I've always wanted to know. What does it feel like to feel? What is it that brings so much movement and variety to people? What do they build smiles with? Where do the falls of tears come from? What does it feel like for a belly to flutter-flutter? Or for a heart to drum-drum? I've always wanted to know. What does it feel like to feel? And what does it mean that I don't?
Stilla heard a crunch. Not her head, which had hit the cold stone floor as she fell, but off to the side. The man's dark leather boot was standing on her hair. And on the pendant. The pendant. The etched glass pendant she had worn for her entire life.
The only connection she had to her mother.
The man was speaking and bending down, but Stilla couldn't make the words out. He grabbed her face and turned her head, but her vision was filling with spots.
The man shifted his weight. Crack-crack-crack. The pendant broke-broke-broke. And now something inside Stilla was breaking too.
Sometimes, Stilla felt like there was a wall in her head. A thick, stout wall, taller and longer than her mind could ever encompass. Her side of the wall was always perfect stillness, emotionless. That's what she lived in every day. But sometimes, if she pressed her ear up against the wall and listened, she thought she could hear the whisper of something terrible.
Now, the wall in her head was beginning to break.
The web of cracks grew until they reached beyond her awareness, but the sound continued to reverberate back to her. Gradually, the frantic popping began to dissipate until all fell into silence.
Stilla looked at the cracked wall and dared not breathe.
A thunderous roar came from above as the wall shattered. It broke like a great wave, crashing down-down-down and tinkling and tumbling past the edges of her mind. She hunched, trying to protect herself.
Slowly, the pieces settled.
Stilla trembled and warily raised her head. For the first time in her life, she could see beyond the wall. For the first time in her life, she could feel beyond the wall. She could feel the storm rage, and now there was nothing to stop it.
The sharp gusts of darkness tore at her. The ice-rain stabbed and sliced her. The thunder knocked her off her feet. She fell into the abyss. Blue lightning danced and drew shapes across her vision, and the howling rage overtook her.
The darkness in the abyss held an uncomfortable weight. It glittered like black gems and smoothed out sleek like black fur. And there was pain. So much pain. Was it hers? Jagged pieces of white porcelain reflected an unseen light. She tasted the iron of blood.
The man stared at the stars through the gaping hole in the wall until the blood dripping down his head finally blinded him. Then he was left in the pitch blackness of his own mind.
He’d tried to call for help but had only managed to gurgle up blood. Next he’d tried to crawl towards the door, but he didn’t get far before his limbs stopped responding right. He felt tired. So tired.
How did it all go so wrong? The girl, the inn, and the city. His business, his connections, and his fun.
He’d worked hard, made deal after deal after deal, and made sacrifices. He’d finally netted a bit of power over some important people and gained a little influence. He had just wanted to give himself a reward.
He’d thrown his weight around and shut down the objections of the innkeeper. He wasn’t going to do anything cruel. But they’d sent him this frosty girl with soulless eyes. What was he supposed to do with that?
It had been like a creature out of the stories, dark and terrible, humanity cast off for the cursed power to battle gods descended from the stars themselves.
With a bubbly, sputtering sound, the man laughed quietly to himself.
He believed it.
Stilla stood on a familiar rooftop and stared at a familiar night sky lit with a familiar moon. The familiar was comforting. She had come here so many times before, but she couldn't remember how she had gotten here on this occasion, and everything felt different. The night air tickled her in strange ways and wasn't as cold as it should be; the ground beneath her hands and feet felt rough, like bare skin on stone; and there was the unpleasant taste of blood in her mouth.
Tickling wind? Bare feet? Blood?
Stilla looked down. Two large, black-scaled paws stood below her. Large. Black. Scales. Paws. The paws sported wicked looking claws.
Stilla jumped back in fear, but her body wasn't responding right and she tumbled into a mass of black. She couldn't seem to push away from it.
After much flailing and no real change to her situation, Stilla finally lay still. She let her heavy breathing slow as she tried to organize her thoughts. She pushed away one of her hands and watched a black paw push away at the same time. She paused. Then she repeated the action with her other hand. The other paw moved. Indeed, the movements matched perfectly.
Stilla stared blankly at the two black paws as a heavy weight settled into her belly.
She wondered if is this feeling was terror.
Stilla stretched out a back leg and felt it hit more stone. Likely the wall along the outside of the roof.
Craning her neck, Stilla looked back to where her body should be. A hulking black mass of scales and fur sprawled there.
I'm no longer human, she realized.
