A plate of fresh fruit lay on the couch beside her as she sat staring out the window. A half-finished strawberry. A peeled orange, uneaten—just peeled and discarded. She slouched, her arms folded across her chest, her long dark braid coiled next to her like a snake. She stared out the window at the smoke and flames across the Windrose river. Little twists of black against the blue sky. Why was the sky blue today? You wondered. It should have been black.
You had been standing next to the door for hours with your gun at your side. Your legs ached. A part of you, a selfish part of you, wondered when you would be relieved from guard duty so that you could get some food. It was purely ceremonial, this posting, but it was an honor. As the son of a cabinet member, you had been awarded this post to keep your father happy. And it was an honor, but despite the prestige and energy of the generals on the other side of the room, you were board.
But the other part, the dedicated part with Basic Training still fresh and sharp and rank as sweat in your mind, would have stood beside that door until the palace collapsed around you. From your post you could see out the window to the smoke twisting up and up and up into the sky. You wondered which of your friends, your fellow soldiers, your brothers, were on the ground fighting… dying. Your very skin itched to get out there and fight for your country.
She sat silhouetted in the window. Her coiled hair glistened, each plait like scales. You watched as she ran her hand over her braid like it was a house pet. Something alive with blood coursing through it. Rufus stood behind her, his hands behind his back, his head bowed, the bright sunshine glinting off his scalp. You watched them from your post: your Eternals. Behind them, a table of generals and commanders, politicians and advisers, argued and bickered about how to quash the rebellion east of the river. But Loraine didn’t seem to hear them. She was above the petty arguing.
“They are getting closer,” Rufus said. His voice low and smooth like a drink of bronze and fire. His uniform was dark with sweat and dirt. He had been out in the field, out in the city and the streets and the chaos, directing, commanding, fighting. You wished you could be out there too, fighting the terrorists yourself. But this posting was a high honor, and you were thankful to serve wherever you were needed. At least, that’s what you told yourself.
“Hmm,” she replied, tilting her head to Rufus. “How many?”
Rufus flexed his jaw, but the movement was barely noticeable. “Almost two thousand.”
Her eyebrow went up. Your pulse quickened.
“That is more than yesterday,” Loraine said and stroked her coiled braid.
“Their numbers are growing.”
Rufus straightened his back, and his shoulders seemed to grow broader. “Yes.”
“And how long until they reach the city center?”
“If they break through the barricades… a few hours. Maybe less.”
Her voice dropped low, almost too low for you to hear, but not quite. “And have you found him yet?”
Rufus shifted his weight and leaned down closer to her. “Not yet.”
She stilled. “Then why are you still here?” Her eyes turned up to Rufus, her dark and deep eyes. They did not catch the sun as eyes should but seemed to glimmer from within.
Rufus bowed. “We will find him. Do not worry about that.”
“Worry? The Warrior Prophet is out there commanding thousands of terrorists against me, and their numbers grow by the hour, and you tell me not to worry?
“We will defeat them.”
“Yes, but the prophecy,” she said, and her voice caught. For a moment, she looked scared, and you told yourself you had not seen that: she was not afraid. The Eternal did not fear.
Rufus waved the thought aside with his hand. “Myth. Rumor.”
“This prophet has come to kill me. Hmm. He is no myth.
“And you are no mortal,” Rufus said. She reached up and took his hand in hers. It was an intimate and private gesture, and you saw it.
A uniform approached Rufus, whispered into his ear, and then left.
“Ah,” Rufus said, dropping her hand. “They have found him. They are bringing him in now.” Rufus turned and looked at the door. It opened, and you watched two soldiers drag an old man across the carpet. His blood dripped on the white softness beneath him. You wondered when this man had last felt softness, not that it mattered—he was a criminal, a terrorist, and he deserved death.
Loraine didn’t even bother to get up, but she turned her head to see him.
“Well,” she said. “The Warrior Prophet indeed.”
Beneath his cuffs and the neck of his shirt, you could see scars, the lacing of tattoos, and the beginnings of strange and ancient words. Eyes tattooed on the palms of his hands, Unseen eyes. The old man, lean and weathered, spat on the carpet a red glob.
