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The Story of Jay
By Raina Kadavil
The only light in a world of darkness was his sword.
He stalked the streets, unaware that it was well past midnight. Night, encompassing, settled against his shoulders, swathed his disheveled hair. He felt like a spider, tiny but stealthy, body and limbs wrapped in a dark cloak that blended smoothly with the blackness around him. The sword alone gleamed – blade cast of the moon’s same silver sheen, hilt wrapped around a stone that shined like pooled moonlight. It was what his victim’s eyes always settled upon last before it extinguished their light.
Rounding a corner, he came across just what he prowled the filthy streets in search of. A quick glance upward told him he’d arrived in the alleyway outside an ancient-looking tavern. A man, tall and sturdy, with a shock of thick hair the color of freshly sliced ginger jutting from his scalp bent over another, substantially smaller figure, cloaked in the safety of the dead end’s darkness. The man’s shadow loomed menacingly toward him by the light of a tiny, sputtering candle mounted into a lantern beside a disintegrating sign that read, The Oracle’s Eye. But shadows, he knew, were misleading: they changed themselves by dusk and dawn, after all.
He continued to move forward, barely bothering to keep his back pressed to the crumbling brick walls at his sides; this man was distracted enough that detection was improbable. When he was within a few paces of him, the man’s victim came into view. It was a girl – tiny, frail, no match for this large bull of a man. Not that it would have done her any good if she had been: she lay on the cold, filthy floor, shuddering silently, unable even to scream, eyes trained on the man’s sneering face.
It took only a single motion. Before the man could even turn to register just what it was that had suddenly replaced anticipation with fear, the blade had passed cleanly through the heart – dead-on, his aim never failed – and out the other side. The light faded quickly from the man’s eyes; a speedy death was more than was deserved.
He pulled the blade back out carefully, painstakingly, not wanting to cover it in any more gore than necessary. The lower quarter of it emerged dripping crimson, nevertheless. He began to bend, meaning to wipe the blade on the ground, then remembered the stone floors and silently cursed them; he despised the lack of grass, of fresh, clean, soil. Disgruntled, he shifted the sword to a better position and then turned his attention to the figure before him.
He could see her properly now; the whites of her eyes gleamed in the darkness. Why, she must have been even younger than he. A waitress at the tavern, he supposed, by the apron tied around her waist. She was trembling, the poor thing, quaking as if the earth would swallow her up. She kept looking toward the man he’d just slain – now lying motionless across the pathway beside them – then to his blade, and back to his face with an expression of pure terror. She feared him, too, he supposed. He couldn’t help but smile at the raw irony in that, and, hoping that the smile touched his eyes, held out a hand to her, the hand that was free of the sword. She wouldn’t move; the shaking picked up pace. Shrugging, he withdrew his hand and took a slow step backward, then another, cautiously, as he might with an injured animal. She still didn’t move. After a few backward paces, he simply turned on his heel and left the alley, sword hanging at his side, the man’s vile blood still clinging to its blade like a sinister sort of scarlet dew.
No companionship. No thanks. No problems. That was how he liked it. He didn’t do this for the tearful gratitude.
He knew these streets better than he knew himself, he reflected as he strode aimlessly down the path. Far better, in fact. He’d taken this, the title of justice’s unnamed grim reaper, up when all else had failed him. He’d felt as if his life were leading to nowhere, so rather than sit back and ride that train to failure crowned by boredom, he’d left, hoping to deviate that path from nowhere to somewhere. Where this was taking him, he had no clue; at least he knew he was doing good, and if not good, at least it was justice, though what they called justice, he knew, wasn’t always “good.”
He’d learned early on that he was special – no, that he was different. And being different, that he was better off alone. Yes, all he needed was the blade, his guardian, and the moon, his shepherd. He followed it through the darkest recesses of the night, and it took him to wherever it was that he was needed. He always found, somehow, what was necessary for him to survive, because he was one of those people. The people who always seemed to survive, and survive against odds that vied tirelessly against them.
