The Truth Behind the Flames. - *Movella of the Year 2016*

Before you judge me and tell me that it was all worth it in the end, ask yourself one question, one question only before you read on: what was it all for?

They say that we are judged by the choices we make. They are what define us and on June the 25th, 2414, I chose wrong.

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15. Part Three - Six Months later.

Six months. It felt like an eternity and yet no time at all. Nothing had changed and yet everything had changed.

As I sat in the town of ghosts, I took a deep breath and let the memories wash over me. The day of my escape remained vivid in my mind even as time slipped past with little acknowledgement.

***

The weight on my shoulders pulled me down as I forced myself to move through the forest and away from the memories. The night burned amber as the sun retreated back to safety, fleeing from the chaos that this day had become. Within the space of twelve hours, thousands of people had been condemned to death and I had realised that everything that I fought for was nothing more than a lie.

It was too much.

It was all too much.

How many times could I fall apart?

Lifting my head, I could almost smell the thick smoke in the air as it bellowed into the sky. It seemed like miles away although it could have been closer or even further away. The forest seemed to distort distance as I ploughed on through with only hope forcing me onwards.

Almost an hour later, the darkness had moved in. I could feel the exhaustion seeping through my bones as each step jarred me back into reality. Just ahead of me, I could see silhouettes carving their way through the night as I continued to move closer. More than anything, I wanted to rest – I wanted to collapse in a warm bed and sleep away my troubles.

With my energy fading, I let my feet carry me into the centre of the circle of huts as the crackling of flames filled my ears. I let out a shuddering breath as my balance momentarily wavered. For a few moments, I stood, examining the ring of eight buildings that surrounded me. The open campfire by my side radiated warmth as I took a moment to bask beneath the orange light.

“Hello?”

I spun around, following the voice back to the source. There was a woman staring at me with curiosity blazing in her eyes. She couldn’t have been older that thirty five but the flickering light that cast itself on her features made her look older. Her faded hair was woven into a neat plait as she gazed at me – almost expectantly. I wondered how I must have looked in her eyes.

Tired. Shattered. Broken.

“I-” I fought to compose myself beneath the eyes that judged me. “I need somewhere to rest for a few days. I’m sorry. I-” I struggled to take a breath as my eyes lingered on the open flames. They’d taken everything from me but still, I was left to suffer.

A few other individuals seemed to have exited their homes as I stood, battling to keep myself together. I could feel their eyes examining me as silence echoed through the valley. They swapped looks of morbid curiously before the woman began to speak.

“Come with me.” As if noticing the question in her eyes, the woman smiled. “You look like you’re about to fall over.”

A soft laugh escaped from my lips as I accepted her kindness – clinging onto whatever I could as the tide tried to drag me away.

Half an hour later, I found myself wrapped in a blanket by the woman’s fire place after having eaten a pack of rations. If anything, I felt worse.  As if noticing my discomfort, the woman tried to start a conversation as I drew my gaze away from the roaring flames.

“So,” she began, “what’s your name?”

I took a deep breath before answering.

“Becca Jones. And you?”

I only hoped that my lie was convincing enough. I knew that no matter what happened, if Becca’s name was said, I would always look to see if she was there. The woman nodded, accepting my words before placing herself down opposite me.

“Freya Williams. Nice to meet you.”

In response, I couldn’t help but smile. War often brought out the worst in people but sometimes, it brought out the best.

“What brings you here?”

 Hazel brown eyes stared at me as I took a deep breath and began to formulate a story in my mind. The easiest way to sell a lie was to keep it similar to the truth.

“My home was destroyed. My parents were killed so I ran. I had to get away and here I am.”

Placing a hand on my shoulder, I swallowed down my guilt as her forehead creased and sympathy filled her gaze.

“You can stay here for as long as you need.”

I had to choke back a sob as the truth began to sink in. A few more days and this would all be over. The virus would take over and Freya and the others would be snatched away. It hurt me to know that these kind, innocent people would be the victims of circumstances beyond their control.

And that’s what I was: a victim of my circumstances.

None of this was right and none of this was fair. But there was nothing that I could do. I’d done this and now I would have to witness what happened next. I had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do and nothing left to fight for.

