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We looked into each other’s eyes and gripped our hands tight, holding on to the fleeting life we had. I knelt next to her on the forest floor, rocking her back and forth in my arms. Her face was pale as she looked up at me through her dark lashes.
“We can do this,” I whispered as tears ran down my face.
“It hurts, Ash, it hurts,” Thalia complained, her arms wrapped around her torso. Lines of pain were scratched into her face as she moaned.
“Listen. Look at me,” I grabbed her face with both of my hands, staring into her eyes. “We are going to make it. I forbid you to die. I forbid it.” I grabbed her shoulders, gripping tightly. “We have come too far to die. Have hope. You can do this. Pain is temporary,” I urged, repeating what my father had told me when I was training.
Thalia was turning pale, and tears continued to drip down her dirt-streaked face. “Thalia, do you remember the time you and I went to the river to go swimming and take a bath and I fell in? You laughed so hard, and I was so angry because my new tunic was soaking wet. I grabbed you and pulled you into the water with me and then we both were soaked. We laughed til’ our sides hurt,” I smiled, trying to distract her. She smiled and let out a breath that resembled a laugh. “Or the time we ate too many cakes and we both ended up puking our guts out in the bushes beside the temple. We were so sick,” I smiled at the memories and the image of us green from sickness. I looked down to see that Thalia’s eyes had closed and her breathing had become shallow. I would have thought she was dead had I not been holding onto her so tightly.
“Thalia!” I yelled, shaking her. Her eyes fluttered and a moan escaped her lips. “No, don’t you die on me, Thalia. Don’t you die,” I said in an odd voice, lightly tapping her cheeks. “I forbid it, Thalia, you will not die. Do you understand me?” My voice shook, and I held onto her tighter.
Carefully, I lowered her to the forest floor, and removed her bloodied hands from her stomach. The black hole of her wound was surrounded by blood and I knew she wouldn’t last long. Thalia moaned again and a frown lined her face. Looking around desperately, I clawed through the weeds and plants that grew in the forest. I knew it was hopeless and that there was no way the rangers would find us. I peered up through the branches of the giant trees, taking in the darkening sky. The forest was closing in, going to sleep for the night. Birds cawed in the distance, echoing through the sky, and the air was still.
I knelt down next to Thalia who now had her eyes slightly open and was trying hard to breathe through her cracked lips. “Thalia I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” I whispered as my sobs grew until I was shaking and gasping.
“Asha, kill me. Asha, I want to go,” she stopped and moaned. “Please.” I continued to sob, and I clutched her cold hands. “My bow,” she whispered, her left arm moved slightly. Trying to get control of my sobs, I stood up and walked to where her bow lay, next to my sword. I grabbed the polished bow and the worn hilt of the sword. I walked back and laid the bow on her chest, gently picking up her hands and wrapping them around the bow.
My hands shook as I turned, grabbing my sword. My vision was so blurred it took me a couple seconds to find it hidden in the long grass. My sword, which was like another limb to me, felt foreign and heavy as I closed my eyes, trying to breathe… in and out. My stomach was in a tight knot, and I tried to focus my swimming thoughts on breathing, in and out.
“Ash,” Thalia whispered. “Please.” I refused to open my eyes. No, I could not do this.
“Thalia, listen to me. I can’t do this. You need to stay alive, okay? I can’t live without you. You’re my best friend,” I begged. Still, the tears continued to fall from my eyes, but my sobs had quieted.
“Ash,” Thalia moaned. “Die… in….honor,” she gasped, moaning. My stomach did a flip as she spoke the same words we had said to each other the day of our naming. We had promised that if one suffered, we would kill the other, in honor and courage.
I grasped the sword in both hands, raised it above my head with blade faced downward, and whispered, “Okay. Die in honor.” I closed my eyes and plunged the sword into Thalia’s chest, hearing her last breath fly from her lips. Still shaking, I kept my eyes closed, not wanting to see what I had done, to see my best friend dead. She was gone. Forever. I stole her life, a life she would never have back. My sobs overcome me once again as grief filled me.
Blindly, I yanked the blade free with a sickening sound, and sat there trying to control my loud sobs in the quiet forest. I knew what I had to do. What I wanted to do. I opened my eyes to darkness. The night had fallen, and the stars filled the sky. Wind blew through the branches now and carried the sound of crickets.
Still holding my sword, I finally opened my eyes and stared at the blood soaked blade as it reflected the moonlight and the stars. Die in honor. “See you soon, Thalia,” I whispered, gripping the handle of the sword as I turned the tip of the blade towards my own heart. I closed my eyes and saw my mother laughing, my little brother, Flinn, fishing on the pond that boarded the village, and Thalia sitting in the light of the campfire. I took one deep breath through my nostrils, smelling the musky smell of the woods and feeling my last breath fill my lungs. I listened to the crickets again, and felt the wind on my skin, letting it blow the loose strands from my braid onto my face.
