Somewhere, a girl is screaming.
Her voice is almost lost in the ocean of ash and death and embers, but it reaches me somehow - a dying songbird's final, half-choked melody of agony. And I cling to it. I cling to her life as I stagger past the scorched corpses of strangers, and I don't know whether I'm seeking her out to save her or shut her up.
I turn into the town square. The dead are everywhere, clinging to each other as they once clung to hope. They ran to the place they felt safe, but to the Beast, a crowded sanctuary screams target, and he spares none.
And this is the aftermath: lingering smoke that stays to drag down the spirits of the dead and choke the hearts of the living. The ash has always found me, carried upon the wind from whichever town or village the Beast has chosen last, but today? Today, the ash is everywhere, filling my vision with the familiar greys that seem somehow more sinister up close, strangling the girl's dying screams, clinging to my skin in a promise of death - one day, it will not be ash dancing around me, but flames. The Beast's flames, raging with a parasitic hatred, the kind the world pours into you until you are overflowing with it, and when there is so much loathing that it spills from your lips in waves, it starts drowning others, corrupting them or hurting them, and soon the hatred consumes you, and you turn it into violence because you don't know what to do with it.
The world weaves a web of hatred, and that web catches all who dare to be different. And from the hatred come monsters like the Beast, and from the monsters come towns like this.
Normally, I avoid these towns. Normally, I stay one step ahead of the Beast; I flee, and he scorches promises of death into whatever gets in his way. Normally, the ash carries every whisper of my fate towards me, and I just keep running. But I haven't had even half a night's sleep in weeks, and I thought that maybe I would set the Beast a false trail to follow before retracing his steps.
After all, the Beast never looks back. The Beast looks ahead and seeks out the next target, because no matter how hard I try to run to uninhabited land, human beings are almost as parasitic as hatred - they are everywhere, the Beast is drawn to them, and he will destroy them. The memory of their fragile existence will turn to dust, scattered within time's uncaring waters, and the Beast will never care.
But right now, there is a girl alive. She is not yet ash and her town is not yet dust; I want to keep it that way for now, because as self-serving as I must be to survive, I have to keep at least a few fragile shards of my humanity alive with me. If I don't, I become an empty shell, as bad as the Beast. Letting go of who you are is worse than death.
And so when I find the girl, I try to push the despair from my veins as I edge closer, because despair is one of those things that feeds on fear and sorrow and frustration, and it seeps from one host to another and shackles every scrap of logical thought your broken mind can muster.
She's clutching the body of another girl close to her chest, her feeble cries sobbed into the shoulder of the corpse, and she does not notice my approach. We're probably the same age - and both alone, too. Her face is blackened, the skin beneath marred and twisted. It looks like an old scar - another fire, another tragedy. I pity her misfortune.
I kneel beside her, and when she notices me and chokes on a scream, I shake my head and tell her, "I'm not with the Beast. He wants to kill me, too." The script of terror has already been carved into her heart and soul and dreams, and she will follow its directions until she dies, but I am giving her a chance to survive past the first act, and for the sake of both her and my conscience, I hope she takes it. "We can leave. The Beast has never left survivors before, except me, and you'll survive if you take my hand right now and you leave all this behind."
She's still hugging the body close to her. "Was she your friend?" I ask.
"Sister," the girl whispers, and her words barely make it through her trembling lips.
"Then you have to keep going for her. You have to remember her, because nobody else will. The Beast stole her life, but he can't steal her memory if you survive to keep it. So keep going for her, and for the town, and for everything here that you can save."
"It's all already gone," she chokes.
"Not in here." I place a hand over my chest. "Not while you live."
The words I have to tell myself every day, because sometimes words are the only armour against the cruelty of this world, and if I do not keep them close to me, I will be beaten down and will forget what it is to get back up.
The girl looks back down to her sister, and pulls her closer. I'm about to keep talking when the girl sets her sister on the ground, her fingers trembling but gentle as she unclasps a pendant from her sister's neck and slips it around her own. Her eyes are so full of emptiness, and it's like looking into my own past, gazing back to the orphaned girl whose world was incinerated because of the witch magic running through her veins.
I stand, and offer the girl my hand. The past builds us, but when the present comes rushing in, you must stand and face that instead. The broken shards of my past-self's shattered dreams cannot cut into me now: there is somebody else like me, and she depends upon me.
"I'm Lillian," I say.
"Elvira," she says, and takes my hand.
