“There!” Chris shouts, pointing. “That’s the Cosmo Prison!”
I squint. A cloud of shadows shrouds the dark edifice looming in the distance, but I know beyond doubt that it is the Prison.
Before we can get any further, though, three figures swoop down from the brightening sky and touch down just in front of us.
Christy, Sid, and... Suchet?
“You,” Ramya snarls, shouldering everyone aside to face her ex-boyfriend. “Slimy little cockroach.”
Suchet grins and holds up a shiny object -- the key. “Come and get it.”
“Oh, we’ll get it, all right,” Sophie threatens. “You just be careful we don’t get you as well.”
A rallying cry rises from all around us.
Sid smiles. “I see you’ve brought your little backup force. Unfortunately, I’ve picked up a few new tricks as well.”
He spreads his hands. The ground ruptures, spitting out warriors of earth. They advance upon us, wielding literally rock-hard clubs and swords.
“You can’t scare us with your gang of dirt bandits,” Chris says. He glances over at me. “Just give the command, Leo.”
“Go!” I yell, and all fifty of us charge as one.
“Look who the cat dragged in,” Suchet says, lingering just beyond the reach of my blade. “I wasn’t sure at first, but now I know that I made the right decision.”
I stab at him. He dodges, agile as ever.
“You see, they gave me special powers, too,” he continues, unfazed. “Powers you might have gotten if you didn’t chase me out.”
“You’re still not powerful,” I respond. “Dean could have you down and dead in a heartbeat if you weren’t such a coward, afraid to face him.”
“Dean’s an idiot,” Suchet smirks. “Christy can kill him easily. And as for you... I’ll keep you alive if you come with me.”
“I’m never running back to you,” I snap. “You’re the idiot if you think you’ll get out of this mess alive.”
“Oh, really?” Suchet balls his fists, grinning. “Challenge accepted.”
I slice at him with my knife, but this time he raises his hand to intercept. As soon as my blade touches his bare skin, a bolt of energy travels up the knife and meets my hand with a loud crack. The strange energy throws me back and my weapon falls away, useless.
“Electricity, sucker,” Suchet says, grabbing my knife. He stabs it into the ground at my feet and discharges.
BOOM. Suddenly, I’m sitting in a small, smoking crater, and covered with a thin layer of soot.
Suchet peers down at me, his features twisted in sick pleasure. “Ready or not, here I come.”
The peaceful scenery of the hills dissolves into chaos around me as I launch myself into battle. Sid’s going to play his game of magic weapons? I can as well, I think, lighting my hand ablaze. I concentrate, and the flames wrap around my knife, forming a blade of fire.
Just in time, too. I raise my flaming dagger to meet the sword of one of Sid’s minions. The impact jolts down my arm, but the warrior staggers away in retreat, the tip of his sword lopped off.
I whirl around to face my next adversary. The next sword seems to come out of nowhere, and only my reflexes save me. The earth warrior crumbles into a smoking pile of dirt; I kick it a few times for good measure.
But after stabbing a third monster, I notice that the battle isn’t going so well for my friends. A pale-faced Alex staggers a few paces and collapses; Nidhi rushes over, but Christy knocks her down easily. Gene and Sophia are fighting back to back, but as I watch, Suchet swipes Sophia’s knife out of her hand and rams the hilt into her head with a sickening thud. Seconds later, another earth warrior sends Gene flying.
“Why does there have to be so freaking many of them?” I mutter, sprinting towards my fallen friends.
Christy steps in my path. “Going somewhere, traitor boy?”
“Out of my way!” I swing my knife at her, but she bats it aside easily.
“Look around you, fool,” she sneers. “Your allies are dying. Make the right choice and come back to us.”
“I won’t leave them,” I growl, taking another swing. She parries it again.
“And yet they left you when you needed them most,” Christy says, smiling. “Your own girlfriend abandoned you for Saket.”
“She didn’t love him,” I insist, but Christy’s words have planted a seedling of doubt in my mind. Does she really love me? What if Christy is right?
“Stop lying to yourself,” Christy responds, sensing my uncertainty. “Sophie tells nothing but lies, remember? She said that she never abandoned you, but she lied. How do you know she didn’t lie about loving you?”
“Shut up,” I snap, ramming my blade into hers.
She laughs. “Oh, poor Dean. You went back for Sophie and only for Sophie. Now that she’s turned her back on you, why do you still fight for them? Nothing holds you to their side now. You don’t belong there anymore. You belong with us.”