“Die in honor,” I whispered, and plunged the blade into my own chest.
I no longer could feel my body, but I felt happy and calm. I felt like I was asleep and couldn’t wake up, like I was stuck in a dream. Everything was dark, but more than anything I wanted to open my eyes. Am I dead?
Die in honor: those were my last words. I remembered a scorching pain in my chest and then blackness. I had stabbed myself. Why? Was I depressed? No, that wasn’t it. Images of Thalia flew through my mind.
We were in the forest and I had my sword gripped in my hand, and Thalia had her bow cocked. Our deerskin cloaked backs touched each other as we stood, ready to fight. A humming buzzed through the woods and a bright light blinded us. I remember Thalia’s scream, and my desperate hands trying to find her. I couldn’t see anything and the light burned my eyes. Just as quickly the light vanished and Thalia was crumpled on the ground, gripping her stomach.
The rest of the story came back in a rush: Me sobbing and trying to keep Thalia alive. Me grabbing her bow and placing it in her hands. Me grabbing my sword and stabbing her heart. Me stabbing my own heart. I had given up and thought Thalia would want me to die with her, to die together.
Now, because of my stupidity, my tribe would never know about the magic that lurks in the forest. They would never know about the mysterious white light. All of a sudden my body started to tingle, and I could feel something beneath me. I could feel grass touching my bare hands and my face was warm. Opening my eyes, I was blinded by the sun. I lay on my back in what I had worn before I died: My handmade deerskin tunic and leggings, with my rare leather boots. My sword and sheath were beside me. I felt completely normal, like I had never died.
Was I even dead? Was it all a dream? I thought, standing up and looking around. I was in the exact same spot where our last breath on earth had passed our lips. The grass was undisturbed, and the dirt had no evidence of disturbance at all. Everything was peaceful. Wind blew through my blonde hair, and I could smell the salty breeze from the sea. I paced in a circle, padding around the area where I had killed myself and my best friend.
“Thalia, I am so sorry,” I whispered. “This is all my fault.”
“No, it’s not. It’s not too late,” a familiar voice said behind me. I swung around to see Thalia smiling with her hands on her hips.
“Thalia!” I screamed and ran to give her a hug.
“Okay, okay,” she laughed at my enthusiasm. She was real. I could feel her clothes, her skin, and her eyes were filled with life. She was alive.
“Thalia, you’re…. you’re….” I was at loss of words as I gestured up and down. I couldn’t believe it.
“Normal?” she offered. I nodded, taking in her still midnight black hair and green eyes. I couldn’t see anything different about her. In fact, she looked healthier then she normally did. Her hair was shiny and washed, her outfit was free of dirt, and her bow was polished and smooth.
“Are we….” I stopped, not wanting to say dead, for that single word seemed too final, too dark, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
“Dead?” Thalia finished for me again. “Yes, we are. We are dead.”
“But… I’m here, and you are here… right?” I asked as we sat on the ground cross-legged. I couldn’t take my eyes off from her, afraid she would disappear.
“Think of something you love,” Thalia said abruptly, looking at me.
“Think of something you love, something you would want to see forever,” Thalia said, excited. I frowned at her and she sighed dramatically. “Just do it, Ash.” The very first thing that popped into my head was the night-time, when the sky is covered in stars and the moon shines brighter than the sun. As soon as I thought it, everything around me seemed to vibrate, and the sky seemed to swirl together like paint.
“Wha…” I started and stared at the world around me. The blue sky was moving. Like water, it slowly rippled and moved, as the black replaced the blue. The sun slowly turned silver, like a cloak was draped over top of it, blocking out the light. The moon was full and bright, and everything was slightly lit in a big blanket of darkness.
“Everything here changes,” Thalia whispered, adjusting to the quiet of the night. “It’s like… paradise. Only… it has to be something you truly love not something you want,” she explained. “And it won’t work with people either. We have to go to the pond for that.”
“It’s amazing,” I breathed, staring at the sky. “It isn’t anything like I imagined…” I trailed off. We sat silently for a minute, staring at the stars.
“Come with me,” Thalia said, breaking the silence. We stood and I gripped the collar of her tunic as we walked out, the crisp leaves crunching beneath our feet. As we walked, she explained the other things she had learned about this place. It was odd she had learned so much in such a short time. “Hunger doesn’t exist here. We are always full, always satisfied,” She paused to step over a log. We broke through the edge of the forest and into the meadow. The moon was huge, and seemed to cast the whole world in a silvery light. I released her tunic, for the moon casted a bright enough light to see everything clearly. It was beautiful. “It’s like you are perfectly comfortable all the time,” she continued. “You are never cold or hot, never hungry, never worn out, never sleepy. My hair stays perfect, along with my clothes. I never need new arrows… every one I shoot is replaced by another. Yet, I’m never bored. It’s like being permanently happy,” she whispered, “permanently peaceful.” We were at our pond now, the pond where we would always meet after a hunt.
