The Inferno

Grim Wolf
Joined: November 9th, 2009, 5:39 am

January 5th, 2017, 11:05 pm #1

(Tara Behzad concluding from In This Starless Night)

She ran.

She traced her way around the island, heard the screams and shouts and cries. So many people, all so afraid. But she knew that already, didn't she? She'd seen it firsthand from the moment she woke up, and she'd been seeing it for a long time besides. Her and Raynor, trawling through their shared secret obsessions, watching these kids just a little older than they were fight and fuck and kill and die.

It had happened five times before.

Sometime like could it happen, again and again? But of course she knew the answer, because slavery had stretched on for centuries, and men and women still allowed genocides to happen to their neighbors as long as they were spared the headman's axe. Men and women are creatures of profound apathy, after all. Who can blame them? Thinking and deciding for yourself, that is an awful weight. Far better to have someone telling you where to go, and threatening punishment if you disobey. If you are a horse following a coachman's orders, the destination is not your responsibility, even if you ride into an ambush or disaster. If you are a free creature, making your own choices, then you have no one to blame but yourself.

Was that why her mother was so fucked up? Was she just looking for the escape that would let her pretend these weren't her mistakes?

She stopped every so often to check her map, with its bloody pentagram. She was following the route she'd mapped in her own blood, because why not? She'd had to adjust it a little bit to reflect her other stops over the past few days, the places where she'd actually stopped for the night when her tired body could go no further. Now her pentagram was wonky and uneven, but it was the work she'd set herself on doing, the work that would give meaning to her last few hours, the work that might just let her die happy.

At every stop, she left new names and a new fire. She followed her old familiar routine: find her scrap of driftwood, inscribe it, hold it right, left, forwards, backwards, and up into the sky.

In Memoriam:
Alex Tarquin, Who Could Not Be Larger Than This Cage
Lizzie Luz, Who Laughed in the Face of Death

And while she ran (or stumbled, really: she'd pushed herself too far on too little food, and she was burned and her ribs hurt and she was so light-headed), she thought. She thought about a lot of things. About God, and humanity, and souls, and violence, and sex, and love. About all the things that she had done, and would never do. She thought about dying, and how it would feel. She thought about pain, and how much there would be, even after she was gone.

Or would she be gone? Because in spite of everything, Tara Behzad believed in the immortal soul.

Neither of her parents were at-all-religious: Kamal had been rebelling against his devout parents, Alaine's parents had been something Tara couldn't remember and that Alaine pretty much never talked about, and Barney was a well-reasoned atheist who always felt uncomfortable with the notion of putting his faith in a higher power. Raynor was even more devoutly atheist than Barney, and insisted they were all just glorified meat. It was an occasional, enjoyable argument with him.

But Tara believed in souls. This intelligence, this awareness, this need to hear stories, this need to understand people, this need to understand herself, and to invent new selves where her understanding fell short...there had to be something more at play than biology. Perhaps that played its role in making her seek out disaster accounts: in the extreme lengths people would go in the face of catastrophe, she found something more than horror. She found evidence of something beyond the meat.

In Memoriam:
Hazel Jung, Who Seemed in Control Even as the World Burned
Leslie Price, Who Was Tall and Gorgeous and Didn't Know it

Or perhaps she believed in souls because it justified her own behavior, the extremes she forced herself to, the masochistic slicing of razors and biting of flesh, the arm that itched with healing flesh from the burn, the ribs that still ached where she hurt them with a rock, the skin that shuddered and crawled and goosebumped as wet clothes clung tight to her through the pounding rain.

People have souls. That means their bodies are tools, to be used as they choose. You care for the tool. You keep it maintained, so it will not break at an inconvenient moment. But you do not obey the tool. You do not allow the tool to dictate the terms of its use.

In Memoriam:
Junko Kurosawa, Who Wanted to Go Down Fighting
Jasper Burtame, Who Was So Afraid

But her tool was protesting awfully hard now. It ached, down to its marrow. Its stomach felt sunken and hollow. She hurt, from her fall, and her fire, and her own brutal attack. She was so cold, and so weary. She would hurt still more, before the night was over.

She would have liked to move with confidence. She would have liked to move with purpose. She wanted to look like the image of a woman who knew what she was doing. But that would have been a lie, wouldn't it? And there was no more time for lies.

It was night, and the wind was howling, and rain had soaked her to the bones. She was tired. Body and soul were exhausted, and there was still so much more to do.

Her rough pentagram was finished. By the time she returned to the helipad, night had drawn a heavy curtain over the island, and she almost tripped over the corpse of the bloody, broken figure at the base of this place, another proof of the horrors this world inflicted on the unfit. She trailed hands along his body, felt the intact collar on his neck, but could not make out his face. She lifted her head up to the sky to see that the stars blinked here and there behind the heavy stormclouds, still dark with the threat of rain. She watched the flickering stars warily, pitiless lights on high as apathetic as any of the viewers at home. As apathetic as she had been, watching the footage, trying to make sense of the stories, trying to understand...

