer Camp is burning.
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