The small pond reflected the sky, and the cattails and grass grew thickly around the edges. We stood on the bank; I knelt down and placed my hand into the water, feeling the wet coolness cover my hands.
“Do you want to see the tribe?” Thalia asked, kneeling down next to me. I nodded, trying to make out her face in the darkness as she stood back up. “Follow me,” Thalia laughed and jumped into the pond, splashing my face. I let out a surprised yell and waited for Thalia’s head to pop out of the water. I sat there, staring at the surface, feeling my smile slowly fade from my face. Why wasn’t she coming back up?
“Thalia?” I said, heart beating faster. Quickly, I tore off my shoes and leaped into the water. The water was slightly cooler then the air outside. I opened my eyes and looked around frantically. My eyes scanned for her in the dark water. I swam around desperately, my heart seeming to beat out of my chest.
“Asha, over here,” I heard Thalia’s voice behind me and I jerked around to see Thalia smiling at me. I realized that I didn’t have to breathe. I was swimming without holding my breath.
“Thalia! Thank goodness you’re okay!” I yelled and swam over to her. Our hair was floating around our heads as we treaded water, my blonde hair intertwining with her black hair above us.
I started to open my mouth again to ask her how all of this was possible when she interrupted, “Follow me. I will answer your questions later.” I swam behind her as we continued to go deeper and deeper. Finally, we saw sand at the bottom of the pond. Thalia stuck her hand into the sand and pushed it away to uncover what looked like a mirror. I frowned and looked at Thalia, expecting her to explain. Instead, she just nodded and pointed at the mirror.
I swam up to the mirror and looked into it. I realized my mistake when I saw the tribe beneath me. It was not a mirror, but a window. I could not hear them, but only saw our village, bustling with people and horses walking the trail that led through the traders’ stands and shops. I felt a surprising longing to go back, to see my family again.
“Asha,” said Thalia interrupting my thoughts, “You have to go back. They need you. The tribe has to know what happened.”
“Not without you,” I said stubbornly. I watched two little girls playing in the dirt beside the trail that led through the village.
“I can’t. I have to stay here. You can go back. You can save them. Without you, the tribe will suffer like I did, but they won’t have anyone to stop it. You must go back,” she said sternly. “I was meant to die. You were not. You must go back,” she repeated.
“How would I get back? I’m dead,” I said, unwilling to take my eyes away from the familiar scene in front of me.
“All you have to do is knock on the window and you will wake up in the same place we died. You are supposed to go back. The tribe needs you,” Thalia begged.
“Not without you. What am I supposed to do when you aren’t there?” I asked pathetically, knowing it was selfish.
“Asha, I will always be there. You may not see me, but I am here, and I can see you,” she grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I finally looked at Thalia, who was staring at me desperately. “Please Asha, you must go back.”
I went back to looking through the window, unable to look at Thalia. I watched figures working in the fields and traders walking into and out of the village shops. One of the traders looked familiar and I squinted, trying to see his face. All of a sudden, the figure’s face took up the entire window and I realized it was Father, on his way to the market. My heart squeezed with longing, to be back home with my father and family, to be able to hear their voices.
“Why don’t you miss them?” I asked Thalia.
“Because I am meant to be here and I see our ancestors every day. I can even go back to Earth in a different form for a short time,” she explained, staring into the window. “Asha, you must go back.”
I nodded and gave her an awkward hug while we treaded water. “I’m going to miss you,” I whispered, feeling tears well up in my eyes, which was odd considering I was under water. “Come visit me. I am so sorry Thalia.” I burst into tears. I had cried so often lately.
“No, don’t be sorry. Look to the skies and you will see me. Whenever you miss me, or are afraid, call my name and I will answer, I promise. I will miss you Asha. Good luck on your journey,” Thalia was crying too and she hugged me one last time.
“Goodbye Thalia,” I said and looked at her one last time, taking in her green eyes. I wonder if I would see those eyes again on Earth? I swam close to the window, keeping my body as still as possible. “Well, here we go,” I said to myself, making a fist and knocking on the window.
Everything was black for an instant, and I felt the hard earth replace the water around me. I was back, and I took a deep breath of air, air that smelled different in that other world. I opened my eyes to the blinding sun and sat up, taking in the stench from Thalia’s body. How long was I dead? I wondered as I quickly looked to the sky to see a hawk circling, casting a shadow over the ground.
“Thalia,” I whispered. The hawk cawed and circled one last time before flying away.