Trying to understand the man who killed and killed as he protested the game, the man whose hands were too drenched in blood to ever seem the hero.
Trying to understand the man who'd fought so hard and kept his own strange honor, even in victory.
Trying to understand the psychos who played when there were genuine escapees on the island, people fighting for freedom.
Trying to understand how those psychos could still exist when STAR came rescuing again, how they could justify their savagery when they'd been left behind for it.
Trying to understand a killer who'd carved his way across the island, and who had chosen mercy at the end, mercy for brash young woman who'd struck him with a snowglobe in the heat of a kiss.
Trying to understand how a man could believe in God and believe he was a sinner and still keep sinning, but of course that wasn't hard, she understood that too well, she knew what she did to her body was wrong, that in some ways it made her just as damaged and defective as her mother, but it's a break that's healed wrong, it has been for too long, the finger joints are crooked and her soul limps and staggers and doesn't look quite right, but the healing would be agony and she's learned to live with the pain, so maybe you can just fuck right the hell off if you expect me to change.

She did not allow her rambling thoughts to slow her down. The helipad wasn't really at the center of the pentagram, but it wasn't quite beyond the bounds either, and besides it was a rough misshapen thing, just as rough and misshapen as her, so she wouldn't worry about it too much. She kept dragging wood and grass and paper and cardboard and anything else she could find, building the outlines of the grand bonfire even as her muscles ached and her body quivered and her breath rasped in her throat. The pyre was only half-built when she had to rest at last, and she hated herself for it, hated herself even while she was thinking that this wasn't her body's fault, it was hers, she'd pushed it this far, she'd demanded too much, but the end was in sight, so why not just a little water? Why not a little food?

So she sat, and nibbled on her ration bar, and sipped at her bottle of water. Pacing herself so she wouldn't be sicked, as she looked at the merciless stars, and looked at the pyre she was slowly building. Behind her, the helicopter creaked in the wind, one more ominous sound in a cold island night full of them. Every sound, every movement, every half-heard cry and gust of wind, every rustling bush. All these nightmares, crafted just for them. No, that wasn't fair. That gave the AT too much credit. All they'd done was give them permission. The collar around their neck was leverage, giving them permission. Giving them impunity to say, "It wasn't my fault. I just wanted to survive."

As though survival was some high and lofty virtue. As though it permitted you to sacrifice yourself.

Self. There was that word again. She'd laughed at Lizzie when she'd claimed there was some fundamental truth defining them. She'd reminded her that all they'd done through their whole lives was play roles, trying on their new selves and hoping they found the ones that fit. So why did Tara keep coming back to it? Why did she keep using that word?

It came back to souls, didn't it? Because if you had a soul--something absolute and intangible, an aspect of yourself that wasn't meat or mind or nature but intrinsic to you, you had to have a self, right? And maybe that's what people were really looking for, when they changed their selves and tried on their roles. Maybe they were trying to find the one that fit their soul, and all the damage it had taken along the way.

She sat for a little while, after she'd finished her food and water, her arms and legs quivering with the sweet smoky exhaustion of extraordinary exercise. But she wasn't done yet. The pyre wasn't built.

She rose creakily to her feet, stumbled off into the night to find more material for the fire, searching through what was damp to find the stuff she could still use, looking throughout the warehouse and the storehouse and outlying areas for any more flammable material. She was modeling it loosely on one she and Raynor had built for some half-remembered video project, something about wizards who were sacrificing their enemies to a fire god or...shit, she couldn't remember anymore. But it had been thick with smoke, she remembered that much. Thick enough that she'd coughed up grey mucus that night.

That was what she wanted now. A proper fucking bonfire. A funeral pyre, to end this ritual, this invocation of some nameless god, or of the ghosts of players past and present trapped in this awful game.

Tara Behzad has always believed in souls. The question that's bugging her now is: does she believe in God? And if she does, what kind of God does she believe in? It's the problem of theodicy, which Barney had used to justify his atheism to Tara. God cannot be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent and allow a universe like theirs to exist--a universe where great evil can exist. It's a three-legged stool, and understanding of God is just out of reach. The only way to reach it is to shorten one of the legs, but that means you have an ugly stool.

So, if you believe in God, you have to face three important questions: how powerful is She? How much does She know? How good can She be, if Survival of the Fittest can happen so many times? If madmen shoot-up schools and children are forced to kill by the command of cruel and distant masters and slavery lasts for centuries and six million souls are shoveled into the hungry flames of the Holocaust?

It was late now, and Tara was tired. Her eyelids were heavy, and her throat was parched, and her lips felt cracked. She was faintly dizzy, and her arms and legs were quivering, but she stumbled up the rickety stairs again with one more armload, and at last she finished her pyramidal pyre of driftwood, leaves, grass, paper, cardboard, plywood, and countless other pieces of old scrap, and laid the stuff to feed the fire in easy reach. She was so close now. It was almost over. Almost. Almost...

Her head dipped forwards, and the sudden movement jerked her back to consciousness. Shit, that was bad. Falling asleep without even noticing. Not yet. Come on, Tara, not yet. Are you powerless? Are you a victim? Who are you?

Who are you?

That's the real question, isn't it? The one you're never gonna get a chance to answer, even if you make it out of this place alive. And you were never planning on walking away, were you? You knew you were gonna die. Maybe you always-

And Tara was laughing.

She was cackling like a witch by her sacrificial pyre, she was howling with laughter, because that was such a stupid, maudlin thought. No, she hadn't known she was going to die. She'd had dreams, and ambitions. She was gonna head west and try to hack it as a make-up artist, attach herself to some indie projects and get enough cred, she was gonna live and create and never stop and sleep with who she wanted and run as she liked and she was gonna start wearing tanktops and showing off her self-inflicted scars and grinning because it was her fucking body and she'd do what she fucking wanted. She'd never considered suicide. It was off the table. She was the product of a million different idle chances, boredom and loneliness and love and who new what fucking else stretching back to the dawn of fucking humanity.

