There is death everywhere now.
Bodies are gathered from alleyways and mansions alike, with no distinction of burial made between animal and human. The merciless lick of flame will devour whatever it is given. It is not biased. It does not taste the sweetness of a child, nor the gall of a murderer. It cannot smell the aroma of the perfumed lady, nor the mouldering fur of the gutter dog. It is blind and furious, and– ever greedy– it is fed day and night with the ceaseless dead.
In the years following The Sickness, the world fell into a state of chaos and confusion. Those who did not die were torn apart by the feverish aftereffects of The Sickness, desperation filling the minds of those who clung to the way that was, and voracious self-preservation overcoming those who gave in to the way that is. Pitted against each other, they fought to retain what sanity they had, and in doing so, destroyed each other.
It was the greatest war the world has ever seen. Race was no longer a factor in hate, nor religious beliefs, nor politics. Men fought solely for their right to live. Women abandoned their children in pursuit of their own safety. Fathers beat down their sons to retain dominance in their homes. Daughters killed their mothers to become the higher being.
Trust was completely destroyed. In a matter of months, a mere handful of populace was left alive. The smartest, the strongest, and the quickest were banded into an intimidating empire of peoples, left to rule the world as they saw fit. But after the fervor of survival, the will to lead was not found amongst these three, and it befell a fourth group to rise and take power.
So it became the empire of lunacy, lead by a haphazard government whose sole desire was power. There was no reason to their actions but gluttony for what was left, and, using man's innate fear of death, they rule supreme over The Last City.
It is here that all mankind now resides. Mankind, who has destroyed each other in a blind fury of passion, who is now subdued into a state of near-stupor to avoid facing the sins they have committed. Mankind, who has given up the will to live in order to survive, who no longer loves or hates, but whimpers in the shadows of its former greatness.
We are but meek slaves to the comfort of the greater few, who live high above the dirty streets in a shining white tower. It is the only clean place in the city, and impenetrable. There, they gather and watch us, evaluating our emotions to find those who would disobey them, playing the cards whichever way they will to extract the greatest enjoyment and greatest pain. Their laughter can be heard in any corner of the city; it is strong and soulless, simpering and cruel.
They are the absolute rulers of this decrepit empire; they are the curtailers of freedom and the dealers of death.
Today, on what once was called Christmas, they are full of glee. I can hear the smacking of their lips as they feast, and the songs that they sing are gloating. The smell of burning flesh drifts over the city as it always has, sifting ash into the cracks of stones and dusting everything with an aura of gray. To avoid inhaling it, scarves are worn over the face.
No one meets my eyes as I walk down the street. They know by the swallow etched into my arm that I am one of the chosen. A wide berth is given to me; I do not need to push my way through the crowd. But for an absentminded wanderer or a curious child, there is nothing in my path. Even the animals shy away, afraid of the scent that lingers in my clothes and stains my skin a ruddy pink.
They call me Eve. I was recruited by The Maddest to do with as they pleased. I grew up within white walls, taught to fight, to sense the world, to read emotions, to obey. I am their trained dog, their grim reaper, their servant, their pet. I do as they say, and I do not ask questions.
I cannot remember life before The Maddest. I do not know where I am from, nor how I was created. To me, family is but a haunting dream, and it recalls ghostlike memories of people I do not recognize. I cannot say if they were real. I do not know if they live. They are such a strange idea that I cannot even imagine what it would be like to exist amongst them.
There is only one thing I do know, and that is my name. It is the only thing I have that is mine, the only thing that is known to me alone. Names have power here, and though I am faithful to The Maddest in every other aspect of life, I will not give them my name. Eve is what they call me, for I am a firstborn of their children. But Eve is not my name.
It is a title that I cannot refuse. It is the name that grants me life, the name that embodies their power over me, the name I cannot escape. It follows me everywhere, whispered behind me as I walk down the street, inserted into prayers for mercy. They pray to the gods that I will not visit them in the night. I can smell their fear above the ash and burning.
I ignore it as thoroughly as I ignore them.
I am going to my home, to the life The Maddest has created for me, to my husband. He is called Adam, and, like me, he is also a firstborn. I do not love him; it is not mandatory within my duties to love him. We have been matched for our abilities. We have been matched because we are the firstborn. We have been matched to produce The Maddest with more of ourselves, so that they may have an endless line of us to serve them.
