Legacy of Light
WHO AM I? WHERE AM I?
Come on, girl, remember. Remember, dumb-ass . . . before it goes dark. . . .
Maia . . . Yes. My name . . . Maia Finley. Good. Good . . . I guess. . . .
Lips shut against the water. No breath. Eyes stinging. The image of a rocky cliff rippling in the darkness, just above the waves of Dover Strait. I caught the reflection of the moon against the surface of the water, bright flashes in my dimming vision.
What happened? My chest was going to explode. Bubbles slipped from my lips when I moved them. The sounds of heavy, baritone, rumbling water battered my senses, cacophonic until it slipped into the recesses of my mind.
I was sinking.
Wow. It was for real this time. I was totally dying. This was me dying.
My body felt cold. It was a cliché, maybe, but still true. It had gone numb, even before breaking the surface of Dover Strait. The feeling in my arms had vanished. The water pressure’s death grip on my skull . . . even that began to feel like a wistful caress.
Time was up. My life was over. But maybe it was what I deserved.
Those reckless decisions born out of fear. The secrets kept. Step by wrongful step until the steel of Belle’s sword pierced through my sternum. This was the fate I’d paid for.
I was dying.
Oh well. At least I’d get to see my family again.
It went dark.
Darkness . . .
Then I saw that which I never could with living eyes. A mysterious white light swept through me, pulling soul from dead flesh. It surrounded me, filling me with a sensation I’d felt before. This power. The power that fed the Effigies and the existence of the phantoms. A spring that connected life and death in a continuous cycle.
A continuous cycle.
But I was not to be part of it.
My lonely white river was my own. The power of fate spirited me away on a journey just for me. I was a traveler and I was traveling.
Traveling to the next girl . . .
• • •
“So it’s finally time, Maia.”
Natalya Filipova. The Fire Effigy before me. A familiar panic hit me too suddenly, and for a moment I thought I’d faint. I’d been conditioned to fear this girl on sight. And why wouldn’t I after the number of times she’d tried to take over my body?
But she was different now. It was her quiet, unreadable expression, devoid of the contention I was used to seeing. “You didn’t last as long as I thought you would,” she said.
I thought Natalya’s voice would have some kind of mocking lilt to
it. Like: “Ha, moron, you’re dead! Look at you!” But her pale face was stone set into a somber expression.
Why would she mock me? She knew too well the pain of death.
I had to be dead, at any rate. I mean, what else could this be? I wasn’t scrying. The weird thing was, I could still kind of feel it. My soul leaving my body behind to sink in the lonely strait. And yet here I was too, standing in this familiar white stream before Natalya Filipova, the once legendary hero.
“How does it feel?” she asked, genuinely curious, like maybe we’d had different experiences.
“What, death?” I thought for a moment. “It feels . . . stretchy.”
Natalya tilted her head, her brown eyes narrowed. “Stretchy . . . ?”
I breathed in deeply, contemplating the odd sensation rippling through my “body,” or whatever this was. “Yeah, stretchy. Like I’m being pulled in two places at once.”
“It’s all the same,” she said in her intense voice familiarly inflected with a Russian accent. “Your life force, your consciousness, and the magic within you . . . it’s all going to the same place. Searching for the next one.”
“The next Fire Effigy . . . ,” I whispered.
“It’s only been seconds,” she said. “But it’ll start to feel like years. We experience time here differently. It feels slower. Much slower. You’ll see.”
Her expression darkened, and for a moment her gaze looked off-kilter, unfocused like one of her glass decanters sliding off an unbalanced shelf, alcohol spilling everywhere. You’ll see. Her promise resonated like echoes in a graveyard.
I looked down at my feet shimmering beneath the waters. “And this place . . .”
“Everything is connected,” Natalya said. “Life and death. Those
that die tether to the life they will become. But not for us. For us, our souls don’t manifest into new life. We are pulled into existing life. Our souls find refuge in the bodies of others. The channels of fate twisted only for us. We’re bound only to each other. Like links in a chain.”
Links in a chain. A dangerous game. I remembered the words but couldn’t place where I’d heard them.
Natalya looked up at the endless sky. “If all life is bonded by chains of fate that lead one form to the next, then you could say this place is a manifestation of our chain. Every girl linked here, tucked inside the other like a matryoshka doll.” She smiled. “A fitting fate for me.”
Said the girl once called the Matryoshka Princess. I understood now—there were many layers to this girl, layers I never noticed as a fan. The legendary hero. The struggling alcoholic. The mentor. The vengeful spirit. Now she was the mentor again, like she had been for Belle, imparting her wisdom upon the girl whose mind she’d tried too many times to destroy.
