“You heroes have never cared about the villains.” 

Around us, the world burns but I can’t look away from Alixandre, lying on the dirt floor, at my mercy. His dark complexion and white tunic are dusted with dirt. There is no fear in his gaze, only a deep sadness, a sadness that looks like it is trapped in him – or rather, trapping him. I can see myself reflected in his eyes, a blurry outline of a girl standing before him, the battle raging behind me. He is startlingly young up close, but his face is lined, scarred from years of carrying a weight on his shoulders alone. I had been trained to expect a maniac, a man with a psychotic desire for chaos and destruction. All I saw before me was a lost boy. 

“Why should we? You use your…power to harm us. You’ve killed so many, destroyed lives and families for your own desires.” My grip on the sword is strong, born from years of practicing in the old barn under my father’s watchful gaze. Why shouldn’t I teach my brave daughter to fight? However, my mindset is withering, my resolve sputtering – this melancholy boy before me is not the villain I rode into battle ready to kill. Alixandre offers a slight smile as if genuinely amused with my weak rebuttal. The light of the flames from around us reflects on him, making it seem like he is igniting, a vengeful phoenix. For a second, he seems otherworldly, almost holy. Screams and screeches fill the air as our forces tangle in the web of war, but they may as well be thousands of miles away. 

“Are you going to stand there and preach innocence? Have you already forgotten the faces of those you murdered in cold blood? A shame. Here I thought perhaps you weren’t in the wrong…”

This should incite the fire of anger in me, but instead, I feel as if I have been drenched in ice-cold water. His words, paired with the rising flood of my memories shock me. A mirage of faces blurs my vision – an elderly woman whose only crime was to provide shelter to a stranger. A young child, his screams of grief reverberating through the sky just before a stray knife silences him. A foolish but well-meaning man, a baby barely two months old, a pregnant wife, a protective sister, a defiant girl. All dead in front of my eyes, here one minute and gone the next, if not by my hand then by those of my companions. No part of my body can ever forget those faces, and with a sudden epiphany, I realize that I can never be innocent. But that doesn’t mean that I am wrong.

“At least I fight for my country,” I snarl, the comforting coals of anger finally catching fire. “At least I fight for a reason.” I expect my words to lash at him, for his smile to disappear, replaced with fury. I expect to see a wrathful criminal, but I do not. His smile does fade, but it is replaced instead with the heartbreaking sorrow of unhealed wounds. He looks like a shattered glass ornament, put back together unevenly. 

“You want to know my reasons? I’ll show you.” As fast as a lightning bolt, he pushes up towards me, his hand clasping firmly around mine before I can move. A single thought burns through my mind – he was never at my mercy; he could’ve killed me anytime he wanted – before the world disappears, and I drown in a black ocean.

It is pure, perfect darkness, but soon the hues of black start shifting, changing to form a scene. I am in a vast field, dandelions dancing in the breeze for as far as the eye can see. I turn wildly and notice a small boy giggling as he moves through the field, perched on someone’s shoulders. 

My father, a gentle voice informs me. Suddenly, I piece it together. This is Alixandre’s memory. He’s used his blasphemous magic on me, to trap me here. Trap? You’re the one who wanted to know my reasons, the same voice whispers in my mind. Fear seeps into my mind – how far does his power extend? From what I’ve gleaned about their witchcraft, they can access others’ memories, manipulate people’s feelings and mind – unnatural powers in a human. The thought is pushed aside as the small boy laughs, and I can feel the wave of joy emanating from him, unadulterated glee, as he is picked up and swung about. I gaze upon his father, a slender man that exudes love and comfort. 

The world shifts again, transforming to the sight of the interior of a cozy cottage. His father and a woman – I assume his mother – stand before me. “We’ll be back soon, don’t you worry.” The mother smiles at the little boy who looks vaguely panicked and upset, and I can see the sheer film of unshed tears in her eyes too. She glances up as if checking if anyone is there, before stroking a callused hand over his cheeks. Instantly, his countenance calms, and I can sense that his fear eases. Some part of my heart thumps, understanding that his mother had magic too, that she just used to pacify her son. “But until then, you’ve got to keep what we talked about a secret, okay?” She moves back into the arms of her husband, who comes to caress Alixandre’s hair and smiles, a gesture of pure love. They both turn away, and soon they are out of sight. 