For two hours, we've been battling the mountain snow with only the wind's mournful song to fill the silence between us, and it's a relief when we find the cave. We stumble inside and shake the snowflake's kisses from our cloaks before I head to the back of the cave and slip my bag from my shoulders.
"No fire," I say. "I have food, if you're hungry."
I can see her shake her head in the faint hum of moonlight that creeps in. "I'm not. But... thank you."
I shrug. "Can I ask you something?"
Elvira nods, but a flicker of fear dances across her expression.
"Why are you still alive? The Beast doesn't normally leave survivors."
"I passed out," she whispers. "I... Maybe it was the smoke, I don't know, but I passed out. So maybe he thought I was dead. And I might have stayed there with my sister, if you hadn't come." Elvira's lips twist upwards - a ghost of a smile I never thought I'd see her make. "You're so brave."
If I were brave, I would stop running from the ash. Thing is, bravery is a tightrope across a chasm of idiocy, and terror has a tendency to steal your sense of balance. And when you get to the end of the tightrope, you're a hero - but these days hero is a synonym for sacrificial idiot, and considering I'm only helping this girl to chase away my own solitude and guilt, I'm going to remain standing on the edge of cowardice, and I'm not going to fall.
"I'm not brave," I say eventually, and when her lips part in the beginnings of objection, I keep talking to shut her up. "Anybody would've done it."
"Most people would've left me. Nobody bothers with the ugly. We... They used to call us the Ugly Sisters." There is a gentle mourning coating her words - not the bitterness of blame, but the monotonous acceptance of the world's twisted eyesight.
"Did you see our faces? We were in a fire, when we were younger. So we look hideous. And the world hates us for it."
"It shouldn't," I say, and she studies me like she's trying to decide whether I'm kind or crazy. "I've been running from the Beast for weeks. He's ugly. Not you."
"But most people don't see it," Elvira says, and the shadows of the cave wrap her in misery.
"Most people are stupid. You shouldn't judge by what you are or what you look like, but what you do." A witch and an ugly sister. What a pair we make.
She smiles again, just a little, and it surprises me once more. That she can find the strength to smile when the ashes and the snow and the death are dragging my own lips into a scowl.
"I wish everybody thought like that. My sister and my parents... They were in the fire, too. My father didn't make it. And my mother remarried eventually, but her new husband died, and we had to look after his daughter. Cinderella." Elvira whispers the name like a deadly secret, and I wonder why she's telling me, of all people. "She wanted power. She wanted it so much that her lust for it drove her mad - and we tried to keep her in the house, but she slipped away to the royal ball. To find the prince, the night before his coronation." Her words are filled with regret, but I am hooked by them.
"We tried to warn him, but nobody listens to society's most hideous. So Cinderella killed him and stole his crown, and she blamed us. And the kingdom believed her, because she is beautiful and we were not." Elvira sighs before speaking again. "And they exiled us, my mother and my sister and I, and when Cinderella's new admirers started attacking us as we tried to leave, my mother was killed."
"Why are you telling me this?" I ask.
"Because you're the first person I've met who will listen," she says softly, and her eyes meet mine, a locked gaze of gratitude and understanding as she adds, "You give me hope, Lillian. And that's a rare thing, these days."
I want to tell her that it's more than rare - that it's a glass illusion that cuts you when it shatters. But there is something stubborn in the way she looks at me, and it's something beautiful, and it's something I've never seen in myself because the fear has always won out.
"Then thank you for telling me," I say eventually.
"And you? Why are you here?"
"I have witch magic flowing through my blood. So did my mother, and my own sisters. People fear witches, and when they found out about us, they told the Beast where to find us." I don't need to tell her what happened to them after that. There is an emptiness in my eyes that screams it all for me.
"Witch magic?" she echoes.
"Yes. I'm a witch." I wait for the fear to come creeping into her, but it never does.
"That makes me feel safer, I think," she says, and I'm still trying to figure out how the word safe can come from the lips of a girl who's lost everything when she keeps talking. "I mean, people say they hate witches because they're scared of them, so... If the Beast ever catches up to us, you can use magic against him, can't you?"
"Witch magic can create curses, but it isn't made for fighting," I say. The same words I've drilled into my head, justification of my constant fleeing.
"But it could be adapted, couldn't it? I mean, people aren't made for killing. People are made for loving and caring and creating beautiful things, but they can still kill. So couldn't you-"
"No," I say firmly, because what she's suggesting is suicide, and living this empty, shallow life is worth it, if I can keep the memories of the dead from turning to dust. "We should sleep. The Beast is following a false trail right now, but he'll catch on, soon. This will be the last full night's sleep you'll get in a while."