“Where we are now is how we perceive our connection,” she said, “how we see each other with eyes of the dead. Of course, we should be able to see each other when we share souls.”
When I was alive, I’d have to meditate—scry—to get here. Natalya’s tall frame guarded the magnificent red door as she always had, her hand on the hilt of her proud sword, her Zhar-Ptitsa, whose tip had disappeared into the waves at her feet. But this time, there was no fanfare, no shock or conflict. Nothing but pity and maybe a hint of disappointment—the kind my parents used to have whenever they knew I could have done better. June too. She’d given me that look more than once.
June . . . She’d smiled so prettily just before Minerva’s dazzling stream of light hit the ground and obliterated her.
Minerva, the Sect’s secret satellite weapon. And Rhys . . . Oh god, Aidan. I covered my mouth, stifling a teary gasp.
“It hurts, doesn’t it, Maia?”
Too many memories came rushing back, but they were all in the wrong order. I couldn’t piece them together. Why was June in Oslo? Why with Saul? What was this intense anger that drummed against my chest as I thought of Rhys’s father, and the hopelessness when I thought of his son? Why was my sister gone again . . . ?
“It’s hard to piece things together after dying.” Natalya placed a hand atop her dark brown hair, cut closely to her head. “Memories fall to pieces, events become blurred. All this time you came to speak with me, wanting to know everything I knew, but I could only give you what I could muster in this state. Pieces and reflections. It’ll become more difficult for you too soon. Perhaps you should let them go. Let it all go.”
Natalya, the strongest Effigy in history, worshipped by all during her tenure. Worshipped by me too, until she began scheming to take my body. But now there was no body for her to take.
“Let it go?” I repeated. “That’s funny, coming from you. You didn’t let it go.”
Natalya considered the golden hilt in her hand. “That was my decision to make. Now you have yours.”
A gentle breeze grazed my cheek as I saw the red door behind me.
As magnificent as Natalya’s, with golden embroidery around the wooden edges. I guess each door was the “link” in the chain, then, opening itself into the subconscious and soul of the next girl in a path that stretched on for more than a century. A bronze doorknob waiting for my hand. When my soul found the next girl, I would walk through and stand at my station.
The Seven-Year Rule. That old Sect joke. Effigies were considered legendary if they could last seven years on the job. Natalya was the baddest of them all, having survived twice that. What was my number? Three months.
What will be your number? Ironically, it was Belle who’d asked me, three months ago.
Belle. The fear I’d usually reserved for Natalya gripped my chest in one exploding moment, an electric impulse that soon gave way to a silent, seething bitterness.
Cold steel breaking through bone. Mind-numbing pain. That moment when your heart stops—so painful in the midst of sweet release. The water crashing against my body upon impact like a speeding truck barreling into me.
I’d once stood outside a building for hours just hoping to catch a glimpse of her. My idol.
Now my murderer.
Natalya was watching me curiously. Another idol. Another disappointment. Another enemy—well, no, not an enemy anymore. Now that I was dead, she no longer had reason to harm me, though the fear I’d learned at her hands wouldn’t let me trust her, wouldn’t let me feel completely in control.
I stared at the door. Ruby, like blood on a blade. My beautiful gravestone bought and paid for by the combined efforts of my so-called heroes.
I’d tried to believe in them—tried to model myself after their strength, only to find myself crumbling under it.
When it came down to it, I couldn’t beat either of them.
And now I was here, dead. Stuck for eternity in front of a pretty
door. I was a failure. I was a failure alive and a failure dead.
June really should have been the one. She would have made a better Effigy than me.
I buckled over. Tears began to build, but Natalya was still watching me. I had to collect myself. Raising my chin, I kept up the ruse of nonchalance. It was all I had in this place. There was no point in being angry. Anger wouldn’t do a damn thing for me. Not here.
“A door. Ah, that’s right.” My lips stretched into a smirk. “I guess this is what it means to be on the Dead Girl Squad now.” I turned back around. “Wow, this effing sucks.”
I wondered what death was like for regular people—where they ended up. What had it been like for June?
I could see very easily how one could go mad standing here. The worst part of it would be the loneliness, certainly. Unless the next girl came stumbling in here, in which case I doubted I’d have much to say—or maybe I’d say a bunch of confusing shit just to keep myself from being bored. Wouldn’t surprise me if that had been part of Natalya’s motivation.
That day I watched my family’s coffins lower into the ground, I’d felt a secret solace in the notion that I might see them again in death. Instead, I was here. And I would never be able to see them again.
An image of June flashed in my mind. Her hand on the gun, pulling the trigger.