“But -- but they’re my friends...” I say weakly.
“You’re the only thing keeping them alive at this point,” Christy says. “But after all you’ve done for them, do they honor you? They don’t even see you as their leader. Look around, Dean. These people fear you; they’ll never see you as one of their own. And if I’m defeated, what will stop them from turning on you? After all, you’re a mutant now. Like me. They don’t trust you, and they never will.”
“Dean!” Sophie’s voice cuts into the conversation. She’s halfway across the battlefield, desperately trying to hold off two earthen men. “Help--!”
“Don’t be fooled a second time,” Christy warns. “Join me. I would make you my second in command. We could teach these people to respect us.”
My knife dangles at my side uselessly. “But you’re a murderer. I can’t be like you. I can’t kill people the way you do. They don’t deserve this.”
Christy’s eyes narrow in anger. “Oh, Dean, you’d be surprised at what humans are capable of doing. The Holocaust, the Crusades, the World Wars... human cruelty is worse than anything I could even dream of. Honestly, this nowhere near the horrors humans deserve.”
“These people are innocent teenagers,” I argue.
“They’re teenagers who waged war on me. I would’ve been merciful if they hadn’t done so!”
“Dean!” Sophie shouts again, and I realize that she’s about to be overpowered.
“Prove your loyalty,” Christy urges. “Let her die, and I’ll forgive you of everything you’ve done against me.”
“I...” The words stop in my throat.
Christy’s lying. She has to be. Sophie would never leave me; she’d love me no matter what.
But she went off with Saket without looking back. She abandoned me and lied about it. How do I know that she really loves me?
Then I remember what I told her in that alley, seemingly eons ago. I’d said that it didn’t matter whether she loved me or not, and that it was enough for me to love her.
Those words still hold true; they have to be true. If I don’t have that, I don’t have anything. I’m human, and I have a heart. I have to keep it that way.
“Sorry, Christy,” I say. “But I’m not like you. I don’t kill the people I love.”
Christy sighs. “It was worth a try. What a shame, though. You would’ve made a wonderful lieutenant.”
Then, faster than lightning, she raises her knife and brings it down on me. I move out of the way just in time to keep my head on, but the blow tears a long, deep cut down my side. Blood pours out, a feeling I’m way too familiar with.
My fiery blade sputters out. The world around me is spinning, spinning too fast, and I can’t stand up.
Like a snake, Christy strikes again. An explosion of pain tells me that she almost cut my arm off.
She’s just playing with me, drawing out my death. The real deathblow will come soon.
I brace myself, but instead of the silence of oblivion, I hear the muted sound of metal clattering against the dirt. Christy’s scream quickly follows.
Through the haze of pain, I notice that Christy’s no longer holding her knife. There’s something silver poking out of her palm, though. I squint. Is that the Asphodel insignia?
Sam leans into my field of vision. “We got you, bro,” he says, his hands outstretched. I grasp them tightly and, ignoring the pain, manage to hobble to my feet.
“I thought only diamonds would hurt her,” I say.
He shrugs. “Apparently, steel works, too. If you throw hard enough.”
“Thanks, man,” I croak. “You’re the real MVP.”
He shakes his head. “I can’t help Sophie. She’s surrounded...”
Just then, one of the earth warriors knocks the knife out of her hands, leaving her utterly defenseless.
“Give me a hand, Sam,” I say. My legs wobble under me, threatening to collapse any second. My head is woozy from blood loss, but Sophie’s face is clearer than ever. I have to help her.
“You can’t go back into the fight,” Sam insists. “We have to get you somewhere safe!”
I’m not listening. Instead, I channel all of my remaining power into one blast of fire and let the inferno rise high in the sky. The flames arc over the battle and descend upon the minions attacking Sophie, reducing them to little mounds of ash.
I crumple to the ground, my clothes smoking. The embers had instantly cauterized my wounds, but I’d lost too much blood already. And I’d barely made a dent in the enemy army -- two warriors were nothing. They’d be replaced quickly.
Sophie dashes over to me, her expression one of horror. “Oh, God, Dean...”
“No time,” I cough, pushing her hand away. “Glass.”
“The shard. The one I gave you last night.”
The realization seeps into her expression. “No... Dean, no way. I can’t--”
“There are too many,” I say. “We can’t keep fighting all three of them at once. But if we can kill one of them, our friends stand a chance.”
“Slay a friend and an enemy will die,” Sophie murmurs. “Which friend, then?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “I can’t kill anyone here. They all have a chance at life--”“Not me."