My blade screeches, the sound of metal against metal, as I slash my arm in a smooth arc, severing the automaton’s head from its metallic body. A spray of black blood erupts from the torso, drenching my torn clothes, as what remains of the automaton falls to the ground with a thud, joining its fallen brothers.
I stand still, panting as I stare at the heaps of metal that clutter the back yard of The Institute. I slowly lift my head and catch Talia’s eyes across the clearing. She’s clutching her sword tightly, point down, and, even from this distance, I can see her trembling; her hair has torn away from its braid during the battle and her face is smudged with dark fluid that’s probably a mixture of oil from the automatons and some blood of her own. Now that the surge of adrenaline from the battle is gone, her grey eyes are wide with fear as they hold mine. She tumbles forward and lands on her knees, letting her sword clatter to the ground as she gives in to her tears.
I start towards her in an automatic response, even though I’m not entirely sure how I might be of any help, given that I still can’t seem to get around what happened myself. I seem somehow detached from my body; as if witnessing the world from an outsider ghost’s eye. I’m faintly aware of the injuries that mark my body, though only through my memories of the various metallic limbs slashing at my skin and not through my perception of the pain.
Before I can make it to Talia, however, I’m halted by the sound of a violent coughing fit. I whirl around to see Belal, kneeling on the ground, with a bloodied hand to his mouth. I dash across the yard towards him, the fallen metal parts and greasy grass occasionally threatening to trip me over. My mind races ahead of me, playing back scenes of the battle, desperately seeking any clue as to what might’ve brought Belal to this state. But my memory is plagued with nothing but a turmoil of blood and grease and metal.
I reach the spot where Belal’s cheek is slack against the ground as he lies down with fluttering eyelids, exhaustion finally having won over the coughing fit. My knees thud on the dirt next to him and, with a swift grace, I shift his body so that his head rests on my lap. My eyes scan him for injuries, but it’s impossible to tell where the blood is gushing from amid his fluid darkened clothes.
“Rayan?”, the slurred words manage to form out of his mouth as his eyes clearly struggle to focus on my face. “Is that you?”. He coughs up another splatter of blood; the sound seems to tear through the flesh of his throat as it comes out.
My voice is urgent as I demand an answer, “Belal, you’re hurt; where’s the wound?” He doesn’t reply straight away; instead, impossibly, the ghost of a smile appears on his pale features. I blink at him.
“It’s too late. Nothing can be done, Rayan.” He mumbles gently, his voice in shards, “I’m dying.” He declares it the way one would announce he’s going on holiday.
My tongue fails me, so I just stare at him, my mouth agape. I struggle to match the broken Belal I see bleeding on my lap with the one that inhabits my memory. The one that has been fighting back to back with me, a whir of black hair contrasting my own whir of blond in the battlefield.
“Rayan,” he rasps, blood gurgling in bubbles from his mouth: a sign that his lungs are punctured. He is drowning in his own blood. “You were as much my brother as any amount of blood or time could have made you.” The last few words come out as barely more than a whisper. My throat stings with tears that are only held back with a shear strand of willpower.
Belal’s dark blue eyes find mine through his haze, their colour a vivid contrast against his blanched face. He holds my gaze, finally focusing, and then his eyes go still, along with the shallow rising and falling of his chest.
I half expect him to bolt back up, shrugging my shock off with a laugh and I would forgive him, I swear I would, but he doesn’t. With the realization that the reassurance I once found in my best friend’s eyes would now only exist as torn fragments in my memory, that I’d have to slash my way through the forthcoming battles alone: that I have now truly lost Belal, the tears finally come, streaking my grime-covered face.
I reach out with my shaking, blood-caked fingers and gently lower his eyelids.
“Thank you,” I manage through my stream of tears. “For everything.”