I sat on the floor of the Exarch’s dungeon, legs curled up to my chest and head resting limp between my knees. There was no light except for what meager amounts emanated from the torch down the hall, far beyond the bounds of the iron bars that made up my cell. Metal chains connected my manacled wrists to the wall behind me, but I didn’t care—it was pointless to keep thinking there might be any way for me to escape. There was no getting out of this one.
I was done.
Another wave of bitter hot self-loathing rose up behind my eyes. I didn’t try to fight it—I was so tired of fighting. I let it wash over me, crush me, just like every other wave in the last few hours. Tears that were more dry sob than liquid savaged their way down my face, following well-worn trails of salty sorrow.
I kept replaying—reliving—the memories that Vaxal dragged to the surface. My final hours. My final minutes. My final tribute to a life that ultimately amounted to nothing, all in the service of a bunch of bullshit that didn’t even matter anymore—if it ever did in the first place.
So now you know how I died: in the stupidest, most pathetic, most fitting way possible. Gloating nonsensically after inserting myself into someone else’s business, while completely missing the urban forest for the big rig tree that was right about to fall on my deaf, dumb ass.
I was so fucking ashamed of myself for literally every decision I made that day—because every single one was completely and utterly wrong.
If I hadn’t avoided spending the night with Dana and Sam and Adrianna, I would still be alive on Earth.
If I hadn’t disregarded Rajan’s invitation to an after-hours hangout, I would still be alive on Earth.
If I hadn’t injected myself into a pointless street brawl, I would still be alive on Earth.
If I hadn’t stopped to trash-talk the thief while he was already running away, I would still be alive on Earth. ‘Ha! You missed?’ That didn’t even make sense as an insult! I should have caught the purse so I could give it back to its owner, not dodge it to look cool!
And the worst part was, I was still making all the same goddamn mistakes.
Not thinking through my shitty words before I spewed them from my shitty mouth. Sassing up everyone from Bohriam to Andreon to Vaxal Brygindir. Shoving myself unceremoniously into other people’s affairs, without thinking through the consequences for myself or for them. Taunting the goddamn Exarch Virulesse right after she said she’d like to disembowel me.
For a person who does little other than think, it sure seemed like I never did any thinking at all.
I hadn’t learned anything. For all my talk of first impressions and second chances, what had I actually done differently in my time on Era so far? Engaged in a couple polite but awkward conversations? I did that all the fucking time on Earth. I just hated doing it—and I still hated doing it.
Ever since I arrived on Era, I had gone out of my way to avoid thinking about how I died on Earth. It was just too painful to confront, and I was too weak and worthless to handle it. It put all my biggest failings on prominent display for anyone with eyes and an IQ above zero. It wasn’t just that I died because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time—I died as a direct consequence of everything that made me who I was as a human being. I couldn’t bear to think about it for a single second.
Luckily, there are thought suppression strategies that work. And I was experienced in all of them.
Bohriam had no idea how right he was when he said I was liable to die by walking off a cliff while not paying attention. Except I’d probably do it while bragging that I was better than him at keeping my balance, and that he was better than Andreon at not getting beat up—with Andreon right behind me listening to every word, and Bohriam forced to deal with his fury right after I fell.
Everywhere I went, I ruined the lives of everyone around me just by being there. If she hadn’t been putting up with all of my bullshit at the time, Adrianna probably would have gotten that job in California. If I hadn’t been such a constant asshole, I probably wouldn’t have ruined my childhood friendship with Taylor. And all the things I had put my parents through over the years, and Derek—
And in a couple hours, if it hadn’t happened already, Bohriam would probably be slain just because he had the misfortune of meeting me.
I wrapped my arms around my legs and tried to take refuge in my own paltry body heat, but there was no comfort to be found. Only an empty shell of flesh and bone that acted as a container for whatever pitiful thing passed as my soul. No ambitions. No hopes. Just the thing I always was in my gilded, rotten core, finally exposed for what it truly was.
There was a sound above me—a clattering and then a shifting of stone against stone as a hidden passageway revealed itself in the ceiling. Bohriam, covered in dust and coughing up even more, fell from the trapdoor and landed outside my cell on his hands and feet. He stood up, wiping grime from his face. “Ash!” he whispered. “Thank Magann I’ve found you.”
Bohriam was still alive. He still hadn’t given up on me. I mustered up the strength to give him a sad smile, but there was no real happiness or warmth behind it. That naive, kindhearted fool. “Boh…”
“Hush, save your strength,” he said, fumbling around in his pocket. He pulled out a large metal key—the key to my cell. “You’re gonna be out of here soon, don’t worry. And then we’ll be back in Gostrey before you know it.”
Sorrow seized me as he unlocked my cage, pulling open the door with a carefully subdued creak. “Boh… I’m so sorry… You shouldn’t have come for me.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?” He manifested his lightning sword into his hand, probably planning to use it to cut through my chains. “Because you don’t deserve it?”
“No, dumbass…” I said, a single tear rolling down my cheek. “Because it’s a trap.”
And just as Bohriam was about to step into my cell, a huge beam of blazing blue energy blasted at him from down the hall. Bohriam was sent flying, slamming into the wall at the opposite end of the hallway, cracks forming in the bricks where he landed.
Virulesse stepped forth from the shadows where the energy beam originated. “You insolent child! You dare think you have the authority to oppose me? You’re just as bad as your renegade leader.” She manifested her energy whip, crackling a furious crimson as it appeared in spirals around her feet. “I am going to enjoy destroying you.”