"I'm sorry," she whispers, and I try to find the fear in her words. Is she scared that I'll curse her? Stab her in the back? "I'm sorry," she says again, and when I listen for her terror, I can only hear guilt. "You're not scary, Lillian. You know, human beings are unique - they're a maze of character and identity inside. They possess so much within, but they use exterior and blood as their weapon of judgement. We are the people we make ourselves to be, not the skin we wear or the blood we carry."
"Get some sleep," I say again, trying to pretend that the words don't resonate with some desperately lonely part of me. I turn away, wrapping my cloak around me, and close my eyes. When sleep wraps its chains around my mind, I do not resist.
I am trapped in the same memory again. I hear the Beast knocking at the door, the sound of his fist beating against the oak like a final beating of a heart, and panic pulses through me. My lungs are filled with silence, and as my mother goes to the door, my lips part in a scream robbed of sound. Helpless, desperate, doomed.
He is beautiful - porcelain skin, emerald eyes that seem to be overflowing with the life he's stolen, and hair as golden as the sun. People forget that the sun burns, sometimes, that it is merciless and heartless and dangerous.
"May I come in? I've had a long journey." His words are painted in honey, and my mother is but an oblivious bee as she succumbs to the nectar.
"Of course." There is a scarlet dusting upon her cheeks - he has that effect on everybody. Soon, it will not be scarlet, but deep crimson, spilling from her throat and drowning my world in violence.
He steps inside, and my mother closes the door. A death sentence, and his monstrosity is the ink that writes it.
"Witches, are you?" The moment he says it, time pauses, stopping in its endless rush for just a moment as though trying to warn us. And then the lost seconds tumble into each other once more, because even the mighty oceans of time cannot stop the Beast.
"They call me the Beast. Thank you for inviting me in," he purrs. "See, the problem with fire magic is that you need to be invited into home to use it on them."
A smirk tears across his lips, ripping through the masquerade of beauty and showing us the monster underneath.
It's too late.
My mother's blood is the first to spill, and still I am filled with silence and terror and help me, please, somebody help me, helpmehelpmehelpme...
My oldest sister grabs my arm and pushes me towards the door, but I can only stumble because this man has just killed my mother, her blood is on his blade, he killed her he killed her-
"Run!" my sister screams, flinging open the door and shoving me outside. When I turn back to look at her, there is crimson staining her chest and I am terrified, and a braver person would run back to fight with their family, but I am not brave and never will be.
So I run. I follow my sister's dying command. I feel my feet strike the ground, but I'm not there, I'm back in that room and all I can see is blood, seeping through every wall I have ever built and drowning my every confidence, and the Beast's eyes are emerald like the scales of a serpent, and his hair is golden like the cold, cold metal that doesn't care about anything but itself.
I look back, and my house is swallowed in flames, and all I can see is the red of fire and blood and fire and blood and they're dead, my sisters and my mother are dead, and I can only keep running.
The ash catches up to me, as it always does, always will. It gets my scent, and from the day my world turns to flame, it never forgets how to find me, and it will never let me go.
I wake up to hands gripping my shoulders and my name choked again and again from the tongue of a stranger.
"Lillian," Elvira whispers, and I realise that my every breath catches against the thorns of terror that line my throat and comes out ragged and desperate.
"A nightmare?" Elvira whispers.
"I get them all the time," I shrug, trying to push the conversation away. It doesn't work.
"So this is your life? Running and nightmares?"
"Yes," I say. "Running and nightmares."
"Is it worth it?" There is dread lingering behind her words, and I should weave another magnificent lie like the kind I tell myself to keep us both happy, but I've only just woken up and right now I just don't care.
"No." A single truth, trembling and alone among a sea of lies.
"I have to keep going for my family." An excuse.
Elvira frowns, and concern melts across her expression. "You need to learn to live for yourself before you learn to live for somebody else as well."
"Then what's worth living for? Because the Beast stole everything from me. He turned everything grey and he painted my new life in a thousand shades of misery." I realise that everything I say is dripping in a venomous self-loathing, but the ability to care must have been torn away by the nightmare. "And besides, you agreed to live on for your sister, when I found you."
