Amanda looked nervously to her right. Only two left, now. Two and her. She never thought she would get this far. The struggle, the pain, shoving the tiny, slivering symbols into her head night after night. She turned to look out towards the sea of faces that stared up at her. The lights are bright and sharp, and the sweat trickles past her too-thin eyebrows. Salt stings her eyes.
She cannot see me, between the nineteenth and twentieth rows. Perched. Two inches away from my toes sits a man in a red shirt. I can smell the peanuts in his exhalations, and hear them crunch between his cavitated teeth. His greasy hair is just below my knees.
He cannot see me, either.
The great voice echoes out from the amplifying machine; its teeth dig into the silence.
“Amanda Sanchez,” it says. “Your word is mnemonikos.”
Amanda screamed inside of her head. She gasped, and her eyes widened so large she was sure the audience could see them struggling to burst through the edges of her skull. Mnemonikos? What was that, Greek? Ancient Greek? She had never even seen that word before. The crowd murmured, but she could not hear it. The sound entered her ears, but there was no air in her mind in which it could resonate. Just suffocation and screams.
She stood up.
“Mnemonikos,” she said.
From my perch, I smiled. My face cannot smile. Not really. But I smiled now. I could feel it. It was coming. Like everyone in the crowd breathed out lightning, and it danced and exploded and copulated in the air. Shivers ran through my feathers. How could these people not feel this?
Amanda stared into the lights. Panic flooded through her like blood. Blood that froze her skin and squeezed the life out of her organs. This was it. It was over. She had been given an impossible word and she was too stupid to know it. It was over. She was about to die.
Then it happened. Above the crowd, the air began to split open along tiny cracks. Light spilled forth, red and blue and green and purple. Thick, viscous light, like neon fog. I saw it at the edge of my vision, and I looked up. Amanda saw it. Her jaw would have dropped open had it not been welded in place. She felt the straight as her eyes struggled to bulge even more.
Then it took forms. The light pooled into shapes, as if dripping into holes in the air. Letters.
M N E M O N I K O S
“Mnemonikos,” Amanda said firmly. The words raced out of her mouth before she could goggle at what was happening. “M N E M O N I K O S, mnemonikos.”
“That is correct,” said the voice. Was there a hint of surprise?
The room filled with the thunder of applause. But the lightning was gone. The moment was done. I leapt into the air, and was gone.
Ammar reached down to the spot between his ribs. He caressed it gently with his fingers. He had to put them up to his eyes. He didn’t want to. He knew what he would find. But there was no pain. Why was there no pain? A single spike of heat. A momentary torrent of agony, like every awful moment in his life squeezed into a single point. The scent of hot metal and cooking flesh.Then nothing. No pain. Just fear.
He lifted his hand up to his face. It was soaked completely in blood. The coverage was so even, so total, that it looked like he was wearing a glistening glove. He laughed. The choking sound echoed in his ears.
I stood over him, my does dug into the stone of the nearby roof. The sun seared down on us. Aggressive. Unrelenting. It drilled its way into Ammar’s eyes. He did not see me.
Ammar grasped at the wound in his bug. If he could just get the bullet out. Maybe he had a chance. But as his fingers burrowed into the mangled flesh the pain returned. It screamed at him through every nerve.
No, it wasn’t screams. His mind was a flood of panic and agony and fear, but the single, lucid part of him, sheathed in a protective coating of shock, could hear the sound of the pain clearly. It wasn’t screams. It was laughter.
He bit down on his lip, and thrust his fingers further in. He had to find the bullet. He had to. He didn’t hear the gunfire all around him. He didn’t he hear the cries of his fallen companions as they, too, were mowed down. He didn’t hear the explosions, or the rut rut rut of the helicopter blades.
But he heard the footsteps.
They rang in his ears. Like bells. No, like chimes. Chimes in the wind. But he knew they were footsteps. The same way he knew when his mother’s hand caresses his cheek while he slept. Or the three times in his life God had truly heard his prayers.
The footsteps came closer. The chime of each footfall echoed through him. The sound sent energy rippled through him, and at the same time spread a cool, numbing balm over his fear. He opened his eyes as the footsteps reached him, though he was not aware that he closed them. He looked up, sure that he was about to stare in a face composed of light.
