And then she woke up. The room around her swirled back into existence, spinning around as she tried to lift her aching head and then settling back into place like it was no more substantial than a dream land. There was someone calling her, of that she was faintly aware, but the words made no sense, they made no more sense to her than the sounds animals made, just noise. She wrinkled her brow and tried to still her swaying head so that she could find the source. A smudge of red hair. Must be ginger. As her eyes focused, she saw that his whole chest was covered with blood, darkening the deep blue in his uniform to a muddy brown. His mouth was opening and closing as she watched him, and there was a look of extreme worry on his face. What was he worrying about? He was looking at something. She wondered what, rather sleepily. Somewhere just below her chin, perhaps.
She glanced down, her chin dropping to the base of her neck in one sudden jerk, over which she had little control. As she tried to concentrate on what she was looking for, her head began swaying dizzily from side to side as if she were floating in water, or had woken from a dream in which she was. With a sense of only slightly piqued interest, she felt as well as saw the liquid sheet of blood that was covering the whole of her neck and that was, as she watched, progressing down onto the torn collar of her uniform and dripping from there onto the wooden floorboards on which she lay. With her movement, she became aware of the burning sensation that accompanied the steady flow of blood. She held a hand to her jugular and felt the wetness that emanated from the skin there. Her fingers could feel no gash, as she had expected, but still the blood welled up from somewhere as if desperate to evacuate her stinging body. Her voice came out like a crack. “What happene…”
But ginger wasn’t looking at her anymore, his attention had moved to somewhere directly behind her, the look on his face having morphed into something more like fear than worry. Pure terror, in fact. His blue eyes wider that seemed possible, white around the edges like that of a bolting horse, the sparse blonde of his eyebrows pushed so close together they almost met in the middle, his mouth a terrible and distorted shape, and his waxy skin shining dully with sweat.
She felt the prickling of cold sweat behind her ears, that face did not give her a good feeling. She couldn’t lift or turn her neck because of the pain, but she knew she could twist her torso just enough to see what was behind her. The only thing was, she wasn’t sure she wanted to see at all. Not if that was the expression it warranted. Still, her back was tingling, goading her to see what it was. She had always wondered why fear did that to people. Why we wanted to see it face on, what so terrified us. Surely just running would be the best option, but she knew she couldn’t have peace of mind unless she had seen its face. She rolled her big eyes to the side, as far as they could go, and turned as much as she dared with a movement so slow she couldn’t even be sure she was moving at all. Through the edge of her vision, among the greyness of the blur, she saw him there, a bright figure occupying the flat darkness in front of the window. The brightening midday light from outside silhouetted him there, white blonde hair forming a ghostly halo around his shadowed face. She could have sworn he looked like an angel, were it not for the fresh blood dragged across his mouth like smeared lipstick. That and the way he was returning ginger’s fearful look with those golden eyes feral, and his mouth mangled into a snarl, revealing those sharp little teeth that were dyed a glossy red rather than their usual startling white.
“Clancy.” He snarled, she felt her breath catch in surprise at hearing his normal voice come out of the distorted face she saw before her.
“Murphy.” Ginger gulped, not moving from where he crouched about a metre from where she was laying. He glanced at her briefly and nodded his head slightly to the side. She cocked her head. She was sure he was trying to tell her something, but hell if she knew what it was. Run away? She looked back at Murphy, surely that wasn’t possible. Not with him standing just there. And where would she run anyway, she could hardly move with this pain, so she’d be surprised if she could even get out of the room, even if he wasn’t going to catch her as soon as she made a move.
“You shouldn’t have come, either.” Was that sadness she heard in his voice? No, just disappointment.
“If I hadn’t you would have killed her!” Ginger shouted back, suddenly enraged. Maybe the disappointed tone of his voice had hit a sore point. Once again, he looked down at her, taking in the pool of blood that was spreading under the base of her neck and around her head. She knew it was there only because of the warmth of it as it soaked up into her hair and through to her scalp. It seemed to be getting warmer as her body got colder. Almost comforting. She wanted to slip back into it, feel the life blood within herself again. She coughed, and her throat felt like it was ripping. Was this what it felt like to die? She wished it would come at last, at least in death she wouldn’t feel this pain.
“And now I have to kill you too.” Murphy whispered.
“You don’t have to, Murphy, just give yourself up, we can stop this now.”
He shook his head, as slow as her breath was now moving her chest. “You are as far into this as I am, Clancy, you shot that man, remember? We’re both in for it if I give up now. That can’t be what you want.”
She turned her eyes back to ginger, away from the tempting figure, as she heard a sob in his voice. “I don’t care anymore, Murphy. I really don’t.” Tears fell though he kept his eyes wide, they were almost the same stinging red as the blood she was admiring atop her fingertips. “I’d rather be locked away than go along with your plan any longer.” A plan? Murphy’s? She wished they would give more details, but she didn’t think she had the voice left to ask.
