If she had the ability to bleed, Destruction’s feet would have been scraped raw.
The forest floor dipped under every brutal and frantic footfall, twigs and rocks slashing at her bare feet. There was no recognizable path and she was left to push through the trees and flora, feeling them scratch at her—knowing they would leave no mark.
Even with the greenery acting as camouflage, the environment blurring past at a speed that should easily have separated her from her assailants, Destruction felt them. Encroaching. Fueled by an unnatural force that she knew all too well.
Despite her relatively newfound autonomy as an independent entity in the universe, a twin sensation flowed through her veins.
Destruction reached for the lowest hanging branch of a nearby tree. Using the momentum of her sprint, she swung herself upwards, ignoring the way the rough bark slid against her palms. It was a simple feat, tucking her legs beneath her and jumping from one branch to another, only settling once she’d covered a substantial distance from the ground.
It was then, her back against the trunk of the tree and both legs hanging on either side of her chosen branch, that Destruction let herself relax for the first time since they’d begun chasing her hours ago.
At least relaxing was what she wanted to do.
A spike of magical energy rushed through the trees, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand. Destruction leapt to her feet and balanced on the branch with ease. That sickening mix of Chaos’ magic and the mortals’ essence was growing stronger. They’d been following Destruction’s scent since her escape from Yorkton. She needed to keep running, perhaps scale the trees. Mortals couldn’t fly, as far as she knew, and if she kept high enough, their limited sight could prevent them from even—
An arrow embedded itself into the trunk barely an inch from Destruction’s face.
She turned, drawn to it by instinct, just in time to see the arrow evaporate in a puff of pink smoke. Before Destruction could inspect the projectile Chaos had no doubt touched, another arrow impaled her through the gut. Destruction was sent free-falling to the forest floor and taking more than one branch out with her on the way down.
Pain. Her ribs shattered against a limb, the arrow freed of her stomach as another branch ripped through her. Destruction felt every wound, superficial and fatal, mend itself and shift back into place with sparks of magic and surges of adrenaline. The moment she hit the ground, nearly fifty feet below her, she was already bouncing back onto her feet and into a sprint.
Pain lingered, but her body relished in the destruction, singing despite near-death, with a power that no other entity could command.
She stretched her magic around her, sent its tendrils out into the trees, sensing not two, but five mortals, all carrying the same heavy burden of Chaos’ influence. And all were right on her tail. The one with the arrow had caught her off guard; Chaos’ reach was now expanding to their weaponry. But she wouldn’t let it happen again.
She wouldn’t give Chaos the chance to lure her back in.
Determined, she dug in her heels, spinning in place. Until they died of exhaustion or from Chaos’ magic tearing them apart, the poor mortals would chase her to the ends of the world. The best she could do was offer them a swift, clean death. Yet while that mercy also carried the fringe benefit of ending this foolhardy chase, Destruction’s motivation waned the moment her assailants burst through the branches.
Her stomach churned as a human child emerged. A boy, with eyes sunken and black and his skin turned ashen. There was no telling when Chaos had gotten her hands on him, but he was more like a mortal shell left to do Chaos’s bidding than anything resembling a human.
“You can’t escape what you are. What we are!” the boy cooed, a familiar sound more painful than the gaping wound in her middle trying to mend itself.
“Why do you run from me, darling?” an old man said as he emerged from the branches to stand by the child. Black veins crawled up his arms and neck. His voice was raspy, though the inflection caused Destruction to shudder as if nails were running down her spine. She knew its true speaker.
When Destruction laid her eyes on these mortals—from the ashen boy to the walking corpse that was the archer who was the last to emerge and face off against her—she did not see humanity. Destruction saw the magic of her other half.
No, it ran deeper than that.
Dripping from their blackened eyes was the echo of a familiar force that she, too, had once possessed—what now felt like long ago, when she was still one with Chaos as the ancient goddess Oblivion. Destruction’s memories were hazy of her time as Oblivion (being torn asunder into two demigods would do that) but she recognized that raw power.
“Join with me again,” the woman hissed with words that were not her own.
For the briefest of moments, with a visceral, involuntary pang, Destruction thought of giving in. Cease this endless fight for control, for autonomy, and rejoin as one. Yet, something wouldn’t let her. A voice all her own screamed in objection and those screams were tearing her apart.
“No, I won’t. I won’t!”
