"Leda. Leda, look at me." Jane took her sister's face in her hands, smacking her cheeks. She was trying to be gentle, but there wasn't much time.
"Huh?" Leda's eyes rolled in her skull, struggling to focus
"They're coming. I can already hear the hounds." Jane wrung her hands. "They're close." At this, Leda snapped out of her daze, bolting up into a sitting position. "
"Do they know we're here?" she asked, alarmed. Jane took a deep breath, biting her lip.
For a moment, she considered saying that, of course, they didn't know. She wished she could tell her sister that the two of them were safe. Instead, Jane nodded, her shoulders sagged in defeat.
"What are we gonna do?" Leda cried, her voice rising in pitch. Jane pinched the bridge of her nose as a wave of nausea came over her. Her fingers began to tingle, and she clenched her fists in response.
"You're going to run, and then you're going to keep going on towards the safe house. Remember? It's the same plan as before."
"But…what about you?"
"I'm going to hold them long off long enough for you to escape." Jane looked away from Leda, unable to meet her eyes.
"You can't do that! You won't be able to," Leda's eyes filled with tears and she started to hug herself tightly. "You won't get away, Janie. You would abandon me?"
Jane didn't know how to answer.
She was spared from responding by the sound of baying hounds, coming closer by the second. These were not the howls of normal dogs, however. They were different; high-pitched, haunting, more of a scream than a howl. Appropriate, as they were a warning of imminent danger. For now, the metal walls of their temporary shelter, an abandoned train car, overturned on the side of the tracks, would protect Jane and Leda. If they waited too long, however, their protection would be their prison. It would be too late for either of them to escape.
"I'm going to climb out of here first. It's me they're tracking, so they won't go after you as long as I keep their attention. That's when you have to run," Jane explained. Leda grabbed Jane, clinging onto the fabric of her clothes as tightly as she could. The poor girl was crying, her shoulders shaking. "No, no, no, don't you cry." Jane covered her hand with her sleeve and brushed Leda's hair back with her fingers. "We don't have time for tears, love, don't cry."
"I don't want you to go!" Leda's voice rose into hysterics, becoming a chant, "Don't go, don't go, don't go." Her cry crescendoed into a desperate plea. Jane didn't want to go, either. But she'd learned over the years that the world didn't care what she wanted, nor did it care about her sister. No matter how young and innocent she was.
Jane pried Leda's hands from her jacket, taking it off and wrapping it around the little girl's shoulders. After all, it was cold, and Jane wouldn't need it much longer. Her hands stung, as if there were a nest of hornets within, crawling through her veins and burrowing through flesh. The swarm was itching for release. The more she tried to hold them back, the more intense their desire for freedom, and the more painful it was to keep them at bay. Such was the nature of the curse. The same curse that the hounds were tracking, the same curse that had made them hounds. It had infected countless people as well, wiped out cities. Most of the world had become once-human abominations because of it.
Leda tried to hold Jane's hand, and this time, Jane couldn't stop it as a tendril of the curse's physical form, something black and serpentine, wrapped itself around Leda's wrist. She cried out in pain and jumped away from Jane, whimpering and pressing herself against the wall. Jane jerked her own hand back, holding it against her chest and closing her fist until her knuckles turned white. After the first strand's escape, the pain worsened, as if it were tearing her apart from the inside, the rest wishing to follow it out. Jane had to leave, now. Before something could go wrong. The last thing she wanted was to hurt Leda.
"Leda, listen. I love you." As she spoke, Jane stood, putting her hands against the door, ready to pull. "Please, run fast, and be smart." She threw it open, grabbing the edge and pulling herself up. She lifted Leda, covering her hands with her sleeves. And there they were.
The hounds were close. They were animals, devoid of fur and covered in scars of their own. Following the hounds, were humans, victims of the curse. They shuffled out of the surrounding woods, skeletal, their shredded clothes hanging from their bony figures. Every one of them was disfigured with swirling, dark red scars lacing their skin, much like the ones marring Jane herself. Each of them, whether humanoid or animal, had coils of the curse covering them, sprouting from their palms, legs, or feet. Jane took a deep breath, prepared herself, and jumped down, landing on the balls of her feet.
To others, this would be something to run away from A sense of self-preservation would kick in and they would flee. If the situation were different, Jane would run, too. But the situation was what it was. Jane was not trying to save her own life.
The curse was an awful thing to have, a sort of sickness of magical origin; it festered inside its victims, starting in the hand, or the foot, most commonly, and spreading like a cancer. It wouldn't discriminate where it spread, consuming its victim bit by bit. Yet that was not enough; if one was not careful, it could escape in a physical manifestation that would wound anything it touched. With a great amount of self-control, it was possible to hinder its release. To restrain it was to speed up the internal advance, but keep it from hurting or infecting others. To resist the curse was to let it reach the brain- to become a vessel of it, a slave with no purpose but to spread the curse.
To release it was to allow it to run rampant, to leave scars on whomever or whatever it pleased, and to cause pain to others. To release was to allow it to consume you. However, to the one cursed, a rush of ecstasy came with the release, relief from the pain. Jane knew how good it felt to let it go. She also knew the pain of guilt. It was worse to see her loved ones suffer than it was to live in suffering herself.