She hadn't been made to die. She had been put here, by the same stupid fuckers who'd put the collar around her neck.

She grabbed the largest plank, and fished the nail polish out again. Almost all gone now, used up over five different pyres. But that was alright. She just needed to do it one more time.

In Memoriam:
Tara Behzad, Who Wanted to Die Happy

She lay her name in the center of the pyre she'd built, and drew her lighter. She set an old manila folder ablaze at its heart, and then sat back, and watched the fire spread in fits and starts, fighting the moist air, fighting the damp and cold, fighting even the threat of storm and rain from high above.

Storm, huh? She couldn't decide if that was a good sign, or not. A storm god building fire in the thick of a storm, with her head thick with memories and ghosts and the dim echoes of another storm god from long ago, who'd believed it was over when he'd died, who'd died an optimist, who'd died loving someone else, who'd died loved by someone else.

Or maybe it was neither good nor bad. Maybe it was just God, making the best of a bad situation.

But the rain had not returned, and the fire was burning, stronger with every moment, and the damp was helping her a little because this blaze would leave a column of smoke stretching high into the air, sure proof for any and all. Tara Behzad might burn herself away to ash, but there would be some memory left behind, of bright fire and smoke towers and the toxic sweet scent of burning nail polish and plastic. The helicopter, tarnished and rusty, gleamed with the ghost of its old glory in the bright flames.

She watched the fire for a long time, adding to it occasionally, watching the eastern horizon, watching as the night gradually began to fade away, as the first hint of twilight dawn brightened the black.

She laid back as the fire burned, lifting the chill from her bones. She smiled up into the grey-black sky, shifting slightly this way and that, feeling the collar on her neck, not pressing quite so tight. She almost felt free.


She closed her eyes, and felt the itching of her arm, the aching of her body. So much meat, a defective tool that never quite matched the needs of her self and soul. Her grip tightened on the rock.

You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.

Of course she could. She was Tara Behzad. She was in control. Now, at the end, more than ever.

The fire burned, and she was warm. Warm even as she lifted the rock and brought it smashing down into her face.

She flinched at the last moment--she couldn't help herself, knowing the pain was coming. Hot embers glowed beneath her cheek, but that would do no good, so she struck again, forcing her neck to stay still, so that her nose took the brunt of the hit. But it wasn't enough, not nearly enough, so she hit again, and again, until it gave way with an agonizing crack and she was left, sobbing and quivering with blood streaming down her face.

"Die happy," she repeated under her breath. "Die happy. Please..."

No time for rest, no time left, so she lifted the rock with her weak arms and hit again, along her jaw, and she hit again and again and again, and when her arm could take no more she turned and hammered her face into the concrete, up and down, over and over, until her face was just a mess of scrapes and blood and bone pressing against bone, and she rolled onto her back and there was no more stone on her hand and the fire was still burning, she was still burning, and she wouldn't stop until she was ash or all was flame.

She slammed the back of her head against the helipad, again and again and again, until she was too woozy to lift her head anymore. She stared up at the infinite navy blue of a pre-dawn stormy sky, and her head swam and her thoughts drifted, because she understood something about theodicy, something about god and free will, good and evil and apathy, something about Survival of the Fittest, but it was so hard to think.

And the fire was still burning without, but within it was flickering away, her body failing, her breath coming in uneven gasps through her broken nose and fractured jaw, still cold, still hungry, still thirsty, still hurting, still dying...

Want to buy my book? See my short stories? Read my fanfiction? Visit my website!

V6 Players

Tara Behzad: "They don't get to decide how I die."

Lizzie Luz: "I don't want to go."

Alex Tarquin: "No more masks."
[+] Spoiler

G053 Karen Idel, DECEASED: Game over.

B040 Tyler Lucas, DECEASED: I had fun. You?

B046 Xavier Contel, DECEASED : " people, Arthur. G-g-gotta try. C-can't be afraid."
[+] Spoiler

B054 Raidon Naoko (DECEASED): "Dying like this isn't so bad..."

B072 Simon Grey (DECEASED): "I never was a hero, but, God help me, I tried."

B079 David Meramac (DECEASED): "Running towards nothing. Running from nothing."

G072 Mirabelle Nesa (DECEASED): "I'm a weak little girl who couldn't save anyone, even myself, but god damn it I beat you and god damn it you are going to remember that because I am Mirabelle Nesa and I am a hardened goddamn warrior and I am not going to fucking give up now!"

Grim Wolf
Joined: November 9th, 2009, 5:39 am

January 7th, 2017, 10:43 am #2

Still dying.

"Welcome to another beautiful morning here on our island."

Beautiful morning, yes indeed. Every day above the ground's a good one. And you've found quite a good place to die aboveground, haven't you, Tara?

"We have a good mix of new and familiar faces for you today. Always good to see more people taking the initiative."

Initiative? Wait, that was important. Initiative. There was something she was supposed to be doing. Something she'd waiting for, with her fires and her running and her self-denial. Something she'd been counting on. It was important. This was important. Why did she hurt? Why did her thoughts feel so weak? Why...