"I did that because I can already live for myself. I can still see in colour. I can see the hope in your heart, I can see the potential when everybody else can find only failure. And yes, the Beast has stolen everything and drowned it all in grey. But grey and silver aren't so different, Lillian. You could find silver in the grey."
"There is no silver," I hiss, because she wouldn't know, and she doesn't understand this or me or anything.
"You can find anything, if you look hard enough," she tells me, and there is so much belief and passion and hope flowing through her words that I struggle to fight against them.
"And a happy ending? Can I find that? Can I ever stop running?" Pointless questions. The kind that you could whisper again and again and again, but the answers would either be false illusions or non-existent.
"I don't lie, Lillian. Somebody could stop the Beast. Imagine it. Somebody with powerful abilities, and then you could be free. You could do whatever you wanted."
I try to push the words away, because they're the whispers of idiocy that encourage me to fight, and I have never been a warrior.
"We make our own joy," she says to me, setting her hand on my shoulder as her eyes dance with the embers of excitement. Her words are reaching me, and she knows it. "So if somebody took him down, we could be free. Maybe we can find somebody strong enough. Life isn't fair. Life is just an endless night of cruelty and pain and loss, but you have to find the stars to make it worth it. We make our own stars, or we find them, but we don't let the darkness claim us. Without the stars, what's the point? You can't enjoy the journey if you can't see any of it." She is speaking in metaphor, like ordinary words aren't enough to capture what she wants to tell me, like she's thought this through before, like her emotions have etched themselves so deeply into her heart that they're scripted onto her tongue.
And I listen, because there is magic in what she says - magic more powerful than the Beast's, or mine, or anybody's, because the ability to make somebody feel can't take a life, but it can change one.
I think that Elvira and her words like molten poetry are going to change my life.
"So you're telling me that it isn't worth it, if I'm only seeing in grey? That if I can be happy, it'll be worth it? That my freedom will change things?"
"If freedom is what you want."
"It is," I whisper, and I know what I must do. "I want freedom."
Her lips are slowly tugging into a grin, her eyes are like the stars she spoke of, and I realise that I want something else, too.
I lean forwards, and when I press my lips to hers, she does not pull away.
I'm not kissing someone's ugly sister. I'm kissing a girl who finds colour in a world of grey and paints with it, filling canvass upon canvass with her sorrow and her joy and her hope. I'm kissing a girl who saved me from the depths of desperation with words alone, a girl who showed me silver when all I could see was ash grey and blood red.
I am kissing a girl who is beautiful, and she is kissing me back.
Something has exploded inside me, colours inside my chest that stain the world around me, colours that she has given me and colours that I will never let fade.
When we pull apart, the foreign sound of laughter is rolling from my tongue, and I don't know how to stop it, just that I'm laughing and I'm happy and I have never been happy, not since the Beast appeared.
This is not the fairy tale romance everybody dreams about. This is not the first kiss of two valiant royal-bloods, helplessly in love. This is impulse, this is a wildfire, and this is something that I want.
"I'm going to take him on," I breathe, and her grin dissolves into concern.
"I thought you weren't going to. That was never what I meant, Lillian, you don't have to-"
"But I want to. I want freedom, and I want somebody to stop him. So I will."
"This is what I want. This is me, taking control and giving myself a reason to keep going - a real reason - and this is what I want." There is a fire in my words, a strange warmth to replace the constant ice of my excuses and lies. I love the way it rolls from my tongue.
"Then let me go with you."
"No. You can stay safe, and if I don't come back-"
"Which you will," she cuts in, and I nod.
"I'll come back, but I want you to listen to me, just in case, okay? So I want you safe, because what I said about memories was true. And I trust you. I want you to have all of mine." Another impulse, controlling me completely, but impulse is a thousand times greater than fear. "Elvira, will you listen?"
She nods. "I will listen."
So I tell her everything, and she sits beside me, and she listens.
My mother's favourite colour. The way my sisters laughed and giggled when the autumn leaves fell and we could dance among them. Their names. Everything I remember, I tell to her, and she listens.
My mother always told me that my life is a story, that I can write it as I want. But the quill was snatched from me long ago, and I have been fleeing across empty pages of a book that has not, since the day the Beast took everything, been my own. And he had discarded my stolen quill, scorching his own words upon my pages and filling them with nightmares.
When I lean against Elvira, I'm not dreading a nightmare. Because for once, I will conquer my terror before it conquers me, and yes, I am terrified, but more than that I am filled with hope.