The attack came from nowhere. The first rays of dawn were just beginning to infiltrate his coveted darkness when a blade crept toward his sword, and in the process of twisting to face his attacker, the sword was thrown from his hand. Rolling sideways, he ducked out of the way of the shadow that was throwing itself at him and plunged forward to catch his sword, plucking it perfectly from the air by its moonstone hilt. Falling back into position, he faced his mystery opponent, narrowing his eyes, bracing himself. Someone clearly knew what they were doing.
The two circled one another for a moment before he went in once more on the offensive. His opponent parried easily and he was thrown off balance. Halfway through tumbling backward, he fell onto one knee and righted himself once more. But before he could so much as take another breath, he found himself staggered backward with a blade at his throat.
“Who are you?” he rasped, his own sword thrown uselessly to the ground. He’d been in worse situations, and he’d made it out of them…but there was something about this person, this night-like assailant, that screamed fatality.
The attacker didn’t speak, or make any move to remove the scarf that covered everything but the eyes. Startling eyes, they were, he thought, as he was forced to stare into them – a black so deep they seemed to encapsulate the night itself. Instead, the person raised a wrist, and with a quick flourish, let a thin piece of black cloth tied around it fall to the ground. Previously concealed by it, and now open for him to see, was a strange mark on his attacker’s wrist:
Almost as if entranced, his arms fell limp. He knew that mark.
Words, from a voice long lost, echoed in his mind: “This mark is your safety. Stay alive…stay true to yourself. I love you, Jay. Remember that.”
As he let his guard down, the assailant dropped the weapon held to his throat and reached up to remove the black cloth from the rest of the face. To his surprise, the attacker was not a man, as he’d expected, but a woman – a jarringly lovely woman with skin the color of mahogany. What astonished him most were the strands of black ink that wound from her jaw and across the right side of her face into the tattoo of a dragon breathing fire across her eye.
“Who are you?” he asked, immediately set back on the offensive, shocked that he’d been attacked and bested by someone so feminine.
“I’ve seen what you do,” the woman said, “and I’ve seen what you can do.”
“You followed me.”
The words came out hollow, and as a statement, not a question.
“I am many peoples’ shadow. Tonight, I have been yours.”
He simply gaped at her.
“You’ve brought a degree of justice to a world where justice is nearly a myth. Why?”
He shook his head. Her voice was like the trees – strong and sturdy, pragmatic…but there was inherent compassion in them when she spoke of justice.
“What is your name?”
Again, he shook his head. If there was one thing he knew, it was that he didn’t answer such questions, even in defeat…even faced with death.
She chuckled; it was a musical sound, like bells. Too pretty to be associated with this lethal panther of a woman. How long had it been since he’d last heard a woman’s laugh?
“What does ‘freedom’ mean to you?” she asked, then.
Freedom…the word rolled off his mind’s tongue, leaving sparks. The word intrigued him.
She bent to retrieve his sword and began to hand it back to him, but caught sight of the blood, now beginning to form a rusty red crust upon the normally resplendent metal. She paused. Taking the piece of cloth she’d shaken from her wrist, she wiped the blade clean, and then proceeded to hand it back to him. Then, though she had to reach up because of her diminutive height – he wondered vaguely why he hadn’t noticed it before – she placed a hand on his shoulder and steered him toward the path, urging him to walk with her. As if he had a choice in the matter.
The sparrows counted the hours with song: when the sun’s golden crown had begun to peek above the horizon, she was nodding and outstretching her hand to shake his. If anyone had been watching closely, they would have caught sight of imprints of twin stars of five prongs each, moving in conformity, imprinted upon the wrists, marking the formation of a bond.
He left after that, wandering back until the pavement gave way to grass. There, he dropped down at the base of an old elm and, thrusting the blade of his sword, the weapon he was tied to, into the ground beside him, leaned himself back against the tree’s thick, rough trunk and settled in for the day. He’d wait there until the sun sank again, and dusk came once more to greet him with its bloody, bonfire fingers, signaling that night, in all its dark, cloaking glory and refuge, was to be born again.