“No,” I breathed. It was all barreling back. June. She was alive again. She’d been with Saul in Oslo, which he’d taken over with his gang of criminals and traffickers. June had been standing there among them. She murdered an agent. Rhys was there too, crouched in defeat, his fate sealed by his own father. I desperately held on to these memories, knowing that soon they’d shatter to pieces, leaving me with nothing but frustration, hate, and anger.
“Natalya, you were right about the corruption in the Sect. But I don’t think Rhys’s father knew. I think—” I remembered the dread etched into the saggy lines on Director Prince’s red face as he stared at the cold blue eyes of Blackwell. “It was as if Blackwell had manipulated him into firing the Sect’s satellite weapon. Like he’d meant for all of it to happen.”
“And?” said Natalya.
“And!” I glared at her. Project X19. The traitorous Sect agents. Saul’s plan wasn’t just his plan. “This is bigger than Saul. Probably bigger than we could have ever imagined.”
“A mystery for the next girl to solve, I suppose.”
The crushing reality of my own helplessness made my knees buckle. “No. There’s more I can do. Baldric!” The sound of the old man’s name sparked something behind Natalya’s steel gaze. “Baldric Haas. You remember him? One of the Council members with Rhys’s mother, Naomi?” I immediately pictured the old man in his wheelchair, eyes sunken into his wrinkled face ashen with dread. “They sent you to get the volume Thomas Castor wrote in secret. The one in Prague. We went there. Naomi sent us too. We found it, but it was stolen.”
By Vasily. I remembered his pale blond hair, wild around his shoulders. His wicked grin promising chaos.
“Baldric knew about the rebel faction within the Sect—and I know you met with him before you died. I scried it.”
“Yes.” Natalya tapped her temple. “I remember you milling around in there.”
“Did he tell you anything else about what Blackwell was planning?”
“Maia, stop this.”
“Stop what?” I bellowed, and I could hear my voice echoing. My fists were tight. “This is your mystery too! You were trying to solve this before I even stepped into the picture.”
“I was trying to be something more,” Natalya said quietly.
“More than what?”
Natalya’s head turned slightly, her eyes downcast. “More than an empty shell.” I waited for her to elaborate, but she wouldn’t, not at first. She only shook her head, looking at me almost as if she pitied me. Somehow, the pity was more infuriating than whatever malice I’d seen whenever I’d come here alive. “It won’t do you any good to know these secrets now. Believe me. I was like you too when I first died. No, even before. Desperate to know. After seeing Baldric, I scried to find Marian, thinking that if I could only reach her, she’d tell me everything I needed to know. I scried longer and harder than I ever had, to the point of madness. The chain—our chain—became blurred. All the doors opened at once. Memories assaulted me every which way. And in the end, what I found . . .” She shuddered. “Marian’s death. And riddles. Teachings—Emilia’s teachings. Her words, her symbols. Where it all began. It was too much, but I thought I could handle it. I thought I could bring all the pieces together, but it wasn’t to be. I died. No—” Her gaze darkened. “I was killed.”
The accusing tone was meant for me. It was I who’d protected her murderer, Aidan Rhys, even after I’d discovered what he’d done to her on the Sect’s orders. We’d both paid with our lives, but that wasn’t enough for Natalya. Her anger still quietly hummed.
“And now that I’m dead, the world continues as if my life never mattered. And I stand here for an eternity, Maia, unable to affect it, except through you. But now you’re dead too.”
My hands tingled from restlessness. My soul was still traveling. I could feel it.
“And so, what will it accomplish now if you knew the secrets of the world, Maia?” Natalya continued. “What can you affect from this place that has become our grave? There’s nothing that can be done from here. Nothing.”
I looked from Natalya’s door to mine, silently calling me. There was nothing I could do from here in this prison. Nothing I could accomplish but to stand here, waiting for some stranger to show up so I could give her a few cryptic warnings based on faded memories.
“No, there has to be more I can do. . . .” I had to reach the others. Uncle Nathan and Sibyl, quietly working against the evil faction of the Sect in the shadows. Lake and Chae Rin, who’d driven off to meet them. I had to help somehow. I had to get back into the trenches.
“You could let it go,” Natalya said again, thinking it over. “Or you could make the decision that I made.”
She smirked, sharp eyes glinting maliciously. She didn’t have to elaborate.
I glared at her. “No.”
“I supposed it wouldn’t be impossible for me to steal her body if she finds her way through your door to me. It wouldn’t be impossible for me, but the consciousness of the one who died last is always stronger. You could—”
“I said no.”
Silence charged with an intense hatred followed. Hatred and fear. Both mine.
“It would be easier to do it yourself, wouldn’t it?” Letting her sword drag behind her, she walked closer to me, step by deliberate step. “Rather than trying to lead another frightened ingenue to the answers you couldn’t find alive. Just pick up where you left off.” The sword made no sound as it traced a line in the shallow waters behind her. “Wearing new flesh. It’s what I would do. And I would do it again.”