“My plan!” Murphy laughed shortly. “You don’t even know half of it, child.” He looked almost as hysterical as he did angelic as he threw his head back with that horrifically happy grin plastered upon his blood-stained face. “And fortunately, it doesn’t involve you any longer. Your role is over, Clancy, all you are to me now is a liability.”
“You’re saying you will kill me regardless of what I do.” The tear tracks glistened on his round, freckled face. She almost wanted to comfort him herself. Surely, death was not a thing worth crying about. Regret more so. She almost wanted to cry for not having caught Murphy at last. Dying with that regret hurt her more than this throbbing pain in her neck, or the stab of freezing water that was replacing the blood in her veins. The frustration could nearly give her the energy to get back up, if only her body would co-operate. But it seemed her mind and body were no longer getting on. All she could move was from her forearms down. And her eyes of course. They were flickering from side to side like the flies that were darting around just too close to the tips of her eyelashes.
He smirked. “Now don’t go getting any ideas, Clancy, there’s no point doing something stupid like attacking me. I see that gun you’ve got your hands on and I’ll just let you know now that it will not have the effect you desire, kid. Surely you must have worked that out by now.”
“Yes,” his voice shook as his hand loosened on the gun behind his back, letting its barrel tap against the floor, “I know what you are.”
Lahel didn’t even bother trying to work out what that meant, her head was already aching from just trying to keep herself awake.
“You do, do you? Well I am impressed, no one else has got anywhere near close to what I am. In fact, I’m not sure even I know what I really am.”
“You’re a murderer.” He spat, looking down at the floor before him desolately. Lahel heard the metallic clatter of the gun hitting the floor as he gave up completely.
“No, no.” Murphy held his head in his hands for a second, melodramatically demonstrating his disappointment in that answer. “That’s not right at all. Not to mention that you are just as much a murderer as I.”
“I only did it because you told me to!”
“Ah! The old debate. Just because I told you to jump of a bridge doesn’t mean you should do it. I may have told you to, but I didn’t make you do anything. Did I pull the trigger? Did I give you the gun? No, I did neither, it was you and your Guard which made you kill him. And they made me kill too.”
“What do you mean? The Guard had nothing to do with this. This was you, and you alone.” He should have sounded angry, but there was nothing left in him.
“They have more to do with this than you know, child.” His way of speaking made him seem ancient sometimes, she had noticed that before, like we were all nothing but tiny children before his eyes. “You know, if only they hadn’t killed her, maybe nothing would have turned out like this. This is all for the sake of my revenge, you have to understand, and I cannot and will not have you ruining it,” he nodded towards both of them casually, “either of you.” She had hoped he had forgotten she was there at this point, but this little mention was there to assure her that he hadn’t. He took a step towards them. She sighed slightly. Looked like she was going to die by his hand after all. What a way to add insult to injury. As he came forward, towards her, ginger flinched backwards. Some hero he turned out to be. Not that she had expected better. She drew her hand up to her throat automatically, clenching it over the wound and feeling the blood flow from between her fingers. But just as the adrenaline was beginning to heat the middle of her spine, a trumpet call sounded through the dusty air of the street, from the direction of the town square.
He paused his advance. “That time already?” He asked, calmly, eyes flicking down as he pulled a watch from his pocket. He dangled it in front of his eyes. “I never understood the way you people obsess over time until recently. It turns out to be quite the useful tool when you have something to look forward to. But, shame, it looks as if I have no time to spend on you two after all.” He said it with a shake of his head as if it were a bad thing, but she couldn’t help but notice he seemed slightly relieved. “I apologise.”
He let the watch drop to the floor and continued walking towards her. But as he got close, instead of coming to her, he bent down in a graceful movement to grab the gun that lay, discarded, beside her. She wished she wasn’t as thankful as she was when he pulled away without reaching out to her, but as she watched him inspect the gun in his hand, open it to see the bullets, and note, with a raised eyebrow at her, that the safety was off, she felt frustration take her. Damn, she hadn’t even realised it was still there, where she had dropped it. Maybe she could have done something? No, she knew she could hardly feel her hands, and that there was no way she could have held the gun hard enough to actually achieve the accurate aim she would need to even wound him. That didn’t stop her from regretting it though. He would have taken it from her as soon as he noticed she was holding it, sure, but maybe when he was watching ginger and worrying about his weapon, she could have got a lucky shot in there. That reminded her; ginger still had his gun. But, no, of course not. Murphy was already strolling towards him as well, pulling it gently from his grip while he crouched there still, frozen and un-reacting. He even leaned over and unclipped ginger’s Guard belt, leaving nothing forgotten.
Well, there were all their chances gone, she thought soberly. And she really had wanted to catch him, instead here she was, the one dying while he walked away, absolutely unharmed. In fact, he looked healthier than ever, even a bit sprightly, where he usually had tired bags under his eyes, he was now bright-faced and smooth, his step that was usually lazily languid was transformed to one that was quick and deliberate. He even had a smiling flush on his cheeks, looking more alive than he ever had. He took the handcuffs from ginger’s belt and clasped them around his wrists at his back. She could do nothing but watch as he walked to the window and opened it fully.