Tara Behzad are you gonna sit there and die Tara Behzad is this how you end Tara Behzad who is in control here Taranis Behzad the accidents of your life have to have led you here don't you dare give up don't you dare don't you dare

Her eyes flickered open. Her blood was crusty, but still damp in places. Her cheek felt hot and swollen, but the other injuries were still fresh. How long had she been out? Half an hour? Was it head injuries? Sleep deprivation and exhaustion? Both?

"It shows in the results as well. They're alive while some of you, not so much."

Talking to the dead, Danya? Join the club. Join the...

Shit. The Announcements. The Announcements!

Tara's hands snapped to her collar, and she twisted.

So there's the problem of theodicy. Particularly as it pertains to this moment.

How can God be omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, and still allow something like SotF to exist?

This is apparently a criticial problem, but Tara has always thought the answer is rather obvious. First, you start with a simple requirement: define omnibenevolent. How can God be all-loving? And I don't mean, 'How can God be all-loving and allow this to happen?' I mean, 'What is the definition of omnibenevolent.'

And the answer is the same as with any parent once the kid's out of your house. You give them your rules, and you give them your advice, and you hope they do the best they can with the tools they've got.

Maybe it's nonsensical to Tara because she has the very definition of shitty parents, so she doesn't have some gold standard to impose upon her theoretical deity. What she wants is advice. An author who crafts a character, and turns her loose into an ongoing narrative, and hopes she's able to make the best she can of a complex situation. And maybe that author's everywhere, giving the best advice She can, and hoping people follow suit. Because free-will matters. Because making your own choices, and facing their consequences, matters.

So. Tara Behzad. Masochist with control issues, too self-aware not to know how fucked up she is. She's not as healthy as she should be, and never has been. But she's got some savings tucked away, and she's ready to bolt west with her diploma in hand. She's still talking to Raynor, trying to lure him after her. Maybe someday. Maybe not. Late at night she watches old SotF footage. She's deleted almost every torrent she'd ever downloaded, save one.

And then one day she's in the game, and there's a man dying in front of her, and all Tara's pretenses of self-control are just that: pretense. She's smart enough to know she's been through harder shit than most of her classmates, and smart enough to know they've all been through shit and all have their own demons, and smart enough to know that none of that fucking matters because they've got fucking bombs around their necks and they've got their marching orders: kill or be killed. They're dogs on leashes, to perform as their masters please.

And then she opens her bag, and she has flashbangs inside, and the pieces start clicking together. She feels crazy, but then, hearing the voice of God is always grounds for ending up in an Asylum (and thank God the AT took care of that for her, ha!) and there's crazier gonna be turned loose in this place, because there's crazier on every corner, crazy all inside them, and Tara Behzad, by chance and accident and interest, has all the pieces line up in front of her.

The name of the torrent she could never bring herself to delete? The Raidon/Asuka edit. An insane, spliced-together reel of hundreds of hours of one mad boy who believed in God and believed killing was wrong and believed that because the kids had escaped this game could never happen again, a boy who was so wrong. And found what little Mizore Soryu had written after the fact, and that was what really got her into SotF, when all was said and done, because she'd never imagined the intense and marvelous extremity that such souls could achieve in this place. And that led her to other accounts--Simon, Brendan, Garrett, Cisco, Bounce, Sarah, Anna, Alice, and more, and more, and more, trawling through forums and old downloads, getting her computer infected with viruses three times, but these people loomed in her head and she supplemented them with more and more, from SotF and elsewhere, until there was a whole god damn pantheon of human beings who had demonstrated that it was possible to survive and endure through impossible circumstances.

There are flashbangs in her bag, and the memory of another honest storm god, and suddenly Tara Behzad, who has always believed in the immortal soul, thinks she sees the will of God.

Here's the facts: SotF exists. It has happened six times now. It will not end until its perpetrators are extinguished from the fucking earth. The death knell never sounded. They never saw the hell they deserved to burn in. No one can find them. No one can stop them. Their collars are wrapped tight around their necks. There's no escape.

Except of course, that's not true. They've escaped twice before, at least. Maybe more. The rumors are unclear here, though speculation abounds on certain dark corners of the internet. But twice for sure. Twice, the plans have gone awry. They can be beaten. That doesn't mean Tara Behzad's the one to do it.

But she hopes. She hopes because the pieces line up.

She knows if she's in their game they'll be looking for certain behaviors. She gives them what they want. She runs, and argues, and hurts herself, and doesn't drink, and doesn't eat, and barely sleeps. She develops an obsession with this pentagram and her makeshift funeral pyres. Finally, her task completed, she hurts herself in one wild burst of self-flagellation, and fades into oblivion as dawn breaks on the 4th Day.

That's a fine narrative. A story for them to believe, a self for her to wear. Performance of a fucking lifetime, probably because not all of it's performance. Fake garden with real frogs. Or is it a real garden, but seen from the wrong place?

Because Tara has been running, and starving, and hurting, because those are all what they expect, but also because Tara is no longer dangerously underweight. Because there is some give to her, some fat to let fade away, and three days of effort, three days of punishment, are enough to take that edge off. Because everything Tara has done will make suicide and self-abuse look so much less suspect, for this moment, right here. Because she waited until close to dawn when dawn's light doesn't mean the Announcements but it means they're close, because it's May and the sun rises early and Announcements are at the same fucking time every day, and she's learned that from her time here and she's learned that from previous versions and she knows a couple things. Because she's given the bored and hollow staff watching those camera feeds explanations to satisfy their curiosity, and there can't be that many of them because if this organization was too large it would have been found by now, and she knows it takes a lot to make these fucking collars detonate, and she knows that during Announcements there's got to be a lot of other business, and she knows and she knows and...