As that thought sank in and seemed to weigh in her very bones, a second thought arrived.
Maybe I've never been human.
Stilla stared at the body that was like no creature she had ever seen or heard of before. She stared at the uncanny darkness of the black fur. A black that could swallow the night. She stared at the black scales flecked with blue light. A blue that glowed from within. From another place. Maybe, from another world?
Stilla knew the stories. Everyone knew the stories.
A century ago. A world ravaged by gods. And the humans who cast aside their humanity to fight back.
Creatures of uncanny blackness and otherworldly light.
Stilla rounded in an uncoordinated scrambling of limbs. She managed to get on her hands and feet--legs?--and whipped her head around to find the speaker.
Violet eyes stared at her from a small form perched on the neighboring roof. The boy sat on the edge, one leg hanging off casually, with no apparent concern for falling.
"Hello, God-slayer," the boy greeted again, his short hair luminous in the moonlight.
Stilla knew those eyes. She knew that face. The hair was definitely black before, but... he was unmistakably the boy she had previously met on this very roof.
"I can help you, God-slayer—Dark Child. I know more about you than any other human. The war is over. The Children-of-the-Stars have gone back to their mountains. There is no place for you now in human lands," he explained, "I can give you a place to stay."
It was all too much. Her whole life, Stilla had been inexplicably separated from everyone around her. She had only ever wanted to feel what everyone else felt. To live as everyone else did. Now, the waves of unfamiliar emotions wracking her body threatened to push her into the abyss again.
Breathe, she commanded herself. Stand.
In. Out. One breath. Two breaths. Three.
She needed to know. Who she was. Who this boy was. What was happening to her, and why. She needed to ask a question.
Stilla opened her mouth, took in a breath, and--stopped abruptly when a mangled hissing sound came from her throat.
"Project your thoughts, God-slayer," the boy instructed, tapping his temple with a finger, "I will hear them."
Having no other way to communicate, Stilla had to try.
What is happening to me? She asked in her head. Why me? Why now?
She willed her legs to stop trembling. They wouldn't stop.
He did not speak right away. Seconds ticked by. Did he hear her? Did she do it wrong?
He seemed to be considering her.
"The answers to those questions," he finally admitted, "are long, complicated, and incomplete. There is much I don't know. But come with me, and I promise I will help you find answers."
Stilla could feel her fur bristling. That was no answer at all!
The violet eyes blinked. He seemed bemused.
"I can really hear your thoughts," the boy reminded her.
Stilla picked up a paw. To take a step forward? To run away? She put it down.
What do you want? Who are you? Stilla demanded. When we met before, you said you were a traveler. That you were looking for someone.
The boy looked down at the streets below. There were increadingly more sounds and light. People were gathering. Stilla could see the flicker of torchlight.
"This is not a safe place. We should move elsewhere," he warned.
But he didn't make any move to leave.
Stilla stared at him. She didn't make any move to leave either.
Sighing, the boy continued.
"Yes, I have traveled for a long time and for an uncountable distance. I was looking for... someone, and I think I found them." He looked meaningfully at her.
When Stilla said nothing, he cast his palms out to his sides and continued.
"It's simple. All I ask in return for my help is that you genuinely listen to my story."
The boy stood and, with a single leap, he spanned the gap between the two rooftops. The graceful arc looked so effortless as to be supernatural. He landed lightly and a strange, frosty breeze pushed past him, brushing across Stilla's face and tousling her fur.
He was so close now. Hardly a meter away. Stilla looked down into those unfathomable, violet eyes, but she didn't retreat.
"As for who I am..." the boy began. He smiled wryly at Stilla. She watched in fascination as his entire face hardened into a frozen crust. She could almost drown in the ocean of rage seething beneath it.
"You could say that... I am a god."
Stilla’s heart skipped a beat. The boy's smile grew sharper.
"Or you could say that I used to be a god."
He leaned forward and bared his teeth in a very dangerous smile. Stilla didn't dare look away.
"Or you could say that... I am someone who wants to kill a god," he whispered.
The god-boy stood straight again and reached out his hand.
It was a question that demanded an answer.
It was all too much.
Stilla had never belonged anywhere. She didn't know anything. Her dream to someday live a normal life seemed to have been devoured in the abyss that had transformed her body, and she didn't understand why any of it was happening.
There was only one thing she did understand. This—god-boy—was the most dangerous person she had ever met, and he had information she needed.
Stilla stared into those ancient, tumultuous violet eyes and knew her answer.