The face that looked down on him ripped the pain and panic out of Ammar, and replaced it with cold, dead fear.
“You are mistaken,” said the visage of metal and ice. “We are not malāk.” The voice was beautiful. No, it was beauty. Later, when he thought back, Ammar would wonder how such transcendence could emanate from something so hideous.
“Are you a demon?” said Ammar. His voice was so weak it made no echo in his heart. But the thing understood.
“No,” it said. But demons lie. “We apologize for your discomfort.”
Ammar laughed. Discomfort? In the moment of laughter he realized that his fear was gone. His mind was clear. There was only him, and this vile thing with the angelic voice, and the pain.
“I’m dying,” he said.
“No,” said the creature again. A single, perfect note, dripping into Ammar’s soul. “We needed your pain. This is not how you die.”
It reached one of its many arms down towards him. Into him. Pain worse than anything before churned through Ammar’s being. Then the creature withdrew, and the pain went with it. It held something up in front of Ammar’s face. A shard of jagged metal, wrapped in writing tendrils of black and yellow light.
My pain, he thought.
The creature turned from Ammar, and walked off from whence it came.
Ammar sat up. The pain was, indeed, gone. All of it. Every scrap. His wound was healed. The soreness was gone from his back and his feat. The powder burns were gone from his hands. He reached up to his forehead, to feel that the old scar from a childhood head injury was missing. He leapt to his feet and cried out into the air.
He stood where he was until the sound of footchimes faded, and then ceased. The moment was over. Though he was listening closely, Ammar did not hear the flapping of feathered wings nearby, as I leapt into the air, and was gone.
Amanda was in the park when it happened. The sky overcast and a cool mist clung to the air. Her favorite kind of day. She pushed her little sister on the swing, and laughed as the niña threw her arms into the air.
“More!” said Marisol. “Higher!”
“If you go too high you’ll swing around the other side!” Amanda said.
“Higher!” Marisol repeated.
Amanda laughed again. “Okay, if you…” Then she froze. Something thicker and darker and colder than the misty air filled her throat, and clogged her words.
“Marisol, go play in the sandbox,” she said abruptly.
Marisol winced and ran off as her sister instructed.
Amanda’s gaze darted around her. It was happening, she knew. Something was coming.
Ammar was in the burnt out husk of what used to be a store that sold fruit. He pawed around and found a basket of dates. He shoved them greedily into his mouth.
There was sound outside, and he froze.
“Where is he?” said a gruff voice.
“I don’t know who you are about,” said someone else.
Bless you, Hydar, Ammar said to himself.
“Don’t play the fool,” the gruff voice said again. “We know he came this way. Tell me where the thief went, or it’ll be you who suffers.”
Ammar sunk down against the wall, and laughed to himself. Here he was again. About to die. Unwounded, but mortally marked all the same. He sighed silently.
Would it be so bad, to die? This life was borrowed from someone else, after all. Lent by a demon of metal and ice for reasons that were its own. A life of pain and starvation and fear. Ammar did not know if he believed in Paradise, but could what came next be worse than this.
He stuffed another date into his mouth. It tasted cold. Cold and thick and wet. He looked up at the rest of the room. He saw nothing. It didn’t matter. He knew. He knew something was coming.
I approached Amanda there, next to the swings. I approached Ammar leaned against the wall of that shop. I looked into their eyes.
“You have something does not belong to you,” I said.
Each of them looked into my eyes. There was a moment of fear in Amanda’s eyes. There was a moment of crazy laughter in Ammar’s. But only a moment. I would not have noticed it, had I not done this so many times before. Only a moment before it dissolved, and there was only understanding.
“I know,” each of them said.
“Then I will begin,” I replied. I extended by talon, and plunged it into their minds. Then I slowly, expertly, delicately, sliced out the memory. A single memory. A memory they were not allowed to possess. A memory I required.
A glazed look came over each of their eyes. They blinked, and looked up. But they did not see me.
“Marisol!” Amanda called out. “Come back, silly! We’re still swinging!”
Ammar slinked against the floor. He listened as the sound of the soldier’s footsteps dimmed, then was gone. It reminded him of nothing.
I leapt into both airs, and was gone.
I cradle these slices of memory in my wings. Glistening, sharp-edged treasures. Soon, we will have what we require.
Soon you will be ready.