And of course, she doesn't know. She doesn't know a damn thing. But she hopes. She hopes with such fervor, such intensity, such will and passion and fury that it almost feels like knowing.

Because Tara Behzad does know SotF, and has seen what has succeeded and failed in versions past.
Because the collars don't detonate when your life signs stop, or when you're being choked, or when you fall off a cliff and get choked by ivy, or when you're getting beaten to death, because the fuckers are resilient as long as you don't go poking around inside them.
Because who would be fucking psychotic enough to try and just pull their fucking collar over their heads?
Because Tara Behzad is broken in just the right ways to push herself to lose the weight to hurt herself to smash her jaw her nose her head in the hopes that such a small thing might be the razor thin margin between victory and defeat.
Because she hurt her ribs with a stone but also studied the swelling and she knows about how long it might take, and so she's waited until dawn because then Announcements won't be far behind.
Because she started her fires and hurt herself and made this seem like the climax of her arc and maybe it is but she's betting, she's hoping, she's praying that it's not the climax they were expecting and that it won't be noticed until it's too late.
Because there can be only so many staffers on duty right now and none of them have any reason to see her as anything remarkable and even if they do who has the patience to watch an unconscious woman bleed for however the fuck long it's been since she finished bashing the back of her head against the concrete?
Because it's time for the Announcements, and their boss is speaking, and there are final arrangements to make, and Tara's hoping that last small fact may give her just the breathing space she needs.
Because at this moment she needs to have the vision of Naoko Raidon, the passion of Mizore Soryu, the brilliance of Liz Polanski, the courage of Ethan Kent, the audacity of Gavin Hunter, the genius of Lucy O'Donnell, the persistence of Jack O'Connor, and the sheer fucking balls of Maxie Dasai. Because this is her boulder and she doesn't have 127 hours and she doesn't have a knife but when she has, what she has to have, what she believes she has, is the will of fucking God on her fucking side and just this once, just this once, it has to be enough.

So the Announcements drone on, and Tara, in one move against all the myriad aches and pains of her body, snaps her hands to her collar, tucks her jaw and bucks and writhes and rolls, grinding the metal against grinding bone, moves so gravity and weight and mass and injury and leverage are in her favor, and all without a fucking squeak, without so much a sob, with only the faintest trembling wheeze, her eyes bulging, her heart bounding, sweat dripping down to mingle with the blood on her face and in her dark hair, betting, hoping, praying that she is right, that this will work, that all the pieces will line of just so, that someone won't have gotten enough sleep, will be looking at the wrong camera, will be looking and won't notice that the injured bitch is trying to slip her leash and make a run for it.

It has to work. It has to.

Please God let it work.

Want to buy my book? See my short stories? Read my fanfiction? Visit my website!

V6 Players

Tara Behzad: "They don't get to decide how I die."

Lizzie Luz: "I don't want to go."

Alex Tarquin: "No more masks."
[+] Spoiler

G053 Karen Idel, DECEASED: Game over.

B040 Tyler Lucas, DECEASED: I had fun. You?

B046 Xavier Contel, DECEASED : " people, Arthur. G-g-gotta try. C-can't be afraid."
[+] Spoiler

B054 Raidon Naoko (DECEASED): "Dying like this isn't so bad..."

B072 Simon Grey (DECEASED): "I never was a hero, but, God help me, I tried."

B079 David Meramac (DECEASED): "Running towards nothing. Running from nothing."

G072 Mirabelle Nesa (DECEASED): "I'm a weak little girl who couldn't save anyone, even myself, but god damn it I beat you and god damn it you are going to remember that because I am Mirabelle Nesa and I am a hardened goddamn warrior and I am not going to fucking give up now!"

Grim Wolf
Joined: November 9th, 2009, 5:39 am

January 17th, 2017, 11:00 am #3

Please God let it work

Please God let it work




She came to with a jolt, blood dribbling from a mouth full of awkward broken teeth jabbing against her gums and cheeks at new and unexpected angles. She grunted, and the grunt hurt, a pain that stretched from her throat up to her cracked and mishappen jaw. Her cheeks felt tight and swollen. She trailed shaking hands and figured out why. The metal band pressed against her cheekbones, and against the pounding sore spot on the back of her head.

Hadn't done it. Hadn't.

She slumped where lay fallen. Not strong enough. What else was there to say?

She waited for the collar to go off.


The collar didn't go off.

She waited for what felt like a long time, tears tracking down her eyes. Her thoughts were drifting, dim and distant, as far away as clouds against the merciless sky. A chill wet wind blew in, stirring the embers of her smoking fire. And the collar didn't go off. The collar wasn't going off.

Her plan had hinged on getting this done before she was noticed. On everything coming together. She wasn't going to survive this fight--how could she, injured broken high school girl who'd broken herself still further? But in that breaking was hope, hope to escape their eyes and their leashes, hope to leave their noses crooked, hope to...

Hope to prove that she was strong. Stronger than her circumstances. Hope to-

Wait. The embers of her fire? Hadn't it been stronger just a moment ago? Hadn't it...that didn't...

She felt her mind going fuzzy around the edges. It was hard to put conclusions together. Everything felt just out of reach, and it was so hard to breathe.

I'm dying.