“Stop,” I blurted out before she could come any closer. I had to remind myself that she wasn’t a danger to me anymore. I was already dead. She couldn’t hurt me if she had no use for me. As long as I was dead, I was safe. How ironic. I looked at the Effigy whose trading
cards I used to collect. “God, I used to admire you. Don’t you feel sorry for what you did to me? Don’t you feel sorry for any of it?”
I was dead now, so I might as well take the opportunity to give her a piece of my mind. Ignoring the fear still bleeding into my flesh, I squeezed my hands into fists. “You made my last few months alive hell when you should have been helping me like I figured you wanted to be helped. My sister and I thought you were everything. We wanted to be you.”
Though June was more like her than I ever was or could be. Noble, confident. Maybe that was why I’d idolized my sister too. Nobility was June’s last act. I could still remember her chiding me. Telling me to do better. And I tried, June. I really tried. But that kind of strength was a hard skill to master. Effigy fans online always dragged me for it: “Why can’t she just be the unflappably perfect bad-ass action-chick we demand her to be?” But that took courage. Even now my courage was shaking before Natalya. She must have known it too. But I just kept talking.
“I thought I could be stronger if I could act like you, Natalya. I thought if I got everyone to respect me like they did you, then I wouldn’t have to feel so . . .”
I remembered those days I shut myself in my room and blocked out the world while June was out living life. That dreaded feeling of being left behind. Of standing still while others were running forward.
“So useless,” I finished, biting my lip. “So pathetic.”
“And how have you changed, Maia?” Natalya lifted her sword, studying her reflection in its familiar steel. “Or have you changed?”
Changed. Had I really?
I looked up at the never-ending white stretching upward and thought of flames burning. Burning down my house. Burning New York’s La Charte Hotel, where Saul had attacked with his phantom-controlling ring. Burning the elevator that took a screaming woman I’d failed to save. Burning Oslo after Minerva’s light obliterated my sister
and the boy of my dreams and nightmares. I was still scared. I was still looking at this dead Effigy with fearful eyes. I was still looking to her for answers, for validation. Had I changed?
“I will change,” I whispered, tears stinging my eyes. “I swear, I’ll change.”
“Nothing changes here,” Natalya said flatly. She closed her eyes. “Change is only for the living.”
“No. I will change.” I stumbled back. “I will change. I just need a second chance.”
Something desperate in me stirred. I couldn’t stand still. A terrible truth began breathing fire. I wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t ready. There was more to do, more to fix.
And Natalya . . . Natalya, who opened her eyes again, was smirking as she watched me squirm because she knew that what I was experiencing was the very thing that had driven her mad in here. I didn’t care. There were too many mistakes to atone for. I couldn’t be done. But my soul, my consciousness, and my power were on the move.
Panicked, I turned, facing the door. “No. No. Somebody has to give me a second chance.”
“There’s something I should tell you,” Natalya said. “Now that you’re here.”
Ignoring her, I sloshed through the stream, pounding on the wood of my magnificent red door because it was the only exit I could see in this expanse of nothingness. “Please, you have to let me out. I can’t be here!”
“You may have been disgusted with me in the past,” Natalya told me. “But soon you’ll come to understand me. The longer you’re here, the more the silence drives you mad.”
Links in a chain. The Effigies’ fate was a fate worse than death.
“No.” I stepped away from the door, looking everywhere that this prison with no bars would allow me. “No, no . . .”
“Eventually, you’ll start to consider things you never would have in
life. You’ll start making exceptions to every rule you’d lived by . . . until the next one comes knocking on your door. This is our reward after living, fighting, and dying to protect humanity. The price of a twisted fate.”
An ugliness had seeped into her beauty, her small features sharpening like the stretch of her blade. I saw it reflected there, reflected in the white stream. I saw my reflection too.
“You and I are the same now, Maia. Not heroes. Not even monsters,” she said. “Simply shadows.”
But it was not to be so.
Something was stirring in the land of the living. A silent force tugged at my soul, pulling it back.
Back toward my body.
Natalya, the door, the endless blank space—it was fading. Or maybe I was the one disappearing. I was being called back.
A second chance.
A surge of ecstasy stung my eyes like tears. A second chance. And I wouldn’t screw it up this time. Though my vision blurred, I could see Natalya’s features screwed up in fury.
“It isn’t fair. . . .” Natalya’d whispered it. But before I faded, her face had calmed. And before disappeared, I could hear her whisper. “I told you I would do it again if I had the choice. And now I have that choice. You will see me again soon.”
Her murderous promise receded until it was nothing more than a silenced echo. And I could still hear the last of its murmur as I shuddered alive with breath.