Without warning, the placid dawn sky bursts into a thousand bolts of lightning. Thunder starts booming overhead, an overture worthy of the cataclysm I’m experiencing right now.
Across the field, Courtney sinks to her knees, seemingly in slow motion.
“NO!” I scream, desperately trying to claw Christy off of me. “COURTNEY!”
A grotesque smile stretches across Christy’s face as she pins me to the ground. “I’m afraid it’s too late,” she cackles.
“Let go of me!” I rear back my fist, ready to break her nose, but before I can connect, she releases me and spirals off into the sky.
I resolve to deal with her later. Turning back towards the spot where Courtney fell, I begin my race against time. I’m only a few hills away now-- it’ll take me barely a minute-- if only she can hold on until then--
I’m almost there when the clouds open and literally deluge me in rain. Icy and cold though it was, the avalanche was no match for the algid ache in my chest that had begun the moment I saw Courtney fall.
I know the feeling. It’s something I’ve been living with for quite a long time.
The tempest pushes against me stubbornly, as if it, too, is trying to keep me away from Courtney. Gritting my teeth, I drive myself through the roaring winds. Courtney. Get to Courtney. Other than those words, my mind is a blank.
Coughing and gasping, I finally scale the last hill and tear towards Courtney’s broken form. Oh, no, please don’t be dead...
As I approach Courtney, I notice another, smaller girl kneeling in the grass. She raises her head, and I recognize Sophie’s tear-streaked face.
Then, my gaze travels to Courtney.
“No,” I whisper.
Courtney’s eyes are closed, her face relaxed in an image of tranquil beauty. I’ve never seen her look so still and calm before. A serenity like that can only come with the silence of death.
And suddenly everything’s happening at once. I’m shaking Courtney’s shoulders and Sophie’s sobbing softly and the storm’s raging with even more cruelty than ever, and all I can think is, I’m too late, I can’t help her, she’s dead.
“Jack,” Sophie cries, grabbing my arm. “Stop, please.”
I sink to the ground. This can’t be happening, I must be dreaming... Courtney can’t be dead. Courtney must be full of life, laughing and smiling like she always is, not lying on the hill in front of me. This has to be a dream.
But when I see Sophie's grief-stricken expression, my fantasy falls apart. I’m standing in a world without Courtney, a world I’ve been condemned to for the rest of my life.
“She wanted me to tell you that she loved you,” Sophie says softly. “It was the last thing she said.”
She loved me. Loved, past tense, because she’s gone and she’s never coming back.
And I love her. Love, present tense, because she’s gone and I’m still here.
My tears mix with the rain as I scream into the wind. “Not Courtney! Anything but her! Please... I’ll do anything...”
But there is nothing I can do.
I bend over Courtney’s body and press my lips to her forehead, wishing my heart would stop beating so that I can be with her, but it’s no use. She’s gone and I’m still here.
As I turn away, thunder booms overhead, knelling Courtney Tern’s life to a close.
We congregate around the grave, maintaining a respectful silence for our fallen friend. It’s the third funeral I’ve had to attend.
Sophie speaks first. Her words of praise and regret blur together while Jack curls into a ball and clamps his hands over his ears, his eyes taking on a crazed quality.
I shake my head to clear it. I’ve never taken funerals in my stride; it’s time to escape before I go mad.
Squeezing through the throng of grieving people, I block out Sophie’s droning and Jack’s quiet sobs. A quick look around tells me that going back to the firearms shop isn’t an option; the Asphodels aren’t at the funeral, so they must be back in the shop, and I have no intention of staying in a room full of crackheads.
Just as I turn towards the city gates, something comes careening through them. I catch sight of shadowy wings, gargantuan and batlike. Wings like those can only belong to Christy.
I sprint for the funeral, my mouth open to shout a warning, but before I can utter a word, Christy bowls into me and knocks me over.
“How did you know?” she snarls, her breath warm on my cheek.
“Know what?” I grunt, struggling against her grip.
Christy’s hands tighten around my shoulders. “You must have come here for a reason.”
“We came here for guns and allies,” I snap. “What else is in Obcasa that we might want?”
“Liar,” she hisses in reply. “It was Jack. He told you, didn’t he?”
“He can’t tell us anything,” I say. “He hasn’t spoken since Courtney died.”
Christy smirks. “That’s my doing.”
“I’ll hunt you down and kill you personally if you hurt anyone else,” I threaten, my words braver than I feel.
“You can’t kill me if I kill you first,” she cackles, letting go of me and preparing to strike.
Her first blow sends my head spinning, leaving me staggering with dizziness. The full reality of the situation hits me next: I can’t fight Christy. No one can fight Christy. Everything we’ve been doing is completely useless.
She rains blow after blow upon my defenseless frame. I collapse to the ground, unable to fight back, and see her draw back her fist to deliver a deathblow.
I turn my head to see Sara and Sophie racing towards me. No, stay away, you’ll die trying to help me.
Just as I’ve resigned myself to dying for nothing, Christy disappears from my field of vision with a startled yelp. Ignoring the throbbing pain all over my body, I clamber to my feet unsteadily to watch the action unfold.
My savior is a mystery -- a tall, hooded stranger. His hands burst into flame as he hauls Christy away from us.
“Traitor!” Christy howls, extending her wings while backing away from him. “I’ll get you for this!” With that threat, her wings flap twice and she soars away, into the sky.
I rush over to the hooded boy. “You saved my life; I’m boundlessly grateful.”
“Don’t be,” he responds, extinguishing his flames with a whoosh.
There’s something familiar about his voice. But it couldn’t be -- that boy is dead...
“Who are you?” I ask.
The stranger hesitates, then raises his hand and throws back his hood.
My jaw drops as I recognize the face of...“Dean?” Sophie gasps.