Well, of course she was dying. Dying had been the plan. Kill herself, but slowly enough to slip free of their shackles. Like climbing barbed wire even if it made you bleed, because there was somewhere she had to. Some

She flailed her way out of the warm darkness that kept trying to drown her. It was so hard to find the energy or the will. The darkness was comfortable, a deep and dreamless sleep. She tried to find anger, or resilience. She tried to find the fierce, bleak, trembling hope that had driven her on, day after day, without food or drink or rest, all for that slight small chance of triumph. But did those things matter now? What did any of could she...what..

She exhaled, and felt that strange bloody burning in her jaw. She gurgled, her eyelids fluttering. The grinding bones in her jaw spurred wakeful fire out, blasting back the black.

Tara's eyes fluttered open, staring at her funeral pyre. The fire had almost died.

She lifted her head on her creaking neck and slammed her jaw home again. Teeth and bone spasmed and flexed, and her lower face was fire but fire was not darkness, fire was not death, pain was reason enough, pain she could cling to.

Her hands flickered to the metal band pulling tight around her head. Then they dropped away.

No. It didn't matter now. Her cards were on the table. She could escape this collar, but she was already dying. She'd lost too much time and too much blood. And what would be the point now? They'd see her trying, and if it ever looked like she could escape they'd blow her collar.

Why do it now, when time would do their dirty work for them? They might even show her death next season. "See, kids? This is what happens when you don't play by our rules. It's better to play."

Their rules. Their fucking rules. She'd prayed to God, and where had it gotten her? But she should have known better. Those fucking bastards on high, they played God, and maybe they showed just what kinda asshole She really was. Give you the illusion of hope, so She could yank the rug out from under you. Change the name of the game. Too many eyes for too small a group. Too secure for too great a sacrifice. Nothing equal, nothing right. She'd never had a fucking chance. Call it God or Gods, call it the staff of this fucking game or the sheer awful alignment of chance in this strange fucking universe, but nothing she'd dreamed of could succeed. Nothing.

Failures and accidents, just like her. Tara Behzad, with her parents who should never have fallen into bed together, with the friends she never fully trusted. Tara Behzad, who'd watched SotF, version after version, looking for the validation of souls struggling madly against impossible circumstances. Trying to believe there was anything other than chance and accident and the malice and indifference of those on high.

She hit her jaw against the ground once, twice, thrice. Each drew a gurgle, a grunt, a scream, each drew grinding fire and lightning agony along her nerves. Each drove the darkness back a little more. Pain was clarity, as it had always been. Neither good nor bad, but useful. Useful because when she inflicted the pain on herself, she was in control of it.

Pieces realigned. Not according to some fake divine will, but according to her own. They thought they were being cruel by leaving her alive, where they could bring the boot down anytime she struggled free.

Idiots. Playing God again, with immortal souls. But Tara wasn't fucking playing.

Where's my bag?

Right there, in easy reach. Well. Easy, once upon a time. Now...

She turned on protesting muscles. Everything hurt--her ribs and her pounding, pulsing head, her aching itching arm. So much damage done, and for what? For hope?

For defiance. Always for defiance. To go down swinging. Fuck these fuckers.

Her scrabbling hand found the rock she'd used on her jaw and face. Her nose throbbed in aching memory against the metal band of the collar. She almost laughed, and clumsily shoved the rock into her pocket. Why not? She had a vague idea she could use it for, anyways.

Her other hand found the trap of her bag. She dragged it towards her, draped its strap over her scraped-sore throat. She sighed against the pain, and for a moment her reserves were spent. Her forehead thumped against the concrete, and she lay there with the darkness circling her like a shark.

Death, all around her. But that had been true from the moment she'd woken up here. Hell, that had been true before she'd ever come to this fucking place.

She remembered (hours days lifetimes ago) when she'd laughed at the idea that she was always meant to die. But she wondered if that wasn't true. I mean, really consider the way those pieces had lined up for her, the idiot hope and the prayers she'd offered up to an uncaring God. Someone had put those pieces in place, and someone had decided those pieces didn't fucking fit. Like the bastards playing this whole fucking game, making sure they got the best stories and the best footage.

Well, hell. She'd learned how to make good film, in her time. Put that knowledge to fucking use. The pieces were hers: the darkness might be circling, but she would not surrender to it. She was Taranis Behzad, product of accidents and the malice of those on high, but she had never once in her damn life had the terms of her existence dictated to her, and she wasn't about to start now.

So. Set the scene, Tara Behzad. Your suicidal gambit, betting on the human inattention of your human enemies, has failed. In part because all your strength and all your pain wasn't enough to pull the collar off in time, and in part because the AT are a group of sadistic bastards even more prepared than anyone could have reasonably conceived, and in part because you're a fucking idiot child who didn't eat or drink enough and is probably suffering from brain trauma, which is why this mental tangent has gone on way too long and in spite of all your defiance it's really hard to see right now, isn't it? Like really hard. Like way

Fucking Christ no

She slammed her shredded jaw against the ground again, and lightning flickers against the gathering night blacking out her thoughts one by one, but her chest is tight and her head is heavy and it is so fucking hard to breathe.

She starts crawling. She can barely see now--everything's blurred by tears and blood, by too little air getting through a raw throat and scraped and shattered jaw against bleeding gums and disparate teeth. But all she has is the notion of identity, the notion of souls, and a distinct distaste for the theory of theodicy. Her arms keep pulling her along, though she whimpers with every motion--how can she not, when all is pain, every injury the product of her mad hopes.