But we are childless. The Maddest cannot force us to bear them children, and they understand that we are too consumed with our duties to reproduce. There are lives to be taken, deaths to dole out, soldiers to be recruited. In the empty stead of the cradle, we gather children to The Maddest to be trained as we were.
The entrance to my home is before me now; the circular staircase stretches far above me, and each step brings me closer to the tower of The Maddest. Adam and I live in one of several homes built onto the base of the white tower; it is where all of the firstborn are kept, for observation and evaluation. If we rebel, The Maddest are quick to catch us and punish our behavior.
Reaching the top of the stairs, I peer through the narrow rectangular window in the door before I enter. I cannot see Adam, but I know he is there somewhere. I can sense him; perhaps he is preparing food, or receiving orders for tomorrow, or resting.
My home is as white within as it is without; the walls are softly brilliant, and there is no need for windows with the bright lights that fill the room. A cot sits in the corner where I sleep, but there is no other furniture. Adam has his own quarters beside mine, and we are only together at mealtimes and when we have received new orders.
For an unknown reason, The Maddest have not insisted that we reside together as the husband and wife that we are. Perhaps they see we are more effective as separate units, or perhaps they know the connection we have is not a physical one. As I suspected, Adam is there. He is coming in behind me, and his dark-skinned face is smiling.
"Eve," he greets me guides me to the cot to sit. "How are you faring today?" He checks me for wounds as he always does after my nights of embodying the grim reaper.
"I am well," I reply, obediently holding out both hands for him to inspect. "And you?"
He seems pleased that I would ask after him, and he answers, "Life goes on, Eve."
Though I do not love him, I appreciate Adam's friendship. We are comfortable in the silence of companionship, and have always been. Adam is the only human being with whom I share a connection, the only being in the world that I consider a friend.
Satisfied that I am unhurt, he rises from before me and takes my hand. "Asa would like to see you today."
I sigh, but nod. Asa is one of The Maddest; he is the highest in power, the most ruthless, the most cunning. I expected to be called before them, as I have not been examined for too long… but still I am reluctant. Asa will pry into my thoughts, and label me as he sees fit. At any time, he could send me to the fire and replace me.
I am afraid of Asa.
I follow Adam away from my room and up the tower to the examining room, where Asa sits behind a mahogany desk. It is dark here. Dark and oppressive. Books fill the shelves around Asa; odd figures sit on his desk and stare at me with empty eyes; the rug is rich and textured, dusty.
And Asa is as dark as his surroundings. His inky hair is slicked away from a perfectly straight part, and his grim features are as set as the stone figures in front of him. I do not meet his jetty eyes as I sit in the chair provided for me; it is a comfort to me that Adam remains. Adam will protect me if Asa decides today I die.
"Well, Eve…" Asa studies me sternly and taps his fingers on his desk. "How are you today?" His question is the same as Adam's, yet it is more menacing. He does not care how I am. Were I sick and dying, Asa would move on to the next recruit and replace me. He only cares that I will not rebel and destroy him.
I do not answer. I stare at the rug beneath my feet and watch as the design swirls and changes, as it has been made to do. It is an illusion rug, meant to entertain the masses with its magicked threads. Only the richest owned rugs such as this, but when The Sickness destroyed the world, The Maddest gathered everything to themselves. Possession, to them, was power.
"Quiet, I see." I can hear the scratching of Asa's pen as he writes in my file. "Has she deviated, Adam?" he addresses my husband.
Adam puts a hand on my shoulder to comfort me. "No, sir. She's been good." It is the same as always. Asa doubts me, Adam reassures him. I would probably have been disposed of long ago if it weren't for Adam.
"Good, good…" Asa's deep voice resonates in my ears.
Suddenly, I hate him. For keeping me in this white tower as a prisoner, for making me his pet and his reaper, for taking my life from me.
But I keep it in. I only raise my eyes to look at him, and I bite my tongue to keep back the words that want to burst forth. He does not notice the glare I give him; he only writes more in my file and rises. "Well, Eve, I trust Adam to know when you are good and when you are bad." He chuckles softly and reaches out to pat my shoulder. "But you've always been good, haven't you, Eve?"
There is a strange pity in his eyes. I do not understand it. Is he sending me to die? I have never seen this pity in the eyes of The Maddest. They are only cold and grim, impersonal. They do not share connections with us, the firstborn. Their emotions are not ours to share.