“Thank you.”

And I meant it.

One day passed. And the next. And then a third.

Each moment I spent praying, hoping with everything I had. The Council could have made a mistake – the virus might not work. I knew that fighting against the inevitable was futile but what else could I do?

But of course, it didn’t last.

On the fourth day, everything went to hell.

I woke up to the sound of shallow coughing.

In that moment, I knew. It was too late. I had failed and there was nothing that I could do to prevent the oncoming storm. I knew that after everything I’d done, there was no way to win.

I shot to my feet, battling the dizziness as I gave my eyes a moment to adjust to the blazing light.

“Freya?” I called out, the fear my voice rising to the surface.

“It’s nothing, Becca. Just a cough.”

She looked pale and her eyes looked not quite in focus.

“We’re running low on firewood. Would you get some more?”

“Of course.” Picking up the axe from the table top, I made my way into the outskirts of the little village and began to carve up a toppled tree. Using my anger, the axe tore through sheet after sheet of wood until I had collected enough for my task. Letting out a deep breath, I closed my eyes for a moment – standing beneath the heat of the sun – enjoying the silence.

It was then that I heard the screaming.

Dropping the wood, I bolted back to the village with my heart racing inside of my chest. I bit down on my lips as I reached the circle of houses only to see a young woman screaming.

“What happened?” I found myself asking, already knowing the answer but needing to hear it anyway.

“The illness. The illness took my son.” I watched as tears flooded down the woman’s cheeks, glistening beneath the spotlight of the sun.

Shaking my head, I knew that this was only the beginning. One by one, I knew it would take them.

And I was right.

Six hours later, I found myself by Freya’s bedside, watching as she faded away into the darkness. Her eyes were dull and her skin was a ghostly shade of white.

“I’m so sorry.” I whispered to her. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” she replied, wincing as the words burned through her throat. I shook my head, biting back the tears. For her, I had to be strong. But she needed to hear the truth - she deserved that at least. She taken me in with no real reason to and now she was dying by my hand. I needed to confess before the despair consumed me whole.

“It is my fault.”

“No…”she muttered softly. After a few moments of calculating silence, she looked up at me with confusion in her eyes. “Why- Why would you say that? Why?”

I let out a choked sob as the familiar pain of grief shot through me.

“Because it’s true. I did this. I did this to all of you. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to but I was betrayed. I was lied to but it’s all my fault.”

“What happened?” Her voice sounded weaker as she closed her eyes and listened to my tale. With nothing left to lose, I confessed. I explained everything with my voice breaking at every opportunity. When I got to the end of my tale, the sun was beginning to sneak beneath the depths of the horizon.

Freya stared at me for a few moments, the strength fading from her body as I watched. Bitter emotion flashed across her eyes as she whispered two words that almost broke my heart.

“Leave me.”

I nodded, finally letting the tears come falling down.

“I’m so sorry.”  And I was. This was my doing and I would never forgive myself. As I reached the door, I wanted to say so much more.

But as I looked back, it was too late.

Freya’s eyes were closed and she was gone.

“Freya…”

Moving over to her bedside, I placed two fingers on her wrist and waited. One moment. Then another. But there was nothing.

She was gone.

For a moment, I was too numb to move. And then the pain hit.

I fell to my knees, gritting my teeth and waiting for the agony to pass. I clenched my fists, punching the floor with all of my might until the sobs bursts through. I felt a scream tear its way through my throat as for once, I let my emotions win.

How much more of this could I bare?

This had to end and one way or another, I would be the one to end it.

But for now I would grieve and I would reflect.

Because later, I swore to myself that I would fight back. I had to because no one else was left.

***

All of that was gone now. All of those lives and those innocent people were gone because of the Council’s blindness.

Even after all this time, the pain was still raw.

It was over; the war was over, but not in the way anyone had expected. And of course, the blame was on me. Of course, I was responsible for changing the formula and of course I was solely the one to blame.

Smiling sadly at the memory as I kindled the warm flames, I could still smell blood in the air, even after all these months. I could still remember the look in Freya’s eyes as I had confessed.

It wasn’t fair. None of this was fair.

But I had to continue. I’d survived for a reason.

For now, all that I could do was wait.

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