Jane had spent the better part of a year resisting. But the time for resistance had come to an end. She shifted, balancing with feet spread wide. She was as large as she could make herself, in a fighting stance. Shoulders back, standing tall. For all she was- a skinny, dirty teenaged girl- she was intimidating. But, Jane wondered, would she be enough?
There was a moment of stillness, calm before the storm, where the hounds stopped howling, and Jane stopped breathing. Every muscle of every creature was pulled tight and tense. At that moment, it hit Jane how outnumbered she was. There were at least a hundred of them. One hundred hounds and cursed. One of her.
Chaos broke out as they attacked. Jane's fists opened and she let everything she'd kept pent up inside burst forth. There was a final flash of pain, white hot. It lasted half a second, but it was the worst she'd ever felt. A scream rose up from somewhere deep within her, a sound more animal than human. When the pain subsided, adrenaline took over, fueling her. Her attackers were stronger and more numerous, controlled by the curse. They weren't using it, but rather, it was using them. Their use of the tendrils as weapons was unbridled by any kind of restraint. But Jane was smarter, faster. She dodged and countered attacks, twirling with feet moving fast and hands moving faster, feeling as if she were dancing through them, though she knew she'd never had a flair for grace. The curse obeyed her wishes, easily controlled now that she wanted to release it. Like gnarled, blackened vines, they sprouted from the center of her palm, reaching towards her assailants. With a thought and the flick of a wrist, they would move with Jane in perfect synchronization.
A hound leapt towards her, and she simply batted it away. The tendrils, like extensions of her own arm, wrapped around the hound, crushing the life from it. It was that easy.
One after another, her adversaries attacked in waves, and Jane fought them off. She was numb to pain, unable to tire. The tendrils wrapped around her hands, climbing her limbs like creeping vines. She was being engulfed, consumed by the curse. But she had chosen this.
A child's cry rose over the numbness and the din of the battle. Jane whirled, and there was Leda. Leda, who had not run. But Jane had not been the only one to notice her sister. One of the cursed, with hands outstretched, lunged towards Leda.
"No!" Jane screamed, sprinting towards her sister. She thrust her own hand forward, spearing through the once-human creature's chest, stopping it abruptly. "You were supposed to run! You need to keep going!" Jane turned back to fighting, adjusting her position to protect her sister.
"Not without you!" Leda yelled, voice choked and breaking with tears. "Not alone!" Jane felt a pang of guilt. After the loss of their mother, Jane had been everything to Leda; she'd taken care of her for several years. To expect Leda to just go on her own was unfair. But nothing was fair, ever. It never would be, and that's what Jane had learned and what Leda would have to learn on her own.
"Listen; I've been dead since I was infected by this curse," Jane shouted, "and soon there will be no more me." A hound thrust itself towards Jane, nearly biting a chunk out of her calf before she could kill it. "There has never been hope for me. But I need you to run away, for my sake." Yelling to Leda was distracting Jane, and the cursed had begun to gain of them surrounded her. With one sweeping motion, Jane killed them all at once. Again, she turned to shout, "I need you to keep living!"
As she spoke, the tendrils continued to grow, coiling over her legs, her shoulders, and her torso, curling at the base of her neck, her clothing pulled and torn. Jane's words were true. She was nearing her end. Leda hesitated. Jane's sister had always been stubborn, but never stupid.
"You can go, Leda. I want you to," Jane pleaded, her voice gentler. Leda took one last step towards Jane, reaching her hand out, as if closing her fingers would let her hold on to her last sight of the sister who'd raised her. And then she turned, finally, and ran.
Out of time, and with no way to win, Jane felt somehow liberated. She was finally free. Free to let the curse that she'd been so long containing escape. She felt alive, good somehow. Despite herself, Jane smiled. Alone, dying, vastly outnumbered, and at peace.
She did not mourn herself. Jane did not fear dying. She'd come to terms with it long ago. To die like this, protecting her sister, was almost an honor. It felt noble. It felt right.
Jane remembered a story she'd read once, several years back, when they'd stayed in an old library. Unable to sleep, she'd looked through the old books that were still scattered on the shelves. One of which contained the story of an ancient battle where two armies had fought together against invaders. One of the armies, known as the Spartans, was made up of fierce fighters. Jane was no trained warrior, but living on her own had made her tough, and protecting Leda had made her determined. And like she had told Leda to run, the Spartans told their allies to retreat, to save themselves. Vastly outnumbered, the Spartans remained to defend the narrow pass, slowing down the enemy enough to allow the other's escape. There, the Spartans fought to their death, much like Jane was doing now. The battle was known as Thermopylae, the Spartan's last stand. And now this was hers. This was Jane's Thermopylae.
And as she thought of this, it became harder to move. The curse was devouring her completely. The dark vines now covered her eyes, pulled at her hair. She'd chosen this; to go down fighting. She would rather be a victim of her own lack of restraint than a slave to her curse. She took one last breath of air, and the numbness subsided in a rush of bliss.
There were worse ways to die.