As Adam takes me from Asa's examination, I stare back at the dark, tall statue of a man. He is watching us leave. Even as another firstborn is taken in to be examined, his eyes remain on me. On Adam.
Does he know? Could he have read my mind? Did he notice the glare I had given him, and did he interpret my intentions?
In the moment of my sudden hate, I had decided to kill him.
Instead of returning to my home, Adam and I make our way through the halls of the tower to the communal room. There are many firstborns there, sitting at their tables with each other, not quite conversing, not quite alone. We do not often speak on friendly terms; The Maddest would see us as conspirators and send us to the ever-greedy fire.
I sit at a table beside the windows, and Adam stands a few feet away, simply watching. He is a great observer, my husband, and will often spend his days taking in the actions of everyone around us. I am glad that he does not always wish to talk. I like the silence, the opportunities to watch the city rot in the sun.
Ashes drift past the window, somehow leaving the tower white as they coat the rest of the city with the dust of the dead. People mill about on the stony streets, slipping past each other as they go about their daily duties. They do not know that soon I will make them a new world. I, with my silent obedience, will eliminate the largest threat known to our survival.
Asa has come to the communal room; I can feel the change in the air. I can smell the scent of blood on his palms, the sharp cigarette smoke clinging to his hair; the sweat of madness on his skin. He has killed a firstborn. I know, when I look at him, that he is guilty. Even in his gleeful madness, in the smile that passes his lips at my gaze, there is something more. Something dismal, that tells me he has just returned from the room of the dead.
He exchanges glances with another of The Maddest: she who sits behind the glass wall and watches us. She nods once, and he circles the others sedately. Soon, we will all be filed into a line and given our orders for the night. If I do not act before this, I will not be able to overcome the world they have created. I will have to follow my orders. I will be trapped forever.
Our orders are given to us in the form of a pill that we must consume. It is filled with nanobots that take over our minds and fill us with the desire to obey; with these pills, we are controlled. Our desire to be singular is destroyed, and until our missions are fulfilled, we can think of nothing else. If I take one more pill, I will no longer have the resolve that has built up within me.
I clench my fist and hope I can do what I must before the orders come.
Asa circles, she watches us all, and I look at my table. A package has been laid there, and Adam is suddenly blocking the light. "It's for you," he says.
I pick at the paper, curious.
"A gift, from your family." Adam tells me, his voice low and secretive, and I look up at him in surprise. He knows my family? I have a family?
Ripping away the brown package more eagerly, I find a beautiful mirror within. I am reflected in it, pale and dark at once, and I can see the circles beneath my eyes. Yet, despite the disarray of my hair and the sallowness of my cheeks, I am beautiful. I have never seen myself before, and I am entranced.
Is this what Adam sees? Does he find me beautiful? I stare at myself and wonder why I care. Adam is my friend, not my lover.
Adam clears his throat. "Don't you go doing anything…" He shakes his head, and I know then that this is a forbidden gift. I should not have it. I lower it from the table into my lap, and stare back into its depths. Why has he risked his status to give me a frivolous present such as this?
I run my fingers over its round metal frame, marvelling at the intricate etching of flowers, and I feel warmth for Adam. That he would risk everything to give me something beautiful. That he had given me hope of life outside of this world. Had he done this on purpose? To signal me that there is more? That it is time to break away from The Maddest and take a life for myself?
Letting the lights reflect from its glass, I suddenly realize two things: one, Asa is nearing my table. I can smell his shadow as it falls over me. Two, the mirror's glass is already breaking against the table. I am already leaping from my seat at Asa's frame. There is a shard in my hand, a shard propelled through the air by my fingers, into Asa's windpipe.
Blood splatters over me. Asa jerks in shock, and his body falls to the ground. Another of The Maddest rushes towards me, but I am already fighting him away. The woman behind the glass stares with shock. The firstborns around me scream and fall away, hiding themselves from my frantic slashing.
My hands shake as I stand over Asa, as I stab him again and again in a fury of passion. He is dead long before I am done, and when my energy is spent, I feel a moment of blackness overcome me. For a frightening second, I do not know what has happened, or where I am. I feel pain, confusion, sadness. I want to die.
Have I done the right thing?
I raise my hand from Asa's throat and look at Adam. He is grim, his dark brow furrowed as he meets my eyes, and he closes the distance between us to gather me in his arms. Instead of the triumph I expect, he is worried. He grips my wrist firmly with one hand, and he shakes his head.
