Chapter One Hundred Forty Nine
Atlas, by rhetoric
Word Count: 1,099
When Atlas opened her eyes, she was alone; despite that, she knew the others were not too far from where she lay - she could feel them moving as if she’d developed another sense in her peripheral vision, though she couldn’t see anyone. The sound of a battle filled her head yet her ears absorbed nothing save for the quietness of a battlefield-turned-graveyard. She sat up and instinctively wiped the blood from her lips with the back of her hand, ignoring the way it stained her flesh in messy streaks. Atlas felt tired and weak and sore, her entire body aching to curl into itself and hunt down an infinite unconsciousness, and if she was unsuccessful, at least until the stiffness and wounds dissipated.
There was much to be done; she couldn’t dismiss the nagging notion that tingled along her cerebellum, though she hated acknowledging it. It meant she needed to rise up, lift herself from the bloody grass and stand on her quivering legs. Even though her muscles screamed with the motion, she pushed herself up onto her knees but held there for a moment, trapped between breathless pain and determination to move. She was beginning to understand that her original complaint rang truer than she had imagined: everything hurt. And not just hurt, either; everything burned with an agony so sharp and clear that she thought it might numb her to existence once it dulled. If it dulled, she thought nihilistically, and sighed. More blood dripped from the corner of her mouth but she ignored it. She was alive, she knew that – she knew she shouldn’t be, too, and that was the knowledge that straightened her legs beneath her until she was upright and her hair billowed in a crimson-tinged whirlwind around her face.
Her honey gold eyes scanned the land stretching before her. Encased in her tender, cut, and bruised flesh her skeleton shivered with the strain of keeping her together. For a moment, all Atlas could do was breathe: in and out, carefully, each breath a little deeper, a little stronger, than the one before – as if she had to re-train her lungs to do it automatically. She needed to move, she told herself; one step forward, followed by another. Her legs trembled violently but held despite all of their protesting. Each step seemed to fill her with more strength for the next, and soon she could move forward without the awful quivering in her muscles, free of the strain of near-death.
Or post-death, but she tried not to think about that.
With every foot forward she became more and more aware of their losses – the number of Atlantean soldiers that had been felled on the battlefield tugged at her ribs violently, as if teeth were sinking into her heart and dragging it down, trying to pull her back to her knees. She couldn’t let it; she had little choice but to continue on. The numbers only grew as she prowled the field of dead men, some half-shifted into Lycan form, others fully shifted, some missing body parts, others missing more. Slowly, ever so slowly, the pain in her body receded and replaced itself with a torture that filled her soul instead. These were her people, cast upon the ground like discarded trash, their lives nothing more than a temporary stall for the enemy. She tried not to weep at the sight of it, but the tears came anyway, falling down her cheeks like small waterfalls to cascade from her chin and wash some of the blood from her neck and chest. What had she led them to? These men, her men, called to duty and slaughtered like cattle.
She was a reckless Queen at best. Worse, she thought. Unable to defend them, to protect them, to enlighten them beyond the basic “kill or be killed,” she had failed them in the most horrendous way. She’d led them to their deaths, marched them to the ends of their lives and left them there - without even the mercy of a painless trip down the River of the Dead, their travel into the world of the unliving lonely and tormented.
She owed them more than that. She owed them everything.
Atlas moved through the bodies like a quietly rustling breeze, touching her fingertips with feather-lightness to the eyelids of her soldiers and closing them, wishing she could wipe the memory of battle from their souls and send them into a better afterlife than she had. The guilt was almost too much to take, but she suffered it down; choked on the swelling wad of self-loathing that grew in her throat and threatened to spew the contents of her stomach at her feet, perhaps even more, until she’d purged herself of every dark and terrible thing that harbored itself inside of her. How she wished she could be rid of it all; how she wished she could gut herself and raise the men that had died on her behalf.
The men she couldn’t protect because she was too busy protecting herself.
A murderous Queen she was, indeed. She would not allow her people to be subjected to such inadequacy, and standing on the battlefield surrounded by her dead and some still dying, she realized they didn’t have to be. The war was done, she had led them for the time that was required of her – however poorly she’d done so – but she had put in her time and she was free to rectify her mistakes. The crown was not rightfully hers anyway. There was finally a chance that Atlantis could have more, could be more – that the reality of her longing was very well within reach. She didn’t care if they understood, if anyone understood.
She did and that was enough for her, and she knew the weight of the decision better than any other. She knew the risk and the reward, she knew her penance was upon her and that soon, very soon, she could begin to repay her people for the lives she had so carelessly let slip through her incompetent fingers. Nothing would assuage the guilt that the deaths of her soldiers had laid upon her shoulders, but she hoped it was a start.
Atlas didn’t realize she’d gathered an eerie sort of following as she moved. Her inheritance worked without her conscious knowledge, lifting the bodies of her soldiers and encasing them in the warm buzz and hum of her shields, each soldier wrapped in his own little bubble, hovering in the air behind her like a legion of floating electric blue caskets.