Destruction collapsed in on herself, gripping her dark hair with both hands. Her bare feet dug into the forest floor, her magic crackling down her legs and into the earth. The ground shattered like glass and rose to hover mid-air before imploding with sparks of raw energy. Destruction felt more than saw the shockwaves extending from her and toward each mortal, obliterating tree and rock alike.
Sinkholes as black as cosmos opened in the fissures around them and swallowed them whole. She had never forced her magic into existence in such a way, but she couldn’t deny how natural, how intoxicating, it felt. She was quickly sobered, however, in watching the child’s final agonizing moments before he too blinked out of existence.
Then, the forest was quiet for the first time in what must have been hours. Days, possibly. Mortal time was such a slippery thing. The mortal races seemed to live a whole life in the span of a divine breath.
Her first steps were shaky, her feet digging deeper into the cracked and softened earth for purchase, but she was soon running again. She ran until she no longer heard the animals deep within the forest panicking at the attack. She ran until the essence of tainted humans began to fade. She ran until every trace of Chaos had begun to dissipate out of her system, leaving her truly alone once more.
She ran until she could barely breathe, her feet stumbling into a clearing that stretched in a wide arc around her. Destruction collapsed onto her back at the center of the glade, amidst the tall grasses, and let the sense of solitude wash over her. Solitude, and the still ever-present adrenaline from such a catastrophic release of her magic.
The forest clearing stretched around Destruction like a cocoon of its own world—a horizon of trees encircling a field of dewy grass, expansive sky looming dark and flecked with stars above. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend it was a haven from Chaos’ mortal slaves. But the gods, too, were still undoubtedly on the hunt for her scent. It seemed as if the whole world were out to track her down.
Yet, as beautiful as false safety could be, closing her eyes made that whirlwind of energy in her chest, the euphoria of power, the lack of direction with which to utilize it, grow more pronounced, hyper focused. So, her eyes stayed pinned on the sky instead. Or, more specifically, on each bright, pinpoint of light.
Slowly, and with a heaviness brought on more by distraction than everything else, Destruction raised a hand from the grass, feeling the moisture soaked into her back and hair drip in beads down her arm. It had been so easy to rip the forest apart, to drag the mortals into its fray. It made her wonder.
In anticipation, that whirlwind inside her, that rumbling, buzzing, electrified need, began to thrum impatiently. And, as she carefully held one of those distant lights between her thumb and middle finger, that thrum grew loud, ready to burst, to destroy. Just like before. Just like she was meant to.
A single pinch, a snap that echoed from dewy glade to the universe beyond—and the star was no more.
Although brief, Destruction soaked in the sensation, eyes fluttering closed at the relief that filled her veins. While the naked eye saw no more than a sparkle of light flickering out Destruction felt tremendous power, absorbing the death and devastation of billions upon billions of energies—of an entire world. It settled into her very being, a calm to the storm within her. Destroying the forest, and Chaos’ lackeys with it, had barely given her a fraction of this sensation.
But even still, even before it had had a chance to settle, the whirlwind picked up speed again, a demand blowing fierce and deep that she had never needed to satisfy.
And therein lay the real issue, didn’t it?
After being torn away from Chaos, after being forced into her own life (and fleeing from the gods so that she might truly feel what it meant to be alive), her understanding of purpose had wavered and shifted. Now, as she plucked another star from the sky in attempts to fill that void, Destruction felt that understanding fade all but completely.
It had been easier as Oblivion, a natural existence that was older than time itself, and a part of her longed for that simplicity like she longed for the bursts of relief she gained from every stolen star.
And yet . . .
Now that she had a taste of her own sentience, now that she knew what it felt like to be truly alive, she was torn. Being Oblivion had been easier. But being Destruction was more. Like finally waking from an unknown slumber to lay eyes on the real world for the first time.
Now where to go and what to do next?
After pinching another star into nothingness, Destruction let her arm fall back to her side. She knew it would be unwise to stay in this glade much longer. Other poor villagers Chaos had corrupted were probably hot on her trail. And, if not them, then the next pawn of the pantheon. But while her mind knew to run was the most logical course of action, her body remained still, her eyes lazily trailing the remaining stars.
No longer one half of a whole, she felt her own heartbeat thrumming beneath her breastbone, her own lungs filling with air. Her own magic, that brutal need to destroy, coursing beneath her skin and crackling alongside her nerves.
She was Destruction now, regardless of Chaos’ plea and Oblivion’s pull. Nothing would make her relinquish her autonomy . . . even if Destruction still had to figure out what being truly autonomous meant.