"Why did you do it?" His black eyes are sad.
I feel suddenly weak. As if I am being drained of all my strength. I shake my head. "We are free now," I explain. "We are in control of our own selves." Surely he knows.
He brushes the hair and blood from my cheek. "I don't understand."
I do not have time to explain it to him. The fight has drained me of everything, and I look down to see that I have been injured. My own blood stains my tunic, streaming from my arms and my neck. When did this happen? I cannot recall the blades that touched my skin. I can only remember the fury within me to be free.
Lifting my gaze to Adam's face, I feel one last question on my lips, and I force it from me. I must know. "What is your name?" Adam is the name The Maddest have given him, as Eve is the name they have given me. I want to know his real self, and I want him to know mine.
He narrows his eyes, confused. "My name is Adam."
"No," I insist, "What is your real name? Who were you when you were born?"
Shock registers in his features, and he stutters for a moment. "I… I am… I was born Casimir." He frowns. "But how could you know?"
I smile, running the name over my tongue softly. It suits him. Like me, his name is as opposite his title as can be. Casimir. To destroy. Taking a short breath, I cough as blood fills my mouth. "I am Morana," I say. I struggle to get the words out. "It means 'death'"
He shakes his head and begins to say something, but I stop him. His face is the last thing I will see, and I am glad. "Morana and Casimir… we could have been the new regime." It is hard to breathe. "King and queen. Rulers."
For a few moments, at least, we can be what I want us to be. I am dying, but I pretend that I will live on. 'We are The Maddest," I say.
Adam's tears are the last thing I see.
She lay in his arms, a chaotic huddle of pale and scarlet, wrists running with blood. There was nothing he could do now; nothing he could have done. How could he have known that in three fast seconds she would destroy herself in such a way? She had always been a quieter one, subdued and muttering, never causing trouble. She had always gone through her days in a trance that no one could break.
Folding her wrists over her chest, Adam rubbed his face and felt the sadness well up within him. He had liked her. Of all the patients in the ward, she had been his favorite, though it was discouraged that any emotional connection should be made. She had treated him as though she knew him, and she had been so small. So delicate and lost.
If he had known that the gift from her family would be her destruction, he would have confiscated the mirror. It was not allowed in the ward; anything breakable was forbidden. But she had been so entranced by it. So delighted, he could not deny her. And his kindness had been turned against him.
He could not have predicted how fast she was. In a blur of fury, she'd smashed the mirror against the table and attacked Asa as he'd passed the table. The orderly who had attempted to stop her had an open wound on his face from the glass of the mirror, but he was alive. Dr Asa Brahms, however, was dead.
And so was Eve. Her fit of fury had ended when she'd slit her own wrists and attempted to slit her own throat. He did not know why she'd committed suicide, nor why she'd killed the doctor. But she'd looked so lost as she slumped with her wrists bleeding out onto the floor. So sad, so confused.
He should have reacted faster; no, he should not have given in and let her keep the gift. It was his fault that she was dead.
This was the end of his nursing career. After this grave mistake, he would be fired and blacklisted. No hospital would take him. No institution, no private practices.
But he no longer cared. As he stared down at her blank, pale eyes, he thanked her for reviving him from the days of stupor he'd been living. Somehow, she'd drawn out his real self; she'd known that Adam was not his real name. That Casimir, the lost and forgotten child… that was his real self. He'd tried to leave Casimir behind. Casimir was unwanted. Casimir was abandoned. Casimir was rejected.
Yet, Casimir was alive.
It was time for him to reclaim his birthright. He wanted to start a new life as Casimir. To leave the dead and mindless Adam behind. In honor of her; of the girl who called herself Morana, who refused the name on her birth certificate, who had the tattoo of a swallow on her arm; for her, he would be a new man.
He kissed her forehead and wiped the blood from her face. "Thank you… Morana." With a sigh, he obeyed the order to leave, but before he was gone, he whispered, "I'm sorry."
It was true, what she had said. Perhaps he was the maddest. A little bit of him was connected to these patients, to their wandering minds and delusional lives. They lived vicariously through worlds that no one else could see, and they did not apologize for being who they were. They accepted themselves with all of their flaws and dirty pasts.
And he would do the same.
Just a quick and very random short story as a peace offering for not writing anything on my chaptered stories for a while. ;) I hope it entertained you. You can hop over to my blog to listen to a couple of songs while you read the story.