Anabiel was a bright child. All the adults told him so. "Of course," they said, baring pearly smiles, "your parents are scientists, so it's no surprise you're as smart as they are!"
They never told his older sister these things. Delaney was neither kind nor intelligent; instead, she was pretty. Dangerous and pretty. Where Ana's life consisted of soccer and reading, Delaney was conniving and had clawed her way to the top of the social pyramid by batting her eyes (and spreading her legs). Where Ana locked himself in their mother's study for days on end, Delaney often went out without a word or a note. Where Ana's sincere face allowed him to lie seamlessly, Delaney was an awful liar – she didn't let this stop her.
The adults didn't like her.
First clause: Humans are either good or evil.
Ana was in middle school the first time Delaney was arrested, charged with underage intoxication and possession of narcotics. It wouldn't be the last time. Their parents paid for her bail and grounded her, but Delaney was not deterred.
More than once she asked Ana to cover for her while she went off with strange people; Ana thought they smelled funny, but obliged. As always, their parents accepted Ana's well-spun tale without question. ("She's failing her trig class and has to stay afterschool for practice.")
During this period – the only time in his life he listened and obeyed his sister's requests – he was in middle school. When Delaney decided that she needed to drop out of school, Ana had had enough.
"She's a drug dealer," he told his father when Delaney was supposedly at her waitressing gig. "She's been lying to you."
Ana quickly learned that this was a bad move. Walking home from soccer practice, he was confronted by a familiar gang; he recognized them as the crowd Delaney would hang out with. As his face was acquainted with the asphalt, Ana resolved to learn martial arts and to never, ever rat Delaney out again.
Second clause: When given the choice, humans will choose the option that will benefit themselves.
As Ana entered high school, he lost contact with Delaney. This was fine with him; their relationship had deteriorated quickly. Besides, with harder classes, he had more than enough to preoccupy himself with. He needed no distractions.
He avoided social functions, but at times, he would escape to a mall or a street café and watch people walk by. In his leisure time, he combed through the library for books he hadn't yet read. The librarians knew him by first name.
It was here he met a girl named Alyss. She had red hair and ivory skin and reminded Ana a bit of Delaney. Still where his sister had been risqué and provocative, Alyss was gentle and modest. To Ana, they were polar opposites – Delaney the sun and Alyss the moon.
He should have known it couldn't last.
No one was perfect. Alyss's fault lay not in her character but in her habits. After she bashfully introduced herself, sat through his explanation of basic human psychological needs, and robbed him blind, Ana never saw her again.
Third clause: Humans are rarely selfless.
The Storm just barely spared Ana. Everyone he knew was dead. He wandered the streets of what used to be Michigan, observing; his age and combat ability was enough to scare off those foolhardy enough to try and mug him, but they continued to try.
For Ana, it was a period of enlightenment. He would sit on a broken roof and watched as gangs of kids attempted to kill each other over food, supplies, and fear. Children, he concluded, were selfish. Adults fared little better.
When word of his Flow – the power he had gained after the Storm – got out, Ana became a wanted man. His ability to heal wounds was infinitely useful in a time of uncertainty and unrestricted bloodshed. In exchange for food, Ana healed those who came to him, regardless of who they were.
Even lying side-by-side, bleeding out from bullet wounds that riddled their torsos, enemies cursed each other out as Ana watched. He couldn't save everyone.
Fourth clause: Humans do not get along.
When he turned eighteen, Ana's Flow developed into self-regeneration. He was virtually invincible. No longer afraid of suffering fatal wounds, Ana spent his spare time reflecting on his past. He didn't think of his family or of Delaney; he had suffered through them long enough. Instead he turned his mind to a girl named Innogen.
She had been his high school's valedictorian, and he the salutatorian. Innogen had been undoubtedly bright and hardworking, but her best quality was her competitiveness. She had hated Ana. He was the one she had constantly fought with to maintain her class rank; he would challenge her ideas in class simply to see how she would respond.
Innogen had died during the Storm, but her memory – how she had flourished as a scholar and a woman – remained with him.
Later Ana would credit her as the inspiration for his Human Sacrifice Theory.
Fifth clause: Good humans are just humans until they have an evil to fight.
Ana first met Vahan Bridgit in a strange cave in the mountains. Seeking shelter from gangs who aimed to abuse his Flow, he uncovered an intricate system of tunnels. The room he found her in was pitch black and covered in dust.
He did not, at first, think that she was a human; he guessed she was an extremely detailed statue of a doll, dainty with curls the color of corn husks. She wore an expression of terror, but she never moved, and when he reached out to touch her, she had been colder than ice.
Then, as if a spell had broken, her body regained a healthy temperature instantly. The girl stumbled backward, bringing her arms up to shield her body.
"I won't hurt you," Ana said quickly. He showed her his hands as a sign of his good will. "Please don't be afraid."
She nodded as if she understood. Ana figured she was twelve or so.
"A-are they gone?" she whispered.
"They?" he asked.
"They wanted…to hurt me. There was a big storm…a few days ago. Everyone was dying. They wanted to use my…my power…"
Ana stared at her. The Storm had swept the Earth seven years ago.
"Yeah," he said faintly. "They're gone. All those bad guys went far, far away. They won't hurt you." The girl nodded. "My name is Anabiel Stark."
"They called me…the shield…" The girl looked down. Ana could guess her Flow by now.
"You didn't have a name before that?" he inquired.
She bit her lip and didn't respond.
"Then I'll give you one," he decided. "You don't have to be scared anymore. I'm going to make a world where people can defend themselves from those bad guys."