Again, the colors move and shift, taking me to another scene. In this, I am beside a bed, and Alixandre is sitting next to me. Outside, night has taken over, but by the faint light of a candle, I can see a frail, old woman in the bed. She’s not long for the world, and I watch, a mere spectator, as his hand lifts to her forehead and tenderly strokes it. The woman visibly relaxes, the dread in her eyes transposing to calm and peace. Her chest rattles as she takes in her last breath, and I bow my head, my heart twisting with anguish. Someone comes up behind me, a woman in a rumpled blue apron, her face sorrowful. She pulls Alixandre into a hug and says, “It is not your fault. You couldn’t have saved her.” Her voice takes on a somber note. “You have helped so many with your gifts, my boy. Remember the ones you have saved. Do not let this grief take away your goodness.” 

The world tilts and rights itself in the same room. As my eyes rove about, I stumble back. A body is sprawled on the floor, clothed in the blue apron. The cloth has faded over the years, and now it is stained with blood. The woman’s vacant eyes stare up at the ceiling, searching for stars she will never see again. Alixandre steps in beside me, and I can see that it’s really him, not a character of his memory. “They killed her looking for me,” he says, and it takes me a second to realize that he’s talking to me. “All she ever did was try to help people, to help me, and they – your people – murdered her because she refused to tell them where I was. In their desperate attempts to round up all those like me, with magic, they murdered innocent people.” He looks at me, his eyes glass orbs filled with pain. He reaches for my hands again and simply says, “Come,” before the world disappears again.

The silence suffocates me, broken only by the occasional buzz of flies. We are standing on a war-torn field, bodies splayed everywhere, blood seeping into the ground and claiming it. Just in front of us, I see two bodies, hands clasped together even in death. A sudden jolt goes through me as I recognize his mother and father. I glance at him, his features stormy, anger finally displayed on his face. “They had magic too, and your king could never bear the thought of anyone having more power than him. They fought in his war, fought for his greed and vanity. They saved those he refused to.” He stops, taking a shuddering breath. “None of it mattered. The king corraled everyone like them, like me, and put them in the worst possible unit and position. There was no way they could’ve won.” His burning eyes turn to me, and that look scares me more than the destruction and carnage I am surrounded by. “He killed them. It is only fair that I kill him.”

His hand reaches for me again, a strange look in his eyes. “Your turn,” he whispers. “Let us see your reasons, shall we?” The world bends to his will. When we come to, I can see shafts of sunlight in which dust motes are dancing. My heart clenches when I realize where we are. I recognize the large, empty barn, a place stamped into my heart from the hours I spent there. I know that if I glance down, I’ll see the worn wooden sword that was my second closest companion – after my father.  Despite myself, I instinctively turn my gaze, looking for him. My father is standing behind me, and my breath catches in my throat. I try to move towards him, but I can’t – I’m frozen in my own body.

“Again, and faster this time.” My father says, nodding at the straw-stuffed dummy before us. I lurch forward, my movements borne of memories and not conscious thoughts. I let myself fall into the easy rhythm of practice, let myself relax in his presence. He is not there, I remind myself. This is not real. Even as I try to make the words seem believable, Alixandre steps in beside me. 

“A father who went against everyone to train his daughter,” he muses, his words quietly curious. “I wonder how this story ends.” Again, he reaches for my hand, and even though I don’t want to leave just yet, it is too late. The memory vanishes, replaced by one I have spent far too long imagining. We’re on a battlefield again, except in this history is still being created, swords are still flashing in the sunrays, screams and cries permeating the air incessantly. My blood curdles. I know what’s about to happen, but I can’t stop my eyes from desperately looking- searching- around. Behind us, I can see the King’s tattered green and yellow banner, fluttering weakly in the breeze. I suck in a breath as I look under it, to find my father, fighting valiantly against a group of opponents. His movements are as graceful, as determined, as I remember. The King stands behind him, seemingly rooted to the ground, his sword long forgotten in the sand. My attention is dragged back to my father, as he pushes back another enemy soldier, but I can see him tiring – I’d come to learn those small signals long ago, to know when we should stop.  A flurry of movement catches my eyes, and I spy another foe sneaking up to the King. I start to cry out, but no sound leaves my mouth. There is no way for me to stop what happens next. Helpless, I wait for my father to turn, to notice the adversary – to fight him until my brave, wonderful father finally loses.

That is not what happens.