“Sorry, Lahel.” He said, looking back. “Bleeding out here was not what I would have planned for you. If only you had given me some warning that you were going to pull this little stunt, I would have had more time for preparation and perhaps I could have thought of something a lot less painful.” She looked at him, watching his long hair curl in the breeze, and smiled a little.
“I have a feeling you would have thought of something even worse had you the time.” She croaked.
He grinned back. “Trust me, I wouldn’t. I’m not even sure I could think of anything worse.”
“Ah, it’s not so bad.” She coughed violently, tasting the blood on her lips. “At least I don’t have to look at your face any longer.”
He laughed. “No, you are free from me at last, it seems.” Then he turned away, towards the daylight.
And as he jumped from the open window onto the street below, she laughed with him silently and let her head roll back to look up at the ceiling. Her hand dropped from her neck. So, this was it. She smoothed her other hand down her uniform, trying to iron out the wrinkles in the ripped fabric, though she knew there wasn’t much use trying to look presentable if she was going to die like this, in a puddle of blood among these corpses of animals and clots of flies. As she ran her hand over her pocket she felt something there, a jagged lump under the stiff fabric. Her heart thumped once, heavily. Surely not. But even as she dug her hand in she knew it was the key, the one to the Guard handcuffs she had put in there the day the General put her on leave. She looked over with a sudden revelation to the unresponsive figure at her side. He was laying down now, his back turned to her as if in representation of his mindset. She knew he had already given up, but she could see the handcuffs holding his wrists together only a metre away from her.
“Ginger.” She coughed, and felt a twinge of annoyance at his lack of reaction. “Ginger!” She was going to lose her voice before he heard if she wasn’t careful, every word was now cut short by a guttural cough. She saw his head move a little at that second time. So, he could hear then. “You better get your act together, Clancy. I’ve got the key.”
He twisted his head to face her, the greasy waxiness of his face lit by the cold light of outside. “The key?” He whispered.
“Yes.” She let her hand flop open so he could see where it lay in her palm. “For the cuffs.”
She watched as hope lightened his eyes for a second, then quickly fled. He sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “There’s no point, Lahel. I deserve this. I don’t care what happens to me anymore. He was right, I killed someone. I don’t even deserve to live.”
She gritted her teeth. “It’s all fine with me if you want to give yourself in or die or whatever, but, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m dying here and unlike you, I haven’t done anything wrong.” She had spoken too much: the coughs were wracking her body into painful spasms that she couldn’t stop. They made her lightheaded, so much so that her eyes were closing themselves to consciousness.
“Oh, right.” He exclaimed, as if he had just realised this. “Unlock me then, if you can. Nevan sent me here to make sure you were alright: he’ll kill me if I let you die.” He wormed his back closer to her and held his wrists out behind him so she could get better access.
“I thought you didn’t care what happened to you.” She grumbled, unamused, as she negotiated the key carefully between her finger and thumb. Her hands were getting clumsy, she just hoped she was going to be able to unlock the cuffs. She jammed the tiny key into the lock and hit it with the heel of her palm to turn it, she released a relieved breath as she heard the click and saw him flex his hands to make them come loose. Thank God.
He quickly pulled his wrists from the cold metal and sat up, turning to her as she did. He inspected the wound on her neck with a look of horror. “Lahel, this is really bad. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“I know.” She growled. “Get something to tie around it, quickly.”
“I haven’t got anything.” He looked around at the room full of nothing but dead animals, with his arms out at his sides in desperation. “What should I do?” He looked at her.
The man really was useless, it was like he had no ideas of his own. “Use your shirt you fool.” She wished she could still shout at him, but her throat was really protesting now, and the blood dripping from his mouth was worrying her considerably.
“Hey, don’t close your eyes.” He shook her shoulder slightly, but she didn’t open them. After a while she felt something soft touch her neck. “Here you go, you’re going to be just fine.” He tightened it gently, making her wince. She put her hand up to it, even this thick fabric was already sopping. She wasn’t sure how long it would hold.
“I’ll close them if I want to, Sergeant, all you have to do is get me out of here, not give me advice on the etiquette of bleeding out. I need to get to the General, and quickly. Murphy’s got something planned for the Empire’s visit, for sure. And he needs to know he’s the murderer. We need to stop him, now, he’ll be at the town square and ready to enact his plan in no time.”
His voice had a confused and exasperated note when he next spoke. “I really don’t understand you Lahel. How can you think about the Guard and that when you’re lying there, dying? I would be worrying about myself before anyone else if I was in your condition.”
“You don’t have to understand me, just get me to the General, and quick.”
“Fine.” He snapped, and soon she felt his hands tuck under her legs and neck. He stood up with her in his arms, his skin warm on her shivering side. “To the General then.” She closed her eyes as he moved, and the pain hit her. The blackness washed over her eyes. “No worries.” He said, rather sarcastically. “You just sleep then, I’ll tell Nevan everything.” And with that she fell into the darkness.