Her theory of theodicy was a nice one, but it assumed the gods were playing a game that benefited the players. That's patently untrue, isn't it? The parallels emerge again, lines of clarity in the shadows obscuring her ordinary thoughts. The gods are playing their own game, just as the staff that runs this mad Survival of the Fittest are playing theirs. The illusion of hope, the illusion of narrative, the illusion of clarity, the illusion of purpose. They aren't proper parents, hoping to see children who one day exceed them. Their gods in the classical sense. The kind of gods who bind Prometheus for an eternity of agony, just for giving mortals the tools to stand on equal footing. They will not have their dominion questioned, and woe betide anyone who questions their absolute rule. But then, woe befell Tara, who's only crime, as far as she can tell, is believing that God might be better than She is.

Better than her mother is.

Ah, that thought hurts, even now. But it makes a certain narrative sense, doesn't it? Come on, Tara, think about it: why are you obssessed with the idea of a God who loves you and wants the best of you? Why are you obsessed with the notion of an immortal soul, a fundamental identity that can actually be realized? You, who discards selves like clothes behind you, who sought out to prove that you were absolute master of yourself, your fate, your destiny? Doesn't it all come back to her? Doesn't it all come back to the fact that you want something else? Something better?

I miss Bast.

Oh, Bast, you strange little animal, curled tight against her thighs in the dry desert cold (pussy on my pussy, ha!). Oh, little stray I tried to save. Not the only one, huh? Raynor, too. Maybe Barney. Always saving strays. Easier, right? When you can't save yourself.

She hurts, inside and out. Every crawlling pull of her stubborn, unyielding hands sends fresh waves of pain through every wound, and her twisted nose is filled with her own blood whenever she cares to take a painful breath, which she has to more often than not, because what little wind she can draw through her shredded mouth whistles through her tombstone teeth. And all her failures and all her hurt and all her desperate attempts to prove herself better than the world that hurt her all look so small and pitiful and petty and wrong, because the gods are assholes of the exact same nature as the fuckers who run this stupid game, and the only thing that separates them is a question of degree. The staff of SOTF just turns a class or two against each other: the gods want to see the whole human race tear themselves apart.

It's hard to think. It's hard to move. What does it matter? What does any of it matter.

It matters

Oh yeah?


I'll tell you why.

Tara Behzad is a storm god of a disparate name, Tara Behzad is the product of the idiotic romance of two idiotic people who could never get their lives on straight, Tara Behzad bounced from random accident to random accident over the course of a random life, Tara Behzad sought random meaning in the deaths of random people who never had a proper chance, Tara Behzad was abducted and broken and ultimately killed because just once in her entire fucking life she wanted all the meaningless bullshit of her life to mean something, and do you honestly think I'm going to lay down and die her, do you think I'm afraid to hurt, do you think you scare me with your headman's axe looming over my head? Motherfucker I was going to break my own god damn skull in to beat you and if you think the fact that your cold metal bomb is pressing against my cheeks is gonna stop me than you've got another thing coming. I bet I scared you, didn't I? I bet you really weren't sure. I bet you stared and stared and your hand hovered over that trigger, wondering if this could work, if this insane little girl could beat you, and even now you're a little scared, aren't you? Because all your collars and all your guns and all your fear and all your truths about trust and distrust can't change one simple fact.

We scare you. We've never stopped scaring you. You can build your absolute narrative, but we can tear it down. We can break your game, and we can break you. I've seen it happen before.

Crawling hands never stopped, even as the pain receded behind the rolling stormclouds of her death. They found what she was looking for. They found the pile of handy material to let the fire blaze up one final time.

It's tempting to rise up and throw it all over the fire in one great heave, isn't it? How long have you been crawling? How long have you been dying?

But Tara's been building fires for a while. She knows what she wants.

Jaw to concrete, again, and again, and again. Fire and pain blasting back the death that's slowly crushing her thoughts. Her breath is a limping wheeze, but her eyes are open, and she can see her dying fire.

She grabs a handful, and tosses it lamely onto the flames. A leave catches on one of the embers, brings it to life. The other stuff blows away.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck dying sucks.

She buried her head in the concrete, probing her limbs. She pushes her hands against the ground, screams as she forces herself upright into a loose kneeling position, as though she's praying. She'd like to flip off the sky, but she can't spare the energy.

The fire is a warm ghost against her face. There's not much time.

This time she is more cautious. She places her fodder in the thick of the flames, as her hands begin to burn. She does not allow it to extinguish the flames, and the fire is building again. She focuses on the cardboard, the paper, the leaves and the grass and the manila, so the fire begins to roar back to life and choking smoke makes her cough and coughing makes her breath rattle in her throat and broken fragments of bone grind against each other in her jaw but she doesn't have the strength left to scream anymore, so she simply whimpers and coughs and hurts and dies.

There are a couple pieces of scrap wood. She doesn't have the energy to lay these cautiously. She bends low against the protesting of her ribs and the see-saw swish of migraine thunder in her temples and neck. She wraps her arms tight against the bundle, and throws it onto the fire, as the cloud of ash rises, Tara falls. She hits the ground, hard. Even the pain in her jaw can't keep her fighting anymore.

Well, that's okay. Fire and smoke signals. Satellites and navyman and STAR and who knows what else. Maybe she can help set the stage for a deus ex machina. Maybe. That would be nice, wouldn't it. That would be...


