Shadow Marked

"There's a monster sweeping the land. An immortal being, bathed in blood, leaving nothing but fire and blood in it's wake. A nightmare not seen since the Age of the Gods. And the worst part? It looks just like the dead princess."

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1. Part 1

It felt like fire was crawling up his arms, each lick of flame searing his skin to the bone.
An inhuman scream tore from his lips, and he spasmed on the floor, every fibre of his being begging him to make it stop.
“Jak!”
Hands rolled him from his side to his back, and the image of his sister blurred before him.
“What the hell did you do, Jak? Tell me you didn’t use the book!”
He couldn’t have replied even if he’d wanted to. He wished for death. Death would be better than this never-ending fire tearing him apart.
“Jak? What th-” Lyra’s voice sounded far away, but he couldn’t mistake the fear in her tone. “What’s wrong with your hands?”

The moment she said it, he felt it.
The flames were leaving him, slowly, ever so slowly, starting from his fingertips, like the fire was being peeled back from him bit by bit, leaving a cool static sensation in its place.
His chest was heaving, and his throat felt shredded by his screams. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep. Just go to sleep, and pretend this night had never happened. That he’d never tried to use the Book, or the dark runes they spelt out. He’d wake up, and everything would be fine.
“Jak? Come on, Jak. Wake up!”
A palm connected with his cheek in one sharp slap, and he was prised from the hands of unconsciousness. He jolted upwards, his head nearly connecting with his sister’s.
His eyes found his hands, and his heart thudded to a standstill.

They were coated in black, as though they had been dipped in ink. And it didn’t stop at his hands.
From his wrists, up his forearm, all the way to his elbows, were painted in black. The colour smoked away at his elbow to reveal his natural skin, seeming unnaturally pale in comparison to the darkness.

“What did you do, Jak?” He tore his eyes from his arms to meet Lyra’s horror-filled gaze. “What in the name of the Gods did you do?”

 

***

 

He jolted awake, his arms echoing the burning torture they’d endured three years ago. Glancing down, his face twisted into a frown as he beheld his arms. So much time had passed, and yet it still surprised him to see the inky stains on his body.
Marks declaring his crime for all the world to see.
You deserve them. The words flitted bitterly through his mind. You should have to live with the reminder of what you did. She would have been twelve this summer.
Jak winced, and a fresh wave of guilt washed over him as the familiar ghostly eyes watched him from the corner of the room. If he closed his own, he could almost hear her whispering…
Your fault. Your fault. Your fault.
He buried his head in his hands, willing her to fade away, just for a little while. Just so he could have a moments peace.
Even though he didn’t deserve it.

Jak’s fingers dug into his skull, the sharp pain causing stars to dart across his eyelids. She hadn’t left. Of course she hadn’t. He could hear her breathing.
Wait… breathing?
His head whipped up, finding the corner of the room where eyes did indeed watch him.
But not the ghostly ones he had long become acquainted with. No, instead these were the same startlingly alive ones he had just seen in his memories.
“Lyra?” The single word choked him.
Her eyes flashed at his recognition. “Hello, brother.”

 

***

 

He scrambled to his feet, his stomach turning as his sister pushed away from the wall and stepped from the shadows.
The years hadn’t managed to change her entirely. She still possessed the same elfin features, and golden sun-kissed skin. His twin in everything but gender, where Jak was handsome, Lyra was beautiful.

She was so similar to the sister he had once known so well. But she was also unnervingly different.
There was a hard edge to her now. Her once delicate bone structure now seemed sharp. Her previously carefree demeanour now rigid. In fact, her whole body seemed tense, as though she were a tightly coiled snake, poised to attack.
Her face was cold as she regarded him, like she was staring at a stranger, and not the brother she had grown up with.
Not a stranger. The voice whispered through his mind, and he resisted the urge to place more distance between them. Like an enemy.
He stared at his sister with newfound trepidation. No, the woman before him was not the same sibling he had left behind three years ago.

“Surprised to see me, Jak?” She met his gaze, and a mean smile tugged at her lips when he merely stared back at her. “I’d be lost for words too, I think. It’s not every day your past catches up with you, is it?”
He shook himself out of his daze, finally finding his voice. “What do you want, Lyra?”
“You’re just as charming as I remembered. Of course, three years wouldn’t have changed that.” She crossed her arms. “No, ‘how are you?’, or ‘how have you been?’. No apology.” Her eyes narrowed, and a shiver danced up his spine at the barely-contained fury contained within them.
Her next words were a whisper. “No apology, Jak?”

The nightmarish memories lanced through his mind; images of blood, a burning pain, the screams of a child…
He shook the past away, refusing to let it drag him to that dark place when he needed to be firmly in the present.

“How did you even find me?”
“I spent weeks tracking you down. Going from town to town, bribing anyone for information on the Runaway Prince.” Her voice turned mocking at the title, and she rolled her eyes. “It’s all been a lot more effort than you’re worth.”
“Yeah? Then why bother, Lyra?” His temper snapped, propelled by the increasing guilt her presence was fuelling. “What the hell do you want?”

“I’m here to remind you of things you would probably rather forget!” She nodded as he flinched. “It’s been three years, and yet it feels like it was yesterday, doesn’t it?”
His eyes dropped from hers as his anger was snuffed out. The past danced across his eyes cruelly, guilty memories of a bloody night threatening to drag him down to a place he’d never surface from.
“You know, sometimes I think I see her?” Lyra’s voice was soft and vulnerable, and utterly heartbreaking, her rage momentarily buried beneath her pain. “She tells me she misses me.” She sucks in a breath, and her hands form fists. “She tells me she blames you.”