Letting the hope in makes you brave, because hope is a chance and not a blessing. But I've spent so long wearing the heavy cloak of grey, and for a change, I will clad myself in the silver armour of a heroine, and I will take back my story from the Beast. Because this is my book to write, and my ending will be written in silver.
Dawn's embers melt across the sky in pink and gold and red as I wait before the massacred town, and I see the Beast approaching from the distance. The arrogance spills from him in waves, but I have already chanted my curse, and I need one more thing to make it work.
The beautiful monster will not walk away from this.
"Come to fight me, witch?" His voice explodes from his lips, bursting with hatred and confidence, and I detest him. "You know you'll never win."
"You haven't been invited in," I call back, and my own words are quieter - but at least they are steady. "Your fire magic will be useless here." It's funny, how brave you can be before chaos kicks in. How having a goal and hope and a reason can give your heart the strength it needs to keep beating. I am terrified, but I will only let him see the determination.
"I can still use this," he calls back, unsheathing a sword. A bloodier fate, but a quicker one.
I take a step towards him, and when my legs do not crumble beneath me, I keep walking.
Neither of us slow down. Neither of us will, because we are two lions prowling, cloaked by our pride, ready to fight for everything. I would rather die a lion than live as a lamb.
He's close, now, and his emerald eyes scorch into my soul. I let him see it. I let him see the misery, the terror, the nightmares, and I let him see everything that made me brave enough to overcome it.
He breaks into a run, his sword raised, and my own feet start striking the ground, my dagger in one hand and the curse magic pulsing in the other, and when our blades first collide it feels like his power is bursting through his veins and slamming into me, a tsunami against my own shallow shore, and I barely keep gripping the dagger.
I stumble back, and he surges forwards, another slash towards me. I throw myself down and the blade cleaves through air, but he kicks out and there is pain in my chest, like my ribs are made of porcelain and they will shatter beneath his prowess.
But something inside me screams for victory, and without thinking about it I scramble up, the fear and exhilaration and instinct flooding my mind with commands and movements that I can barely keep up with because I have to win, I have to win, I havetowin Ihavetowin Ihavetowin-
The curse magic is beginning to fade, but I can't lose, not to him, not here, not after everything. So I let the impulsiveness swallow me again, that feral inferno that rages inside me and pushes me forwards. My dagger slices into his arm, but in my attack I have left myself open.
I see his sword before I feel it.
For a moment, I stare down at myself, unbelieving, gasping for breath because I still can't quite grasp it, because there was something in me that had screamed of victory. But this is not victory, this is a blade embedded in my chest and this is impossible because I was going to take everything back and win and save people.
The realisation is torture, and then the real pain kicks in - a searing agony like I am falling apart, and help me, please, please somebody help me, this was stupid and I shouldn't be here, and help me, and why does this hurt so much?
My blood is red, like everybody else's, and the sword is silver.
Silver, like the ink that writes the ending I cannot let go of. Silver, like Elvira's hope. Silver, not grey.
The yearning for victory is still there, somewhere, and I drag it from the depths of pain. The Beast's sneer burns into me, but I burn brighter.
I bring my dagger to my hand and I slice open my palm. My blood, and his.
The final condition.
The curse magic tears itself from my palm in a sudden outburst of light, and the Beast screams. My vision is blurring into darkness, but I can still see enough as his outer beauty dissolves beneath my light, as the fur pushes through his perfect skin, as his bones snap and bend and mould into something different.
His knees buckle beneath the weight of his monstrosity, and I have won.
I let myself fall, and I can see the colours of dawn - my dawn - and from the corner of my eye I can see the Beast, his ugliness finally festering at the surface. People's eyes can give them access only to shallow, petty waters, so I have given them a way to see the Beast's reality. The monster. The murderer. The Beast.
"Nobody will invite you in," I choke, trying to drown out the deafening agony in my chest. It will be gone, soon. "Nobody will invite you in, because they can see you. And they'll outcast you. So you can't hurt anybody any more." He is a warning sign - one that only love's kiss can turn back, but who can love something so monstrous?
His screams of fury are starting to fade away, now.
I am dying, but I am victorious. I will be dead, but my memories will not.
I think of Elvira. I think of my sisters. I think of my mother.
They were all warm - Elvira's words, my sisters' smiles, my mother's love. It is a warmth that holds me, even now, even when everything else is falling away.
I have saved people. I won, and my victory is written in silver upon a page of colour and hope.
The world fades away, but I can still feel the colour and the silver and the hope and the warmth.
I am free.