No no no no no no no fuck that noise no absolutely not she is not trusting to gods to send her message for her, she has fucking work to do, and are you gonna die on all fours like the bitch you called yourself, or are you gonna die on your own fucking terms like the crazy accident and mishap that you are?

She rises. She almost falls, but catches herself in time, crouched on all fours like a cat you just shoved off the couch. Blood dribbles from her lips, but not as much as before. Fucking Christ, this is hard. She can barely see anymore. How can she think of standing?

They don't get to decide how I die.

She rises to her feet then, sways unsteadily, almost falls, catches herself on her back foot and its pressed against the fire. She thinks she smells burning rubber through her broken nose. Is she standing in the fire?

She takes a step forwards, and almost falls on her face. She staggers like a drunk, and rights herself. Christ, she must look a mess. All the careful illusions are falling away. All the lies, pretension, and roles. Nothing left but the immortal soul.

So. Who is Tara Behzad?

Her eyes find a camera in front of her. She blinks slowly, widens her eyes experimentally. There's a camera in front of her. Not too far from the helicopter, actually. Set perfectly to capture any scenes set upon this helipad.

She waves. The gesture almost unbalances her, but she keeps her feet. Slowly, carefully, she reaches into her bag, and pulls out one of her two flashbangs. Raidon used these once, though if she recalls his were stolen from someone else. She never did that, did she? She gave her food to someone else. Bartered yarn for...


Oh. Oh man. Oh, don't tell me, Tara. Have you been trying to be a hero this whole fucking time? Have you been helping and giving and asking people how they want to die, because that's the only question the fucked up gods who run a universe where Survival of the Fittest can happen will ever let you answer honestly? Have you been giving food and drink away because you didn't need them, or because they needed them more? Burning your memorials as distraction, or so the dead will know they are remembered? Are you killing yourself for you, or for them?

Tara. Why'd you chase down a man you don't like to give him back money he doesn't need?

Because the world's shitty enough and I'm sure as shit not gonna add to it.

Is that your truth? Wannabe hero?

No. Just someone who was a bad enough bitch to try to leave the world in better shape than I left it.

She draws in one rattling breath, and she feels the clouds parting, and sunlight streaming through. Self: always looking for ways to justify the pain this fucking world inflicts upon you, and you know what? Trying to find a way to make it work for other people ain't a bad way to spend your time.

She taps her chest with one hand, grinning at the camera though her jaw cyclones in protest, spasming with pain that fills her every though. She taps her chest, and she points at the camera. With her index finger still out, she draws a line across her throat.

Me and you, bitch. We're gonna die the same way. Fire and pain and blood and lies.

She pulls her hands together, fumbles with the flashbang, arms it and almost laughs as her thumbs barely work it. She granny shots the bastard just like Barney taught her. It lands too short, skids, and rolls up right beneath the camera.

Strike, motherfucker!

She turns around, and stares down at the fire she build, slowly roaring back to life. It's so close and so hot that she can almost feel it through the waves of cold drowning out every other sensation from her nerves. Proper wizard fire. Proper funeral pyre.

She reaches for the other flashbang. She pulls it out, arms it, and jams it in her pocket. Her hand grabs for the rock in her pocket, and pull it out too. Why the hell not?

It's hard enough to keep her feet. She reaches up, and slams the rock against the back of her head. She loses her balance in the attempt, and falls into the flames. Man, this is going to hurt, isn't it? This going to suck. Dear God-

No. Nothing dear about you. I'm Tara Behzad, and you never helped me you malicious fuck.

Tara, Tara, Tara. Legacy of accidents and chance and mishaps, of a checkered past of bizarre disconnect that you could never make right, and all your attempts to fix it couldn't, either, all your attempts to put the narrative together, to make accident look like providence, to make apathy and malice look like divine insight. But you died on your terms, girl, and that's a long legacy, isn't it? Jack O'Connor, Bryan Calvert, Maxie Dasai, Liz Polanski, Ethan Kent, Naoko Raidon, Julian Avery Gavin Hunter..fuck, way too many names to list. They tried. You tried. Souls and legends are made and lost and gambled on lesser things.

Now there's only the fire and the pain. But pain's not so bad once you get used to it. You know that, don't you. You-

There's a flash of light, and Tara isn't sure if it's before her eyes or in her mind or somewhere else entirely, but there's something in that light, something she almost recognizes. Something she always wanted to see.

A smile creases broken, bloodstained lips.

"Oh," she sighs.

Want to buy my book? See my short stories? Read my fanfiction? Visit my website!

V6 Players

Tara Behzad: "They don't get to decide how I die."

Lizzie Luz: "I don't want to go."

Alex Tarquin: "No more masks."
[+] Spoiler

G053 Karen Idel, DECEASED: Game over.

B040 Tyler Lucas, DECEASED: I had fun. You?

B046 Xavier Contel, DECEASED : " people, Arthur. G-g-gotta try. C-can't be afraid."
[+] Spoiler

B054 Raidon Naoko (DECEASED): "Dying like this isn't so bad..."

B072 Simon Grey (DECEASED): "I never was a hero, but, God help me, I tried."

B079 David Meramac (DECEASED): "Running towards nothing. Running from nothing."

G072 Mirabelle Nesa (DECEASED): "I'm a weak little girl who couldn't save anyone, even myself, but god damn it I beat you and god damn it you are going to remember that because I am Mirabelle Nesa and I am a hardened goddamn warrior and I am not going to fucking give up now!"