The King senses the soldier, and turns, just as my father delivers the killing stroke to the combatant in front of him. He is just about to pivot- when the enemy lunges blindly for the King. I watch, aghast, powerless, as the King grabs my father and shoves him in front of himself. The soldier’s sword, meant for the King, strikes my father and I can see the light flicker out of his eyes. I can see the fight finally leave him, not while challenging his enemy, but instead as a shield for a coward. The enemy has retreated, and the King drops my father’s body unceremoniously. He scrambles onto his horse and rides away, not a thought for the courageous warrior who had fought for him, who he just killed.

My mind is a storm of thoughts. Your father died in battle, they had said. The enemy sneaked up on him, a highly immoral act. They didn’t give him the chance to fight, didn’t have the grit to face him.  This whole time, I had worked relentlessly for the King, fueled by the thoughts of our dishonorable enemies. Drove on by the fact my father had died for this country, and I would be glad to too. It was all a lie. The man I was willing to give my life for, the man whose ideals I was fighting for was the worst kind of craven. Too scared to lift his own sword in a fight, too willing to push his soldiers to death, people who did nothing but protect him. Anger, hatred, disgust swirl in my mind, flooding my veins, but I force my eyes away from my father’s discarded body to the boy beside me. 

In his eyes, I see the same wrath that is reflected in mine. I feel a wave of doubt. How do I know this is real? As if reading my thoughts, he says, “Our power cannot create memories. We cannot foster imaginations, we can only reach out to find recollection from someone’s mind. This particular memory is from a soldier who witnessed this scene.” His eyes soften, losing the edge of fury. “This is real.”

The last scrap of misgiving gives way. I know in my heart that he’s telling the truth. I know that the King may as well have killed my father. I feel a sudden, powerful kinship with the boy beside me. With this fury in my blood, igniting me from within, I understand what he said. It’s only fair that I kill him. Isn’t that exact thought going through my brain right now?

 I close my eyes, and we’re back to the present. The boy lies beneath me, the war around us still raging as if the world has not been changed irrevocably. My eyes are fixed on his, my hand gripped on my sword as if I hadn’t just traipsed through others’ memories. 

“Now you know,” he says, his voice gentle, but I can hear him despite the havoc around us. “They were lying to you all along, weren’t they? Whispering whatever sweet, patriotic story they needed to for you to become their hero. A hero, fighting for a ruined country and the villainous coward on its helm.” A slight laugh escapes him. “You can kill me now if you want. Just know that everything I did, everyone whose life I took, every building of this godforsaken country that loves to hate my people I destroyed – I would do it all again, a million times over. They despise my kind because they are scared – then I will watch them cower as I kill them.” His eyes are so dark, swimming in pure hatred. “You may not have the powers I do, but I can see that you deserve so much more than to die for a country that doesn’t care for you, that didn’t care for your father. You could kill me now…or you could come with me. Come with me, and we’ll change the world. We’ll show them all who we are, what we can do. Our people, those who side with us, need never be scared again.”

My heart rebels, the anger pumping it faster, vying for me to say yes. In my mind’s eye, I see the blue-aproned woman and her words to the boy, the words he seemed to have forgotten. “Do not let this grief take away your goodness,” I quote to him softly, watching his eyebrows burrow. “You are consumed by hatred, Alixandre. I am indebted to you for showing me the truth…but you have shown me that my place isn’t with you, either. You want to destroy the King, and put yourself on the throne, to protect only those who worship you. This country will never survive that either. A vengeful boy is no better than a cowardly man.” 

His face is completely still, as if made of alabaster, eyes searching mine. I lower my sword, and a look of bemusement covers his face. “But I will not kill you, because I know who you are. I have seen the boy who tried to heal people with this magic. Heal this country, Alixandre.  Save all its people, and show them how your kinds’ powers are used for good.” I take a deep breath, the phantom of my father’s hand resting on my shoulder, guiding me as he always has. “I do not see you as a villain, not anymore. But I cannot go with you when I want to fight for this country, and you still want to fight against it. I cannot go with you when I will help my people more by being close to them. We share a common enemy. I know we will meet again, and maybe then I will see someone who I will gladly fight beside. Until then…I vow to you on my father’s soul that we will right this god-forsaken country.” I offer him a weak smile, stretching my hand forward to help him up. It is more a gesture of camaraderie than of assistance, but he takes it.  A smirk lines his face, and his eyes are almost glowing. 

“For this god-forsaken country then. We will meet again.” I turn away from him, back into the fray, my mind already fixing on my new purpose.

Vengeance for my father.

Destroying the King.

Saving my country.

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