Horror clawed at his insides at that, and his voice was hollow when he spoke. “That night I… I made a mistake, Lyra.”
“A mistake?” She choked on a laugh. “You’re calling what you did a mistake?”
“I was young.”
It was a weak counter, and Lyra blazed with anger when she heard it.
“You were a fool! A Gods-forsaken fool! You opened a door between worlds and let in something that you had no hope of controlling. And now we’re all suffering the consequences of your stupidity.”

A muscle thrummed in Jak’s jaw at her words, and he couldn’t meet her eyes.
Pain coated his sister’s voice as she spoke again.
“Do you even remember Kalli? Do you even care that it was your fault?”
“Of course I remember her!” Familiar guilt ricocheted through him. The inky sheen up his forearms burned as the memory of that fateful night came flooding back to him in one painful burst, and he forced himself to meet her condemning gaze. “I’ve thought of nothing but her, and what I did, every day since I left!”

Disgust burned in Lyra’s eyes, and Jak had to force himself not to flinch. “That’s right! You left. You didn’t even stay to say goodbye to her. You didn’t see her in her coffin! You didn’t see what it did to our parents. To our people! You just left.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Lyra.” He felt sick, self-hatred carving a pit in his stomach. “If I could go back and take her place, I would! If I could go back and never discover the Book in the first place, I would! But I can’t! What’s done is done, and I have to live with it for the rest of my life.”

Lyra merely folded her arms and glared at him, her entire stance speaking volumes about exactly what she thought of him. Long-gone was the sibling-comradery they had once shared. There was too much blood between them now.
An entire child’s worth.

A fresh wave of guilt tore at the remaining shreds of his heart.
“What do you want from me, Lyra? You’ve hunted me down, and for what? Just to make me feel worse about myself?” A humourless laugh fell from his lips. “Because if so, you’re out of luck. You can’t make me hate myself more than I already do.”

Her eyes were flinty, nothing but resentment staring back at him. “I want you to come with me, and fix the Gods-forsaken mess you’ve made, Jak.”
Fear shot through him, and his hands clenched and unclenched as panic made a swift home in his chest. He forced it down, his face becoming a blank mask. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” Slowly, like a predator stalking its prey, she started moving towards him. “You must have heard what people are saying? There’s a monster sweeping the land. An immortal being, bathed in blood, leaving nothing but fire and death in its wake. A nightmare not seen since the Age of the Gods. And the worst part?” She stopped in front of him, and leaned in conspiratorially. “It looks just like the dead princess.”

His heart was hammering in his chest. Of course he had heard what people had been saying. When he stole into the market, sticking close to the shadows, he couldn’t help but hear.
… like a demon … back from the grave … hundreds slaughtered in the night ... princess
The first time he had heard the whispers, he’d backed into an alley and thrown up the contents of his stomach.
Kalli had watched him, her ghostly eyes unforgiving.
At a tavern, the whispers had followed him.
… her hair stained crimson … she smiles as she kills them …
He’d drowned his guilt in ale and immediately picked a fight with a muscled thug, hoping the pain of physical wounds would distract him from his inner torment.
Kalli had eyed his broken nose with a smile.
He had isolated himself from people and their whispers soon after that night.

Lyra took another step forward, jabbing her index finger into his chest, forcing him back.
“You didn’t close the veil, Jak. You banished it, but you left the door between our worlds wide open. And now it’s back, and it’s hungry. And by some sick twist of fate, it’s chosen the form of its first victim in this world. Our sister.”
A cold sweat ran down his spine.
“Rumours.” His voice was unconvincing to his own ears. “They’re nothing but rumours.”
“I’ve seen her.” Lyra winced. “It. I’ve seen it.” She spun away from him and crossed to the other side of the room, as though suddenly desperate to be away from him.
He didn’t blame her.

She leant against the wall she’d first appeared in, and despite the shadows darkening her features, Jak could see the exhaustion plaguing her. When she spoke, her voice cracked with unshed tears.
“She looks just like she used to. But it’s not her. It’s not.” Jak watched as she swiped angrily at her eyes. “She could never do the things it’s doing.”
Jak wanted to comfort her, wanted to hug the sister he had once been so close to, but he knew his touch wouldn’t be welcomed. This was his fault. Her suffering was because of him. Their sister had died because of him, and now her memory was being tainted by the very monster that had struck the killing blow.

“You’re the only one that can stop it, Jak.” Steely resolve settled once more upon Lyra’s features as she looked at him. “You learnt the ancient language. You decoded the Book.” Her eyes cast downwards to his arms, and he fought the urge to hide them behind his back. “You brought it here, and now you can send it back.”
He shook his head. “That ritual nearly killed me, Lyra. The runes are too powerful for mortal use.”
Her eyes were almost pitying. “You don’t get a choice in this. People are dying because of what you did, and that’s going to keep happening unless you stop it.” Her voice became softer. “Find the strength. Come with me, and finally finish what you started.”
His feeble protests were laid to rest with her final words.
“It’s using her face, Jak.” She took a shuddering breath. “Don’t let people think our sister is a monster.”

 

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