Ana christened her Vahan Bridgit (Vahan, meaning shield – for that was who she was and she shouldn't be ashamed of it – and Bridgit, for strength and virtue. When they were alone, he always called her Bridgit).
Sixth Clause: Only the presence of evil can unite humans on the side of good.
The duo spent days slaving in Bridgit's chamber. Ana explained to the girl his theory in its rudimentary form. She didn't appear to understand, but she nodded anyway.
Ana frowned. Clearly the concept of evil was too abstract to properly unite people against it. He needed something else.
But who would be terrible enough to evoke such hatred from so many people? He needed, of course, evil in its purest form – malicious and sadistic and terrifying. The common evils of human self-interest weren't enough; they were too easily persuaded.
And then he met Holly.
She was a work of art; Ana knew no others who had descended as deeply into darkness and madness so thoroughly as Holly had. She knew no bounds of empathy or compassion, seeking only pain – hers or others'. There was something about Holly that repulsed Ana, but the same quality attracted him.
Here was the perfect specimen, the perfect monster, for his experiment.
Bridgit was reluctant to agree with him.
"I don't like her," the girl, shaking her head.
"Exactly," Ana agreed emphatically.
But inwardly he worried. Was Holly…too evil? Would she break her opposition instead of strengthening them?
It was a while until Ana found his answer.
Seventh Clause: In order to unite humans on the side of good, the Human Sacrifice must be wholly evil.
Against Bridgit's warnings, Ana reached an agreement with Holly. She was a simple woman who desires little else but chaos and suffering. Ana didn't dislike her.
"You're going?" Bridgit asked, looking nervous. He nodded and then glanced out into the misty forest. Even at this distance, he could feel the terror carried by the wind.
"It shouldn't be long," he reassured her. "A day or two at most."
"I don't understand why…Holly is asking you to do this," the girl mumbled.
Ana shook his head. This had been his own idea, but he didn't tell Bridgit that. Instead he said, "Stay inside."
True to his word, he returned within two days, his clothes entirely destroyed by half-dried blood. Bridgit was properly horrified.
"Don't worry," said Ana, "it's all mine."
"She hurt you!" cried Bridgit.
"All according to plan," he said, shrugging off the bloodied articles. Somehow he had procured a cleaner change of clothes: a light blue button up and jeans. Bridgit refused to look at him. "Look, at the time, it may have stung a little, but I can deal with it. It looks worse than it actually is."
Bridgit look like she wanted to protest but refrained. Still upset, she asked, "And…you did it? You kidnapped her?" Her last few words came out as a squeak.
"Of course," replied Ana. "We're too far in to chicken out now."
"Don't worry," Ana lied. "In the end, everything will work out. She has friend who are playing directly into our hands."
Eighth Clause: The Human Sacrifice is the villain.
Erika's friends played smart, but Ana held the upper hand. Bridgit was not called the Shield for nothing; she stopped the attacks that would have been fatal. Ana's self-regeneration took care of the rest. Afterward, he was forced to take time to recover. He smiled as he remembered the battle.
The puppet girl, the one with the ability to animate her clothing – she had continuously ribbed him before Bridgit had taken her out. Her insults served only to strengthen his resolve.
She had called him "daring." He, daring? Mad, perhaps, or foolish or immoral. Not daring. Not brave. Ana laughed. He wished the puppet girl the best in her life.
Even more interesting was the earth boy who had ceased trying to talk to him as soon as Ana had mentioned Erika. As the boy had collapsed, Ana had seen unadulterated hatred in his eyes. Perfect.
"Everything's falling into place," he told Bridgit.
"Will they be…all right?" Bridgit squeaked.
"Of course," said Ana. "Everyone will be all right."
He healed them before he took them back to the village.
Ninth Clause: In fighting the Human Sacrifice, humans will act selflessly and grow stronger.
Ana had overestimated himself. The weight of evil and hatred was burdensome, yes, but nothing (or so Ana had assumed) unbearable. He had not expected himself to be so easily caught off guard. Luckly Ana had masked his expressions well; Erika had misread him, just as he'd meant her to.
But then why was he second guessing himself? Was it his hesitation to leave Bridgit, at that moment frozen to the world and time? Or was he really loathe to end his charade when his legacy was still framed in hatred?
Ana took his pen and carved IT IS TOO LATE into the desk. Then, he found to slips of paper and an envelope and began to write.
I'm sorry I lied to you. Do not look for me. This is what I want – the best possible end. I am gone, and you are freed. Your role is not over yet. Watch over her.
One final request, Bridgit, and the most important: if you would mourn my death or miss me, never again use your Flow.
By the time you read this, it will be too late. My death was painless, this I assure you. I had planned to leave silently with no note; as it turns out, I am too weak a man to shoulder all this hatred. Instead I will write to you, not to incur your favor but so that you may judge me.
I used you. I can admit that freely. I lied – said many things that were not true. I won't go into detail here. You were the beloved leader; that alone made you my target. Everything after the kidnapping was planned: the battles, our talks, and my death. All pre-ordained. But to what end?
The foretold Storm will kill everyone if it comes to pass. We cannot let it. I sought to make you stronger, to force your village to unite and fight together for a common cause. You were never in danger – I am only the first of evils you will face. I am the beginning. I am sorry for the mess I am leaving you in, but you will live. You are strong.
Do not tell the others what I have written here. I pray that their hatred for me is enough.
…I have one final, selfish request: Bridgit, like you, was a victim to my scheme. She is not to be blamed. Please look after her as I can no longer.
With this concludes my story. Judge it as you will.
Thank you, Anabiel Stark
Tenth Clause: In the end, the Human Sacrifice will die.