“Lovely,” Loraine said. “Now, Jonah, tell your horde to stand down. It’s over.”
The old man laughed and pushed himself to his feet. “Over? Quite the opposite, in fact. Oh, didn’t they tell you?” the old man asked, gesturing to the soldiers behind him. “They didn’t catch me. I came to them. I turned myself in. Or they’d never have caught me, that’s for sure. They aren’t very well trained, are they? But that’s not their fault.”
The young soldiers flushed.
Loraine got to her feet and circled the prophet, her serpentine braid trailing on the ground after her, swishing this way and that way. “And why would you do that?” she asked the Warrior Prophet.
“Because I have a message for you,” he said and gave an exaggerated bow. “I have had a vision.”
Loraine turned on him suddenly, her braid whipping around after her and curling around her feet like a tail. “I’ve had enough of your prophecies. I have been hearing of visions for centuries. Hmm. What was the vision this time?”
“I have seen the end.”
Loraine rolled her eyes and groaned, a juvenile and disconcerting expression to see on the leader of the country. “Juliette saw the end. That’s not news. Come back when you have something original to say,” she said.
“Juliette saw foxes and stars and ghosts. And so have I. But I am not the final prophet, as I had hoped. That is what I have seen. Two more prophets will come after me. First, the Unseen Prophet will come. He will be your prophet for a time, after the Water Star falls. And he will suffer greatly. And then the Last Prophet will come. I have seen him… He is…” the old man paused, tears filled his eyes. “He is unique. When the Last Prophet fulfills his purpose and the Fox returns, then, like mighty waters meeting, then you will meet Perseus. Then Perseus will free the ghosts and end the darkness. Algol is falling. Perseus is coming. And you, Cetus, after the Unseen and the Last Prophet come, after you meet Perseus like a flood, then you will die.”
The room had gone quiet and still. The only movement you saw was the rising and writhing smoke in the distance.
Loraine stared at the old man for a long time, and the Warrior Prophet stared back.
“Is that all?” she asked.
“Yes. That is all. You may kill me now.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Hmm. Oh really?”
He shrugged. “My time has come. I am… I am not the Warrior Prophet I had hoped to be. I am not the final prophet. So, finish it already.”
Loraine grabbed Rufus’s gun and pointed it at the old prophet so quickly that you barely saw her move. The old man did not flinch.
“No,” Loraine said softly, after a moment. She held the weapon out to Rufus with one finger, and he returned it to his side. “You speak of foxes, yes? Rufus.”
The General Eternal stepped closer.
Loraine stared at the old prophet, and a slow and crooked smile filled her face. “What do foxes do when they’re stuck in trap?”
Rufus smiled, his teeth white and sharp. “They chew off their own leg to escape.”
“I think that’s what we’ll do then. Burn the city where the terrorists are. All of it.”
Your heart dropped.
“Wait, please,” the old man said, suddenly panicked. He fell forward to Loraine’s feet.
“All of it?” Rufus asked, but there was glee in his voice, and your scalp crawled.
“All of it. Nothing lives or stands past that barricade. I want that side of the city reduced to rubble and ash and smoke, do you understand?” she said to Rufus, ignoring the old man at her feet.
“Understood,” Rufus said. He moved off, speaking into a communicator.
“You have me. Let them go,” the old man said. “They were following me.”
Loraine turned her face to the old prophet, but she only watched him as he begged. Within minutes, the city on the east side of the river was in flames. You watched as a quarter of Windrose City Burned to orange and yellow and red flame. It happened so quickly….
You knew it was the right decision, the terrorists should be taught a lesson, but something inside your chest shifted and would not go back into place. You wondered if this was what a broken heart felt like, and what you were mourning.
“You should not have come here,” Loraine said gently to the weeping prophet, taking his face in her hands like a mother comforting her child. Her braid fell across the prophet like a serpent. “Now, take him away. Throw him in some small and cramped cell, and tell me when he finally dies,” she said. As the soldiers dragged the old man from the room, Loraine looked at him and said, “good-bye, my dear, dear friend.”